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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Friday, August 15, 2003 21:14 EDT



    Once Tully got far enough away from the fighting, he started looking for a car. He figured he had enough authority derived from Aille to commandeer a vehicle. "Commandeer," under the circumstances, being a euphemism for "hot-wire and steal it," since he didn't have any intention of returning whichever vehicle he swiped back to its rightful owner.

    It hardly mattered. The Subcommandant was willing to fudge with the Governor's order to destroy Salem enough to allow the population to evacuate. But Tully was quite sure he would see to the physical destruction of the city. Once the dust and ashes settled, nobody was going to miss an old human automobile.

    And it would be old, too. Most of the cars humans still owned in North America were antiques, kept running until the bodies just rusted out. The relatively few new cars still being made were expensive, and Tully was unlikely to find any here.

    Eventually, he came across an old pickup that still had half a tank of gas in it. A Ford, ironically. He didn't bother trying to jimmy the lock. Tully and both men with him were already soaked by the rain, so he just smashed in the window on the driver's side. Between his father's training—he'd been a mechanic—and his own misspent youth, Tully had the engine running within seconds.

    There was room in the cab for all three of them. Fortunately, there was also a map of Salem in the glove compartment. Tully didn't know the city, neither did Aguilera—and the old man was now sunk in a complete depression, barely reacting to anything around him.

    Eventually, they found their way back to I-5 and headed south toward the military encampment Aille had set up as the base for the operation. Traffic was nonexistent, southbound. Leaving aside the rain, the old interstate, once in pristine condition, was as ragged as most things were these days in North America. So Tully had to drive slowly, despite his worries about Aguilera. From a .22 or not, a bullet wound was still a bullet wound.

    But when he made a comment about it, Aguilera shook his head. "I'm not worried about that. What I'm worried about are trigger-happy Jao."

    As if that had been a cue, a Jao aircraft swept by overhead, not more than five hundred feet above the road. Tully stuck his head out of the window and saw that the scout car was beginning to circle around. The Jao had spotted the pickup and were coming to investigate.

    "Bad news," he muttered, hauling his head back in and gripping the steering wheel more tightly. "Mood they're in, they'll likely shoot first and ask questions later."

    "Stop the truck," hissed Aguilera. "Let me get into the bed. Maybe when they see the jinau uniform they'll let it go."



    They did, and they didn't. True, the scout car didn't just blast them. On the other hand, it continued to pace the pickup for a minute or so, as Tully continued south, and apparently got in touch with the military base. They hadn't gotten more than a few miles further before two Jao combat vehicles coming northbound on I-5—on their side of the divided interstate, human traffic laws be damned—had intercepted them.

    The first minute or so was tense. The Jao suspected them of being deserters, and Tully knew that the normal Jao method for dealing with desertion was summary execution. The aliens considered "court martial" another frivolous human pastime.

    Fortunately, however, the Jao were not as prone as humans to assume that everyone lied at the drop of a hat. Rather to his surprise, they accepted Tully's explanation without question—and the mention of Aille's name worked like a charm. By now, it seemed, all Jao troops on Terra knew that the new Subcommandant had taken humans into his personal service. Discovering that Tully and Aguilera were the fabled creatures in question, their suspicion and hostility vanished, replaced by something akin to country rubes gawking at exotic animals in a zoo.

    There had been a time, and not so long ago, when Tully would have been angered by that. Another example of Jao arrogance and xenophobia. But his experiences over the past period had taught him to see the shades and colors in Terra's conquerors. They were no longer simply a monochromatic oppressor—as the lumpy shape of the locator tucked out of sight in his pocket reminded him, all the way back to the base.

    That didn't take but a few minutes, since exotic animals have their privileges. The Jao officer had summoned the scout car and the three humans were flown the rest of the distance. With, of course, the two pilots of the scout car gawking at them the whole time.



    After Tully saw Aguilera and the old man into the medical compound, he wandered through the darker areas of the base until he found shelter from the rain under a tree. The base had been set up hurriedly in an agricultural sector of Willamette Valley, and sprawled all over. Tully decided he could run the risk of staying there until sunrise, before anyone noticed him or thought to ask what he was doing.

