Saturday, November 29, 2014

Escape from Grace - Chapter 5

                Evgeny expected the first day of their captivity to be the worst.  In retrospect, that first day, under the supervision of Luuboh bash’Gaulig, was actually rather pleasant. 

                Their quarters were necessarily cramped.  Evgeny and Mikala were expected to share the single bunk formerly used by Luuboh.  While the bunk was somewhat smaller than preferred for a Maraug, it was still manageable for two Humans… provided they were on friendly terms.  The two Humans in question had just met that day for the first time as adults, if not the first time ever.  They were understandably uncomfortable about sleeping together, even in just the literal sense.  Worse, given the stifling heat of the Mauraug environment, staying fully clothed was not a healthy option.  They might have slept in separate shifts, except that only seven hours was allotted for their rest period. 
                Before they slept, Luuboh showed them around, gave them a crash course in the use of the cooking and sanitary facilities, ran through the ground rules ‘for their safety’, and enlisted them as kitchen drudges while it prepared the evening meal.  It also calculated out their dietary requirements and produced vitamin tablets to supplement the nutrients they would not receive from their share of the Mauraug rations.  The Humans ate separately, in the kitchen, while the Mauraug gathered in the central room and were served by Luuboh. 
                This precaution was more practical than mandatory.  Luuboh advised that by staying out of sight, the Humans would avoid provoking further comments about their presence, which would in turn reduce the potential challenges to Soloth’s decision.  Perhaps later, when the fact of the Human presence was more accepted, they could share public space with their cohabitants. 
                Still, when the meal was done, the dishes were washed, and the Humans in question emerged to prepare for bed, there were several Mauraug doing the same.  No incidents occurred.  For the most part, the familiar crew – Cyclopean Karech, ‘Graceful’ Gaalet, and ‘Centurion’ Voshtig – ignored Evgeny and Mikala entirely.  Even Suufit was silent, though it did grace them with a sneer in passing.  Soloth bash’Soloth had exited the outpost after dinner, presumably to take up a turn at sentry duty. 
                As he entered their room with Mikala, Evgeny found two dilemmas to solve.  First, how would she handle their forced proximity?  Second, where was he going to hide Matilda?  The memory bead containing his A.I.’s essential code had been transferred by gravity to his waist, resting where his shirt met his belt.  Now, Evgeny needed to transfer the centimeter-wide crystalline sphere somewhere out of sight but also within close reach.  He had already considered and rejected swallowing the device.  Such spy novel stuff might be possible and not even too harmful, but the risk of losing his dearest friend to the chemical toilets was too great.  Putting it in a pocket or shoe ran the risk of the Mauraug confiscating that clothing and either discovering or discarding the bead. 
                Finally, Evgeny settled on the least bad plan, hiding the bead in a spot least likely to be disturbed: the bed itself.  The bunk was constructed from metal alloy tubes slid together and locked in place with cotter pins.  Evgeny palmed the memory bead, popped off one of the end caps of the ‘bedposts’, and dropped the bead into the hollow space.  Retrieval would be as easy as lifting the bed and popping off the opposite cap.  Easy was perhaps an exaggeration; if seen, the act would be suspicious.  Still, that was a future problem.  As long as they weren’t chased out of the bunker without warning, Evgeny should be able to find an unobserved moment to retrieve Matilda.
                One problem solved, Evgeny found that the other problem had solved itself.  While he undressed and secreted the memory bead, Mikala had stripped down to undergarments and settled into the far side of the bed.  She was halfway asleep before Evgeny could even bring up the question.  In a t-shirt and undershorts, he stretched out on the opposite side of the bed, careful not to bump or disturb his bunkmate.  It took him longer to relax, but eventually Evgeny also submitted to exhaustion.
                They were woken by an earthquake.  The tremors turned out to be Luuboh bash’Gaulig shaking the bedframe. 
                It greeted them: “Time to rise!  Breakfast is expected.  You have… two tenths of an hour for grooming.  Then come to the galley.”
Evgeny heard most of this, though he was inferring portions of the beginning and end sentences.  At the start, he wasn’t entirely awake.  At the end, he was distracted by warm pressure against his side.  Mikala woke also with a start, pulling her arm off his chest and rolling away.  Apparently, they had been more comfortable together while asleep. 
He decided to ignore the matter to spare them further embarrassment.  Rising from the bed, Evgeny retrieved his clothing and pulled everything back on.  He had a spare for everything except boots, but laundry was eventually going to become an issue.  The clothing-optional Mauraug could manage without a washing machine, but Humans would at least have to rinse and dry their garments to avoid health problems, not to mention problems with physical and olfactory comfort. 
Mikala was in worse shape.  She had only the jumpsuit she had been wearing and the underwear beneath.  From its looks, it had already been worn for several days straight.  Granted, the camouflage suit was designed to be worn continuously and for extended periods, but it was noticeably approaching its limits. 
The stockroom near the outpost’s entrance contained stacks of Mauraug-sized utility jumpsuits.  In a pinch, they might be able to resize one for one or both Humans.  It was still a bit early to start requisitioning gear from… hm, whoever was designated quartermaster here.  Maybe that was Luuboh, again.
The small Mauraug certainly seemed to have multiple skills to go with its multiple roles.  It was a competent cook, not to mention capable teacher, even across species, cultures, and languages.  It started its trainees as sous-chefs for dinner, giving them tips about Mauraug culinary preferences, indicating the best use of the limited ingredients and equipment available, and warning them away from items that might be unsafe for Human consumption. 
Once the Humans rubbed down their faces and hair in the galley sink, Luuboh was ready for further lessons.  Today, it began by pointing out that the galley concealed the other exit point for the outpost: a wide tunnel in the ceiling, covered by a dense mesh grating.  The passage doubled as ventilation duct and utility tunnel, linking the outpost’s water and power lines to a remote chamber containing its battery, water pump and well, air exchanger and heater, and the base’s own runner cart.  There were various tactical advantages and disadvantages, Luuboh acknowledged, but the real reason for this arrangement was that the base had been excavated backward, from its rear utility room forward.  The surrounding sandstone effectively hid the project from most observation until it was complete and occupied.
Evgeny wasn’t sure why the Mauraug omega was sharing so much information as they worked.  Maybe it was just happy to have someone to talk to and was focusing on topics it thought might keep them interested.  Mikala was indeed interested and spared Evgeny the task of maintaining conversation.  She offered insights and asked questions to get Luuboh to elaborate on its description.  She admitted to a professional interest in the steps taken by the Mauraug for their own defense.  She wisely avoided confessing that the outpost had been noticed and was under observation. 
It was possible that Luuboh was trying to draw out such information from them.  Playing friendly and drawing out secrets from the captive Humans might earn it some favor from its superiors.  At this point, though, there wasn’t much to give away.  Both settlements were gone, the colonization program nearly reset to zero, possibly even worse if this incident endangered the original negotiated Collective treaty.  Unless they admitted to some major violation that would negate the Human claims on Locust IV, there wasn’t much Evgeny or Mikala could share that would give the Mauraug any advantage.
Their remaining secrets were Mikala's spying and Matilda's existence.  Luuboh wasn’t getting that information no matter how chummy it acted.
