Cobra strike, p.6
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       Cobra Strike, p.6

           Timothy Zahn

  They landed at last near a large, squarish building nestled inexplicably out in the snowy forest far from any village Corwin was familiar with, A two-man escort was waiting as Jonny led the way out of the aircar... and it was only then that

  Corwin began to get an inkling of what his father had in mind.

  High on each man's chest was a patch with the words "Training Center"; beneath it was the stylized hooded-snake emblem of the Cobra Academy.

  "Governor," one of them nodded at Jonny. "You and your guests are cleared for monitor room access. If you'll all follow me...."

  Together they headed through an armored door and down an exceptionally drab and anonymous corridor, footsteps echoing oddly against the metallic walls. Their guide led them into an elevator; thirty seconds later they exited into a large, unevenly lit room and a scene of muted tension. In the darker areas along the wall at least thirty people sat before banks of small display screens, working away at keyboards and joysticks, while in the center a large semicircular console with larger displays was the focus of attention for a half-dozen men in the red and black diamond-patterned tunics of the Cobras, One of them headed over to meet the newcomers, and as he approached Corwin recognized him as Cobra

  Coordinator Sun himself. The royal treatment, indeed, he thought.

  "Governor," Sun said, inclining his head briefly to Jonny as he neared the group. "Speaker One; Mr. Moreau," he added with similar nods to the Troft and

  Corwin. "If you'll step this way, the team has just penetrated the outer perimeter section."

  "Is there an attack taking place?" Speaker One asked as they followed Sun back toward the crescent-shaped console.

  "In a manner of speaking," Sun told it. "The Cobra team who'll be going to

  Qasama is practicing their building assault techniques. Let's see how they're doing."

  The displays showed various degrees of activity, and Corwin scanned them quickly in an effort to make sense of it all. Despite the multiple camera angles shown, it was soon apparent that there were actually only a total of four Cobras involved: Almo Pyre, Justin, and two more Corwin knew only from pictures and

  Council reports, Michael Winward and Dorjay Link. The latter two were moving stealthily down a corridor, while Pyre and Justin huddled before a formidable-looking door.

  "Those two," Sun explained, pointing at Pyre and Justin, "are blocked by a blast door with an electronic lock. They could probably force it open with their antiarmor lasers, but at this point there's been no general alarm and it's worth the time to see if they can get through more quietly. Looks like one of the

  Qasamans is about to surprise them, though." He tapped a display whose rolling image showed the gait of a mechanical remote-

  The camera turned a corner and stopped, the blast door and Justin framed in its view. Justin alone? Corwin thought. But Almo was there, too.

  The screen flared abruptly and went black. Corwin shifted his gaze to the fixed-camera monitors just in time to see Pyre drop from the ceiling to land in a crouch beside the disabled remote, hands curled into fingertip laser ready position. He checked around the corner, then lifted the remote and carried it back to the door. "All clear," he whispered to Justin.

  "Just about ready here," Justin whispered back.

  "Inside," Sun said, "is a key missile control tracking station." He leaned over to touch a switch, and a vacant display came to life with an overhead schematic of the entire test area. Corwin quickly located the dots representing his brother and Pyre... and with a stomach-wrenching shock saw that the room they were about to enter was far from unoccupied. "You'll note," Sun continued in the same emotionless voice, "that there are eight Qasamans on duty in there. All are armed, but the Cobras ought to have the advantage of surprise. Let's see...."

  Justin stood up and pulled on the door... and an instant before it began its swing the tense silence was shattered by the blare of alarm bells.

  Corwin would later learn that Winward and Link had accidentally triggered the alarm, but for that first instant it seemed horribly obvious that Justin and

  Pyre had walked into a trap. The two Cobras seemed to believe that as well and, rather than charging through the open door, they hit the wall on either side.

  Beside him, Corwin heard Jonny mutter something vicious... but by the time it seemed to dawn on the Cobras that they'd make a mistake it was too late. The remotes in the tracking room were on guard, and when Pyre risked a glance around the door jamb he nearly caught a laser blast for his trouble.

  Corwin's jaw was clenched hard enough to hurt; but the figures on the monitor wasted no time in recriminations. Pyre sent Justin a half dozen quick hand signals, got an acknowledging nod, and seemed to brace himself. Both men took a second to fire apparently random fingertip laser shots through the doorway... and then, gripping the jamb for leverage, Pyre hurled himself into the room.

  Into and up. The tracking room monitors caught a perfect view of him arcing spinning into the air like an oddly shaped gyroscope coming off a jump board, the antiarmor laser in his left leg carving out a traveling cone of destruction.

  He'd just reached the peak of his jump when Justin came in behind him, the younger Cobra's flat dive and somersault landing him on his back in a sort of spinning fetal position... and his antiarmor laser, too, began its deadly sweep.

  It was a classic high-low maneuver Corwin recognized from his father's stories of the war. Between Pyre's sensor-guided air attack and Justin's lower horizontal spray, effective cover simply ceased to exist, and in the space of maybe a second and a half all eight of the remotes' displays went dark.

