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The Course of Empire: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:02 EDT



    "I just found out the new Subcommandant's clan is very highly ranked," Professor Kinsey told Caitlin Stockwell, the moment he came into her study cubicle. "Pluthrak, no less! Do you think he would grant me an interview for my book?"

    Startled, she looked up from the computer terminal where she sat surrounded by piles of musty books she'd carted over from the library. Prof. Kinsey was a perpetually rumpled man of middle height with a broad brow, his skin color coffee-and-cream, his silver hair tightly curled.

    Caitlin had been attending the University of New Chicago in central Michigan for almost five years now. Having gotten a bachelor's degree the previous winter, she was currently working toward her doctorate in history and serving as a research assistant for her graduate adviser, Dr. Jonathan Kinsey.

    Kinsey was a specialist in American history, but two years ago he'd gotten it into his head to do a book on the history of the Jao. He'd even managed, somehow, to secure permission from Earth's Governor, along with a vague promise of cooperation. Caitlin suspected the authorization originated more from inattention and misunderstanding than actual approval, since Jao seemed to lack the cultural concept of "history" as humans understood the term. Not that they didn't have a sense of their own past—quite a keen one, in fact—but it seemed to have more in common with clan oral traditions than a modern human concept of history as a specialized intellectual craft. As a rule, Governor Oppuk, even more than most Jao, gave short shrift to what he considered frivolous human intellectual pursuits.

    She'd grown very fond of Kinsey in the months since she'd met him. But, not for the first time, Caitlin found herself wishing that the man's impressive scholarly acumen was not accompanied by all the other stereotypical features of an absent-minded professor.

    "I really don't advise it," she said, as forcefully as she could while keeping her voice low. Caitlin's Jao guard, Banle, was lurking in the corridor just outside the cubicle.

    "Are you sure?" he persisted. "Your knowledge of Jao customs is far better than mine—I'll be the first to admit—but... the opportunity! He's Pluthrak, Caitlin. Probably the most prestigious kochan there is, among the Jao."

    Caitlin glanced at the door, wishing that Kinsey's voice was as low as his common sense. Unfortunately, Banle was fluent in English—and her full name was Banle krinnu nao Narvo.

    "Perhaps." Then, almost hissing: "Except—quite possibly, Professor Kinsey—for Narvo."

    That finally jolted Kinsey. Caitlin saw him glance nervously at the door himself. Her terse comment had reminded him that Narvo, the kochan which had overseen the conquest and been given Terra to rule, was Pluthrak's long-standing and most bitter rival in the complex world of Jao politics. And that Narvo considered itself to be every bit the equal of fabled Pluthrak.

    So it seemed, at least, insofar as humans had been able to figure out how the Jao managed their internal affairs. The human term "politics" was only a rough approximation of the way the Jao looked at the matter. Kinsey had told her once—in private, of course, when Banle wasn't around to overhear—that for all their technological mastery, what he could see of Jao society reminded him more of ancient human barbarian tribes than civilized societies. The complex and convoluted interactions between their clans—what they called "kochan"—carried as much if not more weight than what modern humans would consider politics.

    There were times that Caitlin herself thought Jao notions had more in common with her now-dead grandmother's amused descriptions of the clan bickerings and dickerings of her family's back country Appalachian ancestors than they did with anything modern humans generally meant by the term "government."

    Your great-great-uncle swiped one of our pigs but I'll let it pass on account of your great-great-aunt married my great-grandfather's second cousin and seeing as how their third oldest son helped my great-grandfather put up the fence on what used to be great-grandpa's uncle's land until the uncle's wife died and he married the Widder Jones and after he died that no-account daughter of the Widder's by her first husband Tom Hobbs got it. So I'll give you a fair price on this moonshine, seeing as how you ain't properly responsible for the fact that them Hobbs is all a bunch of no-account...

    The stories had amused Caitlin, as a little girl. Now, at the age of twenty-four, the amusement had faded. Like some of her mountain-country ancestors, the Jao could be instantly murderous. And from what Caitlin could tell, the longstanding rivalry between the great Pluthrak and Narvo kochan was equivalent to a Hatfield-McCoy feud about to erupt—on an interstellar scale, with humans likely to be caught in the crossfire.

