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Chapter One

The warehouse stretched out in front of them, its lights dimmed, its floor and furnishings old and drab. It was obviously deserted, with a thick layer of dust that indicated years of disuse and neglect. For all Jasmine "Jin" Moreau Broom could tell as she gazed over the scene, the place might have been sitting here unnoticed since the founding of Capitalia, or even since the first human colonists arrived on Aventine.

But Jin knew better. The stacks of crates, the parked forklifts, the dangling cables from the ceiling cranes—it was all an illusion. The room had never been a warehouse. Nor had it ever been an aircraft hangar, an office floor, or an alien landscape.

All it had ever been was a deathtrap.

A shiver of memory ran through her, the goose bumps that rippled through her flesh twinging against the arthritis growing its slow but inexorable way through her shoulders and hips. Jin's own Cobra training, thirty-two years ago, had taken place elsewhere on Aventine, as befit the uniqueness of the mission she and her ill-fated teammates had been assigned. As a result, she herself had never had to deal with this room in any of its various incarnations.

But her husband had taken his turn in here. Many turns, in fact. So had both of her sons, and she could still remember the unpleasant mixture of anxiety and pride she'd felt every time she'd stood here on the glassed-in observation catwalk watching one of them in action.

The fear and pride she'd felt in them as Cobras.

Unfortunately, not all of the members of the group here today shared Jin's sense of respect for this place. "You think maybe we could get on with it?" Aventinian Senior Governor Tomo Treakness muttered under his breath from his position two people to Jin's left. "I have actual work to do."

Jin leaned forward to look at him, a list of withering retorts jockeying for the privilege of leading the charge. She picked the most devastating of the options.

And left it unsaid as the man standing between her and Treakness laid a calming hand on hers. "Patience, Governor," Paul Broom said with the mildness and assured self-control that Jin so admired in her husband. "As I'm sure your estate's chief vintner would tell you, a fine wine can't be rushed."

A flash of something crossed Treakness's face. Annoyance, Jin hoped. Politicians like Treakness, who liked to portray themselves as friends of the common folk, didn't like being reminded about their wealth. "Interesting comparison, Cobra Broom," Treakness said. "So you see this as a slow-aged luxury beverage?"

"The Cobras are hardly a luxury," Governor Ellen Hoffman put in stiffly from Jin's right. "Maybe you don't need them so much in Capitalia anymore—"

"Please, Ellen," Treakness interrupted, his tone cool with a hint of condescension about it. "You know perfectly well I didn't mean the Cobras themselves."

"If you disparage the Sun Advanced Training Center, you disparage the Cobras," Hoffman countered. "Without the center, there are no Cobras."

"Really?" Treakness asked with feigned incredulity. "I'm sorry—did the MacDonald Center burn down when I wasn't looking?"

Hoffman's face darkened—"That's enough," the fifth member of the group, Governor-General Chintawa, put in firmly from Hoffman's other side. "Save the fireworks for the Council chamber. We're here to observe, not debate."

"If there's ever anything to observe," Treakness said.

"Patience, Governor," Paul said again, pointing to the left. "Here they come now."

Jin craned her neck to look. Fifteen shadowy figures had appeared around the side of one of the stacks and were marching with military precision toward the section of floor in front of the observation catwalk. Keying her optical enhancers for telescopic and light-amplification, she took a closer look.

Another shiver ran up her back. The alien Trofts who occupied the vast stretches of space between the Cobra Worlds and the distant Dominion of Man had been trusted friends and trading partners as long as Jin had been alive, plus quite a few years before that. But she knew her history, and the sight of the creatures who had once been mankind's deadliest enemies never failed to stir feelings of not-quite distrust.

This particular group of Trofts were even more impressive than usual, she decided as she watched them marching along. Their gait was military-precise and as fluid as their back-jointed legs could manage. Their hand-and-a-half lasers, the size and power currently favored by the Tlossie demesne's patrol forces, were held in cross-chest ready positions. Their eyes continually swept the areas around them, their pointed deer-like ears twitching as they did their own auditory scan, and the wing-like radiator membranes on the backs of their upper arms fluttered in and out to maintain their internal temperature and distinctive infrared signatures.

