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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Monday, July 28, 2003 23:01 EDT



    The next day dawned cool, gray, and wet, though fortunately the main storm had not reached the shore, as Aille had thought likely. Rain slanted out of the direction humans called "west," blowing across the sea in great glittering sheets. Obviously, he was not familiar enough yet with weather patterns on this world to make accurate judgements.

    Outside the hant, both Tully and Aguilera, awaiting ground transport to the docks, managed to project aggrieved-discomfort without a fragment of Jao body-speech between the two of them. Hands shoved deep in his pockets, Tully muttered something about "drowned rats," a phrase for which Aille had no reference. Aguilera was his usual reticent self, but hunched his shoulders against the driving rain and futilely kept wiping his face as though to emphasize his condition.

    Tamt, being Jao, gloried in the wet, and for the first time since Yaut had called her into Aille's service, looked actually pleased. Her stance was unrefined, but genuine, and Aille had to admit the fraghta had done well with her. Of course, instruction was a fraghta's specialty. He supposed he should not be surprised Yaut had been effective. It did make him wonder how well the fraghta would do with him in the end.

    Caitlin Stockwell emerged from the hant to stand at Oppuk's side. Her stance was subdued, as neutral as Aille had ever seen it. "Miss Stockwell," he said, and she glanced at him, seeming startled before she damped that out as well.

    "Is Miss the correct honorific?" he said. "I have undergone English imprinting during every dormancy period since I arrived on this world, but my usage is not always accurate."

    "Yes," she said, crossing to his side with a backwards glance at Oppuk. "It's quite correct. I'm sorry if I gave any impression it was otherwise."

    "I assumed, after my invitation, you would be using my transport to this area," Aille said, "but I see you came with the Governor instead."

    "I had hoped to travel with you and General Kralik," she said, "but the Governor requested otherwise."

    "An honor," Aille said, though he thought by the slope of her shoulders perhaps she did not find it so.

    "He has officially attached me to his household," she said. "I am to be tutored in formal movement by a Jao master, as soon as one can be found."

    She was to be a mere servitor, then, not a member of the Narvo's personal service. Aille thought that was a mistake on Oppuk's part. But, of course, Narvo did not see things as Pluthrak did. He cocked his head, trying to read her lines, but they were ambiguous at best. "This does not please you?"

    "It—" She gripped her hands together, twining her fingers in a quintessentially human gesture he couldn't decipher. "I had hoped to continue my education at the university. This—development—will disrupt my plans."

    She was wearing a slick outer covering with a hood that shed the rain and did not seem to be suffering as were his own two humans. He touched the yellow material with his fingertips, finding it pliable and cool. "Your species is not fond of rain?"

    "Not—generally." She managed a wan smile. "Especially not when it's chilly, like today."

    "Ah, yes," he said, "Our bodies do not regard such things very much, a small legacy of the Ekhat. We were designed to be comfortable in a wide variety of circumstances."

    At that moment, the ground transport arrived to take them down to the docks at Tillamook Bay, where the Japanese trawler awaited them, so he did not get an answer to what he considered a highly intriguing question.

    The groundcars were of human design, though converted to maglevs, and showed signs of deterioration, including rusted patches on the vehicle bodies. The roads betrayed a lack of maintenance as well, and what habitations they passed were in very poor condition, with refuse strewn about and a number of starved looking small beasts skulking in the brush, including one lithe white-furred creature Aille had never encountered before. Humans appeared to watch the groundcars pass, despite the species' apparent distaste for getting wet.

    The pelting rain eased off as they pulled up to the docks and, in accordance with Jao etiquette, he emerged last from the car. Voices rose and Aille looked up to see a crowd of natives forming on the parking area above the docks.

    Caitlin stepped out of the car, then narrowed her eyes. "More protesters," she said to Aille in a low voice. "They're not going to let this drop. Since the Governor is doing this in your honor, can't you just request some other activity instead, one less controversial? We could tell them we were just going out for a cruise, or perhaps we could fish for shark."

    "I cannot refuse the Governor's attention," Aille said. "There is long-standing strain between Narvo and Pluthrak. I would only add to it by questioning his judgement over such an inconsequential matter. Pluthrak depends on me to behave in an honorable manner here. I can do nothing else."

    Her blue-gray eyes seemed very large in her small oval face. "Don't you see?" she said. "He's deliberately provoking them. They feel very strongly about this. There is going to be trouble, and, whenever there is, humans always pay the price."

    He could see her hands trembling, an element of human body-speech he'd never before observed. Did it indicate dread, perhaps, or eagerness? He was uncertain how to respond.