Whatever the reason, it was nice to interact with a Mauraug without being threatened, bullied, belittled, or dismissed.  They got through breakfast with no incident, cleaned up, spent another hour wiping down the common room floor as promised, and then gathered tools to take outside.
Voshtig bash’Kenet was on guard duty as they exited, led by Luuboh.  It still had its handgun, now holstered.  It scrutinized the three sapients as they emerged but did little else beyond reminding Luuboh, “You are responsible if they escape.”
Luuboh lowered its eyes and responded clearly and without inflection, “I am aware.  Thank you.”
That exchange held nothing useful for Evgeny.  He was hoping to get a sense of relationships between the Mauraug – who might be allied, who might harbor positive or negative feelings toward whom – before having to challenge one or more of the group.  He couldn’t tell if Voshtig and Luuboh were friendly, neutral, or possibly coldly hostile.  The layering of differing Mauraug emotional markers, unfamiliar language, and cultural standards, plus unknown personal histories, made interpretation challenging.  Well, sometimes.  Sometimes the situation was obvious, as with Soloth and Suufit: leader and hostile challenger.
Voshtig triggered the outer door with the electronic key, held in its artificial hand.  The hinged panel – metal on this side, sandstone on the outer – swung upward again, dousing them in sunlight.  It actually wasn’t too painful an adjustment, given the intensity of Mauraug artificial lighting, but Evgeny felt like he could feel the additional radiation output by the star.  It was almost as warm outside as indoors.
They would need to spend some time outdoors.  A radio array was hidden among the rubble above the outpost and needed some maintenance and calibration.  They would be replacing one part and testing the connections, which could take most of an hour.  While they were out, Luuboh also intended to have them check the outpost’s perimeter, making sure the far door wasn’t exposed but the vents remained open.  It was make-work, but gave an excuse to get out of the cramped bunker.
Luuboh was true to its word, standing back and letting the Humans take care of the labor.  Evgeny was only generally familiar with the technology involved.  Mikala helped by translating some of the instructions and parts from Mauraug to their Terran equivalents.  Between the two of them, they made it through a successful test of the radio array, meeting Luuboh’s satisfaction.  The tour of the perimeter was just a casual kilometer-circumference walk, with key points identified and checked off.  After that, there was no further reason to risk detection, and they reluctantly returned to the underground.
Soloth, Suufit, and Karech were absent most of the day.  Evgeny deduced that they must be out on patrol, likely making use of his appropriated runner cart.  Since their scans the previous day had borne fruit, the Mauraug were likely watching more carefully for other Humans now.  The duty assignments left Gaalet behind.  It chose to spend its downtime in the workroom, continuing to tinker with equipment. 
Since there was no formal midday meal, they were left to their own devices.  Luuboh issued snacks from the Humans’ own rations, ensuring that they were at least kept healthy if not sated.  In return, it continued to engage them in casual-seeming but occasionally pointed conversation.  It brought up their families, asking if they had tried to contact or search New Gethsemane.  Evgeny walked through the official response he had given Soloth earlier.  Luuboh commiserated at their assumed loss, stating that it also had parents in Gorash’Bond, presumed dead.  It then wandered into gossip, noting that Soloth had lost its dominant parent, named Kavach.
Evgeny took the bait: “I thought Soloth’s dominant parent was also named Soloth.”
Luuboh rolled its lips and scrunched its eyes, a sly grin.  “Oh, no, it renamed itself for itself.  It’s rare but not impossible, when a parent dies.  It’s vulgar, though, a complete rejection of one’s lineage.  I’m not sure there’s a Human equivalent.”
“Well, there are name changes,” Mikala offered, “but there are many reasons to do that, including marriage.  You’re saying Soloth cut itself off from its family… why?  Out of grief?”
“Out of spite,” Luuboh corrected her.  “Its parent brought them here.  Some family issue on the home world, I heard.  Now that parent is dead and Soloth rules a ruin.  It is declaring its parent a fool, not worthy to name a child.”
Evgeny understood the omega’s amusement now.  Soloth was giving one final ‘screw you’ to the dead.  He shared some of the same resentment, but not enough to divorce himself from his father’s name.  Ben Lerner had not been a fool, just driven and willful.  He had given Evgeny no option other than to follow along, but had done his best to find his son a meaningful place within the colony.  His wife Ondrea, Evgeny’s mother, had also emigrated willingly.  What was the story with Soloth’s subordinate parent?  Deceased?  Separated?  Luuboh’s revelations hinted that there was more to the story.
This was fascinating but of limited practical use.  It helped Evgeny understand the Mauraug leader a bit better, perhaps even sympathize with its anger and violent temper.  It didn’t give him much to use against Soloth directly, though.  Even if he could push against that rage enough to unbalance Soloth, even if he toppled the leader, its second-in-command would be the only one to profit.  That new boss probably wouldn’t be any friendlier to the Humans, especially not after a provocation.  Soloth had made it clear it was their benefactor, and its subordinates were the ‘bad cops’ it was keeping in check.
Well, Luuboh was undermining that strategy.  Even if its courtesy was equally an act, it was useful to have on their side.  As they continued their conversation, Evgeny tried to trade back interesting but practically useless trivia about his own associates.  He got Luuboh to laugh at his retelling of Peter Tomkins’ attempts to domesticate crabdog larvae.  Apparently, the carapaced scavengers were born mean or at least had minimal social needs.  Peter's experiment had resulted in some nasty bites and a handful of overfed, hostile juvenile crabdogs.
In return, Luuboh explained Suufit’s appearance and poor temper.  The portly Mauraug had been born with a natural genetic disadvantage: a slow metabolism and larger body frame.  Its parents had been low status and thus low in income.  Ironically, it suffered from an autoimmune disorder that rapidly destroyed portions of its gastro-intestinal tract during its childhood.  It lost weight rapidly, nearly dying from malnutrition.  The necessary repairs had bankrupted its family to keep it alive. 
It had become a conscript in the Mauraug military in order to help repay those debts.  Fortunately, it prospered and moved up the ranks, improving its income and internal hardware.  Luuboh wasn’t sure if it ever repaid its parents for their sacrifices, but Suufit definitely harbored mental scars from its early life.  It overate, with increasing noticeability.  It refused both dietary and emotional counseling.  Eventually, this led to it being reassigned to a ‘command’ post on Locust IV, in charge of colony security.  Technically, Suufit outranked Soloth, but in a separate office that no longer existed.  There had been an early scuffle in which Soloth demonstrated that its authority over the outpost extended to Dominance over anyone residing there.  Hence the current tensions.  If Suufit had been healthier or cleverer, it might have successfully pulled rank.  It probably still watched Soloth for signs of weakness to exploit. 
Luuboh knew most of this from review of Suufit’s medical files.  It had access to these records for all personnel by dint of being de facto medic for the outpost crew, in the absence of any other trained medical staff.  Its knowledge was, like its other skills, learned by necessity of survival.  It kept itself valuable and thus alive.  About itself, Luuboh would only admit that it was assigned to the outpost first, in exactly the same roles it now held: majordomo, handyman, and so forth.  It even predated Soloth, having been the technician that ran the original wiring into the excavated bunker. 
