Cobra strike, p.9
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       Cobra Strike, p.9

           Timothy Zahn

  Decker York had been a Marine for twenty years before leaving the Dominion for

  Aventine eighteen years ago. During his hitch he'd served on eight different worlds and had seen literally dozens of officials, ranging in pomp and power from village councilor to full Dominion Committee. From all of it he'd developed a mental image of what human leaders and their surroundings should be like.

  By those standards, Mayor Kimmeron of Sollas was a severe shock.

  The room Moff led them to was hardly an office, for starters. The sounds of music reached them even before the liveried guards flanking the door pulled the heavy panels open, and the tendrils of smoke that drifted past as the group started in were evidence of either incense or drug use inside. York's nose wrinkled at the thought, but fortunately the filter bubble enclosing his head seemed to be keeping most or all of the smoke out. Inside, the room's lighting was muted and leaned to reds and oranges. The room itself seemed large, but free-hanging curtains all around gave it the feel of an elegant and soft-walled maze. Moff led them through two right angles to the room's center-

  And a scene straight out of mankind's distant past. On a cushion-like throne lounged a large man who, while not fat, clearly hadn't seen strenuous exercise in quite some time. Facing him was a group of dancers, both male and female, in exotic dress; behind them was the semicircle of musicians-live musicians-who were providing the music. Seated on other cushions scattered around the room were a handful of other men and women, all seemingly splitting their attention between the dancers and low work tables set before them. York sent a studiously casual glance at one table as Moff led them toward the central throne, noting especially what seemed to be a portable computer or computer terminal among the papers there. Qasaman technology, it seemed, extended at least somewhat beyond guns and cars.

  Everyone in the room, except the dancers, was accompanied by a mojo.

  Moff stopped them a few meters to the side of the throne-and if its occupant was surprised by their appearance he didn't show it. He said something cheerful sounding, his voice clearly audible over the music; "Ah-welcome," York's earphone translated it. The big Qasaman raised a hand, bringing the musicians and dancers to an orderly halt a few notes later. "I am Mayor Kimmeron of the city of Sollas; I welcome you to Qasama. Please, sit down."

  Moff indicated a group of cushions-four of them, York noted-placed in a row in front of the mayor. Cerenkov nodded and sat down, the others following suit.

  Moff and the rest of their escort remained standing.

  "Now," Kimmeron said, rubbing his hands together in a curious gesture. "Your names are Cerenkov, Rynstadt, York, and Moreau, and you come from a world called

  Aventine. So. What exactly-exactly, mind you-do you wish from us?"

  It seemed to take Cerenkov a moment to find his tongue. "You seem to know a great deal about us," he said at last. "You surely also know, then, that we're here to reopen communication with brothers we didn't know we had, and to explore ways of making such contact mutually profitable."

  Kimmeron had a sly smile on his face even before the translator finished its version of the speech. "Yes, that is indeed what you have claimed. But why would you, who retain space flight, believe we would have anything worth your time?"

  Careful, boy, York warned in Cerenkov's direction. Primitive doesn't necessarily imply naive. His eyes flicked to Moff and the rest of the escort, wishing he knew how to read this culture's body language.

  But Cerenkov was on balance again and his answer was a masterpiece of pseudo-sincerity. "As anyone who's opened up a new world must surely know, sir, each planet is unique in its plants and animals, and to a lesser extent its minerals. Surely your foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals will be markedly different from ours, for a start." He gestured toward the musicians and dance troupe. "And for any people who respect artistic expression as much as you clearly do, there are the less tangible but equally rewarding possibilities of cultural exchange."

  Kimmeron nodded, the half-smile still playing around his face. "Of course. But what if we came to Qasama for the express purpose of avoiding cultural contamination? Then what?"

  "Then, Mr. Mayor," Cerenkov said quietly, "we would apologize for the intrusion and ask your permission to leave."

  Kimmeron regarded him thoughtfully, and for a long moment the room rang with a brittle silence. Again York glanced toward Moff, his hand itching with the desire to have a weapon in it... and at last Kimmeron shifted on his cushion throne, breaking the spell. "Yes," he said, waving a hand casually. "Well, fortunately, I suppose, we're not quite that strict here on Qasama. Though some of us perhaps would prefer otherwise." In response to his gesture a new group of five men had moved forward from the edges of the room to stand behind the visitors, a group Moff now stepped over to join. "Moff, escort our guests to their quarters, if you would," the mayor addressed him. "See that their needs are taken care of and arrange a general tour for tomorrow. If you have no objections-" this to Cerenkov-"we'd like to run a general medical study of you this afternoon as well. For your protection as well as ours."

  "No objections at all," Cerenkov replied. "Though if you're worried, our experience on Aventine indicates most disease organisms from one planet don't seem to bother much with creatures from another."

  "That has been our experience, as well," Kimmeron said, nodding. "Still, it never hurts to be cautious. Until tomorrow, then."

