Cobra strike, p.5
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       Cobra Strike, p.5

           Timothy Zahn

  And on the other hand, Justin thought grimly, is what it'll do to Mom. Your basic no-win situation. But Joshua was right... and if there was one thing they'd learned from both parents, it was that personal comfort and preference were never to stand in the way of service to the whole. "All right," he said at last. "If you're game, so am I. 'Gantuas, hell: charge!' and all that."

  "Okay." Joshua stood up. "Well, then, we'd better get to it. Almo's got some serious sweat waiting for you, I don't doubt, and I've got a couple of surgeons down the hall warming up an operating table for me.

  "Surgeons?" Justin frowned, getting-carefully-to his feet. "What do they want you for?"

  Joshua winked slyly. "You'll find out. For now, suffice it to say that it's something that'll let you be the best me possible when we get to Qasama."

  "The best what? Come on, Joshua-"

  "See you in a couple of months," Joshua grinned and slipped out the door.

  You and your stupid guessing games, Justin thought after him, and for a moment considered chasing him down and badgering whatever this was out of him. But Almo was waiting across the hall; and we're not 16 years old anymore, he reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders, he headed out to confront his new tutor.

  Telephone screens had never in their long history come anywhere near the fine-detail resolution even the simplest computer displays required. It was a failing deliberately built in, Jonny had once heard, not for financial reasons but psychosocial ones. Wrinkles, worry lines, minor emotional perturbations-all were edited out, to the point that if the picture on the screen was happy, sad, or angry, it could be safely assumed the person himself was deep into the corresponding state.

  It was a shock, therefore, to see how utterly tired Corwin appeared.

  "As of ten minutes ago we were back to deadlock, Dad," his eldest son told him, shaking his head. "Of course, the Tlossies are really bargaining for the Baliu demesne, and Speaker One has only limited flexibility to work with. Especially on the survey mission budget. Every time we try to add something he has to take something else away. Or so he claims."

  Jonny glanced over the screen. Chrys, seated at the dining room table, was pretending to be engrossed in the collection of electronics parts she'd spread out there, but he knew she was listening to the conversation. "Maybe I'd better come back down there, then," he told Corwin. "See if I can help."

  "Not worth it," the other shook his head. "Governor Telek's bargaining at least as hard as you could, and everyone's keeping out of each other's way for a change. Besides, the temp's dropped ten degrees since sundown."

  Jonny grimaced; but it was just one more environmental factor he'd had to learn to live with. Capitalia was in the middle of the first cold snap of autumn, and moving in and out of heated buildings was more than his arthritic joints could stand. The only alternatives to hiding indoors were heated suits or extra pain medication, neither of which especially appealed to him. "All right," he told his son. "But if you guys don't break for the evening soon, call me back and

  I'll relieve you. You look beat."

  "I'll be all right. The main reason I called was to check a couple of things on this parallel survey mission request you put in. How much of that are you willing for the Worlds to finance?"

  "Not a single quarter," Jonny told him flatly. "At the bottom line this is a trade deal, Corwin, and no one trades for merchandise he hasn't even seen, let alone inspected. Of course, since it's the Pua demesne that's actually offering the five planets, you can probably insist the Speaker charge them the survey costs. All that'll ultimately do is throw the issue back to Pua and Baliu to work out between themselves, but at least it should get it out of our hair."

  "Yeah." Corwin shook his head in bemusement, "Hard to believe this collection of business cutthroats actually got together long enough to fight a war."

  "They did. Believe me, they did. And there's nothing that says they couldn't do it again."

  "Point taken. Well... are you willing for us to use the Menssana for the survey mission if the Trofts-whichever Trofts-pay alt the other expenses?"

  Jonny bit at his lip. "I'd rather they provide the ship, too. But okay-if you have to fall back to that position, go ahead and do so. They pay for the fuel, though."

  "Okay. Actually, I'll probably wind up holding that option against something the

  Qasama mission needs. Talk to you later."

  They signed off, and for a moment Jonny gazed at the screen as he tried to visualize all the various lines the negotiations could move along. But it was too much like an oversized game of trisec chess, with just too many possibilities to hang onto simultaneously. Getting to his feet-an easy enough operation in the overheated room-he went over to the table and sat down next to

  Chrys. "How's it coming?" he asked, eyeing the mass of wires, microcomponents, and centipeds set into her circuit board.

  "Slow," she said, fiddling with the controls on her diagnostic display. "I'm beginning to see why everyone prefers buying finished Troft electronics to just getting the components and building things themselves. These centipeds in particular have a lot of odd and not entirely obvious response characteristics outside their quote normal unquote usage range."

  "You'll figure it all out," Jonny assured her. "You were once the best electronics tech in-"

  "In Ariel?" She snorted. "Thanks a spangle. There were only two of us there-I had to be best or runner-up."

  "Best, definitely," Jonny said firmly. A touch of the old Chrys, the sense of humor that had been so muted lately... perhaps she was finally getting a grip on the turmoil of the past few weeks.

