Cobra strike, p.27
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       Cobra Strike, p.27

           Timothy Zahn

  He stopped, fighting for control... and it was Joshua who spotted the key first.

  "It was only when the mojos were attacking you?" he asked. "The Qasamans themselves didn't bother you?"

  Justin shook his head. "Not to the same extent. At least not those in the elevator. The others... well, I don't remember killing them, either, I guess. I don't know-maybe I'm just rationalizing for my failure."

  "Or maybe you're not," Jonny said grimly. "Almo, did you experience anything like that when you were fighting the mojos?"

  Pyre hesitated, thinking back. He wished he could admit to such a thing, for the sake of Justin's self-esteem. If the mojos actually had been fueling the younger man's reaction....

  But he had to shake his head. "Sorry, but I'm afraid not," he told Jonny. "On the other hand, I never faced mojos who'd already seen I was dangerous, either.

  I was always in a position to target and eliminate them in the first salvo.

  Perhaps we could talk to Michael Winward, see what he went through."

  Joshua was gazing into space. "The cities. They're designed for the mojos' benefit. You suppose there's more significance to that than we thought?"

  Gwen stirred. "I have to admit I don't understand this 'designed city' bit, especially the lunacy of letting herds of bololins charge up your streets.

  Wouldn't it have been simpler to just go out on hunting trips when you wanted to let your mojo breed?"

  "Or else set up tarbine aviaries in the cities," Chrys suggested. "I would think it harder to go out and trap wild mojos than to breed tame ones, anyway."

  "That would certainly make the most sense," Pyre said.

  "Assuming," Corwin said quietly, "that the Qasamans were the ones making those decisions."

  And there it is, Pyre thought. What all the rest of us are skating around, out in the open at last. He looked around the circle, but superimposed on the view was an unsettling image: a Qasaman as marionette, its strings in the beak of its mojo....

  It was Justin who eventually broke the silence. "It's not as simple as the mojos being able to take control of people," he said. "We had mojos all around us that last night and still were able to escape."

  Pyre thought back. "Yes," he agreed slowly. "Both outside of Purma and in

  Kimmeron's office in Sollas the mojos should have been able to influence me. If they could."

  "Maybe they need a longer association with a person," Corwin said. "Or there's a distance or stress factor that inhibits them."

  "You're talking degrees now," Chrys spoke up, her voice low. "Does that mean we're all agreed that somehow, on some level, the mojos are influencing events on Qasama?"

  There was a brief silence; and, one by one, they nodded. "The cities," Joshua said. "That's the key indicator. They've gone to enormous trouble to duplicate the mojos' natural breeding patterns, even when simpler ways exist. Funny none of us picked up on that before."

  "Maybe not," Pyre told him grimly. "Maybe the mojos were able to dampen our curiosity that much, at least."

  "Or maybe not," Joshua retorted. "Let's not start giving these birds too many superhuman abilities, all right? They're not even intelligent, remember. I think we humans are all perfectly capable of missing the obvious without any outside help."

  The discussion went back and forth for a while before turning to others matters... and so engrossed did they all become that Pyre alone noticed Justin's quiet departure.

  The desk in his temporary Cobra Academy room was small and several centimeters shorter than he liked; but it was equipped with a computer terminal, and that was all Justin really cared about. He'd just punched in a new search command and was waiting for the results when there was a tap at the door. "Come in," he said absently. Probably someone here to complain about his late hours again-

  "No one ever tell you it was impolite to leave without saying good-bye?"

  Justin spun his chair around, surprise and chagrin flooding his face with heat.

  "Oh... hi, Aunt Gwen," he managed to say without stuttering. "Uh-well, you were all busy discussing the mojos, and I had work to do here...."

  He trailed off under her steady, no-nonsense gaze, the look that since childhood had been more effective on him than any amount of brimstone or lecture.

  "Uh-huh," she said. "Well, it's too bad you took off when you did. You missed my report."

  "The one on the Qasaman strategic material situation?"

  "That's the one. And the surprise bonus: the Qasamans' long-range communication method."

  Justin blinked, his heartbeat speeding up. "You've figured it out? Well, come on-how do they do it?"

  "I'll trade you," she said, waving at the desk and its scattering of papers and maps. "You tell me your secret first."

  He felt his mouth twist into a grimace... but he'd have to tell someone soon, anyway. Aunt Gwen he could at least hope to be sympathetic. "All right," he sighed. "I'm trying to work up a tactical plan for the next intelligence raid on


  Gwen's eyes remained steady on his. "What makes you think there'll be another mission?"

  "There has to be," he said. "The first mission ended with too many critical facts still unknown. Those underground manufacturing centers, at the very least, and if Dad's right the mojos as well."

  "Uh-huh. I presume you plan on leading this expedition?"

  Justin's lip quirked. "Of course not... but I will be one of the team."

