Cobra strike, p.31
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       Cobra Strike, p.31

           Timothy Zahn

  Banyon snapped his hands up in a fast dual shot at the predator, but what saved the zoologist's life in that first half second was his own reflexive shot with his flash net gun. The krisjaw hit, slamming Hanford to the ground, but with claws and teeth temporarily blocked by the netting it could do little except gouge at its victim. Banyon scrambled to get his legs clear of the undergrowth... but before he could bring his antiarmor laser to bear two brilliant spears of light lit up the forest and the krisjaw collapsed in a charred heap.

  Banyon got to his feet, looking quickly around. The mojo was still unaccounted for...

  But not for long. The bird was perched atop one of the other zoologist's crossed forearms, wings beating at the man's head and shoulders as it tried to work its beak in to the face.

  Banyon was on it in a second, grabbing its neck with both hands and squeezing.

  The mojo released its grip, fluttering wildly as it tried to get at its new attacker. But Banyon's grip had Cobra servos behind it... and within a few seconds the bird lay limp in his hands. "You okay?" he asked the zoologist, wincing at the blood oozing through the other's sleeves.

  "Arms and head hurt like crazy," the other grunted, lowering his guard hesitantly. "Otherwise... okay, I think."

  His face, at least, was unmarked. "We'll get you right back to the aircar,"

  Banyon told him, turning back to Hanford. The other Cobras had the krisjaw carcass off him now, and Dale was kneeling beside him. "How is he?" Banyon asked.

  "Might have a cracked rib or two," Dale said, getting to his feet. "Not a good idea to carry him far; I'll go bring the aircar here."

  Banyon nodded and knelt beside Hanford as Dale set off at a fast trot. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

  "Scientifically vindicated," Hanford murmured, managing a weak smile. "We've now proved that mojos in the wild serve the same role they do for the Qasamans. They help the krisjaws fight."

  "And apparently help decide when fighting's the best approach," Banyon nodded.

  "As opposed to simply getting out of the way?"

  Banyon looked up to meet the angry glare of the team's uninjured zoologist. "I wasn't running out on you," he said quietly.

  "Of course not," the other snorted. "Just getting to a place where you could line up a clear shot, right? While it was busy with the rest of us. Fine job-really fine." He turned his back.

  Banyon sighed, closing his eyes briefly. They would never learn-neither the people who assigned Cobras as bodyguards, nor the bodyguarded people themselves.

  In a pinch a Cobra's computerized reflexes were designed to protect him and him alone. There was no provision for heroic self-sacrifice in the nanocomputer's programming... and the civilians would never understand that, no matter how many times they were told.

  There was a quiet click in his earphone: a relay from the split-freq equipment in their aircar. "Banyon? This is Telek; come in."

  "Yes, Governor. What's up?"

  "Any results on your hunt yet?"

  "As a matter of fact, yes. We can send them to you as soon as we get the recorders tied into the transmitter."

  "Don't bother," Telek said, and Banyon could hear a new undertone of tension in her voice. "Just get yourselves and the data back to the Menssana-you've got our current location?"

  "If you haven't moved since last night, yes. What's gone wrong?"

  "Nothing, really," she sighed. "At least nothing unexpected. But I want to be able to pull out quickly if we need to."

  Banyon grimaced as something tight took hold of his stomach. "The Qasaman convoy has reached outrider-one?"

  "Ten minutes ago. And the team's under attack."

  Chapter 29

  The forest was alive with the stutter of rapid-fire guns and the furious sleet of bullets tearing at leaves and undergrowth and blasting great sprays of splinters from tree trunks all around. Flat on his belly behind the largest tree he could find near his station, Justin hugged the ground and waited for the barrage to ease up or shift direction. It did, and he took a cautious peek around the bole. A hundred meters away six Qasamans were running back toward the convoy from the tree trunk the Cobras had felled across the road. They'd been placing explosives, Pyre had guessed... and even as Justin watched, the barrier erupted with yellow fire. The smoke cleared to show a section of the trunk had disintegrated.

  "Barrier down," one of the Cobras reported in Justin's ear. "Convoy starting up again."

  The hail of lead intensified, almost covering the sound of car engines, but little of the fire was coming in Justin's direction. "I'm on it," he said into his mike. Twenty meters closer to him was the next of the trees along the road they'd prepared so carefully last night. Raising his hand out of the matted leaves, he targeted carefully and fired.

  The rope holding the precut tree snapped; and with a crack of breaking wood audible even over the gun shots it toppled gracefully across the road. "Barrier replaced," he reported.

  "Stand by to pull back," Pyre said tersely. "Smoke...?"

  In response, the forest on both sides of the road erupted with black smoke.

  "Lead team, pull back," Pyre ordered.

  Justin began backing away from his tree, balancing the need for speed with the need to remain low. The smoke would block visual and infrared targeting, but there were always lucky shots to worry about. So far the Qasamans' lack of experience with warfare had showed up clearly in their unimaginative tactics; but they more than made up for that with enthusiasm.

