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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 12, 2003 02:30 EDT



PART IV: To Burn in Salem

    It was time, now, for him to swim into the center of the flow. The agent of the Bond understood that the moment he received the report. Battle was about to be openly joined.

    He wondered, for a moment, how the young Pluthrak would proceed. But he did not wonder for long. This one was truly namth camiti—perhaps even, as the Bond's preceptor hoped, something greater. Namth camiti, not of Pluthrak alone, but of all Jao. Perhaps, even—the agent's own great hope—what he himself had awaited for twenty years. Namth camiti of humans as well as Jao.

    That, it was still too early to determine. But the agent had no doubt at all what tactic the young Pluthrak would use, to bring down the Narvo brute. With one so young and bold and self-confident, it could only be advance-by-oscillation.

    To be sure, it was the most dangerous tactic as well as the most adventurous. Oppuk himself had not dared to use it, when he brought down the Hariv. But Jita had been a cautious and canny clan leader, against whom advance-by-oscillation was ill-suited. Against the Narvo as he had become, swollen and gross with twenty years of arrogant rule, the agent thought it would work splendidly.

    A whale hunt. It was a fitting way, the agent thought, for a leviathan to drive himself onto the rocks.



    The population center Oppuk chose for destruction was called Salem, a small city not far inland that was also the administrative center for the local district. What humans called "the capital of Oregon."

    Despite Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo's desire for haste, Aille delayed as long as he could. Time flowed and he let it slip past him, using the excuse of assembling the needed troops and requisitioning materiel from the most proximate Jao base, a major population center in the same district known as Portland. Through a visual feed, he watched humans on the other side of the town from the positions his forces had taken creeping away in the still-driving rain, some carrying bundles in their arms, others, children. His troops had orders not to interfere with anyone trying to evacuate.

    Aille wanted to delay the assault as long as possible, without directly defying the Governor, in order to minimize the casualties. Noncombatants were wont to run, while soldiers would stay and fight. The rebels obviously wanted confrontation, judging by their earlier actions, so he had no fear of the real enemy getting away. It was not worth Jao time and effort to pursue those who posed no threat, and ran the risk of stirring up the native population still further.

    Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo felt otherwise, of course. Perhaps that was Oppuk's own personal idiosyncrasy, or perhaps that was Narvo method—but Aille had been shaped by Pluthrak, not Narvo. He had been taught that subject populations should be ruled, certainly—with a strong hand, if need be—but never pointlessly brutalized.

    By nightfall, light artillery and tanks, both those of Jao origin and a smattering of human equipment refitted with Jao augments, had arrived. They were being readied by a regiment of Jao troops aided by a few human techs.

    Oppuk had flown into a fury, when he'd seen the first of the Terran tanks arrive. Aille had instructed Kralik to mobilize the Pacific Division as well. The Governor tried to insist that they be sent back, but Aille had politely refused.

    In doing so, he was on firm ground. The line of authority was clear, here as well, and on two counts: Pluthrak had been given the honor; and, in any event, Aille was Subcommandant of all ground forces. Which, now that the Governor's position was weakened, Aille had enforced in its full measure. There would be no more attempts by the Dano Commandant to claim that Aille only commanded the jinau troops. Kaul, clearly enough, had gotten a report on what had happened in the whale hunt, and was maneuvering accordingly. So, needlessly to say, were the officers from all the lesser kochan. For the moment, Pluthrak had the advantage.

    Oppuk's wounds had proved superficial and easily treated, and he now waited inside an enormous hant he had erected inside Aille's new temporary military base. Oppuk had poured the thing immediately, even diverting military resources to do so. He intended, apparently, to personally observe the destruction of Salem.

    That was another small mistake, again driven by the Governor's inability to control his temper. Yaut was pleased. Oppuk would have been wiser to accept his defeat—which was still but a small one, after all—and return to his palace in Oklahoma City to begin repairing the damage.

    Banle, Caitlin's guard, had appeared at the docks, sometime after the trawler had transported the rest of them back, having apparently abandoned the fight early on to swim to safety on her own. She'd been skulking about ever since, sullen and silent.

