Cobra strike, p.28
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       Cobra Strike, p.28

           Timothy Zahn
 

  All eyes shifted to the frail old man. "Jor, you're out of order," Stiggur said quietly. "I know emotions are running high on all this-"

  "You do, do you?" Hemner smiled thinly. His hands, Jonny noted with a vague twinge of uneasiness, had left their usual place on top of the table and were hidden from view in his lap. "And you prefer words to actions, I suppose. It's so much easier to manipulate people's emotions. Well, the time has come for action. We're going to vote, and we're going to pass Lizabet's mojo study. Or else."

  "Or else what?" Stiggur snapped, irritation finally breaking through.

  "Or else the nay votes will be eliminated," Hemner said harshly. "Beginning with him."

  And his right hand came up over the edge of the table, the small flat handgun clutched in it swiveling to point at Roi.

  Someone gasped in shock... but even before the pistol had steadied on its target, Jonny was in motion. Both fingertip lasers spat fire, one into the pistol, the other tracing a line directly in front of Hemner's eyes. The old man jerked back with a cry as the heat and light reached his hand and face, the pistol swinging away from the others. Gripping the table edge with both hands,

  Jonny kicked back and up with his feet, sending his chair spinning across the room and flipping his body to slam onto his back on the table. His legs caught

  Hemner's arm full force, eliciting a second yelp from the other and sending the gun sailing into the far wall.

  "Get the gun!" Jonny snapped through the agony the sudden violence had ignited in his arthritic joints. He swung up to a sitting position, grabbed both of

  Hemner's wrists. "Jor, what the hell was that supposed to accomplish?"

  "Just proving a point," Hemner said calmly, the harshness of a minute earlier gone without a trace. "My wrists-easy-"

  "You were what?"

  "I'll be damned." The voice was Roi's and Jonny turned to look.

  Roi was standing by the far wall, holding Hemner's "gun."

  Which was nothing more than a pen and an intricately folded magcard.

  Jonny looked down at Hemner. "Jor... what's going on?"

  "As I said, I was proving a point," the other said. "Uh-if you wouldn't mind...?"

  Releasing his grip, Jonny climbed carefully off the table and walked around back to his seat. Roi sat down, too, and Stiggur cleared his throat. "This had better be good," he warned Hemner.

  The other nodded. "Olor, were you armed just now when I pretended to pull a weapon on you?" he asked.

  "Of course not," Roi snorted.

  "Yet even with a real gun I wouldn't have been able to shoot you. True? Why not?"

  "Because Jonny was here and he's faster than you are."

  Hemner nodded and turned to Stiggur. "Security, Brom. You don't need everyone carrying mojos for your citizens to be protected. The mojos attack anyone drawing a gun, whether their own masters are specifically threatened or not." He waved at his display. "The records of the bus attack on York clearly show that-I've just checked. Even if everyone wants to carry a gun, you still don't need that many mojos. Twenty percent, or even less, combined with the cultural bias against fighting would be more than adequate."

  "Assuming they're that peaceful without that taloned reminder on their shoulders," Fairleigh growled. "Maybe they're more violent without mojos nearby."

  Vartanson laughed abruptly. "Dylan, did you hear what you just said? Almost exactly what Jonny's been suggesting." He nodded at Jonny. "All right; I'm convinced the mojos need more study. But we need to learn about the Qasaman technological base, too, and I'm not sure which is more important."

  "Then let's do both," Telek spoke up. Reaching to the stack of magdisks in front of her, she selected one and slid it into her reader. "This is a complete tactical plan that was submitted to my office yesterday via Almo Pyre. I'd like us all to read it through and seriously consider it as a basis for the next mission to Qasama, Brom?"

  "Any comments or objections?" Stiggur asked, his eyes sweeping the table. "All right, then. Let's take a look."

  Telek sent the report to the other displays and they all settled down to read.

  Jonny felt memories of his own tactical training rising to the surface as he studied the plan... memories, and a growing respect for Pyre's work. Granted that there were some military manuals and histories in the computer library, it still took a great deal of raw talent to put together a scheme this comprehensive, especially with only the limited training the First Cobras had been able to give Pyre and his team.

  It wasn't until he reached the end that he found the author's name... and he stared at it for nearly a minute before he finally could believe it.

  Justin Moreau.

  The wait in Telek's office had stretched into nearly two hours, but Pyre had been almost too busy to notice. Justin's plan was highly detailed, but the boy naturally had not done any actual personnel assignments, a task that would fall to Coordinator Sun and the Cobra upper echelon if the plan was accepted. Nothing said Pyre couldn't submit his own roster for their approval, though. He'd finished the main group and was working on the first of the three outrider teams when Telek returned.

  "Well?" he asked as she closed the door and sank into her desk chair.

