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The Course of Empire: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:07 EDT



    Yaut retraced his steps back through the huge building, then stood blinking out in the torrid yellow alien sunlight, trying to decide how best to carry out his current responsibility. His charge was becoming independent far too fast for Yaut's tastes. Youths like Aille always thought they were ready for action much sooner than reality dictated. They thought what they'd read and heard and reasoned out was just as useful as anything their assigned fraghta had experienced.

    Nothing substituted for experience though. The senses taught wisdoms the conscious mind only partially comprehended. Wrem-fa, body-learning, it was called, laid down in the brain too deep for conscious understanding.

    Fortunately, his own body-learning was telling him that Aille's instincts were good. Veterans would know the right of this. If human kinetic weapons had any value, veterans of the local conquest would certainly say so—to him, in private.

    He found their Terran driver using a cloth to polish the outside of the vehicle in which they'd arrived. "I wish talking with Jao soldiers," he said in the slippery local tongue. "Where this doing best?"

    The spindly creature brushed pale overgrown nap back out of his eyes. His skin gleamed with moisture. "I can take you to Jao Country," he said in Terran. "There are a number of clubs back on the base."

    Yaut waved a hand, signifying tentative-acceptance, then reminded himself to nod, as these creatures most likely did not understand Jao postures. "Being acceptable. Take."

    The driver opened the door for him and Yaut slid in, wondering at the reasons for this peculiar behavior. He made no objection, though he certainly would have, had the action been done by another Jao. That would have been a deliberate insult, an unspoken insinuation that Yaut was too feeble to open a door for himself. But here, he was quite sure, was simply another of those peculiar native customs.

    Yaut's nose crinkled at the human odors which still clung to the upholstery. The odor was not unpleasant, simply unfamiliar. The door clicked shut as he was moving over and then the safety field winked on.

    The vehicle lifted on its magnetic repulsars and glided across the steaming concrete roadway. Outside, Yaut noticed a few clouds had formed and already their undersides were dark-gray and ominous. He checked his board for a local weather report: Rain, it said, followed by more rain in the evening. The temperature, though hot, was within the comfort range for Jao, but commanders were cautioned to remember that humans had much less tolerance. Experience had proven the creatures tended to die when overworked in this level of heat.

    Strange, he thought. Why had they ever inhabited this latitude, if their physiology was not suited for these conditions?

    The Jao, of course, had been crafted, not left to the messy randomness of evolutionary chance. The Ekhat had come across them when they were only low level sentients, then redesigned them to be hearty, able to withstand any number of climatic extremes, and highly intelligent. Slaves were too valuable to be allowed to die at the slightest environmental provocation.

    The driver increased the vehicle's speed so that buildings flicked by, little more than blurs. He had the impression of human faces, Jao faces, other vehicles, sleek structures poured and molded in the Jao fashion, rather than heaped up, then bolted together as humans did. The car swerved to one side and stopped suddenly in the shadow of a looming portal, but the safety field pinned him safely in its grip.

    The driver turned and looked over the seat, his face a pale oval. "This is as far as I can take you, sir. Humans aren't allowed past this gate."

    Yaut peered out into the garish yellow sunshine. A heavily fortified guard post blocked the way. Two uniformed Jao gazed back at him without curiosity. "What being beyond?"

    "Jao Country," he said. The safety field faded. "They'll let you in." He scrambled out, then opened the door for him again. "But I'll have to wait, unless you want me to go back for the Subcommandant."

    Yaut pondered. "No," he said, still struggling with the native language, "he will seeing to his transport. Waiting, you."

    The driver nodded and climbed back into the vehicle.

    Yaut straightened his halfcape, then approached the gate with its two Jao guards. The nearer, a female, was obviously low-kochan, though sturdy enough. Her shoulders slumped in jaded-indifference. The other, also female and even more indolent, had no visible vai camiti and only one small service bar branded into her heartward cheek. She affected a credible, though graceless, lack-of-perception, gazing out over his head as though he weren't there.

    The gate was made of a sliding metal grill which could be retracted to admit traffic. The guards stood behind a window inside a small building, barely large enough to hold the two of them. He stepped up to the windows, whiskers bristling. The effrontery of these two! They should be soundly beaten! He wondered if Aille would be displeased if he took a few moments to do it here and now on his own initiative.

    The first guard's eyes flicked toward him as he reached out for the bar blocking his way. "What do you want, short-legs?"

