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The Course of Empire: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 22, 2003 00:38 EDT



    Caitlin found the Oregon coast refreshing after the stultifying heat of Oklahoma in August. She stood on the edge of a cliff and gazed down at the white-capped waves whipping themselves to froth on the black rocks below. At her feet, a rickety wooden stairway zigzagged down to the postage-stamp of a beach. The wind battered her face with cool spray and tousled her cropped hair.

    She'd been told, upon landing, this was near the Makah Indian Reservation, which was home to humans who had trod this land long before anyone had known aliens inhabited the stars. Perhaps the Indians had conceived of gods and demons, or some other sort of beings who came from somewhere else and imposed their own goals and desires on men. That was close enough to the reality humanity lived with these days.

    Upon request, the Makah had already provided several hunting guides who had advised that this was not the best time of the year for whale hunting. They should all come back in the fall when the magnificent gray whales were migrating. The meat and blubber would be tender then, they had said. The Makah would be glad to lead the hunt and then later share their best recipes.

    Of course, Oppuk would not wait two or three months. The hunt would go on as scheduled, even if the Jao had to send another ship to drive whales into the bay. She shuddered. It was barbaric, as though the Jao were determined to nourish the worst in her species, not its best.

    But there was nothing she could do. At this point, any effort she made to stop the hunt would only make the situation worse. Since Oppuk had insisted she come, she must play the game; look attentive, but bored, and hope the hunt would at least be mercifully short.

    A temporary building, called a hant, was going up in the background. It was a sort of a field tent, if you could compare something as big as a small villa to a tent. Jao-fashion, it was being poured from materials preconfigured to shape themselves to this pattern, rather than constructed, and would house the Governor and his guests until the whale hunt was over.

    Most likely it wouldn't have a pool, but she supposed the Jao would be able to make do with the Pacific Ocean as their playground. The water looked almost green today, choppy and white-topped out under the growing cloud cover. That wouldn't bother them, she thought sourly. Less sun was always welcome among Jao.

    "You are wanted," Banle said from just behind her shoulder. As always, Banle avoided Caitlin's name, as though using it would elevate her above the status of a performing monkey.

    She turned and looked up into the striped face. "Yes?"

    "The Governor summons you." There was a muted air of disapproval about the Jao's shoulders and in the line of her spine.

    "Then I suppose I should go," Caitlin said, irritated at losing her freedom so soon.

    The Jao's hand flashed out and cuffed her cheek, making her stagger back dangerously near the cliff's edge. She clapped a hand to her face, aching, but not surprised. Her words—her stance even more so—had not been properly respectful. Banle had lived with Caitlin enough years to interpret the subtleties.

    "You have come to his notice," the Jao said, a fierce edge to her voice. "There are many who would be grateful!"

    Like you, Caitlin thought. Her cheek throbbed and she knew she would have a bruise.

    Curtly, Banle motioned her ahead. "Be quick."

    The hant, as they approached, was nearly complete, all curves and sleek lines. It probably had a great deal of "flow," Caitlin thought, if you were a Jao. Try as she might, she had never been able to perceive the elusive quality herself. Sometimes she suspected Earth's conquerors just made it up to baffle humans.

    She presented herself at the entrance, was scanned by a pair of matched guards, then allowed through the doorfield, which was set at a level that rattled her teeth. Inside, she found herself in a broad open space surrounded by corridors. The air was filled with the acrid scent of smoldering tak, which, to the human nose, had all the charm of burning tires.

    "Miss Stockwell." Drinn, a principal member of the Governor's service, motioned to her through the haze. "The Governor wishes to speak with you."

    Following his direction, she threaded a maze of fabric corridors to a back room, even larger than the reception area. Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo looked up from a holo of a Terran ship sailing on an ocean somewhere. "Move for me," he said without preamble.

    Startled, she stopped. "What?"

    "I saw you at the reception," he said. "You have mastered formal movement, at least at a rudimentary level. Move for me. I wish to see how proficient you truly are."

    Heart pounding, she found modest-surprise shaping her hands, her arms, setting the cant of her head. The ears were supposed to be involved in this posture, so it wasn't an optimal choice, she suddenly realized. But Jao ears figured into so many postures, one couldn't avoid movements that required them, or you would have no vocabulary at all.

    "Interesting," Oppuk said, gazing at her as if she were a prize heifer. "Let me see something more difficult, bemused-reverence, perhaps, or benign-indifference."

