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The Course of Empire: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Saturday, June 28, 2003 00:26 EDT



    Dr. Kinsey burst into Caitlin's room as soon as she answered his knock with a distracted "Come in." She'd left the doorfield deactivated in any case until Banle returned.

    The professor's lined face was beaming. "You look lovely, my dear! What an elegant dress!"

    She smoothed the skirt of her long gown, newly tailored by one of the best dressmakers in Oklahoma City. The material was woven of what appeared to be almost a molten silver. "It's wasted on the Jao, of course. They don't understand fashion, but the humans in attendance will notice. For my father's sake, I have to uphold the family image."

    He sank into the closest chair. "My first Jao dinner! I suppose it would be impolite to actually take notes."

    Caitlin shook her head, then crossed the room to straighten his old fashioned blue and red tie. Blue and red, jinau colors. Could he have been more obvious? She repressed a sigh.

    "It certainly would. And keep in mind that Jao don't use meals as sit-down social functions, the way humans do. They—well—graze might be the best term for it. They normally eat only one meal a day, and they're quite capable of going several days without food and still functioning at near-peak efficiency. Tonight, food will probably be provided at various stations around the room, a great deal of which will almost certainly not be to human taste. Nibble before accepting a full portion. And don't be shocked if they disrobe without warning. They don't have the same body taboos we do and there will likely be a pool provided for spontaneous swimming."

    "Will I be expected to swim?" He looked both intrigued and alarmed.

    "Heavens, no!" She fought not to laugh in his face. "Jao can hold their breath for a quarter of hour or more. They're practically like seals in the water. Compared to them, even the best human swimmer is just dog-paddling. If you tried to join in, you'd probably drown in the first minute."

    "Oh," he said as she released his tie and stepped back to study the results. "Well, I've got a lot to learn, but that is what I'm here for. I still can't wait to get started!"

    She sighed. "Dr. Kinsey, this so-called 'reception' won't be fun, and they wouldn't like it, if we did find it obviously so. They're not here to provide entertainment for humans. You should be subdued in your conversation, respectful, but not openly pleased about the things you see and hear tonight. They find that kind of enthusiasm irritating, or even offensive."

    "Really?" He smoothed his hair, then dropped his hand. "I'm glad you told me." He hesitated. "Are there any other subjects I should avoid, perhaps religion, for instance?"

    She shook her head, then picked up a small silver earring in the shape of a sand dollar and cocked her head to one side to put it on. "The Jao were deliberately crafted by the Ekhat, Doctor, not evolved through natural selection and accident."

    "I know that," he protested.

    "Then consider the consequences. They know exactly who made them and why, which makes them singularly indifferent to what they term 'superstition.' They have their own quirks, of course. But those all seem bound up with matters of custom and proper conduct, not what we'd consider religion or even ideology in general."

    He made a rueful face. "You should write this book instead of me. You've certainly had more interaction with the Jao than anyone I can name."

    "Of all the people on Earth, it can't come from me," she said. "They watch me all the time. If you put my name anywhere on that book and then they found some error or unacceptable attitude—as, I must warn you, they most likely will—my father would pay the price. Or I would. What they might be willing to let pass as a misunderstanding on your part, they'd see as a deliberate insult coming from me."

    She closed her eyes and reached for calm. "Don't forget what happened to my brother. I am willing to help all I can, as long as you keep my name out of it."

    "Very well," he said. "Perhaps you'll at least get a paper for your graduate studies out of this."

    "Not even that," she said. "I took a degree in history, then continued in that area for my doctorate because Jao can hardly object to or concern themselves with any views I have on what took place before they brought us the, ah, benefit of their rule."

    She glanced at her watch. Seven o'clock, probably time to go, though Jao did not assign meaning to bits of time and hold themselves hostage to them. They understood "now" and "immediately," "soon" and "later," and even "in a little while." Anything beyond that could be interpreted as the individual felt or needed. Their legendary timesense allowed them to feel when to do things in some fashion humans were never going to understand, a sort of internal clock that far out-rivaled her kind's rudimentary sense of time.

    Banle appeared as they exited the room and then fell in behind, another of her on-going subtle insults. Caitlin made small talk with Kinsey, affecting not to notice the snub until they reached the reception.

