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The Course of Empire: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:06 EDT



    Tully pried surreptitiously at the sleek black band around his right wrist. But, even as his fingers pulled and wrenched, he knew it was pointless. The device wasn't going to come off. He'd seen these before—on corpses. Fueled by the electrical energy of his own body, it would never come off until it lost power, and that wouldn't happen until he died.

    And, until then, the Jao would always know where he was. His days as an effective spy were over, unless he could figure out a way to get rid of it, and now even escape would be impossible. He glared at Aille, who was staring into the console built into the desktop, one hand propped under his broad chin in a curiously human gesture.

    Tully's head suddenly rocked back and hit the wall. A moment later, dazed, he slid to the floor. He blinked up through a red fog and realized Yaut had cuffed him with the back of one hand.

    "You are in his service," the fraghta said roughly. "All who see you will know this, therefore you can no longer behave without manners. All you do reflects on Pluthrak!"

    "Why?" he said in Jao around a split lip. "What possible use could I be to the likes of him?"

    Aille turned to look down at him with an expression Tully could not name. Green patterns glittered in those black eyes, changing from second to second like a kaleidoscope. "You will make yourself of use by telling me your secrets," he said.

    "I don't have any secrets." Tully tried to rise, but his legs buckled and he sagged back against the wall. The room seemed to swell and shrink, as though it were breathing. "None of us do. You stripped away all of Earth's secrets twenty years ago."

    "Not all." Aille turned back to his console. His ears were relaxed, unconcerned. "Yaut has been checking your background and the results are interesting. You never stay anywhere very long and your records are for a younger individual than your appearance indicates. Very scanty records, too. I think you have still a few secrets and, soon enough, I will know them all."



    In the afternoon, after familiarizing himself with the electronic data retrieval systems in his work area, Aille again sallied forth into his new realm, this time to inspect the ground assault vehicles undergoing refit with Jao technology in an adjacent series of buildings. There was an astonishing variety of forms filling bay after bay, tools and parts scattered everywhere in what could only be called controlled confusion.

    Most of the vehicles were painted the same bewildering patterns of light green and tan splotches on a background of darker green. Did this color scheme have some cultural significance? he wondered. He had read that Terrans were very superstitious. Perhaps these colors were intended to appease their gods.

    There wasn't as much refitting to do here, since these vehicles were already meant for surface travel. But their primitive mechanical propulsion systems were all now being changed out with Jao maglev components able to handle any terrain.

    One entire section of the refitting floor was devoted to replacing kinetic energy weapons with Jao lasers. Tully gazed at them with what seemed to be a mixture of glumness and disapproval, but was otherwise docile enough.

    Aille stopped beside a massive vehicle topped with a rotating gun turret. "Did they develop all these vehicles for their struggle against the Jao?" he said, raising his voice to carry over the omnipresent screech of power tools.

    Nath snorted. "I think you will find these creatures the most quarrelsome beings ever evolved! From their earliest recorded history, they have fought one another as vigorously as they ever resisted us. All of these armored vehicles and mobile assault weapons were in service long before we made landfall on this world."

    "Interesting." Aille walked around the large vehicle, noting the thick armor plating, the open hatch above and the bristling array of communications antennae. The metal was cool and grainy beneath his hand. "Perhaps that was why they were so effective in their initial resistance—they had a great deal of practice."

    "Perhaps." Nath sounded unconvinced. "It boggles the mind, though, to think of kochan fighting kochan, pitting strength against strength, rather than creating associations and binding assets in a common cause. Think of what they might have accomplished, had they molded themselves into one massive unified power, rather than a squabbling cluster of minor political states. It would have taken us twice as long to conquer them, if we could have done it at all without obliterating life from the planet."

    She stepped aside as a pair of human techs wheeled a Jao laser generator on a cart toward a gutted vehicle. "In the long view, our conquest benefits them as well. They might have annihilated themselves altogether before very much longer and the Ekhat would have encountered no resistance at all in this sector. Now, perhaps they will have time to mature as a species and create a new cooperative social order."

