Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Course of Empire: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Saturday, June 28, 2003 00:27 EDT



    From a few feet away, Caitlin had watched Governor Narvo interact with the newcomer, a tall Jao with a regal bearing and velvety nap the color of newly minted gold. The two Jao danced. No other word could describe it, however much Jao were mystified by the human notion of dancing, along with most other human forms of art and recreation. Black eyes flickering green with emotion riveted one another as their bodies flowed from one shape to the next; all carefully stylized, each finger, whisker, and ear placed just so.

    In human terms, she mused, watching the exchange, one might have labeled Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo a bully, trying to use his authority on this world to cow his new subordinate. And not succeeding, she thought. But these were not humans, and thinking one could understand them according to human interpretations inevitably led to trouble. That the Narvo did not like this new Pluthrak was apparent, though, and Caitlin was sure that the animosity went beyond simple kochan rivalry between Narvo and Pluthrak.

    When Oppuk turned away, she stepped forward, driven by a sudden impulse and spoke in Jao. "Well, that made an interesting beginning."

    The Subcommandant turned and favored her with his full attention. His vai camiti was the most striking and unusual she'd ever seen, a solid mask of black over his eyes, like the that of a raccoon or a thief.

    "You speak Jao very well," he said in English, "better than any human I have encountered."

    "I have had the boon of a Jao bodyguard since I was very young," she said. "I grew up knowing Jao as well as English."

    He gestured at her arms. "Were you formally trained?"

    She realized she was still holding the shape of bemused-commiseration and shook her arms out, letting the form go. "No," she said, rubbing her shoulder, which ached with the effort of holding the position, "I just picked up a few postures here and there by keeping my eyes open."

    "Then you observe closely," the Jao said. "It would take a Jao youth many sessions to perform equally as well, although..." He stepped back and narrowed his eyes.

    "What?" The weight of that green gaze lay heavy upon her and she realized a number of people, human and Jao, were staring. "Did I do it wrong?"

    "It is the fingers," he said. "Humans have one too many for the strictest classical purity of the form, but you could de-emphasize the defect by holding two of them together." He reached for her hand and demonstrated, pressing her ring and little fingers together into the arch that indicated commiseration.

    His touch was cool, his palms corded steel beneath the velvety nap. She held the pose for several seconds, letting him study the effect, then dropped her hand self-consciously. "I see," she said. "Thank you for the instruction, Subcommandant. I shall endeavor to be worthy of the lesson."

    "Yes," he said. "We all strive to be worthy, every light and dark, every cycle. It is a constant struggle."

    He was still studying her when a stubby dark-russet Jao spoke quietly into his ear. Caitlin took advantage of the distraction to slip back into the crowd. Kralik, who had been standing nearby, came alongside her.

    "Not so fast," he said in a low voice, when she finally paused beside one of the rock ledges where a rainbow of food samples was displayed. "What was that all about?"

    "I'm not sure." Her cheeks were hot and she knew how flustered she appeared to the human eye. How unfair, she thought, that with her species, such signs were involuntary and all too obvious for anyone who happened to be looking. Jao were able to select which emotions they wished to present to the world. Humans were always at the mercy of theirs.

    "You did something, and said something. But I couldn't tell what because your voices were too low. And he was commenting on it, right? I understood that much."

    "What I did, I think, was make a fool of myself!" She selected a gray-pink bit of flesh, bit into it and tried to ignore the gamey taste. "I tried to imitate one of their formal postures, the ones they use when they talk among themselves, but I didn't do it very well and he was instructing me."

    "Formal postures?" Kralik looked baffled. "I know they use a lot of so-called body language—way more than we do, that's for sure—but I wasn't aware it had any formal structure to it. Subcommandant Pinb never told me very much, and Kaul even less."

    "Body language with the Jao is rigidly codified," she said, shaking her head. "Except that it's far more elaborate and taught by highly accomplished movement masters. No well brought up young Jao—not from a great kochan, for sure—is complete without his carefully acquired vocabulary of formal postures. And there are a multitude of them. It's a bit like trying to learn Chinese ideograms, except in body language."

    She gazed at Subcommandant Aille across the room where he was now in serious conversation with the Jao who had approached him. "I should have left well enough alone. It probably looked like a poodle trying to do a curtsy!"

    "Interesting," Kralik said. "I hadn't realized it was that codified. I've learned to interpret their mood through their body language, after a fashion. But I'm not always right, so I don't depend on it."

