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The Course of Empire: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Sunday, June 8, 2003 01:09 EDT



    It was early-dark before Supervisor Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat tracked Director Vamre to a dark alcove in his association hall. He glimpsed her muscled form as she passed through the door, then looked around the shadowy room. He grimaced and settled deeper into his pile of rugs. The aromatic scent of tak filtered through the hall, reminiscent of home, and he had been feeling distinctly better. He'd already half-forgotten the clash with the young upstart officer, although he still had every intention of filing a sharp protest with Commandant Kaul.

    No doubt Nath just wanted to inform him of some quota not met, or several native workers who had once again absconded with insignificant bits of Jao technology. She was ever scrupulous, that one, but he was off duty and interested in none of it.

    After a moment, Nath spotted him and approached, the well-bred vai camiti on her face very much out of place in this unassuming setting. Though she was subordinate to him in assignment, she was of Nimmat, making her kochan ties vastly more auspicious than lowly Kannu, hardly surprising. Most were.

    She settled on a pile of worn dehabia beside him, lightly, as though she weighed no more than a crecheling. Ignoring murmurs and stares of others in the hall, she took the oblique angle of regretful-revelation. "The officer you argued with today was the new Subcommandant, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak."

    His whiskers went numb and he struggled upright in the pile of blankets. "Pluthrak?"

    "None other." Her eyes gazed at him impassively, green blooming here and there, and her posture betraying nothing. He could see her classical training in the least flick of an ear. It took the exquisite training only given to those associated with a great kochan to move with such unconscious grace.

    "As you recall," she said, "I requested that you accompany me outside so I could tell you."

    Vamre felt ill, a sensation which deepened as Nath continued. "I am told this one is of the clearest water, namth camiti, the highest ranked youth of his generation. I was greatly honored a short time ago when he took me into his personal service."

    Then, obviously having satisfied vithrik, she abandoned him to his dark nook, while all around him others talked on and a stick of aromatic imported tak smoldered in a nearby brazier.

    Took her into his personal service? It was all Vamre could do not to groan aloud. He and Nath had never gotten along well under the best of circumstances. Now, she would be impossible to control. With the prestige of Pluthrak swelling behind her, for all practical purposes it would henceforth be she and not he who dominated the situation in the facility.

    But Vamre had far more pressing worries than his relationship with Nath. He tried to remember what he'd said out on the refit floor, and how the young Pluthrak had responded. Though he had no service bars incised on his cheek, his vai camiti had indeed been distinctive—why hadn't he recognized it? And there had been a fraghta in the background, too, he realized, quite stiff and proper with duty. That alone should have been a clue that all was not what it seemed. No new officer from a minor kochan, much less a taif, would have a fraghta accompanying him. How could Vamre have been so stupid?

    It was clear he must apologize, if it weren't already too late. Vallt, his own kochan, was meager, its proffered links to other kochan seldom even acknowledged, much less accepted. Kannu, his root clan, was hardly any more recognized. Through his heedlessness, he had put his entire generation of crechekin at a disadvantage, both now and in the future. Whenever their name came up, this particular Pluthrak would think only of him, and his advice no doubt would inevitably be to turn aside. Nor would it be simply this one Pluthrak. The same would be true for all others with whom he would form association—and there would be a multitude. No kochan was more adept than Pluthrak at creating a web of associations. "Subtle as a Pluthrak." Mighty Narvo could think itself Pluthrak's equal, but no other Jao shared that opinion except their affiliates and close allies.

    He lurched onto his feet, his trousers redolent with tak, and headed for the door. It was not yet full-dark. Perhaps he could speak with this Pluthrak before dormancy overtook him.

    The eyes of his distantkin watched as he left, but, though at least a few must have overheard, no one offered to come with him and attempt to mend what was probably irretrievably broken.



    Aille received the two Binnat gravely, his arms at quiet-attention for their benefit. The newly acquired nameless female guard skulked in the background, but had realized at some point earlier that the even lower status Tully was in his service too, so had recovered a bit of her equilibrium. Yaut stood at the room's perimeter, whiskers writhing as though seeking prey.

