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The Course of Empire: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Thursday, June 19, 2003 12:47 EDT



PART II: Honors

    When the Bond of Ebezon's most important agent on Terra received word of the Governor's reception for Aille, he felt a moment's deep regret. He would have liked to be present at the occasion. "Like a fly on the wall," as humans put it, in one of their charming little saws.

    But, it was impossible. First, because he had not been invited, and would not be. Secondly, because it was not yet time for him to move toward the center of the flow.

    An observer he had been, simply advising the Strategy Circle, an observer he would remain. For a time, at least.

    Still, it was a pity. The agent was sure he would have much enjoyed himself. The first reports coming to him from Pascagoula were very promising. The agent had, among other things, carefully studied Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo for twenty years. Long ago, that study had led him to despise the Governor. Finally, after twenty years, he thought Oppuk was about to find himself...

    Challenged? That was not strong enough.

    The agent searched his mind for a suitable human expression.

    Yes, of course. Catch a tiger by the tail.



    Caitlin Stockwell alighted from the Jao transport and stood on the sweltering tarmac, gazing west at the Oklahoma horizon that stretched out in the dusty distance beyond the airfield. The "invitation" had come two days ago. Although her parents were apprehensive, she had been commanded to attend and they had not. With any luck, she could keep her head down at the reception for the Pluthrak and return to college none the worse tomorrow. If she were very careful, Oppuk might not even notice she was here.

    Prof. Kinsey had been "invited" to accompany her also. Caitlin wasn't sure why. Kinsey himself swore to her than he had made no request for it—not that he wasn't practically hopping up and down with eagerness to go—and she believed him.

    She suspected that was Banle's doing. Her Jao bodyguard seemed to have gotten it into her head that Kinsey was the equivalent of a fraghta for the young woman—a particularly incapable fraghta, to be sure, but the best humans could come up with.

    For all their smugness regarding Jao "straight-forwardness" in contrast to human "dissimilitude," the Jao were just as capable as any Borgia or Machiavelli of maneuvering under false colors. The coming reception for the new Pluthrak was nothing of the sort. A great honor on the surface, it was actually an arena for clan conflict.

    Unfortunately, Governor Oppuk had decided that Caitlin would make a nice decoration for the arena. Even more unfortunately, he'd decided to add Kinsey for an extra little bit of bunting. This was going to be dangerous enough for her, without Kinsey. With him...

    Caitlin practically cringed. Kinsey was a kindly and well-meaning man, to be sure, as well as a good historian. He was also famous, even among his own human academic colleagues, for being a social bumbler. The sort of person—this was a true story, apparently—who would attend a funeral for a colleague's wife, and then ask him after the conclusion of the service how his research was going.



    The land here was as flat as she remembered, from her few visits, as well as hot. The late August air was humid, almost too thick to breathe, after the comparative coolness of Michigan.

    Oklahoma City was not the site humans would have selected when deciding upon a new capital for what had once been the United States. Neither would Jao, Caitlin would have thought, with their love of the ocean. But perhaps the Narvo governor had been motivated by uncomplicated power considerations. The capital was about as centrally located as possible, in North America.

    She turned back to Dr. Kinsey. His dark eyes sparkled as he looked over the scene. He'd had no misgivings about accepting this invitation. He was acting like a kid on the eve of Christmas.

    Her guard Banle emerged behind them, preceded by a human steward portering their luggage. The sturdy Jao, in her dark-blue harness and trousers, looked characteristically unruffled despite the heat. Her facial markings were distinctive. Dark bands striped both cheeks, but left clear the simmering green-black eyes in that golden face. In an unguarded moment, Banle had once revealed that many of her kochan were so marked. It was the most in twenty years the Jao had ever let slip about her origins.

    "Transport to the Governor's palace should be waiting," she said, her body carefully devoid of expression.

    Caitlin had learned to read many formal postures, so the big bodyguard had grown adept at concealing her emotions. It was a constant struggle between them, almost as old as she was.

    With Banle following, the small party proceeded into the bustling terminal. Caitlin ignored the staring locals who were clearly startled to see humans accompanied by a Jao. That Banle was more than a mere bodyguard should have been apparent to anyone with half a brain, since high status Jao always claimed the rear of any procession as the place of respect. Banle had always made a point of not allowing Caitlin to do so.

    The transport was indeed waiting, a black groundcar with maglev fittings that would render the sure-to-be dreadful roads moot. She settled inside, sliding to the middle of the leather seat, and noted gratefully that it was outfitted with air conditioning against the late summer heat. So, she told herself, they were treating her more as guest than hostage this time around. Perhaps the reception was not going to be as tense as she'd feared.