They were so perfect, in fact, that they might have been real.

"They get better every year, don't they?" Paul murmured.

Jin nodded . . . because the figures marching along down there were not, in fact, living Trofts. They were robots, designed as the ultimate test of new Cobras and seasoned veterans alike.

And like all ultimate challenges, this one carried the ultimate risk.

"Finally," Treakness grumbled. "Now how long are going to have to wait for them to get to their hiding places before the Cobras can move in?"

The words were barely out of his mouth when the brilliant spear of a Cobra antiarmor laser beam slashed across the warehouse, slicing into one of the lasers in the center of the enemy formation. "Not long at all," Paul said calmly. "This is an ambush exercise."

The robots scattered madly for cover as three more Cobra lasers joined in the attack. Two of the enemy went down in that first salvo, as did a third whose laser exploded in its face as the Cobras' attack shorted out the weapon's power pack. A moment later, the remaining Trofts had made it to cover, and the battle settled into a slower but no less deadly game of hide-and-seek.

Jin gazed down at the operation, another set of memories rising from the back of her mind. She'd fought the Trofts herself once, the only person since the First Cobras to have ever faced the aliens in actual combat. She'd taken on a cargo ship full of them on the human breakaway colony world of Qasama, more or less singlehandedly. Not only had she lived to tell the tale, but she'd even managed to pull a quiet but genuine victory out of the situation.

And had then returned to Aventine and watched helplessly as that victory was snatched from her fingers by truth-twisting politicians.

She leaned forward for a surreptitious look past her husband. Treakness was watching the battle closely, visibly wincing every time one of the robots was knocked out of action. With Treakness it was always about money, and Jin could practically see the calculator tape running through his brain. Fifteen robots at roughly a million klae each, plus the costs of the techs running the exercise, plus the maintenance costs of the Sun Center, plus the creation and training of the Cobras themselves—

"They're not actually being destroyed, you know," Paul commented.

"No, the lasers are just chewing up their outer ablative coating material," Treakness said tartly. "I do read the reports, thank you."

"I just thought it might be worth mentioning," Paul murmured.

"I also know that it still costs a minimum of fifty thousand for each refurbishing," Treakness continued. "That's a minimum of fifty thousand. If the internal works get damaged, that bill can quadruple."

"And it's worth every klae," Hoffman put in. "The statistics on Cobra survival in the field have gone up tremendously since the Sun Center opened."

"You get a lot of Troft warriors in the fields of Donyang Province, do you?" Treakness asked pointedly. "I must have missed those reports."

Paul looked sideways at Jin; she rolled her eyes at him in silent reply. For some reason that she couldn't fathom, the military concept of deterrence still managed to elude some of the allegedly brightest minds in the Cobra Worlds. Yes, for most of the Worlds' existence the Cobras had served mainly as frontier guardians, policemen, and hunters, working hard to clear out the spine leopards and other lethal predators from newly opened territories so the farmers and ranchers and loggers could move in. And yes, the three Troft demesnes nearest the Worlds had been as peaceable as anyone could ever hope for, even if they did always tend to press their trade deals a bit harder than they should and wring out every brightly colored klae possible.

But some group of Troft demesnes had once felt themselves capable of attacking the Dominion of Man and occupying two of its worlds. If there was one thing every governor-general since Zhu had understood, it was that the Trofts needed to know that the Cobras were the finest, nastiest, deadliest warriors the universe had ever seen, and that the Cobra Worlds were most emphatically not to be trifled with. Why Treakness and some of the others couldn't understand that simple point Jin had never been able to figure out.

Perhaps it was simply the natural way of things. Perhaps when people were too far removed from immediate, visible threats they began to doubt that such threats could ever exist again. Or, indeed, that they had ever existed at all.