    By sunrise, Aille would be back. Whatever decision Tully was going to make, he didn't have much time to do it.

    For the first time in his life, Tully was suffering from divided loyalties. He had been Resistance from the time he was a boy. This was the first real chance he'd had to escape since he'd been dragooned into Aille's service, and he'd learned a great deal that might be valuable to the Resistance. It was his plain and simple duty to escape and rejoin Wiley's forces in the Rockies. Try to, at least.

    On the other hand...

    He had told Aille and Yaut he would return; had given them his promise, his word. And he could no longer deny to himself that the young Jao scion of Pluthrak—even the crusty old fraghta—had had a genuine impact on him. The vow he had made was not something he could simply dismiss as a necessary lie given to conquerors. Things had gone beyond that. How much farther beyond, and in exactly what way, still confused Tully.

    Maybe there was a third alternative, he thought. His fingers closed around the smooth cool box in his pocket. Maybe the fraghta wouldn't ask for it back now, and he would retain control over his own movements. He could stay a bit longer—maybe more than a bit—and learn more about how the Jao top levels of command operated. In the long run, he was starting to think, that might be more important than anything else he could do.

    His command of Jao, good to begin with, was improving every day. And leaving aside language, he was coming to understand much better—sort of—the way that the Jao thought. Jao were constantly jockeying for influence, and it was now obvious to him that relations between Aille and the Governor were coming to a breaking point. The rebels in the Resistance could find a way to use that to their advantage, if they understood how to play one Jao off against another. And he could be the one to crack the social code. The rebels might just have a chance to drive the Jao from this world yet. Or, at least—

    He sighed. Finally, he'd actually let himself think the words. Or, at least...


    He didn't know. But he was no longer as certain as he had been that humanity faced only two options: get rid of the Jao or die trying. He pulled the locator out of his pocket and stared down at it. In the darkness, he could barely see the device, even held in his hand.

    Everything was dark, nothing more so than the "third way" he was groping for. But he decided he could live with that, at least for a while.



    He found the Subcommandant along with Yaut and Kralik just outside the Governor's command center, which Oppuk had set up on the military base. It was one of those poured edifices the Jao could erect with incredible speed. The structures seemed odd to humans, on the inside even more than the outside, but they had the advantage of being quick and easy to produce without expending much time and labor.

    Tully was sure about one thing, though: Oppuk would have commandeered enough labor to make sure that, within the hant, there would be another one of those damned pools. You'd think that right here next to a battle, the Governor could do without it for once. But Oppuk, Tully was coming to realize, had all the Jao vices and precious few of the conquerors' virtues.

    Yes, they did have virtues. That much, if nothing else, he'd learned from Aille and Yaut.

    Kralik looked a bit done in, sitting on a log, forehead resting on bent knees with an ominous rip in his uniform. There were some small bloodstains on the ripped material, too. Apparently, the general had gotten wounded after Tully left, although it didn't look serious.

    The Subcommandant and Yaut seemed unruffled, however. The awkward Jao bodyguard, Tamt, was haunting the edges of the little group with an air of being very much put upon, and they'd apparently acquired yet another new member for Aille's personal service, a Jao built like a fireplug. None of them were beauty queens in Tully's estimation, but this fellow was ugly enough to strike fear in the heart of a rabid bear.

    Jesus, he'd only been gone a few hours. How many members did a Jao bigshot have in his personal service anyway—fifty? Two hundred?



    Inside the innermost recesses of the hant, Oppuk's ears swiveled. The sounds of the battle had faded away, he suddenly realized. Could the young Pluthrak possibly have prevailed so quickly? For all of the Governor's public derision of humans, he knew full well how savagely and effectively the creatures normally fought on their own chosen terrain. He had expected it would take at least three solar cycles for the inexperienced Pluthrak to crush the insurgents, probably longer—and then, not without suffering severe casualties.

