Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Course of Empire: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Thursday, June 19, 2003 00:48 EDT



    Over the next few solar cycles, Aille immersed himself in the routine of this vast, noisy facility which apparently never shut down. Terrans, he discovered, could work efficiently enough during any part of the solar cycle. Unlike Jao, they were naturally diurnal. But, relatively frail though they were, their bodies were able to adapt to varying cycles. And they were able to work for much longer intervals than Jao, who needed shorter but more frequent periods of dormancy. Matching the needs of the two species put considerable stress on the Jao supervisors, but it also kept the refit far ahead of any schedule it might have achieved with an entirely Jao work force.

    Unfortunately, more often than not, supervisors with the same disdainful attitude as Vamre krinnu Vallt vau Kannu were in charge. Reflecting the attitudes of the Dano Commandant, they drove their native workers mercilessly, never listening when it came to a difference of opinion with humans on how the refit should proceed. As a result, worker disaffection was rampant.

    That problem would begin to ease, now that Nath's prestige had risen so greatly through induction into Aille's service. Aille had chosen her somewhat impulsively, but he'd had Yaut check her records thereafter. To his pleasure, though not to his surprise, Nath had the best production record of any of the Jao supervisors—and the lowest incidence of reported clashes with human workers.

    Nath's official rank still remained relatively low, true. But, as always with Jao, rank was one thing; kochan prestige and influence, another. The other supervisors would begin looking to her for guidance, and taking her behavior as the example they should follow. Partly they would do so from ingrained custom and habit, but also from their desire to increase association with Pluthrak.

    A worse problem, and much harder to solve, was the unhealthy state of kochan relations. To a point, rivalry between kochan and kochan, taif and taif, was inevitable and beneficial. But on this military base—and all across the planet, Aille suspected—the rivalry had become much too harsh and discordant. Rivalry for the sake of rivalry, it often seemed.

    Aille found himself summoned repeatedly to unsnarl some disagreement between different clans and get work restarted. Hij and Binnat seemed especially at odds and unwilling to seek accommodation between them. Commandant Kaul krinnu ava Dano apparently turned his head, when faced with such problems, and expected the individuals involved to solve their differences without his input. Aille could not see how the ensuing chaos benefited anyone and worked subtly to lay the foundations of association. Such was always Pluthrak's approach, as he had been taught since he was a crecheling. Pluthrak did not share Narvo's belief in the efficacy of simple command, much less the cruder Dano version of it.

    Nath had told him she thought the discordance among kochan was partly due to the influence of the humans, among whom many of the Jao had been immersed for a very long time. Human behavior was often characterized by such pointless antagonisms.

    Yaut confirmed her assessment, when Aille raised the matter with him.

    "She's right. If anything, she's understating it. The Binnat veterans told me that, even during the conquest, the humans fighting them seemed obsessed with what they called 'inter-service rivalry.' Apparently—bizarre creatures—they made a sharp distinction between those of their soldiers who fought on land as opposed to those who fought on water or in the air. Not a temporary, practical distinction, as we do, but a permanent and rigid one—as if these artificially separated units of soldiers were kochan of some sort, except kochan who had no conception of how to associate."

    Aille stared at him.

    "It's true!" Yaut insisted. "Can you imagine anything more superstitious? You might as well divide your troops according to..." He groped for an analogy, then laughed abruptly. "According to 'gambling!'—which I think I'm now coming to understand better. One of their commanders was even reputed to have said: 'The Jao are the opponent. The enemy is the Navy.'"

    Aille was more dumbfounded than ever.

    "'Navy' is the term they used to refer to their soldiers—their grotesque kochan-that-wasn't—which fought on the water," Yaut clarified.

    The fraghta thought for a moment, then continued. "She's right about the rest, too. I'm amazed at how thoroughly Jao who have been here for some time become influenced by humans. Many of the veterans—even more so, the ones who have retired here—have taken up human customs and habits. Go into the Binnat association hall—many of the other kochan halls, too—and you're likely to find them listening to what humans call 'music.' That's something which reminds me a bit of ceremonial chanting, but vastly more intricate. And, as often as not, you'll find human decorative work—what they call 'art,' or 'painting,' or 'sculpture'—ranged alongside proper kochan insignia. About the only thing you will not find are Jao engaged in 'gambling,' which even the oldest veterans consider ridiculous."

    The fraghta fell into bemused-bewilderment. "I don't understand it, not at all."

    Aille rose and went to the window, staring out at the flat terrain beyond. After a moment, he spoke softly.

