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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 20, 2003 00:51 EDT



    Kralik stared down at the bau in his hand, unable to think what to say, while his fingers traced the unfamiliar carvings. There were few, and those simple, which indicated a fledgling commander. It fact, he thought the simple carvings were identical to those on the one Aille himself carried. Given Kralik's experience, that was a bit ironic—he actually had more combat experience than most Jao officers on Terra. He certainly had more than Aille, for whom Terra was his first assignment.

    A bau was not the same thing as a rank, or even a badge of office. It was more personal, more in the way of a record of individual achievement. The Jao equivalent, Kralik had sometimes thought, of the "I love me" wall many human officers used to display various military achievement records and awards. But he knew it was a far more formal thing, for the Jao. And it was connected to a kochan, somehow, in a way Kralik did not really comprehend. He'd ask Caitlin. Maybe she or Dr. Kinsey understood the subtleties involved.

    But, whatever the fine points might be, the substance was clear enough. For the first time—ever, so far as Kralik knew—a jinau officer had been given a bau. With further accomplishments, the rod would have carvings added to it. What was more important—far more—was that the mere giving of the bau indicated a profound change in his status. Not "social equality," exactly. With their complex hierarchical view of things, the Jao did not share that human concept.

    Call it . . . acceptance. A barrier removed.

    "Return it once you have your victory," Aille said. "A carving for Salem will be added."

    "Yes, sir!" Kralik transferred the bau to his left hand and saluted, then motioned a waiting command vehicle forward. This was a human-designed vehicle, essentially a Humvee with Jao maglev drive and communication equipment. Like almost all jinau equipment, it had seen better days.

    Once he was in the vehicle, sitting in the front, he saw the driver was staring at the bau in his hand. The young male driver then looked at him, freckle-faced and eager. A bit awed, too, Kralik thought. The driver also understood something of its significance.

    "Well, hurry up!" Kralik snapped. "What are you waiting for, a damned engraved invitation?"



    Aille monitored the progress of the Pacific Division's brigade from within his command center. Between satellite observation, Jao scout cars in the air, and the various visual and audio links that had been hurriedly made to key elements in the brigade itself, he had a good sense of what was happening.

    With Kralik in command and using human tanks and other kinetic weapons, it soon became obvious that the rebels' tactics were not as effective as they had been against the Jao. The jinau troops wasted little time and effort simply destroying buildings, but concentrated their attacks on the pockets of resistance they encountered. By midday, especially with the experienced Wrot by his side commenting on the situation, Aille had come to grasp the key tactic Kralik was following. The jinau general used his infantry like delicate fingers, probing for resistance. Then, when resistance was found, drew the fingers aside slightly and brought in the tanks and artillery to deliver the actual blows. And the blows, when they came, were brutally powerful. If Kralik did not waste effort destroying buildings for the sake of destruction, he was instantly prepared to level them in order to kill the insurgents within. His tactics were subtle, but ruthless.

    Wrot supplied snippets of commentary and observations throughout. The principal one being that Kralik's tactics would be even more effective if Jao combat aircraft were coordinating their actions with him.

    "Better still," the gruff old veteran pronounced, "if you let the jinau have their own aircraft. Before we swept them from the skies, their aircraft gave us grief during the conquest. Not against our own aircraft, of course, with our much superior electronic countermeasures, but our ground troops. But make sure you don't let any of that lunatic human rivalry infect the thing. If you decide to let them have their own aircraft, make sure you keep an eye on the pilots. Before you know it, the maniacs will be pestering you for their own uniforms, insignia—even a separate command structure. Humans are charming creatures, all in all, but they can find a way to dissociate anything."



    Yaut had found Wrot—or rather, Wrot had found him, shortly after they returned from Salem. Wrot and Yaut were old comrades, who'd served together long ago in the conquest of Hos Tir. "When we were both young and reckless," as Yaut had put it, his posture one of amused-affection-remembered.

    Aille had studied the old veteran, after Yaut presented him. He still seemed sturdy and clear-eyed, though his vai camiti was so scarred, Aille had difficulty discerning its original pattern.

    The Jao, with a total lack of self-consciousness, was staring back in rapt-attention. "Subcommandant," he said. "We heard Pluthrak had granted us a scion, but I came up to see for myself." He blinked. "There's no mistaking that vai camiti."

    "Came from where?" Aille asked.

    "The population cluster of Portland," the veteran said. "I have been living there since my retirement. I rode up with the troops assigned to this exercise. There are still more than a few who know my face."

