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The Course of Empire: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:03 EDT



    Yaut studied Aille surreptitiously. The two of them had not been together long. The young officer was still an enigma to him, and it was difficult to serve enigmas well. Word back in the halls of Pluthrak had been that this particular youth was dynamic and forward thinking, perhaps the most promising scion the great kochan had produced in several generations. Those same qualities, however, made him too restless by far to remain docilely at the kochanata among his learned elders and benefit from further instruction. They felt he needed wrem-fa, body learning, where the student was required to act first, then process the experience intellectually later.

    So far in their short association, though Aille could sometimes be impulsive, Yaut had found his charge thoughtful in a way rare for the young. Rare for any Jao, truth be told, not simply young ones. This tendency spilled over into brooding occasionally, but still boded well for the future. It was Yaut's mission, as fraghta, to see that the full measure of his potential was realized.

    Physically, for a certainty, the young officer represented the best the kochan had to offer—from the classic Pluthrak black band across the eyes, which lent him an authoritative air, to his powerful, fit frame and exceptional height. The marriage-group which had produced him was known for its fine, strong progeny and Aille was no exception. He radiated a restless energy combined with curiosity that Yaut found promising.

    Aille was pensive now, as they were conveyed back to their quarters in a native groundcar. Yaut's charge gazed out the window at the sprawling, hodgepodge base with its mingled Jao and Terran architecture. He seemed to be studying the native jinau soldiers and the peculiar way they traveled, legs striding out together as though they were parts of a machine, rather than sentient creatures.

    Then he leaned forward suddenly. "Stop," he ordered the native driver. "I wish to walk the rest of the way."

    Aille spoke in quite good Terran, which he'd studied extensively in preparation for this assignment. Or "English," rather. If Yaut remembered correctly, that was the name of the dominant tongue on this continent. One of the many ways in which humans were bizarre was their insistence on retaining a multitude of different languages. Jao, sensible beings, had only one language.

    "Sir?" The driver glanced back over his shoulder and the vehicle slowed. "It's one hundred degrees in the shade out there, and that doesn't even take into account the heat index. Our Mississippi sun isn't a force to be taken lightly."

    "You—" Aille hesitated, searching his still limited vocabulary, then switched to Jao. "You underestimate Jao resilience." His ears were decidedly eager. "Stop."

    "Yes, sir," the Terran replied, speaking now in Jao also. He got out of the vehicle, as soon as he had brought it to a stop. "Do you want me to wait here, or perhaps down the road? In case you need me later?"

    "That will not be necessary," Aille said, fumbling with the unfamiliar door mechanism. After a moment, it yielded with a click.

    The driver seemed startled, Yaut noticed. Had he intended to open the door for Aille himself?

    And if so, why? Aille was obviously not crippled. It was a mystery, as most things about these humans seemed to be.

    Yaut rose from his seat and followed Aille out into the blaring yellow sunlight. It was not the heat, Yaut thought, involuntarily squinting, but the strong light which distressed. Most Jao kochan-houses were located on worlds birthed by less insistent stars.

    "Yes, sir." The Terran raised his hand to his brow in a sharp gesture that seemed freighted with enough meaning to be a minor posture. He then returned to his seat and reached for the vehicle's controls.

    Aille cocked his head. "Wait," he said, putting a restraining hand on the vehicle's door. "Can you explain what 'pets' are?"

    "That's a human custom," the Terran said. His eyes, a startling blue, looked away, as though he were ashamed. His naked skin shifted toward a pinker shade. Yaut wondered if that was a protective camouflage reaction. Perhaps evolved to blend in with surroundings?

    "'Pets' are animals with which humans have a close emotional relationship," the driver said. "They are very common among us, as civilians. But standing orders say we are not to waste resources on them in the military."

    "I see," Aille said. He lifted his hand. "Proceed."

    "Thank you, sir. Have a pleasant evening!" A moment later, the vehicle turned back, then whirred off across the base.