    Her cheeks heated. "Might I ask what this is all about, Governor?"

    "No." His red-gold face was quite bland. "If I ask you to show off your movement skills, then you will do so."

    Remember Brent, she told herself. Then, as now, the Governor didn't need a good reason for the things he did. The Jao had absolute power here and Oppuk was the embodiment of that power. If he said "move," then she would indeed move and hope it was good enough.

    She performed bemused-reverence, as he had demanded, then benign-indifference, awed-respect, eagerness-to-be-instructed, changing every thirty seconds, then every twenty, every ten, her heart hammering, her body drenched in perspiration. As soon as she settled into one posture, she was considering the next, how best to make a graceful transition, how to economize, so that the curved fingers of one posture could move but slightly into the cupped hands of the next. Change and change and change. She was no longer thinking, just becoming, over and over again. For poor lost Brent, she thought. For her family. For all of Earth. She would be good enough. She would not fail—


    Startled, she looked up and met Oppuk's glittering green-black eyes.

    "Who instructed you?"

    "No one—formally," she said, out of breath, muscles jumping from the strain. "I watched Banle and the other Jao who came and went in our household."

    "You do mirror the Narvo style," the Governor said, "though crudely." He stared over her head, seeming to see something that wasn't there. "It will not do. If you must move like a Narvo, then you will learn properly and do us credit."

    She waited, not knowing what was required of her.

    "From now on, you are attached to my household. I will acquire a movement master for your instruction. There must be one or two on this benighted planet." He glared at her. "You will learn and learn well, so that in the end you may be of the most use."

    "In the end?" she echoed hopelessly, knowing a Jao would never deign to explain himself.

    "I have plans," Oppuk said. "You will learn how you fit into them when the flow is right for you to be of use. Until then—" He glared at her, fierce-warning written into every line of his massive frame. "You will apply yourself diligently!"

    Or it would be Brent all over again. She understood perfectly. She would refine her skills until she could serve the Governor's plans.

    Either that, or she would die.



    But for the color of the sky, blue instead of ice-green, and the brightness of the sun, Aille might have thought himself back on Marit An. The briny scent of the sea here was very close to that of his homeworld, the sound of waves breaking on the rocks so reminiscent of those below his natal compound, he could close his eyes and see every detail again in his mind.

    If he had been Governor, this was where he would have made his palace, not on that dusty, landlocked patch of ground in the center of the continent. Why had Oppuk felt it necessary to deny himself the sensual pleasures of such a coastline?

    Yaut wandered up beside him, then gazed out over the restless white-topped sea. "Enticing," was all he said, but the twitch of his ears, the dance of his whiskers expressed longing much more clearly than mere words.

    "Indeed," Aille said. His own body was eager to experience that wild surf, but he didn't delude himself that Oppuk had brought them all this way merely to enjoy themselves. Though this trip was supposedly in his honor, they had come to prove something—to him, perhaps, to the rest of the Jao stationed on Terra, highly likely, and to the indigenous population, most certainly.

    The Governor was under great stress and his increasingly unsane reactions made the stress worse. It was now obvious that Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo felt trapped, here on Terra. And well he might, Aille thought, at this stage of life when he might reasonably have expected to be called home. For a scion of his age and status to remain unmated, far from his kochan's marriage-groups—such would be hurtful to any, much less one who had once been the namth camiti of great Narvo.

    The vessel which would take them out on the whale hunt would not be here until next-light, Aille had already been told by a member of Oppuk's service. With experienced eyes, he examined the horizon now, seeing dark-blue clouds lying low and faraway, then gauging the height of the waves assaulting the jagged black rocks below. His nose wrinkled, sampling the wind. "Storm," he said to Yaut. "We may not be going out tomorrow, even if the vessel does arrive."

    "Indeed," Yaut said, raising his own nose into the wind-borne spray. "It would be wise, however, to allow some other voice to convey that probability. 'Killing the messenger' is an unsanity which seeps down from above."

    It certainly didn't take the wiliness of an old fraghta to see that, Aille told himself. Everything about him irritated Oppuk. "Pluthrak and Narvo have no history of association," he said. "I begin to understand why."

    "Remove yourself from his notice at the first opportunity," Yaut said. "I do not think he will summon you again. You can use that time in the darkness, to shape the battle."

    "Why does Narvo oppose Pluthrak so vehemently?" Aille turned to meet Yaut's eyes, which were pulsing bright green in an unreadable mood. "I have never heard an explanation."

