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The Course of Empire: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:01 EDT



PART I: Firsts

    Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak found Terra a world of unharmonious contrasts. His ears, set low and back on his skull, swiveled to take in the nearby murmur of the sea, along with the unnerving screeches of an avian lifeform native to his new posting.

    Windward, water of a startling blue lapped at a pale expanse of sand, while, heartward, unbridled green plant growth vied with the graceless piles of stone and glass that guarded the periphery of the great Jao military base. In front of one building, several rectangles of red and gold fabric had been secured to the top of a pole. Even from here, he could hear the cloth snapping in the breeze. Bizarre, but he supposed they must serve some purpose.

    The compact, elegant ship behind him radiated heat from its descent through the atmosphere, its engines ticking as they cooled. His favorite kochan-mother, Trit, had thought the vessel too showy for one as newly emerged as Aille. But Meku, the current kochanau, had said Pluthrak must maintain its status for all to see. The more so since the Governor of Terra was Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo—a scion of Narvo kochan, with whom Pluthrak kochan's relations were very strained.

    Exhilarated at finally having the opportunity to be of use, Aille attenuated his perception of the moment's flow in order to better take in his new surroundings. The wind-tossed waves slowed to languid, enticing swells and reminded him that he'd had no opportunity to swim since leaving Marit An. His ship was equipped with adequate sanitary facilities, but not the luxury of an actual pool. After the long trip, his skin felt desiccated, his nap stiff, and his whiskers reduced to lifeless strings. He longed to immerse himself in this new sea, despite its alien scent, and sluice the accumulated dregs of travel away.

    First, however, he must officially accept his new command. Later, when the flow of arrival was complete, he would indulge himself.

    The yellow sun of this solar system beat down, brighter than Nir, his homeworld's star, which was farther along in its life sequence. He gazed out past the base's buildings, whiskers quivering. The land before him was so unrelentingly—flat.

    He thought wistfully of the cliffs back at his kochan-house. There, the tide pounded against massive black rocks both early and late, and the breeze was always filled with the refreshing cool tang of spray. Here, the sultry air was thick with indigenous salts and more than a hint of decay. Well, his time on Marit An had completed itself. It was the duty of all Jao scions to cast themselves into time's river in the ongoing struggle against the Ekhat, and that he would do.

    The voyage from his birthworld, Marit An, to Terra had been long but fruitful, filled with discourse with his fraghta and study for the responsibilities which awaited him. It was his last opportunity to take advantage of the older Jao's accumulated wisdom before assuming his new post as Subcommandant and he did his best to absorb as much as possible. By the end, he believed he knew the indigenous species as well as anyone could without ever having come nose to nose with one.

    Farther away, in the distance, Aille could see several ruined buildings. Those were apparently a legacy of the Jao conquest over twenty orbital cycles ago. He had detected more signs of unamended damage as he'd swept in for landing: fractured, overgrown roads, cast-off machinery, abandoned dwellings now inundated by wilderness. By all reports, this political moiety had resisted long after the rest of this stubborn world and therefore had suffered proportionally greater damage.

    They were an odd breed, these "humans," frustrating in their reluctance to be civilized and unique in many respects from any other species ever conquered by the Jao. Recorded reports detailed their long resistance to Jao rule and it seemed they were not completely subdued even now, so many orbital cycles later. Pockets of discontent and unrest apparently still persisted across the globe.

    It would take a few solar cycles for his timesense to synchronize with local circadian rhythms, but for now Aille allowed normal flow to reassert itself. Then he drew in a deep breath as his stolid fraghta, Yaut krinnu Jithra vau Pluthrak, emerged from the ship. The older Jao's vai camiti, or facial pattern, was plain yet pleasing, strong and highly visible, unmistakably Jithra to anyone experienced at reading faces. Yaut hesitated halfway down the ramp and his nostrils flared at the unfamiliar scents.

    The Jao, ever practical, used filters to sanitize their atmosphere wherever they constructed their kochan-houses so that unpleasant scents did not intrude. But, according to reports, Terrans rarely concerned themselves with such matters, although they were generally more sensitive than Jao to environmental conditions.

    According to his briefings, this particular base was one of the first built after the Jao's initial invasion of this world, and still the largest. Constructed on the site of an already extant shipyard, it had been intended to impress on the local political entity just how pointless resistance was by then. Nevertheless, almost another orbital cycle had been required to effect full control. Several major population centers, including the ones known as "Chicago" and "New Orleans" had been destroyed in the process, allegedly still sore points with the quarrelsome natives after all this time.

