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Trainee: 2403

The music all that morning had been of the militant type that had dominated the airwaves for the past few weeks; but to the discerning ear there was a grim undertone to it that hadn't been there since the very start of the alien invasion. So when the music abruptly stopped and the light-show patterns on the plate were replaced by the face of Horizon's top news reporter, Jonny Moreau clicked off his laser welder and, with a feeling of dread, leaned closer to listen.

The bulletin was brief and as bad as Jonny had feared. "The Dominion Joint Military Command on Asgard has announced that, as of four days ago, Adirondack has been occupied by the invading Troft forces." A holosim map appeared over the reporter's right shoulder, showing the seventy white dots of the Dominion of Man bordered by the red haze of the Troft Empire to the left and the green of the Minthisti to the top and right. Two of the leftmost dots now flashed red. "Dominion Star Forces are reportedly consolidating new positions near Palm and Iberiand, and the ground troops already on Adirondack are expected to continue guerrilla activity against the occupation units. A full report—including official statements by the Central Committee and Military Command—will be presented on our regular newscast at six tonight."

The music and light pattern resumed, and as Jonny slowly straightened up, a hand came to rest on his shoulder. "They got Adirondack, Dader," Jonny said without turning around.

"I heard," Pearce Moreau said quietly.

"And it only took them three weeks." Jonny squeezed the laser he still held. "Three weeks."

"You can't extrapolate the progress of a war from its first stages," Pearce said, reaching over to take the laser from his son's hand. "The Trofts will learn that controlling a world is considerably more difficult than taking it in the first place. And we were caught by surprise, don't forget. As the Star Forces call up the reserves and shift to full war status, the Trofts will find it increasingly hard to push them back. I'd guess we might lose either Palm or Iberiand as well, but I think it'll stop there."

Jonny shook his head. There was something unreal about discussing the capture of billions of people as if they were only pawns in some cosmic chess game. "And then what?" he asked, with more bitterness than his father deserved. "How do we get the Trofts off our worlds without killing half the populations in the process? What if they decide to stage a 'scorched earth' withdrawal when they go? Suppose—"

"Hey; hey," Pearce interrupted, stepping around in front of Jonny and locking eyes with him. "You're getting yourself worked up for no good reason. The war's barely three months old, and the Dominion's a long way from being in trouble yet. Really. So put the whole thing out of your mind and get back to work, okay? I need this hood plate finished before you head for home and homework." He held out the laser welder.

"Yeah." Jonny accepted the instrument with a sigh and adjusted his de-contrast goggles back over his eyes. Leaning back over the half-finished seam, he tried to put the invasion out of his mind . . . and if his father hadn't made one last comment, he might have succeeded in doing so.

"Besides," Pearce shrugged as he started back to his own workbench, "whatever's going to happen, there's not a thing in the universe we can do about it from here."

* * *

Jonny was quiet at dinner that evening, but in the Moreau household one more or less silent person wasn't enough to change the noise level significantly. Seven-year-old Gwen, as usual, dominated the conversation, alternating news of school and friends with questions on every subject from how weathermen damp out tornadoes to how butchers get the back-blades out of a breaff hump roast. Jame, five years Jonny's junior, contributed the latest on teen-age/high school social intrigue, a labyrinth of status and unspoken rules that Jame was more at home with than Jonny had ever been. Pearce and Irena managed the whole verbal circus with the skill of long practice, answering Gwen's questions with parental patience and generally keeping conversational friction at a minimum. Whether by tacit mutual consent or from lack of interest, no one mentioned the war.

Jonny waited until the table was being cleared before dropping in his studiously casual request. "Dader, can I borrow the car tonight to go into Horizon City?"

"What, there isn't another game there this evening, is there?" the other frowned.

"No," Jonny said. "I wanted to look at some stuff out there, that's all."

" 'Stuff'?"

Jonny felt his face growing warm. He didn't want to lie, but he knew that a fully truthful answer would automatically be followed by a family discussion, and he wasn't prepared for a confrontation just yet. "Yeah. Just . . . things I want to check out."

"Like the Military Command recruitment center?" Pearce asked quietly.

The background clatter of dishes being moved and stacked cut off abruptly, and in the silence Jonny heard his mother's sharp intake of air. "Jonny?" she asked.

He sighed and braced himself for the now inevitable discussion. "I wouldn't have enlisted without talking to all of you first," he said. "I just wanted to go get some information—procedures, requirements; that sort of thing."

"Jonny, the war is a long way away—" Irena began.

"I know, Momer," Jonny interrupted. "But there are people dying out there—"

"All the more reason to stay here."

"—not just soldiers, but civilians, too," he continued doggedly. "I just think—well, Dader said today that there wasn't anything I could do to help." He shifted his attention to Pearce. "Maybe not . . . but maybe I shouldn't give up to statistical generalities quite so quickly."

A smile twitched briefly at Pearce's lip without touching the rest of his face. "I remember when the full gist of your arguments could be boiled down to 'because I said so, that's why.' "

"Must be college that's doing it," Jame murmured from the kitchen door. "I think they're also teaching him a little about fixing computers in between the argument seminars."

Jonny sent a quick frown in his brother's direction, annoyed at the apparent attempt to sidetrack the discussion. But Irena wasn't about to be distracted. "What about college, now that we're on that topic?" she asked. "You've got a year to go before you get your certificate. You'd at least stay that long, wouldn't you?"

Jonny shook his head. "I don't see how I can. A whole year—look at what the Trofts have done in just three months."

"But your education is important, too—"

"All right, Jonny," Pearce cut off his wife quietly. "Go to Horizon City if you'd like and talk to the recruiters."

"Pearce!" Irena turned stunned eyes on him.

Pearce shook his head heavily. "We can't stand in his way," he told her. "Can't you hear how he's talking? He's already ninety percent decided on this. He's an adult now, with the right and responsibility of his own decisions." He shifted his gaze to Jonny. "Go see the recruiters; but promise me you'll talk with us again before you make your final decision. Deal?"

"Deal," Jonny nodded, feeling the tension within him draining away. Volunteering to go fight a war was one thing: scary, but on a remote and almost abstract level. The battle for his family's support had loomed far more terrifyingly before him, with potential costs he hadn't wanted to contemplate. "I'll be back in a few hours," he said, taking the keys from his father and heading for the door.

* * *

The Joint Military Command recruiting office had been in the same city hall office for over three decades, and it occurred to Jonny as he approached it that he was likely following the same path his father had taken to his own enlistment some twenty-eight years previously. Then, the enemy had been the Minthisti, and Pearce Moreau had fought from the torpedo deck of a Star Force dreadnaught.

This war was different, though; and while Jonny had always admired the romance of the Star Forces, he had already decided to choose a less glamorous—but perhaps more effective—position.

"Army, eh?" the recruiter repeated, cocking an eyebrow as she studied Jonny from behind her desk. "Excuse my surprise, but we don't get a lot of volunteers for Army service here. Most kids your age would rather fly around in star ships or air fighters. Mind if I ask your reasons?"

Jonny nodded, trying not to let the recruiter's faintly condescending manner get to him. Chances were good it was a standard part of the interview, designed to get a first approximation of the applicant's irritation threshold. "It seems to me that if the Troft advance continues to push the Star Forces back, we're going to lose more planets to them. That's going to leave the civilians there pretty much at their mercy . . . unless the Army already has guerrilla units in place to coordinate resistance. That's the sort of thing I'm hoping to do."

The recruiter nodded thoughtfully. "So you want to be a guerrilla fighter?"

"I want to help the people," Jonny corrected.

"Um." Reaching for her terminal, she tapped in Jonny's name and ID code; and as she skimmed the information that printed out, she again cocked an eyebrow. "Impressive," she said, without any sarcasm Jonny could hear. "Grade point high school, grade point college, personality index . . . you have any interest in officer training?"

Jonny shrugged. "Not that much, but I'll take it if that's where I can do the most good. I don't mind just being an ordinary soldier, though, if that's what you're getting at."

Her eyes studied his face for a moment. "Uh-huh. Well, I'll tell you what, Moreau." Her fingers jabbed buttons and she swiveled the plate around for his scrutiny. "As far as I know, there aren't any specific plans at present to set up guerrilla networks on threatened planets. But if that is done—and I agree it's a reasonable move—then one or more of these special units will probably be spearheading it."

Jonny studied the list. Alpha Command, Interrorum, Marines, Rangers—names familiar and highly respected. "How do I sign up for one of these?"

"You don't. You sign up for the Army and take a small mountain of tests—and if you show the qualities they want they'll issue you an invitation."

"And if not, I'm still in the Army?"

"Provided you don't crusk out of normal basic training, yes."

Jonny glanced around the room, the colorful holosim posters seeming to leap out at him with their star ships, atmosphere fighters, and missile tanks; their green, blue, and black uniforms. "Thank you for your time," he told the recruiter, fingering the information magcard he'd been given. "I'll be back when I've made up my mind."

He expected to return home to a dark house, but found his parents and Jame waiting quietly for him in the living room. Their discussion lasted long into the night, and when it was over Jonny had convinced both himself and them of what he had to do.

The next evening, after dinner, they all drove to Horizon City and watched as Jonny signed the necessary magforms.

* * *

"So . . . tomorrow's the big day."

Johnny glanced up from his packing to meet his brother's eyes. Jame, lounging on his bed across the room, was making a reasonably good effort to look calm and relaxed. But his restless fiddling with a corner of the blanket gave away his underlying tension. "Yep," Jonny nodded. "Horizon City Port, Skylark Lines 407 to Aerie, military transport to Asgard. Nothing like travel to give you a real perspective on the universe."

Jame smiled faintly. "I hope to get down to New Persius some day myself. A hundred twenty whole kilometers. Any word yet on the tests?"

"Only that my headache's supposed to go away in a couple more hours." The past three days had been genuine killers, with back-to-back tests running from seven in the morning to nine at night. General knowledge, military and political knowledge, psychological, attitudinal, physical, deep physical, biochemical—they'd given him the works. "I was told they usually run these tests over a two-week period," he added, a bit of information he hadn't been given until it was all over. Probably fortunately. "I guess the Army's anxious to get new recruits trained and in service."

"Uh-huh. So . . . you've said your good-byes and all? Everything settled there?"

Jonny tossed a pair of socks into his suitcase and sat down beside it on his bed. "Jame, I'm too tired to play tag around the mountain. What exactly is on your mind?"

Jame sighed. "Well, to put it bluntly . . . Alyse Carne is kind of upset that you didn't discuss this whole thing with her before you went ahead and did it."

Jonny frowned, searching his memory. He hadn't seen Alyse since the tests began, of course, but she'd seemed all right the last time they'd been together. "Well, if she is, she didn't say anything to me about it. Who'd you find out from?"

"Mona Biehl," Jame said. "And of course Alyse wouldn't have told you directly—it's too late for you to change things now."

"So why are you telling me?"

"Because I think you ought to make an effort to go see her tonight. To show that you still care about her before you run off to save the rest of humanity."

Something in his brother's voice made Jonny pause, the planned retort dying in his throat. "You disapprove of what I'm doing, don't you?" he asked quietly.