    "Let me look into the matter further," Yaut said. "I will see what I can find out."

    Aille's eyes, black as volcanic obsidian, blinked. Not even a hint of telltale green glimmered in their depths. "I wish to be expert on the character of these Terrans." He set off walking, then turned to his fraghta. "Do you think they are as bad as Kaul krinnu ava Dano intimated? I had a different impression of them, after my studies."

    Yaut shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight with one hand and grunted. "In my experience, deciphering reports is one thing, fieldwork something else altogether." He hesitated. "I have heard, however, that they are much like quarrelsome children, newly emerged, but never mature."

    Aille set off. Once again, Yaut had to yield the lead, since the youth charged ahead. The two of them walked along an avenue of dreary box-shaped buildings, each sharp with corners and colored a dull, unrelenting green. The pavement radiated a pleasant heat beneath their boots and the air bore the imprint of the nearby sea. Aille turned down first one row, seemingly at random, then another, running splayed fingers over the local building materials, checking doors and windows, trim, and even what appeared to be actual stone wrested straight from the depths of the local earth.

    "These are constructed, not poured like Jao structures," he said finally. "See the joints and fasteners? Very inefficient. You can already see evidence of deterioration."

    "Wastes a lot of space, too," Yaut grunted.

    "Yes. But, on the other hand, consider the advantages on a world as heavily populated as this one. This boxy configuration allows them to stack rooms one on top of the other. As many as a hundred rooms tall, in some instances, according to the reports I read. No Jao edifice I've ever heard of uses vertical space that extensively." He pondered for a moment. "There is a lesson here, Yaut. Perhaps we should not presume, so quickly, that what the natives do is simply capricious."

    An answer did not seem to be required, so Yaut waited for him to walk on. Flow was slow for now, slipping past like a meandering stream. Nothing official was required of them at the moment. They could afford to take their time.

    They rounded another corner just as the breeze shifted, bringing a chorus of excited Terran voices. Aille's ears twitched and his head turned to pinpoint the source.

    "Seven, the hard way!" someone out of sight was saying in the native language. "Come to Papa!"

    Aille doubled back down the street and darted between two of the crude buildings. Yaut followed, muttering.

    Three human males of varying sizes, all clad in dark-blue jinau uniforms, were kneeling in a half-circle formed by three smaller buildings, staring intently at a pair of diminutive white cubes on the pavement. Perhaps they were some sort of training device, Yaut thought, coming closer.

    "Are you 'Papa?'" Aille asked the nearest male. He spoke in English, evidently determined to improve his grasp of the language.

    The man looked up, then lurched backwards onto his rump. His mouth hung open and his eyes, dark brown with this one, widened. "Wha—?"

    He recovered quickly. A moment later, he was on his feet, standing rigidly and making that peculiar motion of touching his forehead with his hand held rigid and flat.

    Aille cocked his head, his gaze bright with curiosity. "If you are not 'Papa,' then which of you is, and why do you want seven? Seven of what?"

    "There is no—Papa," another said, also now on his feet and making the same curious hand-to-forehead gesture. "It's just an expression, sir." This human was slighter than the other, topped with the reddish overgrown nap the locals called "hair." His skin was very pale and his bland unmarked face was shiny with moisture.

    "I see." Aille locked his hands behind his back. "Are you practicing some sort of skill set?"

    The third male, rising last, stooped to pick up the cubes and long rectangles of green paper. The latter he stowed in a pocket. His face, a pale tan, went paler beneath its thatch of yellow hair.

    From their uneasy stance, Yaut suddenly deduced the situation. "I believe, Subcommandant Aille, this must be one of the activities forbidden by Commandant Kaul." He glanced at the humans for affirmation. "Is that not so?"

    The red-haired one started to look away, then squared his shoulders. "Yes, sir."

    Aille stepped closer, his ears raised. "Is this 'art,' then?"