“For once, my size was valuable,” Luuboh joked with no obvious trace of bitterness.  Still, it seemed to have tapped into a need for cathartic release.  It went on to explain that all the outpost staff were deeply flawed in one way or another.  Luuboh's 'handicaps' were obvious, as were Suufit's, but the others hid their troubles with somewhat more success.  Still, the signs were there, and it was no coincidence they had all been assigned as far from Gorash'Bond as possible. 
Soloth was rebellious even before this attack, repeatedly challenging its parent and superiors.  Giving it command of a remote outpost was an obvious attempt to manage its aggression, a punishment couched as a promotion.  Gaalet was socially limited, suffering from what Humans would term autism.  It also had congenitally weak bones, avoiding abuse for its frailty through reinforcement lacing and prosthetic replacement when necessary.  Its odd gait was the result of an imperfect pelvic reconstruction.  Karech hadn't only been missing an eye when born, it literally had only half a brain.  Infantile plasticity had made up for most of that loss, but it was still intellectually limited.  The languishing of Mauraug cognitive research had failed that particular individual; a similarly malformed human infant might have received stimulating implants that would ensure the full development of its remaining lobe. 
The only one of the group - which Evgeny now mentally labeled the 'Dirty Half-Dozen' - that stumped Luuboh was Voshtig.  It had a weak arm and shoulder which were replaced, nothing remarkable among Mauraug.  No intellectual, emotional, or social deficits were indicated in its files, not even a correctional demerit.  Its culture, including its dress, came from a lesser, minority cultural group on the home world, but again, that was no particular handicap, just the occasional source of ethnic jokes.  Perhaps it was an anomaly, assigned to the outpost for no other reason than bureaucracy.  Perhaps there was something more sinister concealed in its past...
By this point, they had whiled away the afternoon.  It would soon be time for the patrol to return.  After that came supper.  Luuboh put them to work changing linens and sweeping up before the ‘masters’ got home.  Then they went to work on the meal, which mostly involved reconstituting and then cooking down various dried meats and vegetables. 
Luuboh had a small cache of spices, some relatable to Human equivalents, but others unique and occasionally weird.  One reminded Evgeny of a blend of chocolate and coffee and was in fact a roasted and ground root rather than seed.  It might have been popular with Humans if not for its high content of a carcinogenic toxin.  Another, a greasy wax, was safe enough, but wholly repugnant: it stank of ketones and esters, like a corpse marinated in tropical fruit.  Luuboh actually appeared dismayed at their repulsion, explaining that the spice was a major component of his native culture’s signature cuisine.  The smell reminded it of home.
For anything the Humans would be consuming, they avoided both the unsafe and unpleasant spices, along with other problem ingredients.  This was practical courtesy: no point in enduring alien presences just to poison them to death at dinner. 

Evgeny was aware that he and Mikala had to be smelling strongly now, sweating particularly hard in the doubly heated galley.  Their hair hung limply.  Mikala had wrapped her hair into an even tighter bun compared to its previous bound tail.  At least there was good plumbing and they could wash regularly, although a full bath would require careful timing or a total abandonment of modesty.
Then dinner was done, and served, and cleared away, and cleaned up afterward.  That ended their second day.  Since Soloth had not returned Evgeny’s compad or offered up a spare, there was nothing to read, no distraction to keep them awake into the night.  After retiring to their room, Mikala stripped again to her underclothes, giving Evgeny a defiant glare.  He shrugged in response and did the same, sitting on the edge of the bed.  Mikala went through a basic callisthenic routine, which he belatedly joined.  It just made sense.  They needed to stay healthy, not to mention strong and limber.  Their work had not been physically challenging, not yet anyway.  If they were going to hope to face down a Mauraug, they needed to be at their peak.  It was reassuring that some of the Mauraug were evidently not at their best.  Still, Soloth and Voshtig could literally rip either of them in half.
On the next day, the odds tipped in the Humans’ favor.  Not surprisingly, this raised new problems with the Mauraug.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Escape from Grace - Chapter 4

                The procession arrived at the Mauraug outpost after only a few minutes.  Evgeny and Mikala had been close to the spot, but would have taken twice as long to locate it on their own.  The entrance Soloth identified was effectively concealed by a false stone outcropping.  A section of the wall lifted to reveal a hollow large enough to fit all five of the group plus the runner cart, plus two or three more Mauraug. 

                One additional Mauraug was already present.  An armed guard peered out as the outer panel opened.  It looked them over with one natural eye and one oversized, shutter-irised cybernetic eye.  It evidently wanted its augmentation to be noticed, rather than opting for a subtle, realistic replacement.  The device was practically appropriate for a sentry; besides greater range and acuity of vision, the Mauraug might have its own pattern-matching scanner built in for biometric and other identification functions.  For that matter, it might pick up and translate wavelengths outside the visible spectrum: infrared and ultraviolet and possibly other EM fields. 
                The eye probably also had a low-light function.  The artificial cavern was dark inside, perhaps to avoid detection from external light spillage.  Given the glare Mauraug were adapted to from their home world, the dimly lit space would render their natural eyes blind.  Either way, the guard quickly adjusted to the light pouring in from the opened door.  The new arrivals needed some time to see clearly within the space they were entering.
                Evgeny gradually realized that the chamber was not a construct designed to resemble a sandstone fold, but rather an existing formation which had been carved out.  A reinforcing foam had been applied to brace and insulate the gutted stone, but its exterior was entirely natural.  The floor they stepped onto was part of the same stone layer and was only leveled, not smoothed or coated.  Beyond the guard, a hatchway door was set flush against the chamber’s far wall. 
                 Soloth drove the runner cart up to the opposite wall, parking it and removing Evgeny’s supply bags.  It approached the guard and announced, “These two are prisoners.  They may be useful, so by my order they are not to be damaged.  Keep watch in case any other Humans followed them here.”
                The guard puffed an assent but finished with a curl of the lip that betrayed displeasure at its superior’s words.  It looked sideways toward the other two Mauraug who had accompanied Soloth, the ones Evgeny privately thought of as ‘Centurion’ and ‘Graceful’.  Evgeny could not see their expressions, but he hoped they were not confirming any dissent against Soloth’s choice to admit the Humans.  Soloth had indicated that its subordinates would be unhappy about sharing space, particularly with Humans.  The Mauraug wanted to limit access to their hideaway.
                Well, tough.  If it came to a power play, Evgeny and Mikala were on the side that helped them survive.  Even unarmed, they were capable of supporting Soloth in a physical sense.  Evgeny hadn’t been bluffing about supporting the Mauraug in other ways: technical, tactical, and diplomatic.  He knew his strengths. 
His weaknesses, aside from relative size and strength compared to the Mauraug, generally existed at the emotional level.  He had a temper of which he was well aware.  If pushed, he would prefer to take a decisive and violent course rather than a more nuanced negotiation.  Part of his preference for training in Defense came from his realization that he worked better either alone or under strictly enforced authority.  Egalitarian debate would eventually just piss him off. 