  "Um." Gwen glanced around the room, snared a chair from beside the door and pulled it over to face her nephew's. "You know, Justin," she said, sitting down,

  "if I didn't know better, I'd think you were running away from something."

  He snorted. "Heading to Qasama hardly qualifies as running away, in my opinion."

  "Depends on what you have here to face. Staying put when you feel real or imagined public animosity isn't easy. But sometimes any other option is the coward's way out."

  Justin took a deep breath. "Aunt Gwen... you can't possibly know what this situation is like. I failed on Qasama-pure and simple-and it's my job now to make up for it if I can."

  "You're not listening. Failure or not isn't the issue. Rushing ahead with a premature course of action qualifies as running away, period. And yes, I do know what you're facing. When your father came back from the war he-" She stopped, lips compressed, then quietly continued. "There was an accident in town one night, and he... killed a couple of teenagers."

  Justin felt his mouth go dry. "I've never heard this," he said carefully.

  "It's nothing we're anxious to talk about," she sighed. "Basically, the kids pretended they were going to run him over with their car and his Cobra reflexes countered in a way that wound up indirectly killing them. But the details don't matter. He wanted to run away afterwards-had a whole bunch of off-world university applications filled out and ready to go. But he stayed. He stayed, and along with helping the rest of us cope with the ostracism, he just happened incidentally to save a few men from a fire."

  "So he stayed... until he left for good and came here to Aventine?"

  Gwen blinked. "Well... yes, but that's not the same. The Dominion government wanted the Cobras to come help open up the colony-"

  "Could he have refused?"

  "I-can't say. But he wouldn't have, because his skills and abilities were needed out here."

  Justin spread his hands. "But don't you see?-you're giving my own argument back at me. Dad's Cobra abilities were needed, so he came; my Cobra abilities are needed on Qasama, so I'm going. It's the exact same thing."

  "But it's not," Gwen said, her voice and eyes almost pleading. "You don't have the training and experience to be a warrior. You're just trying to cleanse your conscience through an act of revenge."

  Justin sighed and shook his head. "I'm not out for revenge, really I'm not.

  Between the ride back and my time here I've had two weeks to work through my emotions on the matter, and... I think I understand myself and my motives.

>   Qasama has to be stopped, we need more information to do that-" he took a deep breath-"and if I'm not a real warrior, I'm probably the closest thing to one left on Aventine."

  "Jonny has worked hard to make the Cobras a force for peace and development in the Worlds."

  "But he had to go through his war first," Justin told her quietly. "And I have to go through mine."

  For a long minute the room was silent. Then Justin gave his aunt a passable attempt at a smile. "Your turn now. What's your secret?"

  Gwen sighed, a long hissing sound of defeat, "If you look at a topographical map of Qasama, you'll see that all the cities and villages are scattered along a low, roughly boomerang-shaped ridge four thousand kilometers or so in total length and maybe six hundred at its largest diameter. There's evidence that it was caused by an upwelling of basaltic magma in the fairly recent geological past."

  "That's a lot of magma," Justin murmured.

  "Granted, though there are even larger examples of this sort of thing back on some of the Dominion worlds. Anyway, I've done some computer modeling, and it looks very possible that the basalt intruded into some highly metallic rock layers. If that's the case the Qasamans have a ready-made waveguide for low-frequency radio waves a hundred meters below them, ready to dig antennas into. That sort of system's been used before, but with the metallic ore around it the basalt would keep nearly all of the signal inside it, leaking very little of it out for anyone to pick up."

  Justin whistled under his breath. "Cute. Very cute. A planet already wired for sound." And if true, it would eliminate the last lingering doubts he had about mojo long-distance telepathic abilities. That was worth a lot right there. "When will you know for sure if you're right?"

  She sighed again. "I suppose it won't be certain until your intelligence raid finds the antennas." She gazed at him another moment, then got to her feet. "I'd better be going," she said, backing toward the door. "Almo's waiting to take me back to my hotel. I'll... talk to you later."

  "Thanks for coming by," Justin said. "Don't worry-this'll be done in a day or two, and after it's submitted I'll have more time to spend with the family."

  "Sure. Well... good night."

  " 'Night, Aunt Gwen."

  For a long minute after she left he stayed where he was, eyes on the closed door. A hundred meters down to the Qasamans' basaltic waveguide. Thirty stories, more or less... approximately the depth of the Purma building he'd escaped from.

  Had that been all the place was?-the local communications center, not the industrial complex that he'd thought? If so-

  If so, he'd missed little of truly vital importance by his premature break for freedom.

  He was, perhaps, not a failure, after all. Or at least not as much of one as he'd thought.

  It was nice to know. But, ultimately, it made little practical difference. There was still the job on Qasama to do, and he and his fellow Cobras the only ones who could do it.

  Turning to his desk once more, he got back to work.

