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The Course of Empire: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 1, 2003 01:10 EDT



    Her father would be horrified. That thought kept rattling around inside Caitlin's head. Benjamin Wilson Stockwell would hear of this travesty, even before she could tell him herself. Although he would disapprove, he would be powerless to prevent it. And all the while, he and everyone else would know she had opened her big fat mouth at a delicate moment and made things worse. Caitlin was so tense—anger and frustration that had been building for so many years—that she'd been taken completely off-balance and blundered badly.

    If she'd just kept quiet, Oppuk perhaps would not have been interested in such a purely human pursuit or forgotten about the whole affair before it could be organized, but now—

    She stared dumbly at the Governor's twitching nose until Kralik took her arm and tactfully guided her away. "A whale hunt!" he said, grimacing. " I don't think there's been one for years."

    She felt cold, even though the room was stifling.

    "Be practical, Caitlin," he said in a low voice. "It's no worse than most of what goes on under Jao rule, and not nearly as irreversible as when the mountain climbers provoked them into plastering Everest. It's only one whale. The ecology will survive that."

    She nodded, managing to keep walking until they reached a bench next to a rushing artificial waterfall that fed into the main pool. Kralik settled her where she was bathed in the music of water flowing over rock. Kinsey joined them there. After Caitlin introduced him to Kralik, the professor disappeared back into the murmuring crowd in search of "punch," though she well knew he would find no such thing at a Jao function.

    "Tell me of these 'whales,'" a deep Jao voice said.

    She glanced up from clenched hands into the distinctive vai camiti of the guest of honor. "I—" Her voice failed her.

    "That is a posture of distress, is it not?" Aille indicated her hands. "I have sometimes noted it among those in my service, as well as a number of the human workers engaged in the refit operation. Why does this 'whale hunt' distress you?"

    Caitlin took a deep breath. "It does not matter," she said shakily. "The Governor requires a whale hunt, so one will take place."

    He was big and broad, the nap on his skin a rich gold and still dark with damp from his swim. Inside the broad stripe on his face, his eyes crawled with iridescent green like lightning playing across some distant alien sky. Even to human eyes, he was a handsome figure.

    Two members of his personal service stood before him, as was proper. One was Jao, short but powerful-looking. The other, strangely enough, was human. Like Caitlin herself, he was blond, but his hair was straw-colored rather than dark-gold. And though his body was whip-thin, he looked very fit. She tried to catch the man's eye, but he quite pointedly would not look at her.

    "Tell me of your Pluthrak homeworld," she said, in an effort to change the subject. "I don't recall a member of your kochan being assigned to Earth before."

    "There is no one homeworld for us. Pluthrak is spread across twenty-nine planets," Aille said. The lines of his body flowed from polite-inquisition into what she thought was wistful-remembrance, without the slightest awkwardness or any indication of conscious attention. "The kochan-house which spawned my birth-group was located on Marit An, a green and gold world whose oceans possess almost the same fragrance as this room."

    Personally, she thought the room reeked of decaying seaweed and fermented fish, but kept the observation to herself. "Twenty-nine worlds," she said. "Isn't that a lot, even for a great kochan?"

    "It must seem so to a species which has never possessed more than this one world," he said, his ears dancing through a multitude of expressions too rapidly for her to decipher any of them, "but we do not maintain a high population on any one world, which would make it an attractive target for the Ekhat. Jao breed for ability rather than numbers, in any event."

    Unlike humans, Caitlin thought—who according to Jao opinion, bred like rabbits, yielding to sentiment and lust where practicality should have been employed.

    Banle appeared at her shoulder and took up her post, rigid with disapproval. "You approached the Governor without invitation," she said. "That was badly done."

    "I regret my clumsiness," Caitlin said in Jao. "I have been too long among humans at the university and forgotten my manners."

    "True," Banle said, turning her back on the Subcommandant so that he was excluded from her field of vision, effectively in Jao terms making him simply not-there. "I have often counseled your father against indulging you so. He should assign you a strict fraghta."

    Aille gave the guard a penetrating look and moved off, a tasteful exit in Jao terms, though rude in human context. Caitlin repressed a smile. She suspected this new Pluthrak, though young, was going to be a thorn in Narvo's side. She certainly hoped so.

