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The Course of Empire: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:04 EDT



    Gabe Tully slipped through the hot, sticky Mississippi night, trailing the new Subcommandant as he left his quarters. This one was a conundrum. Jao just didn't mix with natives or ask about local customs. Above all, they didn't go for unattended, seemingly purposeless strolls. Leisure was not a part of their psychological vocabulary. Unless he was going for a swim, something was definitely up.

    He'd bet a hundred new-bucks that encounter earlier today wasn't a fluke either. The Jao had probably had set it up, perhaps even suspected Tully had Resistance ties. For his part, the craps game had been all about gathering intel. Soldiers were much more likely to spill interesting information when their minds were otherwise occupied, and now his own mind was buzzing with what he'd learned since about this particular Jao.

    To begin with, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak was young, far more so than most Jao officers assigned to the base. And he'd been assigned a plush, high ranking job, even though he'd apparently just completed his training. The "ava" prefix in his name indicated he was a member of the inner circles of one of the root clans, as Tully understood Jao customs. Root clans were serious business in some way the Resistance hadn't quite managed to work out. At any rate, local Jao management had fallen all over themselves, trying to see that everything was perfect: his quarters, his driver, even his first meal. Very strange, since they liked to pretend they were egalitarian, that one Jao was much the same as another and cooperation was their byword.

    That must be why Commandant Kaul had come down so hard after the mess room fracas this afternoon—nervousness about this new Subcommandant. Five men executed for nothing more than a brawl! A bad brawl, sure, but no human commander would have meted out such instant and savage punishment. Even for the Jao, it was extreme.

    Tully hesitated, his back flattened to the wall. Footsteps scraped on the concrete, then several Jao officers walked past just around the corner, neither of them this Pluthrak. He held his breath. Jao had ears like cats, though there was certainly nothing else catlike about them.

    When he dared look again, Pluthrak had disappeared. He decided to keep looking and see if he could pick up the trail. Much as he would have liked to rearrange the Dano's face, doing so would ensure an even higher human death toll in the coming days. Jao discipline was invariably swift, often fatal, and not at all above falling upon civilians, when they couldn't find a guilty party easily at hand. Jao psychology made little provision for anyone learning from his or her mistakes. Their attitude was simple and brutal: kill the one who made the mistake, and let everyone else learn the lesson.

    Tully's mind wandered into speculation. If a Jao had a fatal accident, however, one that couldn't be traced back to a human hand... Kaul was too smart to put himself at risk, but this new Subcommandant was apparently not so cautious. Once Tully caught up with him, something fatal might be arranged. It'd be tricky, of course. For a human to use physical force against a Jao—especially a Jao as big and young and obviously in superb condition as this new one—was a lot easier said than done.

    Tully considered the thought for a moment longer, then shook it off. Leaving aside the difficulties involved, he'd been sent here to gather intelligence, not to risk himself by trying to carry out the assassination of a single Jao officer. He'd had some success in his assignment, and needed to continue before deserting and making his way back to the mountains with his report. The level of anger among human workers and soldiers on this particular Jao base was high, because of the harshness of the local commanders. They were more willing to cooperate with the Resistance than sepoy troops or workers on Jao military projects usually were.

    The Resistance needed that cooperation, as reluctant as many of its members were to work with collaborators. Twenty years after the conquest, Tully knew the situation was grim. The Resistance needed to deepen its roots in the population here in the occupied territories, while people still remembered what it was like to be their own masters. With every passing year, that memory was fading. If they didn't turn the situation around before many more years had passed, their conquerors would be too firmly entrenched and humanity would never take back its own world.

    In the darkness, Tully grimaced. It didn't help that the Resistance was badly factionalized, with groups often falling out and fighting among themselves. Tully had spent most of his life since the conquest holed up in the Rockies with Resistance units under the command of Rob Wiley. Wiley's people were well-organized, disciplined, and had the support of the local population. But since Tully had volunteered for the sepoy troops in order to gather intelligence for Riley, he'd been shocked to discover the hostile attitude which many humans in the occupied territories had toward the Resistance. Some of that was due to the fact that Jao retaliation for Resistance actions often fell on bystanders. But, for the most part, it was because many people had had unpleasant experiences with the Resistance.