  Chapter 26

  Stiggur was neither impressed nor convinced by Jonny's arguments. Neither, very obviously, were most of the others.

  "A telepathic bird," Vartanson snorted. "Come on, now-don't you think you're reaching just a little too far for this one?"

  Jonny kept his temper with an effort. "What about the design of the cities?" he asked.

  "What about it?" Vartanson shot back. "There are any of a hundred explanations for that. Maybe the mojos get sick if they don't breed regularly and the city dwellers don't want to take trips into the woods for the purpose. Maybe they can't wall out the bololin herds and this was the best compromise available."

  "Then why build cities?" Jonny said. "They like being decentralized-why not just stick with villages?"

  "Because there are social and economic advantages to a certain amount of population concentration," Fairleigh spoke up. "Masking any trace of their underground industry would be a good reason all by itself."

  "And before you bring up the Tactan spookies," Roi said, "your correlation between those and the mojos is tentative at best-and the conclusions you come to about the spookies is ridiculous. I'm sorry, but it is."

  "That's a rather blanket assessment for someone who doesn't know a thing about biology," Jonny told him tartly.

  "Oh, is it? Well, perhaps we ought to ask our resident biologist, then." Roi turned to Telek. "Lizabet, what do you think?"

  Telek favored him with a cool look, which she sent slowly around the table. "I think," she said at last, "that we'd damn well better find out for sure. And that we'd better do it fast."

  There was a stunned silence. Jonny stared at Telek, her unexpected support throwing his brain off-line. "You agree the mojos are influencing the Qasamans' actions?" he asked.

  "I agree they're more than they seem," she said. "How much more is what we've got to find out."

  Stiggur cleared his throat. "Lizabet... I understand that your professional interests here are naturally directed more toward the mojos than the Qasaman technological base. But-"

  "Then let me put it another way," Telek interrupted him. "I've known about

  Jonny's theory since yesterday-never mind how-and I've used that time to do a couple of new studies on the visual record the team brought back." She looked at

  Roi. "Olor, I would say that the Palatinian glow-nose is probably the most popular pet anywhere in the Worlds-you agree? Good. How many people on Palatine own one?"

  Roi blinked. "I don't know, off hand. Eighty percent, I'd guess."

  "I looked up the numbers," Telek said. "Assuming only one per customer the figure is actually under sixty percent. If you include all other pets the number of owners is still only about eighty-seven percent."

  "What's your point?" Stiggur asked.

  Telek focused on him. "Thirteen percent of an admittedly pet-crazy people don't own pets. But every single damn Qasaman has a mojo."

  Jonny frowned into the thoughtful silence, trying to visualize the scenes he'd seen from the records. It was possible, he decided with some surprise. "No exceptions?" he asked Telek.

  "Only three the computer scan came up with, and two don't really count: children under ten or so, and dancers and duelists. The duelists get their birds back after their curse ball game, though, and I suspect the dancers have them waiting backstage, too. At which point we're back to one hundred percent of the adult population with mojos. The floor is open for speculation."

  "They're living in a dangerous environment," Vartanson shrugged.

  "Not really," Telek shook her head. "The villages ought to be safe enough, with the walls and the scarcity of the krisjaw predators that were mentioned. And with the bololin alarms even Sollas and the other cities aren't all that hazardous any more. The big 'danger' argument strikes me as a convenient but flimsy rationale."

  "What about all their fellow humans running around with guns?" Roi snorted.

  "Yes, what about that?" Jonny put in. Across the table Hemner muttered something and began fiddling with his display. Jonny waited a second, but he didn't say anything, so Jonny turned to Vartanson. "Howie, do you allow your people to carry their weapons inside the fortified compounds?"

  Vartanson shook his head slowly. "The Cobras are armed, of course, but all hand weapons are checked inside the inner doors."

  "The Qasamans have grown up with a tradition of carrying their guns, though,"

  Fairleigh argued. "You couldn't get them to just give them up overnight."

  "Why not?" Telek asked. "They've also got a tradition of not attacking each other, remember."

  "Besides which," Hemner added without looking up, "banning in-city weapons has been done successfully in dozens of places in the Dominion."

  "The Qasamans wouldn't put up with that, in my opinion," Roi shook his head.

  "Let's get back to the point, shall we?" Telek said. "The question is why the

  Qasamans are still bothering to carry these birds around with them when it's not necess
ary to do so."

  "But we've answered that question," Stiggur said with a sigh. "As long as anyone carries a gun and a mojo, everyone has to do so. Otherwise they won't feel safe."

  "The cultural conditioning-"

  "Will be adequate for most of them," Stiggur said. "But not for all. And if I were a Qasaman, I'd want protection against even that small group of dangerous people."

  Telek grimaced, clearly hunting for a new approach. "Brom-"

  "All right, we've talked long enough," Hemner said firmly. "We're going to vote on Lizabet's proposal. Now."

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