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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Monday, April 12, 2004 22:08 EDT



    A mock-chateau on the edge of HAR wineland-country. Now the Divisional Military Headquarters of the Fifth Brigade.

    No one had explained to the Vat driver about the wisdom of avoiding the rats' stolen booze. In fact it was a good thing that Chip had restrained him after the first unwary swallow or he might have had more, and they'd have ended up in the second ditch... if they were lucky.

    But even that one fiery chug had been enough to relax him. He joined them in some rowdy songs and was quite cheerfully willing to drive up to the front port-cocherie of the huge fake chateau that had been expropriated as Divisional Headquarters, instead of around to the vehicle park.

    A number of brass in full-dress uniform were standing on the steps, looking anxiously out into the dark. There were a fair number of television cameras and reporters too. When the ten-tonner blundered towards them a couple of frantic lieutenants and a Sergeant-Major tried to stop it. The two lieutenants had to dive out of the way. But the Sergeant-Major was made of sterner stuff. The truck had slowed slightly to avoid actually killing the two lieutenants, and he managed to leap onto the running-board.

    "You stupid bastard!" he bellowed through the inch of open window. "Get out of here! There is a reception for a really important person. The outriders should be here at any minute. Get this vehicle out of here before I have you mucking priv—aaaaaaagh!"

    "Indade, I cannot stand this being yelled at," muttered Eamon, licking blood off his fangs with a long red tongue.

    No one really heard him. The others were all too busy singing. As O'Neil and Bronstein were singing Casey Jones and the rats were singing a bawdy version of the same, which involved a conger, the noise in the cab was pretty horrendous.

    They screeched to halt—a belated halt, as the truck mounted the first step. The reception party showed its mettle and fell over each other in their haste to get out of the way.

    Chip opened the cab door, and they all piled out.

    As the singing died away, the enormity of the sea of brass they'd nearly driven into dawned on Private Chip Connolly. There was an awful silence. The kind of silence that presages serious repercussions.

    And then one of the stunned camera-men said: "That's her! That's her! That's Virginia Shaw!"



    When she'd been trapped in the scorpiary, walled into a tiny cell, Virginia had dreamed of being free. Of getting back home. As their madcap adventure through the scorpiary had continued, being with her new-found comrades had become more important to her than anything else. She'd never had actual friends before. And finding love had made escape—while certainly desirable—not really something she had thought about much.

    Now she realized she hadn't thought about dealing with the reality at all.

    The camera-flashes, the barrage of questions. The people crowding around. She found herself desperately wishing that she was merely facing certain death at Chip's side on a little vineyard tractor without any brakes. She was suddenly aware that both her skirt and blouse had been partially torn up for rags and were now very skimpy indeed. She was muddy. She had a bandage around her head.

    However, she was Virginia Shaw, and these were the heroes that had rescued her. They deserved recognition. But how to get a word in edgeways?

    "Santa Maria! San Cristoforo!" bellowed a Sergeant-Major voice. "This asking of questions all at once, she is too much!" roared Fluff. He rose to his full height, perched on her left shoulder.

    "One at a time, and the Senorita Shaw will do her best. One question each. No more!" He pointed to one of the thrusting microphones. "You. You with the mustachios of the most inadequate. Ask."

    The startled reporter—who would shortly be clean shaven—took his cue. "Abe Telermann of Interweb here, Ms. Shaw. Were you present when your parents were murdered?"

    She felt Chip's hand on her other shoulder and found her voice. "No. But my kidnapper told me that they had been killed."

    "Who kidnaped..."

    "Enough!" bellowed Fluff. "You with the hair of the color of my jacket. Ask."

    "Er. Sandy Degan here. IPN. Who kidnaped you?"

    Virginia knew the terrible compulsion provided by her soft-cyber chip's inbuilt bias. "My tutor. He drugged me and took me behind Magh' lines." They would find out who her tutor had been soon enough. But for now she'd beaten the compulsion to believe the best of the murderous Korozhet "professor."