    Kralik had disappeared briefly, after they docked, but was also back now. Aille suspected he had personally transported Caitlin Stockwell to a human medical facility, a gross misuse of his time under current circumstances.

    He suspected he knew the reason, though. Humans did not mate as Jao did, through marriage-groups and careful consideration by their kochan of where the best possibilities for association lay. Instead, they paired off, sometimes serially, often failing to form lasting relationships since their liaisons were motivated by sudden fancy. Most likely, Kralik had taken one of these inexplicable human fancies to the Stockwell female. Under other circumstances, such would have been interesting and Aille would have liked to study their behavior. Coming in the midst of this particular flow, however, it was an unwarranted distraction.

    "Do not leave again without informing me," Aille said, studying a refitted green-and-brown-splotched human tank drifting past on its new maglevs. His posture was grim-displeasure.

    "Yes, sir," Kralik still bore long clotted cuts on both forehead and cheek. Evidently he had not sought medical attention for himself, whatever else he had been up to. "It won't happen again."

    The rain finally desisted into a mere spattering of isolated drops, but the air was still delightfully damp. Aille tapped the bau against his leg. "Is the Pacific Division standing by?"

    "The First Brigade is, sir," Kralik said. "I won't be able to get the rest of the division here for another two days, at least. More likely three."

    Yaut reappeared, preceded by Tully and Aguilera. The two human members of Aille's service seemed to be mastering the technique of leading without knowing where they were going, using subtle hints of the fraghta's position to guide them.

    A Jao ground combat vehicle drifted to a stop before him. The pleniary of the Portland unit, Hinn krinnu Vatu vau Waf, a seasoned veteran of the conquest, climbed out and sat on the edge of the hatch. He was a solidly built Jao with a well-shaped vai camiti that covered eyes and muzzle as well as cheeks so that most of his face was shrouded in black. "The unit is ready to attack," he said, and allowed annoyed-boredom to creep into his lines.

    Aille's snout wrinkled in irritation, but he quickly submerged it in the most neutral of postures. With that vai camiti, Hinn was bound to appear forceful, whatever else his body might indicate. Perhaps that had gotten him a bit further in his career than he deserved and he had become careless of proper movement.

    "Yes," Aille said. "Proceed."

    Without another word, Hinn slid back into his vehicle and closed the hatch. The vehicle rotated noiselessly and headed toward the town, quickly followed by the rest of the unit. As with most Jao ground force regiments, this one consisted of thirty fighting vehicles and enough others, more lightly armed, to carry the infantry. Some six hundred soldiers, in all.

    Aille donned a headset so he could monitor communications as the regiment advanced. On the screens in his command center, he could also observe the town itself from satellite imagery. Most of the city was dark, probably an indication of how many inhabitants had already fled.

    Tamt stood before Aille's shoulder, ready, but not obtrusive. Her training at Yaut's hands was continuing to go well.

    Rafe Aguilera was pacing back and forth in the rear of the command center with what Aille interpreted as suppressed nerves. "That's the same type of tanks we met at the Battle of Chicago," he muttered.

    Kralik narrowed his eyes as he watched the Jao combat vehicles gliding toward the city on the screen, pale blue in the deepening darkness. "They haven't changed a bit since then, have they?" He turned to Yaut. "Does it just take a long time for upgrades to reach us because we're so far from your homeworlds?"

    "Upgrades?" Yaut allowed puzzled-misunderstanding to pervade his shoulders. He had not encountered this English word before. Neither had Aille.

    "Improvements," Kralik said. "New technology, the latest advancements."

    "Why would we change anything?" Yaut said, his eyes trained on the advancing line. "This equipment works well and we know how to operate it. Replacement parts are already manufactured. What more is needed?"

    "How long ago did you develop this line of technology?" Aguilera asked, as the lead Jao vehicle began firing at the first structure it encountered.

    "It came down to us from the Ekhat," Aille said.

    "So it's not really yours," Tully said. "Someone else invented all this stuff. You just maintain and use it."

    The vehicle's laser fired a second time, a third, and then the structure burst apart with a muffled explosion. Shards of burning wood flew through the air. The tank glided on to the next building, an ice-blue presence in the night.



