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.

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