Cobra strike, p.30
Cobra Strike, p.30Timothy Zahn
"We first picked them up a few kilometers east of Sollas," the duty officer told him. "Could have come a fair distance, though, if they'd been going slower; it was the movement we noticed first."
"Uh-huh." York tapped keys, watched the results appear at the bottom of the screen. Six units, flying just a bit subsonic-which didn't prove anything about their actual capabilities-heading southeast toward the Menssana's village. ETA, roughly two hours. "Get me Governor Telek," he said over his shoulder.
Telek had also been asleep, and by the time the Menssana's duty officer rousted her out of bed York had a bit more information. "Two of them are fairly big, possibly implying troop carriers," he told her. "The other four are smaller; I'd guess reconnaissance or attack. Odds are probably good that they're converted civilian craft, instead of specifically military ones, which should be to our advantage."
"Well, at least they don't have gravity lifts," Telek mused. "That's one technological edge we know we've got."
"Not necessarily." York shook his head. "No one puts grav lifts on attack helicopters, whether they've got 'em or not-the things are wildly inefficient for tight, high-speed maneuvering. Besides, for nighttime applications a grav lift's glow makes you a flying bull's-eye."
"So these are something we should worry about?"
York snorted. "Worry and a half. We used a lot of helicopters back in the
Marines, and I've seen them chew up areas twice the size of your village."
Telek's intercom image went tight-lipped. "Except that they'd kill three thousand of their own people if they try that."
"Right, and I doubt they're quite that desperate yet," York agreed. "And they're unlikely to hang around overhead sniping at the Cobras until they have an idea of what we've got to shoot back with."
"So the gleaner-team stays put," Telek said. "But the outrider teams go to ground?"
"They certainly make themselves inconspicuous. And the Menssana gets the hell out of there."
"Damn." Telek bit at her lip. "Yeah, you're right. You think going to ground a hundred kilometers away will be safe enough?"
"The farther the better. But you've got to move fast, before they're close enough to spot your grav lifts. I don't want to find out the hard way what sort of air-to-air capability they have."
"Good point. Captain Shepherd?"
"Three minutes to lift," the other's voice came into the circuit. "We've picked a tentative hiding place three hundred kilometers northwest of here, subject to your approval."
"What, right in the path of the helicopters?" York frowned.
"No, several kilometers off their approach. There's a large section of good rock cover under a crevasse overhang there-and it's certainly the last direction the
Qasamans would expect us to run."
"Fine," Telek put in impatiently. "Just get us moving; I'll look the maps over when I have time. Decker, keep an eye on those helicopters and let us know if anything else shows up."
"Will do," York said. "And you people sit on your screens, too-they could have sneaked antiaircraft or spotters out there under the trees earlier today."
"You're a comfort in my old age," Telek returned dryly. "I've got to go now, get
Michael on the line. Talk to you later."
Telek's image vanished from the screen. "At least they can't block or trace our communications this time around," the duty officer said.
"Unless they've learned about split-frequency radio in the past six weeks," York told him heavily. "And I wouldn't put it past them." Taking a deep breath, he chased the last of the sleep from his mind. "All right, gentlemen, let's get busy. Complete sweep of the village and everything for a thousand kilometers around it. If anything's moving out there, I want to know about it."
The helicopter formation broke up about fifty kilometers west of the village, two of the smaller ones heading straight in while the others circled to the north and south. Winward's Cobras braced for an attack... but the craft made only a single pass overhead before regrouping to the east and swinging around to head north. For awhile they tracked along the road, and Pyre and his outrider-one team braced in turn. But if they were spotted there was no sign.
Continuing north, the helicopters faded into the background somewhere near the next village, disappearing from the Dewdrop's screens.
"You think they picked us up?" Justin asked Pyre as the ten Cobras of outrider-one returned cautiously to their roadside positions.
"Hard to tell," the other sighed, checking his watch. About an hour and a half to local sunrise-plenty of time for the craft to refuel, rearm, even sit around for awhile and discuss strategy, and still get back in time for a predawn attack if they wanted to. "Depends really on how good their infrareds are. Radar and motion sensors would have been pretty useless with the tree canopy this thick."
"I would have thought they'd have attacked if they'd spotted us," one of the others commented.
"Unless they still think we didn't notice them in the darkness," Pyre pointed out. "In that case they might prefer not to tip off the gleaner-team by incinerating a section of forest twenty kilometers north."
"They'll leave that for the ground troops in the morning, I suppose," someone else put in dryly.
Pyre grimaced; the news of the convoy moving south along the roads had come from the Dewdrop only fifteen minutes earlier. "Probably," he admitted. "Though if I were them I'd bring the helicopters back for the party, too. Not much point in subtlety by that time."
"What fun," Justin said. "Any other good news?"
Pyre shrugged. "Only that the convoy's not due for a few more hours at the least-which means some of us should get reasonably caught up on our sleep before then."
