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The Course of Empire: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:08 EDT



    Caitlin Stockwell generally avoided people, as she went about her business on campus. They were really just acquaintances, anyway, with a few exceptions, people who wanted to know her because of who her father was and her family's prominence. They just wanted to use her, basically.

    Of course, she thought, walking along the winding river path on her way back to the dorm, the Jao wanted to use her too. They were just more open about it. Everyone and everything should be of use, according to their philosophy.

    She glanced over her shoulder, but Banle was giving her space for now, hanging back in the shade about twenty feet, probably to spare her eyes from the bright light. Fortunately, the campus was mostly deserted in August, with only a handful of graduate students and professors in residence, either finishing up summer work or preparing for the fall. Everyone who had a decent home had already left.

    For her, though, leaving would have meant returning to her father's mansion in St. Louis, the city which was now the human capital of North America—more precisely, the human administrative center. The real "capital," in the sense of the seat of power, was of course Oppuk's palace in Oklahoma City. Caitlin's father had deliberately placed the human administrative center as far away as he could from Oppuk's glowering presence, without moving it so far away as to give obvious insult.

    Here, on a campus in central Michigan, she only had to deal with her bodyguard/jailer, Banle. There, in St. Louis, the entire Stockwell household would be under Jao scrutiny night and day. Oppuk had allowed Caitlin's father to establish himself outside of Oklahoma City—if for no other reason, because Oppuk disliked dealing with humans anyway, except as menial servants—but he had also made sure to keep a strong Jao presence in St. Louis.

    True, compared to humans, the Jao were quite unsophisticated when it came to espionage and internal security surveillance. They had nothing equivalent to the FBI—much less such all-pervasive secret police as the old KGB or the still-older Tsarist Okhrana—and they used human informers in a desultory manner. But with their military power and their much-superior electronic capabilities, it hardly mattered. Jao clumsiness enabled the Resistance to survive in their little nooks and crannies all over North America. But they would have quickly spotted any attempt by human officials in the highly-visible center at St. Louis to organize anything on a broader scale than the localized efforts of the various groups in the Resistance.

    "Hey, Caitlin!" a male voice called.

    She turned to see Alex Breck jogging across the grass toward her. He was tall and lean, with badly cut black hair that kept falling in his eyes. For the past week, Alex had been trying to get her to go out on a date, with her doing her best to evade the problem. A problem, in his case, because she would have enjoyed it. Alex was one of the few people on campus who liked her for herself. Of that, she was quite sure.

    "Caitlin, wait up!"

    She stopped, and clutched her briefcase to her chest as though it could protect her.

    "I've been calling you for days!" He stopped, breathing hard, his brown eyes trained on her face.

    "I—haven't been checking my messages," she said, which was a lie and she could see he knew it. "I have a lot of work to do for Professor Kinsey before classes start again." She raised her chin. "He's writing a book about the history of the Jao."

    "Yeah, I know," he said. "I just can't figure out why. Don't we all hear enough about the Jao day in, day out, as it is, without writing books about them too?"

    Privately, she agreed. "It's important to Professor Kinsey," she said for Banle's ears, "and I'm getting paid for it."

    "Right," he said and reached for her hand.

    She tried to take it, then lost her grip on the briefcase and everything tumbled into the grass. In a second, they were both on their knees, picking up books and papers and pens. He laughed and she sat back on her heels, the wind in her face, laughing with him.

    "Come on," he said, then tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Quit avoiding me. Let's go out to dinner tonight."

    She gazed up at his honest expression, then sighed. "I'd like to," she said, "but you don't know what you're asking for. I—don't have a private life. I never have." She looked back at Banle's tall golden figure, standing at the edge of the shade, nap dappled with sunlight. "That Jao over there has been my jailer since I was four years old. As far as I know, she'll be with me until the day I die. She may even be my scheduled executioner. If the Jao ever decide they have a good reason for me to die, I can promise you I'll be dead before anyone can blink twice."

