The M’Lak are a race of intelligent humanoids, displaying both amphibian and mammalian characteristics. They occupy a range of planets, both inside and out of the British Space Empire, at differing levels of technological advancement. They are chiefly noted for their skill at arms, and make up the great majority of the Empire’s non-human troops. They are commonly referred to as "Morlocks" by humans, in accordance with the ancient Earth tradition of giving anyone slightly different an insulting nickname.
The M’Lak are roughly human-shaped, although somewhat more wiry. They have two eyes, ear-like vanes on the side of their heads and nostril-holes. The most notable facial feature are the mandibles: thumb-sized digits either side of the mouth, each ending in a sharp tusk between one and three inches long.
They are, by human standards, strong and exceedingly tough: like some amphibians, they can regrow damaged limbs. The M’Lak can have the same nutritional and chemical needs as humans, although they can survive on a wider range of foods. They defecate by coughing up pellets, much like owls.
The resilience, ferocity and cunning of the M’Lak make them excellent soldiers, and their curious reproductive cycle has raised the question of whether they are not a natural species but the product of genetic manipulation. Ghast scientists have suggested that they are an artificial soldier-race, but then that’s the sort of thing that Ghasts say all the time. They even suggested it about badgers.
The M’Lak appear to have spread across a large number of planets at some remote point in the past. Whether they were taken there by another race, or travelled there themselves and then lost the technological knowledge to get back, is unknown. They don’t appear to care. Similarly, they have very little interest in knowing from which planet they originated: this information may have been lost at some point, although it is more likely that they really don’t find it very interesting.
At the moment, about half of the territory settled by the M'Lak lies within the British Space Empire. The remaining half is largely free from any government at all. In the previous decades, the Edenites have made attempts to annex certain free M'Lak worlds, but have been bloodily repulsed, with covert assistance from the [REDACTED BY ORDER OF HMG]. During the current war, the Free Worlds have been claimed by the Ghast Empire and partially invaded. Despite being technologically outmatched, the native Houses have fought back with such ferocity that being sent to the M'Lak front is effectively a death sentence in the Ghast Empire.
M’Lak society is wide-ranging, and it is difficult to generalise about their culture. However, they share an official language, Asur'ah, which is generally used to confuse non-speakers. They also value personal space – being asexual, they have little concept of physical contact that doesn’t involve hitting – and have a vigorous, enthusiastic approach to most activities. Notable settlements include Ravnavar, where for nearly two hundred years the M'Lak have filled the ranks of the Ravnavari Lancers, Didcot 6, an unusually civilised M'Lak world noted for its macrame, and Straalia, where a symbiotic human/M'Lak culture has evolved, based around the herding of megasheep and the driving of spiky vehicles at high speed.
M’Lak have only one sex. They reproduce cyclically, between every 8 and 15 years, and do so by vomiting up a substance similar to frogspawn. The frogspawn is deposited in water and produces tadpoles, which then eat one another. Survivors will grow into toad-like creatures about the size of a small dog: these are referred to as spawn and are the second stage of development. The spawn pass through a phase of eating almost anything to acquire body-mass, and then return to the water to complete the final stage of turning into an adult.
Spawn are genetically identical to their parent. It is thought that genetic variance was inducted by mutation caused by high background radiation on the M’Lak homeworld. M’Lak space travellers tend to replicate this process by leaving their spawn in a bucket next to the engine in the reactor room.
The M’Lak do not have a central government or permanent decision-making body. They will band together when necessary (usually to attack someone else) but have strong cultural and social taboos about giving orders instead of carrying them out. This, and their lack of interest in luxury, leads to a tough, self-reliant culture that is usually at war with itself.
Most M’Lak belong to a House, a semi-familial group that can range for a few individuals to thousands. The (self-appointed) head of a House is usually its oldest and most pompous member, although strict rulings are rare and frequently ignored. Elders tend to arrange formal war with other Houses, make trade agreements, and generally interfere in everyone’s life as much as possible. Many Houses allow non-family to join, provided that they pass a suitable test. In some cases, it is possible to join several Houses at once, or none at all.
Houses fulfill the useful role of local government and conservation authority. The M’Lak believe fervently in the upkeep of the countryside, especially if it is the breeding-ground of large, angry monsters. Most big Houses have their own pens and gardens in which the M’Lak raise ferocious beings (including their own offspring), prior to releasing them into the unsuspecting wild. Some of the larger Houses, in particular the traditionalist House Ametrin, specialise in this. On worlds without native life, or in cities, the construction of large machines and dangerous weaponry has replaced the monster-keeping urge. Less people get eaten, but more explosions occur. This is seen as a fair exchange.
Houses serve as bastions of comparative culture, and contain smithies, workshops, libraries, galleries and, most important of all, vast trophy rooms. The M’Lak dislike being in close proximity to one another for very long (an attitude other species find understandable), and so many wander far from the actual buildings. However, at the end of the day, home is where your heart is. And other people’s skulls.
The M’Lak believe in a sort of afterlife, which is very similar to the world of the living, except with less forms to fill out and more violence. Although it is thought that an individual can, and probably will, contact his ancestors (especially if something entertaining is happening that they might want to watch), there is no priesthood or similar group.
The concept of organised religion, like most organised things, is alien to the M’Lak. Asur’ah does not really contain a word for it, just as it contains no word for “dictatorship”. “Graish”, the word used to represent dictatorship, literally translates as “grovelling”, whereas “Graish Amren”, the M’Lak term for religion, literally means “grovelling with headgear”.
The closest the M’Lak have to a god is the old custom of throwing a lucky rock at the sun. This dates back to primitive times, when the M’Lak tribes assumed that the sun was a deity riding a fiery chariot, and tried to knock him off so that they could have a go.
When a spawn returns to the water to complete its development, it almost always emerges as a fully humanoid adult. Very rarely, a spawn does not change normally, but remains amphibious and becomes much larger. Such creatures enter an axolotl stage, growing to crocodile size and retaining their gills. Their minds mature in much the same way as their normal (third-stage) brethren, although they tend to be less aggressive than standard M’Lak, and arguably more intelligent.
Spawn, which will usually eat anything, avoid these gilled M’Lak. It is thought that this is the result of pheromones, which suggests that the axolotl stage is more than just a frequent mutation. Further, the third-stage M’Lak regard the appearance of a gilled specimen as extremely lucky, and take great pains in protecting them.
Most of the gilled enter a large House, where they presumably act as advisors. However, since the acquisition of large spacecraft, more appear to have been moved off-world. It is thought that they may have some sort of controlling role in the biggest M’Lak warships, and may have some sort of society of their own. As a result, the [REDACTED BY ORDER OF HMG] must flow.