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The Course of Empire: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:05 EDT



    The creature was still dormant, when Aille rose the next morning. He studied the prone body sprawled across the middle of the floor, head lolling so that it looked dead. His own head was abuzz with new words and syntax and grammatical structures from the language imprinting program he and Yaut now underwent every dormancy period. Half of what he'd absorbed this time skittered through his brain like dry leaves blown in the wind. Much made no sense at all, and the remainder was often puzzling. Still, being familiar with at least one of the planet's languages could only make him more effective on this assignment. A small amount of disorientation was acceptable.

    Dawn came in shades of intense red here, the rising sun a great crimson orb low on the horizon, the clouds orange streaks. Aille stepped over Tully, wondering that the normally competent Yaut hadn't provided it a proper nest, and then neutralized the alarm and keyed the doorfield off. Warm humid air rushed against his face and he inhaled the welcoming tang of the ocean.

    There were predators in these waters, he remembered from his briefings, but none as large as the ones on his birthworld. The ones here were said to be rare. No real danger even to humans, as inept as they were in water compared to Jao. Aille trotted off toward the shore, leaving Yaut to watch over his new acquisition.

    The water had slightly less viscosity than the sea on Marit An, but it was cool and the waves rolled over him with pleasant familiarity. He ducked and swam until he had worked the kinks out of his muscles, then walked back, when the sun had climbed a bit higher, his nap sleek and wet.

    He found Yaut standing over the human just outside their new quarters, the fraghta's hands clenched, ears quivering in obvious fury. "It attempted to get away!" he said in Jao. His whiskers were bristling.

    "'He,'" Aille corrected. "It admitted to being male last night."

    "It will not be male or female or anything else, if it attempts to run again," Yaut said, "because I will grind its bones to powder!"

    The human sat on the concrete, arms resting on bent knees, green eyes staring straight ahead as though he and Yaut were not even present. Although it had manifested a rudimentary command of Jao last night, it didn't even twitch at the death threat. A large purple blotch now discolored its face on one side and Aille found himself very curious. He shook the rest of the water out of his nap, then walked inside. "Bring it—him," he said without looking back.

    A blink later, the human landed with a thump in the middle of the room, and Aille bit back a sigh. His new fraghta was very short of patience when something outraged him. He would have to remember that.

    "Attempting to escape from service!" Yaut keyed the doorfield on, then stalked about the room, eyes blazing with green fury. On the floor, the human pulled itself together and resumed its previous position, though its eyes looked a bit dazed. "I would have put it down already and saved you the trouble, but it is technically a member of your service, which requires your permission."

    Aille turned and gazed at Yaut impassively, then picked up a brush and worked on his damp nap. "Perhaps he is just badly trained. Surely you could do better."

    Yaut's ears swiveled warily. "You wish it trained, rather than put down?"

    "He wished to escape," he said and put aside the brush. He studied the human from the corner of his eye. "Does that not suggest he has something to hide? I find my desire to know what weighs larger than violations of custom or practical concerns. Remember that the dead always keep their secrets."

    "Then I will, of course, train it, if that is your wish." Yaut's neck was stiff with disapproval.

    "And check on its background," Aille said. "I wish to know where it came from and what contacts it has."

    Yaut picked up his comboard. "I will put a search of the records in motion. In the meantime, I advise you to have it housed elsewhere. It is not fit to share quarters with civilized beings. Trying to escape from service!"

    The human glanced up at the fraghta surreptitiously, then looked away again. Aille reached for his weapons harness, where Yaut had left it waiting, and shook it out. At his feet, the human flinched at the unexpected snap.

    Aille dressed while considering Yaut's advice. "No," he said finally. "Bind it, if necessary for our safety, but keep it close at hand. These apparently puny creatures held off our forces for longer than any sentients we've ever encountered. It was not simply a matter of their enormous population, nor even of their sophisticated technology. I want to know how they did that, and I think this one might be able to give me the answers. Some of them, at least."

    Yaut glared at the human.

    "And work on your Terran," Aille added, donning the rest of his uniform. "To speak another species' language is to have an insight into their psychology. I will strive to improve my command of Terran as well."