    Aille locked his hands behind his back, cocked his head at the precise long-practiced angle of measured-anticipation, and waited as a detail of jinau soldiers in crisp dark-blue uniforms emerged from between buildings. They marched across the hard surface, their legs matched in stride, providing his first look at the conquered species outside vids and stills.

    They were shorter than most Jao, slender of build where Jao tended to be square and solid. The outlines of bones were clearly visible through their mostly naked skin, wherever they neglected to cover themselves with fabric. Their features were not quite balanced, the eyes too far apart, the faces too flat, giving them a comic exaggerated look. The ears were the most disturbingly alien, little more than stationary rounded flaps on the sides of their heads which never suggested the slightest hint of what they were thinking.

    Of course, the most surprising thing he'd learned about this species was that they were timeblind, having to rely on mechanical devices to know when something would happen, or when it was time to act.

    He gauged their approach with a critical eye. Their upper garments bore the red jinau slash, signifying Terran troops trained and overseen by the Jao. A single figure in the place of honor at the rear wore a traditional weapons harness and trousers, marking himself as Jao, but even if he had been dressed otherwise, Aille would have known by his height and breadth of shoulder that he must be one of his own kind.

    He descended the ramp, Yaut following hastily at his heels. "This is a first meeting," the fraghta said in a low voice. "Firsts are always crucial. You must begin as you mean to go on."

    Yaut was ugly, his facial pattern marred with scars earned over a lifetime of combat on assorted worlds, and proud of his hard-won skepticism. A head shorter than Aille, he had to lengthen his stride to keep up. "Let me precede you, as is proper, or they will think you have no status!"

    "Humans do not reason like that," Aille said without slowing. "According to the records, they do not deem it honorable to be always last. The psych studies indicate they are actually intrigued by novelty. They like to be first."

    "Only because they are reckless." Yaut's whiskers twitched in disapproval. "Since they breed like vermin, they can afford to expose themselves. If one falls, twenty more will take its place."

    Aille let the remark pass, as none of the natives were close. By all reports Terrans were very sensitive about the matter of "face," as several Jao studies termed it. Had they overheard Yaut's caustic comment, it would have been a most inauspicious beginning.

    From what Aille had seen so far, the older Jao, assigned by Aille's kochan upon the recent completion of his qualifying studies, was consistently and unrelentingly skeptical of Terra's worth. There was a definite possibility the current Pluthrak kochanau had even selected Yaut for that very trait, hoping to inculcate prudence in a scion more than one of his kochan-parents considered to be somewhat rash and impulsive.

    But whatever else might be said of this rogue world, its inhabitants had held off the Jao for an astonishingly long time. The conquest of Terra had proven far more difficult than any other the Jao had undertaken, except when they directly confronted the Ekhat themselves. Some of that was simply due to Terra's enormous population. With their profligate breeding habits, humans on this one planet alone probably had almost a fourth of the entire population of the Jao, who were scattered across hundreds of star systems. Terra's human population, even after the massive casualties they suffered during the conquest, simply dwarfed that of any other species ever conquered by the Jao.

    But that was not the only explanation, nor even the principal one. Human technology was also far above anything ever encountered among the many other races the Jao had conquered. Reading what was hinted at but not stated directly in the reports, Aille suspected, in many respects, human technology was more advanced than that of the Jao. The conquered species seemed to possess an intrinsic cleverness which, if properly harnessed, might be wielded effectively against the Ekhat.

    And that would bring status to all.

    The leader halted at the foot of the ramp and waited for Aille's acknowledgment. The pale-gold nap of his cheek bore a single incised bar and he had the characteristically skimpy vai camiti banding of Krumat, a provincial kochan much inferior in status to his own Pluthrak.

    The Terrans lined themselves up behind him like bombs in a crate. Patterns, Aille thought with a dismissive twitch of his nose. This species was said to be obsessed with sharp corners and meticulous spacing, seeking to impose artificial order everywhere possible.

    He met the Krumat's flickering green-black eyes. "Subcommandant Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak," he said, speaking first, as was his right, and giving his own identifying designations. He extended his hand, showing the bau given him by his kochan at his departure. The bau was a short, somewhat stubby rod. Most kochan made their bau from various woods but Pluthrak used the shell of one of Marit An's sea-beasts. The material, with its glossy near-white color, was almost as much a symbol of Pluthrak as the traditional carvings on it.