    "I think I do understand it, Yaut. I am beginning to, at least. This is a new experience for us, and one whose ramifications we have still not accepted. Terra is a planet whose species is as advanced as our own. More so, to be honest, in many ways." He heard Yaut make a little choking noise and flattened his ears with amusement. "Heresy, you think? Yet does any Jao think the Ekhat are inferior to us?"

    He turned around, facing Yaut squarely. "No? I thought not. Unfathomable, yes—but certainly not inferior. It would be hard to make that claim, after all, when the Ekhat not only created us but have destroyed parts of us since many times over. The problem is that we have come—all of us—to think too much in the Narvo way, or the Dano way. Superiority is measured too much by success in conflict. But is that not just as much superstition as the humans measuring soldiers by the terrain on which they fight?"

    The fraghta pondered his words for moment. Then, grunted something that was not so much agreement as acknowledgement. His lines indicated willingness-to-consider.

    "Since we defeated the humans—not easily, to be sure—we quickly relegated them to the status of our inferiors and tried to rule them accordingly. All the more so, since rule was given to Narvo."

    Yaut was listening, now, instead of simply reacting with indignation. Aille knew he would, once he put the matter in kochan terms. Like any fraghta, Yaut thought automatically in terms of kochan influence. But since he was Jithra, long affiliated to Pluthrak, he just as automatically translated influence into association.

    "I... begin to see, I think. Try to drive under a kochan, or a taif, instead of associating properly, and it will simply spring up shoots elsewhere. It is inevitable. Instead of order, you will create discordance yourself."

    "Exactly. Narvo can claim as it will that humans are simply a subject species, and hammer them every solar cycle with the intent of making them such. But reality is what it is, not what you wish it to be. The end result is... among other things, veterans with many service bars adopting alien habits and customs. Which, in itself, is simply association. But association which is unguided, haphazard, often not productive—and sometimes downright dangerous."

    Yaut stared out the window also. "I have never thought of humans as if they were a kochan."

    "Of course not. Neither do they. And perhaps that is the problem. Or the entrance to a solution."

    Yaut brought his eyes back to Aille. "Do not advance too fast, young one. Narvo rules here, not Pluthrak. And, to be honest, most Pluthrak would think you mad as well. I would myself, except..."

    Again, he made that little choking sound. "Me, as well! It is impossible not to pick up human quirks. They have a saying, you know—one of the Binnat veterans told me. 'There is a method to the madness.'"

    Aille was reminded sharply of the gulf he was trying to bridge. Trying to find a way to even think of a bridge, it would be better to say.

    "'Method to madness,'", he repeated. "Only humans would think in such a manner." He laughed softly. "I would call it 'insane, except I am beginning to sense there is a method to it."



    The next day, Aille noticed Yaut staring thoughtfully at another Jao supervisor, an older Nak male this time, who was proving himself unusually efficient, and put a hasty stop to further additions to his personal service until he'd dealt successfully with those already acquired. The Terran, Tully, remained recalcitrant and incommunicative. If the human survived Yaut's intense version of wrem-fa, he might provide interesting insights into the Terran character. For now, Aille would wait.



    On the morning beginning the second artificial time segment known as a "week" of his Terran assignment, Aille drove out to meet Rafe Aguilera, at the human's request, on a nearby testing range, to observe a demonstration of laser-mounted tanks compared with kinetic projectile equipped vehicles.

    On the way, he reviewed all the technical terms Terrans employed to designate the passage of time. He found the term "week" especially puzzling—how had they ever decided to allocate exactly that much of an orbital period to this temporal designation? He could think of no astronomical or biological pattern which corresponded to seven solar cycles.

    It was such an odd quirk of their species. Terrans were as fond of chopping up time into artificial units as they were of constructing sharp corners on buildings and lining themselves up into neat rows.

    Yaut accompanied him to the range, as was proper, and brought Tully, since it was prudent to keep him under close surveillance. The nameless Jao female Yaut had acquired for his bodyguard had been left back at his office. She was rough and untaught, Aille reflected, but apparently more intelligent than he had at first surmised. With a little polish, so that she moved and spoke better, she might become quite acceptable. Yaut actually did have an aptitude for sniffing out good raw material.

    The two of them had continued to submit themselves to a language imprinter every night since arriving to improve their command of the dialect called "English." The phonemes formed more easily on their tongues now and their command of syntax had improved, but both of them still struggled with vocabulary. Terrans had so very many words which appeared to mean the same thing, but did not. The species was endlessly obsessed with subtle shades of meaning.