    His brow furrowed. She could tell he didn't really believe her about this either.

    She stuffed the last of her papers back into the battered briefcase. "I can't date anyone. It just isn't fair to them, and I certainly wouldn't enjoy trying to have a relationship with Banle looming over my shoulder. Maybe someday things will change, but for now I'm not holding my breath."

    She closed her eyes, remembering her dead older brother, Brent. "If I let myself care about someone, he'll just make another hostage. I have enough to handle already being a hostage myself."

    "I see." He stood and then, after hesitating a moment, stalked back down the path, giving Banle a wide berth.

    And so much for that. Too bad. I liked him.

    Actually, he didn't see, she thought, as she resumed walking. He didn't have the faintest idea of what her life was really like, but that was okay. She didn't want him to see. Things were bad enough as it was, without adding another player.

    Banle closed up the distance between them. "Were you in danger?" Her body was angled in perception-of-threat.

    "No," Caitlin said hastily. "We just had a minor disagreement."

    "Your parents are too permissive. You should be educated in your own kochanata where your elders can impart the important values," Banle said, "not here among strangers."

    "Leaving home to go to a university is the human way," Caitlin said. "I want to be here."

    Banle only wrinkled her snout in disapproval.



    Rafe Aguilera was waiting when Aille returned, Tully in tow. Big for a human, though still smaller than a Jao, Aguilera was pacing the corridor outside his office with his limping gait, plainly nervous.

    Aille keyed off the doorfield and went inside. Tully followed, edging toward a corner once they got into the room, his green eyes fixed on the two of them like a caged animal.

    "You are not here for punishment," Aille said to Aguilera in Jao. "Although most would say you deserve it." He met the human's strange dark-brown eyes in their eerie nests of white. "You do understand that?"

    Aguilera glanced at Tully, then lowered his gaze. His jaw muscles were tight. "I let myself get carried away," he said finally. "But I didn't mean any disrespect. I just wanted to do the job right, to be of use. Isn't that what you Jao want, for us to be of use?"

    "'The ripples of being of use spread ever outward,'" Aille said, quoting one of his earliest lessons. "'One who is not of use might as well be dead.'"

    "So I've heard." Aguilera threw back his bony shoulders, articulated differently in some way from Jao anatomy so that what might have been forthright-acceptance was distorted into meaninglessness.

    "I wish to know more about your ideas concerning these Terran tanks," Aille said, sinking into his chair. He leaned back. "I think your ideas may have merit. So does Supervisor Nath."

    The thin lines of hair over Aguilera's eyes raised. "Nath? She never—" He bit off whatever he had intended to say.

    "She has been properly reticent about expressing her opinions, in the past time. But now that I have taken her into my service, she is freed of other obligations and—" It was his turn to bite off the end of the phrase. And worries, he'd been about to say. But there was no reason—indeed, it would be quite improper—to indicate such concerns to a human.

    Aguilera's body relaxed. The rangy human rubbed his hands together. "You don't have to take my word for it. A number of the men down on the refit floor fought at Chicago, like I did. Why not ask them how they coped with Jao weapons?"

    "Very well," Aille said. "Arrange a meeting." He paused, his body automatically falling into the shape of absorbed-reflection.

    Aguilera stared out through the door to the glass wall in the corridor which overlooked the refit floor, his eyes on the work below. "Is it really true there's another race out there, even stronger than the Jao?" he said. "One ready to kill us all?"

    "You mean the Ekhat," Aille said. "Yes, they are 'out there,' as you put it. The reason they have not swept Terra and its inhabitants aside like so much refuse before now is that this world is not near any of their framepoints currently in use, and so has not come to their notice."

    Aguilera turned to him. "But what do they want?"

    "No one has ever been able to establish that, no matter how carefully they study past encounters," Aille said. "As nearly as we Jao can tell, the Ekhat simply want to be alone in the universe with their own perfection."