    What made the situation all the worse was that, for reasons Caitlin couldn't begin to fathom, the Narvo had chosen to put one of their most savage scions in charge of ruling Terra. The Governor of Terra was Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo. Even by Jao standards, Oppuk was given to brutal methods; and, quite unlike most Jao, was also given to sudden and frightening rages. Caitlin was not sure Oppuk was entirely sane, although it was not easy to determine that with an alien species. But, sane or not, having him in charge of Terra was like being under the control of Devil Anse Hatfield.

    The huge figure of Banle loomed in the doorway. It was time to end this discussion. She bit her lip, trying to think how to phrase it diplomatically.

    Caitlin had been largely raised among the Jao and, unlike most humans, knew how to interpret formal Jao postures. Banle's stance, no doubt casual to uneducated human eyes, actually communicated promise-of-threat at the moment. Caitlin knew any blatant disrespect on her part would come at a price. She still had a small scar on her shoulder to prove that, not to mention the memory of more than one set of bruises.

    "It's better not to seek the notice of power," she said. "If the Subcommandant wishes to meet you, an invitation will come. Otherwise, you should not trouble him."

    And if you're lucky, it will never happen, she thought. She wished most fervently herself never to meet this new Subcommandant. Caitlin's life was enough of a tightrope-walking act as it was, without getting herself involved in Jao clan feuds.

    Fortunately, Banle seemed satisfied. Even more fortunately, Professor Kinsey had a rare moment of common sense and, muttering a polite phrase, left the cubicle. Within a minute, Caitlin was able to go back to her work. Suppressing a sigh of relief, since Banle was also adept at deciphering human expressions—and doing her best to execute a posture of concentration-on-immediate-task.

    The posture was well done, she thought, even with the handicap of being seated. It ought to be. From a very early age, Caitlin had applied herself to learning the complex Jao system of body language. As the years passed, she did so partly from growing interest. But she'd begun the work, with a discipline unusual in a young girl, for simple reasons of survival. Much as an infant, finding herself being raised among wolves, might learn how to bay at the moon.



    Caitlin stopped by the New Chicago University student union for a break, after working on Dr. Kinsey's files all morning. Reluctantly, because it was the only space available in the crowded cafeteria, she took a seat at a table occupied by Miranda Silvey and several of her friends. She normally avoided that little circle, because she considered them all nitwits, at best.

    Not to her surprise, she discovered they were all speculating about the new Jao officer, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak.

    "They say he's just like a Jao prince!" Miranda Silvey said. She was a tall, golden-haired girl with the healthy good looks of one who had never gone hungry. "That's why he's starting out at the top, instead of coming up through the ranks. I wonder if they'll have a reception for him." She turned to Caitlin, who had slid into the orange plastic seat next to her in the busy dining hall. Silverware clinked and the smell of today's special, spaghetti, filled the air. "You're a bigwig, Caitlin. Will you get an invitation, if they do?"

    Caitlin dumped her knapsack on the floor, then squeezed a slice of lemon into the cup of tea she'd carried with the other hand. Her Jao guard, Banle, lingered a few feet away, having taken up position in front of a brick pillar.

    "My father doesn't send me to official functions," she said in a low voice, though Banle had ears like a fox and no doubt heard everything. "He keeps his political and family life separate as much as possible." She glanced back at Banle whose angled body was communicating suspicion. "Can we talk about something else?"

    "But your parents are close to Governor Narvo, aren't they?" Miranda persisted, picking up her fork. "I bet you get to meet him all the time."

    "Jao do not 'get close' to humans," Caitlin said. "I'm not sure they have friends, the way you mean it, even among their own kind." She was irritated enough to add, a bit pedantically: "Besides, it's not 'Governor Narvo.' Narvo is his clan designation, not his surname. It's either Governor Oppuk or the Narvo Governor. One or the other, but not both."

    "Well, I'd love to meet the Subcommandant." Tracey Guin's round face grinned. "They say he's really young and dashing. And—"

    Caitlin blocked out the rest of the chatter and concentrated on eating her meal, trying to control her temper.


    Worse than that, really. One of the many negative side-effects of the Jao conquest had been a sharp differentiation between human nations, and, within each nation, its various classes. Those nations which had resisted the Jao conquest militarily—the United States being foremost among them, because it had had by far the most powerful military—had been subjected to ferocious direct rule thereafter. Those which had surrendered quickly, like Japan and most of Europe except for England and France, had been allowed far more in the way of local autonomy.