    "Some of it, of course, is the clash of kochan style. But much of it is ancient, going back to the Before Time. A disagreement about which genetic line was first to fight free of Ekhat control. We believe it was Pluthrak, which most Jao believe also, but Narvo has always insisted they were first. They could be right. It is not an issue that means as much to Pluthrak as it does to Narvo. There is even a possibility it was neither kochan, but some other; one which did not survive and so has no voice left to speak their name. There is no way to prove either the positive or negative, and neither kochan will relinquish its claim."

    "How can it matter?" Aille asked. His ears flicked restlessly and his body suddenly ached for the freedom of the foaming waves below. "It was all long ago and the struggle against the Ekhat grows always more savage. We have more important concerns that should bind us together, not drive us apart."

    "True," Yaut said, "but Oppuk no longer sees beyond this world. He has lost all sense of flow."

    Aille stiffened. "Are you sure?"

    "Look at that dreadful habitation he built, half-Jao without, half-human within, and, even worse, where he build it," Yaut said. "Consider the quality of his personal service, his manners, even the way he moves. Everything is stilted and hybrid, not wholly one thing or the other. He cultivates useless ornamental vegetation and opens the interior of his dwelling to this star's overblown radiation. He is lost, infected by this world's culture because he refused to acknowledge it, unable to find his way. Such is always the price the victor pays, if he does not restrain fury and hatred when the flow of time requires it. Conquest is not battle."

    To lose flow was to never know where you were in time, or when approaching events would take place. Everything one did would be out of step. Aille considered as the wind strengthened, carrying the scent of rain.

    That would make it easier to defeat Oppuk, of course. But Aille allowed himself a moment to grieve for the once-great scion. No Jao, not the lowest, should suffer that fate.



    "I am going down to swim," he said. "Will you come?"

    Yaut turned toward the cliff, considered, then stepped back, his body taut with resignation. "I left Tully, along with Aguilera and Tamt, back at the hant to help Oppuk's people pour the last few forms. I am confident in Aguilera, but there is still no telling what Tully will do, if not supervised properly. As we have brought him along, we are responsible."

    Yaut lowered his head and turned his back to the wind, heading toward the gleaming black hant. Then in the distance, Aille saw a ramshackle group of vehicles pull up and humans pile out. They seemed to be waving their arms and shouting, though the wind swept their voices inland.

    This had the shape of wrongness, Aille thought. Regretfully, he gave up the thought of swimming, and followed the fraghta.




    Tully heard the shouts before he saw the cars. He and the rest of the conscripted work crew had just poured the last form. His back ached with the effort of keeping the applicator in place so the preprogrammed building slurry poured out at the proper angle.

    He straightened, put one hand to his head and squinted over the gleaming black surface, which was already half-set. Much as he detested the Jao, he had to admit that this way of erecting a dwelling was a lot faster and smoother than the human way.

    People were shouting and waving... something... over their heads. He couldn't tell exactly what. Placards, he supposed, except that something over there seemed to be metal, catching the last of the afternoon sun and reflecting it back into his eyes.

    Caitlin Stockwell emerged from the hant just ahead of Governor Narvo, her face pale and pinched. The Governor's sleek red-gold head surveyed the approaching mob and his movements had that stilted dance-like motion. "What is this?" he said to one of his guards in Jao.

    "A group of natives from a nearby population center," the closest one said. "They seem to be angry. Shall we disperse them?"

    Tully sucked in a sharp breath. Whoever these idiots were, they didn't have any understanding of what they faced. Jao "dispersal" was quite likely to be of the lethal sort. Jao took disrespect very seriously, and made no distinction between police and military tactics. "Disperse" and "put down" were practically synonyms for them.

    He dropped the slurry duct, after making sure the flow was cut off. Then, pulled off his protective gloves, wondering if he could get close enough to warn the approaching crowd back before the damned locator brought him up short.

    Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak came jogging up, closely followed by Yaut. For once, Tully was glad to see a Jao coming instead of going. The Subcommandant's ears were pricked as far forward as possible and he looked curious, rather than angry. "What do they want?" he asked Tully in a low voice.

    Tully listened. The words were growing clearer with each passing second, and some of the demonstrators carried signs. "It's the hunt," he said. "They want us to go home and leave the whales alone."

    Aille's eyes flickered so green, Tully could see no black in them at all. "Find the leader," he said. "Ask him to come forward and express his concerns. I will listen to what he has to say in Governor Oppuk's name."

