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The Course of Empire: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, July 11, 2003 22:46 EDT



PART III: Leviathan

    When the Bond of Ebezon's agent learned of the whale hunt, he moved to the window in his human-designed residence and stared out over the ocean.

    On one level, he was not surprised. Oppuk's hatred of humans had, years earlier, passed into the realm of unsanity. Still, even for Oppuk, this action was egregious.

    Stupid, as well. The reports coming from Pascagoula had made clear already that the young scion of Pluthrak was, indeed, namth camiti. Foolish to leave one's guard open against such a one, regardless of his youth and inexperience.

    Oppuk, of all people, should know that. He had been namth camiti himself once, Narvo's pride. And, within a short time after arriving on Terra, had proved itself by displacing the Hariv who had been possessed oudh before his arrival. Jita krinnu ava Hariv had not been as arrogant as Oppuk was now, but, secure in the shrewdness and sagacity of his age, had not taken the challenge of the Narvo namth camiti seriously enough—until it was too late, and he was forced to offer his life.

    The agent had been there himself, at the assembly of the Naukra where Oppuk had taken the old Hariv's life. Oppuk had driven the ceremonial dagger into the neck vertebrae as surely and as forcefully as he had outmaneuvered Jita from the moment of his arrival on the planet. It had been a superbly delivered deathstroke—quick, clean, as custom demanded—even if the agent himself thought Oppuk had been a bit excessive in the use of his massive muscles. But then, that was always Oppuk's way. In that, if nothing else, he was truly namth camiti of Narvo.

    For a moment, the agent considered whether there was any way he could be present himself, at the whale hunt. He would like to observe the dance more closely, in order to gain a better sense for the young Pluthrak.

    But, leaving aside the obvious difficulties—no one had invited him, after all—it was probably still too early. And besides, he thought with some amusement, the center of the flow was coming towards him, in any event. Perhaps he would not have to do anything, beyond wait.

    He was good at that, after all. The agent had now waited for twenty years.



    Oppuk went down to the Great Room, where he had received his guests the day before, and swam. The staff had cleared away the last of the detritus from the gathering and he had the space to himself. The vastness soothed his nerves and helped him think. Eyes open, he dove into cool waves tinted the precise green of Pratus' largest sea, the Cornat Ma.

    He'd known the truth for a long time. Narvo would probably never let him return to Pratus. His chance to get off this hateful ball of earth and rock had faded as the orbital cycles passed. Now, at his age, it was not likely to ever happen. He would never be brought back to breed, simply left here to rot away and take Narvo's deepening shame into oblivion with his eventual death.

    Terra had been conquered, but the natives had resisted so fiercely, the victory had come at such a terrible cost and taken so much longer than initial flow had seemed to indicate, that someone had to accept the fault. As the young namth camiti from mighty Narvo assigned to the conquest, Oppuk had maneuvered skillfully to force the existing commander of the Jao forces to do so, associating deftly as he convinced everyone the failure was due to the commander's excessive caution and hesitancy.

    Jita krinnu ava Hariv, that had been. The old Jao's eyes had glared hatred at Oppuk even as he offered up his life for the failure, before the assembled elders of his kochan and Narvo's and many others, as well as representatives of the Bond.

    Narvo had accepted the offer, of course, and thereby elevated their scion Oppuk to the paramount position and transferred Oudh from Hariv to Narvo. It had been a pinnacle of triumph and success for both his kochan and him, confirming once again that Narvo was supreme in the field of battle.

    But what neither Narvo nor Oppuk had understood, at the time—though Jita had tried to warn them—was that the conquest of Terra was far from over. Oppuk, once in command, had ordered an all-out massive assault on the most powerful of the human moieties, what they called the United States. The result had been the Battle of Chicago, a brutal and vast conflict covering much of the area south of the great lakes of North America.

    The savagery of the humans had been incredible. They, too, had poured everything into the battle. Oppuk had not really believed the reports he was getting—from Narvo and affiliated commanders, now, not Hariv—until he finally descended from orbit to observe from a close distance. What he had seen in the days that followed horrified him, as it would have any civilized being. The natives combined insensate fury with a gruesome penchant for self-immolation. They thought nothing of surrendering their lives, as long as it meant taking Jao with them. They set ambushes everywhere, even baiting traps with the bodies of their dead comrades, mates and offspring. And their weaponry had been far more effective than Oppuk had assumed, having dismissed Hariv's reports as self-serving twaddle.