    Their driver was human, but locked away on the other side of a thick panel of opaque glass. She leaned back against the upholstery and watched the city slip past. The section near the airport was fairly prosperous, small shops mingled with single family dwellings. Most of those were in good repair, but farther out they encountered a section littered with rusted automobiles and prowled by feral looking pot-bellied children with arms and legs like match sticks.

    They played listlessly in the dust, looking up as the massive black vehicle swept silently by. One of them picked up a chunk of displaced concrete, but didn't throw it, though she could see how tightly his fingers curled around the jagged shape.

    Did they go to school? Caitlin wondered. Did their parents have any kind of employment beyond scratching in the ground to make the defeated looking kitchen gardens she saw in almost every yard? Was any kind of medical care available? What would become of them? Her father tried to negotiate services for such as these, but the Jao had no concern for what they termed the "useless" of humanity. Anyone, or anything, that could make itself of solid, practical use was good. Anything which could not, such as those pathetic starving children back there, was beneath their notice.

    Most bridges were still out in this part of the city, as well as highway overpasses, which lay in huge fallen sections like the bones of some extinct animal. She'd seen video records of life before the Jao, the cars, the entertainment options, the bookstores and movie houses, the amazing variety of sports and electronic games.

    "—conduct a series of interviews," Professor Kinsey was saying. She realized, with a start, that he had been talking for some time without her really listening. She wrenched her attention away from the devastation outside.

    "Do you think the Jao officials at the reception will speak freely about themselves?" she asked.

    "If I frame my request properly." His brown eyes blinked and he pulled off his glasses to clean them. "I must make them see the end results will be useful to the Jao, as well as us. They love practicality."

    "They will not prattle idly about themselves and events which happened so long ago," Banle said suddenly. The sleek golden head turned to regard them. "What is happening now is of interest. What happened in that struggle so long ago is not. We came to make Terra of use in the coming fight and that is all anyone needs to know."

    The tiny fine hairs prickled on the back of Caitlin's neck. "You mean the fight against the Ekhat."

    Kinsey leaned forward eagerly. "What can you tell us about them? There's so little information available in the open records."

    "Such as you will never see an Ekhat," Banle said. "When they come, as they surely will, the battle will be fought in space. You will most likely be dead before it is over, along with most humans on this planet. It is not necessary to concern yourself with their appearance."

    "Nevertheless," Kinsey said, obviously taken aback, "I am curious." He glanced aside at Caitlin.

    "I am not authorized to provide such information." Banle's green-black eyes turned back to the window. One of her shoulders tightened into what Caitlin read as unease. "You will have to seek access at a higher level."

    Like the Governor of Earth, Caitlin thought. She did not relish meeting this particular Jao again. Her father, Ben Stockwell, hated working under him and in the end had accepted the role of President only to protect his family and ameliorate the worst aspects of Jao rule. He had, to this date, been able to get them to allocate at least some small portion of resources toward rebuilding war-devastated areas like Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia. He'd also argued effectively, so far, against plastering the continent's mountainous and more remote areas with bolides to eliminate the last of the Resistance.

    The vehicle turned abruptly, stopped at a massive security gate manned by Jao guards, then was waved through to a tree-lined boulevard full of deep green shadows and lined by a veritable sea of begonias so that red and pink and white filled the eyes. That was a surprise. Jao didn't usually think of flowers, or indeed of any sort of ornamental foliage, at all. They did have an aesthetic sense, but it was bound up closely with either behavior—such as their elaborate body language—or practical arts such as architecture. She wondered who'd decided to authorize the impressive display.

    Surrounding human habitations had long since been removed from this area and the green grounds swept to either side as far as she could see. The palace itself lay at the end of the boulevard, all sleek black curves of quantum crystal against the bright sky, with no right angles, unmistakably Jao.

    Banle blinked at the unexpected beds of flowers and her body shifted into shocked-disapproval.

    Caitlin suppressed a smile and stared over the Jao's shoulder. Waste of resources, was what Banle was thinking, she was quite sure. Waste of labor and space, fulfilling no useful function. Was the Narvo Governor becoming decadent?

    The car pulled up before the black palace and a liveried human attendant, who had been waiting back by the wall, hurried forward to open the door. Again, Caitlin found that odd and out of place. Jao considered the human custom of opening doors for others as a gesture of respect to be grotesque. An insult, the way they looked at it, implying that the recipient of the gesture was either feeble or a halfwit.

    It was possible, she supposed, that the attendant had been acquired simply for this reception, as a courtesy to the human guests. But Caitlin thought that was unlikely. First, because Governor Oppuk was, to put it mildly, not given to being considerate toward humans. Second, because he certainly wouldn't do so directly—and this attendant was wearing Narvo colors.

    Could Oppuk be adapting to human customs himself?