Maybe people periodically needed something to shake them up. Not a war, certainly—Jin wouldn't wish that on anyone. But it would have to be something dramatic, immediate, and impossible to ignore. A sudden influx of spine leopards into Aventine's cities, maybe, or a small but loud uprising among some group of disaffected citizens.

"Jin," Paul said quietly.

Jin snapped out of her reverie. There had been something in his tone . . . "Where?" she asked, her eyes darting around the warehouse.

"That one," Paul said, nodding microscopically to the far left toward one of the Troft robots moving around the crate stacks.

A hard knot settled into the pit of Jin's stomach. The robot had half a dozen laser slashes across its torso and head, enough damage that it should have shut itself off in defeat and collapsed onto the floor. But it was still wandering around in aimless-looking circles, its laser hefted across its burned torso, its head turning back and forth as it searched for a target. "I think I can get to my comm," she murmured.

"Don't bother—I already hit my EM," Paul murmured back. "The malfunction must have scrambled the local comm system."

And the techs in the control room, their attention occupied with other duties, hadn't yet noticed the problem. "You think we should risk trying to wave at one of the cameras?" Jin asked.

And then, before Paul could answer, the robot's head turned and tilted back a few degrees, its eyes coming to rest on the three men and two women standing on the catwalk.

"No one move," Paul ordered, his voice quiet but suddenly carrying the crisp edges of absolute authority.

"Don't even blink," Jin added, her mind sifting rapidly through their options. At this distance her fingertip lasers were too weak to do any good, especially since they'd first have to punch through the catwalk's glass enclosure. The antiarmor laser in her left calf was a far more powerful weapon, theoretically capable of slagging the robot where it stood, assuming she could hold the laser on target long enough to penetrate the layers of material protecting the robot's expensive optronics. The targeting lock built into her optical enhancers and the nanocomputer buried beneath her brain could easily handle such a task, but only if the robot didn't make it to cover before the laser finished its work. Neither her arcthrower nor her assortment of sonic weapons would operate through the glass, and her ceramic-laminated bones and servo-enhanced muscles were of no use whatsoever in this particular situation.

She was still trying to come up with a plan when the robot lifted its laser toward the observers.

"Stay here," Paul ordered, and with a sudden smooth motion, he ducked past Treakness and took off into a mad dash along the catwalk in the direction of the rogue robot.

"What the—?" Treakness demanded.

"He's trying to draw its fire," Jin snapped, her heart thudding hard in her throat. Just like a real soldier, the robot was programmed to see an enemy moving rapidly in its direction as a greater threat and therefore a higher-priority target than four other enemies standing motionless and unthreatening.

Only now that her husband had gotten the robot's attention, the only thing standing between him and death were his programmed Cobra reflexes. In the tight quarters of the enclosed catwalk, those reflexes were going to be sorely limited.

But there might be another way. Getting a grip on the handrail in front of her, Jin braced her feet against the catwalk floor, her eyes on the robot as its laser tracked along its target's vector. Paul was perhaps a quarter of the way to the distant door at the far end of the catwalk when Jin saw the subtle shift of robot musculature as the tracking laser found its mark. "Stop!" she shouted to her husband.

And pushing off the floor, she sprinted full speed after him.

For a terrifying fraction of a second she was afraid Paul hadn't gotten the message, that he would keep running straight to his death. But even as Jin dodged around past Treakness her husband braked to a halt.

And with that, it was suddenly now Jin, not Paul, who represented the greater threat. Without even pausing to squeeze off a shot at its original target, the robot swung its laser around toward Jin.

Jin clenched her teeth against the arthritic pain jabbing into her joints as she ran. Well, she thought. That worked.

Or had it? To her dismay, she suddenly realized that with the bouncing inherent in a flat-out run she could no longer see the subtle warning signs that would indicate the robot had acquired her and was preparing to fire. She tried putting a targeting lock on the machine, hoping it might steady her eyesight. But it didn't. She kept running, trying to coax a little more speed out of her leg servos—

"Stop!" Paul shouted.

