Cobra strike, p.29
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       Cobra Strike, p.29

           Timothy Zahn

  The section of forest the outrider-two team had put their aircar down into was reasonably sparse, as such things went, reminding Rey Banyon more of the woods they'd seen on Chata than the denser forests of Aventine's far west region where he'd grown up. The good news was that the openness aided visibility; the bad was that it allowed for larger animals to live here. By and large, a fairly even trade.

  But for the moment the forest's denizens, large and small, were keeping their distance. Eyes sweeping the vicinity of the aircar, he listened with half an ear to the conversation between Dr. Hanford and the Dewdrop in orbit above them.

  "Well, we didn't spot anything when we swept the area," Hanford was saying. "Are you still showing something nearby?"

  "Negative," the voice came Back. "I think it went back under the trees and we lost it."

  Hanford exhaled loudly. Banyon understood his irritation perfectly: this was the third time in the six hours they'd been on Qasama that they'd made a mad dash to the possible location of a krisjaw, only to come up empty.

  And to make it worse, they weren't even sure that a krisjaw was what they needed to find.

  "Any idea even which way it went?" the zoologist asked at last.

  "Dr. Hanford, you have to understand the Dewdrop's infrareds weren't designed for such pin-point work, at least not from this distance. Let me see... if I had to guess, I'd say to try northwest."

  "Thanks," Hanford said dryly. "Call if you spot another target."

  "Northwest," one of the other two zoologists muttered as Hanford broke the connection. "I'd guess northwest, too, if I had to. That's the direction animals run on this crazy planet."

  "I doubt the predators do." Hanford sighed. "Well, Rey? On foot or by air?"

  "By air, I suppose," Banyon said. "We'll try spotting on our own for awhile. See if we can do any better."

  "Can't possibly do any worse. Well, let's go."

  The three zoologists climbed back into the aircar, followed by Banyon and his three Cobra teammates. Rising to just over treetop level, they headed slowly northwest.

  Christopher flipped off the mike with a snort and settled back to glaring at the infrared display, muttering under his breath. Eyeing him over his own screen,

  York chuckled. "Having trouble, Bil?"

  "This isn't even my job," Christopher growled without looking up. "How am I supposed to find krisjaw hot spots when I don't even know what they're supposed to look like?"

  "You find a large hot spot that's moving-"

  "Yes, I know all that. Elsner just better hurry up and get back here, that's all

  I've got to say."

  "He still at the main display looking for a bololin herd for outrider-three?"

  "Yeah." Christopher visibly shivered. "Those guys must be nuts. You sure wouldn't catch me chasing bololins around."

  "You wouldn't catch me down there at all," York murmured.

  Christopher sent him a quick look. "Yeah. I, uh... I understand you were asked to be on the Menssana with Lizabet, Yuri, Marck, and the others."

  "That's right," York told him evenly. "I refused."

  "Oh." Christopher's eyes strayed to York's new right arm-his new mechanical right arm-then slipped guiltily away.

  "You think it's because of this, don't you?" York asked, raising his arm and opening his hand. The fingers twitched once as he did so, mute reminder of the fact that his brain hadn't totally adapted to the neural/electronic interfaces yet. "You think I'm afraid to go down there again?"

  "Of course not-"

  "Then you're wrong," York told him flatly. "I'm afraid, all right, and for damn good reasons."

  Christopher's face was taking on an increasingly uncomfortable expression, and it occurred to York that the other had probably never heard anyone speak quite this way before. "You want to know why Yuri and Marck and the others are down there and I'm up here?" he asked.

  "Well... all right, why?"

  "Because they're trying to prove they're brave," York said. "Partly to others, but mainly to themselves. They're demonstrating that they can stick their heads in the spine leopard's mouth a second time if they have to, without flinching."

  "Whereas you feel no such need?"

  "Exactly," York nodded. "I've had my courage tested many times. Both before I came to Aventine and since then. I know I'm brave, and I'm damn well not going to take unnecessary chances to prove it to the universe at large." He waved at his display. "If and when the Qasamans make their move I can assess their military level just as well from up here as I could on the surface. Ergo, here's where I stay."

  "I see," Christopher nodded. But his eyes still looked troubled. "Makes sense, certainly. I'm-well, I'm glad that's cleared up."

  He turned back to his display, and York suppressed a sigh. Christopher hadn't understood, any more than the rest of them had. They still thought it was all just a complicated way of not saying he was a coward.

  The hell with all of them.

  Turning back to his own screen, he resumed his watch for military activity. In his lap his mechanical hand curled into a fist.

  It was shortly after noon when the Dewdrop finally located a bololin herd within the specified distance of the village, and it was another hour before outrider-three's aircar reached it. The herd had paused among the trees to graze, and as the aircar drifted by overhead Rem Parker whistled under his breath. "Nasty-looking things," he commented.

