That day, they had an opportunity to wash more thoroughly. Luuboh and Gaalet stepped outside together, leaving Evgeny and Mikala alone in the outpost. The two Humans each took a turn removing their clothing, scrubbing the garments in the sink with some soap, and giving themselves a thorough sponge bath. The process helped as much for morale as for hygiene.
This was handled separately and with the courtesy of privacy. Though Evgeny and Mikala had resigned themselves to intimate sleeping arrangements, they weren’t at the blasé level of military comrades. Evgeny also hadn’t ruled out a romantic relationship, particularly given their similar pasts, professional paths, and lack of alternatives. Such thoughts were a bit premature after only two days and a bit inappropriate given the circumstances, but present nonetheless.
Mikala went first, by virtue of greater need. Thus, Evgeny was forced to grab his still-damp clothing and dress rapidly when the Mauraug patrol returned early.
Voshtig entered the common room first, pushing a bound male Human before him. Despite the man’s battered condition, Evgeny recognized him immediately: Wallace Harmon, his fellow Defense surveyor. Wallace had been assigned the southern stretch of the Human-Mauraug border. It was no surprise for him to be the next Human found in this region. He had probably had similar thoughts to Evgeny’s, heading north and possibly a little east in hopes of meeting up with other survivors.
What was surprising was his condition. Had he met with an accident? More likely, the Mauraug were to blame. Wallace had a noticeable limp as he staggered in ahead of Voshtig. His thick arms were bound behind him with black nylon cord, familiar from the Defense supply kit. His dark brown shirt was darkened further with blood, dripped from his broken nose and split lip. More blood speckled his sandy hair. He had bruises blooming on his pale cheeks as well. He coughed weakly as he spotted Evgeny, preparatory to speaking.
Evgeny spared him the effort by volunteering first, shouting in Mauraug: “What the hell? This is Wallace Harmon. It is on Defense patrol, same as me. What happened to it… and why is it restrained?”
Soloth cocked its head and opened its mouth to respond, but was preempted by Suufit's bluster: “Your comrade attacked us. It is fortunate we spared its life. Although I…”
Wallace himself managed to interject, in stilted Mauraug, “Spared life? Dung! Blew up cart…”
Both respondents were quieted by the other two Mauraug. Voshtig shoved Wallace to the ground. The Human narrowly avoided a concussion by catching himself on his shoulder. Soloth dealt with Suufit by attempting to cuff the bigger Mauraug on its ear. Suufit, alert to attack this time, raised an arm and blocked Soloth’s slap before the hand caught its head. The force of the blow still rocked Suufit back and likely injured its wrist. It staggered back, holding the wounded arm in its opposite hand. The two rivals stared at one another for a long moment, weighing the options between escalation and surrender.
In the meantime, Evgeny darted forward to check on Wallace, who had not moved after landing on the floor. The other man was only dazed from pain, breathing normally - if obstructed by blood and swelling - and conscious. Evgeny turned Wallace onto his back, forcing him to lie painfully on his hands but otherwise helping to stabilize his shocked system.
Mikala stepped forward into the room, seeming to lean upon one of the wooden chairs for support. Evgeny recognized the stance: she now had a shield and weapon ready at hand. If necessary, he could back her play by tripping up one of the three Mauraug. Likely that would be Voshtig, if they took advantage of Soloth and Suufit brawling.
None of these contingencies were necessary, though. Suufit submitted, lowering its eyes and stance. This time, Soloth followed up with a backhand across the cringing subordinate’s nose. Dark blood welled up and dripped from one broad nostril.
“I will ask if your input is required,” Soloth reminded Suufit. It then turned to Wallace, catching Evgeny in the same glare. “The same applies to you. This new refugee fired upon us, that much is true. We returned fire, but only its vehicle was damaged. Most of its injuries came from jumping clear of the burning wreckage. Any idea why your comrade would attack us?”
Wallace cleared his lungs and head enough to reply, “Thought you Apostates.”
Evgeny nodded, “I wouldn’t have been expecting a large, armed group of Mauraug myself, except that Mikala had advance knowledge. If I had been alone and saw you three together, I might think you were with the raiders.”
