Monday, August 10, 2020

The Belt and the Dwarves

 Some Gates do not lead to new lands under strange skies. They lead to massive underground warrens, halls and vaults carved by pick and claw. Some are hewn from ice, others from rock that could be found anywhere, and some from metal alone. While it is common knowledge that these places are deep underground, the truth is that most of them reside in hollowed-out asteroids.

These places are all inhabited by the same race, although that may not be readily apparent. The dwarves do not welcome visitors, although they trade regularly. Many who find themselves in a dwarven hive will be confined to the entry hall, and asked to leave after only a few hours. Those hives who let visitors stay will still seem cold and hostile, and a visitor will never be allowed to wander without guard. This is less a function of politics or culture, as it is biology. Dwarves are eusocial, divided into several castes that work together to maintain their hive. 

The most populous caste is the worker. Outsiders will often see workers, but rarely speak with them, as workers have an instinctual fear of anyone not of the hive. The workers are short, usually between 4 and 5 feet tall, and have thick wrinkled skin and no hair. Dwarves generally only wear more than a loincloth as a sop to outsiders, and it is not uncommon for many in a hive to work nude, trusting their skin to protect them from hazards. Their fingers end in thick claws shaped like chisels that are anchored solidly to bone. They also have an enamel coating and grow constantly, like rodent teeth. A worker dwarf needs never worry about losing a claw or having them dull. 

The dwarf caste most outsiders will ever see is the soldier. They are rarely more than 5 foot high, though often heavily muscled. They are similar in many ways to the workers, although their skin is hardened and thickened, with armadillo-like plates in places. Their claws are longer and sharper than those of workers, and grow slower. Less suited to the work of chipping at stone, these blades are still backed by the immense strength inherent to all dwarves, and a soldier is fully capable of tearing through armour. Soldiers have a strong aggression reaction to outsiders, but repress it if doing so is of benefit to the hive.

The praetorian caste are almost never seen by non-dwarves. They can reach almost 6 feet tall, and their musculature is much denser than any other caste. Their claws are short and hooked, although still strong enough to pierce steel. Their skin is not particularly different to that of soldiers, but they have a massively increased speed and agility. They are also the best equipped of the hive, and happily use metal weapons and armour. Praetorians are smart and vicious combatants, working in perfectly-drilled teams to take down any opponent. They also have numerous internal anatomical changes that allow them to fight under conditions that would kill even the legendarily tough soldier dwarves. Stories of a praetorian with its head blown off still managing to gut its opponent are probably apocryphal, but few who have seen one fight doubt it. Praetorians are also equipped with marsupial-like pouches, and those not actively guarding will have several dwarven infants nestled inside.

Queens are never seen by outsiders. All that is known is by word from surly dwarves, or inference. They are large, and intelligent. They produce the infants that praetorians nurse, and if the marsupial tendency continues, give birth when the infants are only centimetres long and still mostly fetal. Queens are believed to guide hives only, with the ruling balance forming between “big-picture, long-term” queens and their “detail-orientated, short-term” praetorian guards.

Gender and sex among dwarves is a confusing topic for outsiders. Dwarven languages do not contain gendered pronouns. Instead, caste pronouns are used. Attempts to determine if a dwarf is “male” or “female” will be met with first confusion, and then hostility. The majority of dwarves are neuter, although they can differentiate into what could be termed male and female forms under certain conditions. A dwarf by them self, left alone for long periods, will start to become a queen, and seek to establish a new hive. Until their first mating, their development pauses in a nascent form that is similar to a praetorian, although no dwarf would ever confuse the two. On the other hand, a dwarf surrounded by dwarves not of their birth hive will begin to undergo a form of puberty, and become capable of fertilising a queen. This mechanism protects against inbreeding, and may happen due to trade, accident, or raiding by another hive. The new disperser dwarf still resembles their original cast, though again no dwarf would fail to recognise the difference. A queen may choose to mate with a given disperser or not, and will often have several suitors, all of whom are still expected to perform the duties of their caste when not attending the queen. 

In those cases where dwarves have to leave the hive for any length of time, there are known pheromone supplements that can prevent them from differentiating.

As they reside within an asteroid, most dwarven hives have a premium on space. Digging too deep or too greedily is known to cast entire hives in the void, which most dwarves believe to be the deep dark under the world. There is the warm dark of a hive, and the cold dark which lurks beyond stone and light, waiting for a foolish or greedy dwarf to let it in. The going logic is that the deep dark underground leads eventually to the Pit, where reality breaks down. This is also the explanation as to why some hives are “lighter” than others, as their proximity to the emptiness of the Pit makes gravity weaker.

The limitation on space has two further effects on the dwarves. First, most hives do not have much of a concept of personal space. Barracks and sleeping nests are common, though each dwarf will usually have a small alcove or nook for personal effects that no other dwarf would ever touch. Some wealthier hives might have small room or individual bunks for their members, but this is often viewed as pure decadence and weakness by the rougher hives.

The second effect relates to expansion, and in particular the Gates. Each dwarven hive has at least one Gate at its centre, and it is vital to the hive’s survival. The hives in the Belt are interlinked by a smaller, more local network, as well as connections to off-world Gates. A hive whose only Gate runs through another hive has no choice but to be subservient to them. After all, while hives do produce enough food internally to survive, they need trade to sustain themselves at any operational level. Luckily, their homes provide an abundance of resources to trade with other races.

All of the oldest hives are inside asteroids, but some of the newer ones are not. Gates have default settings, in which they function as easily accessible portals to one other Gate. However, there are rare artefacts that function as Gate Keys, temporarily overriding a Gate and sending travellers somewhere else. These locations are often disconnected from the rest of the network, and in ancient days were private homes, military or research installations, or simply dangerous. Many artificial orbital habitats fall into this category, as do underwater or underground locations. Finding a Gate Key is a massive boon to adventurers, as it means access to a location potentially overflowing with valuable items, if also hideous danger.

Finding a Gate Key is also dangerous by itself. Many organisations and individuals desire them, and there are few who covet them more than the dwarven hives. The hives have little interest in the locations in the void, or underwater, but underground locations represent perhaps the only chance at expansion a hive will ever have. The right Key can turn a small subsidiary hive into a juggernaut almost overnight. The largest hives in the modern age are glorious underground nation-states, with a Gate at their core leading back to the original asteroid home, now a capital city. 

Hives will give much for a Key, usually valuable goods or money, but some of the poorer hives can only trade their members. This is either a contract for indentured labour from workers, a mercenary contract for a group of soldiers, or in rare cases, a praetorian as a personal guard. The chosen dwarves willingly serve their hive in this fashion, and work tirelessly to support the bargain. A merchant or traveller with a praetorian guard is a rare but not unknown sight.

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