    "Here," Dr. Kinsey said, pressing a tepid glass of water into her hand. "That's the best I could do, I'm afraid."

    "Thank you." She sipped gratefully, then gazed out over the crowd with a tight face. No doubt, that sniveling rat Matasu had only brought it up because he knew how Americans felt about such things. It was a childish display of one-upsmanship. Japan had fared far better beneath the Occupation than her former enemy turned ally. The archipelago's native government now didn't hesitate to rub it in, whenever the opportunity presented itself.



    The entire hall was abuzz about the expedition to be held in Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak's honor. Most of the Jao were uninterested in a quaint native hunt, but Tully found the attending humans' reactions varied from eagerness to utter disbelief.

    Aille turned to him after leaving the Stockwell girl in the care of her escort. "The idea of a 'whale hunt' distresses some of your fellow Terrans," he said. "Why should this be so? Is it not one of your ancient rituals?"

    "For some people," Tully said. "Certainly not all. I don't know about Jao, but humans do not necessarily share the same customs and values."

    Yaut was watching him with glittering black eyes. Green burst across them, then faded to ebony, revealing nothing.

    "It is but one whale," Aille said, "one unthinking animal. Why should it not make itself of use?"

    "Why indeed?" Tully kept his face blank, his hands locked behind his back, his shoulders braced. His eyes were trained on the pool, the frolicking Jao, the uneasy, milling humans, some of whom wanted nothing more than to be Jao, and others, to be a million miles away from here. The air was filled with spray, as the Jao dove, and more than a few of the humans were soaking wet.

    The death of a single whale was of little consequence, as Aille had said. But the principle involved did matter, as well as the predictable reaction of many humans. The Resistance had a stronghold in the Pacific Northwest, which had largely originated out of old environmentalist groups—some of which had been fanatics even before the conquest. They would be almost sure to try to strike back.

    Which would be stupid, in Tully's opinion, given the inevitable Jao retaliation that would follow. The Jao committed crimes against humanity every single day—hell, twice a day on Sundays, as the old geezers in the refugee camps liked to say—big crimes like the destruction of Chicago, events from which the human race would never recover, even if the Jao were to pack up and leave tomorrow.

    Aille threw an uninterpretable look at Yaut who seemed to understand. "I wish to know more about this situation," he said in Jao.

    The stolid fraghta did not answer, but his ears indicated assent. At least, Tully thought they did.



    The huge hall of humans and Jao seethed as Aille passed among them, speaking when necessary, but trying mostly to observe. The light streaming down from the holes in the ceiling made his eyes ache, but Oppuk did not appear to suffer.

    There were odd currents here, he told himself, watching the lines of bodies. Intentions ran like a subterranean river beneath the meaning of the words. One political moiety's contingent had come forward to propose the hunt, another obviously opposed it, much like kochan maneuvering for position and influence in the far-off Naukra Krith Ludh.

    Did Narvo understand what discord he apparently sowed here this evening by agreeing to this hunt? Watching the Governor, whose shoulders and spine were set in an indifferently executed amused-observance, he thought most likely he did.

    And perhaps Narvo was right. His logic was easy to understand, after all. The Terrans were a conquered race. With their brash psychological makeup, they needed to be reminded of their place from time to time. Or, remembering they far outnumbered the Jao on the planet, they might be tempted to rise in revolt despite the technological disparity between their weapons. If they did so in unison, the revolt would be difficult to suppress. Allowing the rivalries between conquered moieties to wear out their energies was a time-honored way of avoiding that possibility.

    Still, Aille was not satisfied. "Be not too clever," his kochan-parents had often instructed him, "lest you outwit yourself." Yes, the tactic was time-honored, but it was always necessary to be careful with it. Push the thing too far, and you could drive a conquered moiety into rebellion by adding native humiliation to alien conquest. What was the use of that?



    At any rate, Tully was behaving himself rather well. And Aille was now almost certain that the human, despite what appeared to be a lack of education, was far more intelligent than he tried to portray himself as being. Aille studied Tully, the lines of his arms, the cant of his head, the set of those restless little eyes, the furtive glances his way. The creature had learned something here, which Aille should also know. He could tell that much, just not what exactly.

