Hopefully, his current lie had enough head start on the truth to reach New Gethsemane. At that point, he would most definitely be found out. He needed to find a new strategy, before then, to either manage or escape the Mauraug.
The latter would ideally involve separating the Mauraug from Mikala and Wallace. Evgeny hated the idea of abandoning his fellow colonists. Then again, Mikala probably could manage her own escape. He shouldn’t disregard her abilities, given her training.
That still left Wallace as his responsibility. The other Human was moving more easily now as the outpost’s remaining crew readied themselves for departure. That ease had more to do with the painkillers and stimulants Luuboh had administered than any real recovery.
A long walk would not help Wallace’s injuries, although extended bed rest and sedation would not have been an ideal prescription, either. At least Wallace’s induced wakefulness would give Evgeny a better chance to discuss matters with him. They could start slowly and work toward future plans, assuming they could find a few moments away from the Mauraug’s hearing.
A few additional doses of drugs and medication had been stashed in Luuboh’s pack, to keep Wallace on his feet for the full trek. Walking continuously without stopping, it would take most of a day to reach New Gethsemane. They would need portions of two days. They would need to stop that night for rest and safety.
In this case, safety meant not walking off the edge of a canyon in the dark or blundering into hazardous plant life. Any dangerous native animals in the colony zone had long since been relocated when possible or exterminated when necessary. Crabdogs were something of an exception, since they were useful culling predators and more pest than threat. Given the opportunity, they fled from equally sized beasts like Humans or Mauraug.
The season was temperate enough that they had no current weather concerns. It might get a bit hot at midday, but they should be at New Gethsemane around that time tomorrow. Rather, it would be hot for the Humans. The Mauraug would find the day pleasant.
Exhaustion and dehydration were their primary threats. The former could be managed by controlling their pace, eating and resting when necessary. That put a limit on how quickly the group could reasonably travel. The latter was dependent on their supply of water. Each pack held a pouch with roughly two and a half liters of distilled water from the Mauraug outpost’s well.
It had been tempting to bring a small, portable condenser unit. The appliance could draw about a half-liter of water out of the atmosphere each day, but was impractical in this instance. An actual liter of water would take up less space and add less weight. It only made sense to take a condenser if they would be gone three days or more. Bringing the device would raise justifiable suspicion about how long Evgeny really planned to be away from the outpost. In some ways, his short-legged lie hampered his ability to effectively run away.
Suufit and Gaalet were armed with their own, personal weapons. Evgeny and Wallace’s standard-issue projectile guns had been confiscated by Soloth and taken with the advance party. Luuboh apparently owned no firearms. However, Evgeny did find a small sonic stopper in the storeroom and claimed it by right. It looked something like a black conical lantern with a mesh cover on its base. The device was traditionally used to discourage wildlife using a brief, powerful vibration that shoved targets back physically, rattled their teeth, and popped their eardrums. It was meant to be used in small doses. A protracted blast could damage bodies and other susceptible substances, albeit at the cost of significant battery charge.
Additional first-aid supplies, food rations, hand tools and portable electronic tools like their compads filled most of their remaining pack space. The comm system was regrettably too large to bring along, although Gaalet did disconnect several of its more vitally irreplaceable elements to carry personally. It did not explain whether it feared the devices might be somehow stolen or if it planned to rebuild a working system when they reached New Gethsemane. Perhaps both were true.
As each sapient finished loading and hoisted his or its pack, Evgeny sent him or it to the exit. First went Suufit, who continued to give Evgeny sour looks as it trudged past, upward and out. Second was Gaalet. Evgeny asked Luuboh to watch Wallace as he walked out, to make sure their patient wouldn’t have any trouble with blood pressure changes, vertigo, etc.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Evgeny called with his best attempt at nonchalance, “I should make sure the vent access is sealed and the generator switched off. I’ll join you in a moment.”
Luuboh turned at the front hallway and gave Evgeny an eye-popped stare of surprise. “You are sneaking out the back way? Really?”
Evgeny didn’t have to try hard to muster disgust, retorting, “No, but if you are worried, someone can wait for me there.”