    "That's for the best," she said. "Some of their values and emotions have no analogs in human psychology and culture. You can never count on understanding what they mean."

    "What did this one want?" Kralik said.

    "I'm not sure," she said, "but I've a feeling I made myself look like an idiot."

    "Well," he said. "At least you got his attention. That was more than I've managed to do. I want to meet him, since he's my new commander, but they don't like it when you introduce yourself without invitation. And, so far, he's showing no signs of being interested in the matter himself."

    "From what I gather, Governor Oppuk was giving him a hard time," she said. "This is probably not the most auspicious moment."

    "Then I'll wait," he said, his expression hard. He gripped his hands behind his back. "I've become good at that."

    She made a face. "Haven't we all? What exactly does his rank signify, by the way? I'm familiar—to an extent—with Jao social customs, but not the way that translates into official military position."

    "Well... It's more fluid, among the Jao, that it would be for us. Kaul krinnu ava Dano, as the Commandant, is theoretically in charge of all military forces in the Terran solar system. He'll have two Subcommandants, one in charge of space forces and one—that'll be the new Pluthrak—in charge of ground forces."

    Kralik's lips quirked again into that not-quite-a-smile. "That's the theory. In practice, leaving aside the fact that they don't make the same distinctions we do—used to do, I should say—between the army and the navy, it's a lot fuzzier. They also don't make the same distinctions we do between civilians and military personnel as such. I've heard there was already a minor clash between the Subcommandant and the production director in the big refit facility at Pascagoula, in which the director got slapped down quick and hard. And if I'm reading the tea leaves properly, I think there's something of a tug-of-war going on between Kaul and Aille over whether his authority extends to all ground forces or just the jinau troops."

    The crowd parted and Banle appeared, nap still dripping from her swim, uniform over her arm, eyes dark and expressionless.

    Caitlin glanced at Kralik, then smiled. "This is Major General Ed Kralik, Banle. He will report to the new Subcommandant."

    Banle's ears flashed irritation. She knew that Caitlin was needling her subtly, proffering such an unwanted and un-Jao-like introduction. "Indeed? I thought I saw you conversing with the Pluthrak Subcommandant." Question was implicit in the narrowing of her eyes, the tilt of her head.

    Yes, of course, Banle would want to know what the two of them had said. It was part of her function as jailor/spy. The Jao had been derelict in her duties, allowing herself to be lured by the magnificent pools and leaving Caitlin to run about unsupervised.

    Caitlin gazed out over the sea of heads, both human and Jao, and spotted the Subcommandant, now standing beside the largest pool and watching Narvo swim. "Yes, we spoke," she said. "He is a fascinating individual, most observant. He wanted to know where I had received my education in formal movement. I told him you had been most instructive."

    Banle's whole body reacted, framing a posture Caitlin did not recognize. "I have never given you instruction!"

    "But you have, Banle," Caitlin said with all the innocence she could muster. At her side, she could feel Kralik growing tense. Struggling to contain his humor, too, she thought. Caitlin was playing a dangerous game, here, but she couldn't resist the chance to jab at the overbearing Banle. "Every day, every hour, since I was too small to remember, I have had your shining example before me. How could I do other than learn?"

    Banle did not answer, merely struggled back into her harness with short, sharp motions, followed by the trousers, and then took up her customary glowering post behind Caitlin's shoulder, forcing the human to take the lesser place. Caitlin sighed. What little freedom she could expect from the evening was now over. She might as well locate Professor Kinsey and make sure he stayed out of trouble.



    Aille realized he did not know the human female's designation. Jao-like, she had not presented it before Yaut had interrupted him with a few sharp observations on certain of the kochan represented here. Then, when he'd turned back to the puzzling woman, she had disappeared into the crowd.

    She'd said she knew Jao as well as English. By her fluency of speech and almost complete lack of accent, he felt certain that was indeed no idle boast. And she was the first human he'd encountered who had acquired even a minimum of the Jao movement vocabulary. He was highly intrigued. Despite Yaut's warning, what an addition to his personal service that one would be! If he could arrange it, though, he cautioned himself. With her unique qualifications, she was most likely already assigned elsewhere, perhaps even to Oppuk's own service.

    Tully was gazing after her with an unreadable expression, his hands and arms rigid at his sides.

