Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 13

           Upon reaching the lowest level, Soloth dismounted the ladder and stretched.  It warmed up its muscles and loosened its joints, preparing to answer any dissenters.  It would be delivering unwelcome news to the combat crew.  Most likely, they would accept its dictates without outright defiance, but even a strong complaint might need correction, lest unrest spread unchecked. 

            Soloth concluded by flexing its artificial spine.  The metal cylinders rotated smoothly across one another without a hint of resistance.  Cables laced into its back reinforced its musculature, amplifying its strength.  Strictly speaking, the prosthesis was only necessary to sheathe its spinal cord and provide support.  However, Dominion taught not merely to overcome obstacles, but to transform them into triumphs.  Soloth’s victory over its birth defect came not when it was fitted for its first prosthesis as an infant, but when it received its final upgrade at adulthood.  The agonizing surgery had required several days of recovery and weeks of rehabilitation.   The process might have been faster and less painful on one of the worlds of the Mauraug Dominion, rather than on a remote colony planet, but Soloth considered its suffering a badge of pride.
            Its current domain was smaller still than the colony, but had several relative advantages.  For one thing, the medical technology was better… as good as whatever Scape Grace could buy or steal.  As much as their existence was dangerous, it was less restricted; the Scape Grace could travel widely, exploring without permission.  The crew often had opportunity to pursue their own goals, the foremost being personal profit. 
For Soloth, the greatest advantage of their confined kingdom was its own position.  It had all of the influence of being Dominant without the visibility and responsibility of command.  Evgeny Lerner listened to its counsel and required its service to remain in power, while remaining the focus of any consequences.  In a different power structure, being second might be unenviable, with more of the labor and fewer of the rewards.  A different leader might abuse its (or his) underlings out of sloth or fear of usurpation.  Not captain Lerner.  The Human was wise enough to appreciate Soloth’s value but not personally powerful enough to command its total abasement.  The partnership also had the advantage of trust, born of long familiarity.  Theirs was not some perfect, idealized trust, but a more dependable understanding of one another's capabilities and behaviors. 
One of Soloth’s enjoyable duties was the settling of disputes.  An enclosed space like a ship could not allow arguments to fester unchecked.  Those arguments included friction between crew as much as complaints against authority.  New combat crew, violent disposables hired on at various ports, were most likely to think they could question command decisions.  Soloth’s role was to disabuse them of such thoughts.  It also dealt with any personal conflicts that became loud enough for public notice.  Soloth was not a negotiator; it was an impartial mediator.  Everyone involved was wrong and deserved punishment.  Crew soon learned to keep their problems quiet, ideally by solving those problems on their own. 
There were problems enough today without having to deal with minor issues like theft, assault, or territorial disputes over bunk space.  Still, Soloth was torn between desire for a quick, simple briefing versus a rousing, bloody argument.   The former would waste less time and leave more crew combat-capable.  The latter would vent some of the building aggression Soloth could not direct toward the Ningyo or the convalescing Tklth.  The Vislin certainly deserved pain, particularly for indulging the urges Soloth itself had to deny.  Sadly, there was little useful point to pummeling an already mutilated victim.
Physical and mental preparations complete, Soloth crossed the short corridor leading to the crew quarters, passing the empty galley.  Just let the crew gripe about the wait for their dinner.  Soloth would be happy to send any complainant to speak with Luuboh… in medical. 
It keyed in the code to open the general quarters door.  There was a cadre of three sapients – the ‘senior’ leaders of the combat team – waiting in the front lounge.  One was a Human named Simon Ehren, nicknamed Iron Simon.  The origins of the name were obvious.  One arm and a portion of the man’s chest were replaced with crude cybernetics clearly not of Mauraug manufacture.  The rest of him was solid as well, muscular and blocky, the product of genetic and chemical manipulation along with frequent exercise.  Simon favored heavy weapons he referred to as his ‘cannons’: large-bore laser, plasma, and sometimes projectile throwers related more to industrial tools than military weapons.  He had the leathery tan of one who had lived under heavy radiation most of his life; either outdoors beneath an insufficient atmosphere or in space, laboring near a star.  He did not bother with a shirt, wearing only coarse natural fiber pants and synthetic rubber combat boots.