    Now uneasy, he emerged from the pool where he had been floating. Water sluiced from his body. Parm, one of his new service, stepped forward with an ornate harness and pair of loose trousers. Arms extended, he let her dress him, moving automatically to step into the garment, his mind on other, more important matters.

    A bowlful of woody tak had been set to smolder at his feet. But it had not been tended properly and now smelled burnt, rather than aromatic. He whirled and kicked it across the floor. Parm gazed down at the glowing embers silently, a hint of resentment blurring the shape of abashed-regret more appropriate to her failure in duty.

    "Clean it up and get out!" He felt angry enough to demand her life. But . . . then he would just have to elevate another incompetent in her place, who would certainly be no better and quite possibly worse.

    She bent over the mess, picking up the coals with bare fingers and returning them to the metal bowl. He straightened his harness, while she worked, adjusted the trousers, considering.

    If Aille succeeded quickly in Salem, having taken full responsibility for the campaign in such a dramatic public fashion, it would redound to Pluthrak's credit and not Narvo's. It was for that very reason that Oppuk had insisted on a hastily planned and organized attack, overriding the young Pluthrak's sensible caution.

    But perhaps he was being unduly concerned, Oppuk reminded himself. The quiet that had fallen over the battlefield might have an even simpler explanation: the Pluthrak's assault had been driven back from the human city. Perhaps Aille would be so shamed by this very public failure, he would offer his life as recompense.

    If so, Oppuk would accept it.



    Tully approached Kralik. "Do you want me to get you some medical attention, sir? Or take you to the medical compound?"

    Kralik looked up at him wearily. Obviously, the general hadn't gotten any sleep either, and he was a good fifteen years older than Tully.

    "I've already sent for a medic, but thanks. It's just a scratch." Kralik's lips quirked. "You look a little done in yourself. How's Aguilera and the old guy? And did you ever find out his name?"

    "Jesse James, probably," Tully snorted. "No, sir. But I didn't ask. That way—uh—"

    The general's smile widened. "That way, if the Jao change their minds, you can claim you don't know who the masked stranger was and he musta hobbled off thataway."

    "Uh. Yes, sir."

    The general patted the log next to him. "Have a seat, Tully."

    Tully was already regretting the impulse that had led him to ask Kralik if he needed medical attention. The general was a good enough guy, sure, but he was still a jinau general. But, there was no way to refuse.

    Gingerly, he took a seat. Kralik studied him for a moment with those disconcertingly calm gray eyes. Then said softly:

    "Give me a name, Tully. And don't try to lie."

    "Excuse me, sir?"

    "And don't act stupid. You're not 'sympathetic' to the Resistance, you're part of it. I want to know which part."

    Tully glanced at Aille and Yaut, who were some distance away.

    "No, I haven't told him," said Kralik. "I'm sure Aguilera hasn't either, just like I'm sure Aguilera's figured it out too. For that matter, I doubt if Belk told, even though Belk knows and he hates your guts."

    Belk was the one who'd called him a "weasel," which was the term diehard collaborators used for members of the Resistance. Tully hadn't seen much of Belk since the day he'd had the locator fastened to his wrist. Whatever Aille was doing with that member of his personal service, Belk's duties kept him elsewhere.

    "Why does he hate my guts, sir?" He rubbed his wrist. "I never even met the guy before he showed up with this damn thing."

    "Well, look at it from his point of view, Tully. He came back from the fighting twenty years ago—he'd been in the Navy—to discover that a crowd of 'patriots' in his home town had gone on a rampage, looking for 'alien-loving collaborators.' For some reason or another, they picked his family as a target. He thinks it was because of an old grudge between his wife and another woman. Whatever the reason, they were all hung. His two kids along with his wife. The girl was seven years old, his son was nine."

    Tully winced. "Jesus. Where did that happen?"

    "Texas. Amarillo, to be precise."

    "Those assholes. North Texas is the territory of—well, never mind names. But I think that so-called Resistance group there is working for the fuzzies. The shit they pull couldn't be designed better to piss people off. That's what Wiley thinks too."

    "Wiley? Rob Wiley?"

    Tully scowled. "No names. Uh, sir."

