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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 5, 2003 23:02 EDT



    Aille stepped between Oppuk and the Stockwell girl, who obviously shrank from taking part in the hunt. Certainty beat through him—if he did not act, she was sure to invoke offense, which was precisely what the Governor intended. Oppuk's unsanity was obvious, now, especially with that obscene posture.

    Aille knew the Pluthrak variant on cruel-enjoyment, of course. His kochan-parents had taught it to their crechelings, so that they would know how to avoid it at all costs. That stance made one vulnerable to folly—and open to enemies.

    "Although it is only proper for the Governor to have the honor of the first shot," he said, "I must confess I wish to claim the second for myself."

    Oppuk's eyes met his and flashed an intense molten-green. For an instant his body displayed savage-hatred, startling in its purity. Even the normally unflappable Yaut, a few steps away, hissed in a breath at such a revelation before dampening his response.

    But the Governor recovered quickly. "Of course," Oppuk said, abandoning the weapons mount with an air of condescension. "This hunt is after all in honor of Pluthrak deigning to waste one of its celebrated scions on this undeserving world."

    "Alas, I am so newly emerged, I have never had the opportunity to become 'celebrated,'" Aille said. He touched the tender new service bar on his cheek, etched there a mere two nights ago by Yaut. "Although I hope to at least serve well."

    He saw Kralik tow Caitlin Stockwell along the deck until the two humans stood well back. Her hood had dropped onto her shoulders and soaked hair clung to her head almost like golden nap. Aille knew the pair should go below where they would not tempt the Governor to notice them any further, but they seemed unaware of the risk they were courting. They looked small and fragile and dangerously exposed, like offspring released too soon from the creche.

    The whale surfaced again, then disappeared with a flick of its massive tail flukes. Up on the trawler's forward deck, Aille put his eye to the harpoon's sight and waited, holding on with both hands as the ship lurched. He had been told that whales were air-breathers, not properly fish, so this one would have to resurface again before too long.

    The creature was mighty, there was no doubt of that, and he could see why humans had found them fascinating and why some of them objected to the hunt. Now that Aille had seen one, he had grave doubts about the enterprise himself. The whale's narrow, almost triangular head possessed a strangely intelligent, self-aware gaze. It had never been the custom of Jao to make sport of hunting sentient beings.

    But, they were here to hunt this particular beast and hunt it they would. The Governor had so commanded, and for Aille to oppose him directly would be a serious error. Combat between kochan was a delicate thing, with victories more often measured by subtle nuances than direct triumphs. The point, after all, was not to defeat Narvo, but to force them to associate properly.

    The whale would have to make itself of use, thus, as did all reasoning beings. Sometimes that required the laying down of one's life. Aille readied his hands on the controls and waited for the wounded whale to break the surface again.

    The first harpoon's rope creaked and then the whale's immense back parted the waves like a gray boulder. He angled the harpoon's sight as the trawler pitched, depressed the trigger—and missed as the whale once more dove, almost as though it were trifling with him.

    The human crew unshipped another harpoon and handed it off to the Jao for reloading. Then the trawler jerked as the whale suddenly ran heartward beneath the choppy waves, sawing the rope against the metal railing. Beneath his feet, he could feel the thrum of the trawler's laboring engines. Wait, he told himself. It would have to surface again.

    Oppuk stalked back and forth at the rail, trying—not very successfully—to conceal his anger. "I lack your eye for shooting this device," Aille said. "Have you any advice?"

    "Try not to miss this time," the Governor said curtly, then fell against the cabin as the whale surfaced again, this time beneath the trawler so that the boat lurched sideways. Aille gripped the harpoon, fighting the tilt, and waited as his pulse raced. This creature was indeed clever. Might one ever be converted into an ally? he wondered. Imagine swimming with such a massive, cunning being. What a partnership that would be!

    Its huge gray head broke the waves, but not as high this time, as though the whale were growing tired. You weary, great one, Aille thought. It is time to submit. He put his eye to the sight, acquired his target, and fired.