The next of the ringleaders was a Mauraug, Kuugan bash’Ranpool.  In comparison to Iron Simon, Kuugan’s cybernetic modifications seemed minor, but this was due to their subtlety.  Rather than gleaming steel, Kuugan had decided to camouflage its modifications beneath a matte black finish and artificial black fur.  The result made it look darker than most Mauraug, an intentionally ominous appearance.  From polite discussion, Soloth knew that Kuugan’s original deformity had been a badly cleft palate.  Much of its lower face, including nose and upper jaw, were entirely artificial.  In keeping with Dominion teaching, it had upgraded its olfactory system to potentially detect airborne molecules at one part per billion and uniquely identify individual organisms by respiration alone.  It could also chew quartz, though that was more useful for party entertainment than anything practical.  In later upgrades, Kuugan had added rewired nerves and synthetic ligaments in its extremities for improved reaction time.  Finally, the skin of its palms and soles was a tough polymer which could resist cuts, tears, heat, and many corrosive chemicals.   It was unequaled in hand-to-hand battle except by Soloth, who could power through whatever maneuvers it could not match in speed.
The third of this triumvirate, Macauley, was Human.  He was an enigma to Soloth.  Ostensibly male by his own claim, this being had none of the traits Soloth associated with male Humans.  He had no body hair, apparently having voluntarily undergone electric depilation.  He was short and slight, with little muscle definition.  His voice was high and almost musical and his manner deceptively gentle.  He stood or sat rigidly upright and walked with a rhythmic, graceful sway.  He dressed in a long, flowing, blousy white shirt and similarly oversized black pants.  Macauley was, in short, nearly a synthesis of all the stereotypically ‘feminine’, anti-simian traits Soloth found repugnant in individual Humans.  His repulsiveness to a Mauraug was not only physical.  Macauley led indirectly.  He spoke softly, turned minds, and gathered support.  Simon and Kuugan could have torn the little ‘man’ into scrap in seconds, yet they included him in their councils and listened to his words.  He never directly fought opposition; his enemies just found themselves the enemies of those who would deliver a beating.  Not that Macauley was incapable in a fight… otherwise, he would never have been hired as crew.  He tended to favor small arms, explosives, and tech-augmented stealth. 
Each of the three were allowed to reign because of their value both as fighters and as enforcers of order.  So long as they remembered that Soloth bash’ Soloth was their superior, they could rule as they pleased below decks.  Of course, Evgeny Lerner was the superior of their superior, so his orders stood above all.  Soloth was regularly the messenger and enforcer of those orders. 
It would suffice to pass on the captain’s words to these three and trust them to relay those orders to the general crew, but Soloth avoided this procedure.  For one concern, it wanted to avoid any loss from repeated transmission.  For another, it wanted to see and hear the crew response for itself.  Their reactions would tell Soloth who might be likely to do something stupid. 
So, it announced, “Rouse the crew.  Have them meet me in the mess in five minutes.  I have news and orders.”
Kuugan grunted, nodded, and rose, wasting no time in leaving to round up the Mauraug crew members.  Iron Simon, far less familiar with Mauraug protocol, grimaced and groaned, “Yes, Sir,” before standing.  With a heavy tread he likely intended as passive-aggressive compliance, Simon thudded away to wake sleepers in the far bunks.  Only Macauley did not rise.  Instead, he smiled thinly at Soloth.
“News?  How expected.  We were waiting to hear what the recent activity was about.  I assume we weren’t boarded or else we hounds would have been released already.”
Soloth showed its teeth to the disturbing little Human.  “You assume incorrectly.  Talk less and listen more and you will learn why.  I am going to the mess.  Meet me there and bring anyone the other two miss.”
Without waiting for Macauley’s response, Soloth left the lounge and the crew quarters behind and returned to the main hallway.  Across from the galley was the ship’s mess, where meals were served to those who showed up on time.  Two of the general lot were already there, playing a simple game with a large square board and a handful of black and white stones.  Soloth understood that it was some form of strategy game involving spatial control.  Such pastimes were overly abstract to Soloth, not due to any cultural divide, but due to personal preference.  Growing up as it had, it had little patience for ‘strategy’ learned from games.  Reality provided plenty of teaching opportunities without requiring structured play.  Still, the game was apparently engrossing enough to keep two bloodthirsty mercenaries occupied for long stretches of time. 
That the two bloodthirsty mercenaries were Human females was almost an afterthought in Soloth’s mind.  One had a distinct hue of brown to her visible skin and braided hair as black as Evgeny’s; the other was fair, with a closely shorn crown dyed a shining vermilion.  Both were well-muscled and robust.  The darker one wore simple, thin pants and a sleeveless shirt, standard off-duty ship wear.  The other had heavier canvas pants and   Despite a few gender-specific features, both were still less ‘feminine’ than Macauley.  Their names escaped Soloth for the moment.  With some thought, it might have remembered, but its thoughts were focused on rehearsing its speech for the crew.  It had some specific purposes in mind and did not want to waste words in lengthy explanation.
The Humans looked up to acknowledge Soloth’s entrance.  It gestured downward with one palm, adding, “Stay.  I am briefing the crew here.  You have the advantage of being in the right place, first.”