Jin leaned back and locked her legs, gasping at the sudden flash of pain from her bad left knee. Even as she skidded to a halt she saw Paul break again into a run.

Jin focused on the robot, watching as it disengaged its attention from her and once again shifted to the more immediate threat. This would work, she told herself. It would work. She and Paul could just tag-team their way to the door, get off the catwalk and through the door into the rest of the building and yell to the oblivious techs to hit the emergency abort.

She spared a fraction of a second to glance down the catwalk. Only it wouldn't work, she realized with a sinking sensation. The closer she and Paul got to the rogue robot on their angled vector, the faster it would acquire its new target, and the shorter the distance each of them would get before being forced to stop again. Worse, since Paul was closer to the robot than Jin was, his window of opportunity would get shorter faster than hers would, which meant she would slowly catch up to him, which meant they would eventually end up within range of a quick one-two from the robot. At that point, their only two choices would be to stand still and hope the robot lost interest, or go into an emergency corkscrew sprint and hope they could beat its fire.

The robot twitched—"Stop!" Jin shouted, and started her next run.

She got no more than two-thirds her last distance before Paul's warning brought her to another knee-wrenching halt. Two more sprints each, she estimated, maybe three, and they would reach the dead-end killing box she'd already anticipated. They had to come up with a new plan before that happened.

But she hadn't thought of anything by the time she called Paul to a halt and started her next run. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she ran, hoping he'd come up with something.

But he merely shouted her to a stop and took off again himself, with no indication that he was trying anything new. Either he hadn't made it to the same conclusion Jin had, or else he had and had decided their only chance was to try to beat the robot's motion sensors to the punch.

The robot's motion sensors . . .

It would be a risk, Jin knew. The chance that even a damaged robot's sensors would lock on to something so much smaller than a human target was vanishingly small. More ominously, what she was planning could easily throw off Paul's stride enough that the robot would finally get in that lethal shot.

But she had to try. Turning her chest toward the glass wall in front of her, gripping the handrail for support, she activated her sonic disruptor.

The backwash as the blast bounced off the glass nearly ripped her hands from the rail and sent her flying backward into the wall behind her. Grimly, she held on, her head rattling with subsonics as the weapon searched for the resonance of the target it had been presented.

And with an earsplitting blast, the glass shattered.

Not just in front of Jin, but halfway down the catwalk in both directions. Through the lingering rattling in her head, she dimly felt herself being hammered by flying objects.

But her full attention was on the robot, whose laser was even now lining up on her husband. The robot which had suddenly been presented with a hundred small objects flying through the air in its general direction.

The robot which was just standing there, frozen, its laser still pointed toward the human threats as its deranged optronic brain tried to work through its threat-assessment algorithms.

The gamble had worked, Jin realized, an edge of cautious hope tugging at her. All the flying glass had distracted the robot and bought Paul a little time. If he could get to the door and call for help, they still had a chance.

And then, the motion at the edge of her peripheral vision stopped.

She shifted her eyes toward Paul, her first horrifying thought that the shattering glass might have sliced into an artery or vein, that her move might have in fact killed her husband instead of saving him.

She was searching his form for spurting blood, and opening her mouth to shout at him to get moving, when a flash like noonday sunlight blazed across her vision and a clap of thunder slammed across her already throbbing head.

Paul had fired his arcthrower.

Reflexively, Jin squeezed her eyes shut against the lightning bolt's purple afterimage, simultaneously keying in her optical enhancers. In the image they provided, she saw that the high-voltage current had turned the robot's laser and right arm into a smoking mass of charred metal and ablative material.

But the robot was still standing . . . and with its threat assessment now complete it was reaching for the backup projectile pistol belted at its side.

Jin could do something about that. Keying for her own arcthrower, she lifted her right arm and pointed her little finger at the robot. The arcthrower was a two-stage weapon: her fingertip laser would fire first, creating a path of ionized air between her and the robot that the current from the arcthrower's capacitor could then follow. She curled her other fingers inward and set her thumb against the ring-finger nail.