    The first, broad-shouldered for a human, and with a much darker skin than the other two, made a curious sound. Almost as if he were choking. The third man, the one who'd picked up the green papers, gave him a sharp glance which Yaut suspected was one of reproof.

    "Meaning no disrespect, sir," he said. "This is called 'gambling.'"

    Aille held out his hand and the human surrendered the tiny cubes. "Really?" he said, turning them over so Yaut could see enigmatic black circles pressed into their surface. "If it is proscribed in the military, as I have been told, then you would expect to be punished for it. Yes?"

    The three dipped their heads in what Yaut had learned from indoctrination tapes was a crude, but universally understood, affirmative posture.

    Aille rolled the cubes in his hand so they clicked. "Interesting. Yet still insist you on violating the rules. Since they are—contraband, I think the word is—I shall keeping them for further study. In the meantime—" He fixed them with his aristocratic gaze. "You will putting yourselves on report for this infraction. Fraghta Yaut will receive your names and ranks, and we shall speaking further of this when I am better informed."

    Yaut pulled out his personal board, thumbed the record function on, and looked inquiringly at the humans.

    The red-haired one made a noise deep in his throat. "PFC Curtis Ray Berry, sir."

    "Allen Rogers, Spec 4," the dark-eyed human with the dark skin said.

    The third was only of middle height but had more presence than the other two. Thin, but very fit-looking, he met Yaut's gaze as squarely as a Jao. Indeed, there was a hint of almost Jao fierceness in his stance, which was accentuated by his bright green eyes. "Gabe Tully, PFC."

    Yaut deactivated his board. "Done."

    Aille turned and strolled off, the matter finished. Yaut ducked his head and followed. Just as they rounded the corner, he heard one of the humans say, "Who in the hell was that?"

    "I dunno," one of the others said, "but did you see his face? I never saw a Jao marked like that before. He looked like the Lone Ranger, with that black mask across his eyes."

    "Idiots!" the third said, his voice growing fainter as the two Jao walked. "Didn't you hear what the other one called him? Subcommandant. We've just met our new CO, old Pinb's replacement. Of all the luck. He... not... "

    And then Yaut couldn't make out anything but a faint murmur. Lost in thought, Aille retraced their path, his nose to the briny sea wind, the blinding sun in his eyes. Yaut, as was becoming all too usual on this world, was obliged to follow.



    Since they had eaten already that day, Aille did not partake of the meal delivered to their quarters that evening, preferring instead to sit outside on a bench and study the stars. He tried to pick out known systems from this unfamiliar vantage point. This world was much closer to Ekhat-held territory than his home system of Nir and there were no other Jao outposts in the intervening reaches. If the Ekhat did sweep this way, he mused, Terra would be ill-equipped to put up any meaningful resistance. Once the conquest was finished, the great Jao fleets had gone elsewhere. What was left behind was simply a small flotilla, and enough ground troops to maintain order.

    Windward, the lights of the converted shipyard gleamed in the darkness and he could see sparks flying as work went on through the night. On the other side of the base, vehicles hummed up and down the access roads and several companies of jinau soldiers were training down on the sand with night-sight equipment. The base seemed much busier than it had under the full light of day and he was tempted to get a closer look.

    He'd left his quarters' doorfield off and could see Yaut seated before the datacom, researching a number of questions in the base archives.

    Flow eased by until the fraghta came outside and stood behind him, companionably silent.

    "Well?" Aille said finally.

    "I found references on 'gambling' as well as 'games of chance'." He turned his scarred face upward, also studying the stars. "There has been a great deal of trouble on the issue. Of the many things labeled a waste of productive time and initially banned, it seems to have been one dear to human sensibilities. Eventually, it was decided to remove the proscription against it, since enforcement was essentially impossible. The one place it was retained—no logic to this, that I can see—was in the military. Typical Dano," he sniffed. "Always so concerned to look more forceful than even Narvo."