  Cerenkov got to his feet, York and the others following suit. "We look forward to seeing you again," Cerenkov said with a small bow to the mayor. Turning, they fell into step behind Moff and headed from the room.

  And now straight to the hospital, York thought grimly as they emerged once more onto the sunlit street and were steered toward their car. The physical exam itself didn't particularly worry him; but he would bet goulash to garnets there'd be the Qasaman version of military ordnance experts assisting the doctors. And if they somehow managed to figure out exactly how his calculator watch, pen, and star sapphire ring fit together... and what they became in such a configuration....

  Cerenkov and Rynstadt were in the car, and it was his turn to get in. Trying not to grimace, he did so, telling himself there was no need for worry. The Marine palm-mate, after all, had been deliberately designed to be undetectable.

  But he worried anyway as the crowded vehicle set off between the color-spattered buildings. Contingency worrying was part of a soldier's job.

  The room Joshua and Rynstadt had been assigned to had been dark and quiet for nearly half an hour by the time Justin finally unhooked himself from the direct feed apparatus and rolled stiffly to a sitting position on his couch. The

  Dewdrop's lounge, too, was quiet, its only other occupant a dozing Pyre. Justin moved carefully, working the kinks out of his muscles as he walked toward the door.

  "There's food by the corner terminal if you're hungry."

  Justin looked back to see Pyre stretch his arms out with a sigh and straighten up in his chair. "Didn't mean to wake you," he apologized, changing direction toward the tray the other had mentioned.

  "S'okay. I'm not actually on duty, anyway-I just wanted to wait till you were up, make sure you were doing okay."

  "I'm fine." Justin sat down beside the other Cobra, balancing the tray on his knees as he attacked the food. "So... what do you think?"

  "Oh, hell, I don't know," Pyre sighed. "I'm not sure we can take anything they say or do at face value. That mayor, for instance. Is he really some throwback to the old despot tradition, or was all of that set up to confuse us? Or is that really the way they conduct business here?"

  "Oh, come on," Justin growled around a mouthful of fried balis. "Who could concentrate in a din like that?"

  "It was only a din because you're not used to it," Pyre said. "The music could actually have a calming effect on the brain's emotional activity, allowing the people in there to think more logically."

  Justin replayed the scene in his mind. Possible, he decided-those hunched over the low tables
had been doing something. And the smoke-? "Supplemented by tranquilizing drugs, maybe?"

  "Could be. I wish we'd had some sampling equipment in there to run a quick analysis on the air." He snorted. "Though a lot of good it would have done."

  Justin grimaced. Every bit of the contact team's recording and analysis equipment had been politely but firmly confiscated during their hospital examination. The best Cerenkov's protests had done was to elicit Moff's promise that the gear would be returned when they left. "I was locked into Joshua's sensors at the time, but I have the impression Governor Telek was pretty mad about that."

  "That's putting it mildly. She was on the edge of a full-fledged tantrum." Pyre shook his head slowly. "But I think maybe she was right, that this is looking less and less like it's going to work. Yuri can't find out anything the Qasamans want to keep hidden, not with Moff steering them around like tame porongs and his equipment buried in some back room somewhere. And we sure can't do anything ourselves stuck out here."

  Justin eyed him suspiciously. "Are you leading up to the suggestion that someone take a little midnight stroll in a day or two?"

  "I don't know how else to find out their true threat potential," Pyre shrugged.

  "And if we're caught at it?"

  "Trouble, of course. Which is why the operation would have to be handled by someone who knew what he was doing."

  "In other words, one of the Cobras or Decker. And since we're in plain view and

  Decker is both watched and unarmed, not getting caught starts sounding a bit unlikely."

  Pyre shrugged. "At the moment, you're right. But maybe something will change."

  He gave Justin a long look. "And in that event... you weren't supposed to know this, but Decker isn't unarmed. He's carrying a breakapart palm-mate dart gun with him."

  "He's what? Almo, they said no weapons. If they catch him with that-"

  "He'll be in serious trouble," Pyre finished for him. "I know. But Decker didn't want the party completely helpless, and the gun did make it through the big inspection okay."

  "As far as you know."

  "He's still got it."

  Justin sighed. "Great. I hope the Marines taught him patience as well as marksmanship."

  "I'm sure they did," Pyre grunted, pushing himself to his feet with an ease that was probably due solely to his implanted servos. "I'm going to crash for a few hours-if you're smart you'll do likewise after your exercises."

  "Yeah," Justin said with a yawn. "Before you do, though, has the governor said when she's going to call Joshua back in for our switch?"

  Pyre paused halfway to the door, a look of chagrin flicking across his face.

  "Actually... her current plan is to go ahead and leave Joshua out there for the foreseeable future."

  "What?" Justin stared at him. "That's not what we planned."

  "I know," Pyre shrugged helplessly. "I pointed that out to her-rather strongly, in fact. But the situation seems pretty stable at the moment and...."