    Voices rose suddenly above the clamor of metal against metal and the whir of saws. Aille rotated until he located their source, then threaded his way through techs and machinery, finally emerging near the end of the refit bays where a grizzled dark-haired human male was facing off with a larger Jao official.

    "You can't just slag these guns!" the human was saying. "In fact, it's stupid to replace them with lasers in the first place!" His face was reddening, a hue which Aille was coming to associate with overstimulation in humans. He cocked his head, trying to read the creature's posture. Was that fear? Anger? Greed?

    A handful of humans crowded around, their faces showing a similar response. Two Jao guards pushed them back, then exhorted them in low voices to return to their stations.

    "I fought at the battle of Chicago," the man continued in an insistent tone of voice, ignoring the guards. "We took your tanks out right and left. If you Jao hadn't had air supremacy, things would have turned out very different. Don't think they wouldn't."

    With the flick of an ear, the Jao official seized the human's shirt and lifted him into the air. "Your only function here is to make yourself useful to the Jao. Either you do the work assigned without further comment or you go to the stockade. We are not interested in preserving inferior human gadgets."

    Aille glanced at Nath. The supervisor was obviously striving for indifferent-patience, but he could detect underlying unease, perhaps even anger. She did not seem happy with the official and the way he was conducting himself, he thought.

    Aille stepped out of the shadows and the Jao official seemed to see him for the first time. He released the human he was clutching and swatted him away with a cuff to the side of his head.

    "They are idiots," he said. "They persist in believing their primitive toys have value. Too bad we cannot shove them forward to face the Ekhat on their own. Then they would have some idea of what was coming and stop prattling about the merits of their technology! If their hardware was so superior, why does Terra belong to the Jao now?"

    "Indeed." Aille glanced at the human who'd been arguing. He looked dazed from the cuffing he'd received. It hadn't been a severe blow, but humans were less sturdy than Jao. "Just exactly what is it this one wishes to preserve?"

    The Jao glanced at a discarded gun mount and scowled. "One of their primitive kinetic weapons. We will melt it down and make something useful out of it."

    "Perhaps he has a point," Aille said. "It is true, after all, that our ground vehicles suffered tremendous casualties during the conquest. Inflicted, as I recall, by these same perhaps-not-so-obsolete kinetic weapons."

    "And who are you, to have opinions? I see no command bars on your cheeks!" The Jao official seemed to suffer from a short temper. He braced his shoulders, then gestured at the human he'd cuffed and bellowed at the guards. "Take this human to the stockade! I do not want him on the work floor stirring up the rest of them."

    "No, I do not think that would be wise." Aille stepped forward. "Leave him where he is."



    The guards looked to Nath who waved them back. "Do as he says," she commanded. Seeing the cant of her ears, they obeyed immediately and took up a formal waiting-for-instruction stance.

    Jowls quivering, the official turned on Aille. "I do not know who you are, smoothface, but you have no idea how to handle these creatures! They are worse than crechelings, because they are incapable of learning from their mistakes."

    Yaut stiffened at his tone, and even Tully, skulking in the background, looked as surprised as his alien physique would allow.

    What would have old Brem said, Aille wondered, and then knew. Despite the aggressive tenor of the moment, kochan-father Brem would have seen this as an opportunity to widen association. "This individual expressed a difference of opinion," he said carefully. "It was not given in the most respectful of manners, perhaps, but disagreement on how best to be of use is not a punishable offense." He regarded the official in the attitude of mild-expectation. "If I am in error, I will amend my behavior."

    "Ignorant upstart!" The official was quivering with rage. "You should return to your birthing compound and learn to listen to your betters!"

    "I am striving to instruct myself here," Aille said. He curved his arms in the classic wishing-to-be-of-use posture favored by Pluthrak body-stylists. "The disagreement is clearly over how to make these machines—these 'tanks,' as I am told they are called—function more effectively. This human may be right, or he may be wrong; but, either way, holding an erroneous opinion is not a crime."

    The Jao took the human worker by the arm and shoved him toward the two guards. "I want this troublemaker punished!"

    "Director Vamre," Nath said, assuming a stance of most-urgent-need. "Will you join me outside for a consultation?"

    "I will not!" Vamre glanced at the guards. "Well?"