    The human looked up, with that almost Jao-like direct gaze that had struck Aille the first time he met him.

    "It's called 'English.'"



    Aille directed Yaut to offer the human a tray of food from the dispenser, but the creature waved it away. Either it wasn't hungry, or Jao food did not appeal to his new acquisition. Aille decided he would worry about the logistics of feeding it later.

    For now, he was due at the refurbishing facility. He passed up nourishment himself and let his fraghta finish dressing him, taking care with the cloth trousers, the ribbons, the drape of his ceremonial halfcape off his windward shoulder. Firsts were important, as Yaut had noted yesterday. Between them, they would do Pluthrak proud.

    A vehicle arrived. It was similar to the one from the day before, a human device refitted with Jao maglev technology. The human jumped out and knocked at the open door, even though Yaut was waiting beside it.

    He then raised his hand to his forehead in that sharp, practiced motion which was becoming very familiar. "Spec 4 Andrew Danvers reporting as ordered, sir."

    "And-rew Danv-ers." Aille had trouble stringing the human syllables together. The skill would require additional practice. "Do you speak Jao?"

    The human soldier hesitated, then answered in English. "A bit, sir, if you do not mind hearing it mangled."

    Tully rose and came to the door. "I can translate a little," he said in Jao, "if need be."

    Unlike yesterday, the human's grammatical phrasing was good, and even his accent had improved. All in the space of one night, Aille thought. His suspicion that there was more to this human than was immediately evident was strengthened.

    Yaut gave Tully another fierce look and Aille realized it would take little provocation for the fraghta to simply put him down him and secure permission retroactively. Attempting to escape from personal service was a grotesque violation of custom, and, like any fraghta would, Yaut felt it keenly.

    "Yes," Aille said in English. "Translate where necessary."

    The soldier named Danvers glanced at Tully and his eyes widened. Aille supposed it was in reaction to the dark purple blotch on his face where Yaut had struck him.

    He gestured Tully into the vehicle, as Yaut followed. The human sat in the front with the driver. Yaut rode in silence next to Aille in the rear, his ears clearly displeased with the situation. Aille could almost read his mind: A fraghta's whole vithrik was bound up in providing advice along with the voice of experience, and, already, Aille was not heeding him.



    The wind was warm and Aille heard the tantalizing sound of waves breaking on the shore as they turned inland and drove along the coast. After a short ride, the vehicle pulled up to a cavernous building open almost its entire length on one side. Cylindrical black ships were cradled in immense frameworks within, as humans swarmed over them like worker insects. Sparks flew behind jumbles of cable and Aille could hear the screech of metal being cut.

    Danvers and Tully hopped out immediately. Danvers opened the door to the vehicle and rattled off some words in English, which Tully then translated into quite good Jao. "This is the Refit Facility, sir," he said. "Your personal work area is up on the second floor. Private Danvers wishes to know if you want him to guide you there."

    "Not yet. First, I wish to learn what exactly is done here."

    There was another quick exchange between Tully and Danvers. "He will find you a different guide, then, sir," said Tully. "He's not familiar with the facility itself."

    Before Tully had finished translating, PFC Danvers had already disappeared into the building without waiting for Aille's assent. That was interesting. Aille had read in the reports that humans in hierarchical systems were normally compulsive about getting permission for everything, even once their duties were clear. Apparently, this jinau had been associating with Jao long enough to have absorbed some elements of Jao rationality.

    Yaut stood in the open entrance and stared at the long sleek black ships. "Very big," he grunted, "but oddly proportioned. Perhaps they are intended for fast assault or landing ground troops."

    "They are submersibles," Tully said, his gaze riveted to the cradles, "meant for undersea travel. 'Submarines,' we call them, or 'subs' for short. These are the finest in the world. Attack subs and boomers that used to belong to the United States Navy."

    "Undersea travel?" Yaut's eyes narrowed. "Why expend resources on that?"

    "Because three quarters of our world lies under ocean," Tully said.

    Submersing must be difficult for this species, Aille realized, so that they needed artificial aids to achieve it for any length of time. He doubted Jao would ever have conceived of such craft. His kind could travel underwater with very little effort and were born craving the stars instead.