His other problem was a general lack of concern for others’ feelings.  He was empathetically aware enough to function, but just didn’t care if others became upset.  Where some might be troubled if they offended and seek to apologize and placate, Evgeny might normally do as he pleased and fail to concern himself with the fallout.  His parents had understood this flaw and accommodated for it, but it inevitably ruined his relationships with friends and lovers. 
In this setting, he had to be careful to mind the opinions of both those in power (i.e., Soloth) as well as the opinions of its subordinates.  It was a painful operation for Evgeny, one he approached with the formal mindfulness of a sociopath.  If he trusted his ‘natural instincts’, he could easily start a fatal brawl. 
He also needed to keep Mikala in mind.  Though the young woman was following his lead for now, she had her own opinions and might get frustrated with playing subordinate.  She might also be offended by the demands of their Mauraug wardens.  Evgeny had to manage her as much as himself.  At least he knew his own tendencies.  She was a new problem.  Hopefully she had some innate caution to compensate for her lack of social training.
For now, they had successfully gained entry.  The guard triggered a wireless key that unlocked the hatchway door.  That door made a heavy metallic clunk and opened with a puff of pressurized, heated air.  Even though the day had been slightly warmer than comfortable by Human standards, Mauraug liked even higher temperatures.  Living with them would require more water intake and more careful odor control.  Evgeny shook his head at the thought of successfully managing inter-cultural relations, only to be thrown out due to the smell of his sweat.
Soloth took the lead, entering without further discussion.  Evgeny followed closely and was not held back.  Graceful did step forward in front of Mikala, though, dividing the two Humans.  Centurion took up the rear, following the group into a decently wide passage which ended in a rather mundane railed staircase. 
Their guide shared some information for Evgeny’s benefit, continuing to speak in Mauraug now that it had learned the Human was passably fluent.  “The one watching the door is Karech bash’Uulivas, my second.  Behind you is Gaalet bash’Rubesh; behind it is Voshtig bash’Kenet.  Two others live within, Suufit bash’Topith and Luuboh bash’Gaulig.  You will take Luuboh’s room.  You will obey its orders as my own.  For now, it will find ways for you to be useful… until the situation changes.  Start by instructing it about your health requirements: dietary needs, medical concerns, and so on.  It will adjust rationing as appropriate.  If I find out you exaggerate your needs, I will reduce your share by twice the difference and let you suffer.  Do you understand?”
“Understood,” Evgeny replied.  He did indeed understand, more than was directly spoken.  This Luuboh bash’Gaulig had been mentioned last.  The ‘prisoners’ were being placed in its space and under its authority.  That meant that the named Mauraug was the most subordinate among the outpost crew, their ‘omega’.  The Humans were being shown their place, beneath the lowest among the Mauraug.  That was just for the present.  Evgeny did not take offense.  If they could not prove their value – their Dominance over the least valuable of the Mauraug – then Soloth would be justified in its dismissal.  Mauraug standards of precedence were at least honest compared to their indirect Human equivalents, if a bit oppressive in their pervasiveness.  A Human could be a lowly trainee at work then go home and be master of its family.  A Mauraug super-subordinate would have trouble starting a family, much less have the respect of its own relatives.
They weren’t there to debate Dominionism, just manage within it for as long as necessary.  Taking orders from the base's butt-monkey wasn’t going to hurt them… for now.  If this visit turned into a long-term residence, Evgeny would have to start planning how to climb higher on the ladder.  He might even consider challenging Soloth, although the three-to-one proportions of Mauraug to Humans here made that play less advisable.

The group descended a story below ground using the stairs, then entered the facility itself without preamble of door or foyer.  A central elliptical room held a utilitarian brushed steel table and a hodgepodge of Mauraug-sized seating: metal stools, wooden chairs, and even a couple of reinforced plastic crates.  The lighting was dimmer in the main area, most likely to conserve power, but it was amply compensated by the bright illumination of the occupied side rooms. 
They passed four side chambers, two on either side, while being directed to a single room at the far end.  One room held two wide bunks and a work desk holding a scattering of electronic components, some quite actively blinking while processing and displaying some type of information.  Another chamber had a single bunk and racks of supplies: food, medical staples and equipment, small tools, folded clothing, and so forth.  The further room on the same side held only three more bunks, one of which was occupied by an enormous Mauraug. 
It wasn’t just taller and broader than a Human, like most adult Mauraug, it was wider as well.  It took Evgeny a few moments to realize that the simian being was overweight.  Beneath its fur, a rounded gut bulged forth, and rolls of flesh hung beneath its ribs and chin.  Its eyes seemed small due to the bulges at its cheeks.  It wore no clothing, but as typical of Mauraug, had no consideration of ‘nudity’, particularly not around Humans.  It was seated on one of the bunks, holding a slim compad, and looked up from the device as the new arrivals passed. 
                “Humans?  From their settlement?” it barked.
Soloth, who had already passed by the barracks door on the way to the furthest room, turned back and stood in the doorway.  Evgeny was forced to back up to the central table to make way. 
“Yes,” Soloth replied, “Survivors of the Apostate attack.  I am granting them safety in return for their services.  They will report to Luuboh; you have no concern with them.”
“No concern?  Services?  The fat Mauraug, whom Evgeny deduced was Suufit bash’Topith, heaved to its feet and stepped forward to meet Soloth face-to-face in the doorway.  This Mauraug certainly wasn’t the omega.  Otherwise, it would never have risked its life by speaking directly to the group’s leader.  Suufit also wasn’t Soloth’s direct lieutenant, but still seemed to feel like it had some privilege. 
Suufit continued to test its leeway by showing open anger.  Its brows were raised, nostrils flared, lips pulled back in a sneer, and it spread its arms, still holding the tiny computer in one hand. 
It elaborated, “Why should we share our limited resources with Humans?  There is barely enough for the six of us, as it is, and no resupply is coming.  Bad enough that we must abandon our kin in Gorash’Bond, but will you risk our lives to shelter our enemies?  What use are they, except to throw at the Apostates… if they even would fight.”
Soloth answered succinctly.  Without wasted motion, the Mauraug leader launched a fist forward at waist level, catching Suufit squarely in its protruding abdomen.  The hefty body was lifted upward and thrown back across the room, ending up with its lower half sprawled across a bunk and its upper half colliding with the rear wall.  Soloth spoke with menacing calm:
“If you have relevant questions, ask them directly.  The Humans… Evgeny Lerner is the male, Mikala Turell the female… can answer your ignorance if you cannot comprehend their uses yourself.  I heard only criticism and complaints.  Be grateful I did not hear a challenge to my Dominion.  As it is, I think we can safely make up their feeding requirements by reducing your share.  Have Luuboh recalibrate your liver if you cannot manage with fewer calories.”
Evgeny was impressed.  Such brutality might not be the ideal method of reprimand, but it had its charms.  It might actually work better among Mauraug than Humans.  Suufit had apparently not suffered any serious damage and was climbing to its feet.  The same blow might have injured a less padded Mauraug; it certainly would have crippled or killed a Human.  Soloth had not bothered to complain about Suufit’s behavior, had not threatened or demanded an apology, but simply administered punishment to the extent it saw as necessary.   It also had not continued with an extended beating.  That outcome might have been different, of course, had Suufit fought back or protested further.  It did not, but only stood silently with eyes downcast.