    The experience had come as a complete shock to the young Oppuk, the proud namth camiti—as he had been then, so long ago—of great Narvo. The hatred he had developed for the natives had settled into his bones, and never left. They were altogether vile creatures; naked and uncouth, hideous beyond belief with their flat, expressionless faces, without sophistication or merit or vithrik of any description. Yet, in the end, he had barely defeated them—and then only by giving up the battle and ordering the outright destruction of the area. And again, shortly after, when another great battle began to take shape along the southern coast of the continent.

    He'd thought, at the time, that the worst was past. But the many solar cycles which followed had been no better. The vicious beasts were no easier to rule than they had been to conquer.

    Even still, pockets of resistance smoldered back in those misbegotten mountains. And elsewhere, in other mountains and other forests on other continents. He could reduce the camps of the vermin to slag, with enough bolides, but that would render much of this continent and other parts of the planet uninhabitable. Then everyone would know he had missed enough of the stragglers to allow them to breed replacements for those he had killed. And such action would expend many resources at a time when quickening flow suggested the Ekhat might be headed this way, as long predicted.

    More troops and materiel had already been lost here than in conquering all the other worlds under Jao hegemony put together. Even now, a huge garrison was required just to hold it, without the potentially vast resources of the planet being released for the war against the Ekhat. Few in the Naukra Krith Ludh would overlook that once it became obvious, and Oppuk was sure the Bond's suspicions were mounting all the time.

    The situation was maddening, and there was no end in sight. None, at least, that would come quickly enough to salvage his once-promising life. Maddening, and for much too long. Oppuk knew, in some part of his mind, that his own grasp on sanity was weakening. Indeed, was already badly frayed.

    And this was a time when he needed to think clearly. Pluthrak, obviously, had concluded that Narvo's hold on Terra was weakening. So, much as Narvo itself had done with Oppuk, they had sent a namth camiti to begin the challenge.

    But he did not allow himself to think about his mental state very often. It was not the Narvo way to dwell on such inner subtleties. That road led to paralysis. The Narvo stance toward the universe was direct, shaping it rather than being shaped. Oppuk had defeated Jita, but Aille would not do the same to him. Narvo, after all, was not Hariv. He would crush this Pluthrak upstart.

    Finally, he let himself rise to the pool's surface and blinked up into the carefully expressionless face of Drinn, his castellan. "The transport is ready, Governor," the servitor said, "at your convenience."

    Oppuk heaved himself out onto the broad black rocks, then shook the water out of his nap. "And the female?"

    Drinn did not even flick a whisker. "Which female, Governor?"

    "The Stockwell progeny," he said. "Is she still in residence?"

    "You have not yet given her leave to depart, Governor."

    He had not, had he? The thought pleased him. He had suppressed his awareness of her to the point he had forgotten about her for the moment. He was pleased, too, that his ploy, put into action so long ago, had apparently been successful. After his dispatch of her brother, this little female had applied herself quite diligently in the learning of Jao. Her diction was flawless, and she even moved well—for a human. He would employ her skills in the approaching days, when the Ekhat arrived and her fellow humans would need to be exhorted to both fight and die well.

    As for the father, his lifespan was approaching its end. Oppuk was weary of Ben Stockwell's many small subterfuges on the behalf of his species, and the wretch was getting old as well. Humans aged faster than Jao, it seemed. With the Stockwell girl ready to be trained at last, he could put the father down and install her in his place as figurehead President. Who better than a daughter from Stockwell's own kochan educated in many things Jao?

    "Tell her she is to accompany me on the whale hunt," he said, remembering her evident distress over the whole idea. "Have her brought out to my personal transport immediately."

    Drinn's black eyes flashed green with amusement, then the castellan resumed a classic rendition of respectful-appreciation colored by just a hint of anticipation in the lay of his ears.

    Oppuk enjoyed the elegance of tripartite postures, though he was far too busy to engage in them himself. "So," he murmured, "all that training was not wasted."