    Still, he thought there was something slightly evasive about Tully's response. Aille could understand why humans would have developed seagoing vessels to such an extent. But why travel under the water, simply to transport cargo and personnel? The storms on this planet were simply not that severe. There must be some other, or additional reason, for them to have developed a submersible capability.

    He broke off the rumination. The Jao supervisor was approaching. She was female, bow-legged and stocky. Her nap was lustrous with health, colored the russet of an exotic far-off kochan like Kaht or Mashdau. Her voice was deep and throaty as her calm black eyes took his measure. "Vaish, Subcommandant. I hope all meets with your approval."

    "As do I." He regarded her calmly. Some kochan had done well here. She was bold and forthcoming, alert, a credit to all who'd bred and trained her. "May I have the honor of your name?"

    Her eyes crinkled with pleasure. Since Aille's status was vastly greater than hers, he had been perfectly free to dispense with her name, if he so desired. "Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat. I am one of the supervisors here."

    Not a root sept then, but still a related offshoot. Like Yaut's Jithra, very honorable. "I wish to tour the facility," he said, "so I may be more efficient carrying out my duties."

    "Yes, Subcommandant." Nath turned and he caught sight of her heartward cheek. No bars of office were incised into the skin, but a shiny patch indicated where one must have been until sometime in the recent past. For some reason, Nath had been demoted.

    She headed into the facility, letting Yaut come after her and leaving Aille the place of honor at the back. Aille glanced down at Tully, then followed, trusting the fraghta to restore propriety.

    Yaut glanced over his shoulder, then with muffled exclamation, darted back to seize Tully's arm and jerk him ahead of Aille.

    "For a jinau, you are very stupid!" the fraghta snarled in Jao. "Show proper respect!"

    Yaut's grip was crushing. Jao were much stronger than humans. Had Tully resisted, his arm would have been broken. True, he seemed to smolder resentfully at being manhandled in front of everyone. But he came at once, and kept his gaze straight ahead until Yaut released him. Clearly, although some of his actions would indicate otherwise, he was not stupid. Indeed, he even seemed quick-witted.

    What could Tully know—or thought he knew—that was so valuable he would risk death or a beating to conceal it? Aille found himself wondering. He could see no other explanation for Tully's attempt to escape from service. And how could he be so certain Aille would get it out of him, if he did not escape? Perhaps he would learn all the answers eventually, if the creature survived.

    Yaut was employing wrem-fa, body-learning, where physical responses were used to instruct rather than verbal explanations. The ancient method was quite effective with Jao, but it might not be with Terrans, he realized. Tully at any rate certainly did not seem to be responding well so far.

    Ahead, a pungent, not unpleasant, smell filled the air. It was an oddly familiar smell, too, though still distinctive. Nath saw his nostrils twitching and said, "Yes, that's the odor of fresh cut wood for the cradles. Native varieties, of course. It's a primitive material, but effective and easily to hand. Humans use wood in their construction far more extensively than we ever do."

    "I see." Aille walked past presses and saws, cranes and winches, drills and bank after bank of diagnostic equipment, some of which he recognized from his just completed training. He would not be required to operate any of it, of course, but he'd had it drilled into him that a good officer understands what his staff are doing at all times. To be ignorant of such matters was to court sloth and inefficiency.

    Up close, the ships were impressive. The black hulls swept overhead, much bigger than they looked at a distance. They had a massive appearance, even more so than Narvo ships. He could see what appeared to be weapon ports, now closed, on some of the vessels.

    He turned to their guide. "What are the workers trying to accomplish, Supervisor Nath?"

    "These Terran ships, originally constructed to travel underwater, will make very suitable hulls for spacecraft once their technology is updated," she said. "So we're currently installing Jao drives and sensing systems, as well as replacing all controls pertaining to operation in a liquid environment, rather than the vacuum of space. Later we will refit the weaponry."

    He reached out and rubbed the metal with his fingertips. It was surprisingly warm to the touch.

    "I will show you the interior," Nath said.

    Aille and his little entourage followed the supervisor. Drill bits squealed, as they passed. Welding arcs flashed. Cables snaked across the concrete floor and up into the sleek ships as the race to refit Earth's fleet of submarines went on.