Luuboh rolled its shoulders, muttering, “You do not trust me to take precautions? Fine. It is your problem if Suufit gets restless and decides to take issue.” With this dismissal, it nudged Wallace forward and up the stairs. The other Human had watched their conversation in evident confusion, no doubt worsened by the buzzing haze of artificial alertness.
Evgeny was already aware that he had limited time alone. Nonetheless, he walked casually to the back of the main room. He had to make certain Luuboh was not only out of visual range but also unable to overhear his activities.
Evgeny counted out thirty seconds, until he was certain all three Mauraug were past the outer door. Then he scrambled into the room where the Humans had slept and lifted the metal bed frame at one corner. He popped off the plastic endcap of the hollow tube that formed the bed’s leg.
There, blessedly, was the crystalline memory bead holding the sole copy of his Brin, Matilda. If Evgeny would feel guilty about abandoning Mikala or Wallace, he would be heartsick to leave behind his lifelong companion. Pocketing the bead as securely as he could, Evgeny snapped on the endcap and gently lowered the bed frame to the floor.
From there, he hastened to the galley, opened the vent door, and scrambled into the access passage. He let the cover latch securely behind him before walking cautiously down the dark, cramped vent tunnel. At the far end, he did genuinely check that the outpost’s generator was powered down. Besides avoiding fuel wastage, turning off the generator reduced the likelihood of anyone detecting the facility while it was unguarded.
Taking such precautions wasn’t wasted effort on Evgeny’s part. On one level, he needed to keep acting like part of the multi-cultural ‘survivor team’, as if he expected to return to the outpost with salvaged supplies. At another level, he was keeping bridges intact in case he was forced to return, if his escape plans failed. At a deeper, perhaps unacknowledged level, Evgeny didn’t want to sabotage the Mauraug, even if he hoped to be rid of them.
Evgeny didn’t personally despise the Mauraug. They were individually capable sapients, not dumb brutes. They were clearly organized enough to spread throughout their region of space. Sometimes, they managed to be personally agreeable. In fact, some of them – Luuboh, for instance – seemed potentially likeable. The main thing that bothered Evgeny was how the Mauraug culture had drifted into a festering backwater and rooted itself there. Their obsession with strength and Dominance tainted everything, from their interstellar relationships to their personal interactions. Their religious fanaticism was fed by that tendency and reinforced it in turn. So many things Humans valued – art, romance, artificial intelligence, peaceful camaraderie – had been sacrificed at the altar of Dominionism. The Mauraug reminded Terrans of distasteful cultures from their own home planet’s distant past.
To be honest, some parts of the not-so-distant past had echoed those same aggressive themes. If Humans were really fair, there were valuable aspects of their own heritage that had been abandoned in favor of a particular cultural structure. Still, Terra didn’t have slavery and right of conquest as acceptable public policies, not anymore. Humans didn’t feel particularly hypocritical about opposing such practices within the Collective.
So, Evgeny felt justified in his private rebellion. He had no qualms about returning to the waiting Mauraug with an expression of mocking defiance, as if to say, see, I’m not going anywhere, and shame on you for thinking otherwise.
What he did say was, “Let us start. We can clear twenty klicks before dark if we keep a steady pace. Gaalet, keep a compad at hand in case we get a local call. I will set the route. The rest of you, keep up and conserve your strength.”
After that speech, little needed to be said. They started to walk west, crossing the dry streambed. Past that landmark, they wound through tall, dry grass that quickly obscured their view of the outpost’s stone façade. Tire tracks in the dust and a crushed trail in the grass still marked the route taken earlier by Soloth’s party. They followed the white sun as it descended, knowing it would reach the horizon before they did.
During the first day’s travel, Evgeny twice found excuses to fall back and speak with Wallace, under the guise of checking his health. After the second ‘checkup’, he decided not to press further; the implied lack of confidence in Luuboh’s medical skills seemed to insult the small Mauraug yet again. For a permanent dweller in the under-caste, it certainly could be prickly about issues of precedence. Evgeny supposed that if he were Mauraug, he would not or at least should not care if any subordinate took offense to his actions, least of all if Luuboh bash’Gaulig minded. Hell, he would be within his rights to punish any implied objection. But Evgeny was not Mauraug. For one thing, that meant he couldn’t push his borrowed Dominion too far. It also meant that he did care what Luuboh thought, both in an emotional, empathetic sense; and in a practical, mercenary way: the omega was a useful ally among the ‘enemy’.