    "Unpleasant" was putting it mildly, in some cases. Not all Resistance groups were as motivated and disciplined as the one Tully belonged to. Many of them, being honest, weren't really much more than bandits, who spent far more time and energy extorting and abusing human civilians than they ever did fighting the Jao.

    Tully's mind went back to the young Subcommandant. Why had he bothered to confiscate the dice? And why hadn't the three of them already been punished? Put themselves "on report?" Kaul would never have bothered with that. In the Commandant's current mood, he might well have ordered all three of them immediately executed even for a petty infraction like gambling on the base.

    The issue wasn't really the gambling, anyway, it was the rigid Jao attitude toward obedience. Granted, the Jao had no use for gambling, since it produced nothing beneficial, nor taught or honed any useful military skill. From their viewpoint, it was a worthless and distracting enterprise—like mountain climbing, horse racing, ornamental gardening, fine art painting—the list went on and on. Civilian humans could still do these things, although even they were no longer allowed to allocate major amounts of time and resources to them. Everything of value now belonged to the Jao.

    Tully remembered how effectively the Jao had made their attitude clear. Fifteen years ago, the last expedition to Mount Everest went forward as planned, despite an edict by the Jao Governor of Earth that the expedition was a pointless waste of manpower and resources and therefore banned.

    Thirty minutes after the climbers had begun their final ascent, the top few thousand feet of Everest had been vaporized by a Jao-guided rock from space, the same type of weapon they'd used to obliterate Chicago and New Orleans. The poor devils up on the mountain probably had never known what hit them. But the rest of Earth had, and the Jao had made their point as they always did: very bluntly.

    Tully skirted the last of the Jao living quarters. Still no sight of the Pluthrak, but he could see the sweep of the landing field not far from the shore. The small ship which had come in earlier was still there. That was unusual, because few vessels docked here permanently. This one had evidently arrived with Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak. Was it perhaps still here because it was reserved for his personal use?

    The ship, bathed in beams of blue light, was slim as a needle and looked highly maneuverable, more than any other Jao spacecraft he'd seen. The hair rose on the nape of his neck. If the Jao had many more of these, it could be bad news for the Resistance. Part of their protection now lay in the fact it was too much trouble for the Jao to transport troops back into the Rocky Mountains where they had dug in.

    But, again, Tully shook off the thought. Another thing which had become clear to him since he'd joined the sepoy army—much to his disgruntlement—was that the Jao really didn't take the Resistance too seriously. They would retaliate instantly and savagely against any Resistance actions, true. But they rarely bothered to send expeditions into the mountains to ferret them out so long as the Resistance was quiescent. So it was not likely, all things considered, that the Jao were starting to bring in special ships designed for anti-insurgency warfare. The design of the ship in front of him was probably due to other needs.

    Their mysterious war against the Ekhat, perhaps. The Jao hinted at terrible things lying in wait out there in the universe that justified their harsh rule. The worst was said to be the Ekhat, a species which reportedly made the fiercest Jao look like kindly nannies. They were always predicting destruction that would rain upon everyone, human and Jao alike, if they didn't prepare and prepare and prepare. Most humans, even most collaborators, just thought it was an excuse—self-serving Jao propaganda to justify their conquest and their outrages.

    Tully had thought the same himself, once. Now, he was no longer so sure. In the past few months, he'd gotten to know the Jao much better than he had observing them from a distance. As far as Tully had been able to determine, Jao felt no guilt at all over their brutal excesses. Shame just wasn't part of their psychological makeup. They did whatever they deemed necessary to keep control and made no excuses of any kind. So why would they bother developing elaborate propaganda schemes to keep humans pacified? Their standard "propaganda" method was uncomplicated and straightforward: do as we say or we will kill you.

    Tempted, Tully wondered if he could get close enough to the ship to gather any useful information. He edged across the open tarmac, calculating. Those light beams were security devices, no doubt. Break one and you were probably toast. Still—

    "Being well crafted, is it not?"

    The voice, Jao by its inflection, stopped Tully in his tracks. Wind-borne sand ticked against his face. He spun around, heart thudding in his chest.