    It had been a long time since Yaut had heard that particular insult. These days, most Jao would take one look at the array of service brands on his cheeks, not to mention his scars, and know better than to make careless personal remarks. Discipline had slipped here—good sense, even more so.

    "What difference does it make what I want?" he said, holding fast onto his temper. "As I understand it, this portion of the base is restricted to Jao only. I am Jao. I wish to come in."

    "Not so fast," the shorter of the two said. "We have a log to fill out. State your purpose."

    "I am on the business of Subcommandant Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak," he said, holding himself in stern-admonishment.

    The guard glanced over at her workmate. "Pluthrak?" she said. "Here?" Her posture subtly shifted to imply rude-disbelief.

    The other's ears flattened in amusement. "Hey, short-legs, I have Pluthrak business to conduct too. Perhaps I should accompany you."

    "How interesting," Yaut said. "I was not aware, as the Subcommandant's fraghta, that he had requested your assistance, but by all means, come with me. In fact, I insist upon it."

    She was, he noted, a rangy, raw-boned creature, who bore but a single service bar on her own cheek. Her vai camiti was a scattering of haphazard stripes of no discernible pattern, as though two widely divergent kochan had produced in her an unsuccessful mixture of genes. Homely as well as ill-mannered, such as she would never be called back to her birthworld to breed.

    He pulled out his personal board, noted her badge number, then dispatched a command to reassign her to Aille's personal service. Two blinks later, it was approved. He repressed a sigh. Aille's retinue was growing more quickly than Yaut would have preferred. But that was to be expected in a posting like this, he supposed.

    He turned back, please to see startlement overtake the guard's—no, former guard's—entire body. "I hope you have experience as a personal bodyguard," he said. "Or, if not, can learn quickly. Subcommandant Aille dislikes incompetence. I detest it."

    "I—do not understand." In her confusion, she had abandoned any attempt at more sophisticated postures and fell into the arms-akimbo childishness of open-bafflement.

    Turning the board around, he held it up. The small screen displayed the notation that her file had been transferred to Aille's direct command. She turned to the other female. "I have been reassigned," she said. "Just like that!"

    "Oh, not 'just like that,'" he said testily. "You had to work at it. Most guards would just have admitted me, after ascertaining my identity. You had to go out of your way to bring yourself so thoroughly to my notice. Now vithrik forbids that I should leave the rest of the base prey to your ineptness."

    Her ears sagged. "You cannot mean this! You have not even asked for my qualifications."

    "Beyond being an idiot in need of reeducation?" He snorted. "I am doing this facility a kindness. With you at the gate, humans will overrun us in no time!"

    She looked as though she would continue protesting, then lowered her head and subsided. He let his body settle into the lines of gruff-approval. This one would not require as much training as the dull-witted Tully. And Yaut had sensed some potential in her, beneath the coarse exterior.

    "Precede me," he said as the gate slid open.



    The artillery was much more impressive than Aille had anticipated. Kinetic missile weapons were normally the most primitive of tech. Nath showed him row after row waiting out on the refit floor, pieces with bafflingly intricate designations: "howitzer" was the only one he remembered. For creatures who had been formed by haphazard evolution, rather than by the deliberate craft of a more advanced species, humans had certainly invested a great deal of ingenuity on their weaponry.

    That, along with their vast population, had been a potent factor in their able defense of Terra. Humans reproduced at an amazing rate. They had, in fact, overbred this world, forcing many of their fellows to extend their habitat into marginally habitable areas. In a few hundred more orbital cycles, they might well have poisoned their environment irrevocably. It was actually fortunate for them, as Nath had remarked earlier, that the Jao had arrived when they did. This species needed a firm hand in curbing its excesses.

    A certain percentage of the artillery had already been refitted as Jao lasers. Aille wondered if these workers felt as strongly about Terran tech as had those converting the tanks.

    Ears down, he turned to Nath. "Summon the human called Rafe Aguilera to my office to wait for my return."

    Her stance altered to the rigid bow of reluctant-aquiescence. "If you have changed your mind and wish him punished, I can see to it immediately and save you the bother."

    "For disagreeing with policy?" Aille's whiskers twitched as he glanced out over industrious humans busily removing barrels and electronics from their defeated artillery. Several, who had been surreptitiously watching the two of them, hastily ducked down and reapplied themselves to their jobs. "If that has become a crime, then are we not all guilty of it from time to time? Shall we punish ourselves at the first hint of divergent thought?"