    This time the harpoon struck the leviathan midbody before it could submerge. The attached rope sang through the air, then went taut with a snap that jerked the trawler forward. Several of the watching humans went to their knees, Tully and the Japanese ambassador among them.

    "A true shot," Yaut said, suddenly at his side, though he had not been close before.

    Oppuk gripped the rail and watched the floundering whale as the sailors again reloaded the harpoon mount, then looked to the Jao for who might take the next shot. He motioned impatiently for Caitlin to come forward. "Come," he said, "I think even a human could not miss now."

    She closed her eyes, then let humble-refusal shape her body. "I fear it is too great an honor," she said. "I have never trained as a warrior or served in the military. My father would be quite angry if I put myself forward in such a way."

    The Japanese ambassador glanced quickly at Stockwell and then came forward, stopping in front of Aille. "There is danger of the carcass sinking, once the whale dies," he said, bending low in an obvious posture of submission. "The crew says it would be best to secure it with several more harpoons until it can be winched onboard for flensing. May I recommend that his Excellency's skill is needed here."

    Interesting, thought Aille. He realized at once what was happening. Whatever the nature of the conflict between the two human moieties, the Japanese were clearly attempting to avoid unnecessary further humiliation of their opponent, now that they had won the initial sally. It was well done, quickly and smoothly—and boldly, too, given Oppuk's obvious ill-temper.

    Very Jao-like, in fact. Just so did kochan properly battle with each other.

    Oppuk's hand began to rise, as if he were tempted to strike the old Japanese ambassador. But he lowered it, his stance stiff, and then pointed at Aille. "It is the Pluthrak's hunt. Let him see it to the conclusion." Thereupon, he stalked off.

    Aille moved at once, since it was now time to end this little contest with the Narvo with a small but clear victory. He solicited the crew's suggestions on their placement, via the ambassador's translation, then fired two final harpoons.



    When it was done, he followed Yaut and the rest of his service below decks. The Stockwell scion, after glancing at the Governor, attached herself to them. The area below decks was another of those spaces, Aille found, never intended for the breadth of Jao shoulders. But he knew Yaut had his good reasons for taking them there. Oppuk and most of his personal service were remaining on deck, enjoying the wind and rain while the crew went about the business of winching the whale up onto a processing deck where it could be butchered. Given the situation, it would be best to put some separation between them now.

    Caitlin sat hunched at the little table in the galley, her hands over her ears as the gears squealed. Kralik and Tully were carrying on a conversation that seemed intended to distract her, while Aguilera drummed his fingers on the table's gleaming surface, his face intent, apparently lost in thought.

    A hollow boom sounded outside and something struck the water. The trawler, which had been idling, pitched hard to the right.

    Aille looked past Yaut up the steps. "Are there predators in this area?"

    "Nothing big enough to bother a ship this size," Kralik said. He rose from the table and bounded up the stairs, two at a time.

    Again, something whumped and the ship quivered.

    A moment later, Kralik stuck his head in the doorway. "We're under attack!"



    Tully's first impulse was to grin. The local Resistance was taking action, it seemed. Real action, not stupid rock-throwing and sign-waving. Good for them!

    Then he caught Aguilera's dark eyes on him. "Get a grip," the older man said. "Even the densest Jao knows what a smile is and our Subcommandant is not exactly dense."

    Yaut had already dashed topside, followed by Aille. The Samsumaru's engines roared back into life and the ship surged forward. Aguilera listened for a moment, then broke out his sidearm. "Damnation," he said, "they'll only get themselves killed, and half the folks back home too!"

    That sobered Tully. It was indeed the custom of the Jao to retaliate against civilians who aided rebels—and they were none too discriminating about it. Down through the years, he had seen it happen over and over again. It made the rebels wary concerning sabotage or assassination, selecting only those targets that couldn't be traced back to a particular town.

    Aguilera started up the steps, then stopped and glared back at Tully. "Get your ass up on deck before anyone notices you're not there!"