    Tully could not sit still, but Aguilera was already pacing, for all the good it would do anyone in the doomed town, so he tucked his twitching hands under his arms and shuffled his feet to dissipate his nerves. How could the rebels have been so stupid—going after the Governor, himself, for God's sake? Tully had heard that the Resistance groups in the Northwest tended to be reckless, but this was worse than he'd expected.

    He wanted to pound someone's face, beat sense into them, but it was far too late. He ached to slip off into the darkness and see if he could help protect the town against this one-sided attack, but that was impossible as long as he was shackled with the locator band. Yaut had evidently disarmed it on the ship, once they were under attack, but the damned thing was certainly working now. He'd had a good-sized shock out of it just fifteen minutes ago, when he'd gotten careless and wandered too far looking for a place to urinate.

    He watched gloomily on the screen as, one by one, the buildings along the street being used to enter the town were blasted into burning splinters by Jao tanks. But no one flung open the doors and ran as they approached, or popped up behind an open window and got off a few well-placed shots. None of the buildings had lights on, either.

    Tully edged around Yaut, peering closer. It was almost as though . . . no one was home. His heart raced with sudden hope. Had Salem perhaps been evacuated? Maybe this wasn't quite going to be the slaughter Oppuk had envisioned.

    He studied Aille, for a moment. There was something about his posture . . . Tully couldn't tell exactly what it was, but suddenly he knew. The Pluthrak Subcommandant was looking pleased with himself. And Tully suddenly realized that when he'd caught a glimpse of Oppuk earlier that day, the Governor had seemed more furious than ever.

    I will be good God-damned. The sly Jao bastard planned it this way.

    He reviewed everything he'd seen since the whale hunt in his mind. Looking at it, this time, not from the angle of a bitter rebel but from that of a soldier who'd had enough time in the service to know how to goldbrick.

    Yup, he did. Dragged everything out as long as he could. Hurry up and wait. Had Jao aircraft buzzing the town constantly, making sure everybody knew all hell was about to break loose—but carefully kept routes of evacuation open. He could have easily positioned troops around the entire town. Salem's not that really that big. Maybe . . . what? A hundred thousand people? Can't be much more than that.

    Kralik had been consulting with Aille, most of that time, providing him with the expertise of a human general who knew the lay of the land. As commander of the Pacific Division, the western part of the continent was his turf.

    Tully now studied Kralik. The general's face was calm, impassive, unreadable. For a moment, his gray eyes met Tully's, then looked away.

    Him too!

    Tully had to suppress a laugh. When Kralik had disappeared for a while, Tully had simply assumed it was because he had the hots for the Stockwell girl and insisted on personally taking her to the hospital. Cradle robber, he'd thought at the time. The general was almost old enough to be her father.

    That didn't really make sense, now that Tully thought about it. True, Kralik obviously had the hots for Stockwell, even if he wasn't being uncouth about it. But he was a general, fer chrissake, in a combat situation. And, from everything Tully had seen, a particularly coolheaded one. However concerned he might have been for Caitlin Stockwell, delegation of authority came automatically to him. Kralik would have just ordered one of his junior officers to see the girl got to a hospital safely. He wouldn't have left his post to do it personally.

    There was only one reason Tully could think of, for Kralik to have done that. Because he needed to get in contact with someone and couldn't afford to be discovered doing it. That meant finding a human telephone, instead of using his regular communicator.

    Tully was still staring at the general. Again, Kralik's eyes met his. This time, though, something seemed to flicker in them before he looked away.

    For the first and only time since Tully had joined the jinau to ferret out what intelligence he could, he actually felt like saluting an officer.

    You're okay, General Ed Kralik, even if you are a damn collaborator.

    Tully wondered if Kralik had passed along any specific knowledge, regarding which routes and tactics Aille would be using in the attack. Probably not. Kralik was a decent guy, sure enough, but he was still a jinau officer. He wouldn't have gone that far. And it didn't really matter anyway. Between Aille's stalling and Kralik's warning, the human authorities in Salem would have had enough time to evacuate anyone who was willing to go.

    The Resistance units would stay behind, of course, since the city's authorities had no control over them. But that meant it was going to be a straight-up fight, not a slaughter.