    Her body was difficult to read. Aille thought she was both uncertain and... trying to conceal something.

    "Whatever you wish, Subcommandant," she said.

    "Forget I am Pluthrak, for the moment." He saw blatant, unalloyed incredulity overtake her. "I am Jao first, and Jao want only what is best for the coming battles. If we keep an open mind when these Terrans have ideas, we might gain an edge. As far as we know, the Ekhat have no Terrans under their control."

    "They have more than a thousand other races, including some isolated pockets of Jao," Nath pointed out. "I find it hard to believe Terrans could change the balance in our favor."

    His gaze turned inward. He saw again the visual records of the Terran Conquest, the casualty lists longer than any in Jao history except when battling the Ekhat themselves. "They fought long past the point of reason," he said softly. "When you examine the history of our engagements, these creatures were cunning, utterly undaunted. They sacrificed their own people, their own lands, to gain the least advantage. It took so much more to make them surrender than we had ever anticipated. We can use those same qualities to our advantage, if we are wise enough to understand them."

    "All that may just indicate how foolish they were. So says Governor Oppuk. I have heard him point out myself that those inhabiting this political moiety lost huge amounts of breeding stock and arable land through their stubborn resistance. A more intelligent race, he says, would have understood they were defeated long before and preserved what still remained to them."

    Aille found the way she worded her statements revealing. Now he knew what she was trying to conceal. She had faithfully reported the Governor's words, without actually stating she agreed with them.

    For someone in her position, caution was not surprising. But Aille was Pluthrak. He would not offend Narvo unnecessarily, but he had no fear of them either.

    "I think he is wrong," he said bluntly. "With planning, we can turn these same Terrans into a great asset—but only if we accept that a weapon must be used according to its own nature. Trying to hammer with a spear is simply stupid."

    Her whiskers twitched and she lowered her voice, moving in closer so only he could hear. "You are Pluthrak, so you can afford to take chances, but the rest of us cannot. Do not get sentimental about these humans. They did indeed fight very well, and, to be frank, I think Aguilera is right in his dispute with Vamre. But they do not think the way we do, and you cannot depend upon them. They have much courage and intelligence, but no honor."

    He fell silent, realizing it was unseemly to argue with her larger acquaintance and experience with this world. But he'd viewed the records over and over until he knew them like the markings of his own face. The histories of the invasion told a different tale, to him. A tale of a species whose sense of honor was very different from Jao, but there nonetheless. That, he was sure—not capriciousness and perversity—was what explained their behavior.

    He considered Nath closely for a moment. She had taken a considerable risk, speaking so frankly to him on such short acquaintance. There was that to admire about her, along with much else. And, certainly, it would be pleasant to have her in close proximity. Her vai camiti was truly quite splendid.

    "I will take your viewpoint under advisement," he said finally. "It may be I am in error, and I will want your counsel. As for the other, I am taking you into my service. You need no longer be wary of such as Vamre." He thought it would be needlessly undiplomatic to add the rest: or even Narvo.

    For a moment, Nath's composure was lost in a childish stance of open-surprise. But she recovered quickly, and assumed delight combined with a hasty determination-to-serve-well. "You do me great honor. What duties will you require of me?"

    "For the foreseeable future, simply continue with what you are doing. Of course, now you will be able to oversee the work without interference from such as Vamre. Immediately, I wish to speak to the Rafe Aguilera person, to probe his logic."

    "As you wish," she said, and then led him down the gleaming rows of Terran weapons.



    Yaut stopped at a corner and gazed down the various streets. "I wish to speak to veterans of the Terran Conquest," he said. "Advise me where they might be found." He purposely avoided using the guard's name since he had no intention of acknowledging her for some time yet. In order to be of use to the Subcommandant, she needed first to learn humility.

    The female hesitated, her shoulders slumped in downhearted-indecision. "There is a Binnat Association Hall around the bend," she said finally. "It was built some time ago, so a number of the older ones congregate there."

    "Lead me," he said gruffly, then followed her, turning heartward twice, then windward, coming at last to a Jao structure of dark-blue laced with gold that gleamed beneath the relentless sun.

    "It was constructed for all the associated kochan and taifs of Binnat," she said. "So many have been assigned on this world that the kochan provided funds for this to be poured over fifteen orbital cycles ago."