    The castellan disappeared through the blue sparkle of the doorfield as Oppuk gazed around the vast echoing hall regretfully. His whiskers twitched. He would miss the palace pools, with their carefully crafted scent mixtures, but he understood this hunt was to take place out on an ocean. It would not be Pratus, of course, and he would most likely never see the magnificent green spray of the Cornat Ma again. But, vile as it was, this world was his—so he would dredge from it what scant diversions it could provide.

    And the President's progeny would make herself useful while he did.



    Kralik arranged transport up to the Oregon coast via the resources of his Pacific Division. That allowed the Subcommandant to take, not only his personal service, but the entire jinau company as an honor guard. The general had watched the young Jao question the company's veterans yesterday with growing surprise. All morning long, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak had studied the face of each man or woman in turn, asked intelligent questions, then listened to the answers. He'd made notes himself or directed his fraghta to do so, and requested additional details whenever he felt the information was not clear.

    Aille was still Jao, of course, with the air of inherent superiority and entitlement that seemed bred into their very bones. Nothing would alter that. But he had really listened, and Kralik had never before encountered a highly placed Jao who did.

    Then there was the fact that the Subcommandant had taken not one, but three, humans into his personal service. Everyone knew that was just not done. Of course, the selection of Rafe Aguilera, Kralik could understand. Aguilera had served as a tank commander during the invasion—and a damned good one at that, by all reports. The Subcommandant was in charge of the refit of tanks, among other weapons, down in Pascagoula. Aguilera clearly offered a great deal of experience and knowledge in a critical area.

    But Gabe Tully was another matter. For one thing, the man clearly had Resistance sympathies at the very least. Kralik suspected he was actually a full-fledged member. Although Tully tried to hide it, his every move subtly radiated defiance. Once, during the interviews, his sleeve had slipped up his arm and Kralik had caught sight of a black locator band, the kind Jao used when they wanted to make sure a prisoner didn't escape. Whatever else he was, Tully did not have the Subcommandant's trust.

    Kralik decided to keep a close eye on Tully while the unit was on the coast. After that, well, the Subcommandant would just have to make up his own mind. If he wasn't worried about Tully, then Kralik wouldn't let the man's attitude bother him either.

    Several years ago, the Pacific Division had been allotted several refitted Jao transports which were too damaged for deep space, but adequate for suborbital boosting. They allowed for quick travel anywhere on the planet, and Kralik had ordered one of them placed at the disposal of the Subcommandant and his jinau escort and his personal service.

    The members of the Subcommandant's personal service who would accompany him, it turned out, numbered only four, counting the fraghta. Apparently there were two others, a Jao female production supervisor and a human factotum, but they were being left behind in Pascagoula to continue their duties there.

    The previous Subcommandant, Pinb krinnu ava Hariv, had been a leftover from the conquest—old and absentminded, long past needing a fraghta and often ignoring his responsibilities for days at a time. Pinb's service, though it numbered more than fifty, had been as slothful as he was.

    Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak's service was tiny in comparison, but Kralik was sure the new Subcommandant already knew more about the jinau forces he commanded than Pinb had learned in fifteen years. It would be interesting to see where this all led.

    From one viewpoint, Pinb had been a blessing. He was disdainful of humans, true, but had seemed equally disdainful of the Governor—indeed, all things Narvo. His neglect and indolence had allowed Kralik to pretty much run the Division as he chose. But it has also kept the Division in a sorry state, and Kralik was first and foremost a good professional soldier. If he could get along well enough with the Pluthrak scion—and so far the signs looked promising—he would be much relieved to have a firm and capable hand in overall charge. Even if that hand was covered in golden Jao fuzz.

    The Subcommandant had risen early and taken advantage of the base's pool, which had been built in the human style, back before the Occupation. No humans were permitted to use it now. It was reserved for Jao officers, when they did not have access to more esthetically pleasing facilities.

    Kralik found Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak in the borrowed office, going over unit records. The fraghta, Tully, and the raw-boned Jao female who was also in his personal service were lined up behind his back. The air already hung hot and thick and a fly was buzzing around the ceiling. The Subcommandant looked up as Kralik closed the old-fashioned door behind him with a click.

    He did not bother to salute, since it meant nothing to Jao and there were no human soldiers around—leaving aside Tully, whose status was unclear. "The transport is ready to leave for the coast at your convenience, sir."