    "Oh," she said, dropping to one knee. "It's my shoe. Go on and I'll be along in a minute."

    As Banle was already halfway through the door, the Jao could hardly retreat without looking indecisive. Caitlin lingered, adjusting her shoe strap for another few seconds, then followed the two inside. Banle's shoulders were clearly set into angry-frustration. Caitlin turned away, determined not to notice. Kinsey charged into the crowd, glowing face surveying the Jao.

    They might well have been outdoors in some vast park. The floor had been planted in soft green grass with trees in tubs scattered throughout. A huge pool in the shape of a natural lake dominated a room as spacious as an exhibition hall, though there were several others as well. The air was redolent of the sea, but subtly alien.

    Her gaze swept upwards to a startling series of skylights set into the ceiling. Jao eyes were more sensitive than humans' so they normally preferred rooms without extraneous light sources, especially windows. Since the month was August, days were currently long at this latitude and, outside, the summer sun, though slowly setting in the west, was still vigorous even at this hour.

    She saw several Jao clad in ornate halfcapes glance up at the skylights, then move away, ears and whiskers expressing discomfort briefly before they tamed them into more tactful postures. What was Governor Oppuk trying to say with this oddly human display, she wondered.

    Locating his palace here in the center of war-torn North America was a carefully calculated insult—meant to remind Americans that those among Earth's nations who had submitted to the inevitable had survived with their infrastructure intact, and others had not. Twenty years later, most of the destruction had still not been repaired. This glowering palace was Narvo's metaphorical boot-heel in America's face.

    Banle moved off into the crowd, eyeing the luxurious pool in this vast echoing space. The Jao were mad for water, whenever they could indulge themselves. Her guard was no exception, having to make do with the river next to her campus most of the time. Caitlin drifted in the opposite direction, hoping to lose herself in the crowd for at least a short time and so gain some measure of privacy.

    A number of humans were in attendance, though none made any attempt to speak to her as she passed. Several, she noted with distaste, had actually gone so far as to paint false vai camiti across their faces, giving them all the charm of oversized raccoons. She wondered if they realized vai camiti were hereditary patterns that denoted bloodline affiliations. It was possible they were insulting some of the Jao here tonight.

    "Has the young Pluthrak arrived?" she heard one Jao ask another on her right. She hesitated, catching a flash of pale-gold nap and turned her head just enough to get a look at the pair. Most Jao spoke freely around humans, never expecting them to speak enough of their language to comprehend.

    "I have not yet seen him," another replied. "If he were here, I think we would know. It is said he is extremely well marked."

    "All Pluthrak are well marked," the other said dryly. "It is their fortune, as being plain is ours."

    Caitlin edged further around, enough to see the two speakers in question. One was a broad-shouldered female with the tan and green insignia on her cape which denoted assignment in France.

    "Well-marked is one thing, well-spoken quite another," the female said. Her arms and a luxurious set of whiskers performed a rather sketchy version of amused-interest before settling into the more socially neutral posture of polite-reserve. "He is so newly emerged, he is bound to be still dripping, and the young always make the most interesting mistakes. I have no doubt Oppuk will strip him clean of all vithrik and send him diving back into his birth-pool."

    The female's conversational companion was a scarred older male missing much of his nap and wearing no halfcape, which meant he was probably a military commander stationed somewhere on the planet. "Never underestimate Pluthrak," the male said. "They are capable of thinking six different things behind the same posture with never a whisker out of place, not unlike these wily humans. If he is true to his line, he might do very well here."

    Hmmm. When she'd heard about the new officer entering the scene, she'd been so preoccupied with her own personal situation that she hadn't really thought through all the political implications. She still thought Kinsey's reverie of using Pluthrak as a wedge against Narvo was just that—a reverie, and one likely to be dangerous to the dreamer. But she should observe this individual for herself so she could report back to her father. Each new kochan which sent representation to Earth complicated a situation already complex beyond the comprehension of most humans. Competition between Jao factions had never improved humanity's condition so far, but...

    Things could change, maybe. The truth was, she admitted, she knew very little about Pluthrak. No human did, so far as she knew. The most legendary of the Jao kochan, it was also the most mysterious.



    "You're Caitlin Stockwell, aren't you?" a human voice said behind her.