    "I heard what the Governor said." Yaut was holding himself to the strictest of neutral postures. "Shocking, to display the antagonism of one kochan against another for all to hear and comment upon."

    "I did not interpret his words that way," Aille said. "I heard insecurity and worry, lack of faith and fear of incohesion. Narvo seems much in need of highly placed associations."

    "Do not make the mistake of thinking you will be the source!" Yaut bristled with admonition, then remembered where he was and resumed his neutral stance. "If you can refrain from giving actionable offense here, that is as much as anyone has a right to expect."

    Most of the Jao were either swimming, or had just finished. Aille began to shed his harness, including the halfcape. It would be an insult not to sample Narvo's hospitality, and Aille would counter Narvo ill-grace with Pluthrak courtesy. Yaut accepted each article as Aille pulled it off with an air of long suffering.

    "There is always trouble between our kochan," Aille said softly, just before he plunged into the inviting green water. "But this Narvo apparently feels matters have gone too far to be amended. As his subordinate, it is my duty to restore possibility."

    "And if you cannot?" Yaut stood aside as Aille dove straight and clean into the choppy pool.

    Aille considered as the water, cool and delicious, closed over him. If he could not bring about change, then he would fail and bring shame to Pluthrak. Therefore, he could not fail. He must succeed, whatever the cost.

    He swam with long, joyous strokes, feeling the water cleanse his body and invigorate his nerves. The alien ocean at Pascagoula had been acceptable, but these salts had been specially formulated to soothe Jao sensibilities. Narvo was clever, indeed, to fabricate such a marvel to entice and impress his guests.

    Finally, he surfaced and shook the water from his eyes. Yaut was still waiting where he had left him, more or less patiently, with Tully nearby. But he saw the human female watching him too, from over by the wall, along with the man who had accompanied her. Aille headed for the simulated shore with powerful strokes.



    Jao everywhere, so many, it made Gabe Tully's teeth ache. He wanted to leave the noisy, crowded reception hall with its ostentatious pools, but Yaut had a constant eye upon him, even though the Subcommandant was busy attending to whatever social amenities Jao recognized and thought necessary.

    The woman who had approached Aille, though, had looked familiar, the cropped blonde hair, the large blue-gray eyes. She wore a long, shimmering silver dress that must have cost a bundle. He sorted through his memory, seeking until he had it. She was Caitlin Stockwell, daughter of the ultimate collaborator, so-called "President" Stockwell!

    Ice flooded through him. She was allowed access to this kind of luxury, while, outside, America deteriorated just that much more every day. Only the Jao and those who played ball with them were allowed to be civilized now. The rest of America could go to hell for the crime of having fought the hardest for their freedom.

    Over in the pool, the Subcommandant broke the surface, gazed about, then made eye contact with him. He stepped back, unnerved, feeling almost as though Aille could read his thoughts. As surreptitiously as he could manage, he eased back into the tapestry of milling bodies, gold, brown, and russet naps of the Jao threaded with the more flamboyant colors of human clothing. He couldn't get far, he knew, not with the damned locator on his wrist, but he needed a bit of privacy to collect his thoughts.

    Why had Caitlin Stockwell sought out the Subcommandant? Was she looking for some way to betray her country even more thoroughly than her family already had? He thought of the children back in the refugee camps in the Rockies, the shabby blankets, the few stained books available for their education, and their wide eyes at night when one of the older men or women would tell stories of the glory America had once been—before the conquest.

    What did prissy Miss Caitlin Stockwell, with her silver dress, clean hair, and manicured nails know about any of that? His hands clenched.

    "Here I am," a low voice said in his ear.

    He jerked around and met the Subcommandant's green-black eyes.

    "I did not mean to avoid your notice," the Jao said, looming over him so that he was inundated in the wet-carpet smell of the other's nap. "Eagerness simply overcame me and I slipped into the water when your attention was elsewhere."

    Yaut thrust the Subcommandant's harness, trousers, and cape into Tully's arms. Numbly, he shook out the dark-blue trousers as though he performed duties of batman every day. The Subcommandant accepted them matter-of-factly and put them on.

    He would never get used to casual Jao attitudes about nudity, Tully thought. The situation was all the more grotesque because Jao sexual organs were not much different from human. When clothed, the females were hard to distinguish from the males, due to the absence of breasts and the fact they were just as large and muscular. Naked, however, the difference between the two Jao sexes was obvious. But the Jao seemed completely oblivious to the matter.