    The Jao facing him had that startling band covering his eyes much as a human bandit wore a mask. It was Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak.



    Aille watched the Terran soldier, trying to gauge its reaction. Short and fragile though it was, compared to a Jao, it did seem to be male. Was it uneasy, perhaps even worried? He was coming to realize that their faces were much more mobile than he'd thought they would be, from the reports he'd read before arriving, once he mentally adjusted for the lack of whiskers and those tiny, immobile ears. Alien emotions fleeted across its face like waves before the wind.

    Staunch and alert, Yaut moved up to Aille's side, hand on his weapon. "Area of restrict!" he said in crude English. "What doing you here?"

    The human glanced over its shoulder at the landing field. A sweep of red lights outlined the boundaries in all directions while the blue stasis beams protected the Pluthrak courier. The Terran shook its head. "Just what the Subcommandant here said, sir. Admiring that ship."

    "Are you a pilot?" Aille asked, ears twitching.

    "No, sir," the human said, "but I hope to be certified to work on Jao engines one of these days." It exhaled softly. "I'd sure like to know how that technology works."

    Curiosity was understandable, Aille thought, but still the presence of this one alone out here in the darkness seemed suspicious. Did the species often wander about like this, regardless of regulations?

    "You are male?"

    "Yes, sir," the soldier said and flicked his gaze toward Yaut, who stood between them like a shield.

    "Jao techs are generally female. They having—" Aille searched his newly acquired vocabulary for the right word. "—more affinity for the work." He peered at the man's shirt, trying to decode the unfamiliar glyphs etched on the small plate across the breast, by only the glimmer of starlight. "Were you not one of the gamblingers we apprehending earlier today?"

    The man stiffened. "You must be mistaken, sir."

    But that build, slender yet very strong-looking for a native, seemed familiar. So did the shape of the face and the subtleties of the stance, and the Terran symbols seemed to spell out the same name. And the hair, hadn't it been that same yellowish shade? He turned to Yaut. "Check your board," he said in Jao. "See if this is one of the three."

    "Don't bothering," the Terran said in Jao. "I submitting self for censure."

    "Gabe—Tully," Yaut read out anyway. "PFC."

    "You interest me, PFC Gabe Tully," Aille replied, also in Jao. "Are you not aware of the punishment for intruding into restricted areas of this base?"

    Tully inhaled deeply and locked his arms behind his back. "Yes, sir. It... can being very severe."

    "You could be put down for it, if I chose—or if the Commandant chose. And yet you risk coming here, nonetheless. Why?"

    "I wanting to see the ship better, sir."

    "That is irrational." Aille considered. "Are all Terrans this stupid?"

    The Terran made no response. Aille walked around the stiffly braced human, studying him from all angles. The sea breeze rifled the curiously colored hair. "You possess valuable military training?"

    Again, as earlier in the day, the Terran exhibited that curious head dip which signified assent.

    "And, if you force me to punish you for a serious infraction of regulations, you thereby deprive the Jao of your talents? Perhaps permanently."

    Head dip.

    Something tickled the back of Aille's mind, something that would not step forward and make itself known. Was the species perhaps prone to acts of self-extermination? What explained this bizarre stubbornness?

    He came to a sudden decision. An odd one, perhaps, but it was an odd situation.

    "Therefore, I shall not let you force me into unstudied action," Aille said. "You are attached to my personal service as of now."

    Yaut glanced at him with alarm in the cant of his ears.

    The Terran's head whipped around. If Aille was interpreting his expression correctly, he was confused and puzzled—as well as afraid, of course.

    "My fraghta will accompany you back to your quarters to collect your gear. Then you will return with him and await further instruction. His name is Yaut krinnu Jithra vau Pluthrak, but, of course, you will only address him by name with his permission—which will not come quickly or easily, if at all. He is a stringent trainer, you will find."

    "I don't understand!" the man blurted.

    Aille could see in Yaut's eyes that the fraghta did not understand either. Actually, Aille himself did not fully grasp the implications of this action. But he sensed that something important was at stake here, something which would forever elude him, if he merely had this Terran punished without further investigation. And what better way to understand the species than to take one into his personal service?