Mikala tensed. Evgeny could hear her chair rattle. He hoped this information would earn Wallace some pardon, but he knew Mikala was upset at being identified as a spy.
Soloth flared its nostrils and smacked its lips in consideration. “True, there is no way to tell a heretic by sight.” It shot a peculiar knowing look at the other two Mauraug, both of whom shifted uncomfortably at its gaze. It shifted its attention back to Wallace.
“You have two choices. Submit, and your comrades can tend your wounds and include you in my terms of parole. Defy or threaten further, and suffer further. I do not murder; that is how you can tell me from an Apostate. But I will make you regret disobedience. Do I have your submission?”
Wallace stared blankly. Evgeny was concerned about the man’s mental state until he realized Wallace hadn’t understood fully. Not all of the Defense scouts had the same fluency in Mauraug. Evgeny gave a clearer translation of the ultimatum, and Wallace grudgingly agreed.
“Untie it,” Soloth instructed Evgeny. Evgeny lifted the other man into a chair and struggled with the knotted cord. Eventually, he just pulled out a pocket knife and sliced through the nylon. Wallace stretched his arms cautiously, rubbing his hands awake, all the while staring with bleary defiance at Soloth.
The Mauraug boss snorted and turned away from the Humans. Addressing Voshtig, it instructed, “Take Suufit and Gaalet and make another patrol. There may be others coming from either side. Find them before they find us.”
This time, Voshtig bash’Kenet pushed back against its superior. “Why are we bringing everyone here? I do not question your wisdom in capturing these Humans, nor in maintaining our perimeter. But every additional body increases our likelihood of being noticed and reduces the time left before we run out of food. Why not send the refugees to some other site and let them draw away the enemy’s attention?”
“For now, I consider these Humans potential assets,” Soloth answered, generous with discussion for the moment, “If I am proven wrong, so much the worse for them. Perhaps I will consider your plan if the cost of additional guests rises above their value. However, I will decide when that balance has changed.”
Voshtig lowered its eyes and hands in assent.
Evgeny risked seizing the moment to add, “You have not yet seen our real value. Everyone is worried about having enough supplies, but we could add to the resource pool, not just take from it. We are Defense, we are trained for the land and for combat. Aside from scavenging, we could help with patrolling and raiding. We might even dig up some resources the Apostates haven’t found.”
He had Soloth’s interest. Unfortunately, he also had its hackles up. “I did not ask you…”
“No, but you should have. Apologies, but I am trying to help, not criticize.” Evgeny was aware he was using Wallace’s injured body as a shield. Otherwise, Soloth might have slapped or grabbed him after his second interruption.
He pushed his luck once more: “I can understand not trusting us, especially after this... misunderstanding. But we are being wasted, sitting around here. If you put two Mauraug and one Human together on a patrol, what are we going to do alone? You double your patrols and double your defenses, for the same cost.”
Soloth was quiet for a few seconds after Evgeny finished. Then it spoke: “Done?”
Evgeny thought about it a moment, then agreed, “Done. For now.”
Soloth snorted. “I thought you should finish sticking your head out all the way before I take it off. You are right, of course, but wrong in assuming I never considered these plans. Unless you have more to offer, I cannot overlook your presumption.”
“More? Of course there is more. We are not inferior. Wallace is hurt, but I think either Mikala or I could match any of your subordinates in a fight… not you, of course. You are Dominant, no question.”
The implied challenge drew a yelp of protest from Mikala, but Soloth pursed its lips in amusement. “Maybe we can test that, though a true challenge is not always physical and a fight will leave at least one party damaged, perhaps both. I would rather not have anyone crippled… unless you force matters. Anything else?”
Evgeny saw the trap too late. Either he committed them to the service of the Mauraug or else consented to more severe punishment. Either he offered up something of real, undisputable value, or else Soloth could no longer defend the Humans to its begrudging subordinates. Soloth was restraining its urge to physically retaliate in order to call Evgeny out, demanding that he show his full hand.
To abuse the metaphor further, Evgeny flipped a hole card, gambling on an asset he had never confirmed but only inferred. He turned to Mikala and said, “Go ahead, tell it.”