Jame shook his head. "No, not at all. I'm just worried that you're going into this without really understanding what you're getting into."

"I'm twenty-one years old, Jame—"

"And have lived all your life in a medium-sized town on a frontier-class world. Face it, Jonny—you function well enough here, but you're about to tackle three unknowns at the same time: mainstream Dominion society, the Army, and war itself. That's a pretty potent set of opponents."

Jonny sighed. Coming from anyone else, words like that would have been grounds for a strong denial . . . but Jame had an innate understanding of people that Jonny had long since come to trust. "The only alternative to facing unknowns is to stay in this room the rest of my life," he pointed out.

"I know—and I don't have any great suggestions for you, either." Jame waved helplessly. "I guess I just wanted to make sure you at least were leaving here with your eyes open."

"Yeah. Thanks." Jonny sent his gaze slowly around the room, seeing things that he'd stopped noticing years ago. Now, almost a week after his decision, it was finally starting to sink in that he was leaving all this.

Possibly forever.

"You think Alyse would like to see me, huh?" he asked, bringing his eyes back to Jame.

The other nodded. "I'm sure it would make her feel a little better, yeah. Besides which—" He hesitated. "This may sound silly, but I also think that the more ties you have here in Cedar Lake the easier it'll be to hold on to your ethics out there."

Jonny snorted. "You mean out among the decadence of the big worlds? Come on, Jame, you don't really believe that sophistication implies depravity, do you?"

"Of course not. But someone's bound to try and convince you that depravity implies sophistication."

Jonny waved his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Okay; that's it. I've warned you before: the point where you start with the aphorisms is the point where I bail out of the discussion." Standing up, he scooped an armful of shirts from the dresser drawer and dumped them beside his suitcase. "Here—make yourself useful for a change, huh? Pack these and my cassettes for me, if you don't mind."

"Sure." Jame got up and gave Jonny a lopsided smile. "Take your time; you'll have plenty of chances to catch up on your sleep on the way to Asgard."

Jonny shook his head in mock exasperation. "One thing I'm not going to miss about this place is having my own live-in advice service."

It wasn't true, of course . . . but then, both of them knew that.

* * *

The farewells at the Horizon City Port the next morning were as painful as Jonny had expected them to be, and it was with an almost bittersweet sense of relief that he watched the city fall away beneath the ground-to-orbit shuttle that would take him to the liner waiting above. Never before had he faced such a long separation from family, friends, and home, and as the blue sky outside the viewport gradually faded to black, he wondered if Jame had been right about too many shocks spaced too closely together. Still, in a way, it seemed almost easier to be changing everything about his life at once, rather than to have to graft smaller pieces onto a structure that wasn't designed for them. An old saying about new wine in old wineskins brushed at his memory; the moral, he remembered, being that a person too set in his ways was unable to accept anything at all that was outside his previous experience.

Overhead, the first stars were beginning to appear, and Jonny smiled at the sight. His way of life on Horizon had certainly been comfortable, but at twenty-one he had no intention of becoming rigidly attached to it. For the first time since enlisting, a wave of exhilaration swept through him. Jame, stuck at home, could choose to see Jonny's upcoming experiences as uncomfortable shocks if he wanted to, but Jonny was going to treat them instead as high adventure.

And with that attitude firmly settled in his mind, he gave his full attention to the viewport, eagerly awaiting his first glimpse of a real star ship.

* * *

Skylark 407 was a commercial liner, the majority of its three hundred passengers business professionals and tourists. A handful, though, were new recruits like Jonny; and as the ship made stops over the next few days at Rajput, Zimbwe, and Blue Haven, that number rapidly went up. By the time they reached Aerie, fully a third of the passengers were transfered to the huge military transport orbiting there. Jonny's group was apparently the last batch to arrive, and they were barely aboard before the ship shifted into hyperspace. Someone, clearly, was in a hurry.

For Jonny, the next five days were ones of awkward—and not totally successful—cultural adjustment. Jammed together in communal rooms, with less privacy than even the liner had afforded, the recruits formed a bewildering mosaic of attitudes, habits, and accents, and getting used to all of it proved harder than Jonny had anticipated. Many of the others apparently felt the same way, and within a day of their arrival Jonny noticed that his former shipmates were following the example of those who'd arrived here earlier and were clumping in small, relatively homogenous groups. Jonny made a few halfhearted attempts to bridge the social gaps, but eventually he gave up and spent the remainder of the trip with others of the Horizon contingent. The Dominion of Man, clearly, wasn't nearly as culturally uniform as he'd always believed, and he finally had to console himself with the reasonable expectation that the Army must have figured out how to handle this kind of barrier a long time ago. When they reached the training camps of Asgard, he knew, things would change, and they'd all be simply soldiers together.

In a way he was right . . . but in another way, he was very wrong.

* * *

The registration foyer was a room as large as the Horizon City Concert Hall, and it was almost literally packed with people. At the far end, past the dotted line of sergeants at terminals, the slowly-moving mass changed abruptly to a roiling stream as the recruits hurried to their assigned orientation meetings. Drifting along, oblivious to the flood passing him on both sides, Jonny frowned down at his own card with a surprise that was edging rapidly into disappointment.


HORIZON: HN-89927-238-2825p
1530 HOURS


Cobras. The transport had included a generous selection of military reference material, and Jonny had spent several hours reading all he could about the Army's Special Forces. Nowhere had anything called the Cobras been so much as hinted at.

Cobras. What could a unit named after a poisonous Earth snake be assigned to do? Decontamination procedures, perhaps, or else something having to do with antipersonnel mines? Whatever it was, it wasn't likely to live up to the expectations of the past weeks.

Someone slammed into his back, nearly knocking the card out of his hand. "Get the phrij out of the road," a lanky man snarled, pushing past him. Neither the expletive nor the other's accent were familiar. "You want to infiloop, do it out of the phrijing way."

"Sorry," Jonny muttered as the man disappeared into the flow. Gritting his teeth, he sped up, glancing up at the glowing direction indicators lining the walls. Whatever this Cobra unit was, he'd better get going and find the meeting room. The local-time clocks were showing 1512 already, and it was unlikely any Army officer would appreciate tardiness.

Room C-662 was his first indication that perhaps he'd jumped to the wrong conclusion. Instead of the battalion-sized auditorium he'd expected, the room was barely adequate to handle the forty-odd men already seated there. Two men in red and black diamond-patterned tunics faced the group from a low dais, and as Jonny slipped into a vacant chair the younger of them caught Jonny's eye. "Name?"

"Jonny Moreau, sir," Jonny told him, glancing quickly at the wall clock. But it was still only 1528, and the other merely nodded and made a notation on a comboard on his lap. Looking furtively around the room, Jonny spent the next two minutes listening to his heart beat and letting his imagination have free rein.

Exactly at 1530 the older of the uniformed men stood up. "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he nodded. "I'm Cee-two Rand Mendro, Cobra Unit Commander, and I'd like to welcome you to Asgard. We build men and women into soldiers here—as well as flyers, sailors, Star Forcers, and a few other specialties. Here in Freyr Complex, we're exclusively soldiers . . . and you forty-five have had the honor of being chosen for the newest and—in my opinion—most elite force the Dominion has to offer. If you want to join." He looked around, his eyes seeming to touch each of them in turn. "If you do, you'll draw the most dangerous assignment we've got: to go to Troft-occupied worlds and engage the enemy in a guerrilla war."

He paused, and Jonny felt his stomach curling into a knot. An elite unit—as he'd wanted—and the chance to help civilian populations—as he'd also wanted. But to be dropped in where the Trofts already had control sounded a lot more like suicide than service. From the faint stirrings around the room he gathered his reaction wasn't unique.

"Of course," Mendro continued, "we aren't exactly talking about space-chuting you in with a laser rifle in one hand and a radio in the other. If you choose to join up you'll receive some of the most extensive training and the absolute top-of-the-line weaponry available." He gestured to the man seated beside him. "Cee-three Shri Bai will be the chief training instructor for this unit. He'll now demonstrate a little of what you, as Cobras, will be able to do."

Bai laid his comboard beside his chair and started to stand up—and halfway through the motion he shot toward the ceiling.

Caught by surprise, Jonny saw only the blur as Bai leaped—but the twin thunderclaps from above and behind him were the gut-wrenching signs of a rocket-assisted flight gone horribly bad. He spun around in his seat, bracing for the sight of Bai's broken body—

Bai was standing calmly by the door, a hint of a smile on his face as he looked around at what must have been some pretty stunned expressions. "I'm sure all of you know," he said, "that using either a lift pack or exoskeleton muscle enhancers would be foolhardy in such a confined room. Um? So watch again."

His knees bent a few degrees, and with the same thump-thump he was back on the dais. "All right," he said. "Who saw what I did?"

Silence . . . and then a hand went tentatively up. "You bounced off the ceiling, I think," the recruit said, a bit uncertainly. "Uh . . . your shoulders took the impact?"

"In other words, you didn't really see," Bai nodded. "I actually flipped halfway over on the way up, took the impact with my feet, and continued around to be upright when I landed."

Jonny's mouth felt a little dry. The ceiling was no more than five meters up. To have done that much maneuvering in that small a space . . .

"The point, aside from the power and precision of the jump itself," Mendro said, "is that even you, who knew what was going to happen, couldn't follow Bai's movement. Consider how it would work against a roomful of Trofts who weren't expecting it. Next—"

He broke off as the door opened and one more recruit came in. "Viljo?" Bai asked, retrieving the comboard at his feet.

"Yes, sir," the newcomer nodded. "Sorry I'm late, sir—the registration people were running slow."

"Oh?" Bai waved the comboard. "Says here you went through the line at 1450. That's—let's see—seventeen minutes before Moreau, who got here seven minutes earlier than you did. Um?"

Viljo turned a bright red. "I . . . guess maybe I got a little lost. Sir."

"With all the signs posted around the complex? Not to mention all the regular Army personnel wandering around? Um?"

Viljo was beginning to look like a hunted animal. "I . . . I stopped to look at the exhibits in the entry corridor, sir. I thought this room was closer than it was."

"I see." Bai gave him a long, chilly look. "Punctuality, Viljo, is a mark of a good soldier—and if you plan to be a Cobra it's going to be an absolute necessity. But even more important are honesty and integrity in front of your teammates. Specifically, it means that when you crusk up, you damn well better not try to push the blame onto someone else. Got that?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right. Now come up here; I need an assistant for this next demonstration."

Swallowing visibly, Viljo unglued himself from the floor and threaded his way through the chairs to the dais. "What I showed you a minute ago," Bai said, once again addressing the entire room, "was essentially a party trick, though with some obvious military applications. This, now, I think you'll find along more practical lines."

From his tunic, he produced two metal disks, each ten centimeters in diameter with a small black inset in the center. "Hold the one in your left hand sideways," Bai instructed Viljo, "and when I give the word, throw the other toward the back of the room."

Mendro had meantime gone to one of the room's back corners. Taking a few steps off to the side, Bai checked positions and bent his knees slightly. "All right: now."