    The human seemed to ponder that statement. "Then how have the Jao survived?" he said finally. "Did you chase them off your homeworld?"

    Aille was puzzled. "How could a human—especially one with responsibilities such as yours which bring you into close contact with Jao—still be ignorant of such basic facts, so long after the conquest?"

    Aguilera's shoulders made a lifting-and-falling motion which, if Aille remembered correctly, was roughly the human equivalent of puzzled-uncertainty. "You Jao never tell us anything about yourselves."

    Now, Aille was more puzzled than ever. The methods of forging association with conquered species were well-known, tried and tested. It was much like raising crechelings. Of course, one maintained authority and, when necessary, punished disobedience or disrespect. But one never lied or dissembled to them, either, any more than kochan parents were untruthful to the crechelings in their charge. Association required trust, and trust required forthrightness.

    Again, the question forced itself forward: What has Narvo been doing here?

    But Aille saw no reason to raise that issue before Aguilera, much less Tully. Being forthright with subject species was not the same thing as kochan back-biting gossip, after all.

    "Actually," he said, "we Jao have no idea of what particular world birthed our race. All our histories begin when a sizable population escaped the slave compounds of the Ekhat."

    "They captured your whole race?"

    "No, they crafted us, from a semi-sentient species swimming in an ocean somewhere so that eventually we could work and fight for them as slaves."

    "Slaves?" Aguilera ran a hand back over his unruly black hair.

    "Yes, and we were the fortunate ones," Aille aid. "Apparently, for whatever reason, they must have seen some promise in us. Most intelligent or semi-intelligent species they encounter are exterminated immediately."

    "So if we don't help prepare for their coming," Aguilera said, "we'll fall too."

    "Most likely," Aille said. "Now, return to the refit floor and arrange the meeting."

    Aguilera gave the human nodding gesture, then slipped back out the door.

    "I don't really believe that," Tully said, speaking for the first time since they'd returned to the office. "I think you Jao just make all that stuff up so we'll stay in line."

    The phrase "stay in line" sounded peculiar, especially coming from someone whose Jao was obviously quite good. How instantly, Aille thought, these humans thought in terms of order and regimentation. Their minds seem to run in straight lines everywhere. Perhaps that was why they encountered so many obstacles to proper association. Straight lines made for corners.

    But there was a more pressing matter at hand. "You are in my service now," Aille said. "On the one hand, that gives you the right to question me, but I suggest you refrain from insinuations that I am being untruthful. If Yaut were present, you would already be bleeding again. He is a forceful trainer."

    Tully drew back a little, but did not cringe. He was courageous, whatever else, that much was clear. Aille decided he had made the point sufficiently well and moved on. "Beyond that, while you may think what you wish, it does not matter what you believe as long as you make yourself of use."

    "And how exactly do you expect me to be of use?" Tully held up his wrist with its locator.

    "I do not know yet," Aille said. "It may happen that you cannot be, after all."

    "Then what?" Tully raised his chin. His eyes glittered with that stubbornness Aille was coming to know.

    "Then I will decide what else to do. But that flow may never complete itself, so why concern ourselves with it?"

    Tully started to say something else, but broke off. Yaut had returned.



    The fraghta had a raw-boned scruffy female straggling along in his wake. The scion of Pluthrak studied her for a moment. Blunt-eared, as well as blunt-faced, she seemed to lack the intelligence Aille preferred in his subordinates. His hands formed bemused-surprise as he gazed at his fraghta.

    "Vaish," Yaut said, as though nothing were untoward. The doorfield activated with a faint crackle.

    Aille's nose twitched.

    "This one is in need of training," the fraghta said. "I brought her along so it may be accomplished with greater ease."

    "I assume then, she has also joined my service?" Aille's ears quirked at an ironic angle.

    Yaut swiveled his windward hand to indicate diffident-assent. "The bau-holding scion of a great kochan should have a large service, and wide-flung. You need a nose in every pertinent area."