    "And if I do not wish to listen?" Oppuk said in Jao, his body strangely twisted.

    "Of course you do not wish to listen," Aille said. "This is far too insignificant a matter for your attention. I will listen for you, as a good subordinate should, then either correct them as you would yourself, or dismiss them in your name."

    Oppuk held the Subcommandant's gaze, then glanced aside at the approaching mob. His whiskers flattened. "They distort the flow. It is ugliness."

    Aguilera hurried up from the supply dump a few meters away, where he and Tamt had been helping to mix the slurry. His salt-and-pepper hair was plastered to his skull by sweat. "They don't mean any harm, sir," he said to Aille.

    "Then why are they here?" Aille said.

    "It does not matter why they are here," Oppuk said. "I want them dispersed!"

    Aguilera looked distressed. "Let me talk to them, sir. I'm sure I can make them understand how misguided this is."

    "Pah!" Oppuk said. "Talking will do no good, young Pluthrak. These creatures understand only force. The sooner you realize that, the more effective you will be." His ears swiveled. "Or is it Pluthrak policy to shun force, when possible?"

    Tully saw Yaut stiffen. That had the ring of an insult, he thought.

    "I have brought one of the units newly under my command," Aille said, "as well as my personal service. I would be honored to handle this, if you will allow me."

    Put that way, from the Jao assigned to command jinau troops, Oppuk could not refuse without making the implied insult an open one. That was Tully's guess, at any rate. Tully didn't understand the ins-and-outs of the thing, but he knew the Jao—especially the big shots—were constantly engaged in an intricate dance involving their honor and status, however they saw it.

    Apparently he was right. The Governor turned his back and reentered the hant on its completed side, without saying another word.

    Caitlin Stockwell took a step after him, then stopped, her hands knotted together. "Please don't hurt them," she said to Aille in a strangled voice. "There isn't a base near here. I imagine many of these people have never even seen a Jao. They have no idea what they're doing!"

    She was probably right. Tully stepped forward. "I'll talk to them," he said with a sideways glance at Aguilera, "if you'll unleash me and turn the locator off. Otherwise, I won't be able to get close enough."

    Yaut wrinkled his muzzle. "I will give it to Aguilera. If they both go, there will not be a problem." He turned to Tully. "Unless you think to overpower him, and leave with the human mob."

    Tully realized with a start that the possibility of escape had not occurred to him. His jaw tightened. He must be losing his grip. "This isn't about me. It's about those poor miserable idiots over there who are about to get their fool heads blown off!"

    Aguilera ran a hand back over his disordered hair. "Well, come on, then. We'd better get started. I can't move too fast with this bum leg."

    Together, they waded through the grass, Tully painfully aware of his blue jinau uniform. Collaborator, he thought angrily. That was exactly what he looked like in this get up.

    A hefty fellow with a face of fish-belly white glared as they approached. "A pair of Jao lapdogs!" he said and spat into the sand. "Go back to your masters!"

    Aguilera clasped his hands behind his back. "Where are you from?"

    "What the hell difference does that make?" The man tightened his grip on a sign that read "Stop the Slaughter on Earth's Seas!"

    "Wherever it is, you probably have homes there," Tully said, "and families waiting." With a sudden pang, he thought of the refugee camps back in the Rockies, the only home he had ever known, and a piss-poor one at that. "If you ever want to see them again, you need to hop back in those cars before things get out of control."

    "Or what?" A starved looking woman with flyaway white hair, who had to be at least sixty, stepped up to the big man's side. Her sign, carried in arthritic hands, read "Jao Bastards, Go Home!"

    Jesus. In spite of the cool sea breeze whipping up over the cliffs, Tully felt as though he'd stood too long in the sun. "Lady, do you want to die for this?" His voice was urgent. "Jao don't have a sense of humor, and they hate disrespect worse than about anything you can name. They'd just as soon kill you as look at you."

    "You can crawl for them, if you want!" Another woman pushed through the crowd. Her curly red hair hung down over her cheek, partially obscuring her face. "We're not going to! This is our world!"

    He looked at their faces. They were well meaning patriots, just like the people he'd grown up with back in the Rockies, but they didn't have a clue. Like many humans, living in small out-of-the-way towns, they'd had little if any direct contact with the Jao. This was not a fight they could possibly win.