So, Evgeny limited his exploitation of the ‘checkup’ excuse. On his first visit, he and Wallace exchanged sanitized summaries of their experiences between the original Apostate attack and the subsequent clash between Wallace and the Mauraug scouts. Wallace’s narrative was limited not only by the proximity of Mauraug listeners but also by a lack of focus caused by exertion and medication. As a result, there were few revelations.
Wallace’s story started similarly to Evgeny’s: he had been working his way south down the border, surveying and recording. He noticed the Apostate ship flying overhead, albeit from a greater distance than Evgeny. His A.I., Reynard, similarly monitored communications as long as he was able, reporting and interpreting the tragedy for Wallace’s understanding. Wallace drove north until he spotted Evgeny’s trail, then followed that east until he was ambushed by the Mauraug. One of their shots struck the saddlebag holding Reynard's compad, disrupting the A.I. and effectively killing him.
The similarities reassured Evgeny somewhat. The two Defense scouts followed similar thought processes and made similar decisions; thus, Evgeny’s choices were not foolish. What could he have done differently: held still? Returned to New Gethsemane, to take his chances against a ship-full of Apostates? The only differences affecting their outcomes were Evgeny's meeting with Mikala and his earlier and easier encounter with the Mauraug. Instead, Wallace arrived later, meeting a different group of Mauraug, alone. He had also lacked Evgeny’s calm and diplomacy (if those traits were interpreted charitably, rather than as surrender and deception).
The other major difference in their fates was the destruction of Reynard versus the survival of Matilda. Evgeny did not admit to this distinction. Instead, he told Wallace the same version of his tale that the Mauraug had already heard. His A.I., like Mikala’s, had been left in New Gethsemane, her survival unknown. Wallace looked skeptical at this. It was rare for a Defense member to survey without their Brin close at hand. He blessedly did not ask about the discrepancy aloud. He might have grasped the deception, but more likely he could not quite articulate the mismatch between his expectations and Evgeny’s statement.
They exchanged their stories while they walked. Luuboh remained close by, seemingly mindful of Wallace’s status rather than obviously eavesdropping. Still, between Wallace’s evident fatigue and the limits imposed by self-censorship, there was little more they could discuss at the time.
Their second conversation began as dusk fell and the travelers sought a place to camp. Evgeny walked over, ostensibly to discuss ideal bedding arrangements with Wallace. Again, Luuboh played chaperone. They had not brought shelters, per se, but each pack contained a small tarpaulin that could be opened into a larger envelope to hold an individual sleeper. The layered covering would discourage pests, repel rain, block light, and maintain temperature to some extent. Evgeny helped unfold Wallace’s ‘sleeping bag’ as they spoke.
“Did you hear anything about evacuation or a shelter?” Evgeny asked Wallace eventually.
“No. I hoped you knew something from your Dad…,” Wallace answered, pausing rather than completing the thought.
Evgeny shook his head. “Nothing they told me about,” he admitted with some slight bitterness, “I don’t know whether that means there wasn’t any shelter and Council was just unprepared, or if there was a shelter but they wanted to keep it secret. I’m hoping for the latter, and that it wasn’t kept a secret too well.”
“More likely the former… but there’s still reason to hope. Some people might have gone into the mines.”
“Right. That is more likely, although we also have to hope the Apostates didn’t hunt them down in there. What are the odds they were just raiding for materiel and not aiming to exterminate colonists?”
“No way to know.” Here, Wallace paused and turned to look directly at Luuboh, half-wrapped in its own bag not far away. He called out, “What do you think? Would Apostates be more likely to sabotage or steal equipment, or would they prefer to kill everyone first?”
