Tension was evident in all those left behind. Wallace woke frequently and tossed fitfully even when asleep. Gaalet and Evgeny stayed riveted to their task, taking their supper at the worktable. In addition to serving that meal, Luuboh found excuses to check up on them regularly. Suufit wandered back and forth from the outside guard position to the storeroom inside. As night fell, the stench of two species’ stale sweat had overwhelmed the air filters.
Finally, the tinkerers’ work began to show results. The communication system was capable of receiving and separating signals from increasingly distant sources. Transmission was likely possible, as well, but the refugees could not yet risk being detected. Gaalet and Evgeny agreed they were ready to link the makeshift comm to the outpost’s main generator and antenna.
They enlisted Luuboh to snake a connecting cable to the generator room through the vent passage. Gaalet pulled privilege to monitor the comm itself, leaving Evgeny employed as the relay between rooms. Suufit bestirred itself when it noticed the increase in activity. It hovered near the workroom, watching Gaalet tweak components before full power was applied.
The initial test was anticlimactic. The set pulled down only static and unintelligible fragments. If there were any distant signals making their way through the ionosphere, from ships or broadcasting satellites, the comm system was failing to resolve them. If the closer Apostates were talking between themselves, then the comm was failing even further. More likely, all three sources were absent or temporarily silent.
Suufit grunted derisively and turned back to resume its slow raid of the larder. Gaalet, unconcerned by this null result, continued to tune the comm, increasing its resolution and searching the spectrum for potential messages. Evgeny quietly made his way back to the workroom and eavesdropped upon the monomaniacal Mauraug. He could hear Luuboh working its way back through the vent tunnel to rejoin them. If nothing further happened, Luuboh would be shortly obliged to take its turn at guard duty outside.
A spike in one frequency caught Gaalet’s attention, and it switched the comm rapidly to that channel. It took a few seconds more to select the correct decoding frame before the message’s content became available. Fortunately, the system was designed to record, translate, and play back any significantly patterned stream. No data was lost. The decoding process was simplified by a reasonable guess: given the strength and directionality of the signal, Gaalet knew it must come from one of the Apostate ships. As it had assumed, the communication was in Mauraug, using a familiar algorithm. They caught an announcement followed by its responses:
“Monitoring detects two incoming ships. They could arrive in five hours local. Do we intercept or end operations?”
“Prepare to leave. Load anything useful. We depart in two.”
Gaalet muttered to itself, “Rescue? Or worse trouble?”
Evgeny agreed, unasked, “I know what you mean, but it is an opportunity. The Apostates are running away, which leaves us a window to get into the settlements! Hopefully, the new arrival is actually a rescue or will lead to one.”
Gaalet did not respond but continued to stare at the comm station, fiddling with its controls as before. Evgeny was initially irritated about being ignored, then remembered Luuboh’s explanation about Gaalet’s social disability. Likely the Mauraug had heard him well enough but was uncomfortable discussing the issue further.
Evgeny’s comment did, however, draw the attention of the other two Mauraug. Suufit and Luuboh approached the workshop at the same time.
The oversized second-in-command stepped well into Evgeny’s personal space and leaned into the Human’s face, demanding: “What was that? The Apostates are leaving?"
Evgeny responded evenly, “It seems so. Their communications say they saw incoming ships and have decided to flee rather than fight back."
“How do you know they were Apostates speaking?” Suufit challenged him.
Evgeny wished he could look to Gaalet for backup. He would have to support his claims alone. “It was a strong signal… nearby and within this atmosphere. The speech was Mauraug. Gaalet decoded it fast. I assume it was a familiar encryption. Who else would be having that conversation?”
“Gaalet bash’Rubesh, is it correct?” Suufit asked directly. The ‘graceful’ Mauraug kept its face turned away but blew out a breath in confirmation.
“So?” Suufit continued reluctantly, “You can tell Soloth when it returns. It can scout Gorash’Bond next and see if the Apostates have departed. Keep listening.”