    Kralik looked away. "I knew Wiley was in the Resistance. High up, of course, with his experience and training. And he's somewhere in the Rockies, which fits your background. Yes, I checked." His eyes came back to Tully. "Just so you know, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Wiley was my battalion commander during the conquest. One hell of a fine officer. Give him my regards, will you, if and when you see him again."

    For a few seconds, Tully studied the general's gray eyes. Just as calm as they always seemed. Kralik was pretty unflappable.

    "What's this all about, sir?"

    "I don't know, to be honest. But things are starting to change, I think. The day might come when I need to get in touch with somebody who pulls some weight in the Resistance. If so, I could trust Rob Wiley."

    He chuckled, seeing the expression on Tully's face. "No, I'm not likely to defect, no matters what happens. My own grudge against you bastards is pretty well faded away, by now, since I know damn well the guys who killed my father and brother and sister-in-law were just common crooks. But what you're doing has no point anymore. You don't have a cold chance in hell, Tully. Leaving aside Jao control of space, you don't have any of the other prerequisites for a successful guerrilla movement. Just start with the fact that you've got no secure base area to work from, not even any neutral territory. That's why you're still such a political mess, twenty years after the conquest. How many Resistance groups are there, anyway? With nothing uniting them—neither program nor structure—beyond 'Jao Go Home.' That's because you can't even hold an authoritative congress anywhere to bring sensible order to yourselves. Where would you assemble it, and be secure? It'd take you years just to organize the thing, as scattered and divided as you are."

    Tully's eyes moved away from the general's. He'd heard Wiley complain about exactly the same things.

    "Face it, Tully. I did, long ago. There's no getting rid of the Jao. Give the Resistance twenty more years, and they'll be nothing left of any of them but outright bandits. Somehow or other, we're going to have to make an accommodation with the Jao, whether we like it or not."

    Tully stared stubbornly at nothing in particular. He heard Kralik chuckle softly.

    "Never mind. I'm really not in the political conversion business. And I've rested enough. I'd better go over there and see what the Subcommandant's up to."

    The general rose and Tully looked up at him. Now, Kralik's eyes had the look of winter seas.

    "Just give my regards to Colonel Wiley, if and when you see him. And tell him that I'd really just as soon never have to do to him what I'm going to do to these trigger-happy idiots in Salem tomorrow. But I will, if I have to. And if I'm running it instead of some Jao appointed by Oppuk, I'll dig Rob out of his hole in the mountains. They don't know how to do it, but I do."

    He turned and walked away, heading for Aille. After a moment, Tully rose and followed him.



    "I have been consulting with Wrot krinnu Hemm vau Wathnak, who is a veteran of the original conquest of this world," the Subcommandant said to Kralik, when he and Tully came up. "He agrees fully with your assessment of the current military action. We Jao are ill equipped for this engagement."

    Wrot's ears waggled. "The natives have a saying for it, like they do for so many things. 'Bitten off more than you can chew.' " He said it with an air of almost human cheer. "Before I retired, we found ourselves in similar situations many times. In my experience, it is always a mistake to fight humans in the midst of their cities, if it can possibly be avoided. They are infernally clever about ambush and sabotage, and their weapons are ideally suited for such terrain and tactics."

    Tully stared, wondering where they'd dug this one up.

    Aille's stance changed subtly, so that he looked somehow more confident, more in charge. "Yes, I have come to the same conclusion. I will therefore hand the campaign over to you, General Kralik, and your Pacific Division. Launch the attack as soon as you are ready."

    Kralik's eyes glittered. "Yes, sir." He began to turn away.

    "One moment, General," said Aille. He was looking toward his command center. The structure Aille had had poured for himself was much smaller than the one nearby erected by Governor Oppuk. Yaut was emerging from it, holding something in his hand. One of those short, sticklike things the Jao called a "bau," Tully thought. Except this one, like the one Aille carried, looked to be made out of some kind of bone or shell instead of wood.

    Yaut came up and gave the thing to Aille. The Subcommandant immediately turned and extended it to Kralik.

    "I give you the bau, Ed Kralik. Bring it back with honor."

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