Luuboh made a show of opening its eyes and turning to face the two Humans. It replied slowly, “Do not ask me. I have no insight into the mind of a heretic. If you are asking about the likelihood of survival for your families and friends, then I would say it depends on how difficult they made it to kill them. I cannot imagine that even heretics would take time to chase a few escaped sapients when easier, stationary targets are still close by. I imagine they would want to cause maximum damage to the colonies in the limited time available. That is, assuming they acted consistently with their stated goal to discredit and overthrow Dominionism.”
Evgeny gestured agreement and said aloud, “That’s something like what I was thinking. Given a chance, lots of the colonists could make finding and shooting them difficult. Clearly, the Apostates weren’t interested in chasing after us, no matter Soloth and Suufit’s paranoia.”
Wallace grimaced, settling back into his uncomfortable bed. “I can’t think much about politics right now, Human or Mauraug. Let’s just sleep and see what we see tomorrow.”
Luuboh snorted, adding, “Agreed.”
That request ended Evgeny’s second attempt to discuss matters with Wallace. What he really needed was an opportunity to scheme privately, to let Wallace know the truth about their position. He needed to prepare the other man to move quickly when the opportunity arose. He needed to warn Wallace that they were not expected and could not expect a warm welcome when they did encounter Soloth’s group. Evgeny needed to explain his reasons both for surrendering to the Mauraug and for parting with them afterwards. He also needed to reassure Wallace that leaving the group would not mean inevitable death for either of them, particularly not for the injured Human. For one thing, he did have an A.I. to guide them, to facilitate communications with satellites and ships if available, and to help them make use of any resources they found in the remains of New Gethsemane. Hell, the protection of that Brin, by itself, should motivate Wallace to join him in deserting the Mauraug.
It would make matters much more difficult if Wallace hesitated, or worse, resisted, when the chance came to part from the Mauraug. Evgeny would try again in the morning. Maybe Luuboh was a heavy sleeper. Unfortunately, after the day’s exertions, Wallace would probably be difficult to rouse, himself.
The Mauraug also wanted to start moving as soon as possible. Suufit was most explicitly restless, making a point of asking how long “the Humans” would need to be ready. Evgeny only scowled back as he folded his bedding, stowed it and lifted his pack. Luuboh administered a wake-up dosage to Wallace, followed by a cup of water and a ration bar. Evgeny ate during this time, also.
Twenty minutes after Reveille, they began to walk. Evgeny intentionally started slow, not to spite Suufit but to allow Wallace some time to warm up. Wallace was still having some trouble with his right leg, which was stiff and would not extend fully. The bruises on his face and arms were dark and deep, but did not impede his movement.
Evgeny himself needed some stretching and movement to restore his circulation. Between the previous day’s trek and the rough sleeping conditions, he was starting out sore. Wallace had to be in agony, at least until the analgesics kicked in. The Mauraug betrayed no signs of discomfort, but Evgeny suspected that was because he did not know what to look for. What was the difference between the normal Mauraug gait and a stiff-legged version? How did they subtly reveal pain they were struggling to mask?
It wasn’t particularly important now, although the physical condition of the Mauraug might be relevant later that same day. Evgeny wondered if he could somehow weary the three others while keeping himself and Wallace fresh. He probably couldn’t get away with ordering the Mauraug to carry them, although the thought was amusing.
Evgeny did manage some slight advancement on his plans as the morning dragged closer to midday. Wallace gasped out a request for a halt. The group paused for water and a small meal as Luuboh ministered to Wallace. Evgeny took this opportunity to hang nearby under the pretense of supervision. He asked question after question until Luuboh’s irritation blossomed into exasperation. Finally, the de facto medic asked if Evgeny would prefer to check the patient’s vitals directly.
Evgeny retorted that he would, in fact, and Luuboh could busy itself elsewhere. It wasn’t the most subtle way to get a moment alone, but it worked. Any suspicion Luuboh might harbor was temporarily overridden by its annoyance.
“When we get to New Gethsemane, follow my lead,” Evgeny whispered hastily, as close to Wallace’s ear as he dared lean while ‘checking vitals’. “I have a Brin hidden. The other Mauraug won’t be there, just us and these three. Be ready to run when there’s an opening.”