    Yeah, that wouldn't look good, Tully had to admit. And, besides, he couldn't let Yaut and the locator control get too far away without suffering the consequences. With a sigh, he heaved to his feet, and, bracing himself with hands on the walls on either side of the narrow passageway, he followed Aguilera up into a confusing maelstrom of noise, wind, and rain.

    The three Jao escort ships swung low out of the clouds, taking shots at four fiberglass powerboats fighting the waves. But these were just about the worst conditions possible for effective use of lasers. The wind had risen, driving the rain sideways, and it was hard enough just to stand on deck. Except at point-blank range, most of the energy of the lasers just went to vaporize raindrops.

    Tully gripped the chill, wet rail and watched. The boats were fragile and undersized, laughable even. A handgun or rifle would do no good at this range and the craft were too tiny to carry anything much bigger. "Idiots!" he muttered and wiped the salt spray out of his eyes. "What do they think they're going to do? Throw rocks at us until they manage to scratch the paint?"

    Then he caught a glimpse of two men in the bow of the closest boat struggling to load something long, white, and slender into what he suddenly recognized was a rocket launcher. He leaned over the rail and squinted. Red stripes circled one end and he could make out a row of numbers. . . .

    His grip tightened painfully. They weren't so foolish, after all. "Oh, man!" He closed his eyes. With a weapon like that, they actually had a chance to do some real damage to this tub. Not smart. Not smart at all.

    Normally, he would be all for retribution exacted against the Jao, but so many would pay for this—and after the demonstrations on shore this morning, Oppuk was already enraged.

    Three Jao had switched on the newly mounted laser cannon and were taking methodical calibrations, conferring in low, unhurried voices. The Subcommandant and Yaut had drawn hand weapons and were both taking a bead on the lead ship, waiting for the jouncing boats to sweep closer.

    One of the Jao escorts banked and fired at the little powerboat, which swerved aside and disappeared behind the immense swell of gray waves to the south. Underneath their feet, the trawler rumbled, accelerating with all the speed of a lumbering elephant as the crew navigated toward land.

    The laser cannon operators fired at the third boat just as it emerged into an area relatively clear of rain. The speedboat disintegrated in a spectacular explosion. Water sizzled into steam as the beam continued for several seconds before being switched off. The chill, wet air was filled with stench of incinerated fiberglass.

    Dumb bastards! Tully saluted them silently for their courage, while wishing they'd had the wisdom to select their targets more carefully.

    Aguilera and Kralik joined Aille and Yaut at the rail, both armed. Tully hovered behind their backs, impotent and cursing under his breath. Even if the boats called off their ill-advised attack at this point, affront had already been given. Oppuk would do what he always did, when confronted with human intransigence. He'd make the price so high in terms of the lives of the innocent, that the occupied lands would think long and hard about harboring and giving aid to rebels in the future.

    Tully watched with growing dread as the closest escort fired, narrowly missing one of the remaining attackers. A roar indicated the laboring of its engines, then it too turned and headed out toward the open sea. The escort followed. Within two seconds, they'd both disappeared from view.

    Aguilera scanned the low-hanging clouds, his face wet with rain and spray. "Is that it?"

    "I doubt it," Tully said. Rebels would not give up so easily, he thought. They had inflicted no real damage yet and would be loathe to have risked so many civilians back on shore for the little they had accomplished out here so far.

    "I do not understand how they could have fired upon us at all," Aille said, his eyes flickering green. "Our scout ships possess highly effective electronic countermeasures against targeting mechanisms. And they should never have been able to get so close without being detected."

    Kralik's eyes swept the gray-green waves. "The missiles they're using are low-tech, line-of-sight and wire-guided, so electronic countermeasures wouldn't work well if at all. And the boats have fiberglass hulls, not metal ones. They planned this out carefully, and came well prepared for the situation. The weather favors them entirely. That was one of the first things we learned, during the conquest. We always fought you Jao in bad weather, if we could, best of all in a heavy rain. Your lasers may be great in space, or under ideal conditions on land. But they're piss-poor otherwise."

