Cobra strike, p.24
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       Cobra Strike, p.24

           Timothy Zahn

  A shiny hand.

  A hand encased in a surgeon's glove.

  The slot cover slid back in place, and Rynstadt walked back to the chair, feeling cold all over. Poison, for sure-but not in the food. On the tray. Mixed with a contact absorption enhancer and spread on the tray.

  And now it was on his hands... and in his blood.

  He sat down, legs trembling with reaction. He was, then, being released-there was no need for such an elaborate subterfuge if the poison was just part of his interrogation. Released-and simultaneously murdered. Melodramatic or not-barbaric or not-they had opted for vengeance.

  Was there any chance at all of coming through this alive? Perhaps, but only if the Qasamans had timed their dosage so as to let the Dewdrop get a good distance away before their treachery became known. How long? One hour? Two? Twelve?

  There was no way to know. But the fact that he knew he'd been poisoned gave

  Telek and the medical analyzers aboard ship the maximum time to identify and counteract the specific toxin used on him.

  Come on, he urged the Dewdrop silently. Get me the hell out of here. In the meantime... letting his body slump in the chair, he consciously slowed his breathing. The slower the metabolism, in theory, the slower the poison would be absorbed into his tissues.

  And he settled back to wait.

  The distinctive whine of gravity lifts, faint even in his enhanced hearing, finally dragged Justin from his sleep. For a moment he lay quietly in the tall grass, reorienting himself, allowing the bitter memories to return. Then, carefully, he raised his head.

  The motion drew an involuntary hiss between his teeth; he'd forgotten all the places his body ached. But the sight in the northern sky drove all such considerations into the background. Against the blazing stars of Qasama's night a hazy reddish oval was drifting.

  The Dewdrop was making a break for it.

  He watched the haze for a long minute, teeth clamped together as he tried not to cry. They were leaving. Without him. Without Cerenkov and Rynstadt, as well?

  Probably. There was no way to know for sure; but Telek had counted on him to rescue them, and his failure probably meant they were all marooned.


  Automatically, as if trying to insulate itself from the emotional shock, his mind began tracing out his options. He could escape into the forest, living off the wild game there, and hope he could hold out until the military expedition that would surely follow. Or he could try to find a village that would trade his

  Cobra skills for sanctuary from the central authorities. Or-

  Or he could just stay here in the grass until he died. It all amounted to that in the end.

  It was only then that the realization broke through to him that the Dewdrop was moving too slowly.

  Much too slowly. They crippled it, was his first, awful thought... but if the grav lifts had been damaged F'ahl should have kicked in the main drive by now to assist. No, something else was happening... and abruptly, he understood.

  They were flying low and slow on purpose. Looking for him.

  He'd rolled over on his back in an instant, glancing toward the city as he lifted his left leg, but not really caring if anyone there spotted his signal.

  In a few minutes the Dewdrop would be here... and after his moments of despair the promise of rescue was flooding his mind and body with adrenaline-fueled determination. Let the Qasamans come for him now-let the whole city get in his way if they wanted to.

  Targeting the Dewdrop, he fired his antiarmor laser three times.

  Thirty kilometers away, the ship's hull would barely register the heat of those shots; but for the watchers aboard, the flashes of light should be impossible to miss. Assuming someone was watching.

  And apparently they were. From the front-inside of the red oval the Dewdrop's landing lights flicked twice in acknowledgment. Shifting to a crouch, Justin got ready to move, keeping alert for trouble from the city.

  It took the Dewdrop a few minutes to come to ground-and it did so, inexplicably, a good kilometer north. Justin briefly considered signaling again, decided it would be safer to just go to it, and set off in a crouching run.

  No one opened fire before he reached the ship. Link was waiting by the open hatchway as he came up, and favored the younger man with a tight smile. "Welcome back," he said, gripping Justin's hand briefly. He gave the other a fast once-over before returning his eyes to the city. "You've never seen a group of people so happy as when we saw your signal."

  "I was happy enough for all of you put together," Justin told him, following

  Link's gaze. A half-dozen cars and a bus could be seen approaching from city's edge. "Looks like a good time to get out of here."

  Link shook his head. "They're bringing Yuri and Marck-Almo struck a deal for their release."

  "What kind of deal?" Justin frowned.

  "A sort of promise not to tear up their industrial base before we go." Link glanced at the other. "Why don't you go inside, get any injuries seen to. I can handle this."

  "Well... all right." Something about this felt wrong, but for the moment Justin couldn't figure out what. Turning, he stepped into the hatch and sprung the inner door-and walked straight into his brother's arms.

  For a minute they just held each other-the man who'd done his job, Justin thought bitterly, and the man who hadn't.

  But for the moment his shame was swallowed up in the relief of being safe again.

  Joshua released him and stepped back, still gripping his brother's shoulders.

  "You hurt anywhere?"

  "I'm fine," Justin shook his head. "What's happened since I left?"