Evgeny stared in incredulous anger. Did this sapient’s sloth match its gluttony? They needed to notify Soloth now, not the next day. He was tempted to let Suufit return to its gorging and then sneak out at the next opportunity. Luuboh might even help him escape, perhaps even join him. They might reach Soloth at the Terran cache site if they walked fast.
There were several problems with that plan, foremost of which was abandoning the wounded Wallace to Suufit and Gaalet. Their care would be minimal at best and outright abusive at worst. Evgeny (and possibly Luuboh) would also have to travel without supplies, particularly since Suufit was stationed firmly in front of the rations. Even if he tried to drag Wallace along, Evgeny could not procure medications to help his confederate travel faster or without pain. Worse yet, if he arrived without Suufit or Gaalet to confirm his words, having left without Suufit’s permission, Soloth might not even listen to him.
Evgeny would have to risk an argument with Suufit. He had to wager that when presented with all the information and a clear plan, the self-centered Mauraug would at least understand the inherent danger to itself from not informing Soloth sooner.
Evgeny spoke up, catching Suufit in the midst of turning away. “We need to call Soloth, ourselves, as soon as possible. The Apostates are leaving because other ships are on the way. There will be a three hour gap, two hours from now, when no ships are near Locust IV. If we notify the scouts now, they might be able to reach New Gethsemane within that time.”
The Dominant Mauraug turned back on the outspoken Human with a predictable flare of outrage. Its toes clenched the sandstone floor and its lips curled back. When Suufit spoke, it used a tone of mockery that seemed excessive for addressing a genuinely insignificant subordinate.
“Such a clever little brother. Only here two days and already advising its betters. Soloth may indulge your whining, but I will not. I will not risk our safety on your recommendation,” it sneered.
Its next comment was directed to Gaalet: “We will send a message only if I decide it is necessary. We are not under attack right now. I intend to keep it that way.”
Turning back to Evgeny, Suufit stepped further forward and shoved him roughly at his shoulder. “Get out of the way. Go back to scrubbing floors with Luuboh. Or see if the other infant needs its medicine. If you trouble me again, you will have to share its sickbed.”
Evgeny’s temper persuaded him toward its preferred response: conflict. A fight was clearly necessary. He would have to overcome Suufit in order to overrule its authority.
He retorted, “‘I will beat you up.’ You sound like Soloth. You cannot think of an original threat.”
Suufit’s fur rose noticeably and its eyes narrowed. It paused longer this time, obviously surprised to hear clear defiance from the ‘small’ Human. Evgeny’s taunt was actually inaccurate. In the time Suufit took to respond, Soloth already would have thrown Evgeny across the room.
Instead, the bulky beta howled further threats: “I can crush you if I choose. I do not need Soloth’s permission to kill an inferior challenging above its position. You are obviously insane and dangerous. Abase yourself now and I will only break your arm.”
“You will have to kill me… if you can. Otherwise, I will still notify Soloth of your error. I will enjoy watching it punish you. It will be my revenge. Make that call now, and I will not mention this conversation to anyone else. I do not need to humiliate you.”
Evgeny misjudged his opponent’s personal restraint. His last comment enraged Suufit too far. The Mauraug swung a heavy arm toward Evgeny’s head.
Though his emotional reflexes had been poor, Evgeny’s other faculties anticipated a violent response. He sidestepped into the workroom. Suufit not only missed its blow, it smashed its hand into the dividing archway between them. It bellowed in pain and heightened fury.
Gaalet scrambled away, trying to pull the comm system out of reach. Tethered by the power cable leading out of the room, there was only so far the linked equipment could go.
Evgeny realized he was in an advantageous position. If Suufit recognized the hazard of endangering the comm system, it might be limited in its options to strike back. Its anger already put it off balance. Its overeating would slow it down and limit its endurance, not to mention making certain target areas more vulnerable to attack.
