The Course of Empireby Eric Flint, K.D. Wentworth, James Baen (Editor)
Conquered by the Jao twenty years ago, the Earth is shackled under alien tyranny - and threatened by the even more dangerous Ekhat, who are sending a genocidal extermination fleet to the solar system. Humanity's only chance rests with an unusual pair of allies: a young Jao prince, newly arrived to Terra to assume his duties, and a young human woman brought up amongst the Jao occupiers.
But both are under pressure from the opposing forces - a cruel Jao viceroy on one side, determined to drown all opposition in blood: a reckless human resistance on the other, perfectly prepared to shed it. Added to the mix is the fact that only by adopting some portions of human technology and using human sepoy troops can the haughty Jao hope to defeat the oncoming Ekhat attack - and then only by fighting the battle within the Sun itself.
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The Course of Empire
By Eric Flint K.D. Wentworth
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-7154-7
Chapter OneAille krinnu ava Pluthrak found Terra a world of unharmonious contrasts. His ears, set low and back on his skull, swiveled to take in the nearby murmur of the sea, along with the unnerving screeches of an avian lifeform native to his new posting.
Windward, water of a startling blue lapped at a pale expanse of sand, while, heartward, unbridled green plant growth vied with the graceless piles of stone and glass that guarded the periphery of the great Jao military base. In front of one building, several rectangles of red and gold fabric had been secured to the top of a pole. Even from here, he could hear the cloth snapping in the breeze. Bizarre, but he supposed they must serve some purpose.
The compact, elegant ship behind him radiated heat from its descent through the atmosphere, its engines ticking as they cooled. His favorite kochan-mother, Trit, had thought the vessel too showy for one as newly emerged as Aille. But Meku, the current kochanau, had said Pluthrak must maintain its status for all to see. The more so since the Governor of Terra was Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo-a scion of Narvo kochan, with whom Pluthrak kochan's relations were very strained.
Exhilarated at finally having the opportunity to be of use, Aille attenuated his perception of the moment's flow in order to better take in his new surroundings. The wind-tossed waves slowed to languid, enticing swells and reminded him that he'd had no opportunity to swim since leaving Marit An. His ship was equipped with adequate sanitary facilities, but not the luxury of an actual pool. After the long trip, his skin felt desiccated, his nap stiff, and his whiskers reduced to lifeless strings. He longed to immerse himself in this new sea, despite its alien scent, and sluice the accumulated dregs of travel away.
First, however, he must officially accept his new command. Later, when the flow of arrival was complete, he would indulge himself.
The yellow sun of this solar system beat down, brighter than Nir, his homeworld's star, which was farther along in the main sequence. He gazed out past the base's buildings, whiskers quivering. The land before him was so unrelentingly-flat.
He thought wistfully of the cliffs back at his kochan-house. There, the tide pounded against massive black rocks both early and late, and the breeze was always filled with the refreshing cool tang of spray. Here, the sultry air was thick with indigenous salts and more than a hint of decay. Well, his time on Marit An had completed itself. It was the duty of all Jao scions to cast themselves into time's river in the ongoing struggle against the Ekhat, and that he would do.
The voyage from his birthworld, Marit An, to Terra had been long but fruitful, filled with discourse with his fraghta and study for the responsibilities which awaited him. It was his last opportunity to take advantage of the older Jao's accumulated wisdom before assuming his new post as Subcommandant and he did his best to absorb as much as possible. By the end, he believed he knew the indigenous species as well as anyone could without ever having come nose to nose with one.
Farther away, in the distance, Aille could see several ruined buildings. Those were apparently a legacy of the Jao conquest over twenty orbital cycles ago. He had detected more signs of unamended damage as he'd swept in for landing: fractured, overgrown roads, cast-off machinery, abandoned dwellings now inundated by wilderness. By all reports, this political moiety had resisted long after the rest of this stubborn world and therefore had suffered proportionally greater damage.
They were an odd breed, these "humans," frustrating in their reluctance to be civilized and unique in many respects from any other species ever conquered by the Jao. Recorded reports detailed their long resistance to Jao rule and it seemed they were not completely subdued even now, so many orbital cycles later. Pockets of discontent and unrest apparently still persisted across the globe.
It would take a few solar cycles for his timesense to synchronize with local circadian rhythms, but for now Aille allowed normal flow to reassert itself. Then he drew in a deep breath as his stolid fraghta, Yaut krinnu Jithra vau Pluthrak, emerged from the ship. The older Jao's vai camiti, or facial pattern, was plain yet pleasing, strong and highly visible, unmistakably Jithra to anyone experienced at reading faces. Yaut hesitated halfway down the ramp and his nostrils flared at the unfamiliar scents.
The Jao, ever practical, used filters to sanitize their atmosphere wherever they constructed their kochan-houses so that unpleasant scents did not intrude. But, according to reports, Terrans rarely concerned themselves with such matters, although they were generally more sensitive than Jao to environmental conditions.