  One of the other three Cobras muttered an agreement. "I think I can see the tarbines-those tan spots behind the heads, inside the quills."

  "Yeah. Great place for a summer home." Parker glanced at the tech huddled over his instruments in the next seat. "Well, Dan? Possible?"

  Dan Rostin shrugged. "Marginal. We're pretty far south of the direct route here-it'll take a large deviation to get them on track. But if they cooperate as well as the flatfoots on Chata it ought to work okay. Hang on a second and I'll have the details for you."

  It turned out not to be quite as bad as Parker had feared. Nowhere would the magnetic field they would be superimposing change the overall field line direction by more than twenty degrees, and the amplitudes necessary were well within their equipment's capabilities.

  Of course, they would occasionally need to get within a hundred meters of the herd's center, with the risk to the aircar from the flanks that such a close approach would entail. But then, that was why the Cobras were along in the first place.

  "Well, let's get started," Parker told the others. "And let's hope they're as much like their flatfoot cousins as the bio people say they are." Otherwise-he didn't add-the Cobras might just wind up herding them, rancher style, all the way to the village.

  And that was a trick he wasn't anxious to try.

  It was almost sundown when Winward returned from a tour of his Cobras' positions to the mayoral office building, where Dr. McKinley and the rest of the psych people had set up shop. One of the Qasamans was being escorted out of McKinley's room as Win-ward arrived, and he took the opportunity to take a quick look inside. "Hello," he nodded to the two men as he poked his head around the door.

  "How's it going?"

  McKinley looked about as tired as Winward had ever seen a man; but his voice was brisk enough. "Pretty good, overall. Even without the computer analysis I can see the stress levels changing pretty much as predicted."

  "Good. You about to close down this phase for the evening?"

  "Got one more to do. If you'd like, you could stay and watch."

  Winward eyed the Cobra guard standing silently against the wall. He, too, looked tired, though just as far from admitting it as McKinley was. "Alek, why don't you go ahead and get some dinner," he told the other. "I'll stay here while Dr.

  McKinley finishes up."

  "I'd appreciate that," Alek nodded, heading for the door. "Thanks."

  McKinley waited until he was gone, then touched a button on his translator pendant. "Okay; send in number forty-two."

  A moment later Winward's enhanced hear
ing picked up two sets of footsteps approaching; and the door opened to admit another Cobra and a tense-looking

  Qasaman male. The Cobra left, and McKinley gestured to the low chair facing his appropriated desk. "Sit down, please."

  The Qasaman complied, throwing a suspicious glance at Winward. His mojo, Winward noted, was almost calm by comparison, although it seemed to be rippling its feathers rather frequently. "Let's begin with your name and occupation,"

  McKinley said. "Just speak clearly toward the recorder here," he added, waving at the rectangular box perched on a corner of the desk.

  The man answered, and McKinley moved on to general questions concerning his interests and life in the village. Gradually the tone and direction of the questioning shifted, though, and within a few minutes McKinley was asking about the man's relationships with friends, his frequency of intercourse with his wife, and other highly personal matters. Winward watched the Qasaman closely, but to his untrained eye the other seemed to be taking McKinley's prying with reasonable grace. The stress indicators built into the recorder and the man's chair, of course, would deliver a more scientific assessment.

  McKinley was halfway through a question about the man's childhood when he broke off and, as he'd done forty-one times already that day, pretended to listen with annoyance to something coming through his earphone. "I'm sorry," he told the

  Qasaman, "but apparently your mojo's flapping noises are interfering with the recording. Uh-" He glanced around the room, pointed to a large cushion in the far corner. "Would you mind putting him over there?"

  The other grimaced, glancing again at Winward. Then, body language eloquent with protest, he complied. "Good," McKinley said briskly as the Qasaman seated himself again. "Let's see; I guess I should backtrack a bit."

  He launched into a repeat of an earlier question, and Winward shifted his attention to the mojo sitting in its corner. Sitting; but clearly not happy with its banishment. The head movements and feather ruffling Winward had noted earlier had increased dramatically, both in frequency and magnitude. Nervous at being separated from its protector? the Cobra wondered. Or upset because it can't influence things as well at this distance? The whole idea of the mojos having some subliminal power over the Qasamans made Winward feel decidedly twitchy. Alone among all he'd talked to, he still hoped Jonny Moreau's theory was wrong.


  Winward turned his attention back to the interrogation to find McKinley scowling into space. "I'm sorry, but the recorder's still picking up too much noise. I guess we're going to have to put your mojo out of the room entirely.

  Kreel?-would you come in here a minute. Bring something talon-proof with you."

  "Wait," the Qasaman said, half rising from his seat. "You cannot take my mojo away from here."

  "Why not?" McKinley asked. "We won't hurt it, and you'll have it back in a few minutes." The door opened and the Cobra who'd earlier escorted the Qasaman in stepped into the room, a thick cloth bunched in his hand.