    They drove out from the base past the workers' quaint boxlike quarters, using the opportunity to practice English with their driver, then entered an area which had not been reconstructed after the conquest. The cracked road, filled with craters, had been left in disrepair, since maglev vehicles did not require level pavement. Discarded groundcars lay on their sides, pitted and rusting while clouds of insects filled the steamy air. An entire scruffy, black-haired family of children seemed to be living in one wreck. Their heads popped out as his transport passed and they stared after them with vacant blue eyes.

    The driver, Andrew Danvers, shook his head. "Squatters," he said. "Security cleans out this area regularly, but they always creep back."

    At one point, a pack of small brown-furred animals burst out of the trees and chased them, uttering excited cries every few strides. Danvers glanced at him in the rearview mirror. "I'll report them, when we get back. They don't like wild dogs this close to the base."

    Ears canted in surprise, Yaut watched the beasts fall behind and finally give up, panting. "Wild dogs?"

    "They used to be domesticated," he said with a shrug, "but after the conquest, hardly anyone had food for pets. Many of the dogs had to fend for themselves, and eventually went wild. We have to exterminate them every so often now or they can be dangerous."

    They drove in silence until they reached the testing range, a broad sweep of sandy flats about twenty azet from the shore. Aille climbed out of the car, then examined the sky. It was a hot day, and very humid, with low hanging clouds that threatened rain. It rained here frequently during this season, though usually not for long. The air was always heavy with moisture and the variety of small crawling or flying lifeforms was astonishing.

    One alighted now and crept across his breast. He regarded its orange and green shape dispassionately. Since Jao body chemistry apparently was not to the tiny predators' taste, sooner or later, this one would abandon him for more promising prey. Humans, he'd observed, sometimes suffered greatly from the attentions of such pests.

    Aguilera climbed down from a waiting tan and green tank, then limped across the sandy ground to give him what Aille now understood was called a "salute," a unit of formal human bodyspeech which signified respectful-submission.

    Tully emerged from the front seat and stood beside Yaut, somehow managing to suggest truculence without engaging in anything so formal as a posture.

    Aguilera gestured at two opposing lines of tanks waiting out on the firing range. "If you would take your place up on the observation deck, we'll commence the tests."

    A metal tower had been constructed on the far side of the field. By its linear design, it was Terran in origin, boxy and regimented without a single curve. He angled towards it across the broad sandy flat, startling several mottled-brown avians into flight. So limited these Terrans were, in many ways, as if to offset their complexities in other. As far as he could tell, they never experienced flow in any of its forms.

    Perhaps it was because their species had evolved on land, instead of the water. They had no ancestral, instinctive memories of the movement of the waves and the currents. Yet why didn't they open their eyes and simply look? The universe had no corners, no orderly lines of this and that. Time was obviously a whole-in-motion, a flow, not a bundle of chopped up bits to be experienced one after the other.

    He found the tests themselves quite interesting. First, three tanks outfitted with Jao lasers drifted into position and took aim. They were precise in their firing patterns and devastating to both small stationary targets far down at the end of the range as well as moving targets set up on maglev drones. Human soldiers directed by Aguilera were able, though, to creep up from the sides and disrupt their effectiveness with steam, tiny aluminum strips, and even handfuls of chaff, just as predicted.

    Then three tanks still equipped with old fashioned human kinetic armaments surged forward, humming on their new maglev drives. Their firing patterns were not quite as effective as the laser-mounted tanks. It sometimes took several shots for them to find their range, and they produced quite a bit of recoil, which had their maglev drives fighting to maintain position. Targets were not vaporized, but blasted into untidy bits with large sections sometimes remaining.

    At the end of the test runs, all six tanks pulled up and faced the observation deck. The hatches popped open with a clank and the sweating crews climbed out, watching him expectantly. Aille leaned on the rail, thinking. He and Yaut would have to correlate results, but there was a great deal to consider here, much interesting data. Aguilera did have a point about the vulnerability of Jao weaponry in an atmosphere.

    But, no matter what their final conclusions, he suspected the Governor of Terra was not going to be easily convinced to change policy. Not when his name was Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo, who had, a generation earlier, been the most promising scion of that kochan—namth camiti, as Jao called it, "the clearest water."



    Tully hovered at the rear of the lofty observation deck, feeling dizzy because of the heat. He thought he was coming down with the flu as well. His head ached, and he felt nauseous. After the tests were concluded, Aille and his driver headed down the stairs, and Yaut threw him a look that meant "come along or get your brains rattled."

    His dizziness was worse, and now mosquitoes were whining around his ears. He swatted, but the hum grew louder. Yaut's rigid, disapproving back receded before him and he hurried after the fraghta before he exceeded the sensor's range and earned another round of punitive shocks. Sweat plastered his shirt to his chest. Jao didn't seem to feel the heat. Word was, back in the Resistance camps in the Rockies, they didn't feel cold either, finding themselves equally comfortable in either extreme.