    There were not many carvings, and those simply generic to the kochan, indicating that the scion who carried the bau was young and inexperienced. But it mattered little. It was a Pluthrak bau, and it showed that the great kochan had bestowed its blessing on the scion who carried it: here is one fit to command.

    The officer inhaled sharply as though someone had struck him, though at the last he managed to turn the sound into a muffled cough. Aille was more or less accustomed to such reactions. Pluthrak status had that effect on many.

    "Vaish," the officer said. The traditional greeting of inferior to superior signified recognition of background and ties, far more than their disparity in military rank. His voice sounded somewhat strained. "I was told to expect a new Subcommandant, to command the jinau troops, but not that so illustrious a scion had been appointed."

    "Your designation?" Aille asked, his tone casual.

    The other flinched, most likely not prepared to be recognized at this point on such an intimate level. It was an honor to be known by one's superiors and not always accorded. "Pleniary-Adjunct Mrat krinnu nao Krumat, at your disposal." His posture indicated respectful-attention as they took one another's measure, but just for an instant the Jao's eyes shimmered a bright glimmering green, a sign of unease.

    Aille was not surprised at the unease; indeed, he'd been expecting it. Terra had been Narvo territory since the conquest, and normally the great kochan moved delicately around each other. For Pluthrak to send one of its scions to Terra in order to assume a major post was a subtle statement that it no longer considered Narvo's influence on the planet untouchable. Needless to say, the prospect of being caught in the middle between the two greatest of Jao kochan was going to make those who belonged to small and poorly-affiliated ones more than a bit nervous.

    But Mrat recovered his poise quickly. He stepped aside, his body retaining the lines and angles of respectful-attention. "I turn command of these jinau troops over as the foundation of your personal guard. May you enlighten them many times over."

    Aille studied the naked Terran faces. Without whiskers to give them expression, or velvety nap to cover the skin, or even facial banding to indicate their background, they seemed curiously immature, like Jao juveniles before their vai camiti came through. He walked closer, a nonchalant slant to his ears, tapping his new bau against his palm.

    "I understood my command was to be of mixed troops, Pleniary-Adjunct. By all appearances, these are native to the last individual."

    Mrat glanced up and his eyes flashed bright-green again before he returned his gaze to the sunstruck pavement. "True integration has proven difficult, Subcommandant. Units composed of both species tend to be—" His ears wavered and Aille caught a hint of shameful-failure. "—unstable."

    "I saw none of this in the reports."

    The Krumat stiffened while Yaut adopted the aspect of indifferent-waiting, his deceptively casual ears drinking in every phoneme. "Commandant Kaul krinnu ava Dano deems such mention unnecessary. He believes... "

    The officer's golden face creased in concentration as he searched for a properly prudent explanation. "He believes that younger and less experienced officers, such as myself, have exaggerated the problem." The Krumat's eyes wandered to the restless, untidy sea as white-capped breakers rolled in and deposited slimy green streamers of vegetation in their wake upon the sand. His ears were canted bleakly. "I am quite sure he is correct and I therefore wish to make restitution for my error. Shall you require my life?"

    "No!" Aille responded instantly, very startled. His pulse raced as he fought to contain his surprise and maintain his calm posture. Flow threatened to slip from his grasp so that time raced past. With a slow, deep breath, he tightened his timesense, making perception occur at his bidding, not whizz by out of control.

    One heard of lives being surrendered for crucial mistakes made during battle, or other such major failures. But he'd never expected to be offered such here in this setting, in front of a squad of jinau, for nothing more that what seemed a minor lapse. The kochanata experts had told him that they sensed Narvo was losing control of the situation on Terra. Was this a sign of it?

    Yaut threw him an approving look, quickly suppressed, then locked his hands before his back and waited with an air of intense-concentration.

    "As you wish, Subcommandant," the Krumat said. He stepped before Aille, his shoulders straight, his arms angled to indicate resignation-to-duty. "Shall I show you to your quarters?"

    "I wish to go first, Pleniary-Adjunct," Aille said. "Is that not how the natives accord one another honor?"

    The poor Krumat looked as though he might faint at this impropriety. "But we are Jao!"

    Aille glanced over at his troops. Several were watching the whole scene as though they spoke fluent Jao, or at least enough to piece things together. "And they are not," he said pointedly. "Which way?"