Wallace gave him back an incredulous look and mouthed silently, Run?
Evgeny nodded and whispered back, “Best you can at the time. I’ll try to give us a big lead.” He patted his co-conspirator on the shoulder, drawing a wince.
That exchange took up all the time they had. Luuboh returned, having either completed its rounds or cooled off enough to become suspicious again.
Evgeny handed back the borrowed medical monitor. He tried to sound genuinely grudging while saying, “I’m not sure I got everything right. You have more experience, even on my own species.”
Luuboh blinked but accepted the tool – and the implied compliment – gracefully. “Not so much experience as study, but more of that, yes, I expect so. We can go soon, I expect also.”
The implied question was as close to an accusation as the Mauraug omega dared. Evgeny ignored it for several good reasons.
Their conversation was the last chance for discussion until their arrival. The rest of the remaining daylight was spent on a grueling hike directly toward New Gethsemane. While the growing heat favored the Mauraug, the increasingly familiar territory favored the Humans.
As they approached, Evgeny realized with dismay that he should be seeing an antenna tower. That landmark was certainly gone, likely collapsed early in the Apostate attack. He wondered how much closer they would need to come before any standing buildings rose over the horizon.
The first construct that broke the horizontal plane was not part of the settlement. Instead, a blocky, angular shape began to loom ahead. It was taller than any building the colonists had erected and also closer than any part of the settlement. While some of the buildings had been metallic, none were so dark and pocked as this shape.
Closer still they walked. The shape resolved itself into more familiar lines. It was a ship, one large enough to potentially hold a hyperspace drive but still small enough to survive atmospheric entry and planetary gravity. Not a warship, not with that structure, though possibly still armed. Not military at all, unless the Collective or one of its members was hard-pressed to build its fleet. It had freight compartments but was small for a freighter; there was apparent passenger space, but it was no liner.
Suufit felt confident enough, first, to say what they all came to realize: “A salvager.”
Evgeny agreed, aloud: “Quick enough to get here first, big enough to load up cargo. Could be legitimate rescue…”
Suufit interrupted to complete the thought, “… could be pirates.”
This close, they had already been spotted. That left a choice between two alternatives: approach the ship or else retreat. If they left, did they circle around to another side of New Gethsemane or else back away entirely? Evgeny knew that one reasonable course would be to circle left, further west, and try to meet with Soloth and its team. That gave them a larger force with which to approach the ship.
Taking that course would also give the salvagers more time to react. They could simply climb into their ship and be completely safe from any Human/Mauraug team, no matter how large. They might decide to load up whatever they had collected already and leave the planet. Worst, they could prepare an armed response and kill or capture the later intruders, if they were criminally inclined.
Evgeny decided to hurry and catch the ship’s crew spread out. A quicker arrival gave them more chance to see who the visitors were and what they were about. Was this a Collective crew? Representing a single culture? If so, which? A Human crew would be an asset to Evgeny’s plans; they might be more easily persuaded to side with him over the Mauraug. A mixed-culture crew could be Collective… or pirates. Hell, a Human crew could just as easily be pirates than Terran nationals. He would have to assay the situation quickly, in any case.
“Let us go see who is here,” Evgeny ordered. He strode forward, making obedience more necessary. Let's go together, or let me go alone. Gaalet followed readily, followed more cautiously by Luuboh, then grudgingly by Suufit, and finally, painfully, by Wallace. They had no time to question even if they wanted to do so.
Yet Evgeny did hear speech. Suufit was grumbling something under its breath, protesting too quietly to hear. It knew there was no chance it would be reprimanded just then, or perhaps it was just too winded to complain any louder. Gaalet also spoke quietly, but it spoke to its modified compad. Calling Soloth, no doubt. While not strictly disobedient, the Mauraug had not been instructed to contact anyone, either. It, too, was taking advantage of the emergency.
Fair enough. Evgeny planned to get what he wanted out of this crisis, himself. They could rebel all they wanted. Only a Dominant Mauraug who planned to keep that position would be concerned about their insubordination. Evgeny intended to stop leading as soon as the opportunity arose.