Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 08

Chapter Twenty-Two

Beyond the Eastern Fringelands, BD+56 2966 Two (“Turkh’saar”)

Ezzraamar Laarkhduur of the Moiety of Nys’maharn stared out between the bars of his makeshift cage toward the humans standing around their map table. The amount of time that these small, wiry, patch-furred bipeds discussed plans was mind-numbing. They could argue for hours over the advantage of using one model of machinegun rather than another, even though the only difference between them was reloading logistics. He wondered if they also debated among themselves when they felt the urge to excrete their wastes: perhaps they felt there were two sides to that matter, as well.

But Ezzraamar had to allow that the humans were shrewd and that their less hierarchical social organization had some tangible advantages. The most obvious was how it made the exchange of ideas and alternatives both broader and faster. That would have been a detriment on a battlefield, but from what Ezzraamar had seen, and as Yaargraukh had informed him, humans were able to set aside their reflex for interminable discussion during crises. The result was that they were excellent and thorough planners, leaving far less to chance than the average Hkh’Rkh leader of any comparable rank, yet were able to give and execute orders swiftly in the field. No wonder their raiders had been so successful for so long.

What was most puzzling was their lack of significant dominance displays. Their promptly corrected any hint of disrespect with stern words, but they never had to resort to physical violence or compulsory subservience rituals. The “lesser officers” which he had heard called ensee’ohs — or perhaps it was an acronym: NCOs? — maintained discipline in a manner somewhat more reminiscent of what transpired among the ranks of Warriors. However, they too were far more casual in their interactions and occasionally seemed to be sympathetic to soldiers who had displeased an officer. It was all quite confusing and quite illogical.

It was also confusing and illogical that, to the best of Ezzraamar’s understanding, the humans had not moved him to their main base, the one where the majority of the rotary wings, or “helicopters,” had gone. Instead, a relatively small unit, no more than forty or fifty or so, had remained behind with two helicopters and the two intact scout cars that the humans had commandeered during the raid on Ylogh.

It was further baffling that they spoke openly in front of Ezzraamar. That would never have been permitted among the Hkh’Rkh. They would have completely isolated human prisoners, even if it was known that they were incapable of understanding a single word of H’khi.

The humans were demonstrating this extraordinarily lax prisoner protocol now, having just brought Ezzraamar his (rather tiresome) supper of small, edible worms mixed with their version of another staple of Turkh’saar: a mash made of an edible root. Well, it was “edible” after going through multiple rounds of chemical treatment and leaching. However, the human variety of the dish was even pastier and less tasty than the Hkh’Rkh. The root had been even more thoroughly cleansed and denatured. Not surprising, he reflected, since the human gut was far more sensitive than the Hkh’Rkh. Of course, that was true of pretty much all other intelligent species.

The human who had brought him the food, Sergeant Emmett Owen, was joining the others at the map table which they kept here at the rear of the cave. “So, sir, is it grubs and groats for us, too?” he asked.

“Nope,” answered Lt. Colonel Rodermund. “Special night. C-Rats.”

“Hot damn!” Owen exclaimed. “Bullets and dicks!”

The Russian who was in charge of Ezzraamar’s minimal guard detail seemed startled. “Shto?”

Rich Hailey, the soft-spoken American captain who seemed to get along with everyone, from the often-irritated Rodermund to the lowliest soldier — some of whom were from nations that had apparently once hated his — laughed. “Beans and franks, Arseniy.”

“Ah. That is relief. Although even real bullets and dicks might be better than worms and roots.” He stared quietly down at his hands.

Rich Hailey followed his eyes, may have noted what Ezzraamar had been observing since he had been captured: although they ate frequently and reasonable quantities, the humans looked thinner than the specimens he had seen in the briefing materials and later news videos of Earth. They also spent a great deal of time excreting their solid wastes and complaining that they had exhausted their supplies of something they called tee pee. Which Ezzraamar had thought he remembered as a word signifying a portable shelter used by more primitive humans, but in this case, apparently meant some fibrous wadding they used for post-excretive hygiene. The human body was oddly dependent upon external tools and products to remain clean and functional: a strange species indeed.

Some were greedily opening cans which they had briefly heated over low flames. Rodermund was already half finished with his. “In point of fact boys, this isn’t a treat. It’s a precaution.”

“Sir?” asked Emmett.