All these advantages only opened a path to victory. They did not offset Evgeny’s literal weakness: his relative physical strength. Suufit could finish the fight with one well-placed strike or a successful grab and pull. Once out of his corner, Evgeny could be smothered or crushed by Suufit’s bulk.
Luuboh had disappeared. While unlikely that it would assist either side, it might have wanted to witness the conflict. Then again, it might prefer to stay out of harm’s way, both immediately during the brawl and shortly afterward, should Suufit have unspent rage remaining. Gaalet certainly would have preferred to be elsewhere.
Evgeny was temporarily irrational enough not to share that urge. The present danger was a welcome change from the previous days’ tense tedium. He grinned in Human humor, not coincidentally reproducing one element of the Mauraug threat display.
Suufit worsened its position by overinterpreting Evgeny’s expression, overreacting to what it took as mockery. It snarled and lunged forward into the workroom. Carefully arranged wires and fasteners went flying as it bumped the table with its hip.
“Come on then, you fat idiot!” Evgeny taunted in earnest. He would have preferred less simple insults, but his command of Mauraug was limited. No surprise that Defense had avoided teaching trainees Mauraug vulgarities.
The childish barb worked well enough. Suufit dove at Evgeny, attempting to trap him against the far wall. Instead, the smaller Human simultaneously sidestepped, ducked, and put out a leg against Soloth’s foremost, supporting ankle. It took most of Evgeny’s available strength, but he had judged the forces correctly. Suufit’s foot shot out from beneath it, leaving its upper body with no support. The heavy Mauraug fell forward, cracking its knees on the stone floor and dropping its head hard against the edge of Gaalet’s thin cot.
This injury alone was insufficient to put Suufit down. Its anger drove it to try and rise. As it put out its hands to push up from the bed frame, Evgeny stood. He then leapt as high as the ceiling allowed, falling with knees bent and aimed for Suufit’s back. He had to hope that some of the Mauraug’s internal organs were still organic and located in their original positions.
This appeared to be the case. At the least, Suufit did not have the benefit of Soloth’s reinforced spine. Its back bent at an agonizing angle as Evgeny landed squarely below its ribcage. It also lost its grip on the bed frame, and its head snapped back down to bounce against the mattress.
With a horrifying retch, Suufit belched and then vomited up its ill-gotten gorge. As much as he wanted to escape the disgusting sight – and smell – Evgeny remained astride the Mauraug’s heaving bulk. He was merciful enough to let Suufit finish gagging. Its abused body had rendered it unable to continue fighting for a few seconds. However, when the eruptions stopped and Suufit started to show signs of recovery, Evgeny pushed again.
“Your judgment is poor. You are unwise, Suufit bash’Topith. Admit I am Dominant, both in mind and body. Otherwise, your punishment continues.”
Suufit started to object, but its retort was cut off by literal bile. It coughed and choked through another bout of vomiting. Evgeny goaded by digging in his knees, punishing the thought of resistance even if the deed had been aborted.
“Gaalet bash’Rubesh is witness. You cannot overcome me. Should I call Luuboh bash’Gaulig to witness, also?”
Suufit managed to spit out, “No. I yield. Make the cursed…” It was cut off again by heaving.
Not yet content to give up his physical position, Evgeny called over his shoulder to Gaalet, “Call Soloth. Repeat exactly what we heard. The Apostates may mistake it for their own message. Let me hear any orders Soloth gives in response.”
To Evgeny’s relief, Gaalet did not offer its own challenge to his newly assumed authority. It complied, broadcasting on the frequency Soloth had previously indicated to reach its own compad. Gaalet relayed the Apostate message with nearly perfect conformity.
There was no reply at first, leaving the three of them suspended in increasing physical and mental discomfort. Almost a minute later, Soloth’s response grumbled through the speakers: “Message received. Continue listening. Wait for orders.”