    As he continued to watch, Tully realized something else. The young Pluthrak Subcommandant was still dragging his feet—only, this time, as flamboyantly as possible. The Jao forces invading Salem were making slow progress because they were destroying everything as they went. Every building, every shack—hell, they were blasting away street signs!

    Even with the lightning-quick Jao targeting mechanisms and dead-sure aim, and the sheer destructiveness of lasers designed for space battle used at point-blank range, it was taking time. More time for the civilians to get out of the way.

    Tully was sure that Kralik had recommended this avenue of approach for exactly the same reason. The Jao forces were advancing into Salem from the southeast, taking one of the commercial boulevards that branched off from I-5. Tully wasn't familiar with Salem, but this boulevard was generic to almost any small city in North America: just an endless row of fast food joints, gas stations and car dealerships, most of which were long-abandoned and half in ruins, anyway. For twenty years, Oppuk's rule had oscillated between savagery and negligence. Salem was in no better shape than most of America's small cities, even ones that hadn't been directly damaged during the conquest.

    Almost gleefully, Tully watched another car dealership explode into ruins on the screen. An old Hyundai dealership, this one. Glass flying everywhere, of course, flames pouring out—but there weren't even any cars being wrecked. From the looks of it, that dealership had gone out of business at least a decade earlier. A lot of the windows had already been broken even before the Jao lasers hit them.

    And my daddy swore by Fords, anyway. Buy American, he'd always say.




    The invaders finally met resistance when they started entering the residential districts. On the screen, yellow bursts of automatic weapons-fire split the night, distinctly different from the Jao laser beams.

    Aille tapped that carved stick of his against the heel of his hand. The thing the Jao called a bau, which had some significance to them that Tully had never really understood. It had something to do with kochan status, was all he knew, not military rank as such.

    "I am getting disturbing reports," the Pluthrak Subcommandant said. "I must go closer and observe in person. Come with me, General Kralik."

    Knowing what was expected by now, Tully hurried to precede Aille out of the command center, with Aguilera alongside and Tamt on their heels. Once they got outside, he saw that the rain had started up again. In fact, it was coming down hard. Yaut motioned to a Jao vehicle standing by and it pulled up before them. The vehicle was a Jao equivalent of an armored personnel carrier, with the curved and rounded lines that characterized all their vehicles.

    Clambering into it, Tully discovered the interior was designed something like a large van; except, here too, Jao rounded lines prevailed instead of human boxy ones. It was all very artistic, he thought sourly—like "art deco," if he remembered the right term—but a pain in the ass to sit up straight in. Jao, with their long torsos and relatively short legs, were comfortable riding in a half-crouched position. Humans weren't.

    The fraghta and Aille got in the front, next to the driver, while Tamt, Kralik, Aguilera, and Tully piled into the rear.

    Tully's fingers turned the locator band round and round his arm. He felt like a tagged pet monkey. True, he could console himself with the thought that Aille was using a major general as if he were just an aide. But that wasn't much consolation, since Tully didn't really have anything against Kralik; and, in any event, the general never seemed like the type of officer who fretted much over his status.

    Moving as quickly as Jao ground vehicles could, it wasn't long before they had overtaken the Jao column fighting its way into Salem. "Fighting" was the word, too. The vehicle they were riding in had audio equipment as good as the screens that substituted for windows on all sides. Automatic weapons-fire was a constant rattle now. The Jao had obviously found the combatants. At one point, the vehicle had to maneuver around a Jao combat vehicle resting crazily on its side, smoke rising from its turret and its maglevs failed.

    "It takes an armor piercing shell to do that kind of damage," Kralik observed. "They must have some more handheld missiles, or some antitank guns."

    With an emphasis on "some," Tully thought, holding on as the vehicle swerved to avoid Jao foot troops in the middle of the road. He knew just how hard it was for the Resistance to get its hands on that kind of ordnance. Even old-style human weaponry was scarce, this many years after the conquest.