    Tully's gaze, he noticed, returned quite often to Caitlin Stockwell, who was conversing quietly by a tumble of rocks where the water bubbled up and then raced down into the main pool. The dark gold of her hair caught the late sun streaming down through the skylights so that she seemed an anchor of light and the rest of the room merely dancing about her.

    Aille was uncertain, but he thought the female would be considered extremely attractive in human terms. Since humans, unlike Jao, were subject to sexual arousal at all times, perhaps that explained Tully's interest. Yet he did not think that explained all of it, or perhaps even any of it.

    He decided to probe further. He motioned to Yaut with one ear and then allowed the fraghta to precede him across the room. An instant later, Tully picked up on the cue and moved off, only a step behind Yaut. Aille noted a glimmer of approval in the fraghta's demeanor. Really, Tully was becoming almost well trained.

    The same Jao female still loomed over Stockwell's shoulder, her body stiff with unmitigated disapproval. Her vai camiti was reminiscent of Oppuk himself. Was she perhaps of Narvo, too? And, if so, why had one with that birthright been assigned to such dull duty as trailing around after a native?

    Water splashed behind him. Spray soaked his back and he turned to see a group of Jao plunging, clothed this time, into the alluring pool. They were forgetting themselves before this mixed company, obviously letting the water go to their heads. Amidst all this, though, Oppuk watched—not them, but Aille, his gaze pointedly fixed.

    Aille relaxed his body into unconcerned-interest and settled on a bench beside the human female. He gestured at the wild swimmers. "Your species does not enjoy the water?"

    Her eyes were blue-gray within their nests of white, the color of the Terran sky just before early-dark, he thought.

    "We swim," she said, "after a fashion, but nothing to compare with Jao."

    Aille watched the bodies knifing through the green water, the gleaming wet heads, the excitement each and every swimmer exhibited. "Perhaps you could learn."

    "Some things cannot be learned," she said, staring past him. "They can only be lived by those who possess the inherent capacity. I fear this is one of them."

    Aille glanced at the looming female Jao. "Is she in your service?"

    Savage-hatred erupted in the female's body and for an instant, Aille thought she would strike—at the human female, not him. "I am in Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo's service, no one else's!"

    Caitlin Stockwell paled as Yaut stepped between Aille and the female, baring his chest to the implied assault.

    "My mistake," Aille said smoothly. "I am a newcomer here, as I am sure you know, and only wish to understand the situation so I will not give offense."

    "Humans are not allowed to accumulate a personal service, as is customary for Jao." Stockwell closed her eyes, seeming to struggle for control. "Banle has been my lifelong guard, assigned to watch me since I was very small, for my—my safety." The last word came out in a strangled whisper.

    Tully seemed to understand far better than Aille did at the moment. His lips thinned.

    "You are in danger?" Aille leaned closer, his ears twitching with interest. "From whom?"

    "My father heads the human government on this continent for the Jao," she said. "There are many who resent him. They might strike at him through me, had they the chance."

    "Indeed?" Aille glanced up at the Jao female. "Your name?"

    Rather than being pleased at being asked, her body was all reluctance. "Banle krinnu nao Narvo."

    Of the root kochan itself, then, though "nao" instead of "ava." She'd been birthed and reared in one of the secondary marriage-groups.

    Banle turned her face away, blanking her body so it conveyed no meaning at all. "I am on duty and not available for personal conversation."

    "Very sensible," he said.

    They sat then in silence, Jao and humans walking past, occasionally greeting him, but ignoring Caitlin for the most part. The air shimmered with late-day light and spray from the diving swimmers hung in the air. He relaxed, savoring the sea-smells, wet rocks, salts, and water, all far more ancient than his species.

    "Whales swim," Caitlin Stockwell said finally. "They spend their entire lives in the sea."

    "Are they fierce?" He studied her face, but without mobile nose or ears, without even whiskers, it was hard to discern her mood.

    She laughed, but it was a harsh sound, not merry at all. "No, they have very little idea of how to protect themselves, much less attack! They are so huge, they have no natural enemies except man—and now, it seems, Jao also."

    "Then they provide you with a food source?"

    "Some think so," she said. "In the past our species hunted them for their oil, bone, and flesh, but thankfully we found substitutes before we drove them into extinction."