    "Straight ahead," the Krumat said, and gestured toward the third building to the right, which was stiff with straight lines and in full sight of the wrack-littered shore.

    Aille set off and the troop of Terrans fell in behind. Yaut edged up until he was almost even with his charge. "This feels strange," he said under his breath. "Keep your wits about you, youngster. The Commandant of military forces on Terra is Kaul krinnu ava Dano, and Dano is traditionally aligned with Narvo."

    Aille made no reply. But his fingers tightened around his new bau, as he wondered indeed how long he would be able to keep it.



    After Mrat krinnu ava Krumat saw the new Subcommandant safely installed in his quarters, he retreated to his office and sank onto his pile of dehabia to stare at the map-walls. That brute Kaul had withheld the Subcommandant's identity, reserving it, no doubt, so that Mrat might experience the shock of this moment and reflect on his own unworthiness to hold even this unexalted post. Kaul went out of his way to make Mrat feel most keenly the lowly position of his Krumat kochan.

    The new Subcommandant Aille's kochan, on the other hand—Pluthrak!—extended over many worlds and enjoyed widespread favor, developing associations wherever it turned and producing countless illustrious scions down through the generations. Mrat's own Krumat was nothing in comparison, just a backworld moiety formed less than a hundred orbital cycles ago by the union of two very junior taifs. Their resources were few and they had only two kochan-houses completed even now. When he'd finished his training, certainly no wily old fraghta had been available to guard him from serious errors.

    The com buzzed, bringing word of yet another fight in the comestibles dispensary. He stood and stared blindly out the window at the evil-smelling sea, vast and glittering beneath this overbearing alien sun, then went to inspect the damage.

    Voices stilled as he entered the ugly box-shaped room. Food lay strewn everywhere and the humans had already been driven into a line along the far wall. He knew the species well enough now to recognize the expressions on their bruised and bloody faces as defiance and resentment. One Jao was seriously hurt and had already been removed for treatment. Two humans lay dead on the floor, along with two more who were badly injured.

    His shoulders tightened. Waste. It was all a stupid, pointless waste. One of the Jao soldiers had evidently made a comment which offended the natives and once again chaos was the result.

    Humans put their barbaric pride above all else. They simply had no idea how to cooperate like decent civilized beings, how to build association so that the strength of others reinforced your own, rather than strove against it. How they'd survived their own naked aggression this long without exterminating each other was a mystery.

    Someone had to make them understand, before the Ekhat swept this way. Staring at the shattered crockery, the gaudy crimson of human blood spattered across floor and wall, with here and there a few spots of orange-colored Jao blood, he realized it was not going to be him. Though he had tried repeatedly down through the five orbital cycles he'd been stationed here, he simply did not have the skill and never would.

    On his way back to his office, he considered how best to restore discipline. But by the time he arrived, he discovered it was a moot point. Kaul resided on the base himself, and he had already moved quickly. The Commandant had given orders to have the most prominent of the involved humans put down. By now, it would already have been done. Jao punishment was always swift.

    No fewer than five, it seemed. Mrat was surprised at the severity of Kaul's actions. Doubtless, the Commandant thought he could not afford to appear weak, with a new high-status officer taking command of the jinau troops.

    Perhaps this Pluthrak, fresh from training and with his grizzled fraghta, would be able to make the humans see what was at stake. Mrat thought it unlikely. But it had better be someone, and soon. The most recent reports on Ekhat activities in this galactic region were ominous. No one on this world, Jao or human, had time for this kind of divisive nonsense.




    Aille's new quarters were disappointing, two painted squares with flat walls and tight angles where they fit together. The air felt dead inside, as though flow itself couldn't penetrate. And, worst of all, there was no pool, only a cramped bathing facility that could hold but a dollop of water at a time, barely enough to dampen one's nap.

    Sighing, he changed into his new harness, which was of a high quality dark-green augmented by colorful yellow and green Pluthrak banding about the buckles. For some reason, the air in their quarters was artificially chill, a waste of energy, and he directed Yaut to find the temperature controls.

    "Terrans have a narrower comfort range than Jao," Yaut said a moment later. "They're much more susceptible to extremes." He resumed unpacking Aille's kit and stowing the items away, fingering the ceremonial halfcape he had tailored on the voyage to this world. The fabric was very fine, the traditional Pluthrak insignia ornate. Yaut had sewn it himself that his charge might show to his best advantage on this first critical assignment.

