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. 

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