"Only some of us?"
"We've got to have sentries," Pyre pointed out. "Can't count on the Qasamans not to sneak something past the Dewdrop-and the helicopters might come back. Hey, get used to it, friends-this is what warfare is all about: worry and lack of sleep."
Plus, of course, a lot of dying. Pyre hoped they wouldn't have to find out too much about that part.
The helicopters' early morning flyby hadn't gone unnoticed by the gleaner-team, of course. But it wasn't until the day's testing began that they discovered the villagers, too, had heard the overhead activity.
"You can see it in their faces and body language as clearly as if they were wearing wraparound displays," McKinley told Winward tightly an hour into the interviews. "They know the government's on to us and they're fully expecting some kind of move soon, probably within a day."
Winward nodded; York and the others aboard the Dewdrop had come to the same conclusion. "Well, we certainly can't sit put for a hall-scale military operation here. What's the earliest time you can be finished?"
"Depends on how much data you want to take back," the other shrugged. "We're already combining the original day two and day three schedules, taking half the data points we'd originally planned for each-"
From one of the rooms down the hall came a muffled shriek and the crash of a falling object. "What-?" McKinley snapped, spinning around.
Winward was already moving at a dead run, auditory enhancers keyed for follow-up noises. The sounds of a struggle... muffled curses... that door-
He slammed it open to see one of the Cobras pulling a struggling Qasaman from the desk he'd apparently thrown himself across. The experimenter, picking himself up shakily from the floor behind his overturned chair, was white-faced with shock, the pale skin in sharp contrast to the oozing blood on his cheek.
Beside him on the floor lay a dead mojo. The Cobra looked up as Winward strode in. "The mojo tried to attack, and I had to kill it. I was a little too slow to stop this one."
Winward nodded as McKinley skidded into the room behind him. "Get him out of here," he told the Cobra.
"Killers," the Qasaman spat toward Winward as the other Cobra hauled him toward the door. "Foulspring excrement vermin-"
The door slammed on his tirade. "Loses a lot in translation, I'll
"Yeah," the other nodded, dabbing with a handkerchief at his cheek. "Took me completely by surprise-his control just seemed to snap, and there he was on top of me."
Winward exchanged glances with McKinley. "When was that? When his mojo was killed?"
"Oddly enough, no. As a matter of fact, I think they both jumped me at the same time. Though I couldn't swear to that."
"Um," McKinley nodded. "Well, the tapes will show the details. You'd better go to HQ, get those scratches looked at. No point taking any chances."
"Yes, sir. Sorry."
"Not your fault. And don't come back until you're sure you feel ready to continue. We're not in that much of a hurry."
The tester nodded and left. "If he's too obviously nervous it could skew his results," McKinley explained.
Winward nodded. He had the recorder box back on the table now and popped the rear panel. "Let's see what really happened."
The tester, it turned out, had been correct. Bird and man had attacked at precisely the same moment.
"You can see signs of agitation in both of them," McKinley pointed out, running the tape again. "The rippling feathers and snapping motions of the beak here; the shifting muscle lines in his face, here, and the hand movements."
"This is all in response to ultrasonics that humans can't hear?" Something prickled on the back of Win-ward's neck.
"Right. Just took at the tester here-he's in the same ultrasonic beam and isn't so much as sweating hard." McKinley bit at his lip. "But I wasn't expecting this much of a common reaction."
"They're getting some of their courage back, maybe, knowing troops are on the way."
"But the birds aren't supposed to be intelligent enough to pick up on things like that," McKinley growled.
"Maybe they pick it up via body language from their humans. Maybe that's the way the mojos' agitation transmits in reverse, too."
"Possible." McKinley sighed. "Unfortunately, the body language and telepathic theories are going to be very hard to distinguish between without long-term studies."
"Which we don't have time for." Winward grimaced. "Well, do the best you can-maybe you and the bio people will be able to pull useful results out of the raw data. In the meantime, try to avoid pushing any more of your subjects over the brink."
Banyon took a deep breath, exhaled it carefully. At long last, paydirt.
The three creatures eyeing the humans from the undergrowth were krisjaws, all right-surely no two creatures on Qasama could have those wavy, flame-shaped canine teeth. Nearly two meters long, with the lean musculature and stealth of predators, they eased toward the four humans, eyes fixed on their prey.
And Governor Telek's theory had been correct. On the shoulder of each sat an equally attentive mojo.
"Now what?" Hanford murmured, a bit nervously, at Banyon's side. "You have the recorders running?" The Cobra sensed rather than saw Hanford's nod. "Everyone else in position?"
Three acknowledgments came through his earphone. The other Cobras had the krisjaws boxed up... and it was time to test the predators' reactions. "Get ready," he muttered to the zoologists grouped behind him. "Here goes." Raising his hands, he fired a salvo from fingertip lasers into the brush at either side of the stalking animals.