    The two pairs of green-black eyes were steady as they looked to Aille. Clearly, they now realized who he was. "Do not obey him," he said to them. "No one need be punished here. Even if there were such a need, Director Vamre lacks the authority to have it carried out against my wishes."

    "We will see about that!" Vamre shoved the argumentative human back against the side of the tank and strode off, every line of his body a crude rendition of not-to-be-thwarted.

    The man put a hand to his head and then turned to Aille, limping a bit. "Thank you," he said, speaking now in Jao. "I did not mean to make trouble. I was only trying to do my job properly."

    Aille ran a hand over the tank, studying the gaping undercarriage where the massive treads had already been replaced with much more compact magnetic suspension drives. The smooth ice-blue metal of Jao origin glittered, contrasting against the dull, mottled human colors. "Do you truly believe your kinetic energy weapons superior to Jao lasers?"

    "If you want to fight in an atmosphere anything like this one," the man said. "Your ordnance was designed for fighting in a vacuum, not terrestrial combat. We were able to get around Jao lasers any number of ways, from steam clouds to throwing up chaff."

    Yaut's scowl caught his eye. Aille turned away so the fraghta wouldn't distract him from this line of investigation. "And Jao technology has nothing to offer?"

    The man spread his hands. Aille noticed his skin pigmentation was browner than Tully's, his face more lined, his thick black hair shot through with gray. "I didn't say that. The maglev drive is a pure joy. And Jao targeting systems are superior to our own, not to mention your countermeasure electronics. I have no problem with them."

    "Have any of those systems been installed yet?"

    "Yes, they have, sir." The man glanced up at the top of the tank where a dull-green hatch stood open. "Would you like to take a look?"

    "I would," Aille said. He watched the other climb laboriously up onto the lower deck, favoring his heartward leg, then followed.

    The human pulled himself onto the turret and then lowered his body feet-first into the interior. A moment later, his head popped back up. "This is a grand old lady," he said in Terran. "She deserves to fight again."

    "It has gender?" Aille stepped up to the tank's lower deck, then eyed the narrow hatch, wondering if he would fit. It looked too tight for Jao shoulders. "Jao machines are not equipped with gender. In what regard do Terran machines possess it?"

    "Only in our minds," the man said. "Humans like to personalize things." He pointed to a notation in human script along the side of the vehicle, and then to a similar notation on the tank next to it. "We call this one Iron Mistress. Over there's Horny Horse. That one's, ah, not female."

    It was all quite mystifying. But Aille put the matter aside for the moment. The human had just thrust out his hand, the fingers extended and the palm open. "My name is Rafe Aguilera."

    Naming oneself without invitation was a grave social error among Jao, but he doubted this human was being intentionally rude. Aguilera stared at him, hand outstretched. Ritual touching was important to this species, Aille remembered suddenly. He had read of that. With only the slightest hesitation, he grasped the proffered hand.

    Aguilera's skin was warm, the palm hardened by work, the fingers strong, though the underlying bones were frail. The human tightened his grip, then released Aille's hand and dropped back down into the vehicle. "You can't see the new electronics unless you come inside." His voice echoed tinnily.

    With a sigh, Aille thrust his feet into the open hatch, then wedged himself through, sticking at the shoulders until he squirmed. The dimensions definitely had not been designed with Jao in mind, he told himself as his bones creaked.



    It was dark inside, until Aguilera flipped several switches. Then a bank of controls came to life, gleaming red and amber in the dimness with occasional spots of green. Aille blinked in surprise. The interior was well crafted, every az of space utilized with nothing wasted, an unexpectedly elegant arrangement. Again, as he'd found earlier with the submarine, human technology could be dazzlingly subtle.

    Aguilera had settled into a seat at the front of the vehicle and was gazing at the controls and periscope with the satisfaction of a successful predator. "Those were the days," he said softly in Terran. "My last assignment was as tank commander, right before I took the hit on my leg that put me out of action for good. We thought we couldn't lose, once we finally had a chance to mix it up with you on the ground."

    "But you did lose," Aille said, calculating the approximate age of this individual. "And, by all accounts, your species does not taking loss lightly, which makes me curious. Why do you agree to share your—" He searched for the right word. "—expertise with your conquerors?"