Evgeny had hoped for a more active response from the Mauraug commander. At the least, Soloth should be heading north at full speed. Possibly, it was doing so but wanted to avoid broadcasting its location. Evgeny actually wished it would have them abandon the outpost and join the scouting party. His desire to check for survivors was surfacing from its enforced submersion. He needed to know if his father and mother still lived.
Likely the Mauraug also had family, friends, or at least colleagues they hoped to find alive. Any individual’s survival was improbable, but not equally improbable. Evgeny had reason to think his parents were slightly more likely to survive than most others. The group's locations were also skewed toward New Gethsemane at the moment. That was two points in favor of checking the Human settlement first.
Then Evgeny had a further revelation. Soloth led by virtue of control over the only safe haven left on Locust IV following the Apostate attack. It was Dominant over that site’s inhabitants by virtue of already being commander at the outpost. If the Apostates were genuinely vacating the planet now, the need for a bolt hole was considerably reduced. If Evgeny cared to gamble on the certainty of their enemy’s departure, he might make a case for disregarding Soloth’s authority. He had given his submission only while he was in Mauraug territory. No one said he had to stay there.
Granted, even if the Apostates did leave, deserting the outpost might still be problematic. If the Apostates had stolen all the food supplies from both settlements, then this base was the only source of sustenance left. Technically, his stolen Dominance gave Evgeny access to the storeroom’s ration supply, but abusing that privilege - as Suufit had - might force the Mauraug beta into a new confrontation. For that matter, running away might prompt Suufit to recruit Gaalet and Luuboh to stop him… and once again, Wallace would be either a hostage or a millstone depending on whether Evgeny left him or brought him along.
There was no good solution. Therefore, Evgeny started thinking about evil solutions.
Climbing down from Suufit’s back, Evgeny stood a few feet away and prepared for a second round should his opponent choose to revisit their challenge. Instead, Suufit remained prone, only adjusting itself into a slightly less uncomfortable position. It breathed shallowly, trying to steady its bruised nerves.
“Get up,” Evgeny ordered, testing his newly won authority, “Go to the bunk room and clean up. I assume you do not want another challenge right away, so obey me for now. Rest and think about your mistakes.”
Suufit stared hatred at him, but indeed did not want to risk further pain so soon. It staggered from the workroom and across the central area toward its bunk. Evgeny could not see or hear a sign of Luuboh’s presence; the omega continued to keep itself conveniently absent.
This absence was convenient not only for Luuboh, but also Evgeny. As his last gambit, Evgeny turned to Gaalet.
“Gaalet, I will take over monitoring duties now. You will guard outside. If you see Luuboh, notify it about the Apostates’ departure, Soloth’s orders, and my claim of Dominance. Tell it to make Wallace Harmon ready to travel on short notice, if necessary.”
Evgeny’s reading of Gaalet proved correct. The emotionally disabled Mauraug chose to obey without question, preferring to avoid confrontation in the currently uncertain situation. It might have fought back if approached differently, but Evgeny’s solid assumption of command and clearly stated orders gave it an easy escape from distress.
Once Gaalet had exited the room, Evgeny plugged in earbuds and ‘monitor’ the comm system without making it audible to the others. He then quickly located the components necessary for transmission and disconnected a small, inobvious, but vitally necessary wire. Now, any attempted broadcast from the comm would fail, hopefully without anyone’s realization.
Evgeny counted out five long minutes under his breath. He was already going to stretch credibility tight. No reason to push it any further. Then he spoke aloud into the microphone: “Understood. We will depart immediately.”
He did not need to speak loudly. Sound carried easily in the tight quarters. Evgeny, himself, could easily hear Suufit stirring in the other room. Luuboh finally appeared, showing at the doorway.
“I heard your instructions earlier,” Luuboh confessed, “but have not had time to see to Wallace. I will prepare it right away.”
