Cobra strike, p.23
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       Cobra Strike, p.23

           Timothy Zahn
 

  The startled yelps began the instant before the cabinet smashed into the gun crew; and, simultaneously, the elevator doors across the room slid open. But

  Winward didn't stay to count the reinforcements. Stepping into the shattered window frame, he turned and jumped in a single motion. His hands grabbed the window's upper edge as he flew past it, changing his direction and angular velocity just enough to pinwheel him neatly onto the tower roof.

  And right into the middle of a small crowd who'd apparently rushed over to investigate the commotion below.

  Winward didn't bother with lasers or sonics for this group, and they still didn't have a chance. Swinging his arms like a servo-powered threshing machine, he hurled them in all directions, bleeding or stunned. The mojos were a different story; but he was getting used to their arch-winged attack, and took a perverse pleasure in burning them out of the air.. And that flicker of overconfidence nearly killed him... because four of the Qasaman contingent had stayed by their weapons across the roof, and as Winward looked up from his latest carnage, he found their four mojos arrowing in bare meters away.

  His computerized reflexes saved him in that first instant, recognizing the projectile threat and hurling him down and to the side in a flat dive and roll.

  It was a maneuver he'd experienced innumerable times while fighting spine leopards... but neither spine leopards nor the antipersonnel missiles the system had been designed for had the mojos' hairpin maneuverability. Winward had barely rolled back to his feet when the first two birds reached him... and this time they got through his defenses.

  He gasped with shock and pain as talons dug deep into his left forearm, a beak shredding at the makeshift bandage he'd wrapped around the gash there. He twisted his head aside barely in time to avoid the second mojo's slashing attack at his face, but even so its wing caught him full across the eyes, smashing the tip of his nose with stunning force. The last two mojos reached him then, one swooping down to a grip on his right forearm, the other landing on his right shoulder and digging its beak into his cheek.

  And Winward went berserk.

  He dropped onto his back and slammed both forearms hard onto the rooftop, feeling mojo bones crack under the crushing impact. He smashed them down again and again until the bloodied pulps loosened their grips and fell off. Reaching up with his right hand, he grabbed another mojo by the neck and twisted hard. He heard it snap; and then the last bird was back, diving toward his face. He grabbed for its feet, missed, caught the wings instead, and pulled sideways. One wing tore off, and Winward hurled both pieces from him. Across the roof there was the flash-boom of a gunshot and a bullet whistled past him. Winward swept his antiarmor laser across the crouching gunmen, then leaped to his feet and ran to them.

  All four were dead. Winward glared down at them, gasping for air... and as his rage subsided into the rivers of new pain coming from arms, cheek, and shoulder, his brain began to function again and his eyes searched out the weapons his enemies had been manning.

  Mortars, or something very much like them. Simple tubes with a firing mechanism at the bottom, the shells stacked nearby. By inference, they were designed with an equally simple impact detonator. Scooping up an armful, he trotted back to the rear of the roof.

  A couple of faces were peering upwards from the window he'd smashed, and his first shell therefore went in there. The explosion blew out a couple more windows, and Winward followed it with one aimed more toward the monitor room's center. Then he turned his attention to the guns and ground crews shooting uselessly at him from below. By the time his arms were empty it was abundantly clear that those cannons wouldn't be firing again for a long time.

  Behind him, the roof stairway door slammed open. Winward didn't even bother to look, but grabbed the parapet edge and swung down into the room below. His nanocomputer compensated for a slight overbalance, and he landed among the glass shards on his feet.

  The place was a mess. Where the two mortar shells had hit, floor and ceiling were torn and blackened. Dozens of the monitor screens had been smashed by flying debris; the rest were blank. At least six bodies were visible.

  I did all this. The thought hit him with unexpected force, sending a queasy shiver through his body. For the first time in his life, he truly understood why the Dominion of Man had won its war against the Trofts... and why its citizens had rejected their returning protectors.

  Gingerly, he picked his way through the rubble to the elevator and pushed the call button. Risky, perhaps, if the Qasamans hadn't learned yet not to send piles of people against him. But the emotional reaction combined with loss of blood was making him feel light-headed, and for the moment the elevator seemed safer than trying to handle stairs.

  An instant later a flash of light from the side caught his eye, and he turned to find the woods beyond the Dewdrop on fire. Involuntarily, he hissed with the fear that he'd been too late, that the ship was being attacked. But on the heels of that came the memory of his instructions to Telek before he left. F'ahl had heard the explosions and obediently swept the forest with laser fire. What it had done to the soldiers waiting there was uncertain; but it had sure as hell not done much for the foliage, and if any surviving Qasamans were still at their posts they were probably thinking more of escape than attack.

  Speaking of which....

  The elevator car arrived-empty-and he punched the second button from the top.

  For a wonder, the elevator performed as directed-perhaps the override controls had been on the top floor?-and he bounded out into a small, deserted room.