    It was a sturdy building, the material well crafted, though a bit showy, useful in allowing planetside Jao to maintain their kochan associations far away from home. He approved. Pluthrak had done the same for its own on a number of worlds.

    There was no doorfield in use. "Wait," he said, then stepped inside. The interior of the single large room was dim, the lights recessed into its sinuous walls mellow in contrast with the local star's brash radiation.

    A few individuals lolled on heaped dehabia, traditional soft thick blankets that, by the look of them, must have been imported all the way from some kochan's homebase. None of the loungers looked up at his entrance, though he could feel the shift of their attention like a quaver in the air. The subtle woody scent of tak threaded through the room, reminding him incongruously of childhood and long-ago companions. His kochan-house, Jithra, had smelled like this, but only at special times in the orbital cycle, when social observations were to be kept. Had he happened onto one such locally?

    A small pool occupied the far end of the room and several Jao were swimming. A broad-chested male suddenly loomed before him, his dark eyes gleaming, his whiskers stiff. No less than seven service bars had been incised into his cheek. "This is the Binnat kochan-house," he said, his body prickly with perceived-infraction. "I have not seen your likeness on the recorded roles."

    "And you will not," Yaut said, assuming the rather aggressive posture of rightful-inquiry. "I make myself of use as fraghta to the new Subcommandant, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak, who wishes to consult with veterans of the local conquest that he might have the benefit of their hard-won wisdom."

    "Pluthrak? Here?" The male's face contorted. "Since when?"

    "Last-sun," Yaut said patiently. "Have you any veterans available?"

    A doorfield dissolved at the opposite end of the large room, admitting a female, along with a veritable haze of tak, so rich it brought visions of ceremonial food and clothing to mind. He blinked hard, remembering...

    The walls at Jithra had been done in dark-blue and silver, the floors in gold. He and his agemates had hunted in the sea for tasty mirrat, small finned swimmers which only migrated through the area at that time of the orbital cycle. He could still taste their salty freshness.

    But there was something odd here, as well. A strange noise of some sort, coming from the chamber from which the female had emerged. A series of noises, rather, strung together in a complex and oddly mesmerizing fashion. It was an alien sound.

    "Ammet," the male said. "The new Subcommandant is Pluthrak!"

    She sauntered forward, disbelief written in the lines of her massive neck and shoulders. One of her ears was damaged and drooped toward her cheek. "Not here," she said. "Pluthrak would never—"

    She cut off her words, as if with a blade. Obviously enough, she had suddenly seen the chasm of great kochan rivalry gaping wide before her. Binnat was an respected kochan, to be sure, but too small and weakly-associated to want to be caught between Narvo and Pluthrak.

    All these Binnat were off-duty, of course, and this was meant as a place of repose, but Yaut sensed a vein of something deeper at work, indolence and disregard, even discontent. Alarm prickled up his back. He had thought the Narvo Governor's discipline sadly lacking, but this went beyond simple lack of discipline.

    "I seek veterans," he said sternly, "to be interviewed this late-sun."

    "We two could go." The male glanced around. "Do you require more than that?"

    "Two will suffice for now, though the Subcommandant may ask for more later," Yaut said and turned to go. "Present yourselves at the Refit Facility." He would let Aille handle their attitude and see how the youngster acquitted himself. It would make for an interesting learning experience at the very least.

    Still puzzled by the sound, he glanced through the still-open door to the chamber. From the new angle, he could peer within. To his astonishment, he saw a human working at some sort of large machine, while several Jao sat nearby watching the creature. A moment later, he realized that the machine was producing the noise.

    His surprise was great enough to override politeness. "What is that? And I thought humans were not allowed here."

    The two veterans glanced back. When their eyes returned to Yaut, he saw that their postures were a sloppy rendition of uneasy-defiance.

    "It is called a 'piano,'" the female named Ammet said.

    "What he is doing is called 'music,'" added the male veteran. Now, the defiance in his posture shaded toward something close to outright-challenge. "We like it."



    It was not until he'd emerged from the association hall that Yaut realized neither of them had explained the violation of rules regarding the presence of the human. But he was not surprised. It was indeed as Aille had told him the kochanata experts had foreseen. Narvo was losing its grip on this world. Everything was askew. An official posture of Jao supremacy—in the familiar unrelenting Narvo manner—combined with discordant admixtures everywhere. Threads unraveling instead of coming together.

    Yaut had never seen anything like it, on any conquered planet he had visited or served upon. This was not association. This was madness, growing.

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