“What?” she answered, genuinely bewildered.
“About the cache,” Evgeny prompted.
He had wondered where Mikala was going when they met, on a route aimed somewhere south of New Gethsemane. His best guess was that the clandestine scout had an equally undisclosed fallback site somewhere outside of the settlement. That site might be no more than a rock or copse where she would meet a contact. It might be a campsite. In those cases, Evgeny’s gamble would fail, painfully. Alternately, some faction in New Gethsemane might have built a bunker or other shelter just like the Mauraug. Mikala might indeed have a supply cache outside the settlement, in case of emergencies. Either way, they might have a bargaining chip to play.
Mikala caught on to Evgeny’s meaning and did some calculating of her own. She answered slowly, in Terran standard, “I have no earthly idea what you are talking about... Cache of what?”
Her exaggerated denial matched the phrasing from a popular comedy movie. The choice of expression signaled clearly enough to Evgeny that she was playing along, pretending to deceive in order to convince Soloth that her eventual confession was the truth. They just had to hope that the Mauraug were not fans of Terran humor. Unfortunately, Evgeny wasn’t sure if she was lying about lying. Maybe there wasn’t any cache… but they were certainly going to pretend there was.
“Come on!” Evgeny prompted, “The secret Defense cache, the one you were going to visit when we met! This is no time to keep secrets.”
Soloth looked blandly at the ‘arguing’ Humans, its brows arched. Wallace, struggling to hold himself upright in the oversized Mauraug chair, gave them a bleary look of confusion.
“Okay, fine,” Mikala shouted with convincing exasperation, “It’s not like I can get there without help anyway. Besides, there’s only enough for one person, and someone is probably already there, guarding the spot and using everything up.”
Soloth was drawn in enough to ask, in their language, “What spot?”
Mikala answered directly, against protocol, “South of New Gethsemane. There’s a secondary survey site where the settlement could have been. Same aquifer, similar arable land, but rougher and with less access to mineral resources. There’s a hut left over from one of the early survey visits, pretty well overgrown. Covert stocked it with supplies in case a fallback position was needed. Like I said, it’s probably in use, just like this place… if the Apostates didn’t find it, of course.”
She had gotten talkative very abruptly. Either she had a lot of real information to share or was making up a story with impressive speed.
Evgeny filled in the rest in Mauraug, stealing the conversation back in case Soloth took offense to being lectured by a ‘subordinate’.
He added, “Going there might draw attention. So it is an unknown asset with unknown risks. Still, like I said, here is proof that we can contribute, if that is what it takes to get respect.”
Soloth answered facing Evgeny, speaking Mauraug again: “Coordinates. I will forgive this omission when it gives the location. I will scout the site and retrieve its contents… if any.”
“You will need to take Mikala, in case the site is held against you,” Evgeny offered, “unless you want another wasteful conflict.” He gestured toward Wallace to emphasize his point.
“Are you dictating me terms?” Soloth spat. It grasped one of the metal stools on its side of the common table. “Perhaps you need a reminder who decides matters here.”
Evgeny came perilously close to shouting down the authority-obsessed Mauraug, but controlled his own temper well enough to manage the situation. He dropped the volume of his voice and increased the pitch, and spoke while looking at Soloth’s chin rather than eyes.
“No. I am providing information useful to all of our survival. This is information you did not know to request. At first, I was disputing your subordinate’s argument that we would be better used as decoys. Now, I am making sure my argument is proven valid. You are not sure you can trust us. I am trying to fix that. Please listen.”
“I have listened,” Soloth grumbled with unexpected surliness, “but I decide how to proceed. When I speak, all must listen. Any dispute there?” It looked around the room, starting with Evgeny. When that Human nodded assent, Soloth continued to scan around the room, staring down Suufit and Voshtig, then Mikala and finally Wallace. Each lowered their eyes and gave appropriate gestures of confirmation.
Soloth gave orders rapidly, as if to confirm its decisiveness. “I, Karech, and Voshtig will go with… Meke’laa… to this facility and claim whatever we find there. Suufit, Gaalet and Luuboh will remain here with the other two Humans.”