Viljo lofted the disk toward the door. Behind him, Jonny sensed Mendro's leap and catch, and an instant later the disk was shooting back toward Bai. In a smooth motion that was again too fast to follow, Bai fell to the side, out of the disk's path . . . and as he rolled again to one knee, two needles of light flashed in opposite directions from his outstretched hands. Viljo's surprised yelp was almost covered up by the crash of the flying disk against the wall.

"Good," Bai said briskly, getting to his feet and heading over to retrieve the first disk. "Viljo, show them yours."

Even from his distance Jonny could see the small hole just barely off-center through the black inset. "Impressive, um?" Bai said, stepping back up on the dais and presenting the other target. "Of course, you can't always expect the enemy to hold still for you."

This shot hadn't been nearly as clean. Only the very edge of the black showed the laser's mark, and when the light hit it right Jonny could see that the adjacent metal was rippled with the heat. Still, it was an impressive performance—especially as Jonny had no idea where Bai had been hiding his weapons.

Or where they were now, for that matter.

"That gives you an idea of what a Cobra can do," Mendro said, returning to the front of the room and sending Viljo back to find a seat. "Now I'd like to show you a little of the nuts and bolts involved." Retrieving the comboard, he keyed in an instruction, and a full-sized image of a man appeared beside him. "From the outside a Cobra is virtually indistinguishable from any normal civilian. However, from the inside—" The hologram's exterior faded to a blue skeleton with oddly-shaped white spots scattered randomly around. "The blue is a ceramic laminae which makes all the major and most of the minor bones unbreakable, for all practical purposes. That, along with some strategic ligament strengthening, is half the reason Cee-three Bai was able to pull off those ceiling jumps without killing himself. The non-laminated areas you can see are there to allow the bone marrow to continue putting red blood cells into the system."

Another touch on the comboard and the piebald skeleton faded to dull gray, forming a contrast to the small yellow ovoids that appeared at joints all over the hologram. "Servomotors," Mendro identified them. "The other half of the ceiling jump. They act as strength multipliers, just like the ones in standard exoskeletons and fighting suits, except that these are particularly hard to detect. The power supply is a little nuclear goody here—" he pointed to an asymmetric object situated somewhere in the vicinity of the stomach "—and I'm not going to explain it because I don't understand it myself. Suffice it to say the thing works and works well."

Jonny thought back to Bai's incredible jumps and felt his stomach tighten. Servos and bone laminae were all well and good, but a trick like that could hardly be learned overnight. Either this Cobra training was going to take months at the minimum, or else Bai was an exceptionally athletic man . . . and if there was one thing Jonny knew for certain, it was that he himself hadn't been selected for this group because of any innate gymnastic abilities. Apparently the Army was getting set for a long, drawn-out conflict.

On the dais, the hologram had again changed, this time marking several sections in red. "Cobra offensive and defensive equipment," Mendro said. "Small lasers in the tips of both little fingers, one of which also contains the discharge electrodes for an arcthrower—capacitor in the body cavity here. In the left calf is an antiarmor laser; here are the speakers for two different types of sonic weapons; and up by the eyes and ears are a set of optical and auditory enhancers. Yes—question?"

"Recruit MacDonald, sir," the other said with military correctness, a slight accent burring his words. "Are these optical enhancers like the targeting lenses of a fighting suit, where you're given a range/scale image in front of your eyes?"

Mendro shook his head. "That sort of thing is fine for medium- and long-range work, but pretty useless for the infighting you may have to do. Which brings us to the real key of the whole Cobra project." The red faded, and inside the skull a green walnut-sized object appeared, situated apparently directly beneath the brain. From it snaked dozens of slender filaments, most of them paralleling the spinal column before separating off to go their individual ways. Looking at it, Jonny's thoughts flashed back to a picture from his old fourth-grade biology text: a diagram showing the major structures of the human nervous system. . . .

"This," Mendro said, wagging a finger through the green walnut, "is a computer—probably the most powerful computer of its size ever developed. These optical fibers—" he indicated the filament network—"run to all the servos and weapons and to a set of kinesthetic sensors implanted directly in the bone laminae. Your targeting lenses, MacDonald, still require you to do the actual aiming and firing. This nanocomputer gives you the option of having the whole operation done automatically."

Jonny glanced at MacDonald, saw the other nodding slowly. It wasn't a new idea, certainly—computerized weaponry had been standard on star ships and atmosphere fighters for centuries—but to give an individual soldier that kind of control was indeed a technological breakthrough.

And Mendro wasn't even finished with his surprises. "In addition to fire control," he said, "the computer will have a set of combat reflexes programmed into it—reflexes that will not only include evasive movements but such tricks as were demonstrated a few minutes ago. Put it all together—" the hologram became a colorful puzzle as all the overlays reappeared—"and you have the most deadly guerrilla warriors mankind has ever produced."

He let the image stand a few seconds before switching it off and laying the comboard back on one of the chairs. "As Cobras you'll be on the leading edge of the counteroffensive strategy that I expect will ultimately push the Trofts out of Dominion territory . . . but there'll be a definite cost included. I've already mentioned the military dangers you'll be facing; at this point we can't even guess at what kind of casualty percentages there'll be, but I can assure you they'll be high. We'll need to do a lot of surgery on you, and surgery is never very pleasant; on top of that, a lot of what we put inside you will be there to stay. The laminae, for example, won't be removable, which requires you to keep the servos and nanocomputer, as well. There'll undoubtedly also be problems we haven't even thought about yet, and as part of the first wave of Cobras you'll take the full brunt of any design glitches that may have slipped by."

He paused and looked around the room. "Having said all that, though, I'd like to remind you that you're here because we need you. Every one of you has tested out with the intelligence, courage, and emotional stability that mark you as Cobra material—and I'll tell you frankly that there aren't a hell of a lot of you out there. The more of you that join up, the faster we can start shoving this war down the Trofts' throat bladders where it belongs.

"So. The rest of the day is yours to get settled in your rooms, get acquainted with Freyr Complex—" he glanced in Viljo's direction—"and perhaps look through the exhibit halls. Tomorrow morning you're to come back here whenever each of you is ready to give me your decision." Sweeping his gaze one last time around the room, he nodded. "Until then; dismissed."

* * *

Jonny spent the day as Mendro had suggested, meeting his roommates—there were five of them—and walking through the buildings and open-air sections of Freyr Complex. The Cobra group seemed to have an entire barracks floor to themselves, and every time Jonny passed the lounge area there seemed to be a different collection of them sitting around arguing the pros and cons of joining up. Occasionally, he paused to listen, but most of the time he simply continued on his way, knowing down deep that none of their uncertainties applied to him. True, the decision ahead wasn't one to be taken lightly . . . but Jonny had gone into this in the first place in order to help the people on threatened planets. He could hardly back down simply because it was going to cost a little more than he'd expected.

Besides which—he was honest enough to admit—the whole Cobra concept smacked of the superhero books and shows that had thrilled him as a kid, and the chance to actually become someone with such powers was a potent enticement even to the more sophisticated college student he was now.

The discussions in his room later that evening went on until lights-out, but Jonny managed to tune them out and get a head start on the night's sleep. When reveille sounded, he was the only one of the six who didn't mutter curses at the ungodly hour involved, but quickly got dressed and went down to the mess hall. By the time he returned, the others—except for Viljo, who was still in bed—had gone for their own breakfasts. Heading upstairs to Room C-662, he discovered that he was the third of the group to officially join the Cobras. Mendro congratulated him, gave him a standard-sounding pep talk, and issued him a genuinely intimidating surgery schedule. He left for the medical wing with a nervous flutter in his stomach but with the confident feeling that he'd made the right decision.

Several times in the next two weeks that confidence was severely strained.

* * *

"All right, Cobras, listen up!"

Bai's voice was a rumble of thunder in the half-light of Asgard dawn, and Jonny suppressed a spasm of nausea that the sound and the chilly air sent through what was left of his stomach. Shivering had never made him feel sick before . . . but then his body had never undergone such massive physical trauma before. What pain remained was little more than a dull ache extending from his eyes all the way down to his toes, and in the absence of that outlet his system had come up with these other quirks to show its displeasure. Shifting uncomfortably as he stood in line with the other thirty-five trainees, he felt the odd stresses and strains where his organs squeezed up against the new equipment and supports in his body cavity. The nausea flared again at the thought of all that inside him; quickly, he turned his attention back to Bai.

"—rough for you, but from personal experience I can assure you all the postoperative symptoms will be gone in another couple of days. In the meantime, there's nothing that says you can't start getting used to your new bodies.

"Now, I know you're all wondering why you're wearing your computers around your necks instead of inside your skulls. Um? Well, you're all supposed to be smart, and you haven't had much to do the last two weeks except think about things like that. Anyone want to trot out their pet theory?"

Jonny glanced around, feeling the soft collar-like computer rub gently against his neck as he turned his head. He was pretty sure he'd figured it out, but didn't want to be the first one to say anything.

"Recruit Noffke, sir," Parr Noffke, one of Jonny's roommates, spoke up. "Is it because you don't want our weapons systems operational until we're off Asgard?"

"Close," Bai nodded. "Moreau? You care to amplify on that?"

Startled, Jonny looked back at Bai. "Uh, would it be because you want to phase in access to our equipment—weapons and other capabilities—gradually instead of all at once?"

"You need to learn how to give answers more clearly, Moreau, but that's essentially it," Bai said. "Once the final computer is implanted its programming is fixed, so you'll wear the programmable ones until there's no danger of you slagging yourselves or each other. All right: first lesson is getting the feel of your bodies. Behind me about five klicks is the old ordnance range observation tower. Interworld contenders can run that in twelve minutes or so; we're going to do it in ten. Move."

He turned and set off toward the distant tower at a fast run, the trainees forming a ragged mass in his wake. Jonny wound up somewhere in the middle of the pack, striving to keep his steps rhythmic as he fought the self-contradictory feeling of being both too heavy and too light. Five kilometers was twice as far as he'd ever run in his life—at any speed—and by the time he reached the tower his breath was coming in short gasps, his vision flickering with the exertion.

Bai was waiting as he stumbled to a stop. "Hold your breath for a thirty-count," the instructor ordered him briefly, moving immediately to the side to repeat the command to someone else. Strangely enough, Jonny found he could do it, and by the time those behind had caught up, both his lungs and eyes seemed all right again. "Now: that was lesson one point five," Bai growled. "About half of you let your bodies hyperventilate themselves for no better reason than habit. At the speed you were doing your servos should have been doing fifty to seventy percent of the work for you. Eventually, your autonomic systems will adjust, but until then you're going to have to consciously pay attention to all these little details.

"Okay. Lesson two: jumping. We'll start with jumping straight up to various heights; and you'll start by watching me. You haven't got your combat reflexes programmed in yet, and while you won't be able to break your ankles, if you come down off-balance and hit your heads it will hurt. So watch and learn."