    "Are they in danger of becoming extinct now?"

    She stared down at her intertwined fingers, which were so much smaller than a Jao's. "No one knows. There's been no money or resources for a study to find out since—" She broke off, her lips compressed.

    "Since the conquest," he said.

    "Yes." She breathed deeply, her eyes gazing past him. "We have redirected our resources, as ordered, to more important matters, such as preparing the planet against the expected attack."

    "Quite right," he said, pleased to reach a point in the conversation where both species agreed. Tracking a few animals to see how many of them lived in a habitat made very little sense when one thought of the ferocity of the Ekhat. The Ekhat, who exterminated entire systems in accordance with their mad philosophy, down to the bacteria.

    The human male who was standing nearby, Aille now realized, was the same one who had been at this female's side earlier. She lifted her face up to him, then, a moment later, turned to face Aille.

    "Subcommandant, may I introduce Major General Ed Kralik, the human officer who commands one of your major jinau forces on this continent?"

    A rough snort escaped Yaut at the ill-mannered proffering of a name, but Aille was intrigued enough to ignore the breach of courtesy. Caitlin, after all, despite her knowledge of Jao language and postures, was only human and couldn't be expected to behave with exact propriety all the time. But he suspected she was well aware that she was violating custom, and did so deliberately.

    "Indeed?" he said, letting amiable-interest shape his limbs.

    "Yes, sir." Interestingly, Kralik did not make that sharp gesture-of-respect humans called a "salute." Apparently, he was more familiar with Jao customs than most humans Aille had encountered in the military. "I'm commander of the Pacific Division. I would have flown down to Pascagoula to report in, but I've been on assignment out west, recruiting jinau."

    "Are the ranks depleted then?" Aille asked.

    "A bit." Kralik's eyes glanced at Narvo. "Jao discipline is very exacting, sometimes fatal. That makes it difficult to get as many re-enlistments as I'd like."

    Aille made a mental note to investigate further, in private. The lines of Kralik's body were very hard to analyze, even more so than with most humans. But something in his stance suggested to him that the human officer was not saying all he felt on this matter.

    "You must tell me more later," he said. "There is much for me to learn so I may be efficient in my new post."

    "I look forward to it, sir."

    "You have heard of the upcoming whale hunt?"

    "Yes, sir." Kralik's face was unrevealing, likewise his tone of voice. But, again, some subtlety in his stance suggested disapproval.

    "I will want to take some jinau along as a personal guard, I think," Aille said. He glanced at the girl at his side. "Miss Stockwell believes there may be opposition from the natives."

    "Possibly," Caitlin said. "Depending on where it takes place. If you could persuade the Governor to arrange it over in Japan, I think there would be no problem at all. Or Norway, or Iceland. They have a long cultural tradition in those countries of hunting whales. If it happens here, on one of our coasts, though, there may be trouble."

    "I see. Can you handle such problems if they arise, General Kralik?" Aille was not certain—another thing he would have to check—but he thought a simple "general" was the proper form of address. He did not understand, anyway, the purpose of the seemingly-meaningless "major" added as a prefix. If he understand the term "general" correctly, a general was a major figure by definition. Could there be such a thing as a minor or unimportant general?

    Kralik answered immediately, without needing to think the matter over. "Yes, sir. I've got a good company stationed here. We can use them."

    "Perfect, then." Aille studied Caitlin. "You should come too," he said. "Your presence would indicate approval of the activity, which would alleviate local rumblings, and you could supply advice to keep us from committing inadvertent cultural errors."

    The female Banle glanced sharply at him, ears and whiskers quivering with perceived-slight.

    "I would be glad to do whatever is needed," Caitlin Stockwell said, "although I must warn you that Governor Oppuk is not overly concerned with the good opinion of natives." Two splotches of red had bloomed in her cheeks.

    "It is not necessary that the natives approve of Jao actions!" Banle loomed over her human charge. "It is only necessary that they obey all orders!"

    "As they shall," Kralik said smoothly.

    "Then it is decided," Aille said, "and we can look forward to the hunt."

    The two humans exchanged an enigmatic glance. "Yes, indeed," Caitlin said and her eyes seemed to burn brighter. "My father will be pleased."

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