“Everyone’s gotta be up at 0400 so we can fly out at first light. And I want to be back at Base Camp in time for breakfast. So we’re having human food tonight so no one has the trots come sun-up.”

Sergeant Owen wagged his head in Ezzraamar’s direction. “Wish we could handle the local grub as well as they can.”

“Well,” sighed Rodermund, “they ought to handle it just fine. After all, they’re from here. Wherever the hell ‘here’ is.”

Ezzraamar always had to be very careful not to react to the humans when they said such patently incorrect or absurd things, although in this case, he was struck by the unusual nature of the human’s ignorance. Colonel Rodermund, reportedly their second in command, clearly believed that Hkh’Rkh were native to Turkh’saar. Which made no sense, since the encyclopedic self-reference that the Hkh’Rkh had distributed to the other Accord races at the failed Convocation clearly indicated that they were from Eta Cassiopeia. How, then, could these humans believe…?

But he would have to ponder that oddity later: the humans were speaking again, and their tone was less jocular, more serious. Meaning that, he had to listen as carefully as he could. If, by the intercession of some Fate-smiling Ghost Sire, he was to escape from the humans, he would need to remember all the details he could in order to debrief the colony’s leadership.

Owen was shaking his head as he scooped around the inside of his now empty can with great care. “Yeah, well I know someone who’s going to drop a brick and bust a gut no matter what he eats tonight: Clive. He’s not gonna appreciate our leaving the snorks’ cars here. Certainly not unattended.”

Hailey was carefully finishing his “bullets and dicks” with a spoon. “He might not like it, but those vehicles won’t do us any good unless they’re already pre-positioned close to our AO.”

Rodermund nodded. “And ‘unattended’ is the only safe way to leave them out here, Sergeant Owen.” He shook his silver mane. “The alternative is to establish a fixed forward base, tasked to radio silence. Hell, we could lose everyone before we even knew they were in danger On the other hand, if the enemy comes snooping around and finds these cars while we’re gone, then the worst that happens is we’re back to relying on our choppers for everything. I can live with that; I can’t live with leaving our people out in the boonies.”

Owen shrugged. “To say nothing of the intel the snorks might be able to squeeze out of them.”

As Owen finished, Lieutenant Franklin strolled in, nose aloft, mimicking sniffing for food. “Oh, you mean the way we’ve been able to squeeze intel out of our pal in the cage?”

“Yeah, well, we’ve been pretty damned friendly about it.”

“More to the point, we haven’t really tried,” Captain Hailey added. “That’s for Colonel Paulsen and the specialists to deal with.”

“Wasn’t aware we had any specialists in monster debriefing, Captain,” Owen said mischievously.

“Sure we do. They’re here so we can debrief you, should that ever become necessary.”

The two humans exchanged what they called smiles, which — for all the wisdom of the Greatsires — looked as though they were exchanging bared-teeth aggression displays.

Franklin wandered over closer to the cage they had built for Ezzraamar. He knelt down, looked at the Hkh’Rkh’s wrapped leg.

“How’s that wound of his doing, Lieutenant? He lost a lot of blood on the way here.”

Franklin stared at Ezzraamar, who stared back. “Those wounds won’t kill him. These snorks are damned tough. Judging from the old scars we’ve seen on some of their dead, I suspect they have much better recuperative and regenerative powers than we do. I’ve seen some indications that they might have the capacity to regrow lost digits, even limbs.”

Ezzraamar labored — successfully — to conceal his surprise; Franklin was extremely observant. It was unclear if, over the entire course of the Patrijuridicate’s Jakartan occupation, any of the humans ever realized what he had just hypothesized.

Sergeant Owen was circling the cage, now, inspecting him closely. “Y’know, I still say this one’s in uniform. Those markings on its armor: they’re insignias of some kind.”

Rich Hailey nodded. “Yep, and he’s very alert, even though he tries to act like he’s disinterested in what we say and do. Watch his eyes, how he is assessing, noting details.”

“Yeah,” breathed Franklin, “almost like he understands us, what we’re saying.”

“Understands us?” Arseniy barked out a harsh laugh. “That is crazy, my friend. I will show.” The Russian spun, stepping close to the hulking Hkh’Rkh. “YOU! Do you understand us?”

Ezzraamar flinched and blinked, then leaned ominously toward Pugachyov, unleashing a stream of his own harsh, gutteral language. Which translated as, “As if I would ever admit to such an ability, you imbecile!”