Cobra strike, p.32
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       Cobra Strike, p.32

           Timothy Zahn

  Justin felt his body stiffen. No, not the villagers. He watched the other's eyes, noted where they paused. Moff was looking at the guards.

  He was counting the Cobras.

  Of course. It was the same trick, turned inside-out, that he'd used to view the

  Dewdrop's interior when Joshua and York were allowed back inside. Of the thirty

  Cobras in the village, Justin guessed about twenty were guarding the two groups of civilians-an absurdly small number for three thousand people, even given

  Cobra abilities. Moff had surely noticed that, and would just as surely conclude that the total number of Cobras wasn't much higher than the number visible.

  Or, in other words, that the gleaner-team was a sitting target. Which implied... what?

  Justin didn't know; but the others needed this information right away. Pressing his mike surreptitiously against his lips, he began to whisper.

  York shook his head, eyes hard on the display before him. "No helicopter movement I can see," he told Telek. "You sure Moff's gadget isn't just recording?"

  "We've found the transmission band it's using," she said tightly. "What about other aircraft? You said some fixed-wing craft had appeared on the Sollas airfield."

  "They're still there. Almo still says no trouble at outrider-one's blockade?"

  "Not unless they're sneaking troops in a wide circle around the area to head south on foot." Telek's image shook its head. "You think they're just waiting until we're clear of the village?"

  York opened his mouth... and paused as a new thought struck him. "Tell me, does

  Moff seem to know his way around the village?"

  "I'm sure they've got maps of the place in Sollas, yes," she said dryly.

  "Right. Now tell me where there's enough room in the village for a landing shuttle."

  "Why-" Telek broke off. "The area by the gate, and the two areas where we've got the villagers."

  "And Moff's seen all three," York nodded grimly. "So he's now just confirmed what the helicopters last night probably reported: the gleaner-team has no ship standing close enough for a quick escape."

  Telek let out a long, shuddering breath. "Damn. Damn, and damn again. No wonder he's not in any hurry to attack. He wants another crack at a starship, and he wants his task force in reasonable combat shape when it shows up. Hence the cease-fire. Captain, what's our best possible time to the village?"

  "From here, no less than thirty minutes," Shepherd's voice came on. "The ship's not designed for extended high-speed atmospheric flight."

  "Half an hour," York snorted. "We could drop down and reach them faster than that."

  "Except that there's no way you could stuff the fifty people from gleaner and outrider-one aboard and still lift," Telek growled. "Well, gentlemen, we'd better figure something out, and fast. Our best chance at a diversion's due to hit the village in just under forty minutes now. Gleaner-team has to get out then."

  Or, York added silently, they might not get out at all. Gnawing at the inside of his cheek, he stared at the display and tried to think.

  The Cobra at the mayoral building's entrance stepped aside as Moff and Justin came up. "They're waiting in the first office on your left," he said, pulling open the door for them. Out of Moff's sight as the Qasaman passed, his hand made a quick brushing motion: the code sign for stay back. Justin nodded and drifted an extra half step behind Moff as they went to the office the guard had indicated. The door was open, and as they walked in Justin saw there were two men waiting for them: Winward and gleaner-team's head psychologist, Dr.

  McKinley. Both were standing in front of the room's low desk, and both looked vaguely tense.

  "Good day, Moff," Winward nodded. "We've never actually met, but I've heard a great deal about you."

  "And I you," Moff replied coolly. "You're the demon warrior who couldn't be killed. Or so it's said."

  "Not by treachery, at any rate," Winward said, his tone chilling to match

  Moff's. "You'll note we treated your flag of truce more honorably."

  "You speak of honor-"

  "I speak of many things," Winward cut him off. "But before I do, I'd like to ask you to put your mojo in the next room."

  Moff's back stiffened visibly. "So that I'll be totally defenseless before you?"

  "Don't be ridiculous. If I wanted to harm you, both you and your damned bird would be stretched out on the floor there. You know that as well as I do. I'll ask you only once more."

  "My mojo stays with me."

  Winward sighed. "All right, have it your way." Reaching to the desk behind him, he scooped up a short-barreled, stockless rifle lying there and brought it to bear. With a screech the mojo leaped-

  And shrieked again as the flash net caught it square across the beak.

  "Here, Justin, put these in the next office," Winward said tiredly, handing the younger Cobra the immobilized bird and the net gun. "They don't show much capacity for learning, do they?" he remarked to Moff.

  Moff's reply was lost to Justin as he deposited his charges next door; but by the time he returned Winward was speaking again. "Well, no matter. We have a pretty good idea of what the mojos do for you, and it's clear enough that if it comes to a full-fledged war we'll win easily."

  "Because you cannot die?" Moff snorted. "Some may believe that; I don't. No demon protects you-or splits one mind into two men-" he added, throwing a baleful glare at Justin. "Your magic is simply science we have forgotten, and it will work as well for us when we've learned how it's done."