    Following Supervisor Nath, Aille climbed the scaffolding that bracketed one of the curiously oblong ships and descended a ladder into its interior. It was much closer inside than anything a Jao would have designed. Not only were these Terrans smaller in frame, but they must also must be relentlessly social, he reflected, to be able to live on top of one another for extended periods of time. He couldn't even imagine a marriage-group being able to take these conditions for more than a few solar cycles at a time without losing cohesion, much less a gathering of unrelated individuals who lacked the common bond of kochan or taif.

    Nath, showing the quick mind he had already suspected she possessed, seemed to have divined his thoughts.

    "The plan is for jinau troops to staff the vessels, after the refit, with only a few Jao in command. There should be enough room for the Jao officers, after the unnecessary equipment for operating underwater is removed and replaced with our own spacegoing systems. As a rule—though not always—Jao technology is more compact than human."

    She continued to explain as they moved through the cramped ship. Very quickly, Aille came to realize that the reports he'd read had drastically understated the sophistication of human technology. Where the reports tended to use terms like "convoluted" and "excessively intricate"—often enough, "bizarre"—Nath's explanations showed an appreciation for the subtlety involved. Many areas on the submarine served double and triple duty, depending on what was needed at any particular moment. He was particularly intrigued by a table in the "wardroom" used as a surgical bay in times of need.



    Tully had waited topside with Yaut, who wasn't about to let the human out of his sight, but he wished Yaut were here so he could see what the wily old fraghta would have made of all this. He turned to Supervisor Nath. "Have you ever ridden in one of these under the water?"

    She grimaced. "Once. It was a dreadful experience, being closed in with that many humans. These ships can dive quite deep, much deeper than any Jao could possibly swim."

    "I wonder why they expended so much ingenuity and resources on such travel?" He ran a hand over the gleaming fittings. "Have they constructed cities beneath their seas, or discovered resources that can only be extracted this way?"

    "They did utilize some underwater resources," she said, "and humans seem to set great store on the concept of 'exploration.' They're like crechelings, that way, always wanting to climb and dig and wedge themselves into the most inaccessible places. They think nothing of scampering up cliffs and mountains, and even crawling through caves. In fact, it is impossible to keep them from it, even when they are quite likely to die in the attempt. But these particular vessels were warships, not exploratory ones."

    Aille was surprised. "Why would they fight each other under the water? They can't live there."

    Nath fell into a quite elegant rendition of rueful-puzzlement. "Hard to say. I get along with them rather well, but they still sometimes seem like lunatics to me."

    "How large a crew did this one carry?" He ducked his head, but still grazed his ears as he stepped through another hatch into a forward chamber filled with equipment.

    "Over a hundred," she said. "I gather the number varied, according to the type of submersible and the nature of the mission. Records are spotty. They destroyed much of their armaments, once defeat became inevitable. A number of these ships were taken out into the ocean and 'scuttled,' as they term it. Deliberately sunk."

    He turned and met her eyes. "And their crews?"

    "Most of them left the ships beforehand, leaving a few officers to do the 'scuttling.' Those officers mostly died. Humans are unfathomable, in some ways. Courage is of course admirable, and a virtue for any sentient species. But they seem to think nothing of throwing away their lives for the most trivial reasons. We had already defeated them, so what was the point of destroying the ships?"

    He rubbed his head with one hand, thinking. Such a strange species. He wasn't sure he was ever going to get his mind around their alien way of thinking.

    Nath led him then to the rear of the ship, where the propellant system was being replaced with a Jao drive appropriate for space. Only Jao techs worked back here. Such advanced knowledge was forbidden to humans.

    The techs, all female and all bred from hearty if not high-status stock, were pleased to have their work admired. In fact, they expended far more time explaining it to him than he had intended. Clearly, they were deeply impressed to be visited personally by a scion of Pluthrak.

    It was all very bewildering to Aille. Jao technology was being spliced into Terran, often, it seemed, with uneasy results. When, at length, he was able to free himself, he'd had enough of technical details for the moment.

    "I'll take you to your office then," said Nath.

    "What is an 'office'?"