    Startled, she turned to meet the eyes of a human clad in a trim dark-blue jinau uniform, the red stripe across his chest bright as a cardinal. "Yes," she said. "I'm afraid I don't recognize you, Mr.—?"

    "Ed Kralik," he said, holding out his hand. The man was of medium height with a muscular frame. He was somewhere in his early forties, she estimated. His obviously fit and vigorous body made him seem younger, but that was offset by some prematurely graying hair. Quite a handsome man, in fact, in an understated sort of way.

    "Major General Kralik, actually, at your service."

    She recognized the name, now. Kralik was one of the highest-ranked human officers in the jinau forces. There were three major generals, each in command of a division. Her father, if she remembered correctly, thought well of this one.

    "Hardly at my service," she said, allowing him to take her hand in his callused one for only a brief second, then releasing it. She brushed at an imaginary speck on her silver gown. "Not when you're wearing that uniform."

    His salt-and-pepper hair was cut almost as close as the velvety nap on a Jao's skin, so that he seemed more like one of them than not. He straightened his shoulders and one corner of his mouth quirked upward. "Strange comment coming from a member of the First Family."

    "We don't consider ourselves that," she said, feeling her face warm. This was why she usually avoided parties—she never knew what to say to people. Either they wished to cultivate her good opinion because of her political connections, or they ran the other way as soon as they realized she was a notorious collaborator's daughter. The situation with men was even worse, since sexual interest often complicated the situation further.

    She lifted her chin. "Servitude under the Jao was forced upon my father. He never sought it out, and it's certainly no honor."

    She regretted saying it, as soon as the words came out. Kralik was being pleasant, and she had no reason to sneer at him. She realized she was more tense than she'd even thought.

    "And it's supposed to be different for me? Or any of us?" His eyes were gray, like clouds sweeping inland over a stormy sea. But he seemed more relaxed than offended. "We all do what we must, Miss Stockwell, whether we like it or not."

    "Yes," she said, reminding herself to govern her tongue. She had obligations to her father, if nothing else. It would not do to offend the Governor's guests for no purpose beyond relieving her own stress. "Is this your first visit to the palace?"

    "No," he said. "I was here in December, the last time Oppuk needed a tame human for display."

    Her eyebrows arched. "Display?"

    "You know." He didn't smile, exactly. But his lips curved a bit and she caught a glint of steely humor in his eyes. "One that can be expected to converse pleasantly about respect and duty and making oneself of use, who won't pester the other guests or soil the pool, and who'll demonstrate how civilized humans are capable of becoming if only someone will take the time to train them properly."

    The corners of her own mouth curved. "Oh, yes," she said. "I've been on display in that sense a few times myself, though my father tries to keep it to a minimum."

    "I thought perhaps you had."

    She caught the word "Pluthrak" again, this time from a trio of Jao who were shedding their uniforms on the grass as they headed for the room's most elaborate pool. "Do you know the one they're all talking about, this new Pluthrak?"

    "Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak, to use the full name. I don't think he's here yet. They're flying him in from the big military base at Pascagoula, Mississippi. My new boss, as it happens."

    "Have you met him yet?"

    "No," Kralik said, his gray eyes searching the multitude. Voices were growing louder, more boisterous. The pool was becoming more crowded. He stepped closer so he didn't have to raise his voice. "I've been away, recruiting jinau in the Calvada area, down around Stockton, mostly. But I assume meeting him is why I was summoned here tonight." He rocked back on his heels. "And on very short notice, I might add."

    "If he's as bad as Oppuk," she said under her breath, "you won't enjoy the experience."

    "Miss Stockwell, I never enjoy interaction with the Jao. But he won't be as bad as Oppuk, I don't think. Or Commandant Kaul. And I certainly won't miss Pinb, whom he's replacing." He gave her a level look. "The Jao don't intend for us to enjoy their company, so I'm never disappointed when I don't."

    He knew, she thought. This Kralik was canny, and had no illusions about the Jao. They weren't devils, but they didn't reason like humans and they certainly did not have Earth's best interests at heart. So many collaborators had convinced themselves that the Jao would uplift humanity, give them advanced technology and take them to the stars, if only they could behave well enough to deserve it.

