Cobra strike, p.8
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       Cobra Strike, p.8

           Timothy Zahn
The delegation had come to a halt now a couple of meters in front of the contact team. Cerenkov half-raised his right hand, freezing midway through the motion as one of the birds abruptly ruffled its wings and emitted a harsh caw. He waited until its owner had calmed it, then brought his hand chest high, palm outward.

  "I greet you in the name of the people of Aventine," he said. "We come to visit with peaceful intent. I am Yuri Cerenkov; my companions are Marck Rynstadt,

  Decker York, and Joshua Moreau. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?"

  For another few seconds the translator pendant around his neck continued to talk, and Cerenkov sent a quick prayer skyward that the Trofts had indeed put together a decent translation program. All they would need now would be for him to have dropped an unintentional insult into his greeting....

  But if the translator had glitched it wasn't obvious. One of the Qasamans stepped a half pace forward, raising his hand in imitation of Cerenkov's gesture, and began speaking. "We greet you in turn," Cerenkov's earphone murmured seconds later. "I am Moff; I welcome you in the name of Mayor Kimmeron of Sollas and the people of Qasama. Your interpreter speaks our language well.

  Why does he rest aboard your craft?"

  "Our translator is a machine," Cerenkov told him carefully, wishing he knew just how technologically advanced these people were. Would they understand the word computer, or relegate the whole process to black magic? "Each word I speak is sent to it from this microphone, where it compares the word to those it knows of your language-"

  "I understand translation devices," Moff interrupted him. "Other visitors here used such things, though we have no need of them on Qasama. Your machine uses many of the same inflections theirs did."

  The hidden question was obvious, and Cerenkov had a split-second decision to make as to how to answer it. Honesty seemed the safest approach. "If you speak of the Trofts of the Baliu'ckha'spmi demesne, we did indeed purchase our translator from them. That's also how we knew you were here, though they failed to mention that we are of the same race. How did you arrive here, so far away from other human worlds, if I may ask?"

  Moff ran his eyes over the Dewdrop for a moment before turning back to Cerenkov.

  "A large craft, though much smaller than the one of legends," he commented. "How many people does it usually carry?"

  In other words, Cerenkov thought, how many are still aboard? Again, honesty would be best... honesty tempered with the fact that Justin Moreau was to be treated as nonexistent. "There are seven crewmen and six members of the diplomatic mission still aboard," he told Moff. "For various reasons they will remain there."

  "During which time you four intend to do what?"

  The question caught Cerenkov off guard. He'd expected to hold talks with the leadership and to be given a grand tour of the area-but he hadn't expected to have to make such requests out here beside the ship. "We'd like to visit with your people," he said. "Share information of mutual interest, perhaps open trade negotiations. We do share a common heritage, after all."

  Moff's eyes bored into his. "Our heritage is one of struggle against both men and nature," he said bluntly. "Tell me, where is this world Aventine you come from?"

  "It's about forty-five light-years from here," Cerenkov said, resisting the urge to point dramatically toward the sky. "I'm not sure of the actual direction or whether our sun is even visible at this distance."

  "I see. What is your relationship with the Lords of Rajan Putra and the Agra


  Cerenkov felt his heartbeat pick up. At last, a clue of sorts as to when the

  Qasamans had left the Dominion of Man. He himself had only the vaguest idea when the Dynasties had existed-and no recollection at all of any Rajan Putra-but

  Nnamdi's sociologist training ought to cover at least some history as well.

  But that wouldn't tell him what the Qasamans' own feelings toward the Dynasties had been... and if he didn't come up with a safely neutral answer the whole expedition could be shifted into the "enemies" column without any further warning. "I'm afraid that question doesn't mean anything to me," he told Moff.

  "We left the main group of human worlds ourselves some time ago, and at that time there wasn't any government calling itself a dynasty, at least not that I know of."

  A slight frown creased Moff's forehead. "The Agra Dynasty claimed it was eternal."

  Cerenkov remained silent, and after a moment Moff shrugged. "Perhaps a search through your records will show us what happened after we left," he said. "So.

  You wish to visit our world. For how long?"

  Cerenkov shrugged. "That's entirely up to you-we wouldn't want to impose overmuch on your hospitality. We can also bring our own supplies if you'd like."

  Moff's eyes seemed to focus on the clear bubble around Cerenkov's head. "You will have trouble eating like that, won't you? Or would you want to return to your craft for every meal?"

  "That shouldn't be necessary," Cerenkov shook his head. "By the time we're likely to get hungry, our analysis of your air should be complete. I'm expecting it to show nothing dangerous, but we need to be cautious."

  "Of course." Moff glanced to both sides, as if waiting for a protest from one of his party. But they remained silent. "Very well, Cerenkov, you and your companions may come with me into the city. But you must agree to obey my commands without question, for your own safety. Even in Sollas the many dangers of Qasama are not wholly absent."

  "Very well, I agree," Cerenkov said with only the slightest hesitation. "We're well aware of how dangerous a planet can be for visitors."

  "Good. Then my first order is for you to leave all weapons with your craft."