For the next hour they learned how to jump, how to right themselves in mid-air when necessary, and how to fall safely when the righting methods weren't adequate. After that Bai switched their focus to the observation tower looming over them, and they learned a dozen different ways of climbing the outside of a building. By the time Bai called lunch break they had each made the precarious journey up the side and through an unlocked window in the main observation level; and at Bai's order they returned to the walls to eat, wolfing down their field rations while clinging as best they could ten meters above the ground.

The afternoon was spent practicing with their arm servos, with emphasis on learning how to hold heavy objects so as to put minimal stress on skin and blood vessels. It wasn't nearly as trivial a problem as it looked at first blush, and though Jonny got away with only a few pressure bruises, others wound up with more serious subcutaneous bleeding or severely abraded skin. The worst cases Bai sent immediately off to the infirmary; the rest continued training until the sun was brushing the horizon. Another brisk five-klick run brought them back to the central complex building where, after a quick dinner, they assembled once more in C-662 for an evening of lectures on guerrilla tactics and strategy.

And finally, sore in both mind and body, they were sent back to their rooms.

* * *

It was the first time Jonny had been in his room since his two-week stint in surgery had begun, but it looked about as he remembered. Heading straight for his bunk, he collapsed gratefully into it, wincing at the unexpectedly loud protest from the bed's springs. Pure imagination, of course—he wasn't that much heavier, despite all the new hardware he was carrying around. Stretching his sore muscles, he gingerly probed the bruises on his arms, wondering if he could survive four more weeks of this.

His five roommates arrived a minute or so behind him, coming in as a group and obviously in the middle of comparing notes on the day. "—tell you all Army trainers act like assembly robots," Cally Halloran was saying as they filed through the door. "It's part of the toughening-up process for the recruits. Psychology, troops, psychology."

"Phrij on psychology," Parr Noffke opined, leaning over the end of his bunk and doing some halfhearted stretching exercises. "That whole farrago about eating lunch ten meters up?—you call that toughening up? I tell you, Bai just likes making us sweat."

"It proved you could hang on without devoting your entire attention to your fingers, didn't it?" Imel Deutsch countered dryly.

"Like I said," Halloran nodded. "Psychology."

Noffke snorted and abandoned his exercises. "Hey, Druma; Rolon? Get in here and join the party. We've got just enough time for a round hand of King's Bluff."

"In a minute," Druma Singh's soft voice called from the bathroom, where he and Rolon Viljo had vanished. Jonny had noticed the pale blue of heal-quick bandages on Singh's hands when they entered, and guessed Viljo was helping the other change the dressings.

"You, too, Mr. Answer Man," Noffke said, looking in Jonny's direction. "You know how to play King's Bluff?"

Answer Man? "I know a version of the game, but it may be just a local one," he told Noffke.

"Well, let's find out," the other shrugged, stepping to the room's circular table and pulling a deck of cards from a satchel sitting there. "Come on; Reginine rules say you can't turn down a card game when it's not for money."

"Since when do Reginine rules apply on Asgard?" Viljo demanded as he strolled in from the bathroom. "Why not play Earth rules, which state that all games are for money?"

"Aerie rules are that you play for real estate," Halloran offered from his bunk.

"Horizon rules—" Jonny began.

"Let's not reach too far into the Dominion backwaters, eh?" Viljo cut him off.

"Perhaps we should just go to sleep," Singh said, rejoining the group. "We'll undoubtedly have a busy day tomorrow."

"Come on," Deutsch beckoned, joining Noffke at the table. "A game will help us all settle down. Besides, it's these little things that help mold people into a team. Psychology, Cally. Right?"

Halloran chuckled, rolling out of bed and back onto his feet. "Unfair. All right, I'm in. Come on, Jonny; up. Druma, Rolon—Reginine rules, like the man said. One round only."

The game that Noffke described turned out to be almost identical to the King's Bluff Jonny was familiar with, and he felt reasonably confident as they launched into the first hand. Winning was completely unimportant to him, but he very much wanted to play without making any foolish mistakes. Viljo's gibe about the Dominion backwaters had finally crystallized for him exactly why he felt uncomfortable with this group: with the exception of Deutsch, all the others came from worlds older and more distinguished than Horizon—and Deutsch, as the only Cobra trainee from Adirondack, had obvious status as native authority on one of the two worlds the Trofts had captured. Most of the others weren't as blatant in their condescension as Viljo, but Jonny could sense traces of it in all of them. Proving he could play a competent game of cards might be a first step toward breaking down whatever stereotypes they had of frontier planets in general and Jonny in particular.

Perhaps it was his indifference toward winning aiding his merely average tactical skills, or perhaps it was small differences in body language giving his bluffs an unexpected edge . . . whatever the reason, the round hand wound up being the best he'd ever played. Out of six games he won one outright, bluff-won two others, and lost another only when Noffke stubbornly stayed with a hand that by all rights should have died young. Viljo suggested a second round—virtually demanded one, in fact—but Singh reminded them of the agreed-upon limit, and the game dissolved into a quiet flurry of bedtime preparations.

For several minutes after lights-out, Jonny replayed the game in his mind, searching every remembered nuance of speech and manner for signs that the social barriers were at least beginning to crack. But he was too tired to make much headway and soon gave up the effort. Still, they could have left him out of the game entirely; and his last thought before drifting off was that the next four weeks might be survivable, after all.

* * *

The first week of training saw a great deal of practice with the servo system, activation of the optical and auditory enhancers, and the first experience with weapons. The small lasers built into their little fingers, the trainees were told, were designed chiefly to be used on metals, but would be equally effective in short-range antipersonnel applications. Bai emphasized that, for the moment, the power outputs were being held far below lethal levels, but Jonny found that of limited comfort as he practiced against the easily melted solder targets. With anywhere up to seventy-two lasers being fired across the range at any given time, it didn't take much imagination to picture what a careless, servo-supplemented twitch of someone's wrist could do. The semiautomatic targeting capabilities, when added, just made things worse: it was all too easy to shift one's gaze with the variable/visual lock activated and wind up firing at the wrong target entirely. But luck—or Bai's training—proved adequate, and by the time the last of those sessions was over, Jonny could stand amid the flickering lights without wincing. At least not much.

At the beginning of the second week, they began putting all of it together.

"Listen up, Cobras, because today'll be your first chance to get yourselves slagged," Bai announced, apparently oblivious to the steady rain coming down on all of them. Standing at attention, Jonny tried to achieve a similar indifference; but the trickles working under his collar were far too cold for him to succeed. "A hundred meters behind me you'll see a wall," Bai continued. "It's part of a quadrangle containing a courtyard and a small inner building. Running along the top of the wall is a photoelectric beam simulating a defense laser; inside the courtyard are some remotes simulating Troft guards. Your objective is a small red box inside the building, which you are to obtain—quietly—and escape with."

"Great," Jonny muttered under his breath. Already his stomach was starting to churn.

"Be thankful we're not invading Reginine," Noffke murmured from beside him. "We set our wall lasers pointing up instead of across."


"Now, the remotes are programmed with the best estimates of Troft sensory and reflexive capabilities," Bai was saying, "and the operators running them are the best, so don't count on them making stupid mistakes. They're carrying dye-pellet guns, and if they get you, you're officially slagged. If you hit the wall photo beam, you're also slagged. If you make too much noise—as defined by the sound pick-ups we've set up—you'll not only lose points, but probably also bring the remotes down on you and get slagged. On top of all that, there are likely to be various automatics and reasonable booby-traps in the building you'll need to avoid—and don't bother asking what kind, 'cause I'm not telling. Questions? Um? All right. Aldred, front and center; everyone else to that canvas shelter to your left."

One by one, the trainees moved to Bai's side and headed across the muddy field. Bai had failed to mention that a kill was announced by an alarm horn, and as each man's disappearance over the wall was followed sooner or later by that sardonic bleat the quiet conversation in the shelter took on an increasingly nervous flavor. When the eighth trainee across—Deutsch, as it happened—reappeared over the wall without triggering the alarm, the collective sigh of relief was as eloquent as a standing ovation.

All too soon, it was Jonny's turn. "Okay, Moreau, everything's been reset," Bai told him. "Remember, you're being judged on stealth and observation, not speed. Take your time and remember all the stuff I've been lecturing you about the past couple of evenings and you should be okay. Um? Okay; go."

Jonny took off across the mud, running hunched-over to give any hypothetical optical sensors a smaller target to work with. Ten meters from the wall he slowed, splitting his attention to search for trip wires, wall-mounted sensors, and possible climbing routes. Nothing hazardous caught his attention; on the debit side, the wall had no obvious handholds, either. At the base Jonny gave the wall one final scan. Then, hoping his height estimate was close enough, he bent his knees and jumped. If anything, he erred on the short side, and at the very peak of his arc his curved fingers slid neatly over the top of the wall.

So far, so good. From his new vantage point, Jonny could see the photoelectric apparatus, from which he could tell that he would need to clear a maximum of twenty centimeters in getting over. A relatively easy task . . . provided he didn't bring the pseudo-Trofts down on him in the process.

Clicking his back teeth together, he activated his auditory enhancers; clicked three times more to run them to max. The sound of impacting rain reached frequency saturation and leveled out at a dull roar; beneath it, fainter noises became audible. None of them, he decided, sounded like remotes slogging through mud. Mentally crossing his fingers, he eased his head above the wall, switching off his super-hearing as he did so.

The inner building was smaller than he'd expected, a single-story structure covering perhaps a tenth of the walled-in area. No guards were visible near it; shifting his attention, he gave the rest of the courtyard a quick sweep.


Either he'd been incredibly lucky and all the guards were momentarily on the far side of the building, or else they were all inside, perhaps watching through the darkened windows. Either way, he had little choice but to grab the opportunity. Pulling hard with his right arm, he sent his legs and torso up and over the wall, vaulting horse style, tucking his arms to his chest as he did so to clear the photobeam. Beneath him, he got his first glimpse of the area where he would land—

And of the dull metallic sheen of the remote standing there.

The single thought unfair! was all he had time for. Kicking in his targeting lock, he snapped his hands into firing position and gave the remote a double blast. His attention on his shooting, his landing a second later was embarrassingly clumsy; but he had the satisfaction of seeing the guard hit the ground the same time he did.

But there was no reason yet for self-congratulation, and almost before he had his balance back Jonny was running toward the building. Wherever the rest of the remotes were, they would be bound to discover their downed colleague before too long, and he had to move while there was still something left of his initiative. Reaching the nearest wall, he sidled to the corner and took a quick look around it. No one in sight, but he could see the steps leading to an entrance door. Breaking into a run again, he headed for it—

Even without his auditory enhancers on, the buzzer that went off beside him was deafening. Jonny cursed under his breath; obviously, he'd hit one of the automatics Bai had warned them about. In a hurry or not, he still should have taken the time for a careful search. Now, it was too late, and there was nothing to do but prepare for combat. If he could get inside before the remotes reacted to the alarm there might still be a chance . . . he was at the door, aiming his laser at the solder lock, when a remote came around the far corner.

Jonny hurled himself from the building in a flat dive, arm swinging around as he targeted the guard. But even as he squeezed off the shot, the door to his side slammed open; and before he could do more than twist his head to see, he felt the dull punch of a dye-pellet against his ribs.