    Without acknowledging the crowd, Oppuk strode down to the end of the rickety wooden dock, which was slick with rain, then used a temporary walkway to access the vessel. It was smaller than Aille had expected, but trim and gleaming, bristling with equipment and what seemed to be a huge projectile weapon of some sort at the far end. Along the side of the hull was marked the name Samsumaru, apparently another example of the human quirk for personalizing material objects.

    One of the Governor's service beckoned to Aille, haste implicit in the set of his ears. Aille started to comply, then stepped aside as several humans trotted down the weathered wooden planks, carrying the slim shaft of a portable Jao laser. He glanced back at Yaut, question in his eyes.

    Yaut flicked a whisker. "There has been much complaining in this area," he said. "The Governor would like a chance to flex his muscles. According to his staff, things get very boring in that dusty palace in the center of the continent. He likes a good row now and then."

    Then Oppuk did indeed expect trouble. Aille glanced at Caitlin, who was studying the crowd. She knew, he thought. They all knew. The natives were being deliberately provoked here, just as she said. Although he did not understand why the life of one sea animal should matter so much, he could see if they did nothing to prevent its death, they would have lost in some important regard involving their sense of honor. And if they did indeed resist, Oppuk would ensure they lost even more.

    He motioned to Kralik. "Have the unit stand by here on the docks," he said. "I think there will be some expression of local dissatisfaction before the hunt is over."

    Kralik nodded. His sodden hair clung to his skull, but his eyes were sharp now with anticipation. "Do you want me to stay behind with them?"

    Aille considered. "No," he said finally, as the wind buffeted him, "if there is trouble out on the water, I will need my most experienced advisors at my side."

    Kralik pulled out a pocketcom and disseminated a quick order to the unit's commander.

    Someone shouted up in the parking lot, then several fist-sized rocks arched down, falling far short of the docks. Oppuk's guard emerged from the water vessel, weapons ready. The Jao guards fired immediately, their lasers raking the distant crowd. Screams broke out, and then the crowd scattered as most fled inland.

    Caitlin turned her head away and hurried towards the fishing trawler. Aille delayed to evaluate the altercation, minor as it was, until all the participants had either been put down or routed.

    "Ineffective," Yaut commented, rain dripping down his snout. "That cannot be how they defended this planet, with shards of rock and loud, disagreeable sounds."

    "No, indeed," Aille said, "it cannot."

    Then they turned and walked down to the ship together, Tully and Aguilera automatically taking the lead as though they had been born to serve in this capacity.



    Oppuk watched the Subcommandant for signs of weakness, after he arrived at the docks. But the young Pluthrak merely observed the situation with an infuriating air of calm-interest, neither taking the offensive, nor trying to hinder the guards' response.

    The Stockwell scion had fled below deck. He leaned on the metal rail, as the trawler cast off, savoring the cool spray on his whiskers. He considered having her summoned, but let the matter go for the moment. Flow was not urgent here. Nothing was going to complete itself for a while. She was no doubt afraid to face him after the way her species had behaved back there on the docks. Foolish, but there it was. As though he would discipline such a valuable hostage for that bit of unproductive nonsense. As long as she was in hand, her father would remain amenable.

    Too bad the Stockwells had never replaced the son he'd killed. For such a fecund species, the natives were surprisingly sentimental about their progeny, and he had found children made effective hostages. When he did eventually allow himself the pleasure of killing Caitlin Stockwell, it would be a long time from now, when he had made much use of her, and for a far greater return than disciplining a few unruly savages.

    Still, the outright disrespect rankled. He would have to do something about the locals' brazenness. It had been quite a while since he'd carried out a salutary object lesson. With this species, Mount Everests were required, every few orbital cycles.

    He savored the memory of Everest, for a moment. The issue itself had been trivial, and his fraghta had urged him to simply ignore the expedition. In truth, Oppuk had followed her advice, in the time which came after, quietly allowing the ban on mountain climbing to be rescinded, along with most of the other bans on frivolous human behavior. But he'd been unwilling to ignore the defiance and had taken great satisfaction in Everest's destruction. By then, the humans had already driven Oppuk into a rage by their obstinate behavior.

    His fraghta had left his service, thereafter, pleading age as the reason for her return to Pratus, even though both of them knew the real cause was her frustration at his unwillingness to listen to her. He'd known, even at the time, that her quiet disapproval would harm his reputation in the kochan. But he'd been beyond caring, by then, sure—as he still was—that his forthright methods were the only ones which would ever prevail over humans. And, truth be told, he was relieved to be rid of the jabbering old wretch.