    The Binnat, a male and a female, settled in the chairs before the desk. Aille thought of switching off the three dimensional internal diagram of a submarine he had been studying, but they seemed intrigued, so he left it on. It rotated slowly in the air above the desk's gleaming black surface, light playing over its outline.

    The shorter Binnat, a stubby male with several shiny scars on his windward side, leaned forward, his joints set in unmitigated frankness. "Your fraghta said you wanted to know of the Battle of Chicago, Subcommandant."

    Not a sophisticated or subtle fellow, Aille surmised, just an old soldier, direct to a fault and unwilling to play complicated games of vithrik, no doubt unable to rise in rank because of it. "Yes," he said, his own body shifting into unmodified attention. "How would you say the Terran troops fought?"

    "Like wild beasts, but very cunning ones." The Jao's eyes flared green at the memory. "Beasts not smart enough, though, to understand when they were already defeated. We gave them every opportunity to surrender, but they kept coming at our lines, hundreds and hundreds of them, trained, untrained, old and young, fighting long past the point of sanity. We had to crush them in every way possible, destroy their infrastructure down to the last bridge and road, even kill their young, before they accepted defeat."

    The other Jao squirmed, as if the memory made her uncomfortable. "They were very difficult to deal with, because they were so impractical," she said in a low voice. "They even have words for it in their own language: 'fanatic,' 'zealot,' and there are others. Sometimes, if we locked them up, they refused to eat and died of starvation. Other times—not many, but some—they killed themselves and each other, sometimes even their own offspring, rather than submit."

    Green glinted off the long lines of the sub. Red winked here and there to indicate command posts. "What about the jinau troops?" Aille asked.

    "Very capable, sir," the first said, "but it is always difficult to know if you can trust them. They're inherently unstable, I sometimes think, because they are too clever."

    "And yet they seem honorable," Aille mused. "I found several arguing with the Director today merely because they wished to do 'a good job.'"

    "It is difficult to fathom," the first Binnat said, "due to their quirky natures. They tell many untruths."

    "They will say anything," the other added, "if it will obtain what they want. They will swear to it, then act later as they please. In the beginning, many Jao died before we understood this."

    "And what of the lasers on our assault vehicles?" Aille asked. "These humans insist they were easily thwarted by very low tech solutions, steam, thrown chaff, and the like."

    "After the initial assault, our lasers performed poorly," the first said. "That is true. And it is also true that their own weapons were often terrifyingly effective."

    "Was any study ever carried out afterward?"

    "Not that I know of." He glanced at his fellow veteran and she flicked an ear in agreement. "We had won, after all."

    "I see." Aille's whiskers drooped in an unguarded moment of contemplated-folly until he caught himself and amended the gesture to the more tactful contemplated-action. Yaut caught his eye and Aille read repressed-interest in his stance.

    "You have a question, fraghta?"

    "Yes," said Yaut, stepping forward. "How often did Jao troops abandon their own weapons and use Terran ones instead?"

    An excellent question, thought Aille, and one he would not have thought to ask himself.

    The two Binnat glanced at each other. Then the female said, reluctantly, "It was known to happen. Now and then."

    Her male companion, in his blunt manner, bolted onto his feet to display amused-derision. "'Now and then!' Say rather: as often as we could manage it. Which was not often enough, so far as I was concerned. The big problem was that we could not fit into their tanks. But we employed every piece of their artillery we could get our hands on, once we learned how to use it."

    The fraghta stared at him. Aille was certain that Yaut had more questions he wanted to ask, but, after a moment, the fraghta stepped back. Clearly enough, there were some further matters which Yaut intended to discuss with these Binnat—but not here and now, in front of Pluthrak.

    Aille was not disgruntled. A good fraghta would often handle things privately and in his own manner. Not the least of the reasons for Pluthrak's eminence was its habit of trusting its affiliated kochan and taifs.