And, announcing his failure to the world, the alarm horn hooted from the wall. Feeling like an idiot, Jonny got to his feet and looked around for the way out.

"Let that be a lesson to you," someone said from the building, and Jonny turned to see a man with a Cobra Operations patch on his coveralls standing behind the remote who'd shot him. "When you've got two or more targets it can actually be faster to slag the first one visually, without the targeting lock."

"Thanks, sir," Jonny sighed. "How do I get out?"

"Right over there—you can head back and get cleaned up. And if it helps, a lot of the others did worse."

Swallowing, Jonny nodded and set off in the indicated direction. It wasn't much comfort to know that others would have died sooner. Dead is still dead.

* * *

"So, the great Horizon hope finally crusked one," Viljo said, setting his tray down at the far end of the table and favoring Jonny with an off-cordial smile.

Jonny dropped his eyes to his own lunch and said nothing, concentrating instead on the last few bites of his meal as the blood rushed to his face. Viljo's snide comments had become more and more frequent the past couple of days, and though Jonny was trying hard not to let the other get to him, the tension of the whole thing was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Afraid of doing anything that would brand him as overly sensitive or—worse—that would emphasize his frontier origins, he could only sit on his anger and hope Viljo would get tired of his verbal target practice.

Though if he wasn't, possibly others were. Across from Jonny, Halloran hunched over the table to eye Viljo. "I didn't notice you walking away with high honors, either," he said. "Matter of fact, except for Imel, I think we all got our egos nicely trimmed for show out there."

"Sure—but Jonny's the one Bai always holds up like he was the ideal trainee. Haven't you noticed? I just wondered if he liked being demoted to mortal."

Beside Viljo, Singh stirred in his seat. "You're exaggerating rather badly, Rolon; and even if you weren't, it would hardly be Jonny's fault."

"Oh, wouldn't it?" Viljo snorted. "Come on—you know as well as I do how this sort of favoritism works. Jonny's family's probably got some fix in with Bai or even Mendro, and Bai's making sure they're getting their money's worth."

And with that, the insults crossed a fine line . . . and Jonny abruptly had had enough.

In a single smooth motion, he stood up and leaped over the table, dimly aware of his chair slamming backwards into the next table as he did so. He landed directly behind Viljo who, apparently caught by surprise, was still seated. Jonny didn't wait for the other to respond; grabbing a fistful of shirt, he hauled Viljo upright and spun him around. "That's it, Viljo—that's the last breaff dropping I'm going to take from you. Now back off—understand?"

Viljo eyed him calmly. "My, my; so you have a temper after all. I suppose 'breaff dropping' is just one of those colorful expressions you use out there in the backwaters?"

That final smirk was too much. Letting go of Viljo's shirt, Jonny threw a punch at the other's face.

It was a disaster. Not only did Viljo duck successfully out of the way, but with his servos providing unaccustomed speed to his swing, Jonny was thrown completely off balance and rammed his thigh hard into the table before he could recover. The pain fanned his anger into something white-hot, and with a snarl he twisted around and hurled another blow at Viljo. Again he missed; but even as his arm cocked for a third try, something pinioned it in midair. He shoved against the grip, succeeded only in losing his balance again. "Easy, Jonny; easy," a voice murmured in his ear.

And with that the red haze abruptly vanished from his brain and he found himself standing in a roomful of silent Cobra trainees, his arms gripped solidly by Deutsch and Noffke, facing Viljo who—completely unmarked—looked altogether too self-satisfied.

He was still trying to sort it all out when the room's intercom/monitor ordered him to report to Mendro's office.

* * *

The interview was short, but excruciatingly painful, and by the time Jonny left he was feeling like one of the solder targets on the laser range. The thought of having to go back out on the practice field—of having to face everyone—was a knot of tension in his stomach, and as he walked across Mendro's outer office, he seriously considered turning back and asking for a transfer to a different branch of service. At least then he wouldn't have to endure the other trainees' eyes. . . . But as he debated the decision, his feet kept walking; and outside the office the whole question of hiding suddenly became academic.

Deutsch and Halloran peeled themselves from the wall where they'd been leaning as Jonny closed the door behind him. "You okay?" Deutsch asked, the concern in his face echoed in his voice.

"Oh, sure," Jonny snorted, unreasonably irked by this unexpected invasion of his private shame. "I just got verbally skinned alive, that's all."

"Well, at least it was all verbal," Halloran pointed out. "Don't forget, all of Mendro's weapons are functional. Hey, lighten up, Jonny. You're still in the unit, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Jonny said, the hard lump starting to dissolve a bit. "At least as far as I know. Though Bai will probably have something to say about that when he hears what happened."

"Oh, Bai already knows—he's the one who told us to wait here for you," Halloran said. "He said to bring you out to the practice range when you were ready. Are you?"

Grimacing, Jonny nodded. "I suppose so. Might as well get it over with."

"What, facing Bai?" Deutsch asked as they set off down the hall. "Don't worry; he understands what that was all about. So do Parr and Druma, for that matter."

"I wish I did," Jonny shook his head. "What has Viljo got against me, anyway?"

Halloran glanced at him, and Jonny caught the other's frown. "You really don't know?"

"I just said that, didn't I? What, he doesn't like anyone who was born more than ten light-years from Earth?"

"He likes them fine . . . as long as they don't show they're better at anything than he is."

Jonny stopped abruptly. "What are you talking about? I never did anything like that."

Halloran sighed. "Maybe not in your books, but a person like Rolon does his accounting differently. Look, remember our very first orientation meeting, the one he showed up late at? Who was it Bai used to pop his excuse?"

"Well . . . me. But that was only because I was the last to arrive before him."

"Probably," Halloran conceded. "But Rolon didn't know that. And then the first evening of our actual training you tore the stuffing out of all of us in that game of King's Bluff. People from Earth have a long history of being successful gamers, and I suspect that really put the icing on the cake as far as Rolon was concerned."

Jonny shook his head in bewilderment. "But I didn't mean to beat him—"

"Of course you did—everyone 'means' to win in a game," Deutsch said. "You didn't mean to humiliate him, of course, but in a way that actually makes it worse. For someone with Rolon's competitive streak, being clobbered by a perceived social inferior who wasn't even trying to do so was more than he could take."

"So what am I supposed to do—roll over and play dead for him?"

"No, you're supposed to just continue doing as well as you can and to hell with his ego," Deutsch said grimly. "Maybe maneuvering you into Mendro's kennel will satisfy his lopsided sense of personal honor. If not—" He hesitated. "Well, if he can't learn to work with you, I don't think we're going to want him on Adirondack."

Jonny gave him a quick look. For a brief moment Deutsch's air of calm humor had vanished, showing something much darker beneath it. "You know," Jonny said, striving to sound casual, "a lot of times you don't seem very concerned about what's happening on your world."

"You mean because I laugh and joke around?" Deutsch asked. "Or because I opted to spend a couple of months hanging around Asgard instead of grabbing a laser and rushing back to help?"

"Um . . . when you put it that way—"

"I care a lot about Adirondack, Jonny, but I don't see any advantage in tying myself in knots worrying about what the Trofts might be doing to my family and friends. Right now I can help them most by becoming the very best Cobra I can be—and by nudging the rest of you into doing the same."

"I think that's a hint we should get back to practice," Halloran said with a smile.

"Can't fool a psychologically trained mind," Deutsch replied wryly; and with that the momentary glimpse into his deeper self was over. But it was enough, and for the first time Jonny had a real understanding of the kind of men the Army had chosen for this unit.

The kind of men he'd been deemed worthy to join.

And it put the whole thing with Viljo into a final perspective. To risk washing out of the Cobras over what were essentially emotional fly bites would be the absolute depth of stupidity. From now on, he resolved, he would consider Viljo's gibes to be nothing more than practice in developing patience. If Deutsch could bear up under an invasion of his world, Jonny could surely put up with Viljo.

They'd reached an exit now, and Halloran led them outside. "Wait a second—we're on the wrong side of the building," Jonny said, stopping and looking around. "The practice field's that way, isn't it?"

"Yep," Halloran nodded cheerfully. "But for Cobras cross-country's faster than all those hallways."

"Cross-country as in around?" Jonny asked, peering down the eight-story structure heading halfway to infinity in both directions.

"As in over," Halloran corrected. Facing the wall, he flexed his knees. "Last one to the top's a gum-bumbler—and any windows you break come out of your pay."

* * *

The second week passed as the first had, with long days of Cobra exercises and equally long—or so it seemed—evenings of military theory. Every day or two they received new neckwrap computer modules, each one allowing a new weapon in their arsenals to be brought into play. Jonny learned how to use his sonic weapons and how to retune them in the event that the Trofts turned out to be particularly susceptible to specific frequencies; learned how to trigger his arcthrower, a blast of high voltage traveling down the ionization path burned by his right fingertip laser, and how to efficiently fry electronic gear with it; and, finally, learned now to handle the antiarmor laser in his left calf, simultaneously the most powerful and most awkward of his weapons. Pointing downward along the tibia, its beam was guided through his ankle by optical fibers to emerge through a flexible focusing lens in the bottom of his heel. Special boots were handed out with the computer modules that day, and as he tried to learn how to shoot while standing on one leg, Jonny joined the rest of the trainees in roundly cursing the idiot who'd been responsible for that particular design. Bai claimed they'd find out how versatile the laser was once they had their programmed reflexes, but no one seriously believed him.

But through all the work, practice, and memorization—through the physical and mental fatigue—two unexpected observations managed to penetrate Jonny's consciousness. First, that Viljo's taunts disappeared almost entirely after the mess hall incident, though the other remained cool toward him; and second, that Bai really did tend to single Jonny out for special notice.

The latter bothered him more than he cared to admit. Viljo's suggestion that the Moreau family had somehow bribed the instructor was absurd, of course . . . but at least some of the other trainees must have overheard the allegation, and if Jonny could pick up on Bai's pattern so could they. What did they think about it? Did they imagine it implied he was getting special privileges off the training field?

More to the point, why was Bai doing it?

He wasn't the best of the trainees, certainly—Deutsch alone proved that. Nor, he thought, was he the worst. The youngest? Oldest? Closest physically to some old friend/enemy? Or—and it was a chilling thought—did Bai secretly share some of Viljo's biases?

But whatever the reason, there was no response he could think of except the one he was already using: to endure with as much outer stoicism and inner calm as he could manage. It proved more effective than he'd expected it to, and by the time the second week drew to a close he was able to face Bai's comments or work alongside Viljo with only the slightest nervousness. How much the other trainees noticed his new attitude he didn't know, but Halloran made at least one comment on it.

And then the third week began; and all that had gone before paled to the relative significance of a quiet summer's stroll . . . because on the first day of that week they began working with their computerized reflexes.

* * *

"It's dead simple," Bai told them, gesturing to the ceiling barely two meters above their heads. "You first key your targeting lock on the spot where you intend to hit, and then jump, giving your body a backward motion as you do so." He bent his knees and straightened them, simultaneously arching his back. "Then just relax and let the computer run your servos. Try not to fight it, by the way; you'll just strain your muscles and make it harder for your subconscious to adjust to having something else in charge of your body. Questions? Um? All right. Aldred, target lock: go."