    "I wish to take several of the guests from the Governor's palace along with us," Aille said. His nap was still damp from his swim. As far as Kralik knew, Jao never bothered with towels.

    "Give me a list, sir," Kralik said, "and I'll send a car."

    "The female you were accompanying yesterday. If I remember correctly, her name is Caitlin Stockwell," the Subcommandant said. "She may have a servant or two she wishes to take along as well. You will have to inquire."

    "The President's daughter?"

    "And inquire if she is available for assignment," Aille said suddenly. "With her knowledge of Jao and formal-movement, she would be a valuable addition to my service."

    Kralik's eyes narrowed, but he was able to suppress any other reaction. The Subcommandant did not seem to realize other Jao did not want humans on their personal staff, that the idea would no more occur to them than it would occur to a human to hire a chicken as an accountant. These Pluthrak were indeed horses of a different color. "Yes, sir, I'll see to it immediately."

    Caitlin Stockwell would probably have to take that overbearing Jao bodyguard along with her, he thought, mentally calculating the number of seats he needed to reserve. And maybe the professor who had appeared to be her traveling companion, perhaps even a chaperone of sorts. He wrote out an official order, then summoned Hawkins to drive over to the palace and fetch the Stockwell woman and her entourage. With any luck, they could lift in less than two hours.



    Aille had just settled into a private compartment aboard the suborbital transport when Kralik looked in.

    "Subcommandant?" he said, then fell silent.

    Aille read hesitation in the human's downward gaze, underlain by... dread? "What is it?" he asked patiently.

    "Miss Stockwell won't be joining us."

    Tully dropped into an oversized seat meant for Jao, dwarfed by its proportions like a child. Aguilera sat in the one next to him.

    Aille let question seep into the lay of his ears. Kralik's manner hinted he had more information to impart.

    "She—" Kralik entered, his steps seeming reluctant. "It seems Miss Stockwell has gone on ahead to Oregon with Governor Oppuk. I imagine we'll be seeing her when we reach the coast, unless the Governor has other plans."

    "Has the Governor added her to his service then?" If so, Aille thought, he could hardly be surprised.

    "I don't know, sir," Kralik said.

    "It does not matter," Aille said, reaching for his personal board in order to make a few notes. "Either she will be there or she will not."

    "Yes, sir." Kralik straightened. "Entirely right."

    The human was clearly reading some subtext into this situation that Aille could not perceive. He debated whether he should quiz Kralik on it, then decided against it. Not in front of Tully, who had been so disrespectful this morning that another incident might induce Yaut to put him down, then seek permission retroactively.

    And, if he hadn't suspected that was exactly what Tully wanted, he might have been tempted to render approval beforehand. Tully could be... wearisome.

    The door opened again and a black-haired human female glanced in. "We'll be taking off in five minutes, sir," she said. "I just wanted to be sure everyone was buckled in."

    Sturdy and broad-shouldered, she reminded him a bit of his Pluthrak dam, who served on faraway reconnaissance so that he had only seen her thrice so far in his entire life. "You are the pilot?" he said.

    "Yes, sir." She met his gaze without flinching, as many humans did. "Is there anything you want before we lift?"

    "I wish to come forward and observe," Aille said. "I have worked hard to develop my own piloting skills, but have never had an opportunity to fly this sort of a ship."

    "I'm afraid there's no room forward for observers," she said, the muscles in her face tightening. "If you could sit second, though, I... well, I could maybe give you the co-pilot's seat."

    He noted the sudden whiteness of her knuckles as she gripped the doorframe, her thinned lips. Most likely, she thought it would endanger the ship to have an inexperienced backup, but for some reason was reluctant to say so.

    "Not this time, then," he said, "But I would like to sit second on a training flight at some point. An experienced officer should know how the strengths and limitations of all the vehicles under his command."

    "Yes, sir. I'll let you know the next time a training flight is scheduled." She closed the door and Aille could hear the clank of the outer hatch.

    He looked at Tully and Aguilera. "I did not fully understand that exchange. She clearly did not want me to sit second, so why then did she hesitate to express her true opinion?"

    Aguilera looked uncomfortable. "You put her on the spot, sir. She was afraid to say no."

    "It was her duty to refuse, then," Yaut said. "By hesitating, she endangered the ship."