    He would study Gabe Tully and see if the idea lurking just below the conscious level of thought would surface and make itself known. Gambling... the Jao courier ship... Terran deaths... Jao insults... unwarranted risk taking...

    It all hinted at something potentially useful if he could just pull it together. He would keep this Terran at his side until he knew what it was.



    Tully wound up bunking on the carpet. The Jao's quarters were well appointed and he could have used the couch in the corner, but the crusty one called Yaut didn't offer its use and he wasn't about to ask.

    First, he wasn't about to ask because he was a little amazed that he was still alive and completely confused by the situation. Mainly, though—speaking plainly and simply—because Yaut scared him. He wasn't big, as Jao went, and Tully was pretty sure he was fairly old. But the way he moved was frightening, with its little hints of controlled savagery. And while Tully didn't really understand all that the Jao word "fraghta" implied, he knew a little.

    Only the most prestigious Jao had fraghtas. They seemed to be a weird combination of advisers, protocol experts—and killers. Rob Wiley had once told him that a fraghta was something like a medieval-style Japanese shogun's chief samurai. Tully didn't know much history, beyond American, but he had watched some old Toshiro Mifune movies. And that was what Yaut make him think of. Yojimbo—on a bad day, in a really grumpy mood.

    Zzzzzt. Plop goes the head.

    So, he stretched out on the floor, keeping very still, while Yaut fed information into a datacom. Finally, the fraghta rose, gave him a disapproving look, and disappeared into the next room. His arms behind his head, Tully stared up at the ceiling, which was dimly visible in reflected starlight from the single small window.

    The newly arrived Subcommandant must suspect his connections to the Resistance. That was the only thing which could explain his strange behavior. Twice today, this Jao had passed up opportunities to have Tully punished—or possibly executed, the second time. Going into restricted areas was a lot more serious offense than gambling.

    That made no sense. Jao didn't give humans a second chance when they broke rules, in Tully's experience. The Subcommandant must have a reason for doing otherwise. Tully had to get off the base before the Jao went to work on him for names and specifics.

    But even leaving Yaut aside, that formidable looking front door was sealed with a field and the telltale red light gleaming beside the sill indicated the presence of an alarm. Tully might be able to pick the lock, given enough time, but he had no way of circumventing the alarm with nothing more than the current contents of his pockets. He would have to wait until tomorrow, then find an opportunity to make tracks.

    In the meantime... He listened to the sounds coming from the other room. The door stood open, but he heard only the faintest breathing. Though Jao did not sleep the way humans did, they did experience a sort of dormancy phase, though he'd never seen one in that state himself. The Resistance knew very little about the species beyond what battlefield autopsies had revealed. They were stronger than humans, and showed signs of being evolved from water-adapted ancestors. Their bones were denser, their reflexes a bit slower than that of humans. But even though they weren't quite as fast, once they got started, hand to hand combat with a Jao was like trying to fight a gorilla.

    But all that was external. What lay between those large and twitching ears was what mattered. How did they think? What motivated their decisions beyond the obvious desire for resources and power? What was reasonable to a Jao? And, most important, what would convince them that humans were too much trouble and they should abandon the effort to hold this world? Terrans had spent twenty years trying to learn those basic facts about their conquerors and had so far failed miserably.

    Tully decided that Yaut must be in dormancy. He eased up off the floor and padded quietly over to the sleek datacom embedded in the wall. Colors flowed across its screen like currents in a river. Yaut had left it on, or perhaps they weren't designed to be turned off. Information lay locked behind those colors, if he could figure them out, but Jao never allowed jinau like him access to this technology. He had about as much chance to hack his way in as a monkey would setting up a homepage on the Internet.

    Tully lay back down and closed his eyes, weighing his options. His very limited and bad options. On the one hand, he was tempted to remain where he was, in the hope that he might be able to gather more information. On the other hand...

    No. The risk was too great that the Subcommandant would start torturing him to get information on the Resistance. Or... use some method to do so. There were actually no reliable reports of Jao using torture. The creatures were terrifyingly savage in the way they dealt out instant death, but they didn't seem to linger on it. Still, Tully resolved to escape, the first time he got a chance.

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