    Well, they might eventually make it to the stars, all right, she thought, but most likely as cannon fodder, servants, or mechanics, certainly not as equals.

    Kralik held out his arm. "Would you like to sample some of the 'treats' of the evening, Miss Stockwell?" he said with a twinkle in his gray eyes. "I saw some smoked eel over there and that usually isn't too objectionable."

    Oh, yes, he knew the Jao, she thought, even down to what passed for their cuisine. And it was a relief for once not to be the only human present who wasn't thrilled with the invitation. She accepted his arm. "On one condition," she said. "You have to taste it first!"



    Aille had intended to leave Tully safe under Tamt's watchful eye, but the female never returned from her foray for window coverings. Obviously, they were not as easy to come by as she'd thought. He didn't want to trust Rafe Aguilera here in the Governor's palace with the locator. When all was said and done, the two were both human. Deep down, it just might be too much temptation for Aguilera to resist.

    "Tully will have to go with us," he told Yaut, as he adjusted his halfcape.

    Tully's eyes widened and he jerked to his feet, nostrils flaring with what Aille read as alarm.

    "Unacceptable!" Yaut favored the human with a glare. "All in your service must behave impeccably at the reception. Your early selections reflect upon your ability to form proper associations. It would be bad enough to take any human, but this one?"

    "We cannot leave him here," he said, forcing his ears and shoulders to reflect sober-reason, "so he will have to go. At least, that way you will be able to supervise him properly."

    "If you had let me put him down," Yaut said, "no one would have to supervise him!"

    Tully straightened, tucking his long-fingered hands underneath his arms. Aille had noticed him assuming that posture before, and decided it was Tully's way of expressing contained-distress. Aille thought it must be an individual posture, since he'd never seen it duplicated on another human.

    "I think he will behave," he said, turning to the yellow-haired human. "If he does not, he will have your displeasure to deal with, and he understands that very well, do you not?" He made eye contact with the human.

    Tully looked away almost immediately, his jaw muscles working.

    "The Subcommandant asked you a question!" Yaut raised his hand to strike.

    Aille restrained him gently. "It is a simple question," he said to Tully, straightening the human's jinau uniform, brushing off specks of dust with the absorption of a kochan-father grooming one of his own get. "Will you give me honor in the Jao way, as I am sure you very well know how, or shall I heed Yaut and let him deal with you in his fashion? You must decide. Flow quickens and I must admit I am more than a bit tempted to let Yaut do as he wants. He is my fraghta, after all, and knows better than a humble young officer what is most efficacious in such situations."

    "You're just going to kill me anyway. So why not go ahead and do it now?"

    Again, that tantalizing hint of secrets so important. And, again, that almost Jao-like directness in the face of death. Tully would gladly make himself of use to his species by dying to put his secrets forever out of reach. Impressive, looked at the right way. Aille found himself all the more determined to bend this one to his will and not allow him to escape, even through death.

    "He will come," he said to Yaut. "He will advise me on proper behavior towards the human guests and keep a respectful demeanor at all times, or you will take him outside and rip appendages off his body until he repents. The small ones from the feet, 'toes,' I believe they are called. Then the ears."

    "Good idea," Yaut said, his face crinkling into agreeable-mollification. "Those knobby ears are their ugliest feature."

    Tully's hands strayed toward his head and the mentioned ears, which had turned an unsettling bright red.

    "Do you understand, Tully?" Aille brushed a last bit of lint off the shoulder of the dark-blue jinau uniform. "At the first hint of insubordination or disrespect, you will leave with Yaut and then return after being disciplined."

    Tully nodded stiffly. After taking the locator from Aguilera, Yaut disabled the doorfield and the three of them set off toward the reception. They questioned a human servitor at the first opportunity and were directed from there through a series of convoluted corridors into a huge light-filled room dominated by no less than three pools. Many of the Jao attendees were already swimming and Aille felt immediately drawn to the water.

    The air bore the pleasant scent of seawater and wet rocks, with just the ozone hint of an approaching storm, well done, indeed, he thought. A number of humans, most of them jinau, were watching from the periphery, conversing with one another and sampling Jao tidbits which had been arranged in traditional fashion on thin slabs of rock at various stations.

    Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo saw them from across the largest pool and motioned for them to approach. Aille fell back to allow Yaut and Tully to lead as he threaded through the crowd. Tully glanced around, as though to see if anyone were watching, then fell into place, thereby saving his toes and ears, just barely.

    Oppuk's service was thoroughly insinuated throughout the attendees. Many of them were Narvo themselves, by their distinctive vai camiti, similar to the Governor's, but Aille picked out a number of other familiar facial patterns too. Mostly those were of subordinate kochan, such as Sant, allied to Narvo as Yaut's Jithra had been long allied to Pluthrak. The matched pair of males who had escorted him from the landing field were there as well, conspicuously armed and waiting only a few steps away.

    Aille's ears swiveled in confusion. Did the Governor expect trouble even here in his own residence? Was this world held as loosely as that?

    The Governor was speaking to a sturdy human female, as Aille approached, and, though he had signaled to him a moment earlier, he did not acknowledge him until the female, looking up into Aille's level gaze, blushed and broke off herself.

    "Subcommandant," she said in heavily accented Jao, "welcome to Earth."

    She did not offer her name, a sign of her close acquaintance with Jao customs. "It is a most intriguing assignment thus far," he said, moving closer, holding his entire body safely shaped into appreciative-interest. "I am honored to serve the Governor."

    "Why has Pluthrak sent you here?" Narvo said, his body crying out rude-suspicion. "I must know before I can work out how to use you. Why would illustrious Pluthrak, who never attempts anything at which it might fail, send a well regarded scion to this grubby ball of dirt and rock?"

    Aille could see Yaut and Tully off to the side, and to their credit, neither flinched or flicked so much as an ear or whisker. "To learn," Aille said. "Pluthrak and Narvo have stayed apart too much. It is perhaps time to pool our strengths and see where that might lead."

    Suspicion glimmered greenly in the Governor's eyes, bright as a circuit about to overload, then was mirrored in the lines of his arms. "To learn, yes, I had thought as much, to learn Narvo's weaknesses, to bring accusation before the Naukra Krith Ludh that we have not subdued this mangy, vermin-ridden world properly!"

    "Have you not?" Aille dug deeply into his memory and recalled his lessons with the Pluthrak movement-master, how to cock the head, splay the fingers, shift his weight, place the heartward leg just—so, until he had melted without apparent intent or effort into forthright-admiration, adding the difficult-to-hold angle of ears that specified longing. A tripartite posture, and a particularly ambitious one at that. "I thought quite otherwise, in my admittedly limited travels so far, but perhaps I was mistaken."

    A wave of excitement ran through the crowd. Even those Jao not close enough to overhear the conversation could read enough of their postures to glean a great deal. There were a few murmurs of admiration for Aille's obvious classical movement training. After all, just presenting postures to the young did not guarantee they would be learned, then used to proper advantage, when the time came. Despite his youth, Aille had obviously learned, and, as they could see, quite, quite well.

    Narvo glared, but there was no arguing with Aille's stance and he finally backed down. "You might be of some use after all," he said grudgingly, "but being relegated to an assignment this lowly means they will never call you back to breed."

    Aille stared at him, fighting to hold onto at least the elements that comprised admiration, even if he lost the rest. Breeding was an intensely private matter, for the great kochan, rarely mentioned outside the kochan-house. He had never thought to hear it bruited about here, where even aliens were present, in such a casual fashion.

    "They have posted you to a dungheap of a world," Narvo said. "Would they have done that to a truly promising scion? You are obviously expendable, whatever your accomplishments. Whom did you manage to anger, despite your youth?"

    Aille knew that wasn't true—and so did Oppuk. Pluthrak valued him appropriately, considering his inexperience, and he would have an equal chance to breed when the time was right, along with the rest of his clutch. The insult was nothing more than a provocation, and for what purpose? Could a Narvo with Oppuk's experience truly be that rash? The great kochan did not insult each other lightly.

    But the Governor said nothing further. An instant later, he turned away and dove into the pool.



    A moment later, a willowy human female with short dark-gold hair stepped forward, her shoulders and arms gracefully shaped into bemused-commiseration. She wore a sleek draping of silver fabric that swirled around her legs and obscured several of her lines, so that the posture was truncated. "Well," she said in flawless Jao, "that made an interesting beginning."

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