  "You must not take him," the Qasaman repeated, the first hint of anger beginning to show through his stoicism. "I have cooperated fully-you have no right to treat me this way."

  "Seven more questions-that's all," McKinley said soothingly. "Five minutes or less, and you'll have it back. Look, there's an empty office across the hall;

  Kreel can just stand there in the middle of the room with your mojo on his arm, and when we're done you can open the door and get it back. No harm will come to it-I promise."

  Provided it behaves itself, Winward added silently. Kreel would have another

  Cobra in the room with him, lasers targeted on the bird the whole time, but

  Winward didn't envy him the job of standing there with mojo talons less than half a meter from his face.

  The Qasaman was still protesting, but it was clear from his voice that he knew it was futile. Kreel meanwhile had wrapped the cloth around his left forearm and stooped to present it to the mojo. With obvious hesitation the bird climbed aboard. Kreel left, closing the door behind them, and McKinley resumed his questioning.

  It was all over, as he'd promised, in less than five minutes; but well before it ended Winward came to the conclusion that he was seeing just how angry a Qasaman could become without physically attacking something. The man's earlier grudging cooperation became an almost palpable bitterness as he spat his answers at the recorder. Twice he refused to answer at all. Winward found his own muscles tensing in anticipation of the moment when the Qasaman's control broke completely and sent him diving across the desk in a strangulation attempt.

  That moment, fortunately, never came. McKinley finished his list, and thirty seconds later the man and mojo were reunited across the hall. "One more thing and you can go," McKinley told him as he stroked the bird's throat soothingly.

  "Kreel's going to put a numbered ribbon around your neck so we'll know we've already talked to you. I presume you won't want to go through this again."

  The Qasaman snorted, but otherwise ignored everyone except his mojo as Kreel wrapped the red ribbon snugly around his neck and sealed the ends together.

  Then, still wordlessly, he stalked down the hall toward the exit, Kreel a step behind him.

  McKinley took a deep breath, let it out in a long sigh. "And if you thought that was rough," he told Winward wryly, "wait'll you see what's on-line for tomorrow."

  "I can hardly wait," Winward said as they walked back to the testing room. "You really getting anything worthwhile from all of this?"

  "Oh, sure." Swiveling the recorder box around, McKinley opened a panel to reveal a compact display and keyboard. He busied himself with the latter and a set of curves appeared on the screen. "Composite of the three hundred sixty Qasamans we tested today," he told Winward. "Compared to a data base line we took on

  Aventine the week before we left. The Qasamans maintain a much lower stress level, despite the obnoxious content of the questions, as long as their mojos are on their shoulders. It rises some when we put the birds across the room, but it doesn't really shoot up until the birds are out of sight. Then it actually goes above our baseline levels-right here-and it drops off much faster when they get the mojos back."

  Winward pursed his lips. "Some of that could be irritation from having to go over the same questions twice," he suggested.

  "And some of it could be differences between our cultures, though we've tried to minimize both effects," McKinley nodded. "Sure. We haven't got any proof yet, but the indications are certainly there."

  "Yeah." Subliminal control... "So what are you doing tomorrow that'll be worse?"

  "We're going to let them keep their mojos throughout the questioning, but we're going to irritate the birds with ultrasonics and see how much if any of the tension transfers."

  "Sounds like great fun. You know enough about mojo senses to know what'll do the trick?"

  "We think so. I guess we'll find out."

  "Um. Then day three is when you try mixing the mojos and owners up?"

  "Right. And we'll also do the hunt-stress test some time in there, whenever outrider-three is able to get their bololin herd here. I only hope we'll have enough people with sensor-ribbons on by then to get us some good numbers-it's for sure we won't be able to repeat that experiment." McKinley cocked an eyebrow. "You look pensive. Trouble?"

  Winward pursed his lips. "You really think it'll take the rest of the planet two more days to-figure out something's wrong and make some major response?"

  "I thought we wanted them to react."

  "We want them to react sufficiently for us to see their heavy weaponry, if any,"

  Winward said. "We don't want them to put together something powerful enough to roll over us."

  "Ouch. Yes; I concede the difference. Well... if they move faster, I guess we'll just have to speed things up. And you Cobras will have to start earning your room and board here the hard way."

  Winward grimaced. Heavily armed Qasamans... and clouds of mojos. "Yes. I guess we will."

  Chapter 28

  York had put in a long day aboard ship and had looked forward to at least one good night's sleep before things heated up below. But he'd been asleep barely four hours when the intercom's pinging dragged him awake. "Yes-York," he mumbled. "What is it?"

  "Something happening on Qasama," the duty officer's voice said. "I think you'll want to see this."

  "On my way."

  Robed and barefoot, he was seated before one of the big displays in two minutes flat... and the image there was indeed worth waking him for.

  "Helicopters," he identified them to the two spotters on duty. "Possibly with auxiliary thrusters-they're making pretty good speed. Where'd they come from?"

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