  Beside Cerenkov, York stirred slightly. "Yet you just said Qasama could be dangerous," Cerenkov said, choosing his words carefully. He'd half expected this, but had no intention of giving in without at least trying to talk Moff out of it. "If you're afraid we might use our weapons against your citizens, let me assure you-"

  "Our citizens have nothing to fear from your weapons," Moff interrupted. "It's you who would be in danger. The mojos-" he gestured to the bird resting on his shoulder-"are trained to attack when weapons are drawn or used, except for hunting or self-defense purposes."

  Frowning, Cerenkov studied the bird-Silver-blue in color, built rather like a compact hawk, it returned his gaze with what seemed to be preternatural alertness. The talons clinging to the oversized epaulet were long and sharp, the feet themselves disproportionately large. A hunting bird, if he'd ever seen one... and he'd heard enough stories of professional falconers to have plenty of respect for such creatures. "All right," he said. "We'll-"

  "By my instructions, and one at a time," Moff said, his hand curving up to stroke his mojo's throat again. "You first, Cerenkov. Rest your hand on your weapon, say 'clear,' and then draw it... slowly."

  Cerenkov's laser was holstered across his belt, only its grip visible beneath his loose jacket. Reaching for it, he thumbed off the holster's safety strap.

  "Clear," he said, waiting for the translation before drawing it free.

  The mojos' reaction was immediate. Practically in unison all six birds gave a single, harsh caw and snapped their wings out into flight position. Two of the birds even left their owners' shoulders, tracing a tight circle half a meter above Cerenkov's head before settling back onto their perches. Beside him, York spat something and dropped to a crouch; Cerenkov himself bit down hard on his tongue in an effort to remain absolutely motionless.

  And as quickly as it had begun, the flurry of activity was over. The mojos, wings still poised at the ready, became living statues on the Qasamans' shoulders. Moving with infinite care, Cerenkov walked back to the Dewdrop's hatchway and laid his laser in the airlock. As if on cue, the mojos relaxed again, and Cerenkov returned to the line. "Marck?" he said, striving to keep his voice steady. "Your turn."

  "Right." Rynstadt cleared his throat. "Clear."

  The mojos reacted a bit more calmly this time around; and t
heir responses eased even further for York and Joshua. Clearly, they'd picked up rather quickly on the fact that hostilities were not being initiated. Just as clearly, they weren't taking chances, either.

  "Thank you," Moff said when all four lasers were in the airlock. He raised both hands over his head, and Cerenkov's peripheral vision caught movement at the edge of the colorful city. A large vehicle was approaching, an open car type of thing with two Qasamans in it. Both figures had bulging left shoulders; Cerenkov didn't have to see any more clearly to know the lumps would turn out to be mojos. "Mayor Kimmeron is waiting to meet you," Moff continued. "We'll be taken to his chambers now."

  "Thank you," Cerenkov managed. "We're looking forward to meeting him."

  He took a deep breath and tried not to stare at the mojos.

  There were cultures in the Dominion of Man, Justin knew from his studies, that went in heavily for artistic expression on their buildings, and his first thought had been that the Qasamans were a branch of such a society. But as the contact team was driven slowly through the streets, he gradually began to question that assumption. There were no murals anywhere that he could see, nor were there any recognizable human or animal drawings, either realistic or stylized. The splashes of color seemed to have been thrown up more or less randomly, though in ways the Cobra found aesthetically pleasing enough. He wondered if Nnamdi would be able to find anything significant in the whole thing.

  Cerenkov cleared his throat, and it was quickly obvious the contact leader had other things than the Qasamans' artistry on his mind. "Looks like a lot of your people have mojos with them," he commented. "Mojos and guns. Are conditions in

  Sollas that dangerous?"

  "The weapons aren't often used, but when they are it's a matter of survival,"

  Moff told him.

  "I would think the mojos would be enough protection," York put in.

  "From some things, yes, but not from everything. Perhaps while you're here you'll have the chance to see a bololin herd or even a hunting krisjaw enter the city."

  "Well, if that happens, don't forget we're unarmed," Cerenkov said. "Unless you plan to issue us weapons and mojos later on."

  It was clear from his tone he wasn't exactly thrilled by that option, but Moff laid any such fears to rest. "As strangers I don't think the mayor would allow you to carry weapons," he said. "And the mojos seem too uncomfortable in your presence to serve as your protectors."

  "Um," Cerenkov said and fell silent. Justin shifted his attention from the buildings to the people walking along the sidewalks. Sure enough, all of them had the ubiquitous mojos on their shoulders. A light breeze came up, ruffling human hair and mojo feathers and whistling gently in his ears. Odd, he thought, to be able to hear the wind but not to feel it.

  Somehow, on a gut level, that seemed stranger even than the fact that he was possibly the first man in history to be almost literally walking in his brother's shoes.

  From somewhere behind him a new voice spoke up. "Is that just an excuse?" Pyre asked.

  "I don't think so," Telek's voice replied. "The nearest mojos do look a bit more nervous than those further away. I'd guess it has to do with the fact that we smell slightly different than the Qasamans."