    Aille was just contemplating a walk to inspect the base when someone knocked with a summons from Commandant Kaul krinnu ava Dano.

    Yaut deactivated the doorfield, accepted the flimsy from an unblinking Terran soldier, then keyed the field back on in his face. He held the order out as though it were contaminated. "Not one to waste time, is he?" Yaut's own face was fierce beneath its scars.

    "Would you be, if you were in his position?" Aille ran a brush back over his head, smoothing the golden nap. "I would certainly want the measure of a new subordinate."

    "You are Pluthrak," Yaut said. "By that alone, he has your measure."

    "Pluthrak's measure, not mine." Aille thought of his six pool-parents, stern individuals who had impressed upon their charges day after day that the honor of one was the honor of all—and had them repeat it nightly before surrendering to dormancy.

    "Do not be the first to let down Pluthrak," they had said at the start of every day, and then again at the end. "And above all, die well."

    Dying was easy, he thought. Anyone could achieve that. Dying well was another matter altogether.

    Yaut inspected him, green-black eyes narrowed. "The harness is a fair fit, though I can make it even better. The halfcape does not drape correctly, though. I did request that you try it on before we arrived."

    Aille moved his shoulder, raised his arm. "It is fine. Stop fussing."

    "It is my function to fuss," Yaut said. He smoothed a wrinkle and stepped back, trying unsuccessfully to smother prideful-approval. "Are you going to keep him waiting?"

    They could hear the motor of the vehicle sent for them just outside. "That is tempting, but I think not," Aille said. He picked up the carved bau and tucked it beneath his arm.

    Yaut opened the door and they stepped out into the fierce yellow sunshine again. A human escort waited beside a vehicle. The vehicle was of Terran origin but had been refitted with Jao maglev suspension. The driver's brown face dripped with moisture as he opened the door for them, though they could easily have worked the mechanism themselves.

    "How are you called?" The Terran words felt strange on his tongue, as Aille settled in a seat both too short and narrow for his powerful legs.

    Yaut gave him a startled look, but Aille had learned from the reports that humans routinely presented their names upon first meetings. It was actually considered the baseline of politeness.

    "PFC Masterton, sir!" The Terran slammed the door and ran back around to the control seat with an air of great efficiency. "I hope you had a pleasant trip."

    "Space travel is rarely pleasant," Aille said, "but then one does not traverse space in order to experience pleasure. One travels to make one's self of use."

    "Uh, yes, sir." The sergeant glanced at the two of them over his shoulder, then devoted himself to operating the vehicle.

    They passed several large groups of Terrans walking in that peculiar regimented order again, their legs pumping like cogs in a machine, before they pulled up in front of a sleek black building all curves and quantum crystal. Unlike his quarters, Commandant Kaul krinnu ava Dano's command center was obviously Jao-designed, the first bit of "home" Aille had seen since arriving on this world.

    Inside, the light was comfortably low, the dimness scented with familiar astringent herbs. Their escort led them to a black crystalline wall which shimmered into transparency at their approach. "In here, sir," Masterton said. He waved the doorfield off, then stepped aside, his alien posture stiff and unreadable.

    Yaut slid in front of him and this time Aille allowed it. This was Jao business and the fraghta, with his greater experience, knew better than he how to proceed.

    "Keep your ears down, lad," Yaut whispered, then strode ahead, shoulders and arms falling easily into dutiful-respect, as though he'd done this thousands of times.

    Commandant Kaul was standing before a permanent map of Terra on the far wall, so that they could see his profile. He was a brawny individual, as thick-bodied as any Aille had ever seen, and well marked with a striking facial pattern that accentuated his strong bone structure. He wore his harness as though it were the richest of robes. That was to be expected, of course. Dano was one of the great kochan, even if it did not have quite the status of Narvo or Pluthrak.

    "I find it strange," Kaul said, without turning around.

    Aille waited a respectful distance back, his head high. "Yes, Commandant?"

    "That Pluthrak would accept an assignment on Terra to command jinau."

    Aille decided to let pass, for the moment, the question of whether he commanded all ground forces on Terra or simply the native troops. Now, he sensed, was not the time to seek confrontation on the issue; since, clearly enough, the Dano's remark was a probe to create such discordance.

    So, he said nothing. The Commandant was thus forced to turn and face him, instead of maintaining what was almost a deliberately impolite stance. His eyes blazed as bright as a warning buoy, and the dark banding along both his cheeks and chin was all the more impressive.