    They'd been bioengineered by another species which gave them advantages humans didn't possess, but that origin must have its weaknesses too. If only he could figure out what they were, this misery might be worth it.

    The dizziness got worse. He must be sicker than he thought. His vision was a little blurry, too. He gripped the metal handrail, which was already hot from the morning sun, and fought to make his eyes track. Then his foot slipped and he sat down hard, blinking up at the relentless sun. It blazed down and speared through his eyes, deep into his brain where it seemed to be melting a hole.

    "Tully?" someone was saying. "Get up before—"

    The by-now familiar shock convulsed his body. He curled around it, as though he could contain it somehow, so maybe it wouldn't be as bad as the last time.

    "Tully, goddamit, get up!" Someone pounded back up the steps, then a hand grasped his arm, yanked him to his feet.

    He blinked hard and thought he could make out Aguilera's lined dark face somewhere in the middle of all that static. Fingers bit into his flesh. "Do you want your brain fried? Move it!"

    His feet didn't seem to be working though, as lightning ricocheted through bone and marrow, neuron and skull. He seemed to become part of it, as though the lightning could transform him so that he might finally understand some essential truth which had always eluded him before.

    "Turn it off!" Aguilera called down over the railing, then hastily threw Tully over a sweaty shoulder and thundered down the metal steps. Each step made the pain worse, as though nails were being driven into his skull. He could feel how his would-be rescuer shared the shocks, wherever their damp flesh met, could feel him stagger with each new bolt of pain. "Turn it off before you fry his goddamned brain!"

    Time fritzed out so that he was aware of nothing but the white agony throbbing along every nerve. Then somehow he was on his back, the sun beating down on his face. He tried to pull an arm up to shield his eyes and couldn't. "He's no good to you dead!"

    "It is not your concern," Yaut's stiff voice answered. "The man is in Pluthrak service, and must accept proper training."

    "Damn your training," Tully heard Aguilera say. He was vaguely surprised to hear the collaborator speak so sharply to the fraghta. "This is wrong, treating a man like a caged beast. Kill him, if you must, but don't torture him. The Jao are better than that."

    "Are we?" Yaut said, and Tully thought he heard something deadly in those words, like an adder about to strike, unexpected, out of innocent looking shade.

    "Shut—up," he said weakly and flailed at Aguilera without finding a target. "When I want someone to—to plead for me, I'll—" His vision grayed out again and he was alone with the pain. "I'll damn well do it myself. Which I won't. Not to these bastards."

    The lightning ebbed, though he could feel echoes of it all through his body, as though it had blazed a trail that remained after it had gone. His arms and legs trembled and jerked and his mouth tasted of blood. He'd bitten his tongue at some point.

    "It never learns," Yaut said in Jao. "Indeed, I believe it is not capable of learning. It is mired in its early experiences and cannot be retrained to any other purpose."

    "I am not interested so much in training," Aille answered, "as in why it makes the choices it does. If I can learn to understand it, then I may understand them all."

    Tully laughed weakly, rolling his head in the dirt.

    "Why is he doing that?" demanded Yaut.

    "He doesn't know what he's doing," Aguilera said. "He's only half-conscious."

    I know exactly what I'm doing, Tully wanted to say. I'm laughing because it's all so damned funny, you, a collaborator, of all people, trying to stand between me and these furballs.

    But his mouth wouldn't work and his bitten tongue, swollen now, was no better. His eyelids fluttered and then he was falling into somewhere else, dark and cool and quiet.



    "I had no idea they could get ill so quickly," Aille told Yaut later, when they had returned to their quarters with the unconscious Tully.

    "Neither did I. But they're sturdier than they look, in other ways—or, at least, this one is. A Jao who had been jolted that thoroughly by a locator would barely be alive."

    Aguilera had come with them. Aille and Yaut watched him tending the injured man with a devotion neither Jao could understand.

    "Is he of your kochan?" Aille asked, as Aguilera bathed Tully's face with cool water. "Is that why you are caring for him?"

    "Kochan—that means clan, doesn't it?" Aguilera rinsed the cloth in a basin of water he had filled and looked up. The centers of his eyes were a shade of brown so dark that, in the room's dimness, they seemed almost as black as a Jao's.

    "Something like your word 'clan,'" Aille said, "as I understand the concept."

    "Most humans in this country aren't part of a clan," Aguilera said. "Americans did have what we called 'extended families' who often lived far apart, but after the conquest, when our infrastructure was destroyed and transport systems were mostly down, contact between separated family members mostly fell apart." He put the cloth down and rose. "I have no idea what happened to any of my cousins or aunts and uncles after the fall of Chicago."