The females nodded mute acknowledgement and went back to their game.  Over the following few minutes they were joined by an additional eight individuals: Kuugan, followed by three other Mauraug; and Simon, followed by one female and two other male Humans.  One of the two male Humans looked disheveled, most likely having risen from sleep.  That in itself was no offense; crew could set their own schedules unless given instructions otherwise.  Excessive sloth was a possible problem, especially in the long weeks between landings, but laziness was usually a problem that corrected itself.  Any combat member that failed to keep his-, her-, or itself in top physical form through training and exercise usually suffered for it, whether through injury or death during operations, abuse by the other crew, or the shame of being known as less capable. 
Only the eleventh and last member, Macauley, had not yet arrived.  At four minutes and fifty seconds, he glided into the mess and smiled brilliantly (but without teeth visible) at Soloth.
“All accounted for, first mate Soloth,” he reported with no trace of sarcasm.  That one often skirted the line between insouciance and insubordination.  He was clearly skilled at knowing just how much to push while falling short of punishable offense.  Most likely, the behavior was a show for the benefit of other crew, some sort of bizarre Human form of Dominion involving ‘daring’ and ‘cunning’.  The vermin inched itself ever closer to the predator without waking it, somehow earning respect for its bravery. 
Soloth permitted itself a flaring sneer in response.  It watched Macauley sit, counting the seconds to see if he would push the five-minute limit.  The Human seated himself primly at the exact moment dictated.  Eventually, he would make a mistake.  If Soloth’s response to that error was disproportionately brutal, well then, accidents did happen.
Without introduction, Soloth began its presentation.  “Captain Lerner has accepted employment from a Ningyo military captain acting without public sanction.  We will be escorting two vessels on a raid upon a mining colony… in fact, the same Zig mining operation that drove Scape Grace away several days ago.  One of the vessels is commanded by Ningyo, but under the guise of a Mauraug salvager turned pirate.  The other is a completely foreign vessel, constructed by a sapient culture unknown to the Collective.  This raid is primarily a resupply run for this foreign ship.  Our role is to draw off the Zig fighters, given our familiarity with one another.  The Ningyo involvement is unofficial because they are hiding the presence of this foreign ship and attempting to sneak it out of Collective space unnoticed.”
The summary of their situation drew the expected looks of surprise, followed by varying degrees of incredulity, confusion, and/or patient attention. 
Soloth continued, “There is hazard involved.  Our promised payment is a portion of the spoils from the mining station.  If the Ningyo plan fails, if the risk to Scape Grace becomes too great, we may have to abort and earn nothing.  They have offered no specific default payment.  If you are wondering why the captain would accept this plan, which gives us most of the risk and no certain gain… keep that musing to yourself.  There are reasons, which I decline to discuss with you at this time.  The captain may choose to disclose his reasons.  At that time, pay close attention and respond appropriately.”
 Soloth hoped that the crew was listening ‘with both ears’, as the saying went.  It also had to hope that if Jolly was listening in, it would not decipher the double meaning of Soloth’s monologue.  Finally, it had to hope that no one here was dull enough to ask for a more direct explanation.  Fortunately, the crew seemed either tactful enough – or stunned enough – to remain quiet. 
Soloth concluded, “For now, remain below.  Do not come above without permission.  There are two Ningyo visitors aboard for oversight.  Do not engage either of them without permission.  Keep ready for action.  It is possible we may get to dock directly with the Zig station for looting.  We are also going into battle short a few crew members, so you may be pressed into service as needed.  Doctor Olu and engineer NuRikPo are serving aboard the foreign ship, studying its systems.  Luuboh bash’ Gaulig is serving as medic by default, but its talents fall short of the doctor’s skill.  I would avoid serious injury at present.  The Georges are covering engineering and may require one or more of you to assist with repairs, should we be damaged in the fight.  Finally, gunner Tklth is in medical, suffering from the painful side effects of disobedience.”
It cracked its knuckles for emphasis.  “We may need a replacement at weapons.  Who has training with ship gunnery?”
Two of the Mauraug and the bleary Human male raised their hands.  Soloth pointed at each in turn and asked, “Name and experience?”
The first Mauraug responded, “Tambuur bash’Waaketh.  Born and raised with raiders.  Filled in on ship’s guns when needed, no specific training.”  Tambuur was of moderate height and build and decently variegated in fur color, with no visible deformities.  Most likely, any defects and cybernetics it possessed were purely internal.
The second Maraug replied with, “Havish bash’Buurem.  Dominion space fleet, dishonorable discharge after three years.  Trained in energy weapons and high-V torpedoes.”  Havish was scarred enough to have bare patches in its pelt.  Whether those injuries were from surgeries, combat with the fleet, or trouble after its discharge remained an open question.  It showed signs of advancing age, so unless it had enlisted later in life, that military experience was many years in its past. 
