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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 5, 2003 23:03 EDT



    Aille fired down at the humans in the fragile craft bobbing in the water below, but the wind spoiled his aim. Then something exploded down in the engine room and the trawler heeled over into a severe list. He lost his balance and tumbled backwards, sliding into Yaut, and then together with him into the forecastle wall.

    Before he could regain his feet, the attackers were firing up the side of the trawler in preparation for boarding. He recognized the distinctive chattering sound of the weapons, having observing his jinau use similar weapons in training. What humans called "automatic weapons" or "machine guns." Commandant Kaul had made disparaging remarks about the primitive devices, but Aille did not share his opinion. Under these conditions, the human weapons were at least as effective as those of the Jao.

    Flattening his ears, he motioned to Kralik, who was on his hands and knees, trying to scramble upright. "Contact our unit back on shore," he said. "Order them to pick us up. This ship is going down."

    Kralik's brow creased. "They didn't bring sea transport," he said even as he reached for his com. "But I'll see what I can do."

    He began firing off rapid instructions. They were only half intelligible to Aille, leaving aside the unfamiliar human military jargon, above the rising roar of the wind and waves. In addition, the crew was shouting and weapons-fire continued in sporadic bursts.

    When Kralik was finished, he said, "There were some other ships at the dock, and I'm having my soldiers requisition one of them. But they're not sailors. By the time they find someone who can operate the vessel and get out here, it'll probably be too late."

    Tamt, Aille's bodyguard, came barreling around the far end of the deck, ears swiveling and shoulder singed. She supported Oppuk with one arm, settling him against the forecastle beside Kralik. The Governor's arm was badly gashed, one ear was dangling, and he seemed dazed.

    "Most of the Governor's service are dead!" Tamt said, schooling herself with a visible effort to display calm-observation. "And the rest are injured. You must all take cover."

    "We cannot," Yaut said with a glance toward the heaving gray-green sea. "The attackers are preparing to board. After that, it is anyone's guess as to whether they will be able to kill us before this ship sinks."

    Fortunately, Aille thought, the chance of uninjured Jao drowning was so low as to be negligible. Oppuk, on the other hand, and the other wounded, were in no shape to swim to shore from their present position. If forced into the sea, they would most likely die.

    "Are there survival craft available on this vessel?" he asked Kralik.

    Kralik lurched to his feet, bracing against the trawler's worsening list. "Should be." He motioned to Aguilera. "We'll see what we can find."

    Aguilera glanced at Tully, then handed the human his sidearm. "Make yourself of use, old son," he said in English, "and don't get stupid on me." Then he rose and left, limping after Kralik.

    Tully hefted the weapon with a strange look on his face. His body seemed uncertain, but Aille cautioned himself not to put a Jao interpretation on human gestures. That stance might just as easily translate into pleasure at being trusted, or excitement in anticipation of the coming firefight. It was difficult to say exactly what anything a human did actually meant.

    With a shout, a small green ovoid came flying over the trawler's side, then rolled unevenly down the slanted deck toward them. Aille narrowed his eyes, trying to make it out.

    "Jesus Christ!" Tully scrambled forward and frantically swatted the ball-like object back over the side. Then he fell to the deck, arms locked over his head, eyes screwed shut. A moment later, a muffled explosion sprayed water and mist everywhere. Aille realized the object had been a delayed-fuse bomblet of some sort, and had erupted after plunging into the sea. Tully had saved their lives by knocking it off the deck, but unfortunately the bomblet had not exploded soon enough to kill the humans who had tossed the thing from their boat. Aille could hear the sound of their angry and startled voices, though he could not make out the words themselves.

    Yaut flinched, then took aim and fired at the head that appeared above the side of the deck. Its owner ducked, then popped up again and fired a long burst of projectiles that punched a row of neat holes in the trawler's metal housing. Imitating Tully, Aille flattened himself against the deck.