    Aguilera sat back in the seat, hands laced across his middle. In that position, he almost looked as though he'd assumed careful-contemplation. But humans were not Jao, Aille cautioned himself. They did not reason like Jao. He must never fall into the trap of believing they did.

    "I was a good soldier," the human said at last. His skin gleamed red under the indicators' light. He reached out and brushed dust off a glowing dial. "A damn good soldier, in fact. I tried my hand at other work after the war, whatever I could find, but soldiering is really what I'm good at. And I couldn't do it anymore, not even for the Jao, with this bad leg." He grimaced at the limb stretched out stiffly before him. "But then this refit was mandated. When the call went out for skilled workers, I realized I could at least use what I knew to put these babies back into service. I got married a few years ago, and now I have kids—and my family needs to eat. This outfit pays better wages than you'll find anywhere else in this part of the world these days. So here I am."

    Interesting. Aille wondered what Yaut would make of that explanation. Beneath the alien idiom, it was surprisingly Jao-like, for creatures deemed semi-incomprehensible in the reports. Aille was beginning to think that "semi-incomprehensible" was a evasion, of sorts, almost a dereliction of duty. Just a sloppy way of saying: understanding them is too much work.

    Aille leaned over, wedging himself into a tight space never meant for the breadth of Jao shoulders. The new electronics were grafted underneath the console, their housing ice-blue against the duller Terran shades. If the submarine had been cramped, it was comparatively roomy next to this. He had to exhale to extricate himself. These machines would have to be staffed by jinau troops. No Jao would ever be able to function effectively down here.

    "Activate the laser sight," he said.

    Aguilera nodded and flipped several more switches. The hum of the Jao targeting mechanism sprang to life and throbbed through him, comforting in its familiarity. He had trained on these. Like Aguilera, here was something he knew how to do.

    He squeezed between the front chair and the console, eyeing the spliced interface. "The systems are compatible?" he asked in Jao.

    "To a point," Aguilera said. "It has taken a great deal of creative engineering and we won't really know how successful we've been until we field test."

    Aguilera's command of the Jao language was genuinely excellent. Even his accent was not very pronounced. Aille took one last look around the interior, then climbed back out, painfully squeezing himself through again. Yaut glared up at him from the floor, while Tully stood against a dismantled tank nearby.

    Aguilera followed him as Aille hopped down. He motioned to Yaut, who, by the angle of head and spine, looked to be fully in the throes of impatient-disapproval. "This matter warrants further investigation," he said. "Arrange some interviews with Jao veterans of human battles as soon as possible. I am curious to know the validity of this one's claims."

    His eyes surveyed the massive battle machine with its scorch marks and dents. "If he is right, then we are making a grave error in allocation of resources. With the Ekhat nearly at hand, we have no room for errors."

    Yaut grunted his assent and motioned to Tully.

    "And leave Tully with me," Aille said, holding out his hand for the locator control. "I am not sure he can survive any more training today."

    Yaut passed over the small black rectangle, then disappeared into the maze of maintenance and refit bays. Aille turned to the Supervisor, Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat, who was pacing with more than a hint of discomposure in her manner. "Shall we proceed?" he said.

    "The Director has been too busy to heed base bulletins," she said. "He did not realize who you were."

    "I took no offense," Aille said. "I am newly assigned, with no command bars. He committed no error, beyond believing he had the authority to punish workers under my command." He paused. "Have there been punishments meted out for similar expressions of opinion?"

    She reached out and rubbed at a deep scratch on the side of the tank. "Yes," she said. "Director Vamre considers humans to be only 'clever, semi-trainable vermin.' If it were not for the urgency of the refit schedule and the shortage of experienced Jao technicians—who couldn't fit themselves into many of these work spaces, anyway—he would not allow them on the floor at all."

    "Interesting." He trailed as she led him toward the far end where mobile artillery were also being altered according to Jao specifications. Tully did not immediately follow, then Aille heard his muffled exclamation of pain as the distance exceeded the device's set range and it dispensed a substantial shock through the wristband.

    Such was wrem-fa. Feet shuffled as Tully hurried to catch up.

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