    The doorfield flared and another Jao entered. Aille squinted at the newcomer's vai camiti for a moment, until he remembered where he'd seen that particular facial pattern. "Director Vamre," he said, falling into a carefully neutral stance.

    "I—" The Director was radiating unsophisticated misery. "I have been so busy, I did not listen to the day's updates. I did not know!"



    The two startled Binnat retreated to the shadows at the back of the room. Yaut's ears twitched and even Tully seemed to catch a whiff of the Jao's distress.

    "'Did not know?'" Aille repeated unhelpfully.

    "That you were of Pluthrak!"

    "Many are of Pluthrak," Aille said. "Certainly you cannot be expected to know all of them."

    "I did not know a Pluthrak had been assigned here!" Vamre krinnu Vallt vau Kannu paced toward the two astonished Binnat, then appeared to notice their lower-ranked presence for the first time. He stiffened. "On Terra, I mean, and I should have."

    "There are many interesting tales told about this world, despite its isolation," Aille said. "Pluthrak wished to have firsthand experience of Terra, hence my posting."

    "I would not have spoken so bluntly," Vamre said, "had I known."

    "Does the situation alter itself, when explained to different ears?" Aille took up cold-indignation. "Why should your words be different to Pluthrak than any other? Truth is truth."

    "I judged without listening, thinking you brash," Vamre said, his eyes turned away. "But so great a kochan as Pluthrak is never brash. You must have had your reasons for siding with the Terran."

    "Pluthrak is composed of individuals," Aille said, "and therefore capable of a great many things, not all of them fortuitous. In this instance, however, I do not think it brash to suggest we might at least consider what these Terrans have to say about the ongoing refit. They accomplished a great deal on their own, before ever we came here, and they must surely know the limitations and possibilities of their own technology much better than we can."

    Vamre bowed his head, seeking with visible effort to control himself. "Young Pluthrak, I fear you will know these creatures better after some passage of time. They are devious and resentful, ever mindful of their defeat and quite capable of giving the worst of misinformation to exact revenge."

    Over in the corner, Tully snorted and crossed his arms. Yaut's nostrils flared, but he said nothing.

    Aille settled back in his chair and stared thoughtfully at the agitated Jao. "I shall take your advice under consideration, Director. Thank you for being so kind as to offer it this late in the solar cycle." His body assumed the lines of weary-attention, a subtle posture that had taken much practice to perform gracefully. He thanked his instructors now that they had drummed it into him so he could assume it between one breath and the next.

    Vamre gazed at him bleakly, whiskers limp with resignation. "May others always heed your words," he said in a rather parochial leavetaking. "May all seek your attention." He turned and left.

    Yaut stared after him thoughtfully. "That," he said flatly, "was interesting."

    The two Binnat emerged from the shadows, the cant of their ears betraying embarrassment. Combined, in the case of the male, with more than a hint of contempt. Aille suspected the two Binnat were acquainted with Vamre, and had little regard for him.

    "We also shall leave now," the tall female said, "if the Subcommandant has no more need of us."

    "Your viewpoint has been useful," Aille said. "I trust I may call upon Binnat, should I require further education. Or have my fraghta do so."

    "It would please us mightily to be of use at any time," the Binnat said. "With your permission?"

    Aille wrinkled his nose in affirmation and the two left the room.



    Once outside, the two Binnat stared at each other.

    "These are treacherous waters," muttered Ammet. "Any time Narvo and Pluthrak currents come together, lesser kochan are caught in the whirlpool."

    The stubby male was more sanguine. "True enough. But this world needs a cleansing. You know it as well as I do. Narvo has lost—"

    He broke off. Not even one as blunt as he was prepared to finish that sentence.



    Tully had studied Jao assiduously in preparation for this assignment, trained by two of Riley's people who were fluent in the tongue. But his command of the language was not yet good enough to follow every nuance of the argument between the Director and Aille. The problem was compounded by the fact that so much of Jao communication with each other depended on that freakish body language of theirs, of which Tully had only the roughest grasp.