    Several small explosions lit up in the distance, and he turned to gaze at them, his body shifting into a rough rendition of grim-disapproval. "You will lose a lot of people before this is over," he said, "many more than necessary. Humans excel in this sort of fight."

    "You have seen this type of battle before, then?"

    "Too many times," the fellow said and gestured at his scarred face. "Took my share of wounds too; more than my share, some would say."

    Yaut was gazing at the two of them and there was something in his stance, an element Aille couldn't quite interpret. He wanted something, expected something of him . . . Yaut's eyes glittered bright green in the darkness, like a signal about to illuminate.

    Then Aille realized the opportunity this fellow's experience on this world represented. "Your name?" he asked.

    Lines of pure pleasure suffused the old veteran's body. "Wrot krinnu Hemm vau Wathnak."

    Hemm was an outlying junior kochan allied with larger Wathnak, reportedly rustic and uncultured. Reliable, but too blunt to forge new associations easily. He'd never heard they were otherwise than sturdily honest, though. "I could make good use of an additional seasoned voice, especially one familiar with this world."

    It was an invitation, only, since it could be nothing else. Alongside his many bars of service, Wrot had the mark of retirement carved on his cheek also—the bauta, as it was called. The term derived from bau, and indicated a life completed to the satisfaction of both kochan and Naukra.

    For Jao, the status and the cheek mark was voluntary. Most chose never to take it, even when so entitled—Yaut had not, for instance, though he certainly could—because it removed all automatic associations, even kochan. An individual who chose the bauta thereby chose to spend what remained of his life however he wished. Great freedom, yes, because no one could any longer command him. But also, for most Jao, a life too lonely and dissociated to be enjoyable.

    Wrot glanced aside at Kralik, who was bleeding from the small wound he'd received earlier with almost Jao stoicism. "I heard you have taken more than one human into your service," he said.

    Was that disapproval canting those bedraggled ears? "I have," Aille said. "How else am I to understand this world and make myself of use?"

    "Quite right," Wrot said, "and very sensible for one of your youth. More sensible than that arrogant imbecile Narvo sent here to be Governor, for a certainty. It would be an honor to serve Pluthrak."

    "Welcome to my service, then," Aille said, his angles set in respectful-welcome. "You do me and Pluthrak honor."

    Which was true, of course. Rarely did a bauta accept personal service. But Aille made a mental note not to use Wrot for delicate negotiations. Whatever the old bauta's skills and abilities—which must be great, or Yaut would not be looking so pleased—tact was clearly not one of them.



    "You enjoy the company of humans?" Aille asked

    "Oh, yes," Wrot replied. "Not that they don't often aggravate me. But they are a more clever people than we, and I enjoy cleverness. And at my age—especially being Hemm, which humans would call 'stick-in-the-muds'—and having spent a life on campaign, I find my current existence on Terra endlessly interesting. Humans have more ways to divert and entertain themselves than you can imagine, and I enjoy many of them. They have a saying for that too, of course. I think they have a saying for everything. 'How are you going to keep them down on the farm, once they've been to Gay Paree'?"

    The saying meant absolutely nothing to Aille, but it seemed to amuse the veteran.

    "Surely you cannot spend all your time engaged in human diversions?"

    "Of course not. Most of them are sheer silliness. What they call team sports, I can understand—I actually enjoy 'football,' although they won't let me play—but why would anyone not insane choose to climb a rock cliff? And most of what they call 'music' and 'art' is awful stuff. Sheer cacophony, painful to the ears, or witless daubs of pigments scattered across a surface to no conceivable purpose. Mind you, many humans share my opinion also."

    His ears flattened with amusement. "No, I mainly occupy myself by teaching. And studying."

    "Teaching?" Aille was puzzled. Retired members of a kochan were often used as instructors, of course, the best of them elevated to fraghta. But, in the nature of things, a bauta had no further obligations to their kochan. "Teach who? And what?"

    For a moment, there was a trace of abashed-awkwardness in Wrot's posture. "I teach humans. There is an institute of instruction in Portland—what humans call a 'university.' Since they have no proper kochan, humans substitute these institutes for the purpose of educating their most promising crechelings. This one is small, but very old and prestigious. They call it 'Reed College.' Not long after I set up residence in Portland, some of their elders approached me—very diffidently, ha!—and asked me if I would be willing to instruct their crechelings in our language."

    Aille and Yaut stared at each other, both dumbfounded. Aille himself, namth camiti of great Pluthrak, had only invited Wrot to join his personal service with considerable diffidence. That a kochan-less gaggle of humans would have the audacity to so approach a bauta . . .