To Evgeny directly, Soloth commanded, “Treat your comrade’s injuries. Luuboh will help. We do not need any dependents here, that much is true. After that, report to Gaalet. It should be ready to modify the communications array to expand our reception. I want to know if the Apostate ships are speaking to one another.”
Evgeny allowed himself an inward smirk. Matilda could have answered that question readily using only his compad. The compad already contained a sophisticated communications array, including an amplifying receiver and decryption software. Matilda could use these miniaturized resources to their maximum effect. Instead, Gaalet had wasted two days trying to cobble together the necessary interfaces between various components to handle the same tasks secondhand.
The only advantage of the larger, higher powered system was its greater range. Granted, that could be useful for advance warning if new ships arrived in the system. Even so, patching Matilda into the same system would give them that advantage plus flexibility plus a means to reach any intelligent satellites that might have survived. The Mauraug were once again wasting resources due to their prejudices.
“Understood,” was all Evgeny said aloud. They were making progress, albeit slowly. Wallace’s arrival, however rough, was an asset in Evgeny’s favor. Soloth had apparently taken his offering at face value, without making an issue of the source of that knowledge. Implicit in the order to work with Gaalet was an acknowledgement that Evgeny was technically capable. He could build on that confidence and continue to demonstrate his other skills. Hopefully, by the time the group had to take action, Soloth would not waste its Human associates as perceived inferiors.
There were two major hazards ahead. The first was the group of other Mauraug. From what he had learned from Luuboh, Evgeny felt confident both he and Mikala could supplant Gaalet and Karech. Their intellectual limitations had to be evident to Soloth, and neither seemed particularly physically adept, possessing no more than the usual advantages of greater Mauraug body mass compared to the Humans.
Wallace would be limited if a physical showdown became necessary. Fortunately, Evgeny’s initial inspection had found no broken bones or deep cuts. There were some serious bruises, broken cartilage in his nose, and several lacerations… probably from shrapnel. Evgeny wasn’t sure if the other man’s knee was only sprained or torn more severely. He wasn’t going to be sprinting anytime soon, either way. Still, he might be able to maneuver well enough with a support wrap, and they could repair a sprain in a day or two with proper medication.
The equation became more complex when Evgeny considered opposition from Suufit or Voshtig. Both lacked mental handicaps – if not emotional ones – and both had sufficient physical power to make short work of a Human opponent. Suufit might be slowed by its additional weight, but it would also be more difficult to injure. Voshtig’s cybernetic arm was a built-in weapon by itself.
Politics might be the only arena where Evgeny could supplant those two. He could easily prove himself a more reliable lieutenant than the fractious Suufit. Unless he was being misled, he had also picked up on a current of distrust between Soloth and Voshtig. The trouble was, playing on interpersonal stresses took much longer than other strategies. For now, he would have to remain vigilant and hope for an opening he could exploit.
Evgeny also wished he could confer with Mikala privately and coordinate their strategies. Even in their shared room, at night, there was no door and at least one Mauraug awake at all times. Now, Soloth was cleverly separating them. Hopefully, Mikala was forming her own ideas about how to proceed. Evgeny also had to hope her plans would converge with his own. So far, they had supported one another admirably.
Soloth continued, sparing them no more time for thought. “Karech!” it called. The summoned Mauraug entered the common room from the bunk area. Even if it had been spending its downtime sleeping, the commotion in the adjoining chamber had undoubtedly woken it. Either way, it was already dressed in a default black jumpsuit.
“Arm and prepare for travel,” Soloth advised Karech, “Meet me and Voshtig in the entryway. We will take both runners.”
“Suufit,” Soloth continued, turning to look at its subject, “I will take a compad. Gaalet can reach me if necessary but only if necessary. You are in authority here until I return. Maintain watch, but otherwise the schedule is your own… conserve energy, huh?”
The implied insult was not missed. Suufit flared its nostrils in reaction, but avoided comment otherwise.
“Let us move,” Soloth concluded. Its sudden drive to action made sense to Evgeny. Their enforced idleness at the outpost was wearing on everyone. Soloth was capitalizing on the disruption as much to provide a distraction as to accomplish other practical goals. It actually did not matter – at least not right now – whether there was a treasure under the X Mikala and Evgeny had drawn.