    Still, this much was now clear to him: There were deeper dissensions and hidden quarrels among the Jao themselves than either he or Rob Wiley had ever realized. And this young Pluthrak appeared to be shaking things up. Perhaps his plan to escape had been hasty. He might be of more use where he was, for the moment. So far, Aille had shown no inclination to question Tully about his Resistance contacts. Tully was beginning to realize, for reasons he still couldn't make clear, even to himself, that the Pluthrak had no intention of torturing him. "Training" him, yes—whatever that might mean to a Jao—but not subjecting him to what humans would call the "third degree."

    I'll stay a spy, then. Truth is, this is all way more interesting than anything I've seen yet.

    Aille rose. Immediately, his new female Jao bodyguard rose also and headed for the door.

    Yaut beckoned at Tully peremptorily. "Come!"

    Tully started to bristle, but suppressed the reaction almost instantly. You're a spy, dammit! Be a good little boy.

    He hurried to precede the three Jao out through the building to their waiting transport below. He sat in front with the driver, but the Jao female was left behind to walk. She also was in Aille's "service" now, whatever exactly that meant. At any rate, she didn't seem any happier about it than he was.

    The sun was setting, the horizon turning red with dusk. Cicadas buzzed in the trees and he could hear the boom of the surf to the south. A storm must be blowing in from the Gulf. The day was still sweltering, but the car was fairly new and so had no air conditioning. Jao did not feel extremes of heat or cold, and had no use for air conditioning. That could be tough on the humans who had to spend time with them. He settled back, letting the hot heavy air run over his face and cool him as much as possible.

    The driver pulled up at Aille's quarters and leaped out to open the door. The two Jao emerged. "Shall you be needing me anymore this evening, sir?" he asked.

    Aille waved a careless hand. "Perhaps," he said. "Remain until further orders."

    He nodded, then climbed back in the car and settled down to wait.

    Tully watched them dissolve the doorfield and enter the typical Jao structure which had no corners, nor indeed any straight lines. For the moment, they didn't seem to notice he was lagging behind. He turned to the driver. "I need you to get word to my unit, Danvers. I don't want them to think I just disappeared."

    Danvers blinked at him, then yawned. "If the Subcommandant wishes them to know, he’ll tell them."

    "They might list me as a deserter, dammit!" He gripped the hot metal of the open window with angry fingers. Any second now, the locator device around his wrist would deliver another punishing jolt. The last one had nearly scrambled his brain. He couldn't delay much longer.

    "Tully, you are an idiot. Don't you get it? He's Pluthrak, and he's taken you into his personal service. That's never happened before, as far as I know—and you're worried about piddly regs? God, what I'd give to be in your shoes."

    "Service!" he said contemptuously, then flinched at a warning tingle in his wrist. He held up his arm with the sleek black band. "Seems more like slavery to me!"

    "You're supposed to be jinau," Danvers said, squinting suspiciously. "Don't you know anything? And why did you sign up in the first place, with an attitude like that?"

    Pain raced up his arm, exploding into a white-hot nova behind his eyes. Tully cried out and dropped to his knees, unable to see or hear. Then it retreated just long enough for him to get to his feet and stagger toward the door.

    Inside, he slumped against the wall, sweat drenching his face. He wasn't sure how long he could go on like this, leashed like a damn poodle.



    Kaul krinnu ava Dano listened to his Pleniary-Adjunct's recorded report on the new Subcommandant's movements throughout the day, then stumped around his spacious quarters. His posture exuded crude, but satisfying, unmitigated suspicion.

    The Dano bodystylists who had instructed him in his youth would have been appalled, but he'd always found the more vulgar postures relieved his tension as nothing else did. In public, with other Jao, he behaved in accordance with the highest standards, but in private these days he often found himself indulging his baser impulses.