  "And she likes having Joshua's visual transmission too much to give it up. Is that it?"

  Pyre sighed. "You can hardly blame her. She'd wanted the whole contact team implanted with those optical sensors, I understand, and been turned down on grounds of cost-split-frequency transmitters that small are expensive to make.

  And now with all our other eyes taken away, Joshua's all we've got left if we want to see what's going on." He held up a hand soothingly. "Look, I know how you feel, but try not to worry about him. The Qasamans are hardly going to attack them now without a good reason."

  "I suppose you're right." Justin thought for a moment, but there didn't seem anything else to be said. "Well... good night."

  " 'Night."

  Pyre left, and Justin flexed his arms experimentally. Thirteen hours in the couch had indeed left the muscles stiff, but he hardly noticed the twinges as his thoughts latched onto Pyre's last comment. Without a good reason... but what would constitute such a reason in the Qasamans' minds? An aggressive act or comment on Cerenkov's part? Discovery that the ostensibly voice-only radio link to the ship also had a split-freq channel that was carrying the visual images they'd obviously tried to suppress? Violent use of York's illegal gun? Or perhaps even the outside reconnaissance Pyre had clearly already decided on?

  Eyes on the darkened display, Justin settled into his exercises, pushing his body harder than he'd originally intended to.

  Chapter 9

  With less need for immediate debarkation-and more comfort and room aboard ship in which to wait-the Menssana's passengers didn't bother with filter helmets, but simply stayed inside until the atmospheric analyzers confirmed the air of

  Planet Chata was indeed safe for human use.

  Long tradition gave Jonny, as senior official aboard, the honor of being the first human being to step out on the new world's surface; but Jonny had long since learned to put discretion before pomp, and the honor was claimed by one of the six Cobras who went out to set up a sensor/defense perimeter about the ship.

  Once again the passengers waited; but when an hour of Cobra work failed to entice any predators out of the nearby woods-or to flush out anything obviously dangerous within the perimeter itself-Team Leader Rey Banyon declared the

  Menssana's immediate area to be safe enough for the civilians.

  Jonny and Chrys were near the end of the general exodus of scientists through the Menssana's main hatch. For Jonny it was a step into his own distant past.

  Chata looked nothing at all like Aventine, really; certainly not after even a cursory examination of plant life and landscape. Yet the simple fact of Chata's strangeness relative to Aventine's by-now familiarity gave the two experiences an identity. A new world, untouched by man-

  "Brings back memories, doesn't it?" Chrys murmured at his side.

  Jonny took a deep breath, savoring the almost spicy aromas wafting in along the light breeze. "Like Aventine when I first arrived," he said, shaking his head slowly. "A kid of twenty-five, just about overwhelmed by the sheer scope of what we were trying to do there. I'd forgotten how it all felt... forgotten what all of us have really accomplished in the past forty years."

  "It'll be harder to do it again," Chrys said. Dropping to one knee, she gently fingered the mat of interlaced vine-like plants that seemed to be the local version of grass. "Chata may only be thirty light-years from Aventine, but we don't have anything like the Dominion's transport capability. It hardly makes sense to spend our resources this direction with so much of Aventine and

  Palatine still uninhabited. Especially-" She broke off abruptly.

  "Especially when this whole group is only ten to fifteen light-years from

  Qasama?" Jonny finished for her.

  She got to her feet with a sigh, brushing bits of greenery off her fingers as she did so. "I've heard all the arguments about buffer zones and two-front wars," she said, "but I don't have to like it. And I keep coming back to the fact that the only reason we consider Qasama a threat is because the Trofts say we should."

  The beep of his phone preempted Jonny's reply. "Moreau," he said, lifting the device to his lips.

  "Banyon, Governor," the Cobra team leader's voice came. "Got something off our satellite I think you should look at."

  Chrys's presence beside him was a silent reminder of his promise to play passenger on this trip. "Can't you and Captain Shepherd handle it?" he said.

  "Well... I suppose so, yes. I just thought that your advice would be helpful on this."

  "Unless you're talking emergency-" Jonny broke off as a fluttering hand waved between him and the phone.

  "What are you doing?" Chrys stage-whispered fiercely. "Let's go see what they've got."

  If I live to be a thousand, the old line flashed through Jonny's head. "Never mind," he told Banyon. "I'll be right there."

  They found Banyon and Shepherd on the Menssana's bridge, their attention on a set of three displays. "It wasn't something that registered right off the blocks," Banyon began wi
thout preamble, indicating a dark mass now centered in the largest display. "Then we found out it was moving."

  Jonny leaned close to the screen. The mass seemed to consist of hundreds or thousands of individual dots. "Enhancement all the way up on this?"

  Shepherd nodded. "There's a lot of upper atmosphere turbulence over us at the moment, and that's limiting drastically what the computer has to work with."

  "I'd say it's a herd or flock of some sort," Jonny said. "I gather it's headed this way?"

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