    "Subcommandant?" Caitlin Stockwell's frightened face peered around the stairs. "What's happening?"

    "Go below!" Kralik shouted at her from above. His forehead was bleeding an unsettling shade of red from a scratch over one eye. "We have armed boarders! You have to stay out of sight!"

    "How many are there?" Aille asked in Jao, his eyes on the spot where the would-be boarders had last appeared.

    "Four, I think," Kralik replied in the same language. "They are working their way down toward your position. Their next assault should come straight at you."

    Then they would have to move. Aille eased Oppuk's unsteady weight into the top of the stairwell, then motioned Yaut, Tully, and Tamt to follow him. Tully glanced back, clearly concerned about the Stockwell scion. Aille waved him on, putting all the force of his will in the gesture. The young female would either obey orders or die. They did not have time to coddle her.

    However small scale, this was war.



    Oppuk blinked up through mist that was half rain blown into the stairwell and half fogged vision. His ears rang as though his battered head were made of metal and someone had struck him with a stick. Just beyond the open door, he heard shouting and weapons-fire. The air stank of chemical accelerants. He could not remember what had happened. Had the boat malfunctioned in some manner? Putting a hand to his spinning head, he rebuked himself. He should have known better than to trust human technology. Their primitive devices often failed at the most inopportune times.

    He tried to stand, then someone grasped his face. "Governor!"

    He flailed at the hand, trying to free himself, but his eyes wouldn't focus and his throat seemed frozen.

    "Governor, you must keep your head down," a voice said in heavily accented Jao. "The attackers have boarded."

    Attackers? With a shudder, it came back to him, the small boats, the low tech weapons, the explosion that had collapsed a portion of the deck, killing Drinn and—how many more?

    His mouth tasted of blood. "Who—?"

    "Rafe Aguilera," the voice said. "I serve the Subcommandant."

    One of Pluthrak's nasty little humans, then. His hand itched to reach out and throttle this creature in retribution for the attack. "Get away from me!" He lashed out weakly, but failed to find a target.

    "As you wish, Governor," Aguilera said. "Since you do not require my help, I will rejoin the Subcommandant and see what I can do there."

    Footsteps receded across the metal deck, and then he was alone with his anger and the pain in his arm and ear. More shots were fired, ones with the especially loud reports that indicated projectiles. Rebels often used such archaic guns, which were crude but surprisingly effective.

    His sight was beginning to clear now. Oppuk pulled himself up with his uninjured arm on the metal door frame, willing his shaky legs to hold him.

    "Are you all right?" a soft voice asked in Jao from behind.

    He whirled around to find Caitlin Stockwell gazing up at him from several steps down. "We are being attacked by humans!" he said angrily.

    She bent her head in a graceful rendition of abject-misery. "Yes," she said. "I am sorry."

    "Sorry?" Oppuk glared down at her. "I will make you 'sorry.' Indeed, I will make your entire species 'sorry' for this!"

    She climbed the last few steps and eased past him to gaze out on the tilted deck. "Governor, these few rebels do not speak for my people."

    "Do they not?" He seized her ridiculously slender wrist. The bones gave as he tightened his grip and he had to snort. No Jao female would ever be invited into a marriage-group to pass on such a woefully lacking genotype. He knew humans came in sturdier variations because he employed a number of them at the palace. This one was obviously inferior. Stockwell should have discarded her early on.

    "Your people are inherently treacherous!" He shook her. "Did your father plan this?"

    She fought to free herself. "No, of course not!"

    "I do not believe you!" He grasped her throat with his other hand. The ache in his head resurged, bringing a momentary fuzzing of his vision. She twisted in his grip, then something hard and cold struck him on the side of the head. Then again, and again, and again. He staggered back, gasping at the pain.

    When he could see again, he was alone.