    In retrospect, in a coldly rational sense, it had been a mistake. For a fraghta to become so estranged from her charge to abandon his service reflected much less on her than it did on him. The kochan elders would have taken note, and gauged him accordingly. But he'd do it all over again. By the end, he had detested the creature. She had plagued him incessantly, becoming increasingly more critical of his decisions until he could bear it no more.

    On the forward deck, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak was watching a pair of human techs mount the Jao laser cannon on the bow of the trawler. He turned as Oppuk approached. "You expect trouble, Governor?"

    "Not expect," Oppuk said. "Anticipate. I hope to rattle their teeth a bit. I am weary of the unreasonable creatures."

    A trio of white avians swooped low over the boat, uttering shrill cries. Oppuk drew his side arm and fired at several. It never did to allow one's skills to deteriorate. One smoking body fluttered to the deck, while the others veered off, squawking in protest at their close brush with death.

    Actually, the one he'd hit was not quite dead, but lay jerking and issuing weak peeps. Oppuk nudged it with his foot. ""This world is fecund, literally teeming. The variety of species is astonishing."

    Aille picked the avian up, examined its anatomy, then wrung its neck, so that its thrashings were stilled. He studied it calmly, his stance so neutral, Oppuk could glean nothing of his thoughts. "I look forward to being further educated," he said finally, offering the feathered carcass to Oppuk.

    "Throw it into the water."

    Aille did as he was bid, then turned back to the harpoon mount. Oppuk watched, deeply envious. This youngster had it all before him, having not yet made mistakes which would derail his career and strand him with no prospect of further advancement or mating.

    It would be pleasant, very pleasant indeed, to destroy this one. His prospects, if not his life itself. Something to look forward to.



    Caitlin made herself climb the metal steps back up onto the deck finally. It was close below, almost claustrophobic, and she decided she would rather know what was going on than hide down there, tossed about the small cabin like a salad.

    Banle was making herself scarce for the moment. Caitlin was grateful at least for that.

    The trawler cut across the waves toward the cape which separated the bay from the open sea. Out past its protection, the sky was a dark-gray and she thought she could see a veil of heavier rain in the distance. This was not a day for pleasure boating, she thought, but then there was nothing pleasurable about this trip. You only had to catch a glimpse of their aerial escort to know that, three tiny Jao scout ships that skimmed in and out of the low hanging clouds, like flat stones skipping across water.

    The two Makah guides stood on the prow of the Samsumaru, their long black hair tied back, their dark eyes intent on the horizon. They came from a whale-hunting tribe and saw nothing wrong with this venture, whether it involved humans or Jao. According to tribal tradition, whales were their rightful prey and had been as long as anyone could remember.

    There was no use appealing to them, so she didn't even try. The sheer weight of her own helplessness, of humanity's helplessness, was crushing. If only there were something she could do!

    "You are distressed," Aille said over her shoulder.

    She turned, surprised. She had not heard him come up behind her. "Yes," she said, her shoulders assuming obedient-acquiescence. This close, she could smell his wet nap, an alien scent, subtly different from Banle's, but not unpleasing. "But matters will progress as you Jao wish. That is the nature of conquest, is it not?"

    He said nothing in response, simply leaned over the rail and watched with her as the cape's narrow spit of land grew ever larger. His profile was dark today, his nap turned dark-gold by the rain, but his black eyes crawled with green.

    She wondered, as she had many times before, what biochemistry explained the way Jao eyes changed color so constantly and vividly. It was the most frightening thing about the beings, even more than their size and brute strength. When their eyes flickered so, they seemed like sorcerers—or demons. She could almost see the thoughts moving through his mind as the trawler headed for the gap on the north leading to the open sea. See them, not make them out. They were alien thoughts, whatever they were.

    An hour later, they were plowing through larger waves that broke across the bow and drenched them repeatedly in cold spray. Despite her raincoat, Caitlin was soaked, but still she remained on deck. She had to stay, she told herself, so she could bear witness later. The whale's passing should not go unremarked.

    One of the Makah guides suddenly cried out, lowered his binoculars and pointed to the north. After a moment, the ship heeled over obediently, then wallowed in the troughs between waves and lost speed. Caitlin grabbed for the rail, slipped and went to her hands and knees, scraping them raw as she fought to keep from being dashed against the rail. Arms seized her waist from behind and hauled her back.

    "Why aren't you wearing a lifevest?" a male voice said in her ear.

    Gasping, she twisted just enough to look up. "General Kralik! I didn't know you were aboard."

    A thin smile flashed across his normally serious face. "You'd best get below, ma'am," he said. "Else you might be swept overboard and we'd have to waste time hunting you instead of that dangerous whale." He held her a moment longer, his arms solid and reassuring, then released her and stepped back.