The Human stifled a yawn before being singled out by Soloth.  “Uh, Sol, Sol Metaxas.  Did a little military contracting, testing weapons systems on sub-planetary targets.  I know some of the common designs inside and out.  Haven’t fired any in battle, though.”  Sol was tall, almost as tall as the Mauraug average, with a runner’s build, broad chested and long-limbed.  His loamy brown hair stuck out in several directions.  His coloration was like Evgeny’s, though, not quite pale enough to be called pink. 
Soloth listened to them with a tolerant grimace.  Finally, it pointed again to the second Mauraug.  “Havish, you are interim gunnery officer.  Be ready to report to the bridge if called.”  It turned to the Human, Sol, adding, “Your skills will serve engineering better.”
“The rest of you, do not create additional trouble.  The captain and I have enough to do keeping the Ningyo occupied above without distractions from below.  For now, you will also need to attend to your own routine.  Luuboh will be busy for several hours.  Feed and clean up after yourselves.”
Of all the announcements Soloth had made, it was surprised that this last one drew the most protest.  Iron Simon actually groaned in disappointment, Macauley rolled his eyes, the two game-players uttered a tandem “aww!”, and even the four Mauraug looked distinctly unhappy.  Soloth was aggravated.  Were these such children that they mourned the absence of their caregiver?  No doubt they cheered Soloth’s departures from their realm.  It had to assume that this sorrow at Luuboh’s absence was due more to the nuisance of having to take on additional duties, rather than any personal attachment to the pathetic cook and custodian. 
Still, it squared its stance and glared challenge at the mutterers, daring them to speak their feelings aloud.  None risked further comment.  They would save their dissent for later, when Soloth was not present to respond.  Their speech would be recorded, of course.  Privacy was neither a right nor an available privilege on the Scape Grace.  Private disagreement was permitted – as a release mechanism for frustrations, if nothing else – as long as it was kept private and never escalated to outright public defiance or private scheming against officers.  The moment someone's complaints became mutinous, they were singled out for correction.
Soloth ended the meeting by declaring, “All right, you know what’s afoot, you know what to expect, and you know your business.  Any questions can be submitted to me by text.  I will respond when and if I deem necessary.  You are dismissed.”
It was not the type of leader to address the concerns of its subordinates.  Evgeny might have asked for questions publicly, even soliciting ideas from his crew.  Soloth considered such behavior condescending weakness.  If it needed assistance, including advice, from its lessers, it would command them to contribute.  They would serve as needed, not at their whim.  They would know what it deemed necessary for them to know, not what they wanted to ask.  Many subordinates asked the wrong questions or wanted information that would not benefit them, or might even cause them harm to know.  If you offered to hear every question, it eventually became necessary to either refuse answers or lie. 
Soloth considered falsehood another sign of weakness.  You lied to hide what you could not admit openly.  The truly Dominant owned their every word and action.  If you made mistakes, if you failed, you overcame those errors.  If you had to mislead an enemy to overcome them, you were admitting your weakness.  Liars were cowards, eventually hiding even from themselves.
Such thoughts were quite appropriate as Soloth watched Macauley saunter from the room.  The slight, soft Human watched Soloth in return, with hooded gaze hovering between respectfully lowered and defiantly locked. 

He was far more courteous with captain Lerner.  Perhaps the hairless degenerate held hopes of supplanting Soloth.  That would at least explain his risk-taking behavior around the Mauraug first mate.  A clever mouth was not sufficient weapon to oppose Soloth, however.  No matter how much the Human cozied up to the captain, convinced the crew to support him, or attempted to provoke Soloth, he could neither overcome the bond between Evgeny and Soloth nor best Soloth in a direct combat.  At best, he would have to turn the crew against Soloth, and that stratagem would be seen coming far in advance. 
When the present crisis was resolved, Soloth would make time to review the recordings from the crew quarters.  It would observe closely how Macauley interacted with his fellows.  If there was any excuse there for reprimand, Soloth would happily seize upon it.  Such pleasures would have to wait, unfortunately.
Or perhaps satisfaction would not have to wait quite so long.  Combat crew was notoriously dangerous employment.  If action was required, there was always a chance of harm.  If Macauley could be selected to lead the vanguard, well then, Soloth would gladly give him the opportunity to prove his qualifications as a leader.
In the meantime, there was no reason to linger below decks.  The lack of physical release weighed as heavily upon Soloth as it had for Tklth.  The Mauraug could at least bleed off that tension in more practical ways.  It would return to its quarters for a vigorous workout and a solid nap.  As it had told the crew, there was plenty of time and good reason for self-care.  Soloth decided to take its own advice.

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