According to his briefings, this particular base was one of the first built after the Jao's initial invasion of this world, and still the largest. Constructed on the site of an already extant shipyard, it had been intended to impress on the local political entity just how pointless resistance was by then. Nevertheless, almost another orbital cycle had been required to effect full control. Several major population centers, including the ones known as "Chicago" and "New Orleans," had been destroyed in the process, allegedly still sore points with the quarrelsome natives after all this time.
Aille locked his hands behind his back, cocked his head at the precise long-practiced angle of measured-anticipation, and waited as a detail of jinau soldiers in crisp dark-blue uniforms emerged from between buildings. They marched across the hard surface, their legs matched in stride, providing his first look at the conquered species outside vids and stills.
They were shorter than most Jao, slender of build where Jao tended to be square and solid. The outlines of bones were clearly visible through their mostly naked skin, wherever they neglected to cover themselves with fabric. Their features were not quite balanced, the eyes too far apart, the faces too flat, giving them a comic exaggerated look. The ears were the most disturbingly alien, little more than stationary rounded flaps on the sides of their heads which never suggested the slightest hint of what they were thinking.
Of course, the most surprising thing he'd learned about this species was that they were timeblind, having to rely on mechanical devices to know when something would happen, or when it was time to act.
He gauged their approach with a critical eye. Their upper garments bore the red jinau slash, signifying Terran troops trained and overseen by the Jao. A single figure in the place of honor at the rear wore a traditional weapons harness and trousers, marking himself as Jao, but even if he had been dressed otherwise, Aille would have known by his height and breadth of shoulder that he must be one of his own kind.
He descended the ramp, Yaut following hastily at his heels. "This is a first meeting," the fraghta said in a low voice. "Firsts are always crucial. You must begin as you mean to go on."
Yaut was ugly, his facial pattern marred with scars earned over a lifetime of combat on assorted worlds, and proud of his hard-won skepticism. A head shorter than Aille, he had to lengthen his stride to keep up. "Let me precede you, as is proper, or they will think you have no status!"
"Humans do not reason like that," Aille said without slowing. "According to the records, they do not deem it honorable to be always last. The psych studies indicate they are actually intrigued by novelty. They like to be first."
"Only because they are reckless." Yaut's whiskers twitched in disapproval. "Since they breed like vermin, they can afford to expose themselves. If one falls, twenty more will take its place."
Aille let the remark pass, as none of the natives were close. By all reports Terrans were very sensitive about the matter of "face," as several Jao studies termed it. Had they overheard Yaut's caustic comment, it would have been a most inauspicious beginning.
From what Aille had seen so far, the older Jao, assigned by Aille's kochan upon the recent completion of his qualifying studies, was consistently and unrelentingly skeptical of Terra's worth. There was a definite possibility the current Pluthrak kochanau had even selected Yaut for that very trait, hoping to inculcate prudence in a scion more than one of his kochan-parents considered to be somewhat rash and impulsive.
But whatever else might be said of this rogue world, its inhabitants had held off the Jao for an astonishingly long time. The conquest of Terra had proven far more difficult than any other the Jao had undertaken, except when they directly confronted the Ekhat themselves. Some of that was simply due to Terra's enormous population. With their profligate breeding habits, humans on this one planet alone probably had almost a fourth of the entire population of the Jao, who were scattered across hundreds of star systems. Terra's human population, even after the massive casualties they suffered during the conquest, simply dwarfed that of any other species ever conquered by the Jao.
But that was not the only explanation, nor even the principal one. Human technology was also far above anything ever encountered among the many other races the Jao had conquered. Reading what was hinted at but not stated directly in the reports, Aille suspected, in many respects, human technology was more advanced than that of the Jao. The conquered species seemed to possess an intrinsic cleverness which, if properly harnessed, might be wielded effectively against the Ekhat.
And that would bring status to all.
The leader halted at the foot of the ramp and waited for Aille's acknowledgment. The pale-gold nap of his cheek bore a single incised bar and he had the characteristically skimpy vai camiti banding of Krumat, a provincial kochan much inferior in status to his own Pluthrak.
The Terrans lined themselves up behind him like bombs in a crate. Patterns, Aille thought, with a dismissive twitch of his nose. This species was said to be obsessed with sharp corners and meticulous spacing, seeking to impose artificial order everywhere possible.
He met the Krumat's flickering green-black eyes. "Subcommandant Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak," he said, speaking first, as was his right, and giving his own identifying designations. He extended his hand, showing the bau given him by his kochan at his departure. The bau was a short, somewhat stubby rod. Most kochan made their bau from various woods, but Pluthrak used the shell of one of Marit An's sea-beasts. The material, with its glossy near-white color, was almost as much a symbol of Pluthrak as the traditional carvings on it.
There were not many carvings, and those simply generic to the kochan, indicating that the scion who carried the bau was young and inexperienced. But it mattered little. It was a Pluthrak bau, and it showed that the great kochan had bestowed its blessing on the scion who carried it: here is one fit to command.
The officer inhaled sharply as though someone had struck him, though at the last he managed to turn the sound into a muffled cough. Aille was more or less accustomed to such reactions. Pluthrak status had that effect on many.