  Deserted, but not quiet. Like the floor above, this one was filled with electronic gear, and from a panel near the middle two voices were speaking.

  Propping open the elevator doors, Winward stepped over to the talkative board.

  Communications, probably, left running when the people on duty heard the ruckus overhead and wisely cut out. He wondered whether the mike at this end was still open, decided there was a simple way to find out. "Can you hear me?" he called.

  The voices stopped abruptly. "Who are you?" one of them asked a moment later in passable Anglic.

  "Michael Winward, currently in charge of this tower," he said. If he was lucky, they'd tell him why he wasn't really in control yet, and he'd know where he needed to attack next. Link should already be on his way over from the Dewdrop; together the two of them should be able to make a respectable showing-

  "Michael, this is Almo," Pyre's voice cut unexpectedly into the line. "What's your situation?"

  Winward had to try twice to get any words out. "Almo! Where are you?"

  "In the mayor's underground command center," Pyre replied. "Your return from the dead seems to have rattled him somewhat."

  Despite his pain and weakness, Winward felt a grim smile spread across his face.

  Rattled, indeed. Out-and-out terrified, if the man had any sense at all.

  Pyre was speaking again. "Now, Mr. Mayor, the situation seems to have changed. I have you, Winward has the tower-"

  "He does not control the tower," Kimmeron put in. "I have been speaking to the tower commander-"

  "I can take control whenever I wish," Winward interrupted harshly. Pyre was clearly attempting to negotiate with the Qasamans; the stronger the hand Winward could give him, the better the chances he could get back to the ship before he passed out from loss of blood. "And the weapons trained on the Dewdrop have been neutralized. F'ahl can lift any time he wants to."

  Kimmeron's voice was low, but his words were precise. "You seek to trade your lives for more of ours. I have said that that is an unacceptable bargain. You know too much about us; at whatever additional cost, you must not be allowed to leave."

  Winward didn't wait for Pyre's reply, but stepped quickly back into the elevator. In Kimmeron's place he would probably have made the same decision, and before Pyre's negotiations officially broke down he wanted to be on his way back to the Dewdrop. The long floor-selection panel gleamed at him as he reached toward it-

&n
bsp; And paused.

  All those buttons... far more than a building this size needed....

  Blocking the doors open again, he stepped back into the communications room.

  Pyre was saying something about mass destruction; Winward didn't bother to let him finish. "Almo?" he called. "Listen-remember the idea someone had that a lot of the Qasaman industry was underground? I think this tower is an entrance to the place. Shall I go out and get Dorjay and head down to take a look?"

  He waited, heart pounding, hoping Pyre would know how to use the opening he'd just given him. Winward had a dim idea, but his mind was beginning to fog over, and he knew instinctively he couldn't trust it to follow any straight logical lines. He hoped Pyre was in better shape.

  "You seem upset, Mr. Mayor," Pyre's voice came through the fog. "May I assume your underground facilities are something you'd rather we not see?" There was no response, and after a moment Pyre went on, "We can get down there, you know.

  You've seen what we can do, and how little effect your guns have on us. With our ship free and clear, we can go down the tower, take a good look, and still get off Qasama alive."

  "We will kill you all," Kimmeron said.

  "You know better than that. So I'll offer you a deal: release all our people unharmed and we'll leave without seeing what you've got down there."

  Kimmeron's laugh was a harsh bark. "You seek to trade something for a lack of something. Even if I wanted to agree, how could I persuade others to do so?"

  "You explain that we take home details of city and village life, or we take home every secret you've got," Pyre told him coldly. "And your time is running out.

  Winward will start down the tower in three minutes, and I can't guarantee Link won't find his way underground even sooner."

  It took the full three minutes and a little more, but in the end Kimmeron agreed.

  Chapter 22

  It took another fifteen minutes for Kimmeron to get the agreement of the Purma officials who were holding Cerenkov and Rynstadt. The radio jamming wasn't lifted for five minutes longer, but Pyre had already been allowed to send Link a message via the tower's outside speakers, warning the other Cobra to lie low and hold off on any attack. Telek, when Pyre was finally allowed through to her, agreed to the arrangement and directed Link to wait in the tower with Winward until Pyre made it back. Then, with Kimmeron his reluctant companion, Pyre got into a car and headed down the broad avenues toward the airfield... and waited with lasers ready for the inevitable ambush.

  It didn't come. The car passed through several sets of sentries, none of whom even raised a weapon; passed beneath tall buildings without so much as a brick being thrown; passed even among the grim mass of Qasamans at the base of the airfield tower. Nothing. They pulled up to the Dewdrop's main hatch, and Pyre waited with Kimmeron close beside him until Winward and Link returned.

  The two Cobras entered the ship, and Pyre turned to Kimmeron. "We've completed our part of the deal," he said, putting as much quiet steel as he could into the words. "You've done half of yours. I trust you won't be tempted to back out."