    But, wherever and however they'd gotten the weapons, Tully knew that Aguilera was right—and he also knew that the Resistance in the Pacific Northwest was going to be pulling out all the stops in this battle. In fact, they must have been planning and organizing this operation for some time. They wouldn't be committing their precious heavy weaponry otherwise.

    An orange-red explosion filled the night and sparks lit up the sky like fireworks. At a low-voiced command from Aille, the vehicle stopped. A moment later, to Tully's surprise, the Subcommandant and Yaut were piling out.

    The vehicle's doors flew open and Tully hurried to follow. Yaut had the locator control and he didn't dare let him get too far away. Better to be shot than have your brains fried.

    Despite the heavy rain, he could smell something burning, acrid and strong. Another damaged Jao vehicle was nearby. Not one of their tank equivalent, but the kind they used as personnel carriers. Several figures lay on the wet ground beside it, Jao by the shape and size. No one was tending them. Dead? he thought with rising hope. The rebels had actually drawn blood!

    A lot of Jao blood, in fact, more than Tully had ever seen. There were small pools of the orange stuff on the street, not just the few drops you normally saw.

    The Jao didn't usually bleed much. As with almost everything else, their bodies were tougher than human ones that way also. Tully even knew the reason, because Rob Wiley had explained it to him once.

    "They stop bleeding so much faster than us because instead of thrombocytes they have micro-threads. Think of it being like superfine glass-fiber in their veins, only it's an organic compound with silica and aluminum in it. That's why their blood is that weird orange color."

    Aille bent over one of the corpses, studying it for a moment. "Come," he said. "I have to observe more closely. This is not right."



    Something in the distance erupted, staggering Yaut and causing him to fall to one knee.

    "What was that?" Yaut looked back at Aille. His ears sagged and his head buzzed from the force of the explosion.

    The Pluthrak was still standing, although he too had obviously been rattled. Aille shook himself until his whiskers flapped, and his eyes were luminous with emotion in the darkness. "It came from underground, I think," he said. "A storage tank of some sort, perhaps?"

    "A volatile fuel depot," Yaut said. "That would make sense."

    "Fraghta, are you all right?" A hand pulled him onto his feet.

    Yaut turned and saw the dark-haired human male, Aguilera. "I am undamaged," he said, letting his body fall into the sternness of perceived-error. He heartily disliked being touched without invitation.

    "I don't think that was a fuel depot blowing up, sir," said Kralik. "They probably filled some of the water mains with gasoline and now they're blowing them to create steam. Not that it's really needed, in this rain, but they must have been preparing for days. No way to predict the weather that far ahead."

    Aille stood. "You are saying that this is a well-planned ambush, not a hastily organized resistance."

    "Yes, sir," Kralik replied. "Meaning no disrespect—to the Jao—but your Governor's temper is notorious. I'm willing to bet this whole thing was designed to draw an attack on Salem, starting with the assault on the whaling ship. This is the logical place for someone who thinks like Oppuk to retaliate. Nearest big town and it's the capital, to boot."

    "But . . . the casualties they would produce, among humans."

    Aguilera gave Tully a glance that seemed hostile, then shrugged. "The Resistance thinks that way. Kill some Jao—collaborators, too—and be damned to the rest. You're back to fighting in a city, which is where humans have the best advantage."

    Tully opened his mouth, as if to protest, but Aguilera silenced him with a sharp hand gesture.

    "Hush!" His head was turned, as if he were listening intently. So was Kralik.

    Yaut heard the noise himself, now that the two human soldiers had brought it to his attention.

    "Oh, Christ," hissed Aguilera. "Where in the hell did they get tanks?"

    Kralik turned to Aille, his posture full of obvious cautious-anxiety.

    "We've got to get under cover, now. They'll have infantrymen with them, too."

    Aille and Yaut started to turn back to their vehicle, which was quite some distance away.

    "No, not there! There isn't time." Kralik pointed to a nearby building, a dwelling set back from the street with a small grove of trees before it. "That vehicle is a death trap, as close as the tank sounds. Over there, quick, where we'll be out of sight. And get the driver out! Tell him to take cover somewhere."

    Yaut looked to Aille. "Do as he says," the young Pluthrak commanded. "He may be right—and I want to observe this, anyway."