And broke off as a pair of human figures appeared, sprinting into view from behind different stacks near the damaged robot. The two men leaped in unison, one of them hitting the robot at neck height, the other at its knees, unceremoniously dumping the machine at last onto the floor. The dim overhead lighting abruptly

shifted to bright red, the signal of emergency abort.

It was finally over.

"About time," someone said.

Jin turned to look at the other three members of their group, still huddled together in stunned disbelief a hundred meters behind her. She wondered who had spoken into her ringing ears, realized it must have been her. At the far end of the catwalk, behind the politicians, the door flew open and a line of Sun Center personnel came charging through.

It was only then, as Jin wiped at the sweat on her forehead, that she realized she was bleeding.


Paul and Governor-General Chintawa were deep in conversation in the waiting area when Jin emerged from the treatment room. "You all right?" Paul asked, bouncing to his feet and hurrying toward her, his eyes flicking over the fresh bandages in her forehead and cheeks. "They wouldn't let me come in there with you."

"I'm fine," Jin assured him as he took her hands in his, gripping them with that unique combination of strength and gentleness that she'd fallen in love with so many years ago. "They had to use cleansing mist to get some of the bits of glass out, that's all. By the time you'd have gotten suited up, it would have been too late to watch anyway."

"I'm glad you're all right, Cobra Broom," Chintawa said gravely, rising from his own seat in old-provincial politeness as Jin and Paul came over to him. "That was quick thinking, on both your parts. Very impressive. Thank you for risking your lives for us."

"You're welcome," Paul replied for both of them. "After all, protecting civilians is what we're all about."

"Indeed." Chintawa's lip twitched. "Unfortunately, some would say otherwise." He gestured toward the door. "But we can discuss that on the way back to Capitalia."

Chintawa's aircar was waiting on the parking area where they'd set down four hours ago. "Where are the others?" Paul asked as the driver opened the rear door for them.

"They left an hour ago," Chintawa said, gesturing Jin into the car ahead of him.

Jin shot a frown at her husband as she climbed in. The group had only brought two aircars: Chintawa's and Treakness's. "Governor Hoffman was actually willing to get in an aircar with Governor Treakness?" she asked.

"Neither of them wanted to wait for you two to get patched up," Chintawa said. "It was either share an aircar or one of them was going to have to walk."

"It's so nice to work for grateful people," Jin murmured as Paul sat down beside her.

"Sarcasm ill befits you, dear," Paul murmured back.

"Unfortunately, in this case sarcasm is a close match for reality," Chintawa said as he sat down across from them and signaled the driver to take off. "Did Governor Hoffman tell you why she wanted you to join us in observing today's exercise?"

Jin pricked up her ears. She and Paul had been trying to figure that one out ever since Chintawa issued the invitation the previous afternoon. "No, she didn't."

"She's submitted a proposal to have a second advanced training center built in Donyang Province," Chintawa said. "Her argument is that it would be closer to the expansion regions where the Cobras are needed. And of course, it would also be closer to where most of the recruits these days are coming from."

Jin rubbed her fingers gently across one of the bandages on her forearm, feeling the brief flicker of pain from the cut beneath it. She'd been looking at the recruitment numbers only a couple of weeks ago, and had noticed the ominous downtrend in new Cobras coming from Capitalia and Aventine's other large cities. "We could certainly use another center," she said. "I understand Esqualine and Viminal still haven't gotten the quotas the Council voted them."

"Not to mention Caelian," Paul added.

"Yes, let's not mention Caelian," Chintawa said darkly. "At any rate, Governor Hoffman wanted you two along to add a little weight to today's proceedings. She was hoping that a particularly impressive showing might help convince Governor Treakness that moving the center out there would be a good idea. Now, though—" He shook his head.