  "They bought it," she said with tired satisfaction. "Brom wants to submit it to a review board of First Cobras, but I doubt they'll change it too much. You still hold with two weeks to equip and train the task force?"

  Pyre nodded. "All they'll need is the multiple-targeting enhancers and some tactical training. For a change, all the experience we've logged hunting down spine leopards is going to do some of us some good."

  "Um. You... ah... plan to be out in the forest, then?"

  "I had, yes. Unless you wanted me on the village force."

  Telek pursed her lips. "Might be better for you to stay aboard the ship, actually. To coordinate things."

  "Oh?" Pyre eyed her. "You'd rather I not be down on Qasama?"

  "I'd rather you not risk your life, if you must know," she said grudgingly.

  "You've done your bit."

  "Ah. You feel the same way about Justin, Michael, and Dorjay? Or is it different because you specifically asked that I be aboard the Dewdrop the last time around?"

  Her lip curled. "So you did know. I'd hoped I'd hid my tracks a bit better than that."

  "I have friends among the elite, too. Which is why I was surprised you'd requested me."

  Telek exhaled loudly. "Well, it wasn't because you were a good friend of the

  Moreaus," she said. "Though that was why I asked you and Halloran for the initial cost study. But for the trip itself...." She paused, eyes drifting to the window and the Capitalia cityscape beyond. "It bothered me all the way from the beginning why the Baliu demesne should think Cobras would have a better shot at the Qasamans then they did."

  "They already knew the mojos attack drawn weapons," Pyre suggested.

  "True. And there was the whole question of whether this was a test. But it occurred to me that there was one other possibility."

  Pyre frowned in thought... and suddenly it hit him. "You think they knew we were the same species as the Qasamans?"

  "I think it highly probable," Telek nodded. "Cobras would have an advantage in a war against other humans. And being the connivers they are, of course, they wouldn't want us to know who we were facing until we'd committed to some course of action."

  "Yeah," Pyre said slowly. "We nearly got killed on Qasama and we're still barely holding our own with public opinion. Imagine the furor if we'd known in advance we were being asked to exterminate another human society." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "That doesn't explain my presence aboard, though."

  She took a deep breath. "I didn't like the fact that I might be called upon to betray another human colony out there. You were there to make sure I kept my priorities straight. Did you know, Almo, that I was married once?"

  He shook his head, taking the abrupt subject change in stride. "Divorced?"

  "Wido
wed. Since before I became a governor. He was a Cobra... and he died on

  Caelian."

  She paused, memories flicking visibly across her face. Pyre waited, sensing what would come next. "You remind me a great deal of him," she continued at last. "In appearance; even more in spirit. I wanted you there as a constant reminder that we need a new world for the Caelians to move to."

  "Even if that world is bought with the Qasamans' lives?" he snarled.

  The words came out harsher than he'd intended them to, but Telek never flinched.

  "Yes," she said quietly. "Even then. My duty is to the Cobra Worlds, first and foremost... and it's going to stay that way."

  Pyre looked at her, a sudden chill sending a shiver up his back. All the time together on the Dewdrop... and he hadn't really known her at all.

  "I'm sorry if that makes you hate me," she said after a moment. "But in my opinion I had no choice."

  He nodded, though to which part of her statement he wasn't sure. "If you'll excuse me," he said, hearing the stiffness in his voice, "I need to get back to work. I have a roster to complete for the team I'll be taking to Qasama."

  She nodded. "All right. I'll talk to you later."

  He turned and left... and wondered that he didn't hate her for her ruthlessness.

  The Cobra board took Justin's plan apart, examined it, debated it, and-in places-changed it; and then they put it together again and pronounced it sound.

  The forty-eight Cobras and fourteen scientists who would be landing on Qasama were chosen and trained. The Baliu demesne expressed their displeasure at funding a second mission on what still amounted to speculation, but well before the training period was over Jonny and Stiggur were able to change the aliens' minds.

  And less than a month after the Dewdrop had returned from Qasama, both it and the Menssana lifted quietly from the Capitalia starport and headed back.

  Chapter 27

  Night on Qasama.

  The villages along the eastern arm of what was now referred to as the Fertile

  Crescent were dark as the Menssana drifted down on its gravity lifts. Dark, but visible enough in infrared scanners. The roads connecting the towns were visible, too, the network narrowing like a filigree arrowhead to point at the most southerly village at the end of the crescent... with but a single road northward connecting it to the rest of Qasaman civilization.

  The Menssana stopped first along that road, some twenty kilometers north of town; and when it lifted again it had left twenty-two people and the two aircars behind. The aircars themselves lifted before the ship was out of sight, bound on missions of their own; and, almost lazily, the Menssana swung southward toward the sleeping target village, its sensors taking in great gulps of electromagnetic radiation, sound, and particulate matter and spitting out maps and lists in return. The ship circled the village once, maintaining a discreet distance to avoid detection. When it finally set down in the forest some fifty meters from the wall, the forty passengers who emerged had a fair idea what they were getting into.