  "Possibly," Winward shrugged. "But it's rather academic, because to learn how our magic works you'll need to kill some of us... and I doubt very much that your mojos will let you fight us face to face anymore."

  Moff's mouth opened, but whatever he'd been planning to say apparently died on his lips. "What do you mean, won't let us fight?" he asked cautiously.

  McKinley shook his head. "It's no use pretending, Moff. We've been taking data for less than two days and we already know how the mojos dangle you around like puppets. You've had three hundred years to study them-surely you know at least as much as we do."

  "Puppets, you say." Moff's lip curled. "You understand nothing."

  "Oh?" Winward said. "Then enlighten us."

  Moff glared at him but remained silent. "The details don't matter," McKinley shrugged. "What matters is that the mojos have a vested interest in keeping their hunters-that's you-alive, and that they possess enough telepathic ability to back up their wishes. If they think you don't have a chance against us, they won't let you fight." He waved a hand. "The reactions toward us here in the village are all the proof we need."

  "Oh, are they?" Moff spat. He seemed to be rapidly losing control, Justin noted uneasily. Were McKinley's assertions really so hard for him to take? Or was this perhaps simply the first waking moment Moff had had in years without a mojo by his side? A mojo keeping his human aggression under control.... "Then what do you say about the fighters waiting to sweep down on you twenty kilometers north of here? Are they unable to fight?" He jabbed a finger at McKinley. "The villagers have a fear of you based on superstition-our fighters aren't so handicapped. And once we've proved you can be beaten-as we will within hours-the fear the mojos sense and are paralyzing them with will be gone. The next time you return, you'll find a world united to oppose you."

  "You don't think the mojos will try and save your lives?" McKinley asked.

  Moff smiled thinly. "They will protect us, certainly-by tearing the flesh from your bones in battle. This conversation is at an end."

  Winward and McKinley exchanged glances, and the latter nodded fractionally. "All right, if that's the way you want it," Winward said. "We'll be out of your way within those few hours you mentioned; and if we're lucky, we won't have to come back."

  "It doesn't matter if you do or not," Moff said quietly... and to Justin his voice had the feel of an open grave about it. "We will rediscover the secret of star travel someday. And we will then come and find you."<
br />
  Winward's lips compressed and his eyes sought Justin's. "Return his mojo and escort him outside. He can stay with the rest of the villagers until we're ready to leave."

  Justin nodded and indicated the door. Wordlessly, Moff strode past him and out into the hall, where he waited until Justin had brought him his mojo, still entangled in its net. "Just unwrap it carefully and the bird won't be hurt," he told the Qasaman, handing the creature into the other's arms.

  Moff nodded, once, and stalked to the door. Justin watched him walk down the street toward the civilian holding area, then returned to the office. "He's on his way to the square," he told Winward.

  The older Cobra nodded, his attention clearly elsewhere. "...All right. If you're ready, so are we," he said toward his pendant. "You'll get outrider-one moving?...Good. Justin's here; I'll just go ahead and take charge of him. ETAs?

  ...Fifteen and twenty; got it. Good luck."

  "Well?" McKinley asked.

  "The Dewdrop's on its way," Winward said tightly. "It'll drop into the central square in about fifteen minutes."

  "The Dewdrop?" Justin frowned. "Why's it coming down?"

  "Because the Menssana would take longer to get here and be subject to attack the whole way." Winward turned to McKinley. "All the sensor collars off?"

  "And packed for loading, along with the rest of the gear." The other picked up a small box that had been resting on the low table. "This is the last of it right here."

  "Okay. Get your people to the square." Winward tapped his pendant as McKinley headed for the door. "Dorjay? It's a go.... Right; fifteen minutes. Get the people out and set up a perimeter to protect it. Watch out for Moff particularly-he's not nearly as impressed as the rest of them, and there are guns lying around he might pick up.... Good. Diversion's due in just under twenty-we'll need to be ready to go then.... Okay. Out."

  Dropping his hand, he looked at Justin. "Let's get moving-you and I are going to be part of the helicopter defense, and we need to be at the wall when they figure out what's going on."

  "And then what?" Justin asked quietly. "The Dewdrop can't possibly carry all of us."

  Winward gave him a tight smile. "That's sometimes what rearguards are for, you know: to stay behind. Come on, let's hit the wall and find some good positions to shoot from."

  "Okay, start easing back," Pyre murmured into his mike. "No noise, and be sure you're out of sight of the Qasamans before hitting the road."

  There were answering murmurs in his ear, and Pyre shifted his attention to the knot of troops facing him twenty meters away. He'd agreed to stay within sight as a sort of exchange hostage while Moff was in the village... which meant that when the timer ran down on this one he would have to be gone before the Qasamans decided to start shooting. Activating his auditory enhancers, he tried to listen for the excited voices that would mean the Dewdrop had been spotted.