    Perhaps it was being forced to associate with these misbegotten natives for so long. They had only the dimmest understanding of how to bodyspeak and few of their postures had ever been standardized. Certainly, as far as he could tell, none were ever taught or properly refined. Each child was left on its own to pick up what little it could. No wonder it was so difficult to instruct them how to behave in a civilized manner.

    He dropped into his chair and stared moodily at the holomap's latest revelation of Ekhat movements. It spun slowly above his desk, gleaming red for contested systems, blue for threatened ones, amber for those yet uninvolved. Bad news there, nothing but bad for some time. The Bond of Ebezon would have to send help soon or see this system lost. He had little hope they would do so in time to make a difference. The initial hopes for Terra, with its potentially vast resources, had long since faded due to the intractability of the natives. With the war against the Ekhat flaring up in many places, the Jao fleets were kept busy elsewhere.

    He pushed those concerns aside, since he had no control over them, and went back to his ruminations. This newly-arrived Pluthrak was conducting himself very strangely. For a youth so supposedly promising—namth camiti, it was said—he had spent far more of his time today consorting with Terrans than his own kind, not at all what Kaul had anticipated. That Pluthrak had sent him here to undermine Narvo was obvious. But how did Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak expect to expand Pluthrak associations without using his time to seek out other Jao?

    To be sure, his fraghta seemed proper enough. Maybe they hadn't sent this newly released youth here to embarrass Narvo. Maybe—he found himself gripping his hands in unabashed anticipation-of-another's-misfortune—they had sent this particular individual to Terra because he was disappointing, either unwilling or unable to conduct himself according to Pluthrak's high standards. Perhaps his elders believed that here on turbulent Terra he would be ground up by Narvo, thereby finally becoming of use to the kochan by hardening the antagonism with their great rival.

    There was something... not quite right about that possibility, however. That would be a blunt tactic, quite unlike Pluthrak. Narvo, certainly—even more, Dano. Kaul's own kochan shared Narvo's belief in the efficacy of direct action, which was the reason that Narvo and Dano were so often allied.

    Kaul continued his pacing and thinking. How could he work the new situation to Dano's advantage? No other members of Pluthrak were stationed here at the moment, though undoubtedly there were some affiliate kochan dotted in various assignments about the planet. Pluthrak was both too numerous and successful for it to be otherwise.

    If this Aille behaved unfortunately, and Pluthrak were informed privately, they might come to trust Kaul's judgement and seek association with Dano where previously none had been desired. That would be a great advantage to the kochan. Dano's alliance with Narvo was long-standing, and certainly not something to be toyed with lightly. But it was an unequal alliance, since not even Dano's great numbers could offset Narvo's military power, and Narvo was always overbearing. True, Dano had managed to retain its status as a great kochan, but as things now stood the flow of time could eventually reduce it to nothing more than an affiliate of Narvo.

    He urged caution upon himself, mired for the moment in the crude posture of extreme-wariness. Narvo's power on Terra was wielded by Oppuk, who was even quicker to exercise power than most of his kochan. There could be no hint—not a visible sign!—that Kaul was in any way seeking to form association with Pluthrak. As unnaturally as it came to one of Dano, Kaul must be subtle here. "Subtle as a Pluthrak." He must attempt to associate with Pluthrak by undermining Pluthrak's own scion. Then, if Oppuk noticed, he could only be pleased.

    Kaul came to his decision. Flow had swept this Pluthrak youth within reach of Narvo's grasp, and to a lesser degree, Dano's. Perhaps he could be seized and put to use, fashioned into a tool to fit Dano's hand.

    He stopped and took stock of his body, the sloppy lines, the ungainly angle of shoulder compared to arms, the unsightly twist of torso. If he were to take advantage of this opportunity, then it would be wise to become more restrained.

    He visualized long ago lessons, instructors who had embodied the most graceful of postures, those for which Dano had been most famous, then subtly altered his limbs, gradually managing the precise beauty of determined-anticipation.

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