    "Yes," she said, her cheeks suddenly warm despite the chill. For a moment, she had been acutely aware of Kralik as a man, rather than an officer.

    The Samsumaru lurched and she fought to keep her balance on the wet deck. "I—would hate to be the cause of that." She rose, using his arm to steady herself, then stopped as his words had a chance to sink in. "Have they spotted a whale then?"

    "Sonar has," he said. "It's supposed to be early for whales to come through here. According to the literature, gray whales migrate in the fall, so I was rather in hopes we wouldn't find anything today, but sonar has come up with two promising hits. It looks like we won't go back empty-handed after all."

    "I see." She didn't want to see, didn't want to know any more, but ignorance had never been an acceptable excuse with her father. See it through, he would have told her. Stockwells may be many things, not all of them admirable, but they're never cowards. You have to keep trying until the day is done.

    She wished this day were done, but wishing in her experience never improved the situation, and longing for what you couldn't have only made life seem harder.

    "I'll stay on deck, then," she said. "I don't want to miss the Governor's hunt, but you're right. I will put on a lifevest."

    He opened a metal locker and dug out a bright orange flotation vest. The bulky shape was stained and frayed, obviously made before the conquest and having seen better days. She held out her arms as he settled it over her head. Her nose wrinkled. The slick plastic stank of fish—long dead fish, at that.

    She buckled the straps herself, then, up by the harpoon mount, one of the Makah guides, John Bowechop, shouted. "Over there!" he kept saying, gazing intently through a pair of battered binoculars. "Hard left! Hard left!"

    Caitlin squinted and thought she could make out two large glistening circles on the waves through the rain. The Subcommandant crossed to the Makah's side with the sure-footedness of a cat. Emerging from the shadows, several Jao from Oppuk's staff jerked the canvas cover off the harpoon mount as the Governor looked on, his form a study in anticipation.

    Banle appeared from the other side of the trawler, wet as a seal and oblivious to Caitlin for the moment.

    "We'll have to get closer," Kralik said, his face grim. "A lot closer."

    And maybe they wouldn't be able to, she thought with a glimmer of hope. After all, why would a whale just hang around and wait to be harpooned when it could dive and escape? They were supposed to be fairly intelligent—

    The Samsumaru veered to the left as directed and an immense wave inundated the bow, soaking Caitlin and Kralik. She shook the water out of her eyes as he pulled her away from the rail. "You should go below!" he said over the shrill of the wind. "You don't really want to see this."

    "If I don't watch," she said, glancing at the Governor, "who will tell about this day?" Oppuk motioned to Aille to take a position at his side, his own stance triumphant-expectation.

    "There are other humans on board," Kralik said.

    "No one who cares," Caitlin said. "No one but me."

    "Oh, I care," Kralik said, "for all the good it will do." He turned back to the sea, staring out across the waves, his gray eyes hard as steel.

    He was doing what he had to do, she realized, as were they all.

    Twin spumes of spray rose from the ocean's heaving surface five hundred yards off the bow, still further to the left. One of the Makah shouted and the Governor's staff readied the harpoon. Hydraulics whined, tiny green indicators flashed. It was really going to happen, she thought, her heart beating wildly.

    One of the Jao escort ships swooped low over the trawler, then swept back up into the clouds. Another faceful of spray left her gasping, half-blinded by the stinging salt. Oppuk bent over the harpoon and gazed through its sight.

    Caitlin crammed a knuckle into her mouth, then made herself lower the hand. Calm-acceptance, she told herself and tried to let the soothing form flow over her. She'd had a lot of practice with that one. It seemed her whole life called for it.

    The whale breached, bigger than she'd expected, gray and magnificent, free, the symbol of everything Earth had lost to the Jao all those years ago. I'm sorry, she told it. You have to submit, just as we all do, but someday—

    The harpoon boomed and even as it was racing toward its target, Oppuk's staff members were readying a second shaft. The harpoon struck just as the whale hit the water, sending a sheet of spray twenty feet into the air. The line sang as it played out from the immense reel. Caitlin blinked hard, strained to see through the fine, driving rain. Had the whale escaped?

    The line went taut with a crack. The trawler lurched and sea was stained dark red as their quarry struggled to submerge. With grim efficiency, the second harpoon shaft was loaded. Oppuk put his eye to the sight, then turned to Caitlin, seeming to notice her for the first time in hours.

    His eyes flashed an intense actinic green, like sheet lightning heralding an approaching storm. His stance shifted into what she thought was cruel-enjoyment. She wasn't sure. It was a rare posture, for Jao.

    "Miss Stockwell," he said, "perhaps you would be so good as to fire the next shot?"

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