The adrenaline coursing through his body probably had something to do with Evgeny’s approval.  He hadn’t had time to be afraid.  Looking at Mikala, he found her wide-eyed and grimacing.  Evgeny tried to look appropriately horrified as well, but was certain she had already noticed his true reaction.  Oh, well.  At least she was now well aware of the penalty here for insubordination.  If she was afraid, that made his job easier. 
Soloth watched the larger Mauraug for three seconds more, before turning away and continuing on its tour as if the interruption was done.  Centurion, or rather, Voshtig bash’Kenet, remained behind in the barracks room to attend to personal matters. 
From the opposite room, a workspace that apparently doubled as galley, emerged the antipode to Suufit’s corpulence.  This Mauraug was miniscule compared to their racial norm.  It also seemed disproportionate, its head and torso oversized compared to its limbs.  Evgeny realized after a moment of perspective shift that, in fact, its body was normally sized for a Mauraug; it was the sapient’s arms and legs that were reduced in scale.  Given that Mauraug limbs were typically half again the length of their Human equivalents, this reduction brought the dwarfed Mauraug down to Human height. 
The omega.  No wonder why this was the lowest subordinate among its peers.  Its limbs were not only short, but also relatively thin and spindly.  It could never match its kind physically.  Growing up so shrunken, in Dominionist culture, would tend to impress a child with its own worthlessness.  Even if it possessed genius intellect or was a potential artistic or social prodigy, it would be unlikely to pursue those alternate avenues to excellence.  Just surviving to adulthood would have been a challenge, much less defying cultural standards to earn education or respect. 

Disability had once been a barrier to success in most Terran cultures, and even now, a Human dwarf would have to overcome a certain amount of genetic chauvinism and practical obstacles to get equal respect to any person of average stature.  Still, the formal cultures of Humanity were not predicated on ‘bigger is better’, not anymore.  Discrimination was not legally permitted, let alone encouraged.  For all that Evgeny could respect certain aspects of Dominionism, it had some fairly obvious flaws.
Luuboh walked over to meet them.  It moved without difficulty, not really crippled or disabled at all, just short.  Evgeny suddenly found himself wondering why the Mauraug had not been fitted with cybernetic replacements for its diminutive limbs.   Most Mauraug had some sort of birth defect due to the pervasive genetic damage wrought upon their species by a plague unleashed by a vengeful former slave species.  Most Mauraug also replaced their defective organs – eye, arm, spine, leg, even major internal organs, anything except the brain – with cybernetic substitutes.  Children received basic functional equivalents, and adults often chose to upgrade these to even more impressively versatile replacements.  A more modern addition to Dominionism made cybernetic enhancement nearly an explicit sacrament in observance of the tenets of ‘self-improvement’. 
Perhaps Luuboh had not had such surgeries as a child because its arms and legs were entirely functional.  It would not have had the same priority for cybernetic augmentation as, say, a child born without a spine.  That was particularly likely given the limited resources of a colonial settlement.  Still, it should have had prostheses to avoid ridicule, to avoid falling behind its peers.  By adulthood, it should have gone into personal debt rather than be relegated to such a literally low place in its society. 
Its inferiority complex must have sunk deep.  Maybe it felt it did not deserve any better.  Maybe it no longer cared about how it was viewed.  It might have made peace with its existence.  That could be viewed either as either a failing or a victory, Evgeny supposed, but only Humans would understand the latter perspective.  Mauraug would revile it doubly for abandoning the path of Dominion, whether that departure was the result of a crippled psyche or powerful self-acceptance.
Luuboh’s greeting suggested the latter explanation.  It kept its eyes lowered, but only in perspective to the two other Mauraug, Soloth and Gaalet.  It could still look directly at Evgeny and Mikala. 
“Welcome to Renat’Tach Outpost,” Luuboh said in passable modern English.  Its accent was distinctly Mauraug but it managed better than the patois Soloth had employed earlier.  The name it gave the base – Renat’Tach – translated into ‘fingertip’, probably referring to the base’s position at the fringe of Mauraug territory. 
Soloth bash’Soloth spoke to its subordinate in Mauraug, “These two will share your old bunk.  You will alternate beds with Suufit, Gaalet, or Voshtig as duties permit.  You are responsible for the behavior of these Humans.  Watch them, guide them, and find them work.  If they transgress, you will suffer as well.  You will be notified when and if this arrangement changes.”
Luuboh bowed its head and rested its knuckles on the floor, “I understand.”
Just great, Evgeny thought, our boss is our whipping boy, too.  It seemed Soloth assumed they would be more likely to behave if another would be punished for their errors.  While Evgeny could sympathize with the omega’s lousy position, he wasn’t about to limit his actions out of sympathy for a Mauraug’s hide.  Hell, even if his mother was put in the same role, he wouldn’t pass up a necessary advantage just to spare her some pain.  Of course, he also wouldn’t needlessly cause trouble, either. 
Maybe he had it wrong, and the warning was entirely for Luuboh’s benefit, to make sure the Mauraug did its job right and kept them productive. 
Evgeny was already tired.  Trying to sort out xeno-psychology was only exhausting him further.  He was grateful that being handed off to Luuboh apparently ended their introduction to the outpost.  Soloth spared no further time, but turned and went back to the exit.  Gaalet went around to the empty bedroom with the work table and disappeared from sight.  Soon after, a click and beep signaled that it was working with some active device. 
Luuboh was left alone with the two Humans.  It looked up at both of them in turn.  “I heard your names… Evgeny?  And Mikala?” 
“Right,” Evgeny agreed. 
Mikala had finally had enough of being seen and not heard, “And you’re Luuboh.  Hi, great to meet you.  Thanks for having us.  We’re ever so grateful.”  Her voice was quiet but the sarcasm was almost tangible. 
Luuboh stared at her, head cocked, and answered at equally low volume: “We’ll be working together, it seems.  I’m reasonably familiar with Humans, so I can understand and forgive your tone.  I don’t even mind, personally, if you need to vent pressure.  But I am responsible for your behavior, so if you do that in public, I’ll have to smack you for it.”
Mikala let an exasperated groan escape. 
Evgeny took back control of the conversation.  “What do you do, if I may ask?  How would we be working with you?”
“I do everything,” Luuboh replied unhelpfully, with an amused lip rounding at the end.  It did elaborate, “I do anything anyone else doesn’t do.  Repairs, laundry, cooking, cleaning, hauling... whatever duties aren’t wanted or aren’t assigned fall to me.”
“You’re the housekeeper?” Mikala asked with a wince.
“I like to think of it as domestic management, but yes,” Luuboh replied, sticking out its tongue in another universal gesture.  “And for now, you’re my staff.  Don’t worry, I’ll still handle the heavy lifting.  I assume Soloth doesn’t want you damaged.  I also assume this arrangement won’t last.”
“It’s to show us our place,” Evgeny agreed, for both Luuboh and Mikala’s benefit.  “Not to mention reassure the team that we’re on probation.  You’re right.  We’re worth more than just scrubbing floors… no offense.”
“None taken,” Luuboh answered smoothly.  “But you will scrub a few floors.  Get used to the idea.  I’ll even help find you more useful work; our external antenna array is due for maintenance tomorrow.  If you can manage jobs like that, under my supervision, you can show off what you’re good for.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a cool drink in the shade while my highly motivated underlings work.”
Evgeny found himself liking Luuboh for entirely different reasons than he admired Soloth.  While Mauraug weren’t actually as humorless as depicted by Human literary stereotypes, their jokes tended toward the abusive or slapstick.  Luuboh seemed to have a dry, subtle, even self-deprecating sense of humor that even some Humans couldn’t manage, much less maintain in such oppressive circumstances. 
He hoped Mikala would appreciate their good fortune.  The base’s underdog could have turned out to be a bitter, cruel, abusive taskmaster, overjoyed to finally have someone it could dominate and torment.  That behavior was equally probable given its likely life story.  Instead, the small Mauraug seemed to be resolved to its lot, sympathizing with its fellows in disadvantage. 
Much as Evgeny might respect Luuboh for that, he was still not going to remain at the bottom of the social ladder, beneath or alongside the Mauraug omega.  He (and hopefully Mikala alongside) would leapfrog up as high as possible. 
In particular, they needed to gain enough status and respect to earn a place for any other Human survivors.  That Suufit was going to be a problem if other Humans arrived or were found wandering.  Evgeny needed to be able to overrule the chunky monkey if it tried to push against his species’ interests. 
He also needed Soloth to pay attention to his arguments, particularly when the time came either to raid against the Apostates or to search New Gethsemane more thoroughly when they departed.  Coming here was only marginally worthwhile if Evgeny remained captive and powerless.  Ultimately, he needed the strength and resources of the Mauraug to serve his own goals.  He was equally willing to assist in their goals, as well, but expected his contribution to be appropriately valued.
For now, his value to the Mauraug was as a janitor.  Well, that would get them clean floors but not much else. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Escape from Grace - Chapter 3

                Evgeny and Mikala kept their conversation to a minimum as they sped east.  Their reasons for silence were unclear to both.  The whir of the runner cart’s motor, the crunch of its tires on the irregular ground, and the whip of wind around their bodies generated some noise, but not nearly enough to obscure speech.  This was especially true with speaker and listener in such close proximity.  They were hardly trying to avoid notice by remaining quiet.  They wanted to be heard well before stumbling upon any nervous Mauraug. 

                There were also plenty of topics available for discussion: their respective backgrounds before transport to Locust IV, their experiences since arrival at the colony, and their assignments (official and unofficial) over the last few weeks.  The problem, which they either could not recognize or admit, was avoidance of the most recent events: the destruction of New Gethsemane and the likely deaths of their families.

                Not that avoiding discussion avoided the reality.  Both were still trapped in their own minds with their memories.  Perhaps conversation would have helped to process their grief or at least to distract from it.  Evgeny suffered less from these reflections due to the attentional demands of steering the cart. 
He still caught his mind wandering home nonetheless.  He tried to outline the probable sequence of events for the attack: what would be struck first, what second, what last of all?  He tried to remember if his superiors in Defense had ever pointed out any fortified areas.  Were there even any air defense bunkers?  Likely there existed at least one hardened site, possibly even one large enough to hold all the colonists for a time.  There certainly had been enough equipment and time for a sizable excavation.  The quarry and mines were, in fact, just such an enormous excavation project.  Those digs had provided the initial building materials for the settlement’s housing projects: sandstone and limestone blocks, gypsum and lime for concrete to bind them, even a decent tracery of copper and silver for technological needs.  The colony had no shortage of sophisticated digging tools and the repair supplies to keep these at full operational strength for years.  It was just a question of where those resources had been applied.  What had been the structure of priorities? 
Surely, no one planet-side had anticipated the calamity which actually arrived.  Their concerns might have included shuttle strafing runs or possibly, just maybe, a lightning raid by outlaws, such as Mikala had suggested.  In either case, bombs would be used more to force the colonists to ground while the attackers damaged or stole resources.  The way this attack sounded, the focus had been complete destruction of both property and personnel.  It was too insane to have been expected. 
Again, that wasn’t Defense's job.  Their job was to protect the settlement from the most likely threats: nature and possibly the neighbors.  Not even the overseeing colonial government could be expected to manage extra-planetary threats.  The orbital station and its cooperative team were tasked with managing threats from above.  That team was composed of the representatives of the distant Terran and Dominion governments, plus a few Collective representatives.  They had failed. 

Then again, even if the cultural governments had expected a small fleet to drop high-yield explosives on one or both settlements, would they have advised construction of adequate bunkers?  There would have been protests about the resource cost required, if not panic over the acknowledgement of such a possibility.  So the gods above had been overconfident about their ability to intercept such an attack, ignorant of its possibility, or else in willful denial about the matter.
Eventually, it might matter which explanation was true.  Perhaps all were true, for different sapients at different positions.  Evgeny didn’t much care right now, but he hoped he would get to explore the matter in personal depth later.  He struggled to turn his mind away from the currently unsolvable problem and focus it on the present and merely difficult challenges ahead.
                The few exchanges between him and Mikala covered such practical matters.  They discussed their cover story.  It seemed best to admit that both were border scouts.  They had to explain their absence from the settlement and proximity to the border, not to mention their obvious familiarity with the terrain in this region.  Evgeny’s equipment and supplies were sufficient for several days' survival apart from civilization.  Hopefully, they could omit discussion of the full range of Mikala’s ‘scouting’.  Evgeny explicitly avoided this point, admitting that he could give away less if he knew little.  His own knowledge of and rank within Defense could be used to cover for the woman, if the Mauraug knew enough to recognize her relative youth.  He was training a subordinate, possibly one who had gotten lost and wandered too close to the border.  Mikala snorted at that absurdity, but let it pass otherwise.

                The other point they agreed on was that they had both lost their AIs.  Evgeny included Matilda in this conversation, preparing her to ‘play dumb’.  She would remain silent until specific command phrases were spoken, to avoid accidental detection or intentional elicitation.  If she had any reason to think a third sapient had arrived – Human or Mauraug, it didn’t matter – she was to enter a suspended state, hiding her code within a memory storage unit separate from the compad’s main drive and processor.  Hopefully, Evgeny could detach and conceal that unit before the compad was confiscated, in the worst case of Mauraug paranoia.  Reawakening Matilda would take some time and some specific key codes, but it was better than having her discovered and deleted forever.
                Evgeny wished he could segregate some of his and Mikala’s memories just as easily.  Not just to avoid the pain of grief, but for practical reasons: they would have to pull off some skillful acting.  Hopefully, they only needed to bluff out the two major sticking points already addressed.  If the Mauraug they met were particularly suspicious, hostile, or worst, forewarned, then they might have to defuse multiple bombs.  They might even have to admit their trespasses in order to secure trust and cooperation.  Whatever was necessary to keep them alive and relatively undamaged, they had to be prepared to do.  Of course, with Mauraug, simply submitting to indignity was not the ideal strategy.  They had to see your strength before they would accept your surrender; otherwise you were just capitulating falsely.  Argue and fight a little first, then back down if necessary.  At least those comparative culture classes might finally pay off.
                Evgeny shared this last thought with Mikala and got at least a bitter laugh out of her.  He also extracted her agreement to let him lead.  She had been trained more to avoid the enemy’s notice and less to deal with them socially if noticed; Evgeny had been trained to notice and understand the opposition.  He would be their voice, her superior in public as well as in their fictional history.
                Despite a scarcity of words, they had their stories in place by the time Mikala spotted the washout creek she had described.  Evgeny turned the cart to follow its track, staying on the level, grassy flats well above its sloping bank.  They would become visible on the opposite side of the gully from the Mauraug emplacement.  Besides being minimally provoking, this also gave them the option of dashing away, back west, if the Mauraug unexpectedly began firing weapons before questions.  That is, the Humans could flee if they weren’t killed instantly. 
                The Mauraug outpost had superior detection equipment or else excellent positioning.  Something allowed them to spot the approaching Humans long before Evgeny or Mikala identified any signs of habitation.  Well before Mikala signaled to slow or turn, three hulking black and white figures emerged from hiding behind a brushy pile of tumbled stones. 
                Glints reflecting off poorly darkened metal confirmed weaponry in the hands of the three Mauraug.  More than that; one of the three, the leftmost, had one shoulder encased in metallic plate.  A cybernetic arm was no surprise on a Mauraug, but it might contain surprises, such as additional weapons beyond the obvious firearm it carried.  That firearm happened to be a pistol-like contraption, which at this distance could be anything from a low-powered laser or plasma thrower, an explosive projectile gun like Evgeny’s, or a magnetic projectile accelerator.   The rightmost Mauraug carried a much larger, bulkier two-handed device with a grip, shoulder butt, and minimal barrel: likely a full sized plasma thrower, quite capable of incinerating the cart and its riders all at once. 
Not all of them had ranged weapons.  The central figure was slightly larger than the other two and likely their superior given its positioning, stance, and build.  It carried an oversized machete, likely sufficient to cleave limbs from trees or animals.  Neither it nor the Mauraug to its right rear showed any obvious cybernetic modifications, but something was undoubtedly there, under the surface.
The Mauraug seemed confident and had good reason to be.  They had the superior numbers and armament, plus the advantage of home territory.  If it mattered, they had the moral advantage as well.  They could do as they chose with the Humans, with no reason to fear legal reprisal against themselves or any authority above them.  Once again, Evgeny hoped the Mauraug were aware that those authorities were all gone or distant and that previous arrangements no longer held. 
The Humans were allowed to drive closer without further threat.  If they had tried to flee or drive around, the encounter might have turned sour.  Evgeny chose not to slow appreciably, keeping the same steady pace toward the challengers as he had driven before spotting them. 
As they drew closer, the Humans could make out more individual differences among the Mauraug.  The three were dressed in slightly differing modes.  The leftmost wore a slatted leather skirt which reminded Evgeny of ceremonial armor from some part of ancient Terran history.  This was held up with two belts that strapped over the Mauraug’s shoulders.  The rightmost Mauraug, which had seemed almost entirely black at a distance, proved to be wearing a black full-body jumpsuit.  The garment was looser and likely lighter than Mikala’s camouflage, but might serve a similar purpose, particularly at night.  Both flankers wore wide, heavy boots of some synthetic material, perhaps not too dissimilar in type to Evgeny’s own hiking gear. 
By contrast, the foremost Mauraug seemed a mixture of styles.  It wore simple strap sandals which would suffice for snowshoes on a Human.  Contoured plates, painted black and white to match the coloration of its fur, were bound to its shins, thighs, and groin with thick elastic straps.  A much plainer, cruder chest plate was bound to its broad front with two belts which crossed one another.  Finally, it was alone in wearing headgear.  A band wrapped over the top of its head, flattening the normally tufted fur sprouting there.  Bulges on either side suggested earphones, possibly including filtering and processing equipment.  It could have heard them driving up from kilometers away, maybe even caught a few words of their conversation, depending on the device’s acuity. 
That clairaudience might interfere with their discussed plans, but it was obviously too late to revise strategies now.  If they were caught out lying, the truth wasn’t necessarily better. 
The ‘leader’ raised its hand finally as they pulled within thirty meters, close enough to see and hear one another clearly, but far enough that any hostile action could be anticipated.  It called out in acceptable Terran patois, “Identify and state business.”
Evgeny turned the runner sideways to the Mauraug, facing it back west, and idled the engine to its barest hum.  “Evgeny Lerner and Mikala Turell, New Gethsemane Defense… or what’s left of it.  You know what has happened to the settlements?”
The foremost Mauraug both nodded and puffed in a blend of Human and Mauraug assent.  “I do.  Apostates.  Many dead.  Dominance unknown… maybe I superior.”
“You lead these Mauraug?” Evgeny posed the question not directly – he already was aware this Mauraug was superior to the two others they could see – but indirectly, to imply that he himself needed to be convinced of this sapient’s claim to Dominance.
He was rewarded with a tilt of the head and an introduction: “Soloth bash’Soloth, superior over border outpost, last settlement Locust Four.” 
That was interesting.  Evgeny had never heard of a Mauraug sharing the same name as its dominant parent.  He hadn’t heard any custom against it, though.   The traditions or ego that led to such direct name sharing in Human lineages weren’t apparent in any Mauraug cultural writing.  If anything, it suggested that the parent intended to go on dominating their offspring through life and into death, a foolish conceit according to most understandings of Dominion.  Children were expected to exceed their parents; failure to do so was sometimes a source of shame. 
He kept his thoughts to himself, however.  No need to insult their potential host.  Mikala failed to apply the same tact, however.
“Last settlement that you know of, anyway,” she muttered, drawing irritated glances from both Evgeny and Soloth. 
“You know another?” Soloth demanded.  Its challenge stirred the Mauraug on its left to tighten its grip and raise its pistol slightly. 
Great, Evgeny thought, taunt them with cards we don’t even hold.  Dammit, we want them feeling like they’re in charge, not possibly outnumbered by unseen Humans somewhere… even if that would be nice, if true.
“No,” Mikala admitted, wisely dropping her eyes and her voice, “I just hope we’re not the last two.”
“Hope spends cheap,” Soloth retorted, turning back to Evgeny, “You know others?”
He shook his head and wrinkled his nose, mimicking Soloth’s use of simultaneous Human and Mauraug expressions.  “Not yet.  We’ve avoided signaling.  The last report we heard said to keep radios quiet, that the Apostates were landing near New Gethsemane.  They’re probably scavenging both settlements, stealing whatever was left intact, maybe killing any witnesses.”
“Who told you?”
Now Evgeny had to fabricate rapidly, “Automated Defense systems, mostly.  They were active until their computers were knocked off line, which was longer than most of the settlers survived.”
“A.I.’s, yes.  Likely dead now, happy?"
“No happiness.  Never trust demons.”
“Regardless, the only survivors are likely your group and anyone in the field, like we were.  It was safer to drive away from the settlement and the Apostates there.  Hopefully any of your people or ours will do the same.”
Soloth swung its blade idly while musing, “We hide well… we think.  Already crowded.  More draw more attention.  Go away.”  It pointed the machete’s tip toward them, indicating the south from which they had approached. 
Evgeny stared at the Mauraug to convey what it would identify as defiance.  He unconsciously threw in an expression of Human incredulity.  “You’re really turning away help?”
“No help needed.  Only problems: hungry, weak problems.  Being generous, little sibling.  Go find food and place hide yourself.  We not want you here.”
“Maybe you don’t want, but you need,” Evgeny said with genuine heat.  He was ready for this argument.  “First, sending us away is basically killing us.  What if other Humans come?  Will you chase them all off, kill them if they won’t leave?  You’re throwing away minds and bodies, possible allies, which is particularly stupid when you consider that the Apostates hate you more than us.”
The insult wasn’t exactly wise or necessary.  Evgeny saw the three Mauraug bristle, tensing in anticipation of further provocation.  That was fine; he was done with his criticism.  Now on to the appeal to reason.
“And what if Terrans are the first to return to Locust?  How will you explain your treatment of their people?  Think they’ll be pleased to find out you murdered us, directly or indirectly?  'Whoops, looks like the Apostates killed all the Mauraug on Locust.'  Hell, you might not even be able to receive their hails or signal them for help, if their signals come encoded.  Guess who knows the security codes?”
For the last part, Evgeny switched off sarcasm entirely and went for earnest entreaty: “Even if the Mauraug arrive first, we’re valuable.  We’re willing to cooperate, even take orders.  We can access whatever Terran systems remain in New Gethsemane, not to mention reassure any survivors we find.  Like it or not, we can also interact with any A.I. that survived, surface or orbital.”
This set off one of the flankers, the suited one on the right, who interrupted, “Satellite demons?”
Evgeny gave it a withering glare and retorted, “Yes, we like our communications satellites as intelligent as possible… and one might have avoided destruction by being smart.  There might also have been A.I. aboard Locust Station.  If one survived, you might still have to thank it for calling for help.”
Soloth flared its nostrils at that, but allowed, “Say we accept your surrender.  No demons allowed.  Throw them away.”  It gestured with its free hand to a spot halfway between the two groups.
Evgeny bared his teeth in response, risking violence from the agitated Mauraug in order to sell his big lie: “Mikala’s Brin and mine were in New Gethsemane.  They’re probably destroyed, dead, like our families.  Like yours.”
Soloth looked distinctly skeptical.  “Maybe.  Humans like demons, sometimes love them.  We search you.  Surrender all gear.  If honest, you live.”
Evgeny hoped Mikala’s face wasn’t betraying them already.  He focused on his anger, using it as a mask for his fear. 
“Fine, if that’s what it takes,” he agreed, reaching down to detach his saddlebags.  “I’m just taking everything out now.  My weapon is at my belt.  Same with Mikala.  This is my compad…”  He pulled the miniature computer out and waved it with exaggerated display.  At the same time, he thumbed the eject release for the memory bead holding Matilda, letting it slip down his sleeve. 
Evgeny prayed that his slight of hand had been successful against the wary Mauraug.  Despite the slurs used privately among Humans, Mauraug were not stupid.  If anything, they managed equally well in all fields of technology compared to Humans, except cognitive programming, without A.I. help.  Besides that, they were often individually quite clever.  This Soloth was at least reasonable, no brutal commander but a thoughtful leader.  Evgeny began to wonder if their negotiations had been for Soloth’s benefit or intended to persuade its subordinates.
“… and these are my field recordings,” he continued, offering up the other saddlebag.  He dropped them to the side along with his handgun.  With a couple of gestures, he encouraged Mikala to do the same.  Once that was done, the Mauraug finally approached, picking up the offered items and rifling through their contents – digital as well as physical – with no apology.
“The rest is water, food, medicines, and tools,” Evgeny concluded, “I imagine Mikala has smaller versions of each kit in her pockets.  Let them search you, recruit, they’re not likely to mean anything personal by inappropriate touching.”
He could not see Mikala’s expression and so missed her eye roll, but heard no disagreement.  That was good.  If the Mauraug saw him as the ‘Dominant Human’, they would continue to deal with him directly and trust to his subordinate to follow his lead.  Otherwise, she could be viewed as a separate threat, not covered by his good-will or agreements.  Worse, she could be considered a separate axis to be manipulated in the Human-Mauraug collaboration forming here.  Evgeny had agreed to accept Soloth’s dominance, at least until the situation changed.  Hopefully Mikala would act like that applied to her as well.
They got through the search without incident.  The memory bead holding Matilda remained undetected within Evgeny’s armpit.  No A.I. was found otherwise hidden among their possessions.  Their guns were confiscated and the runner cart was claimed by Soloth, with the other four sapients walking alongside.  The Humans’ food and medicines were left to their use for practical, biological reasons.  Evgeny had to assume that a condition of their parole would include further room and board, in exchange for the cooperation he had implied. 
The Mauraug leader did not threaten them further, only asked questions to further elaborate on their knowledge about the attack and their actions afterward.  It also inquired about their professional abilities, expressing neither approval nor disappointment at their carefully edited answers.  It did not volunteer information about itself or its colleagues, not their names, professions, or history.
Their positions allowed them a better look at all three Mauraug, at least.  Soloth’s back was exposed by its armor, but not unprotected: its spine was encased in metal plates from the base of its skull to the tip of its tailbone.  From their flush placement and smooth movement, it was apparent that the entire spinal column was encased – if not replaced – by a cybernetic device.  It probably made the Mauraug exceedingly strong, besides protecting several vital areas.  The skirted one (Evgeny thought of it as the Centurion now) had its prosthetic arm.  It also had interesting patches of browner fur interspersed among the typical streaked black and white coloration of its kind.  A racial variation, or a genetic anomaly?  Either was possible, Evgeny supposed.  The one in the jumpsuit was less personally distinct.  Whatever characteristics made it stand out to other Mauraug were not apparent to the Human.  Whatever cybernetics it had were hidden either by its clothing, fur, or skin.  It walked a bit more smoothly than most Mauraug, though, as if its body were less resistant to bipedalism. 
Soloth was almost courteous as they came nearer the Mauraug encampment.  It advised Evgeny: “Behave.  I explain decision.  Mistakes still kill you.  Your presence not wanted, not popular.”
Sick of having to decipher the (admittedly decent) patois used by the Mauraug, Evgeny decided to take the unexpected opening and play another card.  In his own mediocre pronunciation, he replied in Mauraug: “The truly Dominant can uphold an unpopular decision.   If It is proven right, It is proven doubly Dominant over the fools who disagreed.”
Soloth hooted in laughter and responded also in Mauraug, “In the words of Sha’Bahn Itself.  So, little sibling, you are well read.  Well trained, I think also, and ready to speak to Mauraug.  A diplomat or a deceiver?  Good enough either way.  As long as you keep acting like Mauraug, we will have fewer problems.  Act in the ways of Dominion and you will understand.’  Maybe you really will understand, if we survive together long enough.”