    After Kralik located the lifeboats hanging just below the bridge, he worked his way back around the increasingly sloped deck looking for Aille and the rest, while dodging stray shots from the other side. From the list, the Samsumaru was definitely foundering, as the Subcommandant had predicted. It would go down—and sooner, probably, rather than later. At this point, no one could use the lifeboats because, even if they got them into the water, the attackers would just pick their occupants off. The boarders had to be eliminated first.

    Cold and wet, he climbed the steps to the small bridge to get a vantage point, then crept along the rail. Where was the Subcommandant?

    "Ed!" Caitlin Stockwell waved up at him from where she crouched behind a winch housing. "Governor Oppuk has gone crazy!" Her face was bruised and her rain jacket torn. Even though she had a good-sized wrench in one hand, she still looked like a drowned puppy.

    Several bullets whined overhead and the air reeked of burned powder. Thunder cracked and lightning illuminated the underside of the clouds. He swore under his breath, then lay on his stomach and scooted forward to reach down under the rail for her. Another shot ricocheted off the bridge. "Goddammit, Caitlin, why didn't you stay below?"

    "Oppuk was going to kill me," she said and stretched up on tiptoe. Though tall for a woman, she couldn't quite reach his fingertips. "He's blaming me for the attack!"

    He scooted closer to the edge of the small elevated deck just below the bridge, then another burst of automatic weapons-fire made him cover his head. A flake of metal scored his cheek and he could feel the warmth of his blood mixing with the hard, pelting rain.

    "Maybe you should come down here instead." She glanced over his shoulder and retreated behind the winch housing.

    "I think you're right." He scrambled to his feet, then plunged down the ladder three rungs at a time. "Now—" He slid into her crevice and examined her purpling cheek. She was trembling beneath his fingers. "What's this about Gov—?"

    A human came into sight, firing with what looked to be an old Uzi. Kralik dove for cover, pushing Caitlin ahead of him. He heard the air whoosh out of her lungs as he fell on top of her, then struggled to bring his gun up.

    Fragments of deck flew as the Uzi continued to fire. He moved again, pulling her along with him. They crouched side by side, breathing hard, and at this angle he could just glimpse their attacker's face. It was painted, to match the camouflage outfit he was wearing. Fortunately, the rain obscured his vision worse than it did theirs.

    Kralik edged back, then waited, gun at the ready. Caitlin got to her feet, going the opposite direction before he could stop her and presenting herself as a target. Though she hadn't dropped the wrench, he noted.

    "You there, you're making a mistake!" she called out above the wind. "We're human, just like you!"

    With an incoherent snarl, the attacker spun and moved toward the sound of her voice, squinting to find her in the rain. Caitlin threw back her head and waited, never once looking at Kralik beyond and giving him away.

    My god, she has guts, he thought, as the attacker moved into full view. He would only get one good shot and she had to know he could easily miss. His stomach contracted as he squeezed the trigger.

    The man in camouflage jerked as though someone had cut his strings, then tumbled head over heels and fell twitching and bloody at Caitlin's feet. She stared down at him, her body angled so precisely, hands extended, she might have been striking a classical ballet position.

    But that pose wasn't anything born of human culture, he realized numbly. It was one of those damn Jao postures, though he couldn't tell which particular one. How strange to think that, under stress, she would fall back to that. She looked up at him and her blue-gray eyes seemed portals into another world altogether from the one he'd been born into. Was this what Earth's children would all become someday, well-trained little Jaolings?

    He took her arm and pulled her away from the corpse. "Are you all right?"

    She blinked and the otherness fell away. She was just Caitlin again, all human, bruised, and very, very scared. He pulled her into his arms and clutched her trembling body.




    When the other boatful of attackers reappeared, plowing through the immense gray-green waves, Aille knew they couldn't wait any longer. If more attackers managed to board, they would be outnumbered and no one would be left alive to be rescued when his troops arrived. A very poor showing for only a few days into his first command! Pluthrak would be shamed.