    Yaut spoke into his communicator. A moment later, the Jao driver emerged from the vehicle and disappeared behind another building. The roaring sound of the approaching tank was very loud, even above the din of the battle.

    But they were all hidden in the grove, now. Suddenly, in addition to the roar of the engine, there was the added sound of a great squeal, very painful to the ears.

    "That's the track, braking so they can make the turn," Aguilera whispered. He raised his head a little. "Yeah, they're coming around the corner. Looks like they've got . . . call it maybe a dozen foot soldiers in support. Raggedy bunch. If we're lucky, they won't spot us here."



    Aille saw a tank running on primitive human-style metal tracks looming into view through the rain. The tank's engine was incredibly loud, but he was surprised at the relative lack of noise coming from the tracks themselves. They must have some sort of padding between the metal blocks. Not for the first time, he was struck by the sophistication of human technology. Like the submarines or the interior of the tanks he had seen, what appeared at first glance to be crude and simple could be extremely well designed.

    There were also, as Aguilera had said, some foot soldiers accompanying the tanks, following behind it with weapons ready. Why? he wondered. This was obviously part of human military doctrine, not a fluke, because Kralik had predicted it.

    Then, watching the way the human foot soldiers studied the area, weapons ready, Aille thought he understood. Humans were not arrogant in battles on difficult terrain, as the Jao had come to be after their long string of easy conquests. The tanks sheltered the infantrymen while they, in turn, protected the vehicle from surprise attack from the flanks and the rear. He could see where it would be an effective combination, fighting in the narrow and cramped quarters of a city.

    The tank had now advanced far enough into the street to come into line-of-sight of their abandoned Jao vehicle. It halted immediately, its gun mount swiveling as though seeking prey, then fired.

    It was a direct hit. The vehicle seemed to erupt from inside, hatches and other pieces flying everywhere, the noise incredible. Flame and smoke poured out. Aille had no doubt at all that if there had been anyone in that vehicle they would have been instantly killed.

    He flattened his ears in pain at the loudness, breathing hard. White lines shivered through his vision. Laser weapons were almost inaudible. Jao ears found extreme noise disorienting.

    The tank began backing away, to his surprise. His relief also, because if it had advanced much further it would have been difficult to stay hidden from the foot soldiers.

    Kralik seemed to understand his puzzlement. "I don't think they expected an encounter here, sir," Kralik murmured. "They were probably just changing their position to set up an ambush. These are insurgents, not regulars. They won't want to face off with Jao troops on the open streets. They can't have many tanks, since they must have been hoarding them for years, hidden somewhere."

    The explanation made sense. To Aguilera also, apparently, because the experienced human veteran now stood erect. The sound of the tank's engine had faded away considerably.

    "We'd all have been toast, if we'd been in that vehicle," he said forcefully. "Not even that. Don't ask me where they got 'em, but the rebels are using DU sabot rounds. Silly to use 'em, though, when HE would have done just fine. Your Jao vehicles have armor designed to reflect lasers. They'll stand up to a coaxial machine gun, but otherwise they're even more vulnerable than our tanks—uh, their tanks—are."

    "What is a 'DU sabot round'?" Aille asked.

    "It's just a shaped piece of depleted uranium, with a casing," Kralik explained. "The casing—that's the 'sabot' part—peels off after the projectile leaves the barrel. What hits the target is the shaped penetrator: fifteen kilos of solid uranium, moving about two thousand meters a second. It'll punch through damn near anything—even reactive armor, which you don't have—and once it penetrates . . ."

    He grimaced. "The uranium vaporizes, basically. It's like a fuel-air bomb going off in a contained space. The resulting heat incinerates anything organic or flammable—and, at that temperature, most substances are flammable. If we'd been inside, there'd be nothing left of us but molecules."

    "Interesting," Aille said again. "I can now see why the veterans found the weapons so terrifying."

    Although the tank was gone, the sound of the battle was intensifying. Aguilera moved out of the grove by the dwelling. A shot cracked suddenly, and he crumpled.

    Aille flung himself down, along with the rest.

    "Come on out!" a human voice cried from the darkness. "Or I'll fill the rest of you bastards full of holes too!"

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