    "True, but have you considered that perhaps we are accumulating too many too quickly for effective training?" Aille's gaze flicked to Tully, who was now standing against the wall. His stance was rigid, exuding unease. "You are, however efficient, only one."

    Yaut followed his gaze. "Apparently training proceeds," he said, eyeing Tully, "whether I am here or not."


    "I have uncovered two Binnat who may meet your needs," Yaut said. "They—"

    A rap sounded on the door. Yaut keyed the doorfield off.

    A group of humans stood outside, led by Rafe Aguilera. "Subcommandant?" He glanced within to Aille. "Here are the men you requested. I served with some of them myself, and the rest I know by reputation."

    "Do they speak Jao?" Aille asked.

    "Not all of them."

    "Then send those who do not away for now," Aille said. "But retain a list of their names. I will interview them later, when my English has improved."

    Aguilera spoke in low tones. Three of the seven nodded, then bowed their heads and left.

    "Now," Aille said. "Explain your methods of disabling Jao ground combat vehicles."

    A male with very little of what Terrans called "hair" on his head stepped forward. He looked patchy and unfinished, as though he had molted improperly. "They were hard to defend against in rough terrain," he said, without meeting Aille's eyes. "Those maglev drives go over anything, but we could sometimes disperse your lasers with steam. A man could hide and wait until a Jao vehicle passed, then disrupt the laser from the side with a steam bomb. It worked more often than not, although it was always very dangerous for the man doing it." He stood a little straighter. "I did it twice. Got—ah, the human word for it is 'decorated'—the second time."

    The man proceeded to give a description of the "steam bomb." Then, the rest began participating, depicting other methods the humans had found to thwart, at least partially, the Jao lasers. Very soon, Aille found himself being convinced. He had never thought upon the matter before, but he realized now that the Jao methods of warfare were the ones they had inherited from the Ekhat.

    But the Ekhat were not conquerors. They were exterminators, usually. Or, when they did capture sentient species to make them slaves, simply captured enough for a breeding pool and exterminated the rest. They did not fight very often on the surface of a planet occupied by an intelligent species. After grabbing a few of its inhabitants, if any, they simply obliterated the planet. Their weaponry and tactics were designed for battle in the vacuum of space.

    At one point, Yaut tried to interject an opposing view. "Our weapons and methods have served us well on many occasions," he said gruffly. "How do you explain that?"

    The humans fell silent, not knowing how to respond since obviously they had been told very little about the Jao and their past. But Aille already knew the answer.

    "No other species we conquered was technologically advanced. Most were simply barbarians, barely able to forge metal. Even inefficient weapons will serve, against a weak enough opponent. Against humans, the weakness was exposed. That is clear to me now. It should have been clear to everyone long ago, had anyone thought to study the matter and listen to the vanquished."

    And why didn't we? he wondered. For a moment, he was tempted to fault Narvo. But that was a superficial answer, at best. He thought the true reason was the same: humans were unique, in Jao experience. The Jao had never consulted with other conquered species on proper methods of war and weaponry, after all. Why should they, when every opponent they had faced before the humans fought them with nothing more than muscle-powered weapons. Except the Ekhat, of course, but the Ekhat used the same weapons as Jao.

    Aille paced a few steps, in deep thought. "I wonder, though, what the records of our battles with the Lleix would show? I have never studied them."

    "I have," said the fraghta. "They do not tell much, and nothing very specific. Those 'records' are really nothing of the sort. They read more like kochan ceremonial chants than anything else."

    Aille was not surprised. The battles against the Lleix were more a matter of Jao legend, than factual accounts. Those battles had happened long ago, before the Jao had managed to break free of the Ekhat. The Jao had still been slave warriors when they exterminated the Lleix at their masters' bidding.

    Aille returned to his probing. Most fascinating of all to him, as the flow of time passed and the humans continued with their accounts, was seeing something begin to emerge for the first time since he'd set foot on the planet. Association, finally. The first shoots of it, at least.

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