  Corwin suddenly realized he was holding his breath and risked a quick look to see what Winward and Link were up to. They'd split up since he'd last seen them, with Link at what was obviously an open outside door and Winward standing guard with fingertip lasers ready at the intersection of two hallways. Between them, the overhead schematic showed an impressive number of disabled remotes.

  A flash and thunderclap jerked Corwin's attention back to the other displays, and he was just in time to watch as Justin aimed his right fingertip laser at one of the control panels in the tracking room and triggered his arcthrower.

  Corwin's hands curled into tight fists as the second flash and crash came; he had been burned once by a faulty electrical outlet as a child, and the arcthrower with its high-amperage current flowing along an ionized laser path made his skin crawl in a way the far more powerful antiarmor laser never did.

  But he forced himself to watch as Pyre and Justin worked methodically around the room, destroying every scrap of electronic equipment in sight. Pyre paused once before a large shielded display, and a low hum abruptly filled the room. "Sonic disruptor," Sun murmured, presumably for the Troft's benefit. A few seconds later Corwin thought he detected a muffled crack, and the hum disappeared as

  Pyre moved on.

  Their escape from the room, two arcthrower blasts later, was so straightforward as to be anticlimactic. Link and Winward, it now became clear, had spent most of their time clearing the exit route, and Pyre had to take out only two more remotes. Winward joined them as they passed his crossroads guard post, and by the time all four headed into the woods through Link's door Corwin's heartbeat was almost back to normal.

  "And that," Sun said, "is that. All remotes, shut down; signal the team to return."

  Corwin glanced beyond the central console as, in the darkened areas around the room, displays went uniformly black and the remote operators began to stretch and stand up. Beside him, Corwin felt his father's hand grip his shoulder. "I'd forgotten what it was like to see Cobras in genuine combat situations," Jonny said, his voice showing lingering traces of his tension.

  "Amazing how much adrenaline the human body can put out," another familiar voice said. Corwin looked past his father in surprise. So engrossed had he been in the displays that he'd never even noticed Jonny's old teammate Cally Halloran was among the group Sun had assembled. Halloran nodded a greeti
ng in Corwin's direction and then shifted his attention to the Troft standing silently beside him. "I understand the Baliu'ckha'spmi demesne feels the cost of this initial expedition is too high, Speaker One," he said. "Having now seen Cobras in action, do you agree?"

  Speaker One stirred, its arm membranes stretching out like bat wings for a moment before resettling against its upper arms. "The Tlos'khin'fahi demesne has always been aware of koubrah-warrior fighting skill," it said.

  Which wasn't exactly an answer, Corwin realized. His father wasn't fooled by the evasion, either. "But not sufficiently impressed, I gather, to absorb the extra costs the Baliu demesne isn't willing to pay?" the elder Moreau suggested.

  "Perhaps your demesne-lord would like to see a tape of this exercise."

  "It would be likely to interest him," the Troft agreed. "Presuming the price is reasonable."

  "Quite reasonable," Jonny nodded. "Especially as you'll be able to recover some of the cost by selling a copy to the Baliu'ckha'spmi demesne. I think perhaps your two demesne-lords will be able to come to a new agreement afterwards on how much each is willing to spend to have our services."

  "Yes," Speaker One said, and Corwin imagined he could hear a note of thoughtfulness in the flat translator voice. "Yes, I think that likely."

  The prediction proved correct, and within two weeks the financial quibbles from the Troft side of the negotiation table suddenly ceased. It made little difference to the actual planning groups, which had already committed themselves to the twin goals of not scrimping on vital equipment while simultaneously keeping costs to a bare minimum. But emotionally, the tacit carte blanche was a big boost to all concerned; and politically Corwin found in the action a not-so-subtle enhancement of the Cobra Worlds' general reputation. A good thing, to a point... but he still had vivid memories of the days when the Trofts considered the Worlds a threat. The closing of their connection with the

  Dominion of Man had ended the Troft's fears in that direction, but it was easy to see how a rumor of power could wind up being as disquieting to the aliens as the real thing. For the first time he began to understand that part of his father's twin-edged reluctance to demonstrate the Cobras' true war-making capabilities. But it was far too late to back out now.

  Three weeks later-barely eleven since the Council's approval of the project-the

  Cobra Worlds' two long-range spacecraft headed out from Aventine. On the

  Dewdrop, bound for Qasama, were Justin and Joshua Moreau; aboard the Menssana, destinations as yet not officially named, rode Jonny and Chrys Moreau.

  Corwin watched the ships leave, and was left to wonder how a planet with nearly four hundred thousand people could suddenly feel so lonely.

  Chapter 7

  The Dewdrop had been Aventine's only interstellar craft in the days when the planet was first colonized, and since its sole purpose then had been to reconnoiter nearby systems for possible future habitation it made little sense to the Dominion planners to tie up anything larger than a long-range scout ship.