  Or perhaps she was simply retreating into her own past. It had been years since she'd done anything serious with her electronics training.

  "You realize, of course," she cut quietly into his thoughts, "that if you let the Menssana go on this survey mission, there'll be no backup ship available if the Dewdrop gets in trouble on Qasama."

  Jonny shook his head. "We weren't going to use the Menssana for that anyway.

  There'll be one or more Troft warships hanging back from Qasama in case some extra muscle is needed."

  "I thought the Trofts didn't want to fight the Qasamans."

  "If the mission has any trouble, they'll damn well have to," Jonny said grimly.

  "But they shouldn't have any real qualms-a local commando-type strike is hardly the same as committing to a full-scale war."

  "Besides which, they'll want to protect their investment?"

  "Now you're thinking like a Troft." Reaching over, he put an arm around her shoulders. "Just remember, Chrys," he added more seriously, "that the Baliuies had to have gotten at least one diplomatic team into and out of Qasama safely to have anything like the data we know they have. The third-level translator program they'll be giving us shows that much. Joshua and Justin will be all right. Really."

  "I'd like to believe that," Chrys sighed. "But you know it's a mother's prerogative to worry."

  "I seem to remember that being a wife's prerogative thirty years ago."

  "Things change." Chrys toyed with a hex-shaped centiped. "Always do."

  "Yes," Jonny agreed. "And not always for the better. I seem to also remember a time when the two of us went on trips together-just the two of us, with no kids along. What would you say to seeing if we can bring back those days?"

  Chrys snorted faintly. "You think the Council could function without you that long?"

  He winced at the implied criticism. "Sure they can," he said, choosing to take the question at face value. "Corwin knows the ropes well enough, and nothing important's likely to happen while the Qasama mission's gone, anyway. Perfect time for a vacation."

  "Wait a second." She turned a frown his direction. "Are you talking about a vacation while your sons are out there in who knows what kind of danger?"

  "Why not?" he asked. "Seriously. There's not a single thing we can do for them from here, even if we knew something had gone wrong, which we won't-sending shuttles back and
forth has already been rejected as too possibly provocative.

  Giving your mind something besides worry to occupy it would be good for you."

  She gestured minutely at the electronics in front of her. "If this can't keep my mind busy, I doubt a vacation will."

  "That's only because you don't know the kind of vacation I have in mind," he told her, mentally crossing his fingers. If he presented this right she might just go for it... and he knew with a solid conviction that it was something they both needed. "I was thinking of a leisurely cruise sort of thing, with stops at various points for relaxing strolls through forests and grasslands, or maybe a swim through warm waters. Companionship with others when we want it, privacy when we want that, and all the comforts of home. How's it sound?"

  Chrys smiled. "Like the coastline cruises they used to advertise when I was a child. Don't tell me some enterprising soul's bought a deep-sea liner from the


  "Ah-not exactly. Would it help if I told you the cruise itinerary includes five planets?"

  "Five pl-Jonny!" Chrys's eyes widened with shock. "You don't mean-the survey mission?"

  "Sure-and why not?"

  "What do you mean, why not? That's a scientific expedition, not a vacation service for the middle-aged."

  "Ah, but I'm a governor emeritus, remember? If Liz Telek can talk her way aboard the Qasama trip on the grounds someone with authority should be present, I can certainly borrow her argument."

  A muscle in Chrys's jaw twitched. "You've already arranged this, haven't you?" she asked suspiciously.

  "Yes-but I'm going only if you do. I didn't misrepresent any of this, Chrys-I'll be there strictly to observe, make a policy decision should one come up, and otherwise just stay out of everyone else's way. It really will be just like an out-of-the-way vacation for the two of us."

  Chrys dropped her eyes to the table. "It'd be dangerous, though, wouldn't it?"

  Jonny shrugged. "So was life in Ariel when we were first married. You didn't seem to mind it so much."

  "I was a lot younger then."

  "So? Why should Justin and Joshua have all the fun?"

  He'd hoped to spark a reaction of some kind, but was completely unprepared for the burst of laughter that escaped Chrys's lips. Genuine laughter, with genuine amusement behind it. "You're impossible," she accused, swiveling in her seat to give him a mock glare. "Didn't I just tell you I planned to be worried about them? What're we going to do-make this a Christmas exchange of worries?"

  "Or we can deputize Corwin to do the worrying for all of us," Jonny suggested with a straight face. "Brothers in the morning, parents in the afternoon, and he can worry about the Council for me in the evenings. Come on, Chrys-it'll probably be our only chance to see the place our great-great-grandchildren may someday live." At least our only chance together, he added to himself, in the three or four years I have left.

  Her face showed no hint of having followed that train of thought: but a minute later she sighed and nodded. "All right. Yes-let's do it."

  "Thanks, Hon," he said quietly. It wouldn't, he knew, quite make up for losing her sons to the universe at large... but perhaps having a husband back for a while would be at least partial compensation.

  He hoped so. Despite his assurances, it was quite possible two of those sons would soon be swallowed up by that same universe, never to return.