    The same, within each nation. Those people who collaborated quickly and readily were granted more privileges. In a war-devastated area like North America, which still hadn't recovered from the destruction of the conquest, that could mean the difference between eating well—and enjoying a higher education—or just barely scraping by.

    Miranda and her friends were the inevitable byproducts, some twenty years later. A group of college students who'd been born and raised since the Jao conquest, and had the screwiest ideas about the universe and their true place in it.



    She gave Miranda, still prattling cheerfully about the "Jao prince," a sidelong glance. The girl had no idea what a Jao really was. First and foremost, the Jao were conquerors. They used humans, and the resources of Terra, entirely for their own purposes. Whatever Miranda's delusions were, the fact was that the Jao neither required nor wanted anything emotional from humans. Not affection, not friendship—and certainly not a bunch of silly college girls mooning over them!

    Fortunately for Miranda, and all the brainless twits like her, the Jao were not interested in the sexual favors of human females. So they were ignored completely, instead of becoming the concubines of their conquerors.

    Too bad, really, Caitlin thought savagely. She would have been delighted if someone like Miranda or Tracey could assume her hostage duties even for a few days. She could use a break from the constant surveillance and they needed their eyes opened.

    Why they couldn't just travel to the Chicago or New Orleans craters and get educated that way, she didn't know. The thought of all that devastation sobered her every time. The Jao had destroyed Chicago and New Orleans during the conquest without even having the excuse of retaliating against human use of nuclear weapons. Caitlin knew from her father, who'd then been the Vice-President of the United States, that the US government had considered the use of nuclear weapons and finally decided against it.

    The Jao invasion had come as a complete surprise to everyone, since Jao technology enabled them to circumvent Terra's electronic early warning systems. They'd struck hardest in North America. Clearly, they'd already been able to determine that continent contained the most powerful human military forces. Their troop landings had taken place in several areas in North America, and rapidly expanded outward from there. By the time the US government could react—which had taken days, since the Jao had used their advanced technology to suppress or at least disrupt human electronic communication—Jao troops were too closely mixed up with human armies and civilian populations for the use of nuclear weapons to be a viable option. Not unless the US government was prepared to kill tens of millions of its own citizens in the process, and radioactively contaminate most of the continent.

    They hadn't been. But, in the end—for Chicago and New Orleans, at least—it hadn't mattered. The American armed forces had put up their most ferocious fighting to defend those two cities. After days, even though they were killing ten human soldiers for every one they lost, the Jao casualties had mounted significantly and they hadn't made much headway. So, they lost patience.

    Not even that, really. "Patience," like every other human characteristic, was something that could only be fitted onto Jao psychology in a loose way. It might be better to say that the ever-practical Jao simply decided they could afford to lose the resources of those areas in order to end the thing. And, given their technology and control of space, they hadn't had to worry about radioactive contamination. Two chunks of rock taken from the asteroid belt and accelerated to 50,000 miles-per-hour had done just fine, thank you.

    And the fact that, in so doing, they'd butchered millions of people hadn't bothered them in the least. Nor did it still, twenty years later, so far as Caitlin could tell.

    She finished her meal, and decided the rest of the tea wasn't worth listening to the imbecilic chatter around her. Caitlin snatched up her knapsack, scraped back the chair, and headed for the door. Booted steps across the tile told her that Banle wasn't far behind. But then, Caitlin thought resignedly as she pushed open the outer doors, she never was.

    The Jao "bodyguard" accompanied her everywhere, night and day. Banle krinnu nao Narvo had been her constant companion since she was four years old. Banle had been given that assignment shortly after the Jao had dragged her father, Benjamin Stockwell, out of hiding. He'd been the highest-ranked surviving member of the US government and they'd appointed him head of their North American regional government—which now included both Canada and Mexico, since the Jao were unconcerned over the nuances of human national relations.

    Caitlin's father had not tried to resist, once captured, despite his reluctance to take on the task. He'd hoped he might be able to use the position to alleviate conditions for the human population of America. And, whether he could or not, by then he'd learned that the Jao had a very short way with protests. His choice had been simple: obey or be "put down."

    Caitlin had learned as much herself, and done so at a very early age. In truth, Banle krinnu nao Narvo was as much Caitlin's jailer as guard—and, someday, might very well be her executioner. Caitlin was a lifelong hostage to her father's cooperation. As long as he did what Earth's conquerors wanted, rubber-stamped their decisions, put a familiar and trusted face on the puppet human government of North America, she would be safe. The moment he or she got out of line, she would pay the price.

