Cobra strike, p.33
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       Cobra Strike, p.33

           Timothy Zahn
 

  "But that takes judgment, and that implies intelligence," Fairleigh persisted.

  "Not necessarily," Telek shook her head. "Straight extrapolative logic could simply be part of the mojo's instinct package. I've seen instincts in other animals that appear to take as much or more intelligence than that would require. You'll notice that the Chata spookie seems to manage the same trick with only a slightly larger cranial capacity."

  "It could be even easier, at least for the mojo," McKinley added. "Presumably the human conies up with his own list of possible responses, including-on some level-how each response would affect the mojo. Choosing among those takes no more intelligence than any animal needs to survive in the wild."

  "Could you be reading the data wrong, somehow, then?" Stiggur asked. "We need to be absolutely sure of what's going on."

  "I don't think we are, sir," McKinley shook his head. "We didn't get as many details out of Moff as Winward was hoping we would, but I think what he did say pretty well confirms this interpretation."

  "Not to mention the krisjaw incident," Roi murmured. "There's no rational explanation for their behavior if the mojos weren't in at least partial control."

  The room fell silent. Stiggur glanced around the table, then nodded at McKinley.

  "Thank you. Doctor, for your time. We'll get in touch if we have any more questions. You'll be able to give this presentation to the full Council tomorrow?"

  McKinley nodded. "Two o'clock, right?"

  "Right. We'll see you then."

  McKinley went out, and Stiggur turned back to the table. "Any discussion before we vote on our recommendation?"

  "How could something like this have happened?" Vartanson asked, his tone almost petulant. "Symbionts don't just swap partners whenever they feel like it."

  "Why not?" Roi shrugged. "I'm sure Lizabet could come up with dozens of other examples."

  "Nothing like that many, but there are some," Telek nodded. "In this case, I think, you just have to look at the krisjaw's characteristics to see why humans look so attractive as partners. First off, the mojos need good hunters to kill bololins for them; but the viciousness that makes krisjaws good hunters also means a returning mojo probably has half a chance of being eaten itself until it reestablishes control. You saw the films of the attack-the mojos were barely off their krisjaws' backs before the animals went berserk."

  "And their range is longer with humans?" Hemner asked.

  "It seems to be, yes, but that may be only incidental," Telek said. "The real point is that humans with guns are simultaneously safer hunters and better hunters. That also means the humans seldom if ever lose the fight and get killed, by the way, which saves the mojo the trouble of finding and getting used to someone new."

  "The training period being especially dangerous if it's breaking in a new krisjaw instead," Vartanson said, nodding heavily. "Yeah, I see now. What you're saying is that the Qasamans have made the planet a little slice of mojo-heaven."

  Telek snorted softly. "Hardly. It may have been so once, but the mojos are rapidly heading down a deadend street." She keyed her display, and an aerial map of the Fertile Crescent region appeared. "Down here," she said, tapping white spots onto the image with a pointer. "Here, here, and here. The Qasamans are adding on to their chain of cities."

  "So?" Vartanson frowned "Don't you see? Cities are lousy places for a predator bird to live. They've got to fly long distances to do their own hunting or accept the equivalent of pet food from their masters. But the human population is increasing, and their cute little underground communication system requires them to stay in the same reasonably limited area of the planet. And that means cities."

  "But I thought the cities were laid out expressly for the mojos' benefit," Roi growled. "That was your whole argument for the second study trip, remember?"

  "For their reproductive benefit, yes," Telek nodded. "But not for their feeding benefit. I don't think we ever actually got to see a mojo hunting, but their usual prey is probably small birds or large insects; and no matter what the bololins and tarbines do, small birds are not going to venture into the cities in great numbers. The city design is essentially a compromise, and if I were a mojo I think I'd be feeling definitely cheated by it."

  "Then why don't they switch back?" Vartanson demanded. "They did so once-why not do it again?"

  "Switch back to what? Practically since they landed the Qasamans have been shooting every krisjaw that poked its head out of the grass. They must have the entire Fertile Crescent nearly cleared out by now, and they still pull people off work to go hunt the things every month or so. It's crazy."

  "Maybe not," Jonny put in. "As you said, the Qasaman leadership knows what's going on. What better way to insure their bodyguards' continued loyalty than to make sure there's nowhere else for them to go?"

  Telek shrugged. "Could be. They're certainly devious enough to come up with something like that."

  "Which would imply, in turn," Jonny continued, "that they recognize the benefits of having mojos around to keep down interpersonal friction. If they consider that factor to be that important, perhaps instead of considering war we should instead be concentrating on getting rid of the mojos."

  "How?" Telek snorted. "Kill them all off?"

  "Why not? Whole species have been exterminated before, back in the Dominion.

  Species-specific pesticides can be made for any animal, can't they?"

  "Theoretically, once enough is known about the animal's hormone sequence during breeding. We haven't got anything like that much data on mojos."