    Caitlin emerged from the car, blinking at the torrid sunshine. No pointless flowers here, just black crystal steps and the stark lines of a protective overhang, almost like a portico. Ah, well. She turned as Banle gestured imperiously. Only time would tell, but this visit might well be more interesting than she had anticipated.



    When the invitation had surfaced in Yaut's electronic queue, he'd immediately realized its importance and taken it to Aille. He'd found the young Pluthrak in his office in the Refit Facility, going over the latest figures.

    The younger Jao looked up as Yaut entered. He had been swimming down at the cordoned-off Jao area at the beach earlier and his nap was dark-gold with damp. "Kaul still insists we proceed with the replacement of all kinetic weapons, despite the results of the tests."

    "Then you will replace them." Yaut had served too long to entertain any illusions of sense winning out over duty. "If the lasers serve poorly, we will switch them back, and then, if you are fortunate, Oppuk will not hold it against you for being right."

    "But it wastes resources!" Aille stalked across the dim room. "As well as time. And, according to reports, time may be what we have the least of!"

    "It is your job to accomplish this foolish task quickly and without further protest." Yaut keyed his personal board on and laid it on the desk before Aille. "Then, if it does not work out, your task will be to cover it up as best as possible."

    "And the Terran work force will be disgruntled," Aille said. His ears were aslant with foreboding. "The workers will see it as yet another affront to their expertise in these matters, and they do have a point. The tanks will be much less effective for combat in an atmosphere, refitted as Kaul would have them."

    "Forget about the refit for now," Yaut said and indicated his board with its message. "We have been summoned to a reception in the population center known as Oklahoma City to be held in your honor by Governor Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo. I had hoped such a meeting between the two of you could be put off, but it seems you have already come to his notice."

    Aille's eyes flashed as he realized the implications. Historically, associations between Narvo and Pluthrak had been few, opposition nearly constant. It was not in Narvo's interests for a Pluthrak to do well here, or anywhere else, for that matter.

    "Why did he accept my appointment in the first place?" Aille asked. "I still do not understand that. Granted, it would have been rude to refuse, but Narvo has never hesitated to be rude."

    "You are young," Yaut said, his body stiff with blunt-truth. "The young often make mistakes because that is the nature of learning. Such mistakes could be employed to cast Pluthrak in a bad light, harming future associations which then might never come to pass."

    "So I cannot afford to make any mistakes," Aille said.

    "No," Yaut said, "not even those which are sure to be forced upon you."

    "Like this pointless refit." Aille sat back in his chair and stared out over the work floor, which was visible through the glass wall beyond.

    "I was thinking more of Tully." Yaut exhaled, fighting the exasperation he felt over this matter. Guidance must be firm, he told himself, but ever subtle. "That is one burden I would have counseled you not to take up. However, we could put him down before we leave."

    "No, the Terrans are watching what I do now," Aille said. "They know about Tully. Even Aguilera, who disapproves of him, does not want him dead."

    Yaut could not help gesturing in stymied-frustration. "Once we leave," he said, "despite the locator, he will find a way to escape. Only my constant vigilance has restrained him this long."

    "Then bring him with us."

    Yaut circled the desk so he could study the invitation again. "Quarters for five have been set aside, which is an insult, although a sly one. The Governor's staff must know you have already begun to assemble your own service, now that you are in place."

    "So, after Tully, we can take along only two more." Aille composed his hands in the classic form of careful-contemplation. "The female bodyguard, I suppose, then?"

    "Tamt," Yaut said. "She has progressed to the point that I have granted her right to be named."

    "And Aguilera," Aille said, eyes still focused on his hands. "I will add him to my service. He can assist you in keeping an eye on Tully."

    "Two Terrans out of five you are to be allowed?" Yaut cocked his head, very dubiously. "Might it not be better to select another Jao?"

    "We are on Terra," Aille said. "I have been given charge of all jinau troops. If I do not demonstrate the ability to form associations with the natives, then I will look ineffective."

    "True." All the same, Yaut shuddered. "Which makes it all the more important not to be embarrassed by Tully. Let me arrange an unfortunate 'accident.' Perhaps he could drown while accompanying you on a morning swim. Terrans are notoriously poor swimmers, and his fellow natives would deem it noble if he perished while attempting to provide companionship."

    Aille's ears flattened. "They would never believe it. Tully has done nothing so far without being forced. He will go with us and he will behave, or we will make him wish he had."

    That, Yaut thought, was much easier desired than accomplished, but for now, he held silent.



    When the order came through, Tully had been assigned for the morning to Rafe Aguilera, who therefore had the damned locator control on his belt. Aguilera had stationed him down in the next refit bay, working to remove the engines and tracks from old Bradleys. No one would trust him to install the new maglev drives, of course, but he could hardly damage anything crucial while stripping outmoded equipment.