  He was midway to his new cover, smack in the middle of nowhere, when a new stutter opened up from above. He froze, muffling a curse.

  The helicopters were back.

  Or at least one of them was. It was off to the east a ways, he estimated from the sound, probably blowing up some of the hundred or so "warm-body" infrared decoys they'd spent the morning setting up. But the machine was drifting closer.

  Making a quick decision, Justin leaped to his feet and dashed for cover. The pitch of the helicopter's drone shifted as he did so, and a second later he got a glimpse of the craft through the trees... and a rain of bullets abruptly splattered at his heels.

  He put on a burst of speed, and was behind his target tree before the Qasaman gunner could correct his aim. "I'm okay," he called into his mike before anyone had to ask. "But I'm pinned down."

  "I'm on it," someone grunted. "Someone give me covering fire?"

  "Got it," Pyre said. "On three. One, two, three."

  The helicopter had swung around, trying for a clear shot at Justin, and was framed almost perfectly between tree branches as Pyre's antiarmor laser flashed squarely into the cockpit windows.

  The craft jerked, nearly destabilizing enough to slide into the treetops bare meters below. But the pilot was good, and within seconds the craft was nearly steady again... and from directly beneath, a figure shot upward through the leafy canopy to grab the helicopter's side door handle. Twisting his legs upward, the Cobra turned himself around his precarious grip to what was in effect a one-armed handstand along the helicopter's side... and with his feet barely a meter from the main rotor hub, his antiarmor laser blazed forth.

  The pilot did his best. Almost instantly the craft banked hard to the side, throwing the Cobra off in an action that should have killed him. But with the nanocomputer's cat-landing programming even that small satisfaction would be denied the Qasaman... and as he carefully righted the helicopter the stressed rotor metal gave way. Two seconds later the forest shook with the thunder of the crash.

  "Report," Pyre snapped as the explosion died into the dull crackle of burning fuel.

  "No problem," the Cobra assured them all. "Watch the branches if any of you have to try that-the damn things scratch like hell."

  Justin let out a relieved sigh... and suddenly became aware of the relative silence. "They've stopped shooting-"

  "Almo, we've got a Qasaman on the road," one of the others interrupted. "He's alone-well, with a mojo-and he's holding a white flag."

  A whit
e flag. Winward had gone out under a white flag the last trip here... and had been shot for his trouble. Justin's jaw tightened as he wondered if Pyre remembered that... wondered what the other's response would be.

  "Okay," Pyre said after a moment. "Everyone keep looking sharp-they may be using him as a diversion while they sneak around to encircle us on foot, I'm going to call him over and see what he wants."

  "Target the mojo right away," someone said dryly.

  "No kidding. Here goes."

  Pyre's voice continued normally in Justin's ear as, bullhorn amplified, the

  Qasaman translation echoed among the trees: "Continue forward. Keep your hands visible and your mojo on your shoulder. I'll tell you where to leave the road."

  Quiet returned to the forest. Notching up his auditory enhancers, Justin settled down beside his tree to wait.

  Telek rubbed her eyes with the heels of both hands, "The problem," she told Pyre wearily, "is the same one we've had ever since the convoy first appeared: namely, we simply don't have enough data yet to pull out."

  "What you mean is that you haven't proved yet that the mojos are directly controlling the Qasamans," he retorted.

  Probably true, she admitted to herself. "What I mean is that the gleaner-team hasn't finished its agenda."

  "It may not get the chance," Pyre growled. "I don't think they're bluffing when they say this is our last chance to pull out before they turn up the fire. And if they don't mind how much it costs them we really aren't going to be able to hold them very long."

  And that short reprieve would cost them ten good Cobras-and probably give the

  Qasamans reasonably undamaged Cobra equipment to study. "The last thing I want is a full battle with you on the losing end," Telek told him. "But I don't see the hook yet, and past experience tells me there's one somewhere in this offer."

  "Maybe there isn't. Maybe Moff just wants to avoid bloodshed."

  Telek's lip twitched at the name. Moff. Escort for off-world visitors, sharp-eyed observer who'd pulled the whole thing down on them last time, and now one of the leaders of this thrown-together task force. A man of many talents... and a man of luck, too, to have survived Justin's Purma rampage. She wondered how Justin was feeling about Moff's presence out there, chased the thought irritably from her mind. Moff. What did she know about him that might give her a clue as to what he was up to with this? Did he want to chase the invaders away from the village into an ambush where the Qasamans wouldn't be risking civilian lives? Was there something in the village they didn't want found? Could it really be as simple as an attempt to drag the two cultures back from an otherwise almost inevitable war?

  But the gleaner-team needed more time.


  "Still here, Almo," she sighed. "All right, let's try an experiment. Tell them we'll pull out as soon as we've shown a representative that we haven't hurt or killed anyone in the village."

  "Will that give outrider-three enough time to bring their bololin herd by the village?"