"Actually, what happened was far more impressive than a simple by-the-numbers Cobra exercise," Paul offered mildly. "It showed Cobra initiative, courtesy of Jin and me, as well as the quick assessment and response on the part of Cobras Patterson and Encyro."

"You're preaching to the choir, Cobra Broom," Chintawa said sourly. "I doubt most of the rest of the Council will see the event much differently than Governor Treakness, either. We'll be lucky if we don't lose a few more Syndics to his side of the argument."

At her hip, Jin's comm vibrated. Pulling it out, she keyed it on. "Hello?"

"I just heard the news," the tight voice of their younger son Lorne said without preamble. "Are you and Dad okay?"

"We're fine," Jin assured him. Paul was looking at her with raised eyebrows; Lorne, she mouthed silently at him. "A few scrapes and cuts. Nothing serious."

"Are you sure?" Lorne persisted. "The prelim report said the whole observation catwalk had been destroyed."

"Since when do you believe prelim reports?" Jin asked, keeping her voice light. "No, really. Some of the glass got broken, but the catwalk itself held together just fine.

"Some of the glass?" Lorne retorted. "Come on, Mom—they had pictures."

"Okay, maybe more than just some," Jin conceded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Paul pull out his own comm and quietly answer it. "But your dad and I are okay," she went on. "Really."

There was a pause, and Jin could imagine that intense look on Lorne's face as he sifted through her tone and inflection. Of their three children, he was the one most sensitive to the quiet currents underlying people's words. Back when they were children, both his older brother Merrick and his younger sister Jody had occasionally been allowed to stay home from school solely because Lorne had thought he'd heard pain or sickness in their voices. Usually, the sibling he'd fingered had wound up running a fever within a couple of hours. "Okay, if you say so," he said at last. "But I'm coming in."

"That's really not necessary," Jin protested, wincing again. The thoughtful, sensitive type Lorne might be, but he nevertheless had a bad tendency to drive way too fast, especially when he thought there was trouble in his family. "Besides, aren't you on duty?"

"I'll get Randall to cover for me," Lorne said. "They've postponed the spine leopard hunt again, so it's not like I'm really needed."

"In that case, you might as well stay for dinner, too," Jin said, conceding defeat. "We should be back home in a couple of hours. If you get there first, let yourself in."

"I will," Lorne said. "See you soon. Bye."

"Bye." Jin closed down the comm and put it away, noting as she did so that Paul had also finished with his conversation. "Lorne's coming to the house for dinner," she told him.

"I hope he's learned to cook," Paul said. "We're going to the Island tonight."

Jin frowned. "That was Uncle Corwin?"

"Merrick, actually," Paul said. "He said Uncle Corwin had called and invited all of us to dinner."

A tingle went up Jin's back. Uncle Corwin never called dinner parties on the spur of the moment this way. And if he had, he would have called Jin, not Merrick, to make the arrangements.

Which meant this family get-together was Merrick's idea, with the Uncle Corwin connection having been thrown in simply for cover.

Jin looked at Chintawa. He was busily leafing through some papers, but she could tell he was listening closely to the conversation. "Sounds good to me," she told Paul. "All I have at the house is leftovers anyway. I'll call Lorne and let him know."

"No need," Paul said. "Merrick was going to call both him and Jody as soon as he got off the comm."

"Okay." Settling back against the cushions, Jin closed her eyes.

And wondered uneasily what was going on.

It couldn't have anything to do with today's trouble at the Sun Center. Merrick had inherited his father's cool unflappability, and he wouldn't have even started worrying until he had something besides an initial report to go on. He'd been planning to stop by the house today and drop off some of Jody's new azaleas—could something have happened to their house?

But then why hadn't he just said so? Surely he wouldn't have worried about either Chintawa or the two governors hearing that the plants were dying or that someone had driven a car into their living room.

"Think of it as an early Thanksgiving," Paul said into her musings. "It'll be a nice treat to have the whole family together again, even if only for one evening."

"Absolutely," Jin murmured. "And you all know how much I love surprises."

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