Cobra strike, p.25
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       Cobra Strike, p.25

           Timothy Zahn

  There was a light tap at the door. "Come," she called.

  It wasn't, as she'd expected, one of the Academy medical staff. "The nurses at the monitor station are annoyed you haven't gone to sleep yet," Jonny commented as he walked into the room.

  She blinked, then snorted. "They brought you all the way from Capitalia to tell me that?"

  "Hardly. I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop in." Pulling up a chair, he sat down.

  Telek nodded. "They did good. You can be damn proud of them."

  "I know. Though Justin doesn't think so."

  "Well, he's wrong," Telek growled. "If he'd tried to get to Purma's underground stuff, he wouldn't have made it out alive. Period. And if he hadn't made it out, we might have taken Yuri and Marck aboard before we knew how the Qasamans like to stack their deals."

  "I understand that. He will too, eventually. I hope." Jonny waved toward her comboard. "The Menssana's report?"

  "Uh-huh. You people did pretty well yourselves."

  Jonny nodded. "They all look promising," he agreed. "At least two are better even than that."

  Telek looked him in the eye. "I want those worlds, Jonny."

  He returned the gaze without flinching. "Badly enough to fight a war for?"

  "Badly enough to do whatever we have to," she said bluntly.

  He sighed. "I'd rather hoped that what happened on Qasama would have blunted your eagerness a bit."

  "It's made me aware of what it'll cost. But the option is the loss of the last nineteen thousand people on Caelian."

  "Or so goes the argument. They can always move back here, you know."

  "But they won't. Anyone who was willing to lose that much face by admitting defeat has already done so. We can't move the rest of them back to civilization-their pride won't take it."

  "Whereas your pride won't let you turn tail on the Qasamans?" he countered.

  "Pride has nothing to do with it."

  "Sure." Reaching into his tunic, Jonny produced a magdisk and handed it to her.

  "Well, whatever your motives, as long as you're solidly hell-bent on smashing

  Qasama, you might as well know as much about the place as possible."

  Telek frowned at the disk. "What's this?"

  "The official Baliu'ckha'spmi report on Qasama."

  She looked up at him, feeling her mouth fall open. "It's what? Where did you get it?"

  "From the Troft ship out there," he replied. "Clearly, any ship sent to back up our mission would have their own world's report aboard for emergency reference.

  So I went up this afternoon and got a copy."

  "Just like that?"

  "More or less. A combination of bluff, bluster, and legal footwork." He smiled faintly. "Plus a healthy new respect for us on their part."

  "God knows we earned that much," she said quietly. York and Winward alone had earned them at least that much.... She shook off the sudden resurgence of guilt for her failures on the trip. "So why give it to me?"

  "Oh, the whole Council will get copies in the morning," he shrugged. "As I said,

  I was in the neighborhood."

  "Yeah. Well... thanks."

  "No charge." Jonny got to his feet-wincing with the effort, she noticed-and walked to the door. There he paused and looked back at her. "Lizabet... I'm not going to let the Worlds go to war for your new planets," he told her quietly.

  "Not after what we've seen of Qasama. A surgical strike against their technological base, perhaps, if feasible; aerial bombings, probably, if it'll actually do any good. But no land war. Not even for Caelian."

  She nodded slightly. "I understand. And I'm as willing to look for middle ground as you are."

  "Let's hope we can find it. Good night."

  He left, and Telek found herself staring at the Troft magdisk in her hand.

  Suddenly she was very, very tired....

  Ejecting the Menssana's report, she inserted the Trofts' into her comboard, keying to run it through the Academy's central translator. Then, sighing wearily, she splashed more cahve into her mug and began to read.

  Chapter 24

  The Council meeting was postponed two days, to give the members a chance to read both the Qasama Mission debriefing and the Troft data package Jonny had obtained. But when the debate finally began it was quickly and abundantly clear that the cautious approval that had existed for the original mission had flipped solidly in the opposite direction.

  And it wasn't hard to figure out why.

  "If the damn planet wasn't a lost human colony no one would be nearly this emotional about the whole thing," Dylan Fairleigh growled afterward as the governors gathered for their own meeting.

  "Neither of the Caelian syndics was complaining," Vartanson pointed out quietly.

  "We know what the trade-off is here."

  "Us or them?" Jonny asked. "Is that it? Come on, now-we don't even know why the

  Trofts are so worried about Qasama."

  "Don't we?" Roi shot back. "A thriving, highly cooperative, highly paranoid human culture? That's not something to be afraid of?"

  "A culture without starflight, without even system space travel?" Hemner quavered.

  "We don't know they don't have spaceflight capability," Fairleigh reminded him tartly. His eyes flicked to Jonny. "There's a lot we don't know about their industrial and technological base. That we should have found out."

  Jonny bristled; but Telek got her word in first. "If that's a slur on my team in general and Justin Moreau in particular, you're invited to withdraw it," she said coldly.

  "I only meant-"

  "If you'd like, you can head the next trip to Qasama," she cut him off. "We'll see then how well you do."