  Pyre grunted. "Genetic drift?"

  "More likely dietary differences. Something, Hersh?"

  "I think I've got their departure time bracketed," Nnamdi said. "The Agra

  Dynasty was the government that ruled Reginine from central Asia on Earth. It began in 2097 and ended when the Dominion of Man formally took over in 2180."

  "What about the, uh, the Lords of Rajan Putra?" Telek asked.

  "We'll have to check the full history records back on Aventine for that. But I know there was a major migration from Reginine when it was opened to general colonization, and I think the ‚migr‚es founded the world Rajput."

  "Hmmm. Ethnic separatists, basically?"

  "No idea. My guess, though, is that the Qasamans were either one ship of that group or a separate emigration, in either case overshooting their target rather badly."

  "Badly and a half," Telek snorted. "Where were the Trofts while they were wandering through Assemblage territory?"

  "Probably never saw them coming," Christopher spoke up. "Really. The Dominion's early stardrives were nasty unstable things, and when they went supercritical they hit about ten times the speed we can get nowadays."

  "Sounds rather handy, actually," Pyre said.

  "Only if you didn't need to stop," Christopher said dryly. "Coming out of hyperspace in that condition would fry the drive and most other electronics on the ship. There are literally dozens of colony ships-colony ships, mind you, not just probes or scouts-that are listed as simply having disappeared. I guess

  Qasama was one of the lucky ones."

  "Or else they were the unlucky ones who were kidnapped and brought here," Nnamdi put in. "You'll recall we haven't scrapped that possibility yet."

  "We'll keep it in mind if we see any sign of another race," Telek assured him.

  "But it's hard to imagine slaves being allowed to carry guns."

  Via the direct feed from Joshua's implanted optical sensors to his own, Justin saw that the car carrying the contact team had turned onto one of the broad streets they'd noted from orbit, and he waited for Cerenkov to ask about it. But the contact leader had apparently decided to hold off pumping the Qasamans for more information, at least for the moment. Probably just as well, Justin thought, since the lull enabled him to continue splitting his attention between the cityscape and the conversation in the lounge around him.

  "Any indication in the translator program as to what bololins or krisjaws are?"

  Pyre asked.

  Justin could almost see Telek's shrug. "Local fauna, I gather," she said.

  "Obviously pretty nasty-those guns of theirs don't look like target pistols."

  "Agreed. So why didn't they put up a wall around the city, like they did around the villages?"

  There was a short pause. "No idea. Hersh?"

  "Maybe the village walls aren't there to keep the animals out," he suggested, not sounding particularly convinced. "Maybe both species fly or jump too high for walls to be effective."

  "So why do the villages have them?" Pyre persisted.

  "I don't know," Nnamdi snapped.

  "All right, take it easy," Telek put in. "Finding out all of these things is

  Yuri's job. Let's just relax and leave it to him, okay?"

  There was another pause. Back in Sollas Joshua turned his head to follow the passage of a particularly attractive woman. Justin admired the view himself, wondering whether it was her appearance or the fact that her mojo rode her right shoulder which had caught his brother's attention. He tried to see if her pistol was also strapped to the opposite side, but Joshua turned back to face forward before he could do so. Left-handed? he speculated, making a mental note to watch for others.

  From the other reality Christopher spoke up. "Hersh, have you got anything like a population estimate for Qasama yet? Given that they're human, I mean, and that human personal space requirements are pretty well known."

  "Oh, I'd guess somewhere between fifty and three hundred million," Nnamdi said.

  "That requires them to have bred like hamsters over the past three centuries, but you can get rates that high on new worlds. Why?"

  "Would it be likely that you could keep track of that many people on a single-name basis?"

  "Like Moff, for instance? Not hardly. Especially since they originally came from a multi-name background."

  "Which means Moff wasn't giving his full name," Christopher said. "Which means in turn that the mojos aren't the only ones that are nervous about us."

  "Yeah," Nnamdi said heavily. "Well... suspicion toward strangers is part of the heritage of lots of human cultures."

  "Or else the Trofts who came here earlier started a new tradition," Telek growled. "I wish to hell we had a record of their visit. Either way, I suppose we ough
t to remind the team that they need to walk on eggs-"

  There was a faint click and Telek delivered a short message to the contact team along the translator carrier-a message that, for Justin, had a built-it echo as bone conduction carried part of the sound from Joshua's earphone to his implanted auditory pickups. The car seemed to be slowing now, and Justin scanned the buildings within view, wondering which one housed the mayor's office.

  Fortunately, the rest of the conversation in the lounge had ceased as the scientists returned to watching the same view on their more prosaic displays, so there was no risk of his missing anything while his primary attention was locked into Joshua's implants. There was a lot about this setup that annoyed him, but he had to admit it was doing its job well. Whenever he wound up replacing Joshua out there, he would have the same memories of Qasama that his brother did... and those memories could easily spell the difference between success and failure for such an impersonation. The car had come to a halt by the curb. Resisting the urge to run his own muscles through the proper motions, Justin lay quietly on his couch as Joshua followed Cerenkov and the others up the three outside steps and into the building.

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