    "Then, if he is not of your kochan," Yaut said, "why do you care whether he lives or dies?"

    The muscles in Aguilera's face tightened and he sat back staring at his clenched hands. "I can't explain that," he said. "I don't think Jao brains are wired for the concepts."

    Aille moved closer, the velvet nap on the back of his head prickling. "Try," he said. "I wish to understand."

    Aguilera's eyes narrowed and he looked up at the ceiling, as though seeking to perceive something just out of sight. "It's like all humans are of the same clan—you would say the same kochan—like we are all related and have to look out for each other, even when we don't like each other or agree with what the other is doing. We have to preserve life wherever we can. Not to do so would make us immoral."

    "I do not know this word 'immoral,'" Aille said.

    Aguilera dipped the cloth back into the water and then wrung it out. "I don't think there is any way to translate it that would make sense to a Jao."

    "Continue!" Aille felt his body shift into the planes of determined-seeking. "You will keep trying until I understand."

    Tully stirred on his pallet on the floor, mumbled something, then was still again. Aguilera dragged a hand back over his grey-threaded hair, suddenly radiating weariness. "Perhaps it's best if I just go now, sir," he said and stood.

    "No," Aille said. "Explain this word 'immoral!'"

    Aguilera stood, his body ramrod straight, staring off into the distance. "It comes from the root word 'morality,' which means right conduct. Immoral means something wrong, something no one who is decent would ever do. Humans think it is immoral to kill unless defending one's self, family, or country. It doesn't mean some individuals don't do it, but they are considered criminals. As a people we abhor it. We therefore also consider it our duty to aid those in distress. I don't much like Tully, to be honest, with his damn self-righteous attitudes, but he is human and therefore my responsibility; my brother, as it were."

    He saluted. "With your permission, I will go home now. I haven't seen much of my family, this past week."

    "Yes," Aille said. "You have given me much to think about."

    Yaut watched the human leave, then turned to Aille with a scowl, his ears tight with aggravation. "So," he said, "now you know. They believe in an association which cannot exist, and confuse honor between kochan with this vapor they call 'morality.' Everything is turned inside out. By our standards, they are all quite insane."

    "So it would seem," Aille said.

    "Do you really think you can form association with such?"

    "I do not know. But I can try."



    Aille decided to say no more, at the moment. What was finally coming into focus for him was still too blurred. For all his skills, Yaut was a fraghta, not inclined or trained to welcome new concepts. It was important that Aille not push him too quickly, not force a clash.

    Because Yaut was wrong. Or, at least, only half-right. True, by Jao reckoning humans were indeed insane. But what Yaut never considered was that other standards might exist—and that what mattered, in the end, was simply that there were standards. Of any kind.

    Aille, looking back from the discussion just now completed with Aguilera, understood more fully the association he had felt with the human veterans earlier. Even Tully had been affected by that association, he thought. True, Tully had spent most of his time glaring at the other humans. Apparently, he considered them all to be exhibiting that form of improper behavior he called "collaboration."

    But that, too, was significant. As significant, in its own way, as Aguilera's compulsion to give aid and comfort to Tully when there was no logical reason he should.

    Yaut would have been simply outraged, if Aille tried to explain it now. The time for that was not yet here. To think of association as a form of improper behavior was tantamount to thinking as an outlaw for a Jao. Anathema for a fraghta. But for humans...

    It was more complicated. Aille did not think for a moment that he understood it clearly yet. Perhaps he never would, not fully. But one thing was now plain to him. Much had divided Tully and the other humans in that room; much divided Aguilera and Tully in this one. Such divisions were inevitable, he supposed, for any species which thought in straight lines. Yet all of them, according to their own angle of approach, were behaving according to honor.

    That was the beginning, always. The lesson had been drummed into him by the kochanata instructors from his earliest memories. Honor is the base upon which association is poured. Without it, there can be no edifice at all. Everything will spill askew.

    He was on a world full of honor, then. Alien honor, yes; so spiny and angular to a Jao that it seemed a haphazard pile of sticks. But that was a problem to be solved, not a jumble to be declared meaningless.

    Where there was honor, Aille could pour an edifice.



    The next solar cycle, however, Aille discovered that he would have to postpone his further efforts with the humans.

    Governor Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo had scheduled a reception for the recently-arrived scion of Pluthrak, to be held at the Governor's palace in the capital. Oklahoma City, it was called.

    That was a great honor, of course. It also ushered in a time of peril. Like a great sea beast rising from the deep, showing its spine before its maw, kochan rivalry was coming to the surface.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image