  Chapter 6

  The Council-along with an ever-expanding ring of agents/confidants-kept the secret of the Troft proposal remarkably well for nearly four weeks longer; but at that point Stiggur decided to release the news to the general population.

  From Corwin's point of view the timing couldn't have been worse. Still in the midst of detailed financial negotiations with the Trofts, he was abruptly thrust into the position of being answer man for what seemed sometimes to be all three hundred eighty thousand of Aventine's people. Theron Yutu and the rest of the staff were able to handle a lot of it on their own, but there were a fair number of policy-type questions that only he and Jonny could answer; and because of his private commitment to keeping his father's workload as light as possible, Corwin wound up spending an amazing amount of time on the phone and the public information net.

  Fortunately, the reaction was generally positive. Most of the objections raised were along the ethical lines the Moreau family had discussed together in their own first pass by the issue, and even among those dissenters support for the

  Council ran high. Virtually no one raised the point Corwin had been most worried about: namely, why the Council had waited nearly two months before soliciting public feedback. That one he would have found hard to answer.

  But all the public relations work took his attention away from the mission details being hammered out-took enough of it, in fact, that he completely missed the important part of the proposed survey mission team until the list was made public... and even then Joshua had to call and tell him about it.

  "I wondered why you were taking it so calmly," Jonny said when Corwin confronted him a few minutes later. "I suppose I should have mentioned it to you."

  "Mentioned, my left eye," Corwin growled. "You should have at least discussed it with the rest of us before you went ahead and signed yourselves up."

  "Why?" Jonny countered. "What your mother and I do with our lives is our business-we are old enough to make these decisions for ourselves. We decided we wanted a change of scenery, and this seemed a good way to get it." He cocked an eyebrow. "Or are you going to suggest neither of us would know how to handle an alien environment?"

  Corwin clamped his teeth together. "You're a lot older than you were when you came to Aventine. You could die out there."

  "Your brothers could die on Qasama," Jonny reminded him softly. "Should we all sit here in safety while they're out risking their lives? This way we're at least in a sense sharing their danger."

  A cold shiver rippled up Corwin's back. "Only in the most far-fetched sense," he said. "Your danger won't diminish theirs."

  "I know." Jonny's smile was wry but clear, without any trace of self-delusion in it. "That's one of the most fascinating things about the human psyche-a deep subconscious feeling can be very strong without making any logical sense whatsoever." He sobered. "I don't ask you to approve, Corwin; but grant that I know enough about myself and my wife to know what I'm doing on this."

  Corwin sighed and waved a hand in defeat. "All right. But you'd both darn well better come back safely. I can't run the Council all by myself, you know."

  Jonny chuckled. "We'll do our best." Reaching over to his phone, he tapped up something on the display. "Let's see... ah, good-Council's discussing Cobra contingent this afternoon. That one we can safely skip. How would you like to see some of your father's practical politics in action?"

  "Sure," Corwin said, wondering what the other was talking about.

  "Good." Jonny tapped a few more keys. "This is Jonny Moreau. Is the special aircar I ordered ready yet?...Good. Inform the pilot we'll be lifting in about twenty minutes: myself and two other passengers."

  Signing off, he got to his feet and stepped over to the rack where his heated suit was hanging. "Go get your coat," he told Corwin. "We're about to give a customer the Aventine equivalent of a free sample... which, with any luck, won't turn out to be exactly free."

  The third passenger turned out to be Speaker One.

  Corwin watched the Troft in a sort of surreptitious fascination as they flew high above the Aventinian landscape. He'd seen plenty of Trofts in his life, but never one so close and for so long a time. The back-jointed legs and splaytoed feet; the vaguely insectoid torso and abdomen; the arms with their flexible radiator membranes; the oversized head with its double throat bladder and strangely chicken-like face-all the gross anatomical features were as familiar to him as those of human beings or even spine leopards. But there were fine details which Corwin realized he'd never so much as noticed. The faint sheen of the alien's skin, for example, was a more muted version of the same
shimmer shown by its leotard-like outfit. Even at a meter's distance he could see the tiny lines crisscrossing its skin and the slender hairs growing out of each intersection. Seated on its specially designed couch, the Troft moved only occasionally during the flight, but whenever it did Corwin caught a glimpse of wiry muscles working beneath the skin and-sometimes-a hint of its skeletal structure as well. The large main eyes were a different color than the three tiny compound eyes grouped around each one. The main eyes, he'd once read, were for good binocular vision; the compound eyes permitted both night vision and the detection of polarized sunlight for cloudy-day solar navigation. The alien's short beak remained closed during the trip, which Corwin regretted: he'd have liked to have seen what Troft tri-cuspid teeth really looked like.

  Jonny said virtually nothing during the 20-minute flight, beyond giving the pilot their destination. Apparently he and Speaker One had worked this out in advance and neither felt the need to discuss anything further. Corwin considered pressing his father for information, but decided reluctantly that Jonny's silence was a cue to be followed. Splitting his attention between the Troft and the view out the window, he cultivated what patience he could muster.

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