The small Mauraug turned away to attend to that matter. Evgeny was nonplussed by its easy acceptance of the change in hierarchy. He supposed that, from the bottom, it was used to seeing every set of hindquarters as interchangeable. That, or Luuboh might be getting what it wanted: escape. Outside of the outpost, in the wilds of an untamed planet, it was at least less compressed by a stack of superiors. There were also fewer floors to scrub out there… though the need for its talents at shelter and food preparation was greater. Luuboh’s value rose along with the difficulty of survival without it, hence its relative comfort in a Spartan outpost on a colony planet. In the wilds, it would be even more indispensable.
Evgeny continued to play through his ruse. He next went up the stairs to the exit door and cycled the passage open. There stood Gaalet, watching the landscape through viewports in the outer stone door.
“Soloth called back,” he informed it, “We are to meet at New Gethsemane at our fastest speed. Come collect supplies and prepare packs for four of us to carry, with food for a fifth distributed among us.”
At this order, Gaalet did balk: “Why me and not Luuboh?”
Evgeny snapped back, “Because it is busy with the medical care I ordered… which orders you failed to relay. Because it can handle that duty and you cannot. Because I told you to. Do you have another foolish question?”
He was deliberately manipulating Gaalet now, implying failures the Mauraug had not committed, pressing it to either obey or argue each point with him. Of course, any argument would count as a further misdeed. Evgeny, unlike Suufit or Soloth, understood that an unspoken threat of punishment sometimes works better than a specific ultimatum, especially when the victim already wants to avoid trouble.
Gaalet dropped its gaze and its hands in surrender and turned to re-enter the outpost. Evgeny followed and shadowed the Mauraug until it entered the supply room. He then strode to the adjacent door.
He did his best to loom in the doorway, which for him was oversized. Suufit bash’Topith was inside, stretched out on its bunk, a sheet domed over its shivering gut. It looked up as Evgeny stopped.
“No time for recovery. You can walk. Get up, dress, and get a pack from Gaalet. Soloth orders us to meet it at New Gethsemane. We only have a brief time to scavenge the area before others arrive. It wants all available sapients present to search.”
Suufit stood, slowly but more steadily than before. It rumbled, “I do not believe you. This is too convenient for you. You wanted to go there already. Now you falsify your own orders. I will stay here… with your beaten comrade.”
“Gaalet!” Suufit bellowed, “If you are wise, you will ignore this false but lucky Human. It only Dominates for a moment. If you follow it, you will suffer for your mistake. Possibly, you will die.”
“Oh?” Evgeny asked in mockery, “Am I lucky, or are you unbalanced, in both mind and body? I did not want to involve myself in Mauraug social arrangements, but you forced me to act. Think about the wager you are proposing. I was right before. If you had remained Dominant, you would have suffered for failing Soloth. Now, I am Dominant. If you are right, and I am wrong, then by leaving you properly obey me… and the fault for disobeying Soloth is mine alone. But if you are wrong, and stay, you disobey both me and Soloth… you will be twice doomed.”
Any decent diplomat should have been able to sweep aside this screen of slanted fast talk. Evgeny was counting on Luuboh’s characterization of Suufit: a spoiled child of privilege, an embarrassment stuck on Locust IV and given a sinecure command. If he was any sort of qualified politician, he could shut down Evgeny’s con.
Instead, Suufit only continued to resist out of surliness and wounded pride. It shifted from foot to foot for a few seconds, unwilling to concede but also unable to form a stronger argument. Finally, it flared its nostrils in evident disgust: at Evgeny, at itself, and at their relative positions.
“Your fault alone,” it begrudged. “We go to the settlement and nowhere else… and if Soloth is not there, we return.”
“When you get the strength to challenge me again, you can set conditions,” Evgeny rebuked him loudly. “For now, do as I say, quickly and without trouble. ‘The truly Dominant never explains and never apologizes.’”
Suufit bent its head and lowered its shoulders as it turned to pick up its gear. Then it turned and fixed Evgeny with a squinted eye.
“I do not recall that saying of Sha’Bahn,” Suufit mused.
Evgeny smiled back with condescension. “That is because it comes from a Human Prophet: Sha’Nuuayn.”