    He glanced at Stockwell again, who was now talking to a man in a jinau uniform. He was in early middle-age, not particularly tall, but had a powerful-looking physique.

    Aille followed his line of sight. "Are you acquainted with that female?"

    His eyes turned back to the Jao, widening a little. "Everyone in America knows who she is."

    "Then enlighten me," Aille said, forcing a wet leg into his trousers.

    "That's Caitlin Stockwell, the only child of Ben Stockwell." Forcing himself to be honest, he added: "The only surviving child, I should say. Her older brother was killed fighting Jao during the conquest. Nobody quite knows what happened to the other one, but he's dead too."

    That still didn't seem to register on the Subcommandant. Tully added: "Ben Stockwell was the former Vice-President of the United States, before the conquest. He's now the appointed President of your puppet—uh, your native government of this continent." He watched the girl tuck dark-gold hair behind her ears then and smile, a solemn Jao bodyguard keeping watch at her shoulder. The gray-haired man linked arms with her, and the two moved off, speaking to a number of the humans present as they walked.

    "The scion of a prestigious kochan, then," Aille said, settling his halfcape back into place across one shoulder.

    Tully started to protest that humans didn't have kochan, then stopped. He didn't precisely know what the Jao term "kochan" meant, but it seemed to approximate the human notion of "clan." Now that Tully thought about it, the Stockwells were probably as close to a true kochan as you could find in North America. Old Eastern money, on the father's side, with a long tradition of public service.

    "Yes," he said, a bit sourly. "Very prestigious."

    The ornate halfcape with its green and gold insignia was crooked in the back. Tully's fingers straightened it before he thought, then he saw Yaut blink at him with surprised approval.

    Play the part, he told himself. Sooner or later, they'll make a mistake, then you can either escape or die trying and none of this will matter.

    Aille moved off into the crowd, regal in his bearing compared to most of the Jao present. Even Tully could tell that much. If Aille had been human, he would have been like a well-brought-up young prince at a provincial reception. Behaving graciously, to be sure—but still a prince, and exuding that fact with his every word and movement.

    Yaut glided easily before him. How did the fraghta do that, Tully wondered, hurrying to keep up. It was as though he knew where the Subcommandant was going before he knew himself. Did those two have some sort of mental contact which allowed him to actually predict the other's wishes? He rubbed the gleaming black locator band beneath his sleeve and tried not to brush against any of Earth's alien conquerors as they crossed the floor.




    Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo practiced the subtle art of watching without being obvious as the new Subcommandant prowled the reception, speaking here and there, spreading his influence like oil over water. Why had Pluthrak sent him this burden? The question burned through him, but he was no nearer to answering it now than when he had first learned of the assignment.

    Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak was too young to be a real threat to his authority, too inexperienced to be of any genuine use, and yet far too appealing for comfort. The Jao in the crowd seemed invariably drawn to the youthful officer. Oppuk needed to keep him close, so he would know the instant he was up to something, and yet bury him under inconsequential duties so he would never accomplish anything of worth or attract favorable notice. How to achieve these contradictory aims was a puzzle, and unfortunately Oppuk had never been good at solving puzzles. His talents lay in other directions, and his normal method with puzzles was to smash them.

    His nose wrinkled in a sour grimace and his two identical guards, born of allied Sant, a kochan long dedicated to service to Narvo, trained their enigmatic gaze upon him.

    "Can we be of use, Governor?" they said, in that unnerving unison they often achieved.

    He could not tell them apart, which bothered him. His fraghta long ago had come across the pair when they first emerged from the creche-pool and had them trained especially for his personal service. They were a novelty. Genetic duplicates were much more rare among the Jao than humans. He'd heard it said that humans often whelped their get in pairs and occasionally even in threes and fours.

    "No," he said, "I do not need you at present. Remain on guard."

    He noticed the jinau officer, Kralik, monitoring the Subcommandant, as a subordinate should, quietly, without putting himself forward or interfering. A rare moment of approval washed through Oppuk. Humans so rarely knew their place without a great deal of instruction and reinforcement. It was good to see one who could control himself in the absence of external cues.

    "Governor?" a human voice said from his side.

    He looked down. A short man with a disgusting bare patch on his crown gazed up at him, looking vaguely familiar. Oppuk had seen many male humans so afflicted since he arrived on this world, long ago. At first, he had assumed such hair loss was a sign of disease, until he learned it was just a common degenerative process associated with aging. He almost shuddered. For a Jao, that would have been a major affliction.