    "Of course, we are delighted to be the recipient of such a favor. Rarely are conquered worlds blessed with such an illustrious scion."

    There was a faintly sarcastic tinge to his tone of voice. Aille reminded himself that Dano was linked to Narvo by many long associations. He was not in friendly territory here.

    But he let none of that show. "I am honored to have been accepted for this post. Pluthrak desires only that I be of use here and serve well."

    "As if anything ever goes well on this misbegotten world!" With a wave, Kaul darkened the wall again. "How honest were your trainers about the nature of this assignment?"

    Aille glanced at his fraghta, but Yaut gave no clue as to how he should respond. "As honest as was possible, I believe, Commandant."

    "No doubt they told you almost nothing, then." Kaul sank into his chair and stared broodingly at a glittering holomap projected in the image tank above his desk.

    Aille realized suddenly it represented the Markau sector, contested for some time between several of the Ekhat factions.

    The holomap rotated slowly, gleaming green and gold in the dimness. The Dano's eyes caught and reflected the lights. "This world is a wretched place, literally overrun with the dominant lifeform to the point of ecological disaster. Rife with chaos. Despite their cleverness, it is a marvel the natives did not exterminate themselves with their own technology long before we arrived."

    "They are said to be extraordinary fighters." Aille studied the map. "Are there not a few areas still outside Jao control?"

    "That is false!" Kaul turned on him with lowered ears. "We control every scrap of land worth the effort."

    "I see." Aille schooled shoulders and face to express only mild-interest. Dive shallowly, he told himself. This individual was overprickly, even leaving aside his Dano attitudes toward Pluthrak. "I look forward to being enlightened."

    "Make no mistake, humans are not intelligent in the same manner as you and I," Kaul said. "Their minds are constructed in the fashion of a cunning predator who is first and foremost an individual, unable to put the greater good of anything or anyone ahead of its own momentary needs."

    Aille found a point on the wall above the commandant's head, then let his eyes unfocus, so that he seemed to be watching, and waited.

    "And they are frivolous beyond belief!" Kaul spread his hands on the gleaming black desk and stared down at them. "The ways they can avoid meaningful labor outnumber the stars themselves—'art,' 'pets,' 'gardening,' 'movies,' 'music!' The list goes on and on. They are so obsessed with ollnat, things-that-might-be, that a significant portion of the population devotes itself to inventing lies, then recording them on every media possible and circulating them planetwide."

    Aille had undergone language imprinting during every dormancy period on the journey out, but his vocabulary acquisition was not yet complete. The Terran terms were unfamiliar and he made a note to have Yaut look them up. "It sounds like an interesting challenge. I am honored to be allowed to assist."

    "You will have to 'get your hands dirty,' as the Terrans put it." Kaul balled his fists. "The natives must be constantly disciplined. They say one thing to your face, then conduct themselves in the most devious fashion possible the rest of the time. We cannot afford Pluthrak subtleties here. If you do not think you can do all that has to be done, you might as well request a less challenging assignment."

    Yaut seemed suddenly restless, changing his weight from foot to foot, moving his hands as though unsure what to do with them, never quite falling into a posture that could be interpreted. Aille glanced sideways, trying to glean what little he could from the old soldier's expression, but found he could not decipher the message. He steadied his ears, on his own for the moment. "I can do whatever needs to be done, Commandant," he said. "The Governor has only to command."

    Kaul fell silent, so that only the whisper of filtered air was audible. The holomap rotated like a planet on its axis, its lights hypnotic. The three of them watched and Aille tightened his timesense so that the moment's flow stretched out and all seemed to stand still. What was Kaul trying to say, he wondered, but nothing came to mind. In the background, Yaut exhaled softly and he let his perception return to normal.

    "Markau is no longer being contested," the Dano said abruptly. "Reports have just come that the Complete Harmony faction of the Ekhat appears to have routed True Harmony and the Melody. There are early indications they will now sweep this way. Flow is inconclusive, but it feels as though it will be sooner rather than later to most of the experts."

    Aille's eyes flickered back to the holomap and he stepped closer, trying to make sense out of the tiny rose, green, and amber lights which were even now in motion. "Why would they, so soon after a major contest?"

    "Who can say?" Kaul said. "No one has ever decrypted what the Ekhat want, except to be alone in the universe."

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