  "We've got the time, though," Jonny persisted. "The tech assessment puts them at least fifteen years away from a stardrive."

  "Won't help," Roi murmured. "The cities, Jonny. Any animal that would prefer a good breeding setup to a good feeding setup is going to be incredibly hard to kill off."

  "Especially when the Qasamans will be on their side," Telek said. "Remember, whatever input the mojos had on the design of the cities, it was the humans who put them up. Could be that they actually didn't need much prompting after all-this arrangement encourages a steady supply of mojos for their growing population while at the same time keeps them on a short enough food leash that they won't just give up and go look for a krisjaw to team up with."

  "And unlike the aviary approach, this looks more natural to the mojos," Roi mused. "Suckers them into thinking things are going their way while the Qasamans kill off every krisjaw for a thousand kilometers around."

  Stiggur tapped his fingers gently on the tabletop. "The ultimate, crowning irony: the puppets conspire to keep the puppeteers with them."

  "The crowning irony?" Hemner shook his head. "No. The crowning irony is Moff's last warning... and the fact that, given their cultural paranoia, they might very well have cowered there on their one little world forever, afraid to venture into space where they might run into something they didn't like. If the

  Trofts hadn't poked at them, and persuaded us to do likewise, they might never have become even the smallest threat to either of us. Consider that when you're tempted to congratulate yourselves on how well we've handled this."

  A long, painful silence settled on the table. Jonny shifted quietly in his chair, the dull ache in his joints echoed by the bitterness in his mind. Hemner was right; had been right, in fact, all the way from the beginning. And now the threat they'd worried and argued about was on its way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  And it was far too late to go back.

  Stiggur broke the silence first, and with the words Jonny knew he would use.

  "Does anyone have a recommendation to make?"

  Vartanson looked around the table, compressed his lips, and nodded heavily. "I do, Brom." He took a deep breath. "I recommend we accept the Baliu demesne's offer of five new worlds in exchange for eliminating the Qasaman threat."

  Stiggur nodded. "Anyone else?"

  Jonny licked his lips... but in his mind's eye he saw the Qasamans and their mojos moving on Ch
ata, Kubha, and Tacta... and from there to the Cobra Worlds themselves. We will come and find you, Moff had said, and Jonny knew he'd meant it... and the objection he'd been about to raise died in his throat.

  The others may have seen similar visions. Certainly, none of them spoke.

  Three minutes later, Vartanson's recommendation became official.

  It had been a long time since Justin had been in his Capitalia apartment.

  Standing at the living room window, gazing out at the city lights, he tried to count how many times he'd been back here since beginning his Cobra training... four months ago? Five?

  The train of thought petered out from lack of interest. Sighing, he stepped back to his desk and sat down. The clean paper and magdisks he'd put there an hour ago were still untouched, and down deep he knew they were going to remain that way for a while longer. Tonight he could see nothing but the faces of the three men who'd been buried this morning, the Cobras who'd died getting the Dewdrop off Qasama. He hadn't even known there'd been casualties in the confusion of that time; hadn't known until they all arrived at the Menssana and he saw the bodies being carried by their friends.

  Tonight was not the night to begin preparations for war.

  The doorbell twittered. Governor Telek, most likely, come to check on his progress. "Come in," he called.

  The door unlocked and opened. "Hello, Justin," Jonny said.

  Justin felt his stomach tighten. "Hi, Dad. What're you doing out this late?"

  "In the cold rain?" Jonny added with a half smile, shaking the last few drops off his coat before stepping into the apartment and letting the door close behind him. "I wanted you to come by the house tonight and your phone was off.

  This seemed the logical alternative."

  Justin dropped his eyes to his desk. "I'm sorry, but I'm supposed to be working on... something."

  "A battle plan?" Jonny asked gently.

  Justin grimaced. "Governor Telek told you?"

  "Not in so many words, but it wasn't hard to figure out. You've already shown yourself to have a surprisingly good tactical ability, and she was bound to want something to show the full Council tomorrow."

  "Tactical ability," Justin said bitterly. "Oh, sure. A great plan, wasn't it?-except for the minor fact that Decker and Michael had to improvise an ending just to get us out. And even at that we lost three men."

  Jonny was silent for a moment. "Most military plans wind up being changed somewhere along the line," he said at last. "I wish I could offer some words of comfort about the casualties, too, but only the inadequate line about them sacrificing themselves to save everyone else comes to mind. That one never satisfied me, either."

  "So they sacrifice themselves for the mission, and the next thousand sacrifice themselves for the Worlds. Is that how it goes?" Justin shook his head. "Where do you draw the line?"

  "Anywhere you can," Jonny said. "And the sooner the better. Which is why I want you to come back to the house tonight."

  "A family round table?"

  "You got it. We have until the Council meeting to come up with an alternative to war."

