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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 13, 2003 22:33 EDT



    A stream of cursing came from the ground as Aguilera tried to rise. Aille recognized some of the vernacular, but not all.

    "Stay down, you jinau son of a bitch!" The voice sounded within the male vocal range to Aille, and, if he was not mistaken, quite elderly.

    His guess was confirmed. "You old idiot!" Aguilera rolled over, face contorted, clutching his windward shoulder. "They'll flatten this egg-sucking town and kill everyone in it, and for what? A goddam whale!"

    "That whale just brought things to a head!" A bandy-legged man moved into sight, a rifle in his hands. His head was almost absent of hair altogether, usually a sign of great age for humans, and he did not move easily. "Now drop the weapons, or I'll drill you for sure!"

    "If he were going to fire," Yaut observed to Aille in quiet Jao, "he would already have done so. He hesitates for some reason."

    "He's not a member of the Resistance," whispered Tully in English. "Just a cranky codger too stubborn to leave his home. And he just shot the only wad he's got left."

    He rose and knelt beside Aguilera, opening his shirt to inspect the wound. "Put the gun down, old-timer, there's no point to this. They'll wreck the whole city before they're done, and there's nothing you can do about it."

    Seizing Aguilera by the shoulders, Tully dragged the taller man into a pool of light cast from a lamp in the entrance to the small dwelling. Then sat back on his heels, laughing softly. "I'll say this, old man. You may have lost your hair, but you sure didn't lose your balls."

    Aille's whiskers drooped. Sometimes he thought he would never understand humans—for a certainty. He examined the old one's posture and decided that there was no immediate danger. He'd become familiar enough with humans to understand that the old one now exuded abashed-indecision rather than fierce-determination.

    He rose and approached. Aguilera's entrance wound, he could see, looked very small. It was certainly non-lethal, even for a fragile human. Just below the collarbone; bleeding, but not badly.

    "What's so funny?" hissed Aguilera.

    Tully was still making soft sounds of amusement. What the humans called "chuckling," now, not outright laughter.

    "That hole's damn near invisible. Rafe, old son, you've been laid out by a .22!" He glanced at the weapon gripped by the old human. "A single-shot, to boot. Looks just like the first gun my daddy bought me."

    Aguilera punched at him weakly with his good hand, but missed and sucked in his breath at the pain the movement cost him. Even Aguilera's grimace, though, seemed to have some amusement in it.

    "I can't believe it," Aille heard Aguilera mutter. "How humiliating."

    Their assailant stepped closer, staring at Aille. His rifle was still clutched in his hands but not aimed at anyone. If Aille understood Tully's vernacular properly, the weapon was no longer armed in any event.

    "Are you the Governor?"

    Tully stood so that he loomed over their captor.

    "Not hardly," he said. "Jesus, don't you ever watch the news?"

    "The news?" The man snorted. "What for? All them fuzzheads look ali—"

    Moving quickly and easily, Tully snatched the gun out of the old human's hands. The human's squawk of protest was driven from his lungs as Yaut brought him down. The fraghta's hands moved to break the man's neck.

    "Stop, Yaut!" commanded Aille.

    Yaut obeyed, but when he looked back his eyes glittered green in the night.

    "He is harmless now."

    "He raised his weapon to you!" Yaut was seized by anger which bent his body into sharp angles. "He has no respect!"

    "He does not know me," Aille said.

    "He knows you are Jao. He should respect that, whatever else!"

    "Yes," Aille said, his posture sober-reflection, "and yet . . ."

    He studied Tully and Aguilera. Both of them returned his gaze with dark, unfathomable expressions. Then, he looked at Kralik. The general's face, too, had that same expression.

    There was something critical involved here, Aille realized. He did not understand what it was, but that it was critical he was quite certain. This was one of those rare moments in which association hung in the balance.

    "Release him, Yaut," he commanded. Gesturing at Aguilera: "He was the one injured, not me. Let him decide the proper punishment."

    Aguilera stared at him, then at Tully. A moment later, they exhaled deeply. Even with the difficulty of assessing their alien postures, Aille did not mistake the sentiment that infused both of them. What a Jao would call relieved-appreciation. Kralik's reaction was more contained, but clearly the same.

    It had been the right decision, then. For the first time, ever, he could feel the bonds of association. No tentative shoots, these, but strong lines.

    "Oh, hell," Aguilera said. "Just slap the old coot upside the head and—wait!"

    Yaut's hand had already begun to swing when the last word brought it to an abrupt halt. He peered quizzically at Aguilera.

    "Uh . . . it's just a figure of speech." Aguilera winced. "If you do it, you'll tear his head off." He looked up at Tully. "Do us the honors, would you?"

    "Sure," said Tully, smiling crookedly. He rose easily, took two strides over to the old human, and gave him a little swat with the fingers on the top of his bald head.