    A troop of jinau jogged by, their stride timed in that curious unison. "But what is 'gambling?'" Aille asked.

    "Now, that is still a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps there is a religious component to it that I have not detected. If so, it makes Dano's prohibition even more absurd. It never pays to meddle with the customs and superstitions of a subject people, so long as they are obedient."

    The fraghta looked discomfited. "It is apparently a ritual which involves the surrender of valuable goods in varying amounts, but I could not figure out exactly what was provided in return. Most of the time, it seems to be nothing at all, beyond the vagaries of chance. "

    "Yet they obviously enjoy it, enough to take considerable risks." Aille turned his gaze to the black expanse of the sea which glittered out on the horizon under the starlight. The night breeze, rich with spray, surged against his face. "Strange."

    "They are indeed a strange species," Yaut said. "We may never understand them. It is probably more practical merely to teach them to understand us."

    "No, that is not good enough." Aille stood, his ears drinking in the night sounds. "That is the Narvo way. Very effective, often. But it has been tried for twenty years on this planet—and, according to what I was told by the kochanata experts before I left, to no great effect. Terra is unlike any other world we have conquered. The population is immense, and its industry and technology impressive. It has a much deeper past than any previous subject species, all of whom were primitives barely able to form metals. A complex and elaborate culture, far more so than ours in many ways."

    He paused, trying to find the best words to express concepts with which he was still wrestling himself. The kochanata experts had been able to point to Narvo weaknesses, easily enough, but that was a far cry from being able to advance solutions—as they had been the first to admit. So, in the end, they had opted for the time-honored method of the great Jao kochan. Take the most promising scion and send him or her to make the test.

    "The conquest of this planet was far more difficult than any we faced before," he continued, "and took far longer. By all reports, the humans fought like cornered beasts, often very well and always very savagely. If I am going to be an effective commander, I want to use their energy and cunning. Pluthrak has always worked differently than Narvo, in seeking association. But to do that, I have to know more. I need to understand them, as much as possible."

    Yaut's homely face was impassive. "Then I will see what I can arrange."

    "What do you mean?"

    "I would rather not say for now, "Yaut said. "But a proper fraghta always rises to the occasion. I will find a way."

    Though Yaut hadn't been with him long, Aille knew that look already. It would do no good to press him. The get of Jithra, his kochan, were notoriously close-mouthed. Yaut would reveal nothing until he was ready. Which was proper, of course. The relationship between a fraghta and his charge was not one of simple subordination. It could not be, or the fraghta could not function effectively.

    Aille stood and stretched until his joints popped. "What is our schedule tomorrow?"

    "The orders on my board say we are to report to the remanufacturing facility," Yaut said. "There, you will begin to acquaint yourself with the defensive resources of this world. Governor Oppuk wishes you to be thoroughly familiar with this area of operations before you take up specific command responsibilities."

    "Very well."

    Yaut hesitated. "One thing more."


    "According to the last postings, there was trouble on the base today, not too long after we touched down. Some sort of fight between Jao and human soldiers. Two humans died outright, one Jao was badly hurt. Commandant Kaul ordered five of the humans involved put down afterward."

    "Did the notation say what the fight was about?"

    "An insult of some sort. The report was not specific."

    Troubling, Aille thought. The penalty, more than the incident itself. Jao officers should be smarter than that. Why put down so many? Clashes between Jao occupying troops and natives were common enough, after all. They had happened on many planets. If extreme penalties were needed, singling out one who had been prominent in the fracas—two, at the most—would surely have been sufficient to restore discipline. Dead natives produced nothing of value, nor fought off any Ekhat. And Aille had learned enough from his studies to know that humans in particular were quick to resent punishment, even when it was properly authorized.

    Another vehicle pulled up and disgorged a company of soldiers burdened with full loads of unfamiliar equipment. "I am going down to the shore and observe the training," he said.

    Yaut keyed the doorfield on, then edged into the lead as any good fraghta would, given the opportunity.

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