  Joshua glanced toward the hatch. "Let's get to the lounge where we can watch that convoy," he suggested. "I can give you a fast rundown on the way."

  They reached the lounge a minute later to find Nnamdi and Christopher gazing at the outside monitors, the scientists' greetings muted by their attention being elsewhere. That suited Justin; he'd already had more of a hero's welcome than he properly deserved. "Where's the governor?" he asked Joshua as they took seats in front of another screen.

  "Back in sick bay with Michael. She should be back by the time the others get here. And Almo's outside, behind the front landing spotlights, where he can back up Dorjay if the Qasamans make any trouble."

  "But they won't," Nnamdi spoke up. "They've made their deal, and it's a fair one. And we've already seen they follow through on their promises."

  Justin snorted. "Like with that fake explosive collar?"

  All eyes turned to him. "What do you mean, fake?" Christopher asked.

  "I mean they suckered us royally. Those cylinders held cameras and recorders, not explosives. They let Joshua come in so that they could get a quick look inside the Dewdrop."

  Christopher swore under his breath. "But then they must have seen you two switch places. My God-you're lucky you got out alive after that."

  Some of the burden seemed to lift from Justin's conscience. Seen in that light, perhaps he hadn't done such a bad job, after all.

  The convoy outside had halted a hundred meters from the Dewdrop and a crowd of

  Qasamans was forming around the vehicles when Telek reappeared in the lounge.

  "Justin; glad you made it," she said distractedly as she leaned over

  Christopher's shoulder. "Any sign of them yet?"

  "I don't see them," he replied. "They're probably in the bus off to one side, there." He pointed; and as if on cue, two figures emerged from the vehicle, struggling a bit as they plowed through the knee-high grass.

  Cerenkov and Rynstadt.

  The edge of the crowd withdrew a bit as the two men passed on their way to the

  Dewdrop. "Watch for drawn weapons," Telek said to the room in general. "We don't want them pulling a last-minute suicide rush or some such trick."

  "If they were going to pull something, wouldn't they have done it while they still had Almo, Michael, and Dorjay under the gun?" Nnamdi suggested.
r />   "Maybe," Telek grunted. "But we were hair-trigger alert then. Maybe they expect us to be lulled now. Anyway, I don't trust them-they accepted this deal too easily for my taste."

  "Like they accepted my ultimatum to bring Decker back," Joshua muttered. Justin looked at his brother, found him staring at the approaching men with a look of intense concentration on his face.

  Telek glanced in the twins' direction. "Something?"

  "Tell her, Justin," Joshua said, eyes and frown still on the display.

  Justin explained again about the spy collar. "Um," Telek grunted when he'd finished. "You think they've planted a bomb or something on one of them,


  "I don't know," Joshua said slowly. "But I suddenly don't like this."

  "Me, neither." Telek hesitated, then picked up the mike and punched for the outside speakers. "Yuri, Marck? Hold it there a second, would you?"

  The two men came to a hesitant looking halt about twenty meters from the hatch.

  "Governor? What's wrong?" Cerenkov called.

  "I want you both to strip to your underwear," she told them. "Safety precaution."

  Rynstadt glanced back over his shoulder at the silent Qasamans. "Can't we skip that?" he called, his voice almost breaking with strain. "They didn't put anything in our clothes-I'm sure of that. Please-let us get aboard."

  "Something's wrong," Christopher muttered. Grabbing the mike from Telek, he punched a new button. "Dorjay, signal them to tell you-quietly-what's going on."

  Without waiting for an acknowledgment he switched back to the outside speaker.

  "Come on, guys-you heard the governor. Strip."

  Flicking off the speaker, he handed the mike silently back to Telek, who accepted it the same way. On the screen, the two men were pulling off their tunics; and because he knew to watch for it, Justin could see Rynstadt's lips moving. They were working on their boots when Link's voice came quietly into the circuit. "Marck says they've both been poisoned-some sort of toxin on a meal tray that the server wore gloves to avoid touching."

  "No wonder they were so willing to let them go," Nnamdi growled. "We've got to get them aboard right away and into the analyzer, Governor."

  But Telek was staring through the screen, her face frozen into a mask of horror,

  "They're not poisoned," she whispered. "They're infected. They've dosed them with something to kill all of us."

  For a long moment shock hung thickly in the air. Telek recovered first. "Almo, get back in here-use the cargo hatch you went out by. Dorjay... come inside and seal the outer door. Now."

  "What?" Christopher and Joshua yelped in unison.

  "No choice," Telek snapped back. Her hand was white-knuckled where she clutched the mike, and her face looked very old. "We haven't got isolation facilities aboard-you all know that."

  "The medical analyzer-"

  "Has an even chance of not even figuring out what they've been given," she cut

  Christopher off, "let alone knowing how to cure it."

  Beneath his feet, Justin felt the deck vibrate slightly as Pyre closed the cargo hatch; an instant later it was echoed as Link sealed the main hatchway.

  And on the outer display, Rynstadt and Cerenkov froze in horrified disbelief.