    Tully punched the back of the seat in front of him. "Don't you get it? No one on this world tells a Jao he can't have or do something. It's not good for your health!"

    Yaut raised his hand, about to cuff him. But Aille, moving still more quickly, restrained him.

    There was something...

    Could it be that this was not simply sullenness and disrespect?

    He looked at Aguilera. The older human was stalwart, he thought, and not given to pointless resentments. "Is this true, what he says?

    Aguilera glanced at Tully, his lips twisted in what Aille thought was a human way of indicating sourness. But, after a moment, he nodded.

    "Pretty much, sir. Tully's exaggerating, like he always does. Nath's always been straight with us. A couple of the other supervisors. Chul krinnu ava Monat. A number of the guards on the base in Pascagoula, too. But... yes. That's usually how it is. When a human deals with most Jao, it's always risky to tell them what they don't want to hear."

    Aille and Yaut stared at each other. The fraghta's ears were now flat with indignation-at-others, rather than direct-anger.

    "Sixty seconds until we lift," came a male voice over the intercom. A warning rumble of engines vibrated through the walls. "Please be sure seat harnesses are locked and all personal items have been stowed for the duration of the flight."

    Aille and Yaut took their seats, in front of Tully and Aguilera. The Subcommandant stared out the window.

    "You were right."

    Yaut grunted. "Not right enough. This is much worse than I thought. The humans even have an expression for it, like they do for so many madnesses. They call it 'killing the messenger.'"

    Aille swiveled his head, to look at him. "Explain."

    "It means exactly what it says. Apparently it is human custom—often enough, at least—to punish the one who conveys unpleasant information. Sometimes even put them down for it."

    The transport began lifting from the ground. Gazing down at the land, at it receded, Aille could think of nothing but a vast, pustulent disease. Even the few traces of water seemed like nothing more than open sores.

    "Narvo has gone native here," Yaut said softly. "I could see it in many of the lowest, but now I see it in the highest also."

    Aille began to nod, until he realized what he was about to do. Adopting a human custom as well, going native himself.

    But then, after considering the matter, he allowed the nod to proceed. And, to his great relief—and satisfaction—saw Yaut return it with one of his own.

    For this, a fraghta could always be trusted. Aille was not violating custom, but following it. So spoke the wisdom of Pluthrak. Association was never to be feared, so long as it was done well and properly.

    Narvo had not done so. Narvo had failed in its duty—as miserably, Aille now thought, as any kochan ever had. And, worse yet, had compounded the error by trying to conceal it, leaving error to fester unseen.

    The result was inevitable. Association was happening, naturally, as it always did. But it was a disease, here, not a source of strength. Human failings, adopted by their conquerors while they thrust aside everything else. Like shoots, springing up everywhere. The revenge of a race which had been beaten—beaten and beaten again—but never conquered.

    How could they be? Association was the only true conquest. That, too, had been one of the earliest lessons Aille could remember. He could still remember the expression on Brem's face when he first spoke that truth to the attentive crechelings.

    It had immediately been so blindingly obvious to Aille, even as a crecheling. Had he not already, by then, risen to preeminence among his clutch-kin? By exceeding them, to be sure—but never by pushing them aside, much less driving them under. He rose with them, never against them. Helping them up, as he rose, so that they would support him.

    How could it have happened? he wondered.



    By the end of the flight, he thought he knew. Narvo was a blessing to the Jao, in so many ways. The mightiest of the kochan, always the fiercest in battle, always the strongest in victory, always the most stalwart in defeat.

    Pluthrak appreciated that, and was regretful that Narvo had always refused their many approaches. But Pluthrak was Pluthrak because it never forgot that strength had its own dangers.

    When the aircraft landed, Aille arose. "Subtle as a Pluthrak," he murmured, as much to himself as Yaut.

    "Yes," said the fraghta. "There will be no association until Narvo is brought down here. That is now clear. The battle must be joined."



    Aille began the battle, in the small way immediately available.

    He stopped Tully and Aguilera with a gesture, as they rose to precede him.

    "I will punish you for disrespect, dishonor, or disloyalty. For speaking truth as you see it, never."

    The humans stared at him. Aguilera nodded at once. Tully, after a moment, looked aside.

    Two victories, then. Small ones, to be sure. Victories, still.

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