One by one they all performed the ceiling jump that had been their first introduction to Cobra abilities those four long weeks ago. Jonny had thought himself adequately prepared; but when his turn came he found out otherwise. Nothing—not even the now-familiar servo enhancement effect—could quite compare with the essential decoupling of body and mind that the automatic reflexes entailed. Fortunately, the maneuver was over so quickly that he didn't have time to feel more than a very brief panic before his feet were back on the floor and his muscles returned to his control. Only later did he realize that Bai had probably started them with the ceiling jump for precisely that reason.

They went through the exercise five times each, and with each flawless jump Jonny's anxiety and general feeling of weirdness eased, until he was feeling almost comfortable with his new copilot.

As he should have expected, though, he wasn't allowed to feel comfortable for long.

* * *

They stood atop a five-story building, looking over the edge at the ground below and the reinforced wall facing them about fifteen meters away. "He's got to be kidding," Halloran murmured at Jonny's side.

Jonny nodded wordlessly, his eyes shifting to Bai as the instructor finished his verbal description of the maneuver and stepped to the edge to demonstrate. "As always," Bai said, "you start with a targeting lock to give your computer the range. Then you just . . . jump."

His legs straightened convulsively, and an instant later he was arcing toward the facing wall. He hit it feet first about five meters down, his shoes scraping loudly as they slid a short distance further down along it. The combination of that friction plus the impact-absorbing bending of his knees flipped him partly over; and when his legs straightened again an instant later, the push sent him back toward the original building in a heels-over-head flip that somehow managed to have him feet forward when he struck the side, another five meters closer to the ground. Again he shoved off, and with one final bounce-and-flip off the far wall, he landed safely on the ground at the base of their building. "Nothing to it," his voice drifted up to the waiting trainees. "I'll be up in a minute, then we'll all try it."

He disappeared inside. "I think I'd rather take my chances with a straight jump," Noffke said to no one in particular.

"That's fine for a five-story building, but you'd never make it with anything really tall," Deutsch shook his head. "We do have some real cities on Adirondack, you know."

"I'll bet the Great Horizon Hope could give you a dozen more reasons why this is a good maneuver," Viljo put in, smiling sardonically at Jonny.

"Would you settle for two?" Jonny asked calmly. "One: you're never in free fall for very long this way, and besides making for a softer landing that'll play havoc with any manual or autotarget weapon they try shooting at you. And two: with your legs pointing up most of the time, your antiarmor laser's in good position to fire at whatever you were escaping from on the roof."

He had the satisfaction of seeing some of the other trainees nodding in agreement, and of watching Viljo's smirk sour into a grimace.

* * *

There was more—much more—and for ten days Bai put them through their paces. Gradually, the daily computer modules began to remove the restraints set onto their most dangerous equipment; just as gradually, the scorch-lasers and dye-pellets used by their metallic opponents were replaced by genuine weapons. Half a dozen of the trainees picked up minor burns and pellet wounds, and a new seriousness began to pervade the general attitude. Only Deutsch retained his bantering manner, and Jonny suspected it was simply because he was already as serious beneath the facade as the man could possibly be. The evening lectures were replaced by extra training sessions, giving them the chance to practice with their enhanced night vision the techniques they had so far used only in daylight and dusk. All of it seemed to be building to a head . . . and then, almost unexpectedly—though they all knew the schedule—it was over.


"There comes a time, Cobras," Bai told them that final afternoon, "when training reaches a saturation point; where drills and practice don't hone so much as fine-polish. Fine-polishing is okay if you're a gemstone or an athlete, but you're neither: you're warriors. And for warriors there's no substitute for genuine combat experience.

"So, starting tomorrow morning, combat is what you're going to get. Four days of it: two solitaire and two in units. You'll be up against the same remotes you've been training with; your own weapons and abilities will be identical to what you'll have when your combat nanocomputers are implanted in you five days from now. So. It's sixteen hundred hours now, and you're all officially off-duty until oh-eight-hundred tomorrow, when you'll be taken by transport to the test site. I suggest you eat tonight as if you'll be on field rations for four days—which you will be—and get a good night's sleep. Questions? Unit dismissed."

It was a somber group that gathered in Jonny's room that evening after dinner. "I wonder what it's going to be like," Noffke said, sitting at the table shuffling his cards restlessly.

"Not easy, that's for sure," Singh sighed. "We've already had minor injuries when everyone knew what he and his opponents were doing. We could very well lose someone out there."

"Or several someones," Halloran agreed. He was standing at the window, staring out. Past his shoulder Jonny could see a sprinkling of lights from other parts of Freyr Complex and, further away, the lights from Farnesee, the nearest civilian town. Somehow, it reminded him of his home and family, a thought that added to his gloom.

"They wouldn't make it dangerous enough to actually kill us, would they?" Noffke asked, though his tight expression indicated he already knew the answer.

"Why not?" Halloran retorted. "Sure, they've spent a lot on us—but there's no sense letting marginal ones go on to get killed the minute they land on Adirondack. Why do you think they put off implanting our computers until after the test?"

"To save some money where possible," Jonny grunted. "Parr, stop shuffling those cards—either deal them or put them away."

"You know what we need?" Viljo spoke up abruptly. "A night out of this place. A few drinks, some music, a little conversation with real people—especially of the female sort—"

"And how exactly do you expect to persuade Mendro to let us out for this little sortie?" Deutsch snorted.

"Actually, I wasn't planning to ask him," Viljo said calmly.

"I think that qualifies as going A.W.O.L.," Halloran pointed out. "There are lots of easier ways to get ourselves crusked."

"Nonsense. Bai said we were off-duty, didn't he? Anyway, has anyone ever explicitly told us we were confined to Freyr Complex?"

There was a short silence. "Well, no, now that you mention it," Halloran admitted. "But—"

"But nothing. We can sneak out of here easily enough—this place isn't even guarded as well as a regular military base would be. Come on—none of us is going to sleep well tonight anyway. We might as well have some fun."

Because tomorrow we might die. No one said those words aloud, but from the shifting of feet it was clear everyone was thinking variations of them . . . and after another brief silence Halloran got to his feet. "Sure. Why not?"

"I'm in," Noffke nodded quickly. "I hear there's good card games to be had in the pleasure centers in town."

"Along with lots of other stuff," Deutsch nodded. "Druma; Jonny? How about it?"

Jonny hesitated, his brother's words about decadence and holding onto his ethics flashing through his mind. Still, Viljo was right: nowhere in their verbal or written orders had there been anything about not leaving the complex.

"Come on, Jonny," Viljo said, using his first name for the first time in days. "If you can't justify it as relaxation, think of it as practice infiltrating an enemy-occupied city."

"All right," Jonny said. After all, he wouldn't have to do anything in town he didn't feel right about. "Just let me change into my other fatigues—"

"Phrij on that," Viljo interrupted. "Those look fine. Quit stalling and let's go. Druma?"

"Oh, I guess so," Singh agreed. "But only for a little while."

"You'll be able to leave whenever you want to," Halloran assured him. "Once we're in town everyone's on his own timetable. Well. Out the window?"

"Out and up," Viljo nodded. "Lights out . . . here goes."

It proved far easier to leave the complex grounds than Jonny had expected. From the roof of their wing they dropped to a darkened drill field used by the regular Army recruits in Freyr; crossing it, they arrived at an easily-negotiated perimeter wall. Avoiding the simple photobeam alarms at the top, they went over. "That's it," Deutsch said cheerfully. "Nothing but ten klicks of field and suburb between us and fun. Race you!"

Even with having to slow down once they hit populated areas, the trip took only half an hour . . . and Jonny got his first taste of what a real city could be.

Afterwards, he wouldn't remember much about that first plunge into mainstream Dominion recreational life. Deutsch took the lead, guiding them on a giddy and tortuous path among the shows, night spots, restaurants, and pleasure centers that he'd become familiar with in the weeks between his arrival from an Iberiand university and his final enlistment in the Cobras. More people than Jonny had ever seen at once in his life seemed to be crowded into the district—civilians in oddly cut, luminescent clothing; other civilians whose focus of ornamentation was wild facial makeup, and military personnel of every branch and rank. It was too festive an atmosphere for Jonny to feel uneasy, but by the same token it was too outlandish for him to truly relax and enjoy, either. It made for a lousy compromise, and within a couple of hours he had had enough. Excusing himself from Deutsch and Singh—all that were still together of the original six—he worked his way back through the crowds to the soothing darkness surrounding the town. Getting back into the complex was no harder than sneaking out had been, and soon he was sliding back through the window into their dark and deserted room. Leaving the lights off, he quickly prepared for bed.

He'd been lying in his bunk for perhaps half an hour, trying to will his overactive mind to sleep, when a noise at the window made him open his eyes. "Who's there?" he stage-whispered as the figure eased into the room.

"Viljo," the other murmured tightly. "You alone?"

"Yes," Jonny said, swinging his legs out of bed. Something in Viljo's voice was distinctly off-key. "What's wrong?"

"I thought Mendro and the MPs might be here by now," Viljo said distractedly, flopping onto his back on his own bunk. "I'm not sure, but I think I'm in trouble."

"What?" Jonny bumped his vision enhancers up a notch. In the amplified background light Viljo's expression was tight, but he didn't seem hurt. "What kind of trouble?"

"Oh, I had a little argument with some phrijeater behind one of the bars. Had to bounce him around a bit." Abruptly, Viljo levered himself off the bunk and headed for the bathroom. "Go back to bed," he told Jonny over his shoulder. "If the guy makes trouble we'd both better be innocently asleep when the investigations start."

"Will he recognize you again? I mean—"

"I don't think he was blind or illiterate, no."

"I meant was it light enough to read your name off your fatigues?"

"Yeah, it was light enough . . . if he had time to pay attention. Go to bed, will you?"

Heart pounding, Jonny crawled back under his blanket. Bounced him around a bit. What did that mean? Had Viljo hurt the other—perhaps even badly? He opened his mouth to ask . . . and then closed it again. Did he really want to know all the details? "What are you going to do?" he asked instead.

"Get undressed and go to bed—what did you think?"

"No, I mean about . . . reporting it."

The sound of running water stopped and Viljo reemerged. "I'm sure as hell not telling anyone else about this. You think I'm crazy?"

"But the guy could be badly hurt—"

"He got away under his own power. Besides, he's hardly the sort of phrijeater worth risking your career over. That goes for your career, too."


"You know what. You go blabbing about this to Mendro and you'll have to admit you were out of Freyr tonight, too." He paused, studying Jonny's face. "Besides which, it'd be a lousy demonstration of team unity for you to turn me in over something this trivial."

"Trivial? What was he armed with, a laser cannon? You could've gotten away without fighting. Why'd you stick around?"

"You wouldn't understand." Viljo climbed into his bunk. "Look, I didn't really hurt him; and if I overreacted, it's too late to change things now. So let's just forget it, huh? Chances are he won't even report it."

"But what if he does? If you don't report it first, it'll look like you're trying to cover it up."