    Nath looked momentarily abashed. "Sorry, I meant your personal work area. 'Office' is the Terran term for it—English term, I should say. Like a lot of Jao who have been here for a while, I have picked up some native expressions. That one is particularly handy."

    He returned topside to Yaut and Tully. The supervisor conducted them to the second floor and promised to return later to take him through the ground assault vehicles.

    The room was cool and quiet, though composed of those ubiquitous Terran straight lines and angles. Conditioned air was being pumped in through vents at a steady rate. Aille sank into a black chair upholstered with what the supervisor had told him was Terran "leather," a local product evidently very durable. It was soft and supple, yielding to his weight. Very pleasing in a tactile way, he decided.

    Was the substance rare? Nath did not seem to think it was. If so, it was odd that this "leather" had not already become an item for export. Like the many signs of ruin and decay he'd seen in the short time since his arrival, Aille found that disturbing. What was the Narvo Governor doing with this planet?

    Yaut took up a post in the corner of the office, consulting his comboard, while keeping an eye on his new human trainee. Tully remained standing. His restless green eyes roved the walls, the doors, and Aille could almost see his escape plans forming.

    But that was a minor problem, which he had already arranged to forestall. He'd had a brief, quiet discussion with Nath, in which the supervisor had proved as efficient and helpful as she had with everything else.

    A knock sounded on the door. Yaut keyed the security field off. A human stood there, wearing civilian clothing instead of a uniform. He held up a gleaming black band. "You requested a locator, sir?"

    "That is correct," Yaut said.

    "Come forward," Aille said, motioning at the man.

    The human, gray-haired, shorter and more squat than Tully, came into the room. Yaut took the locator and turned it over to key in Aille's personal code.

    Aille leaned back in the chair. "Your name is Willard Belk, yes?"

    The human nodded.

    "Supervisor Nath recommended you to me," Aille said. "You are now attached to my personal service. Henceforth, you will report only to me. Your other duties are secondary."

    "Yes, sir. Will you require a locator for me as well?"

    Aille stared at him, nonplussed for an instant. "No, of course not. Why? You have done nothing to require it."

    Tully's head jerked up. He glanced sharply at the black band and Aille could see understanding dawn in his eyes. The human lurched to his feet, his gaze riveted to the device in Yaut's hand.

    "You should see which hand he prefers before you place it, sir," Belk said. "He has less chance of tampering if you place it on his more dextrous hand."

    Tully whirled upon him. "Collaborator!" His heartward hand curled into a fist. For a moment, Aille thought he intended to launch himself across the room and strike the other Terran.

    Whether he would or not immediately became a moot point, as Yaut pinned him easily to the wall with one hand while holding up the locator with the other.

    "Preferred hand?" Yaut was clearly mystified. "Humans have affection for one limb over another?"

    Belk eyed Tully's still-clenched fist. "I'd say he's right-handed, sir. Most humans are."

    "I do not understand," Yaut said.

    "This one." Belk stepped forward to point at the Terran's heartward hand—the one he had made into a fist. "Put it on this one."

    With a heave of his powerful shoulders, Yaut grappled Tully and held him still, then clicked the black locator band around his heartward wrist. As the contacts closed, a bank of tiny amber lights sprang into life. When he was released, Tully sagged back against the wall, staring wildly at his wrist, his gaze that of a cornered animal.

    His eyes fell on Belk and grew narrow. "Stinking bootlicker," he hissed.

    Belk's eyes were equally slitted. He rattled off a number of words in his own language, too quickly for Aille to follow all of it.

    "—uck you too, weasel. Tell it to my wife and kids. The ones you murdered twenty years ago, you—" Incomprehensible terms followed, which Aille suspected were pure invective. "—ance on your grave, weasel, and any weasel I find."

    Aille was puzzled by the exchange. Tully seemed much too young to have slain anyone twenty orbital cycles before. He suspected what was involved here was a human clan quarrel of some kind, rather than a personal one.

    By then, Belk had regained his composure. He turned away from Tully and faced Aille, shaking his head. "What do you require from me now, sir?"

    "Inform your supervisor that you have been taken into my personal service."

    "Yes, sir!" A moment later, the man was gone.

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