Cobra strike, p.34
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       Cobra Strike, p.34

           Timothy Zahn
 

  "Better anti-radar equipment," York grunted.

  "There they go," someone said from the bridge's left viewport.

  York stepped to his side. The Menssana's outer floods had been dimmed to a soft glow, but there was enough light for him to see the silent exodus from the ship's cargo holds.

  The mass exodus of spine leopards.

  Most of the animals paused a moment as they stepped out onto the unfamiliar soil, looking around or visibly fighting for balance as the effects of their long sleep dissipated. But none lingered long by the ship. They loped off into the darkness of the forest, the mass already beginning to spread out as they vanished from view, and York could almost sense the eagerness with which they set out to study their new home. However they knew such things, they must surely know this was a world literally full of unclaimed territory. How large would their first litters here be, he wondered. Fifteen cubs? Twenty? No matter. An ecological niche existed, and the spine leopards would do what was necessary to fill the gap.

  And with luck, the mojos would soon find they again had a choice of partners.

  York hoped to hell Telek was right about the birds' distaste for cities.

  "All out," a voice came from the intercom. "Hatches sealed, Captain."

  "Prepare to lift," Shepherd said. "Let's head home."

  A moment later the ship was floating toward the stars. Peering out into the darkness, York sought one final glimpse of the almost literal seeds of discord they'd just sown on an unsuspecting world. Be fruitful and multiply, he thought the ancient command toward the spine leopards below, and replenish the land. And subdue it.

  Chapter 32

  "I understand," Joshua remarked, "that the Baliu Trofts weren't exactly overwhelmed by our solution to the Qasaman problem."

  Corwin shrugged, his eyes lingering on the starfield for another second before turning to face his brothers. The Menssana was due to load at any minute and he didn't want to miss seeing that. "They weren't at all sure it was going to work, if that's what you mean," he told Joshua. "We had to pull out disks and disks of data that showed how really uncooperative humans normally were and how any progress toward space would be dramatically slowed or even halted altogether once the mojos deserted them."

  "If they do," Justin murmured, his own attention still directed out the window.

  "There is that," Corwin admitted. "Actually, the Trofts were more convinced that would happen than we were-it was the results of the change they weren't sure of.

  I get the feeling their biopredictor methods are a bit ahead of ours."

  "Like everything else," Joshua agreed wryly. "Hey-here come Almo and Aunt Gwen."

  "There you are," Gwen said as they came up through the milling crowd to the others. "I thought you'd be watching from around the other corridor."

  "You get a better view of the passengers here," Corwin explained. "I was starting to think you were going to miss the event entirely."

  Pyre shook his head. "We just came from saying goodbye. Everyone else had been shooed out already, but they made an exception for us. Amazing what being a hero will do for you."

  The others chuckled-all except Justin, Corwin noted, who merely smiled slightly.

  Still, that was progress of a sort. The scars of his failings-real or perceived-were still visible, but at least they weren't bleeding any more. For his brother's sake alone Corwin could hope the Moreau Proposal succeeded.

  "Jonny tells me you persuaded the Trofts to lend some troop carriers for the

  Caelian evacuation," Pyre continued. "How'd you sell them that one?"

  Corwin shrugged. "Wasn't really hard. If the Qasamans do manage to get into space the Baliuies would just as soon they were as immediate a threat to us as to them. It's to their advantage to let us have the new worlds and help us a bit in settling them. Especially considering they've just saved themselves the cost of financing a war."

  "There they go," Justin said suddenly.

  Everyone turned to look. The line of passengers for the trip to Kubha-or

  Esquiline, as it'd now been officially renamed-were crossing the short distance from the old entrypoint building to the waiting ship. Near the front of the column Corwin spotted his parents, Chrys supporting Jonny with an arm around his waist but both walking with a firm tread. Bound for a new world....

  Behind him, Gwen sighed. "This really is crazy, you know," she said to no one in particular. "Emigrating in his condition-and to an untested world, yet."

  "Not entirely untested," Pyre reminded her. "Besides, the hot climate there will be better for him than anything the civilized areas of Aventine have to offer."

  "And there're no politics there, either," Justin murmured.

  Corwin looked at the other, wondering how much he knew of that old parental sore spot. But Justin's face was giving nothing away. Doesn't really matter, Corwin thought with a mental shrug. What mattered was that his parents would have their last two or three years together away from the worst of Aventine's memories.

  Away from Aventine-and in precisely the same sort of culturally uncluttered world in which they'd first fallen in love. It was, Corwin thought, perhaps their best shot at happiness. He hoped it worked.

  Together, the five of them watched Chrys and Jonny board the Menssana. Then

  Joshua let out a quiet breath and craned his neck to look down the hall. "I think we'll get a better view of the launch path from the gallery over there," he said, pointing. "Anyone want to come?"

  "Sure," Gwen said. "Come on, Almo."

  "I've seen enough lifting ships to last me both this life and the next," Pyre grumbled. But he nevertheless allowed her to steer him away.

  Justin remained gazing out the window as the three left, and for a few heartbeats Corwin wondered if the other hadn't realized that he, too, had stayed behind. Then Justin stirred and glanced down the hallway. "You think they'll ever get together?" he asked.

  "Who-Almo and Aunt Gwen?" Corwin shrugged. "Don't know. I guess it depends on whether Almo ever allows himself to give up the responsibilities of being a

  Cobra long enough to accept someone else into his life. You know better than I do how seriously he takes his job."

  "Yeah." Justin was silent a long moment. "You realize if it doesn't work... well, Dad will be dead before the Qasamans can find the new worlds, but Mom might not be."

  Corwin understood. "I don't know, Justin. But if the mojos really do leave them there'll be nothing in particular to unite them into a common front, warlike or otherwise. Especially since they'll probably flounder around for a while just getting used to the new competition. And if they're broken up into smaller states or factions they're as likely to open trade as to take shots at us."

  Justin shook his head. "You're forgetting what they're like. I've seen them,

  Corwin, and I know they'll hold the grudge they have against us until their sun burns out. That kind of hate and fear will keep them working together against us, no matter what other competition arises."

  "Perhaps," Corwin nodded. "But only if their paranoia level stays as high as it is now."

  "Why would it change-?" Justin broke off as a look of disbelief crossed his face. "You mean... the mojos might have been behind that?"

  "Why not? We know they can amplify human emotions when they want to."

  "But what does it gain them to have their hunters jumping at shadows?"

  "Well..." Corwin's lips twitched in a secret smile. "If you were convinced the universe was out to get you, where would you rather live? A city on a plain, or a village in the middle of a forest?"

  Justin opened his mouth, blinked... and abruptly laughed. "I don't believe it."

  "Well, maybe I'm wrong," Corwin shrugged. "But maybe in a couple of generations we'll find the Qasamans have become a perfectly reasonable society, ripe for trade and diplomacy."

  "We can hope so, anyway." Justin sobered and turned again to the window. "It's so hard when the old folks leave the nest."

  Corwin l
aid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "We'll all miss them," he said quietly. "But... well, they're old enough to make these decisions for themselves. Come on, let's get over to the others. Traumatic times like this are what families were made for."

  Together, they headed down the hallway.

  The End

 


 

  Timothy Zahn, Cobra Strike

 


 

 
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