"Yeah, well, I'll play the odds—and since it's my risk, you're invited to stay out of it."

Jonny didn't answer. Silence again returned to the room, and after a few minutes Viljo's breathing slipped into the slow, steady pattern of sleep. The mark of a clear conscience, Jonny's father would have said, but in this case that hardly seemed likely. For Jonny, though, the immediate problem was not Viljo's conscience but his own.

What was the proper thing to do here? If he kept quiet he was technically an accessory after the fact, and if the civilian's injuries turned out to be severe, that could mean real trouble. On the other hand, Viljo's point about team loyalty was well taken. Jonny remembered Bai saying something about such things at the orientation meeting, and if Viljo had in fact simply put a bully in his place, forgetting the incident would seem the best course. Point, counterpoint; and with the limited information he had the two arguments could chase each other around his brain all night.

They made a good try at doing just that, keeping him uselessly awake for the next hour and a half. One by one his other four roommates came in the open window, performed their bedtime preparations, and went to sleep. At least none of them had gotten caught; and with that particular worry out of the way Jonny was finally able to force the rest of it far enough back in his mind to fall asleep himself. But his dreams were violent, tension-ridden things, and when reveille put an end to them, he felt worse than if he'd been awake all night.

Somehow, he managed to dress, grab his prepacked combat bag, and head down to the mess hall with the others without his groggy eyes drawing any special comment. No MPs arrived while they were eating, nor was anyone waiting by the transport as they crowded in with the rest of the trainees; and with each kilometer they flew Jonny's load eased a little more. Surely the authorities wouldn't have let them leave if there'd been any complaints of Cobra misbehavior in town. Apparently the other participant in Viljo's fight had indeed decided to let the whole matter slide.

They reached the hundred-thousand-hectare test site an hour later, and after giving them new computer modules, extra equipment, and final instructions, Bai turned them loose on their individual objectives. Putting the entire previous night out of his mind, Jonny set to work surviving the exam.

It was therefore something of a surprise when, returning to field HQ from his first successful exercise, he found an MP transport waiting. It was even more of a shock to find it was waiting for him. 

* * *

The young man fidgeting in his chair next to Mendro's desk certainly looked like he'd been in a fight. Heal-quick bandages covered one cheek and his jaw, and his left arm and shoulder were wrapped in the kind of ribbed plastic cast used to speed broken bone repair. What was visible of his expression looked nervous but determined.

Mendro's expression was merely determined. "Is this the man?" he asked the other as Jonny sat down in the chair his MP guard indicated.

The civilian's eyes flicked once over Jonny's face, then settled onto his fatigue tunic. "It was too dark to see his face well enough, Commander," he said. "But that's the name, all right."

"I see." Mendro's eyes bored into Jonny's. "Moreau, Mr. P'alit here claims you attacked him last night behind the Thasser Eya Bar in Farnesee. True or false?"

"False," Jonny managed through dry lips. Through the haze of unreality filling the room a nasty suspicion was beginning to take shape.

"Were you in Farnesee last night?" Mendro persisted.

"Yes, sir, I was. I . . . sneaked out to try and relax before the final exam started today. I was only there for a couple of hours—" he glanced at P'alit—"and I most certainly didn't fight with anyone."

"He's lying," P'alit spoke up. "He was—"

Mendro's gesture silenced him. "Did you go alone?"

Jonny hesitated. "No, sir. All of us in my room went. We split up in town, though, so I don't have any alibi. But . . ."

"But what?"

Jonny took a deep breath. "About a half hour after I got back one of the others came in and told me he'd—well, he said he'd bounced someone around a little behind one of the bars in Farnesee."

Mendro's eyes were hard, unbelieving. "And you didn't report it?"

"He indicated it was a minor argument. Certainly nothing so . . . serious." He looked again at P'alit; only then did the sophistication of the frame-up sink in. No wonder Viljo hadn't wanted Jonny to change clothes before they all left. "I can only conclude that he was wearing my spare tunic at the time."

"Uh-huh. Who was it who told you all this?"

"Rolon Viljo, sir."

"Viljo. The one you attacked in the mess hall awhile back?"

Jonny gritted his teeth. "Yes, sir."

"Obviously just trying to put the blame on someone else," P'alit spoke up scornfully.

"Perhaps. How did the fight start, Mr. P'alit?"

The other shrugged with his free shoulder. "Oh, I made some snide comment about the outer provinces—I don't even know how the topic came up. He took it personally and shoved me out the back door where a bunch of us were standing."

"Isn't that what you targeted Viljo over, Moreau?" Mendro asked.

"Yes, sir." Jonny resisted the almost overwhelming urge to again explain that incident. "I don't suppose any of your companions might have gotten a clear look at your assailant, Mr. P'alit?"

"No, no one saw you clearly—but I don't think that's going to be necessary." P'alit looked back at Mendro. "I think this story's pretty well lost its factory finish, Commander. Are you going to take action on this or not?"

"The Army always disciplines its own," Mendro said, tapping a button on his desk console. "Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention." Behind Jonny, the door opened and another MP appeared. "Sergeant Costas will escort you out."

"Thank you." Standing up, P'alit nodded to Mendro and followed the MP out. Catching the eye of Jonny's guard, Mendro gestured minutely, and the other joined the exodus. The door closed and Jonny and Mendro were alone.

"Anything you'd like to say?" Mendro asked mildly.

"Nothing that would do any good, sir," Jonny told him bitterly. All the work, all the sweat . . . and it was about to come crashing down on top of him. "I didn't do it, but I don't know any way to prove that."

"Um." Mendro gave him a long, searching gaze and then shrugged. "Well . . . you'd better get back to the testing, I suppose, before you get any further behind schedule."

"You're not dropping me from the unit, sir?" Jonny asked, a spark of hope struggling to pierce the rubble of his collapsed future.

"Do you think this sort of misbehavior rates that?" Mendro countered.

"I really don't know." Jonny shook his head. "I know we're needed for the war, but . . . on Horizon, at least, picking on someone weaker than you are is considered cowardly."

"It's considered that way on Asgard, too." Mendro sighed. "It may very well come to expulsion, Moreau; at this point I don't know. But until that decision's made there's no point in depriving your team of your help in the group operations."

In other words, they were going to give him the chance to risk his life—and possibly lose it—and then decide whether that risk had any real meaning or not. "Yes, sir," Jonny said, standing up. "I'll do my best."

"I expect nothing less." Mendro touched a button and the MP reappeared. "Dismissed."

* * *

It wasn't as hard as Jonny had expected to forget his new troubles as the testing continued. The defenses he faced were devilishly tight, and it took every milligram of his concentration to handle his assigned missions. But his luck and skill held out, and he completed the solitaire exercises with nothing more serious than skinned hands and an impressive collection of bruises.

And then he joined his roommates for the group tests . . . and there the disasters began.

Facing Viljo again—working and fighting alongside him—brought out thoughts and feelings that even their danger couldn't suppress . . . and that distraction quickly manifested itself in reduced competence. Twice Jonny got himself into situations that only his computerized reflexes were able to get him out of; more often than that a failure to do his part of the job wound up putting one of the others in unnecessary danger. Singh took a laser burn that had him operating under the sluggishness of heavy pain-killers, while only quick action by Jonny and Deutsch pulled Noffke out of a pincer trap that would almost certainly have left him dead.

A hundred times during those two days Jonny considered having it out with Viljo, either verbally or physically; of letting the others know the kind of vermin they were working with and at least eliminating the lie he was being forced to live. But each time the opportunity arose he choked his anger back down and said nothing. They were all just barely surviving with one of their number under an emotional handicap; to multiply that burden and spread it around would be not only unfair but likely lethal as well.

The other logical alternative occurred to him only once, and for an hour afterward he actually regretted the fact that his ethical training forbade him to simply shoot Viljo in the back.

The missions went on, oblivious to Jonny's internal turmoil. Together the six of them broke into a fortified ten-story building; penetrated and destroyed a twenty-man garrison; disabled the booby-traps around an underground bunker and blew up its entrance; and successfully rescued four remotes simulating civilian prisoners from a Troft jail. They camped overnight in a Troft-patrolled wasteland area, picked up the characteristics of an off-center group of civilians quickly enough and accurately enough to avoid being identified as strangers an hour afterwards, and led a group of Resistance remotes on a simple mission that succeeded despite the often dangerous errors the remotes' operators allowed their machines to make.

They did it all, they did it well, and they lived through it . . . and as the transport flew them back toward Freyr, Jonny decided it had been worth the risk. Whatever discipline Mendro chose to administer, he knew now that he indeed had what it took to be a Cobra. Whether he was ever allowed to serve as one or not, that inner knowledge was something they could never take from him.

When they reached Freyr and found the MPs waiting, he was almost glad. Whatever Mendro had decided, apparently it was going to be over quickly.

And it was. What he wasn't expecting was that the commander would invite an audience to watch.

* * *

"Cee-three Bai reports you did extremely well," Mendro commented, looking around at the six grimy trainees seated in a semicircle in front of his desk. "Given you're all alive and relatively unscathed, I would tend to agree. Any immediate reactions to the missions that spring to mind?"

"Yes, sir," Deutsch spoke up after a moment of thoughtful silence. "We had some major problems leading that Resistance team—their mistakes were very hard to compensate for. Was that simulation realistic?"

Mendro nodded. "Unfortunately, yes. Civilians are always going to make what are—to you—incredibly stupid mistakes. About all you can do is try and minimize that effect while maintaining an attitude of patience. Other comments? No? Then I suppose we'd better move on to the reason I called you here: the charges outstanding against Trainee Moreau."

The abrupt change of subject sent a rustle of surprise through the group. "Charges, sir?" Deutsch asked carefully.

"Yes. He's been accused of attacking a civilian during your unauthorized trip into town four nights ago." Mendro gave them a capsule summary of P'alit's story. "Moreau claims he didn't do it," he concluded. "Comments?"

"I don't believe it, sir," Halloran said flatly. "I'm not calling this character a liar, but I think he must've misread the name."

"Or else saw Jonny that night, got into a fight later, and is trying to stick the Army for his medical costs," Noffke suggested.

"Perhaps," Mendro nodded. "But suppose for the moment it's true. Do you think I would be justified in that event in transferring Moreau out of the Cobras?"

An uncomfortable silence descended on the room. Jonny watched the play of emotion across their faces, but while he clearly had their sympathy, it was also clear which way they were leaning. He hardly blamed them; in their places he knew which answer he would choose.

It was Deutsch who eventually put the common thought into words. "I don't think you'd have any choice, sir. Misuse of our equipment would essentially pit us against the civilian population, certainly in their minds. Speaking as a citizen of Adirondack, we've already got all the opponents we need right now."

Mendro nodded. "I'm glad you agree. Well. For the next couple of days you'll be off-duty again. After that we'll be running through a detailed analysis of your exam performance with each of you, showing you where and how your equipment could have been utilized more effectively." He paused . . . and something in his face abruptly broke through the deadness surrounding Jonny's mind. "That's one of the things we had to keep secret, to avoid excessive self-consciousness," the commander went on. "With the relatively large amount of space available in those neckwrap computers we were able to keep records of all your equipment usage." Almost lazily, he shifted his gaze. "That alley behind the Thasser Eya Bar was dark, Trainee Viljo. You had to use your vision enhancers while you fought that civilian."