    One bay over, he saw a Jao floor-supervisor stop and hand Aguilera a board to sign off. Aguilera read it, then looked up. Tully sat back on his heels to wipe sweat from his brow, surreptitiously gauging the older man's reaction.

    "Goddammit!" Aguilera narrowed his eyes, obviously angry. "Are you sure about this?"

    The Jao's ears shifted into an angle that made Tully uneasy. He realized he was becoming all too conversant with Jao body language.

    "You question orders?" the Jao said in heavily accented English.

    "No," Aguilera said, "but I thought we'd proved our artillery worked better in an atmosphere—" His gaze strayed to the upper floor, where Aille's office was located. "Never mind. I'll check with the Subcommandant, when I get the chance, just to be sure."

    "These—orders!" The Jao loomed over Aguilera and the difference in their body masses was all too evident. As always, the human looked fragile in comparison. "You follow—without question!" He cuffed Aguilera, knocking him to the floor.

    "Hey, wait a minute!" Tully was on his feet before he'd realized he'd spoken. "He didn't deserve that!"

    The Jao turned with all the grace of a bulldozer. He was not angry, Tully realized with a start, reading the lines of his body. The big alien was just confused. The cuffing he'd given Aguilera would not have done more than jar another Jao. It certainly wouldn't have felled them.

    Probably new to Terran service, Tully thought. He could almost see the wheels turning inside the Jao's head. Humans were supposed to serve, he'd been told. They did not argue about decisions any more than a refrigerator had an opinion on whether it should be plugged in. After a very short time, Aguilera had grown accustomed to having Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak's ear and had forgotten how few Jao were interested in hearing what humans had to say.

    He dropped his gaze. "Forgive him," he said in Jao, as humbly as gritted teeth would allow. "He is tired from working all night and forgets himself. Orders will be followed, of course."

    Other men had stopped and were watching, their faces grimy, their hands full of tools that could become weapons on a moment's notice. They bunched together, muttering. Tully pulled Aguilera to his feet. "Tell him!" he whispered forcefully.

    "Forgive me," Aguilera said, weaving and unable to focus. "I meant no disrespect."

    The Jao sniffed, then strode off. Tully stared after him for a moment, his face tight with anger. "That was stupid," he said finally.

    "Yeah." Aguilera passed a hand over his pale face. "Get back to work," he said finally to the watching men. "This isn't doing any good."

    "But the tanks—" Ed Patterson began.

    "They want them with lasers," Aguilera said, "so they'll get them with lasers. Then, maybe, if these Ekhat do ever show up, they'll kick their fuzzy butts and they'll all have to go somewhere else to have their war."

    Tully eyed the locator control box on Aguilera's belt. He should have plucked it off when the other man was half out on his feet. Then he could have been off the base in fifteen minutes.

    Aguilera caught his eye. "Want it?"

    He flushed and looked away.

    "What's it like, back there in Rockies?" Aguilera's voice was low. "Plenty of medical supplies, enough to eat, warm clothes? Can the kids go to good schools? Is there fuel for cars? Munitions for guns?"

    There was damned little of any of that, Tully thought, but whose fault was it? Certainly not the Resistance's!

    He was not surprised that Aguilera had figured it out. Collaborator or not, the middle-aged ex-soldier was no dummy.

    "Just let me go, Rafe," he said in a low voice. "Sooner or later, this Subcommandant and his goddamned fraghta are going to crack me like a nut, and then I'll spill everything." He hooked his thumbs in his belt. "You're human. You can't want that."

    "What I want," Aguilera said, "is what's best for humanity. We've lost this battle, but we don't have to lose the war. If you keep your head down and stop making trouble, you might just learn enough to help down the line when things are different." He glanced around the refit floor where most of the workers had resumed the morning's tasks. "Right now, there's no chance of getting rid of the Jao. We have to survive and learn as much as we can."

    "You mean collaborate!"

    "I mean, as Patton once said, 'no one ever served his country by dying. You serve by making the other dumb bastard die for his country.' The first rule here is to survive and get as much out of the Jao as we can in the process."

    Tully glanced over his shoulder, but the Jao guard had wandered to the far end of the row. "Then you think the day will come when we boot the Jao off Earth?"

    "I do." Aguilera straightened, then grimaced at a kink in his back. "Maybe not in my lifetime, or yours, but at some point, history has proved that empires always fall. Hell, when you get right down to it, we Americans thought we were on top of the world—and then the Jao came."

    "But all those empires, Rome and England and even America, were human," Tully said. "You can't count on the Jao being the same."

    "No," Aguilera said, "but it's all we've got left to hope for. Until then, we have to survive."

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