    He ordered Tully and Aguilera to cover them, then motioned Yaut and Tamt forward as he skulked toward the rail, employing what little shelter he could find. The trawler tilted skyward on this side and rolled with every wave, so that they had to struggle to climb, making themselves targets.

    Tully fired two spaced shots, to distract the attackers as Aille crossed the last bit of open deck. A surprising exultation ran through him as he fought his way through the wind. This was what he had been trained to do for cycles now. He was finally getting a chance to be of use, in a refreshingly clear and direct way.

    He pulled himself up to the rail, tucked his weapon into the harness, and then dove into the wild waves below. The water closed over his head with a silken hiss and then he was swimming joyfully as Yaut and then Tamt joined him. In the chill, dim greenness, he motioned them to follow, then swam around the bow of trawler to the other side where the second boat was powering down to maneuver for boarding.

    Beneath the water, the wind was no longer a factor and he made easier progress than he had on deck. His head popped above the surface and he pulled himself up on the motorboat as it tossed about. The five humans who had been aboard it were already on the side of the trawler, clambering up the hull using ropes, obviously better climbers than Jao would have been in similar circumstances.

    He heaved into the boat with a single smooth motion, drew his laser and killed the nearest assailant, a stout female beginning to climb the hull almost directly in front of him. She fell back against him and cracked Aille's skull against the gunwale. His head spinning, he fought to free himself as Yaut landed beside him, pulled the female's corpse off and cast it into the sea.

    The boat rocked hard, then Tamt joined them and she and Yaut, working in unison, quickly burned down three more humans who were already halfway up the hull. The fifth, however, made it all the way, then turned and aimed down at them with his automatic weapon.

    Yaut dove back into the sea. Tamt hesitated, staring upward, and Aille pushed her back in. A shot cracked and he tensed, waiting for the telltale bite of injury. Then the human toppled over the railing and sprawled across the bow of the little boat, glassy-eyed and broken.

    Tully's head appeared above the rail, wet yellow hair plastered to his skull, green eyes glaring. He nodded down at them, then withdrew, his footsteps running across the slanted deck.

    Yaut heaved back into the boat, his ears set at an unfamiliar angle. It took Aille a moment to read the posture as astonished-respect.



    Aille was pleased that, by the time the company finally arrived, the other three attackers were dead, one by Tully's hand, the other two at Kralik's. Even Caitlin Stockwell had accounted for herself well, especially for someone with no training. She still carried the sturdy wrench she had appropriated for a weapon.

    Oppuk's injuries were not life-threatening, but the Governor's reason was impaired. Apparently, at some point in the fighting, he had received a blow on the head along with the earlier injury to his arm. Aille assigned Tamt to tend him until help arrived.

    The jinau company had commandeered a fishing vessel and found them, using Kralik's pocketcom as a beacon, after the Samsumaru capsized. Three of the human crew and Matasu, the Japanese ambassador, had also survived. The small lifeboats were filled to capacity. Overcapacity, in fact; but Aille had ordered the uninjured Jao to wait in the water, himself included, holding on to the side of the lifeboat.

    There was no sign of Banle, the bodyguard assigned to the Stockwell scion. Aille presumed she had also perished in the attack. Caitlin Stockwell sat next to Kralik, huddled and silent. Her face, beneath its bruises, was paler than Aille had ever seen it. She looked up as the fishing boat neared and a human waved at them from the bow.

    Kralik waved back. "Sergeant Cold Bear!"

    The Montanan cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hold on, sir! We'll have you all aboard in a minute!"

    One of the little silver scout ships hovered above, as though to make sure the trawler was indeed filled with allies, then swooped away. Aille watched them go. They had not been very effective, just as his jinau had warned him.

    A short time later, they stood on the deck of the tiny trawler, the humans blue-lipped with reaction to the rain and the cold. Dr. Kinsey, who had come with them, was wrapping Caitlin Stockwell in a dry blanket. "I'm so sorry!" he exclaimed, then blinked at the wrench Caitlin was still clutching in her hand.