  Within half an hour, though no one else yet knew it, they had taken the town.

  The mayor got a full two steps into his office before his face registered the fact that someone else was sitting on his cushions-and he managed another step and a half before he was able to stop. His eyes widened, then narrowed as surprise turned to anger. He snapped something; "Who are you"? the Menssana's computer translated it.

  "Good morning, Mr. Mayor," Winward said gravely from the cushions, his newly reconstructed eyes steady on the other's mojo. "Forgive the intrusion, but we need some information from you and your people."

  The mayor seemed to freeze at the first words from the pendant around Winward's neck... and as his eyes searched the Cobra's face the blood abruptly drained from his cheeks. "You!" he whispered.

  Winward nodded understanding. "Ah, so Kimmeron circulated our pictures, did he?

  Good. Then you know who I am... and you know the foolishness of resistance."

  The mayor's gun hand was trembling as if in indecision. "I wouldn't advise it,"

  Winward told him. "I can kill both you and your mojo before you can draw.

  Besides, there are others with me-lots of others-and if you start shooting the rest of your people probably will, too, and we'll just have to kill a bunch of you to prove we can do it." He cocked his head. "We don't have to prove that, do we?"

  A muscle in the other's cheek twitched. "I've seen the reports of your carnage," he said grimly.

  "Good," Winward said, matching the other's tone. "I hate having to cover the same ground twice. So. Are you going to cooperate?"

  The mayor was silent for a moment. "What do you want from us?"

  Quietly, Winward let out the breath he'd been holding. "We want only to ask your people some questions and do a few painless and harmless studies on them and their mojos."

  He watched the mayor's face closely, but he could see no obvious reaction. "Very well," the Qasaman said. "Only to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, I will give in.

  But be warned: if your tests aren't as harmless as you claim you'll soon have more bloodshed than you have taste for."

  "Agreed." Winward stood and gestured to the cushions and the low switch-covered console beside it. "Call your people and tell them to leave their homes and come into the streets. They may bring their mojos but must leave their guns inside."

  "The women and children, too?"

  "They must come out, and some will need to be tested. If it'll make you feel better, I can allow a close relative to be present while any woman or child is being questioned."

  "That... would be appreciated." The mayor's eyes held Winward's for a moment,

  "To what demon have you sold your soul, that you are able to return from the dead?"

  Winward shook his head minutely. "You wouldn't believe it if I told you," he said. "Now call your people."

  The Qasaman pursed his lips and sat down. Flipping a handful of switches on the console, he began speaking, his voice echoing faintly from the streets. Winward listened for a moment, then reached to his pendant and covered the translator mike. "Dorjay: report."

  "Situation quiet at the long-range transmitter," Link's voice came promptly through his earphone. "Uh... looks like the mayor's message is starting to stir up things out there now."

  "Look sharp-we don't want anyone sneaking in there to send an SOS off to

  Sollas."

  "Particularly as they'd catch us dismantling and studying all the nice equipment in here," Link added dryly. "We'll be careful. You want me to continue managing the gate and motor patrols, too?"

  "Yes. It'll get pretty hectic here once the psych people get their business going."

  "Okay. Keep me posted."

  Winward tapped the mike once to break the private connection and then covered it again. "Governor Telek? How're the pickups coming over?"

  "Perfectly," Telek's voice said in his ear. "Got some good baseline readings on the mayor while he was heading through the building, and the high-stress ones there in the office look even better."

  "Good. We'll get things started here as soon as we can. Any word yet from the outrider teams?"

  "Just routine check-ins. Dewdrop's not reporting any obvious troop movements, either. Looks like we sneaked in undetected."

  Which should mean they'd have a few hours or even a day or two before the rest of the planet realized they'd been invaded. After which things could get sticky.

  "Okay. Dorjay says the tech assessors are already pulling things apart, so you'll get some data coming in on that front soon. Out."

  The mayor leaned back from his console to look up balefully at Winward. "They will comply with your demands," he said. "For now, at any rate."

  Getting his courage back? That was fine with Winward-the more mood swings the

  Qasamans went through, the more useful the data the hidden sensors would get.

  Provided the mayor didn't get too courageous. "Fine," the Cobra nodd
ed. "Then let's go out and join them while our people get things organized. After you give me your gun, of course."

  The Qasaman hesitated a split second before sliding the weapon out of its holster and laying it atop the console. "Okay; let's go," Winward said, leaving the gun where it was. If Telek's theory was right, chances were he could pick up the weapon without drawing a mojo attack... but he wasn't ready to make a test case out of it, not yet.

  Silently the Qasaman rose to his feet, and together the two men left the office.

 
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