"Vaish," the officer said. The traditional greeting of inferior to superior signified recognition of background and ties, far more than their disparity in military rank. His voice sounded somewhat strained. "I was told to expect a new Subcommandant, to command the jinau troops, but not that so illustrious a scion had been appointed."
"Your designation?" Aille asked, his tone casual.
The other flinched, most likely not prepared to be recognized at this point on such an intimate level. It was an honor to be known by one's superiors and not always accorded. "Pleniary-Adjunct Mrat krinnu nao Krumat, at your disposal." His posture indicated respectful-attention as they took one another's measure, but just for an instant the Jao's eyes shimmered a bright glimmering green, a sign of unease.
Aille was not surprised at the unease; indeed, he'd been expecting it. Terra had been Narvo territory since the conquest, and normally the great kochan moved delicately around each other. For Pluthrak to send one of its scions to Terra in order to assume a major post was a subtle statement that it no longer considered Narvo's influence on the planet untouchable. Needless to say, the prospect of being caught in the middle between the two greatest of Jao kochan was going to make those who belonged to small and poorly affiliated ones more than a bit nervous.
But Mrat recovered his poise quickly. He stepped aside, his body retaining the lines and angles of respectful-attention. "I turn command of these jinau troops over as the foundation of your personal guard. May you enlighten them many times over."
Aille studied the naked Terran faces. Without whiskers to give them expression, or velvety nap to cover the skin, or even facial banding to indicate their background, they seemed curiously immature, like Jao juveniles before their vai camiti came through. He walked closer, a nonchalant slant to his ears, tapping his new bau against his palm.
"I understood my command was to be of mixed troops, Pleniary-Adjunct. By all appearances, these are native to the last individual."
Mrat glanced up and his eyes flashed bright-green again before he returned his gaze to the sunstruck pavement. "True integration has proven difficult, Subcommandant. Units composed of both species tend to be-" His ears wavered and Aille caught a hint of shameful-failure. "-unstable."
"I saw none of this in the reports."
The Krumat stiffened while Yaut adopted the aspect of indifferent-waiting, his deceptively casual ears drinking in every phoneme. "Commandant Kaul krinnu ava Dano deems such mention unnecessary. He believes..."
The officer's golden face creased in concentration as he searched for a properly prudent explanation. "He believes that younger and less experienced officers, such as myself, have exaggerated the problem." The Krumat's eyes wandered to the restless, untidy sea as white-capped breakers rolled in and deposited slimy green streamers of vegetation in their wake upon the sand. His ears were canted bleakly. "I am quite sure he is correct and I therefore wish to make restitution for my error. Shall you require my life?"
"No!" Aille responded instantly, very startled. His pulse raced as he fought to contain his surprise and maintain his calm posture. Flow threatened to slip from his grasp so that time raced past.
Excerpted from The Course of Empire by Eric Flint K.D. Wentworth Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Eric Flint, as Publishers Weekly put it in a starred review of his 1632 (Baen), is "an SF author of particular note, one who can entertain and edify in equal, and major, measure." With David Drake he has collaborated on five novels in the popular Belisarius series, and with David Weber, he has written 1633, a sequel to 1632, and Crown of Slaves, an offshoot of the best-selling Honor Harrington series. His first novel, Mother of Demons, was picked by Science Fiction Chronicle as a best novel of the year. A longtime labor union activist with a Master's Degree in history, he currently resides in Indiana with his wife Lucille.
K. D. Wentworth is author of seven novels, including Black on Black and Stars Over Stars for Baen, and more than fifty short stories, appearing in such magazines as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and others. She is a winner in the Writers of the Future contest, and has been a Nebula Award finalist twice. Her latest novel is This Fair Land (Hawk), an alternate history fantasy of the era of Columbus. She attributes her success to having a very large dog and a wonderful husband, not necessarily in that order, and lives with both in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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Two decades have passed since the Jao conquered the Earth, but the victors still debate what to do with the defeated humans. Many Jao believe extermination by total destruction of the planet is the final solution. Some like newly arrived Commander Aille believes winning the hearts of the humans is the best long term solution. Before the Jao can resolve the human problem, they have to contend with the deadly Ekhat, who plan to commit solar system genocidal eradicating human and Jao without a second thought. The Ekhat turned the Jao into sentient beings, but expected loyal servitude bonds instead of ungrateful rebellion. For Human and Jao to vanquish the Ekhat they must forge more than an alliance. They need a consensus that is much greater than a simple summing of the parts. Only leaders like Aille and the human Stockwells have the foresight to see what must be done, but each race has xenophobics sitting in key positions. This futuristic tale works on several levels as readers will believe that the Jao and Ekhat exist as well as the conquering of the planet has occurred. The action is fast and furious so that this work will appeal to military science fiction buffs. However, the strength of the tale resides in the social, anthropologic, technological, and political make-up of the Jao and the Humans. Readers will observe the difficulty of blending the best of the conquered and the conqueror into a seamless oneness that might prove capable of surviving the Ekhat. Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth provide a triumphant story that is as much cerebral as it is action-packed. Harriet Klausner