The color drained from Viljo's face. His mouth opened . . . but then his eyes flicked around the group, and whatever protest or excuse he was preparing died unsaid.

"If you have an explanation, I'll hear it now," Mendro added.

"No explanation, sir," Viljo said through stiff lips.

Mendro nodded. "Halloran, Noffke, Singh, Deutsch: you'll escort your former teammate to the surgical wing; they already have their instructions. Dismissed."

Slowly, Viljo stood up. He looked once at Jonny with empty eyes, then walked to the door with the remnants of his dignity wrapped almost visibly around him. The others, their own expressions cast in iron, followed.

The brittle silence in the room remained for several seconds after the door closed behind them. "You knew all along I didn't do it," Jonny said at last.

Mendro shrugged minutely. "Not conclusively, but we were ninety percent sure. The computer doesn't record a complete film every time the vision enhancers are used, you know. We had to correlate that usage with servo movements to know whether you'd done it or not—and until you identified Viljo as the probable culprit, we didn't know whose records we also needed to pull."

"You still could've told me then that I wasn't really under suspicion."

"I could've," Mendro acknowledged. "But it seemed like a good opportunity to get a little more data on your emotional makeup."

"You wanted to see if I'd be too preoccupied to function in combat? Or whether I'd just slag Viljo and be done with it?"

"And losing control either way would've had you out of the unit instantly," Mendro said, his voice hardening. "And before you complain about being unfairly singled out, remember that we're preparing you for war here, not playing some game with fixed rules. We do what's necessary, and if some people bear a little more of the burden than others, well, that's just the way it goes. Life is like that, and you'd better get used to it." The commander grunted. "Sorry—didn't mean to lecture. I won't apologize for running you an extra turn around the squirrel cage, but having come through the test as well as you did I don't think you've got real grounds for complaint."

"No, sir. But it wasn't just a single turn around the cage. Cee-three Bai's been holding me up for special notice ever since the training began—and if he hadn't done that Viljo might not have gotten irritated enough to try tarnishing my image like he did."

"Which let us learn something important about him, didn't it?" Mendro countered coolly.

"Yes, sir. But—"

"Let me put it this way, then," Mendro interrupted. "In all of human history people from one part of a region, country, planet, or system have tended to look down on people from another. It's simple human nature. In today's Dominion of Man this manifests itself as a faintly condescending attitude toward the frontier planets. Worlds like Horizon, Rajput, even Zimbwe . . . and Adirondack.

"It's a small thing and not at all important culturally, and it's therefore damned hard to test for its influence on a given trainee's personality. So without useful theory, we fall back on experiment: we raise someone from one of those worlds as the shining example of what a good Cobra should be and then watch to see who can't stand that. Viljo obviously couldn't. Neither, I'm sorry to say, could some of the others."

"I see." A week ago, Jonny thought, he'd probably have been angry to learn he'd been used like that. But now . . . he had passed his test, and would be remaining a Cobra. They hadn't, and would be becoming . . . what? "What's going to happen to them? I remember you saying that some of our equipment wouldn't be removable. Will you have to . . . ?"

"Kill them?" Mendro smiled faintly, bitterly, and shook his head. "No. The equipment isn't removable, but at this stage it can be rendered essentially useless." There was something like pain in the other's eyes, Jonny noticed suddenly. How many times, he wondered, and for how many large or small reasons, had the commander had to tell one of his carefully chosen trainees that the suffering and sacrifice was all going to be for nothing? "The nanocomputer they'll be fitted with will be a pale imitation of the one you'll be receiving soon. It'll disconnect the power pack from all remaining weapons and put a moderate upper limit on servo power. To all intents and purposes they'll leave Asgard as nothing more than normal men with unbreakable bones."

"And some bitter memories."

Mendro gave him a long, steady look. "We all have those, Moreau. Memories are what ultimately spell the difference between a trainee and a soldier. When you've got memories of things that haven't worked—of things you could have done better, or differently, or not done at all—when you've got all that behind your eyes but can still do what has to be done . . . then you'll be a soldier."

* * *

A week later Jonny, Halloran, Deutsch, Noffke, and Singh—now designated Cobra Team 2/03—left with the other newly-commissioned Cobras on a heavily protected skip-transport for the war zone. Penetrating the Troft battle perimeter, the teams were space-chuted into an eight-hundred-kilometer stretch of Adirondack's strategic Essek District.

The landing was a disaster. Reacting far quicker than anyone had expected them to, the Troft ground forces intercepted Jonny's team right on the edge of the city Deutsch had been steering them toward. The Cobras were able to escape the encirclement with nothing more than minor flesh wounds . . . but in the blistering crossfire of that battle three civilians, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were killed. For days afterward their faces haunted Jonny's memories, and it was only as the team settled into their cover identities and began planning their first raid that he realized Mendro had been right.

And he was well on his way to collecting a soldier's memories.



Halfway around Asgard from Freyr Complex—removed both in distance and philosophical outlook from the centers of military strength—lay the sprawling city known simply as Dome. Periodic attempts had been made in the past two centuries to give it a more elegant name; but those efforts had been as doomed to failure as would have been a movement to rename Earth itself. The city—and the geodesic dome that dominated its skyline—were as fixed in the minds of Dominion citizens as were their own names . . . because it was from here that the Central Committee sent out the orders, laws, and verdicts that ultimately affected the lives of each one of those citizens. From here could be reversed the decisions of mayors, syndics, and even planetary governor-generals; and as all were equal under the law, so in theory could any citizen's complaint or petition be brought to the Committee's attention.

In practice, of course, that was pure myth, and everyone who worked in the dome's shadow knew it. Small, relatively local matters were the province of the lower levels of government, and that was where they generally stayed. Seldom did any matter not directly affecting billions of people come to even a single Committé's attention.

But it did happen.

Committé Sarkiis H'orme's office was about average for one of the thirty most powerful men in the Dominion. Plush carpet, rare-wood paneling, a large desk inlaid with artifacts from dozens of worlds—a quiet sort of luxury, as such things went. Beyond the side doors lay his eight-room personal apartment and the miniature haiku garden where he often went to think and plan. Some Committés used their dome apartments but rarely, preferring to leave their work behind in the evening and fly out to their larger country estates. H'orme was not one of those. Conscientious and hard-working by nature, he often worked late into the night . . . and at his age, the strain too often showed.

It was showing now, Vanis D'arl thought, running a critical eye over H'orme as the Committé skimmed through the report he'd prepared. Soon now—probably sooner than either had expected—H'orme would drive himself to an early death or retirement, and D'arl would take his place on the Committee. The ultimate success the Dominion had to offer; but one that carried a twinge of uneasiness along with it. D'arl had been with H'orme for nineteen years—the last eight as chief aide and chosen successor—and if he'd learned one thing in that time, it was that running the Dominion properly took infinite knowledge and infinite wisdom. The fact that no one else possessed those qualities either was irrelevant; the philosophy of excellence under which he'd been raised demanded he strive for the closest approximations possible. H'orme, also born and raised on Asgard, shared that background . . . and D'arl therefore knew how much work those goals entailed.

Pushing the "page" button one last time, H'orme laid down his comboard and raised his eyes to D'arl's. "Thirty percent. After all the preliminary testing thirty percent of the Cobra warrior trainees are still being deemed unfit. I presume you noticed the primary reason listed?"

D'arl nodded. " 'Unsuitability for close work with civilian populations.' It's a catch-all category, I'm afraid, but I couldn't get the numbers broken down any further. I'm still trying."

"You see what this implies, though, don't you? For the tests to have missed that badly, something must have changed between the prelims and the final cut; and what that means is that we're sending fully-activated Cobra warriors to Silvern and Adirondack without truly understanding their psychological state. On general principles alone that's poor policy."

D'arl pursed his lips. "Well . . . it may just be a temporary feeling of power induced by their new abilities," he suggested. "A taste of warfare might make them realize that they're as fallible as any other mortals. Bring any conceit back down to normal."

"Perhaps. But perhaps not." H'orme flipped to the report directory, found an item. "Three hundred of them sent out in the first landing wave; six hundred more in training. Hmmm. I suppose it could just be a reflection of the poor statistics available. Any indication the Army's adjusting its prelim testing screen?"

"Too soon to tell," D'arl shook his head.

For a moment the other was silent. D'arl let his attention drift to the triangular windows at H'orme's back and the panoramic view of Dome it provided. Some Committés had the windows permanently blanked in favor of more picturesque holos, and he'd often thought H'orme's choice indicated a firmer commitment to seeking out truth and reality. "If you'd like, sir," he spoke up, "I could place a cancellation order for the whole project on the Considerations List. At the very least it would alert the rest of the Committee that there were potential problems with it."

"Hm." H'orme gazed at his comboard again. "Three hundred already in action. No. No, the reasons the Committee gave its approval in the first place are still valid: we're in a war for Dominion territory and we've got to use every weapon that could possibly help us. Besides, cutting things off now would essentially doom the Cobra warriors already fighting to a losing war of attrition. Still . . ." He tapped his fingers on his desk. "I want you to start gleaning all military intelligence coming from Silvern and Adirondack for data on how they're interacting both with each other and the local civilian populations. If any problems start developing, I want to know about it right away."

"Yes, sir," D'arl nodded. "It might help if I knew exactly what you were looking for."

H'orme waved a hand vaguely. "Oh, call it a . . . a Titan complex, I suppose. The belief that one is so powerful that one is above normal laws and standards. The Cobra warriors have been given a great deal of physical power and that can be a dangerous thing."

D'arl had to smile at that. Imagine, a Committé of the Dominion worried about too much power in a single individual! Still, he saw the other's point. The Cobra warriors had been handed their power all at once, instead of having to acquire and use it in small increments, which essentially sidestepped the usual adjustment mechanisms. "I understand," he told H'orme. "Do you want me to file that report in the main system?"

"No, I'll do it later. I want to study the numbers more closely first."

"Yes, sir." The unspoken implication being that some of those figures might wind up in H'orme's personal database rather than in the more accessible main Dome system. One of the bases of power, D'arl had long ago learned, was in not letting potential opponents know everything you did. "Shall I have someone bring up dinner for you?"

"Please. And add in an extra pot of cahve; I expect I'll be working late this evening."

"Yes, sir." D'arl got to his feet. "I'll probably also be in my office until later if you need me."

H'orme grunted acknowledgment, already engrossed in the comboard again. Walking silently on the thick carpet, D'arl crossed to the inlaid grafwood door. The Cobra warriors were certainly no danger while occupied in a war; but H'orme wasn't one to jump at sudden noises, and if he was becoming concerned, it was time D'arl did likewise. First step would be a call around the planet to the Cobra training center in Freyr Complex to see about shaking loose some more numbers.

And after that . . . it would probably be best to have the dining service send up two dinners instead of just one. It looked like this could be a long evening for him, too.


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