    ""Look," he said, "we all do what we have to in order to survive these days. These stupid signs aren't going to change anything. You're just taking a bad situation and making it a hell of a lot worse." He glanced over his shoulder at Oppuk's Jao guards, who were prowling back and forth like thwarted sentry dogs, their flickering eyes trained on the crowd of humans. "Believe me, you don't want to draw the Governor's attention like this. If you're going to resist, there are a thousand better ways. Don't be stupid!"

    "You heard what the man said." Aguilera jerked his head, pointing toward the parked vehicles. "Load back up in those cars and hit the road. It's just one whale."

    "One whale today!" The woman brushed her red hair out of her face. "And then they'll get to liking the sport and pretty soon there won't be any whales at all."

    "You don't understand the way they think," Tully said. "Make a big deal about it, and I guarantee they'll get rid of the whales just to make a point about who's in control. Remember Mount Everest? Don't make this worth their trouble!"

    News didn't always travel fast these days, with many rural areas isolated. But almost everyone had heard of Everest and seen pictures of the truncated cauldron of rock where the world's most famous peak had once stood.

    "From the Jao's viewpoint, you're just a handful of native peons who are getting above themselves," Tully said. "Peons are cheap at the price. It wouldn't take Oppuk ten minutes to order a ship from orbit to target the entire Tillamook Bay area and after that you simply wouldn't be a problem any more."

    A stunned silence fell over the crowd.

    "Ever see the crater where Chicago used to be?" Aguilera asked conversationally. "I saw it happen. Fortunately, I was just far enough away from the blast radius."

    The old woman turned away, her eyes bright with unshed tears. Her male companion put an arm around her and led her back toward the cars. After a moment, the red-haired woman followed. Tully watched them go, feeling the black band around his wrist like a lead weight. He wanted to go with them. Goddammit, he belonged with them, not here. He had become a Jao lapdog, just like they said.

    "You did a good thing," Aguilera said in a low voice at his shoulder. "Probably saved more than a few lives here today."

    "Yeah, I'm a real prince," Tully muttered as he watched the townspeople straggle away in twos and threes. "Guess that's why I feel so dirty."



    Vermin! Oppuk thought, pacing the perfect curves of his new receiving chamber. This entire world was infested with vermin! Clever vermin, yes, with a great deal of fight in them, but useless in the end. They couldn't be trained to anything practical, never behaved as manners and protocol required, and their breeding habits were simply appalling. No wonder the genotype varied so wildly. If the Jao could establish a eugenics program, then in a thousand generations they might make something useful of them. Contemplating it, he felt a rare sympathy for the difficulties the Ekhat must have faced back when they had first crafted the Jao from primitive semi-sentient stock.

    He dropped into the newly installed pool which had been filled with local ocean water, then floated on his back, staring at the whorls across the black ceiling. The Naukra Krith Ludh did not understand what this world was really like. If they had, they would have just incinerated it, despite its resources, to keep it out of the hands of the Ehkat, and moved on to something with more promise.

    Twenty orbital cycles ago, he had arrived full of enthusiasm, proud at having been chosen by Narvo for the much-prized Terran posting. Today...

    His greatest hope left was simply that, if the Naukra grew wise and commanded the destruction of the planet, they would permit Oppuk to supervise the ending of what he had begun. Everest was still a moment he remembered with pleasure. With so much more pleasure, would he do the same to Terra itself.

    "The crowd has been dispersed," Drinn's dispassionate voice said from behind.

    "How many were put down?" he asked, hoping the answer was "all."

    "None," Drinn said. "Several members of the Subcommandant's service persuaded them to leave."

    He splashed upright. "The female bodyguard?"

    "No, the two human males. They spoke briefly and then the natives stuffed themselves back into their vehicles and departed."

    Oppuk ducked under the water to clear his head, and calm his sudden fury. He'd thought this predilection of Aille's to take humans into his service the foolish fancy of one newly released from the kochanata, but perhaps not. The Pluthrak might be bold enough, even so young, to plan an open contest with Narvo. If so, his humans might indeed have their uses.

    Still, it would have been wiser to kill all who had dared to protest. Such soft-headedness, common when you allowed humans to deal with their own species, was always a mistake and sent the wrong message. The Subcommandant had avoided trouble now only at the cost of more recalcitrant discord later. Humans were incorrigible. Oppuk knew that like he had once known the currents of his own birthpool.

    Oppuk felt the rage drain away, and the lines of pleased-anticipation overtaking him. There was a trap here, waiting for the Subcommandant. Oppuk would give him the space to stumble into it.

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