The krisjaws weren't stupid. All three froze in place for a long minute and then began backing away as cautiously as they'd been advancing. They got barely a meter, though, before a second burst of laser fire from one of Banyon's hidden flankers traced a line of smoldering vegetation behind them. Again they froze, heads turning slowly as if to seek out their hidden assailant. "Well," Banyon said after a few seconds, "it looks like they'll be staying put for a bit. How close did you want to examine them?"
"No closer than necessary," one of the zoologists muttered. "I don't trust a flash net to hold anything that size."
"Nonsense," Hanford said-though not all that confidently, Banyon thought. "Let me take a shot at the one on the right. Everyone watch for trouble."
There was a soft chuff of compressed air from behind Banyon's shoulder, a glimpse of a tiny cylinder arrowing toward the target krisjaw-and with an explosive crack the flash net blew out to tangle the krisjaw's head and forelegs. Screeching, the mojo on its back shot clear... and the krisjaw went berserk.
Banyon had used flash nets against spine leopards on Aventine on numerous occasion-had trapped bigger and meaner-looking animals on the Menssana's five-world tour a couple of months ago-but never in all that had he seen such a violent reaction. The krisjaw screamed in rage, slashing as best it could with teeth and claws at the fine mesh clinging to its body, rolling around in the underbrush and occasionally even twisting itself entirely off the ground in its frenzy.
And within seconds it had opened up tears in the net.
Hanford stepped a pace forward, raising his air gun again, but Banyon had already made his decision. "Forget it," he called to the zoologist over the noise, pressing the gun barrel down. Targeting, he swung his leg up and fired his antiarmor laser.
The landscape lit up briefly, and with one final scream the krisjaw collapsed among the ruins of the net.
Someone swore feelingly under his breath. "No wonder the Qasamans organize hunts against these things."
"Yeah." Banyon shifted his attention to the other two krisjaws, still waiting quietly. Waiting, but several meters further to the side than they'd been a minute earlier. A new line of blackened vegetation smoldered beside them. "What happened?-they try to slip away in the confusion?"
"They thought about it," one of the Cobras replied dryly. "I think we've convinced them to cooperate for the moment."
"Cooperate," Hanford mused. "I seem to remember the mayor of Huriseem mentioning the krisjaws were pretty peaceful when the Qasamans first got here."
"He said it was a legend," one of the others reminded him. "I find it hard to swallow that an animal's behavior would change that drastically."
"What do you think we're looking at right now?" Hanford snorted. "Those two krisjaws are being about as peaceable as they come."
"Only because they see they'll be cut to ribbons if they try anything."
"Which in itself is highly suggestive," Banyon put in. "Remember the gleaner-team report this morning about the apparent transfer of aggression between mojos and humans?"
"You think the mojo made the krisjaw fight back against the net?" Hanford shaded his eyes as he searched the trees for the escaped bird.
"Just the opposite," Banyon told him. "I'm wondering if perhaps the mojo was sitting on the krisjaw's natural aggression, holding it in check until it was forced too far away."
"That's crazy," one of the Cobras scoffed. "The krisjaws are sitting targets out there-their best survival tactic right now is to run or attack."
"Except that we've demonstrated we can kill them if they try either," Hanford said thoughtfully. "Remember the spookies on Tacta? If the mojos have a similar sense for relative danger they may recognize that their best bet really is to sit and wait."
There was a long moment of silence as the others digested that. "I suppose it's reasonably self-consistent, as theories go," one of the zoologists said at last.
"Hard to see how a system like that would get started, though. Not to mention how you'd prove it."
"Given a telepathic ability, it seems pretty straightforward to me," Banyon said. "The mojos need some predator strong enough to take on a bololin in order to get access to their embryo-hosts. Maybe the mojo acts as long-range spotter for the krisjaw in return or something."
"Though with the mojo's control the relationship doesn't have to be particularly mutual," Hanford murmured. "The birds may be out-and-out parasites."
"Yeah," Banyon said. "And as for proving it... Dale, target the mojo nearest you, all right? Head shot; fast and clean, without affecting the krisjaw directly."
"Okay," the voice came in his ear. "Ready."
If this worked he wanted his antiarmor laser ready to fire. "Okay: now."
A flicker of light from beside and behind the krisjaw caught the mojo-and an instant later the krisjaw screamed and charged. Banyon leaned back as he activated the automatic fire control, his leg swinging up to fire point blank at the creature's face. There was a blaze of reflected light, and the krisjaw's fur blackened as the laser flash-burned it. The animal slammed heavily to the ground-
And Banyon looked up just in time to see the remaining krisjaw's mojo streaking for his face.
The landscape tilted crazily as his nanocomputer threw him out of the way of the bird's attack-but not before he saw the the krisjaw, too, was in motion. He hit the ground, rolling awkwardly on his left shoulder as someone screamed... and he came up into a crouch to see the krisjaw spring toward Hanford.
Cobra Strike by Timothy Zahn / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes