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.”

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