  With the normal complement of five crewers and four observers the Dewdrop had probably seemed adequately roomy; with a current load exactly twice that, it was pretty damned crowded.

  Pyre didn't find it excruciatingly uncomfortable; but then, he'd grown up under conditions that were in their own way equally claustrophobic. The small village of Thanksgiving, ringed by spine leopard-infested forests, had by reasons of physical space been a very cozy place, and though Pyre had experienced both the greater anonymity of larger cities and the wide-open spaces of Aventine's frontier regions since then, he'd never lost his ability to create mental privacy where physical privacy didn't exist.

  To varying degrees, most of the other ten passengers also seemed to adapt reasonably well. Justin and Joshua, of course, had shared a room for most of their lives, and even in a cramped stateroom got along together better than most other sets of brothers Pyre had known. The other two Cobras, Link and Winward, had survived both the academy's barracks arrangement and the intense training of the past few weeks, and Winward commented at least once that shipboard life was almost a vacation by comparison. The contact team members-who, besides Joshua, consisted of Yuri Cerenkov, Marck Rynstadt, and former Dominion Marine Decker

  York-had been screened for anything vaguely resembling a neurosis, and Pyre doubted much of anything would bother them, at least noticeably. And the two chief scientists, Drs. Bilman Christopher and Hersh Nnamdi, were so busy testing equipment, programs, and contingency branch schemes that it was unlikely they even noticed the lack of breathing space.

  Which left Governor Telek.

  To Pyre it was still a mystery why she was aboard this mission. Arguments about high Council representation notwithstanding, it seemed to him incredible that

  Governor-General Stiggur should allow a woman on what was looking more and more like a military mission. Pyre's attitudes were as healthy as anyone else's, and he had no qualms whatsoever about female doctors or engineers; but warfare was different, and Stiggur with his roots back in the Dominion should feel that even more strongly than Pyre did. Which led immediately to the conclusion that the decision had been purely political... which led even faster to the question of why he, Pyre, was aboard.

  And that was the really troublesome one. Pyre hadn't had as much access to closed-door information lately as he'd had when he'd been living near the

  Moreaus, but even so it was pretty obvious that Stiggur wouldn't have let Telek come unless he expected her report and recommendations on Qasama to fall more or less in line with his own expectations. Pyre was a good friend of Jonny Moreau, who had both as governor and governor emeritus locked horns regularly with

  Telek... and yet it was Pyre's team she'd asked to observe in the field back on

  Aventine; and it was Pyre whose cost/manpower estimates she'd solicited for presentation to the governors; and it was Pyre she'd sponsored to be Cobra team leader on this mission.

  Why? Did she expect to flatter him into support for her more aggressive stance on the Qasama issue? To offer him one last chance at real Cobra action before the implant-related diseases began their slow but inevitable crippling of his body, in the hope that, in gratitude, he'd become a political ally when he retired to advisory positions on the sidelines? Or had she simply concluded he was the best man for the job and to hell just this once with politics?

  He didn't know the answer... and it quickly became clear he wasn't going to figure it out en route. Telek's field biology background had left her little prepared for the Dewdrop's overcrowded zoo, and though she gamely tried to maintain both minimal sociability and her responsibilities as official head of the mission, it was obvious there weren't going to be any opportunities to sound her out properly on her thoughts and motivations. Perhaps when they reached

  Qasama and the contact team disembarked there'd be time for that. Assuming there was time for anything at all.

  So he spent his time working out contingency plans with his team, renewing his friendship with the Moreau twins, and listening to the dull background drone of the Dewdrop's engines as he tried to think of anything he'd forgotten. The nightmares of sudden, overwhelming disaster he did his best to ignore.

  Taken at low-power, high-efficiency speeds, the forty-five light-years to Qasama would have run them a shade over a month; at the Dewdrop's top speed, with frequent refueling stops at Troft systems, they could have made it in six days.

  Captain Reson F'ahl chose a reasonably conservative middle course, both out of fears for the Dewdrop's aging systems and also-Pyre suspected-out of an old, lingering distrust of the Trofts.

  So for fifteen days they were cooped up in the blackness of hyperspace, with only the deep-space refueling stops every five days to break the viewport's monotony... and on the sixteenth day they arrived at Qasama.

  Purists had claimed for centuries that no photographic emulsion, holographic trace-record, or computerized visual reproduction ever made had quite the same range and pow
er as the human eye. Intellectually, Joshua tended to agree; but on a more visceral level he discovered it for the first time in gazing out his stateroom viewport.

  The poets were indeed right: there were few sights more majestic than that of an entire world spinning slowly and serenely beneath you.

  Standing with his face practically welded to the small triple-plate plastic oval, he didn't even notice anyone had come into the room behind him until

  Justin said, "You going to build a nest there?"

  He didn't bother to turn around. "Go find your own viewport. I've got land-use rights on this one."

  "Come on-move," Justin said, tugging with token force on his arm. "Aren't you supposed to be with Yuri and the others anyway?"

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