  "Your two companions will be waiting when you land at Purma," Kimmeron said coldly.

  "Good. Now take the car and get clear before we lift." Pyre stepped into the hatchway, and the airlock door closed.

  The inner door slid open, and in that same moment the Dewdrop lurched slightly and they were airborne.

  Link was waiting as Pyre stepped into the ready room. "Looks like we might actually pull this off," the younger Cobra said quietly.

  "Heavy emphasis on the might," Pyre nodded. "How's Michael? He looked in pretty bad shape when you passed me out there."

  "I don't know-the governor's looking at him now. Probably in better shape than

  Decker."

  "Yes, what happened to him? I saw him carried away from the bus on a stretcher, but I couldn't tell anything more."

  Link's lip twitched in a grimace. "He tried to break the contact team out of the bus at the beginning of all this. The mojos flayed his arm, practically down to the bone."

  Pyre felt his neck muscles tighten. "Oh, God. Is he-?"

  "Too soon to tell anything, except that he'll probably live." Link licked his lips. "Listen... did Kimmeron say anything about Justin? He switched with Joshua when they brought Decker in and was taken off toward Purma."

  For the unprovoked deaths in Purma, Kimmeron had said, sentencing the Dewdrop to death. Justin's work? Undoubtedly. But Kimmeron hadn't mentioned him in negotiating the other prisoners' release. Was he, then, free somewhere out in the Qasaman night?

  Or was he dead?

  "Kimmeron didn't say," he told Link slowly. It had happened, his mind told him vaguely; the danger to Justin he'd worried about all the way back at the beginning of this mission. "Well. First things first, I suppose. We'll land at

  Purma, get Yuri and Marck safely aboard... and then try to find out what we can about him."

  "Yeah." Link searched his face another moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Come on, let's get back to the lounge, find out what's happening."

  "Sure." Back to the lounge, where Joshua would be waiting.... But Pyre wouldn't have to tell him his brother might be dead. Not yet, anyway.

  Strapped tightly into the highly uncomfortable interrogation chair, Rynstadt stared at the door through which his questioners had left, trying to keep his expression neutral for the cameras he could see focused on him.

  It wasn't an easy task. The questioning had been loud and brutal, and it'd been a relief when the four Qasamans abruptly switched off the painful strobe lights and left the room. But as the minutes had dragged on and he'd had time to pull himself together, their continued absence began to seem increasingly ominous.

  What were they preparing for him that took a half hour to set up? Shock treatments? Sonics? Maybe even something as crude-and horrible-as slow dismemberment? His stomach churned at the thought. Death-fast death-he'd been willing to risk for the opportunity of coming to Qasama. Slow torture was something else entirely... and he knew far more about Aventinian technology than he really wanted to tell them.

  Without warning the door swung open, causing Rynstadt to jerk against his restraints. Two of the four interrogators entered and stepped over to him. For a moment they stared down at him, Rynstadt forcing himself to return their gaze.

  Then, still wordlessly, they bent down and began unstrapping him.

  Here it comes, Rynstadt thought, steeling himself. The torture chamber had been readied, and he was about to find out what they'd come up with.

  The Qasamans finished their task; but even as Rynstadt uncramped his legs and got them under him the men turned and left. The door banged shut, and he was left standing there, alone.

  It made no sense to his befuddled mind, but they didn't give him time to wonder.

  "Rynstadt," a hidden speaker boomed, "your companions have bargained for your release. You will be allowed to eat and drink and then be taken to city's edge."

  The speaker went off with a loud click, and simultaneously a slot in the base of the door opened and a steaming tray was pushed through.

  None of this made any sense, either. What did the Dewdrop have to bargain with that the Qasamans would consider worth Rynstadt's life? But at the sight of the food, one clear thought cut through the confusion in his mind.

  Poison.

  The stew and hot berry juice were poisoned... and he would soon tell them anything they wanted to know in exchange for the antidote. Or else he really was being released, in which case he'd be dead before the Dewdrop cleared the system, in a final act of Qasaman vengeance.

  His stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn't eaten since lunch in Huriseem, a medium-sized eternity ago... and on closer examination, poisoning him did seem a little melodramatic.

  Again his stomach growled. Suppose he simply refused to eat? If the food was indeed safe, probably nothing, except that he'd go hungry. If it was poisoned... presumably they'd come and hypospray the stuff into h
im.

  Walking over to the tray, he picked it up and sniffed cautiously at the bowl and mug. He'd had the stew and juice several times before during the contact team's tour, and both smelled just the way he remembered. For a long moment he was tempted... but if there was really a chance for freedom, he'd be foolish to take even slim risks. "Thanks," he called to the hidden mike as he set the tray back on the floor by the slot, "but I'm not hungry right now."

  He held his breath. If the Qasaman voice sounded angry or annoyed... "Very well," the other said simply. The slot opened again, and Rynstadt glanced down to see a hand snare the tray and pull it back out of sight.

 
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