    Two dark-haired human females flanked him, both clad in long clumsy garments of heavily brocaded fabric which impeded their steps. Wary, his personal guards moved in, but Oppuk waved them back. "You wish my attention?" he said.

    "I am Ambassador Matasu," the man said, bowing from the waist until Oppuk could not see his eyes. The two women bowed as well. "From the land of the rising sun, your most loyal province, Japan."

    "Yes." Oppuk gazed down at the creature in disgust. Not only had it forced its barbaric name upon him, it smelled of floral aromatics, which the denizens of this world often applied to themselves in the mistaken belief that the natural scents of their bodies were noisome, while blatant artificial odors were somehow more acceptable. Their preoccupation with such matters was almost as intense as the classical study of movement was for his own species.

    Nevertheless, despite the creature's reek, he preferred not to give offense here. Japan provided many manufactured goods to the Occupation, since its resistance had been sensibly short-lived and the Jao had not been motivated to lay waste to it as they had North America and parts of Europe and the Asian mainland. Japan's infrastructure was thus in good shape and their people had prospered under Jao rule, paying their taxes and providing much in the way of material support, sometimes even more than the required levy.

    They produced few jinau, on the other hand. Most of the human troops came from North America and those parts of Europe and Asia which had seen the most fighting. That was not unusual, of course. In fact, it was one of the few ways in which humans were like most conquered species. Those moieties which had a martial spirit naturally produced most of the jinau after their conquest.

    "There is rumor of an entertainment being planned," Matasu said, dark eyes gleaming like bits of bright glass in his wrinkled face. The creature was very old, Oppuk realized. "In honor of the new Subcommandant."

    Oppuk had not scheduled any such "entertainment," as the human meant the term. Activity merely for diversion was not a Jao practice. In addition, he was quite put out already at being forced to officially receive a Pluthrak scion on this level. But the Terran creature was right. His staff should have arranged some sort of expedition or tour, he now realized belatedly, and it irritated him that a human should be aware of his duties better than his own service.

    He felt his ears descending into chagrin and took hold of himself, lest he betray his innermost thoughts. "My staff has considered many venues," he said, schooling his posture to mere mild-interest, "but has not yet decided upon which would be most suitable."

    "I was hoping for one of North America's famous hunts," the Terran said, his eyes turning in the direction of Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak and then back. "Wildcats in your Calvada area, or perhaps eagles nesting on the shore of one of the Great Lakes, or even—" He licked his lips and moved closer. "A whale hunt along your northwest coast."

    "A whale hunt?" Oppuk was perplexed. He did not recognize the name of that particular beast. "What exactly is a 'whale?'"

    "It is a marine animal, quite large, which lives all its life in the sea." Matasu's eyes blinked, so dark-brown they almost seemed black. "Of course, Earth has many species of whales, but the natives of that coast used to have a ritual for hunting one particular variety which was quite beautiful."

    Oppuk snorted. "Jao are not interested in frivolous human 'rituals.'"

    "Of course not!" Matasu fluttered his fingers. "I quite understand. In this instance, however, I believe you will find the whale is making itself of use, which is of course what we all strive for."

    Drinn, his castellan, stepped forward. Concern was written in the lines of his body that this Terran was dominating the Governor's attention. Oppuk ignored him. "And how exactly does a nonsentient animal make itself of use to anyone?"

    "By requiring expertise to be brought down so skills can be practiced." Matasu's face stretched into that nauseating native expression meant to denote pleasure. "And by being eaten. Their flesh is most delectable."

    "It does sound intriguing," Oppuk said. He motioned Drinn closer. "Furnish the pertinent information to my service and—"

    "Governor, please!" Caitlin Stockwell slid to the front through the murmuring crowd. Evidently she'd been listening. Her face was rather pinker than before, an unhealthy and unappealing shade. "Many whales are still endangered species. If you authorize a hunt even this once, then it will become the fashion all over the world. At the very least, there may be trouble with environmentalists."

    Oppuk looked at her coldly. The young female was getting above herself, a trait her father had all too often displayed. "I think I shall attend this so-called whale hunt," he said, "as will Subcommandant Aille, since it is to be conducted in his honor." He motioned to Drinn. "See that it is set up," he said, "and soon."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image