    She'd had two older brothers, both dead now. Her oldest brother had died fighting the Jao in the initial invasion, the other at Governor Oppuk's hands some years later. Caitlin was well aware the enigmatic Banle would have no trouble breaking her charge's neck, should she ever think it necessary or be given orders to do so. She, and her parents, had exactly what few freedoms the Jao permitted them, and those only as long as they served well.

    That was why, when she heard tales of a highly ranked new Jao officer arriving on Earth, she was intrigued but not in the least bit interested in making his acquaintance. Many of the pampered students at the university were Jao-crazy. They pursued all things Jao either from simple mimicry of their rulers, or in the vain belief it would someday procure them privilege. Many of them painted their faces in imitation of Jao vai camiti, and a few had even gone so far as to make the grotesque decorations permanent tattoos.

    For them, no doubt, the arrival of a scion from the legendary Pluthrak kochan was a matter for great excitement. But Caitlin knew one more Jao, however exalted, would make no difference. He was bound to think just like all the others who had come before him. His kind were a single-minded species, intent on molding humans into something useful—as they defined the term "useful." They cared about nothing else; certainly not what humans thought.



    Blessedly, when Caitlin got back to her study cubicle, Banle decided to take one of the naps which the Jao were prone to. Some time ago, Banle had set up a cot in the next room for that purpose.

    They were like cats, that way, more than humans. Instead of sleeping heavily for many hours at a stretch, Jao would simply "catnap" occasionally through the course of the day. The short, light sleeping periods were concentrated during the night-time, as a rule, but so far as Caitlin had ever been able to tell the Jao could nap at any time—and could function as well at night as during the day. In some ways they preferred to function at night, since they found Terra's sunlight rather harsh.

    Not that they looked in the least bit feline, except for the "tigerish" way in which their powerful bodies moved. To a human, a Jao resembled a walking sea-lion more than anything else—and even that resemblance was only a vague one. Their snouts were much shorter and blunter, for one thing, and they had rather massive jaws and chins, which sea-lions lacked completely. Their long and mobile ears were certainly quite unlike those of any terrestrial marine mammal.

    There were some obvious vestigial traits of their marine ancestry—there were still webs between their toes, though not their fingers—and they were superb swimmers. Still, regardless of their origins, they were now clearly land animals, not marine ones. Although their torsos were longer in proportion to their legs than those of humans, their legs were real legs, not awkward semi-flippers. In fact, they could easily outrun humans, in a sprint if not over long distances.

    But the vague resemblance to sea-lions was not one that any human really thought of, any more. To humans, sea-lions and seals—even great walruses—basically looked "cute." And there was nothing at all cute about a Jao. Fearsome, yes; impressive, yes—even, sometimes, "handsome." But never cute.



    Not more than five minutes after Banle left, Dr. Kinsey entered the cubicle again. He gave a quick glance at the door to Banle's room, to assure himself that it was closed, and then spoke in something of a hurried half-whisper.

    "I know you don't think it's a wise idea, Caitlin, but would you please intercede for me if at all possible? It's Pluthrak. We know almost nothing about that kochan, beyond the fact that they enjoy enormous prestige and seem—from what I've been able to tell, anyway—to be famous for their subtlety. Quite unlike Narvo! Which—alas, poor Earth—is famous for its direct effectiveness. If I can use an analogy—yes, yes, I know analogies between humans and Jao are dangerous, but this one seems good to me—the two kochan seem to serve a different function for the Jao. The Pluthrak rapier to the Narvo cutlass, if you will. Or maybe it's the difference between the nobility of the pen and the nobility of the sword."

    Caitlin grimaced. Kinsey responded with a half-smile.

    "Just try, will you? It might be important, Caitlin, leaving aside my professorial manias. If we could ever figure out how to get a little wedge in somewhere..."

    She sighed. "Don't even think it, Professor. Talk about dangerous analogies! A wedge is just a piece of metal, or wood. Humans trying to wedge themselves between Narvo and Pluthrak..."

    She'd brought a cookie back from the cafeteria. She picked it up and applied sudden pressure. The cookie broke into pieces, scattering crumbs across the desk.

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