  "Hey!" Cerenkov yelled.

  "I'm sorry," Telek said, the words almost a sigh. She seemed to remember the mike, lifted it to her lips. "I'm sorry," she repeated. "You've been infected.

  We can't risk taking you aboard."

  "Guns being drawn!" Nnamdi said abruptly. "They know we've figured it out."

  "Captain-comm laser on the Qasamans," Telek snapped toward the intercom. "Dazzle them. Then... then prepare to lift."

  "You can't leave them here."

  Justin hadn't even noticed Pyre's entry into the lounge, but his voice made it clear he'd been there long enough to know what was happening.

  And that he wasn't going to accept it.

  Telek turned to face him, but there was no fight in her eyes. "Give me an alternative," she said quietly. "Put them in spacesuits for two weeks?-and watch them die there because we can't get to them to even attempt treatment?"

  "The rest of us could stay in suits," Pyre said.

  "Oxygen wouldn't last long enough," F'ahl said from the bridge. "And recharging in a contaminated atmosphere would be damned risky."

  The display screens lit up briefly as comm laser fire swept the Qasamans.

  Rynstadt and Cerenkov broke their paralysis as the sound of gunshots and mojo screams became audible, the two men dashing for the Dewdrop's tail. Heading for what cover the ship would provide, Justin guessed... until it lifted into space away from them.

  And suddenly he had it.

  "Almo!" he shouted, interrupting Telek but not caring. "Two spacesuits-out the cargo hatch. Hurry."

  "Justin, I just got done saying-" Telek began.

  "We can lift with them in the hold," Justin continued, the words tripping over each other as he tried to get them out as fast as possible. "The hold's got an airseal-we can evacuate it and set up UVs to sterilize the outsides of the suits."

  "And watch them die in there?" Telek snarled. "The hold hasn't even got a true airlock, and we haven't got the facilities-"

  "But the Troft ships out there do!" Justin shouted back.

  And the lounge was abruptly quiet, save for the deep hum of the idling gravity lifts and the fading sounds of Pyre's running footsteps down the hall.

  Three minutes later, in a highly inaccurate rain of bullets from the Qasamans, the Dewdrop lifted and made for the starry sky. An hour after that, Cerenkov and

  Rynstadt were inside a Troft warship's isolation facility, prognosis uncertain.

  An hour after that, the Dewdrop was in hyperspace, heading for home.

  Chapter 23

  The Menssana had returned from its survey mission to Aventine to the sort of welcome explorers throughout the ages must have received. Its personnel were received with an official vote of congratulations by the Council, its magdisks of data copied and disseminated to hundreds of eager scientists around the planet.

  The Dewdrop's reception, two days later, was considerably more subdued.

  The last page of Telek's preliminary report vanished from the comboard screen, and Corwin put the instrument aside with a sigh.


  Corwin looked up to meet his father's eyes. "They were lucky," he said bluntly.

  "They should all have been killed out there."

  Jonny nodded. "Yes. The Qasamans' only error was that they wanted as much information as they could get before destroying the mission. If they hadn't cared they could have blown up the Dewdrop any of a dozen different times."

  Corwin grimaced. York's arm gone, Winward's eyes only slowly coming back,

  Cerenkov and Rynstadt still in critical condition aboard an orbiting Troft ship-and with all of that, he could still consider the mission lucky. "What in heaven's name have we gotten ourselves into?" he muttered.

  "A real mess." Jonny sighed. "How long before Sun and company finish with their debriefing? Any idea?"

  "Uh..." Corwin retrieved his comboard, punched up a request. "Not before this evening. And they're not releasing anyone to the public until morning."

  "That's okay; we're not public." The elder Moreau stared into space a moment. "I want you to call your mother and arrange with her to go to the Cobra Academy tonight-use my name to get in, and if they give you any interference quote 'em some next-of-kin prerogatives-I'm sure you can find something applicable on the books. Don't talk politics with your brothers, and don't keep them up too late; life'll get hectic again for them when the Council gets its turn tomorrow."

  Corwin nodded. "Will you be there, too?"

  "Yes, but don't wait for me. I've got a couple of errands to do first."


  Jonny gave his eldest a lopsided smile. "My joints just had a nice vacation on sunny worlds. I can face Aventine's winter on my own for a few hours, t
hank you."

  Corwin shrugged. "Just asking."

  But he lingered in the outer office long enough to hear Yutu make arrangements with the starfield for a ground-to-orbit shuttle. His father, it appeared, would not have to worry much about Aventine's winter tonight.

  Winter, as such, didn't exist aboard Troft warships.

  For the fourth time in almost that many minutes the comboard screen seemed to blur in front of Telek's eyes; and for the fourth time she shook her head stubbornly and swallowed a mouthful of cahve. It was late, she was tired, and she would need to be at least marginally coherent for the Council meeting in the morning. But this was the first chance she'd had to see the Menssana's report, and she was determined to have at least a passing acquaintance with what they'd found before she checked out for the night.

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