    Yaut's ears flicked and Tully thought he detected a measure of respect in the fraghta's stance.

    A muffled thwump sounded, then bits of smoldering fiberglass and metal were falling with the rain to litter the Samsumaru's deck. Kralik ducked under cover and Tully hurried after him.

    Kralik's gray eyes narrowed. "That's two," he said bleakly. "Maybe the remaining boats will take the hint and sod off."

    But they wouldn't, Tully thought. They had worked up the nerve to do this and by all that was holy, they would see it done or die trying, most likely the latter. A grim smile twisted his lips so that he had to turn away. He almost wouldn't mind dying on this bucket of bolts at that, if these poor misguided bastards could send Governor Oppuk to the bottom with him.

    Then he had to shake his head—drown a Jao? Like that was going to happen.

    The three manning the laser mount were craning their stubby Jao necks, trying to spot the remaining powerboats while the trawler heeled across the waves and began to pick up speed. Below, on the flensing deck, the whale had been opened, then abandoned only partially butchered, as the crew had to tend to the business of getting under way. The hot reek of blood and entrails filled the air.

    An escort came across their bow and disappeared into the clouds again. Tully wiped his face off with the back of his hand, hoping the action was over for now.

    Caitlin Stockwell peered up from the stairwell. "What was it?" she asked, her face white as marble.

    "Rebels, most likely," he told her, "but I think—"

    "Caitlin, get below!" Kralik said. "There's still two left somewhere out there! They could come back any second!"

    Her eyes were huge and blue-gray, mirroring the angry storm. Kralik reached for her arm to urge her to safety, and then something struck the bow with a great crack. The Samsumaru shuddered and shards of metal exploded outward.



    Oppuk fell forward at the impact, flinging his arms out so that he sprawled across the metal deck in a most undignified fashion. Hands were pulling him back onto his feet even before his head stopped ringing. He blinked hard, trying to make the scene before him come together.

    The laser mount was gone, along with its crew of three. A human missile had made a direct hit. He realized with a start that Drinn was speaking to him, but he couldn't make the words out over the white-noise in his ears. He shook the helping hands off and took up baffled-incomprehension so that Drinn left off the useless talking.

    Another explosion came, somewhere out of sight, shuddering the ship again. The immediate impact seemed smaller, but the part of Oppuk's brain that was still functioning knew the damage was worse. That missile had struck at or near the trawler's waterline.

    With a groan that even he could make out, the trawler settled over windward. The deck pitched and he had to flail for balance. His gaze fell upon his arm and he realized a piece of metal shrapnel had sliced the flesh. Orange blood dripped down his forearm and then was diluted by the rain. He had been injured, yet had not even felt it.

    Drinn was already trying to dress the wound, but he was in no mood to be fussed over. "Where are they?" he shouted over the noise inside his head. "I want them exterminated! Down to the last one!"

    Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak ran past, sidearm drawn, headed for what was left of the bow rail, his attention trained on something in the water below. Oppuk shook his head and suddenly could hear a little better. It was a motor, he realized, a small one and close.

    All three of the escorts swooped low over the listing trawler, but didn't fire this time. What was wrong with them, he raged. Was everyone under his command incompetent these days? Didn't they realize he held their lives, as well as their honor, in his hand? Had they lost all sense of vithrik?

    The escorts banked and swung back again, still holding their fire. He turned to Drinn. "Establish a link!" he said. "Order them to fire!"

    Drinn's body went rigid, executing the most neutral of stances. "They cannot!" he shouted over the wind and the rain and the ringing in Oppuk's head.

    "They most certainly can!" He drew his own sidearm and glared up at the banking scout ships. "If they do not, I will shoot them down myself!"

    "But, Governor," Drinn said, eyes ablaze with strong emotion, "the attacker has come alongside. They cannot fire without hitting us too!"

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