  Telek checked her projections. "It might, if we take things slow enough. But we probably wouldn't have time after the hunt-stress test to remove the neck sensors the gleaner-team's got on the subjects."

  "The Council was pretty firm on the point of not leaving any electronics behind," Pyre reminded her.

  "I know, I know. Well, if we have to scrap that test, we scrap it, that's all.

  Look, just see if they'll buy the idea of a tour. I'll talk to Michael and

  McKinley while you do that, see if they have any ideas."

  "All right." Pyre hesitated. "If it'll really help... we are prepared to die out here."

  Telek blinked away sudden moisture. "I appreciate that," she managed. "But you also qualify as electronics I'd rather not leave behind. Talk to the Qasamans and call me back."

  "Yes, I do have an idea," Winward told Telek with grim satisfaction. "I've been thinking about it ever since the psych people first started complaining that we needed to do long-term studies."


  "And if you can't do the studies themselves, the next best thing is to get the results," he said. "And I think I know just where to find them."

  "We want it to be someone in authority, whose word the Qasaman leadership trusts," Pyre warned the messenger, watching his words carefully. "We want to prove our people have acted humanely."

  "You invade our world and terrorize an entire village and then expect to earn a reputation as gentlemen?" the Qasaman spat, "You're in no position to make demands of us; but as it happens Moff is willing to accompany your escort to the village. As a gesture of good faith only, of course."

  "Of course," Pyre nodded. Winward had called it correctly... and whatever Moff's own reasons for accepting the offer, he would soon be in their hands.

  And at that point it would be up to McKinley and Winward. Pyre hoped they could pull it off.

  "Two... one... mark." Dan Rostin flipped the aircar's huge electromagnet off as, in perfect synch, Parker swung the little craft into the air. Just in time: the flankers of the bololin herd thundering by grazed the aircar's underside with their dorsal quills. Parker grabbed some more altitude and blew a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose. "Outrider-three to Telek," he called toward the long-range mike. "Last course change complete. Can you confirm the direction is right?"

  "Telek here," the governor's voice came back promptly. "Just a second-we're getting a reading from the Dewdrop." There was a short pause. "Yes; confirmed.

  Have they picked up speed for some reason?"

  "They sure have," Parker told her. "I think all these direction changes and field strength fluctuations are starting to get to them. If they keep it up they'll pass the village in about fifty minutes."

  "Dewdrop gives us essentially the same number. All right, I'll let gleaner-team know. I hope it doesn't ruin their schedule."

  "So do I," Parker snorted. "There's no way we're going to slow them down, that's for sure."

  Telek sighed. "Yeah. Well... get back here, preferably without drawing attention to yourselves. Don't worry about making good speed; it doesn't look like we'll be moving from here for quite some time."

  Moff drove his car through the open village gate and then said his first words since leaving the Cobras' blockade: "Where now?"

  "The mayoral building," Justin told him. "It's ahead down the street and to the left."

  The other nodded, and Justin sent a sidelong look at the Qasaman's face. Moff hadn't seemed surprised to have Justin assigned as his escort; but then, little ever seemed to surprise him. Even now, entering an enemy-held village, his face was impassive, only his darting eyes giving any indication of concern or worry.

  "Where are all the villagers?"

  Justin glanced around. Except for a Cobra at each end of the block they were approaching, the streets were indeed deserted. He put the question via communicator to Winward. "They're all outside in the north and central parts of town," he relayed the answer.

  "I'd like to see them before I speak to your leaders."

  Justin shrugged, striving for unconcern. They were on a tight schedule, but he couldn't tell Moff that. "Okay with me," he said. "Just don't take too long. I want the talks to get underway before anyone starts shooting out there again."

  "Our people won't start more fighting if yours don't."

  Justin shrugged again and settled back to endure the detour. He was supposed to try and get an inkling of what Moff was up to, but aside from spotting a likely recording device built into the Qasaman's mojo perch he hadn't seen any sort of equipment that could give him any hints. The thought of the bacteriological attack on Cerenkov and Rynstadt on the last trip made his skin creep, despite the assurances by Telek and Winward that Moff was unlikely to risk his own life with such stuff when safer delivery methods existed. The Aventinians' logic, he kept remembering, was required by no law of nature to be the same as the


  Moff drove them around a couple of corners-and the
re, indeed, were the villagers.

  It looked like a giant in-town picnic, to Justin's eyes, with most of the adults sitting around in small groups while children played games around and among them. At the edges of the square Cobras stood on guard.

  "The remainder are through the archway there?" Moff asked, pointing.

  "I think so, yes."

  Without asking permission the Qasaman turned a corner and headed that way. The rest of the villagers were in a smaller open area a couple of blocks further north, and Moff stopped as they came within sight of the crowd. For a moment he looked them over, as if searching for mistreatment, and Justin noticed his shoulders turning slowly as he gave the recorder in his epaulet a sweep of the area. Allowing the troops back at the blockade to see the villagers were all right, if the recorder was transmitting a live picture-

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