  Stiggur chose that moment to make his own belated entrance, his presence stifling the budding argument. "Good afternoon; sorry I'm late," he said with an air of harried distraction as he sat down at his place and pushed a pile of magdisks into the center of the table. "Preliminary biological data analysis-just came in. Summary in the front. Take a quick look and we'll discuss it."

  It was, as Jonny had expected, an analysis of the Dewdrop and Troft data, concentrating on the mojos. He skimmed the summary and was halfway through a more careful study when Vartanson harrumphed. "Nasty. Reminds me of some of the feathered killing machines we have on Caelian."

  "Aside from the weird reproductive setup, I presume," Roi said. "The whole arrangement looks pretty fragile to me. Kill off enough of their embryo-hosts-these whatyoucallem, these tarbines-and you could wipe out the species overnight."

  "Most ecosystems look that unstable at first glance," Telek put in dryly. "In practice, you'd find you'd need to kill a hell of a lot of tarbines to make any real dent. I take it, though, that you feel the mojos to be the major threat to any Cobra forces we put down there?"

  "No question," Roi said. "Look at the record. No one except Winward suffered any appreciable damage from the Qasamans' guns, and that single case was a surprise attack. But the mojos got him and York and came close with Pyre and Moreau."

  "They really are the first line of defense," Fairleigh agreed. "And the Qasamans know it. Hell, they design their cities to keep the things happy."

  "Makes sense, of course," Stiggur said with a shrug. "Why risk human deaths in a battle when you've got animals to take the brunt of the attack?"

  "That's not how the arrangement began," said Telek. "It was originally for defense against predators and evolved into a personal bodyguard system."

  "And now shows itself easily adapted to warfare," Stiggur said. "The history doesn't concern us as much as the current situation does." He turned to Jonny.

  "Is there any way you know of to make the Cobra equipment better able to deal with the mojos? Some change in the targeting mechanism, for instance?"

  Jonny shrugged. "The targeting procedure is designed to allow fast target acquisition while minimizing accidental lock-ons. Make it any easier and faster and you'll automatically get more misfires."

  "Then how about reprogramming the nanocomputer to identify mojos as hostile?"

  Fairleigh suggested. "That way at least the next generation of Cobras could handle them."

  Vartanson snorted. "If that could be done, don't you think we'd already have something like that for the Caelian Cobras? Shape recognition just takes up too much computer memory."

  "It's actually more basic than that," Jonny shook his head. "The minute you put some kind of automatic recognition targeting into the Cobras, you rob them of their versatility and, ultimately, their effectiveness. Once the Qasamans figured it out, they could throw birds by the hundreds at us, and while we're helplessly shooting down ones who couldn't even get near us for three minutes, the Qasaman gunners shoot us at their leisure. Automatic single-purpose weapons are fine in their place-and you're using them quite effectively on Caelian-but don't try to make them out of Cobras."

  There was a moment's silence. "Sorry," Jonny muttered. "Didn't mean to lecture."

  Stiggur waved the apology aside. "The point was reasonable and well taken. I don't think anyone wants to have specialized cadres of Cobras. So. Is there some other way to reduce the mojos' effectiveness?"

  "Excuse me for changing the subject," Hemner spoke up hesitantly, "but there are still some points about Qasama generally that bother me. History, Brom, you implied wasn't important, but I'd like to know a little about the colony's background. Specifically, how and when it came to be."

  "I didn't mean history wasn't important." Stiggur poked at his comboard. "Only that-oh, never mind. Let's see. The historians' report indicates the original

  Qasamans left the Dominion circa 2160, probably as colonists bound from Reginine for Rajput. The direction vector is about right, and the various historical references and language-not to mention the name Qasama itself-all point to one of Reginine's basic subcultures."

  "The name Qasama?" Vartanson frowned.

  "You've got this report yourselves," Stiggur said, a bit tartly.

  " 'Qasama' is an Old Arabic word meaning 'to divide.' It's come into Anglic through a couple of different languages and changes to become 'kismet,' meaning

  'fate' or 'destiny.' "

  "Divided by destiny," Roi murmured. "Some linguist aboard the original ship had a strange sense of humor."

  "Or sense of manifest destiny," Telek said, half to herself. "I never saw a scrap of evidence the Qasamans had any humor whatsoever. They took themselves incredibly seriously."

  "Fine," Hemner said. "So Qasama's been in existence for something under three hundred years, and in that time the mojos and humans have become symbiotically entwined. Correct?"

  "Correct," Stiggur nodded. "Though 'symbiosis' might be too strong a word."

  "Oh?" Hemner raised an eyebrow. "The people kill the tarbines' protector bololins so that the mojos can breed more easily; in turn the mojos protect their owners from attack. What's that if not symbiosis? But my real question is what did the mojos do before humans came along?"

  All eyes shifted to Telek. "Lizabet?" Stiggur prompted. "Any ideas?"

  "Not offhand," she answered slowly, a frown creasing her forehead. "Huh. Never even occurred to me to wonder about that. Have to be a predator, certainly-a big one, to deal with the bololins. I'll have to check the Troft records, see how many likely candidates there are."

  "If you'll forgive me," Roi put in, "I don't see that this is a vital part of figuring out how to stop the mojos now that they are riding around on the

  Qasamans' shoulders."

  "If you'll forgive me," Telek shot back, "one never knows in this business where a key fact will show up."

  She launched into a mini-lecture about the interdependence of biological structure and function with ecological position, but Jonny missed most of it.

  Skimming the Qasaman biological data, he hit a small sentence that brought his eyes and mind to a screeching halt. He backed up and read the section carefully... and a not-quite-understood shiver went up his spine.

  Stiggur was saying something mollifying when Jonny's attention returned to the group. He waited until the governor-general was finished and then spoke up before anyone else could do so. "Lizabet, have you had time to study the fauna records the Menssana brought back? Specifically, the ones from the planet


  "I glanced through them." Her expression said you know I did, but the thought remained unsaid. "You driving at anything specific?"

  "Yes." Jonny tapped keys to send the two pages he'd been looking at to the others' displays. "On the left is our profile of the flatfoot quadruped of

  Chata; on the right, yours of the Qasaman bololin. If you'd all take a moment to scan the two pages, I think you'll see what I mean."

  "Interesting," Vartanson nodded a minute later. "A lot of similarity there."

  "In particular the use of magnetic field lines for navigation," Telek agreed.

  "Highly unusual for large land animals. Probably a classic example of the

  Trofts' so-called common-stock theory-you know, the same argument as to why we get similar flora and fauna on Aventine, Palatine, and Caelian."

  "Uh-huh," Jonny said. He'd found the other two pages he needed and now put them on the displays. "Okay, then, how about the mojo on the right and this bird on the left?"

  Fairleigh snorted. "From a binocular photo and computer-generated views? Even I know you need more than that for a similarity study."

  Jonny kept his eyes on Telek. "Lizabet?"

  "Both predators," she said slowly. "Beaks and wing coverts very similar. Feet... not enough detail, but... interesting. Those short filaments coming off the crown and lore-here and here? The mojo's got some sort of vibrissae there, too; tied somehow into its auditory system, we think. Unless that's a false construct generated by the computer. Where did you spot this-oh, there it is. Tacta. The last planet on your survey, right?"

  "Right," Jonny said absently. So the mojos were apparently close cousins to the strange bird whose behavior had spooked them off its world. Which meant... what?

  "For the moment, at least," Stiggur said, "Lizabet is right that the mojo data needs more detailed study before we can discuss a counter to them. So I'd like to move on to a strategic discussion of the society itself, particularly the structural aspects that we already know. Uh... let's see... right: page 162 is where it starts."

  The discussion lasted nearly an hour, and despite the relatively raw state of the data a picture emerged which Jonny found as depressing from a military standpoint as it possibly could have been. "Let's see if I've got all this straight," he said at the end, trying to go as easy as he could on the heavy sarcasm. "We have a society whose members all regularly carry firearms, whose population is largely spread out in small villages, whose light industry is also solidly decentralized and whose heavy industry is buried deep underground, and whose exact technological level is still unknown. Does that pretty well cover it?"

  "Don't forget their willingness to use brain-boosting drugs and to hell with the personal consequences," Roi growled. "And all of them hellbent paranoids on top of it. You know, Brom, the more we get into this, the less I like the idea of them sitting out there ready to explode across space as soon as they reinvent the stardrive."

  "You sound as if they'll be orbiting us the next morning," Hemner said. He coughed, twice, the spasms shaking his thin shoulders, but when he continued his voice was firm enough. "Qasama is forty-five light-years away, remember-it'll take them years to find us, even if they're specifically looking. Long before that they'll run into the Trofts, and whether they begin trade or warfare they'll be tied up with them for generations. By then they'll have forgotten this little fiasco and we'll be able to start fresh with our brother humans as if this had never happened."

  "A nice speech, Jor," Telek said tartly, "but you're missing a few rather vital points. One: What if they hit Chata and the other worlds out there before they find the Trofts?"

  "What of it?" Hemner replied. "If we quit the job now o
ur people won't be out there, anyway."

  Telek's lip might have twitched, but her voice was even enough as she continued.

  "Second is your assumption the Qasamans will forget us. Wrong. They'll remember, all right, and whether it's a year or a century they'll brace for war the minute they run into us again. You may not believe that," she added, glancing around the table, "but it's true. I was there; I saw and heard the way they talk. You wait until Hersh Nnamdi's final report is in, see if he doesn't agree with me on that. And third: We let them get off Qasama and we're in for a long and very bloody war indeed. Our current technological edge is meaningless with brain-boosters in the picture-a few months or years of warfare and they'll be at our level, whatever it is at the time. And if you think they're decentralized now wait'll they're dug in on Kubha and Tacta and God knows where else."

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