  The shouts, centered on the Qasamans' lead car, erupted barely two minutes later; and Pyre was racing through the trees before anyone thought to take a shot at him. With the need for stealth gone, he made straight for the road, where better footing would let him use his leg servos to best advantage. From behind came an explosion as the Qasamans destroyed the tree that blocked their path. Slowing as he passed the last of their prepared trees, Pyre sent it crashing down behind him, a move that should put the ground troops out of the game for good. Pushing his pace to the limit, he watched the sky for both the descending Dewdrop and the Qasamans' inevitable aerial response.

  From his vantage point the events occurred simultaneously. Far ahead the glittering shape of the small starship dropped rapidly against the blue sky as, overhead, three small helicopters screamed southward to the attack. A hard lump rose into Pyre's throat as He watched them disappear behind the tree-tops. They were, as York had predicted, modified civilian craft... but the Cobras' brief tangle with them had showed them well worth taking seriously.

  He kept running. Far ahead the roar of the helicopters' engines changed pitch as they reached the village. Small explosions came faintly over the wind in his ears and, once, the sort of blast he remembered from the helicopter they'd shot down over the barricade. He wondered who had pulled it off this time, and whether the Cobra had lived through it. Blinking the tears from his eyes, he squinted against the wind and kept going.

  And suddenly it was all over. A great roiling pillar of black smoke rose above the trees; and seconds later the Dewdrop shot out of it like a missile from its launcher. The two remaining helicopters climbed after it, but their weapons weren't designed to fire straight up and the Dewdrop's gravity lifts were more than adequate to maintain the starship's lead. The three craft became points of reflected light in the sky... and then were just two spots.

  The Dewdrop, gleaner-team's scientists aboard, had escaped. Leaving the Cobras behind.

  Ahead, someone stepped from the trees along the road and gave Pyre a quick wave before retreating to cover again. Pyre slowed and joined him. "Any trouble?" the other Cobra asked.

  Pyre shook his head. "They're at least ten minutes behind me. Any sign of our escort yet?"

  The other grinned. "Sure. Just listen."

  Pyre notched up his enhancers. In the distance he could hear a low rumble, accompanied by a well-remembered snuffling. "Right on schedule. Everyone ready?"

  "This end is, anyway. I presume gleaner-team's Cobras made it out while everyone was blinded by the smokescreen."

  "And were all busy assuming the Cobras were going inward instead of outward,"

  Pyre nodded. This would be a whole lot easier if the Qasamans thought everyone had escaped in the Dewdrop.

  The rumbling was getting closer....

  And then, across the road, they burst out of the woods: a bololin herd, running for all it was worth. A big herd, Pyre saw, the far end of its leading edge lost beyond a curve in the road and the dust of its own passage. Maybe a thousand animals in all... and among all those warm bodies, hidden from sight by all that dust, forty Cobras would hardly be noticeable. Even if someone thought to look.

  The leading edge had passed, the herd's flanks perhaps twenty meters away.

  Turning, Pyre and the other Cobra began to pace them, drifting closer to the herd as they ran until they were perhaps four meters away. Glances ahead and behind showed the rest of outrider-one joining the flow. At the herd's opposite flank, if all had gone well, the gleaner-team Cobras were doing likewise.

  And for the next few hours, they should all be reasonably safe. After that-

  After that, the Menssana lay three hundred kilometers almost dead ahead, presumably still unnoticed by the planetary authorities. If it could stay that way for the next six hours, the Cobras would be aboard and the ship in orbit long before any aircraft could be scrambled to intercept it.

  Theoretically, anyway. Pyre settled his legs into a rhythmic pace, letting his servos take as much of the load as possible. Personally, he would be happy if things even came close.

  And in this case, they did.

  Chapter 30

  They listened in silence as McKinley went through his presentation, and when he was finished Stiggur sighed. "No chance of an error, I don't suppose."

  McKinley shook his head. "Nothing significant, certainly. We had enough test subjects to get good statistics."

  Across the table from him, Jonny pursed his lips, the bittersweet taste of

  Pyrrhic victory in his mouth. He'd been vindicated, his "crazy" theory about the mojos more or less confirmed.

  But the price of that victory was going to be war.

  He could see that in the faces around the table. The other governors were scared-more than they'd ever been after the Dewdrop's first mission. And even though some of them might not know how they'd respond to that fear, he understood human nature enough to know which way most would eventually go. Fight and flight were the only basic options... and the Cobra Worlds had no place to run.

  Fairleigh cleared his throat. "I still don't understand how the mo
jos can be doing all this. I mean, you've established their brain capacity is too small for intelligence, haven't you?"

  "There's no particular need for intelligence in this," McKinley said. "It's the mojo's symbiont-either human or krisjaw-who actually assess the situation. The mojo simply picks up that evaluation and pushes for the response that is in the mojo's best interests."

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