    To Aille's surprise, the old one's eyes filled instantly with water. "Tears," humans called it, normally a sign of great pain or anguish. Yet Tully's blow would hardly have sufficed to crush an insect.

    "I've lived in this house my whole life," the old one said, the words coming in short, gasping sobs, "since Marge and me got married. She died, just two years ago—but she died in our bedroom."

    "Yeah, I know, old-timer," replied Tully softly. "And by tomorrow, it'll be nothing but cinders. But it's just a house, when all's said and done. And Marge is safely out of it. You better come with us."

    He lifted the oldster to his feet, all but shoving Yaut aside to do it. Then, helped Aguilera to his feet also. The wounded man's face glistened in the dimness, bathed in a thin sheen of water, though the rain had not started again. "Even if it was only a lousy popgun, he needs medical attention."

    "Take him back, then." Aille said. "I will remain and observe further. Tell the medician I authorize treatment." He glanced at the oldster, understanding that Tully would not relinquish him now. "Both of them, if the other needs attention also."

    "I can't." Tully held up his wrist with the gleaming black locator band. "Not unless Yaut goes too."

    Yaut fished in his carrying pouch, then threw him the control box. "Go."

    Tully's face changed as he stared down at the smooth black rectangle. "But—"

    "Either you comprehend vithrik, or you do not," Yaut said. "I have trained you as well as I can. The rest is up to you."

    Tully's pale face looked from Aille to Yaut. "I'll be back as soon as I see to Aguilera and the old fellow," he said, almost as though he didn't believe it himself. "I will."

    "You are of my personal service," Aille said. "Whatever your beginnings, among Jao, to be so trusted is counted of great honor." Their eyes met in the darkness, the green of Tully's reflecting the light from above.

    A long burst of automatic weapon fire came from the next street over. Kralik turned, obviously trying to pinpoint the source.

    Aille took Aguilera's hand, trying to imitate the same grip he had often seen one human use with another, though it seemed awkward. The bare skin felt strangely hot against his own palm. Their body temperature was higher than a Jao's. He had not realized that until this moment. "We will continue to observe," he said. "Now I want to see how effectively my Jao equipment operates."

    "Watch when they fire," Aguilera said faintly. His blood gleamed black-red under the light from above. "See how they—" He swayed and Tully took more of his weight. "—how they deal with the lasers."

    His chin drooped to his chest and Tully swore. "Later!" he said, and then slipped off into the darkness, half-carrying Aguilera and the old human.



    Aille's party skirted two more brief firefights to reach the center of the fighting. Now that the Jao forces were in the town itself, they'd encountered fierce patches of resistance in many places. Much of the battle raged from structure to structure. Finally, they came to a main boulevard down which some Jao fighting vehicles were advancing. They stopped to observe, crouched behind the rubble of a destroyed building.

    "There!" Kralik pointed, into the inadequate light shed by the few remaining street lamps on the street ahead. "That's what Aguilera was talking about!"

    Aille squinted and could just make out thousands of tiny metallic strips floating down through the laser cannons' angle of fire. Whenever a beam hit a strip, portions of it were reflected at odd angles and the beam lost coherence.

    He rose higher, heedless of stray projectiles, every line of his body shaped into startled-interest. "What are those?"

    "Bits of aluminum foil," Kralik said. "The same thing we used during the conquest. Ours were manufactured for the purpose. These are probably improvised, cut up from common household supplies."

    From the next street over, a rebel tank fired through the aluminum strips without problem, but the Jao beams continued to be sporadically disrupted. Suddenly, one of the Jao vehicles was badly damaged by some sort of missile. Immediately, humans firing burst-weapons broke out of a nearby house and swarmed over it.

    "I advise you strongly to order your troops to fall back, sir," Kralik said. "Or this is going to get very ugly. You don't have a large enough force, and they are neither trained nor equipped for this kind of street fighting. Not against an opponent as obviously well-prepared and numerous as you're facing here. If you keep pushing ahead, your soldiers are just going to—the human expression is 'bleed out.' "

    An explosion lit up the night as one of the Jao vehicles took a direct hit. Aille stared at what was left. All the soldiers in it were obviously dead, the vehicle itself nothing but a gutted, burning shell.

    Bleed out. It was a savage expression. The sort of thing a certain predator might think up. The kind of predator that is not strong enough or powerful enough to kill its prey outright; so, instead, tears at the flanks until the prey dies of blood-loss.

    Such predators were often pack animals, Aille remembered.

    "Yes, you are right. Yaut, give the order."

    The fraghta brought up his communicator, but hesitated. "The Narvo will be enraged. He will try to use this to discredit you."

    "Yes, I know. I also do not care." He gazed at Kralik. "Partly because vithrik is what it is. Partly because the withdrawal will only be temporary. Am I not correct, General Kralik?"

    "Yes, sir." The human officer's face was creased with a very thin smile. "This is jinau business."

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