    Wrot stroked the bauta on his cheek. "Crude and coarse Hemm may be, young Pluthrak, but I was taught even as a crecheling that to begin by assuming disrespect is a grave offense against association."

    Aille had been taught the same thing. But he realized now, more fully than he ever had before, the difference between formal instruction and body-learning. This old bauta was wise with wrem-fa, because he had not wasted his life.

    "Instruct me," he murmured.

    Wrot was still stroking the mark. "They intended no offense, nor disrespect. By their customs, it was an honor. I took it so, and was intrigued by the idea. So, I accepted—and have not regretted doing so, since. Human crechelings can be quite charming, some of them, and all of them are at least interesting from time to time. They are even more adept than Jao crechelings at getting themselves into complicated little troubles. What humans call 'a pickle.' "

    Aille began to pursue the matter, but had to break off the discussion for a later time. The battle in Salem seemed to be reaching a climax, and he turned his attention back to the screens and monitors.



    The climax was brief and violently destructive. Kralik, he now realized, had deftly maneuvered the remaining defenders into a stronghold near the center of the city. It was a large, ornate-looking edifice, apparently the administrative center for the region. What the humans called "the state capitol," which seemed to have some symbolic significance to them. Perhaps the rebels thought Kralik would hesitate to destroy it.

    But, he didn't. The edifice was isolated from the rest of the city by one of those large expanses of open terrain called "parks" that humans enjoyed—though this one, for no reason Aille could see, was apparently called a "mall." Kralik was therefore able to attack it ruthlessly, without fear that the destruction might engulf some of the human civilians who were still straggling out of Salem. He did not use his vulnerable infantrymen at all, except at the very end. He simply used his tanks and artillery to pulverize the structure, only sending in the infantry to look for survivors.

    There were none, not there. Kralik had turned the building into nothing more than a pile of burning rubble.



    By dawn of the next day, the fighting was all over. The jinau brigade had captured thirty-seven resistance fighters, most injured to some degree, and five more humans who were noncombatants but whom Kralik considered part of the rebellion.

    "Probably support staff for the Resistance in this area," Wrot said. They watched the monitors, which showed the small band of dirty and demoralized prisoners being herded into vehicles by jinau foot soldiers. "Most of the real civilians had left before you got your act together."

    "What act?" Aille turned to him with baffled-inquiry.

    "It's a human colloquialism, endlessly adaptive," Wrot said. "Applied here, it means 'before you organized your troops into an effective unit.' "

    "Interesting," Aille said. "I will remember that expression. At any rate—" He turned to examine what was left of the city. "—I intended the innocent to leave. There is no vithrik in killing those who do not wish to fight."

    Kralik came on the monitors, seeking further instruction.

    "Most of the city is still intact, I believe," said Aille.

    "Yes, sir." Kralik's face bore no expression Aille could see beyond respectful attention. "Do you wish me to order the brigade to start razing Salem?"

    Aille hesitated, but only for an instant. His sense of how vithrik worked with humans was becoming a strong and sure flow. "No, General. Your brigade has done its duty, and done it very well. I will have the Jao units carry out the city's destruction. They will begin as soon as you report your last soldiers have left."

    Aille though he detected a trace of relieved-appreciation in Kralik's expression and posture. It was difficult to tell. The jinau general was superb at concealing his sentiments, almost like a human version of the Bond of Ebezon's Harriers.

    "As you wish, sir." Kralik hesitated, for an instant. "It will take me some time to extricate all my troops."

    Aille concealed his own amusement. No doubt it will. Kralik, like me, will give the civilians remaining as much time as possible to flee.

    "That is understood and acceptable, General."

    Kralik saluted and his image vanished from the monitor.

    Aille rose from his seat. "And now, I must inform the Governor of our success."

    He and Yaut exchanged a look. This, too, would be a battle. But Aille now felt confident in this arena of struggle also—and so, judging from his stance, did Yaut feel confident in him.

    Confident in him, perhaps, but not necessarily in Aille's sense of flow.

    "Wait," Yaut suggested. "Wait until Kralik has returned."


    "I'm not sure, yet. But I think it will help to have the jinau present himself when you—" He gave a glance at Wrot, but obviously decided that the old bauta was in their full confidence. "—trap the Narvo. Again."

    Subtle, Wathnak was not—its junior affiliate Hemm, even less so. Old Wrot's posture was one of pure and unalloyed anticipation-of-another's-misfortune.

    "To witness that alone," he growled, "would make my personal service a great honor."

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