Evgeny moved first, helping Wallace to his feet and turning him toward their shared bunk. The wounded man could probably use some prone rest. Mikala waited where she was until the last moment. She and Evgeny exchanged a meaningful look, although it was unlikely either had received the full text of the message intended by the other. Mostly, their expressions both reduced to: be smart, don’t antagonize, and you owe me big when we get out of this mess.
The Mauraug turned and exited as a group. Suufit would likely be going to inform Gaalet and Luuboh of the new arrangements and schedule. Soloth and Voshtig departed to prepare the runner carts. Karech stepped back into the bunkhouse to retrieve its firearm and then stopped in the storeroom to collect supplies for the expedition. Once it was done, it gestured to Mikala. Having no other personal equipment to collect, she followed.
“See you tomorrow,” Evgeny called through the doorway at her back.
Mikala turned around briefly to retort, “Sure. Out and back. No problems.” Her sarcasm covered either nerves or anger, maybe both. Evgeny could not be sure how much she resented him forcing matters.
Then she was gone, following Karech outside.
Luuboh entered shortly afterward. It joined Evgeny in looking over Wallace, who was roused from an exhausted daze. The third Human had fallen quiet during the conversation. Evgeny had assumed Wallace’s silence was intentional, possibly tactful. Now, he found himself concerned about the other man’s lethargy. Shock was still a possibility, along with blood loss, internal injuries, or other unsuspected damage.
Lacking a full medical scanner, not to mention first-hand knowledge of Human anatomy, Luuboh’s diagnosis had to rely on simpler tools, basic logic, and Evgeny’s feedback. They quickly ruled out broken bones and found no other swelling indicating immediately serious harm. When Evgeny checked their patient’s eyes, Wallace grimaced at him comically.
“Nurse Koko has a pretty gentle touch,” Wallace joked quietly, in his native American English.
As relieved as he was to get a response, Evgeny frowned back at his colleague. “This is Luuboh. It speaks good Terran Standard and has been very hospitable, so behave.”
“I assume that was a ‘gorilla’ joke?” Luuboh asked over its shoulder as it reviewed screening results from the blood sample it had dabbed from Wallace’s split lip. “Glucose levels should be above 1 gram per… liter, correct?”
“You’re ahead of me there,” Evgeny admitted.
“Likely it’s low,” Wallace confirmed, “I’ve been running hard on low rations the last two days.”
Luuboh nodded, “High ketones as well. No surprise you are fatigued. Water and electrolytes tonight. Wait until morning to eat.”
“He’s weak after only two days. Soloth may call we three prisoners, but you’re all prisoners with us… at risk of starvation,” Evgeny grumbled. “We can’t sit still forever. Pretty soon all of us will be too tired to fight if that becomes necessary.”
“Do you think Soloth bash’Soloth is unaware of this?” Luuboh asked, pinching its nostrils shut in aggravation. It was the first sign of pique Evgeny had seen in the normally placid omega. “You react to crisis with schemes; it reacts with demands and threats. Different responses but the same goal. The problem is not our leader but its followers. Their fear…”
Luuboh cut its tirade short as the outer door opened again. Heavy footsteps warned of Suufit’s return. The oversized Mauraug stood in the common room’s doorway for a long moment, looking around as if uncertain what to do next.
It settled on the storeroom. Stopping before entering, it turned abruptly and fixed Luuboh with a jut-jawed stare.
“I am taking my fair share,” it grunted loudly enough for all to hear, although speaking in Mauraug. “Make up the difference however you want… from the Humans’ rations or your own, if you feel charitable. Any complaints to Soloth and you will be mopping up your own blood.”
Luuboh only bowed its head in response and returned to Wallace, pointedly re-checking a dressing it had already secured. It risked a sideways glance at Evgeny, who grimaced in acknowledgement, giving a fair impression of the Mauraug expression of disgust. He then nodded and stood back.
“I agree with your diagnosis, Luuboh,” he said aloud in Terran standard, “I’ll work out a suitable treatment.”
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