  "Like a blockade or something?" Justin sighed. "It's no good, Dad-I've tried already to come up with a way to do that. But a planet's just too big to surround." He stared down at his hands. His Cobra-strong, Cobra-deadly hands.

  "We just don't have any other choice."

  "We don't, huh?" Jonny said, and Justin looked up at the unexpected fire in his father's voice. "People have been saying that ever since the Trofts first suggested this mess. As a matter of fact, people have been telling me that for most of my life."

  Carefully, Jonny got to his feet and walked to the window. "They told me the

  Trofts had to be thrown bodily off Adirondack and Silvern. Maybe they were right that time, I don't know. Then they said we Cobras had to stay in the Army because we wouldn't fit into Dominion society. Instead, we came to Aventine and built a society that could live with us. Then they said we had to fight the

  Trofts again or Aventine would be destroyed... and with a little work we proved them wrong that time, too. Don't ever accept that something bad has to be done,

  Justin; not until you've explored all the possibilities yourself." He coughed, twice, and seemed to slump as he turned back to face his son. "That's what I want you to help me do tonight."

  Justin exhaled quietly. "What about Mom?"

  "What about her? She doesn't want war, either."

  "You know what I mean." Justin tried to get the words out, but his tongue seemed unwilling to move.

  "You mean volunteering for the second mission without consulting with the family?" Jonny walked back to his chair and sank into it. "She was hurt by that, yes. We all were, though I think I understand why you did it. But watching her children go their own way has been one of the silent aches of being a mother since the beginning of time." He sighed. "If it helps any, I can tell you her fears and worries about you aren't entirely based on what you yourself have done. She's been... well, haunted, I guess, by the memories and bitterness of the path I took after I'd done my service as a Cobra."

  Justin frowned. "You mean politics? I know Mom doesn't care that much for politics, but-"

  "You understate the case badly." Jonny shook his head. "She hates politics.

  Hates the time it's taken from us these past couple of decades. Hates what she sees as a wastefully high work-to-result ratio."

  "But you were needed. She's told me herself you helped integrate the Cobras into the political system."

  "Maybe I was needed once, but not any more. And with you seemingly determined sometimes to be a replay of me-well, it's brought things to a head."

  "Well, she doesn't have to worry about me in that area," Justin said emphatically. "Corwin can have Aventinian politics, as far as I'm concerned. I'd rather hunt spine leopards any day."

  Jonny smiled slightly. "Good. Why don't you come with me and tell her that yourself?"

  "And while I'm there, come up with a way to stop a war?"

  "As long as you're there anyway, why not?"

  Justin shook his head in mock exasperation and got to his feet. "Dad, you have definitely been in politics too long."

  "So I've been told. Let's go; it's likely to be a long night."

  The transfer module beeped its indication that the magdisk copying was complete.

  Stifling a yawn, Telek turned back to the phone and Jonny's waiting image.

  "Okay, I've got it," she told him. "Now you want to tell me why you had to wake me at-uh-"

  "Four-forty," Jonny supplied.

  "-at four-forty in the morning to receive a magdisk you could have sent to my office four hours from now?"

  "Certainly. I wanted you to have those four extra hours to see if we've come up with an alternative to war."

  Telek's eyes focused hard on his. "You've got a viable counterproposal?"

  "That's what you're going to tell me. And the Council, if the answer is yes."

  She licked her lips. "Jonny..."

  "If it works, we will get the new worlds," he added quietly. "Corwin and I have already worked out how to sell the whole thing to the Baliu demesne as a reasonable fulfillment of their contract."

  "I see. Thank you, Jonny. I'll get on it right away."

  The Moreau Proposal, as the plan came to be called, eventually was given an eighty percent chance of success by the experts who studied it. Lower by several points than a properly managed war... but with vast savings in human and economic costs. After two weeks of public and private debate, it was accepted.

  And two months later, the Menssana and Dewdrop, accompanied by two Troft troop carriers, once again headed for Qasama.

  Chapter 31

  Night on Qasama.

  Again they dropped down silently, with only gravity lifts visible; but this time there were three ships instead of just one. The Troft transports set down in two widely separated wilderness areas along the inner curve of the Fertile Crescent, while the Menssa
na landed near the top of the Crescent's arc. For York, aboard the latter ship, it was a significant location: barely ten kilometers from the road connecting Sollas and Huriseem. A suitable place indeed for him to repay the Qasamans for his lost arm.

  There was a crackle of split-frequency static from the bridge speaker. "Dewdrop to Menssana; hurry it up. We've got some very nasty-looking supersonic aircraft coming your way. ETA no more than fifteen minutes."

  "Acknowledged," Captain Shepherd said calmly. "The Trofts drawing similar attention?"

  "Not specifically, but we've got other aircraft scrambling in what looks like a search pattern toward their general location. They've been alerted."

 
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