    Oppuk glared at the human female, but she met his anger and didn't turn away.

    "She knew this would happen!" the Governor said, his body shifting from posture to posture without ever fully realizing any of them, as though he were babbling. "She must feed information to the Resistance! That is why we have been so disgracefully attacked!"

    Kinsey carefully pried loose the wrench and laid it aside. "Her family has never been anything but loyal."

    Aille considered Oppuk's charge, then discarded it. "I do not think she was at fault," he said. "The attackers nearly killed her too at several points. I believe she was just as much a target as any of us."

    Sergeant Cold Bear came up to Kralik and saluted. "We have all the survivors on board now, sir. Do you wish us to make an attempt to retrieve the bodies?"

    The Governor snarled. "Of what use is dead meat? Get us back to shore! I am going to destroy this nest of rebels before they have another chance to attack!"

    "What do you mean, 'nest of rebels'?" Caitlin asked. With her golden hair plastered to her small head by rain, she looked almost as sleek as a Jao.

    Oppuk rounded on her savagely, his body now completely overwritten with crude, unalloyed fury. "I intend to scour this entire area of humans," he said, "starting with the nearest large population center!"

    Two spots of red bloomed in Caitlin's pale cheeks as she glanced first at Aille, then Kralik. "You have no cause to do that!" she said. "Most of the people will be innocent. If you're so determined to assign blame, look to yourself! You were being deliberately provocative! I warned you that this whale hunt would cause trouble and you got it! Attacking a town will accomplish noth—"

    Oppuk seized her by the heartward arm and dashed her against the nearest winch. Something cracked and she cried out, then slumped to the deck, her arm at an unnatural angle and her mouth open in a rictus of soundless agony.

    Oppuk motioned to the nearest armed jinau. "Put down this animal immediately!"

    The soldier, a young male, looked nervously at Kralik. His grip tightened on his rifle. "Sir?"

    Oppuk's hands twitched. "I require her life! Put her down!"

    Kinsey threw his body over the fallen female. "Governor, no! You can't do that! Her father is the leader of your own government!"

    Kralik's hand went to his own sidearm, but Yaut shouldered him back and stood between them, stolidly neutral.

    Tully's green eyes went from Aille to Yaut, glimmering with some unreadable sentiment. He still had his weapon, however, and Aille knew that Tully was quite capable of turning it on Oppuk. Would probably do so, in fact. Something indefinable in his stance made clear that, whatever animosity he might bear toward Stockwell, he—like Kralik—would not accept her being put down at Oppuk's command. The Governor's unsane fury was driving the humans here to the point of killing him, whatever the consequences might be.

    That same fury had also disarmed the Narvo against a more subtle form of defeat. Quickly, Aille stepped forward.

    "This hunt was staged in my honor and the female is present at my invitation," he said, his bearing shifted into a flawless rendition of the difficult tripartite righteous-honorable-anger. He surprised even himself with the heat of his emotions. Such complexity had never come easily to him. "Since you have dismissed her from your household, she is under the protection of Pluthrak, not Narvo! Pluthrak's honor is at stake here and you will not impugn it for a petty, self-indulgent display of personal anger!"

    "Crecheling!" Oppuk spat. He glanced around, but his entire service had perished in the attack on the Samsumaru. He was quite obviously without immediate support—and, even in his rage, was still sensible enough to understand that he was teetering on the brink of a chasm that would engulf him. The lines of kochan honor were clear here.

    Oppuk pulled himself together, assuming the posture of regretful-recognition. It was impolite, to be sure, but acceptable.

    "Very well, since you invoke Pluthrak's honor, the matter is closed." His ears wavered, then took on a crafty angle. "I will, however, expect you to conduct my reprisal." He glared down at Caitlin, who was hunched in wordless misery at his feet. "It will be your first major combat command, a good chance to earn that honor you seem to be so eager to achieve."

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