    "Miz Shaw, we've heard that the army rescued you from the Magh'. Is this true?"

    Ginny nodded. "Yes. I was rescued from a Magh' cell by these brave soldiers here." She pointed to the bats that hung above her, and the rats that twitched noses around her legs. "I'd like to thank all of them from the bottom of my heart. The uplifted rats and bats are finest soldiers... no, the finest people I've ever met." Her voice cracked slightly. "Three of them died to keep me alive. They died for me and for all of us humans. The people of Harmony and Reason, shareholders and vats alike, owe these soldiers a debt. They—“

    "Ahem. Ms. Shaw will answer further questions later," said a red-faced man in a beautifully tailored uniform, pushing through the crowd. "Brigadier Charlesworth, Divisional Officer Commanding, Ma'am. Welcome. We've been informed that you were injured, Ms. Shaw. We have your personal physician here from the Shaw Estate. If you could accompany me..."

    "My friends must come with me," Ginny said firmly.

    The Brigadier looked doubtfully at the rats and bats. "These?" asked uneasily. "We don't normally allow animals into the building."

    "These," said Ginny, firmly. "I won't go without them. They're my bodyguards."

    "Er. I have detailed some of my men to take on this duty..."

    "Ah, Virginia!" A white-coated man with a stethoscope around his neck and a face full of sculpted features cut through the crowd. "Allow me to offer my condolences. Now, if you will all excuse us. I see Ms Shaw needs medical attention. I'm sorry but you will all have to wait."

    Virginia found herself somehow unable to resist, or even able to speak.

    The doctor was speaking English, but he was also saying something else, something far more important, in a whispered voice—in a language she'd never learned, yet that she understood perfectly. She realized suddenly that it wasn't Doctor Thom giving orders in the language that the implanted chip in her head said must be obeyed, but his lapel-badge. As she gathered her resistance, she felt the prick of a needle.

    "She's been through a terrific amount for a young, delicately reared girl," said the doctor. "But she's in safe hands now. Thank you all."

    As if from a great distance she heard Chip ask the Brigadier. "What do you want us to do now, Sir?"

    The Brigadier sniffed. "Get back to your unit, soldier. As quickly as possible. And get your platoon Sergeant to put you on a charge for the state of your uniform and that half-beard of yours. Just because we're at war doesn't mean you have an excuse to ignore dress and appearance codes! Now, get these scruffy military animals back to their units, before I have them put down."

    Chip's "Sir" was the last thing she remembered hearing.



    Private Chip Connolly stood there, looking at the departing pack following Ginny. He'd said that the army would reward him with a kick in the pants—but somehow he'd always thought that there would be some recognition. And he'd never thought that Virginia would just turn her back on him like that. He'd thought...

    But then, when it came right down to it, she was a shareholder. The Shareholder, in fact, the wealthiest in the colony. And he was just a Vat-conscript, after all. The lowest of the low.

    "Excuse me, Private." It was one of the interviewers and his cameraman. "Tim Fuentes, INB. Am I right in saying that you were actually part of the Special Services force that rescued Ms. Virginia Shaw? Can you tell us about it?"

    Chip snorted. He knew that there was no point in feeling hard done by. It was the way of the army and the way of the damned shareholder class. But he was still furious and hurt about it. "Oh, yes. That's us. Me and these scruffy military animals. But we're not Special Services. We're just a bunch of grunts. We were in the wrong place at the right time."

    "I quite understand that the details of your unit and the finer details of your operations must remain secret, Private, but... can you tell us your name? Or is that confidential too?"

    "Private Charles Connolly, 21011232334000. That's what captured soldiers are allowed to tell you. And if you excuse me, I've got get back to my unit as quickly as possible. Then I need to find a medium to help me to tell my platoon sergeant that he's to put me on a charge for my appearance."

    The reporter and cameraman pursued him as he tried to walk. "Just a few questions, Private Connolly. Did you take part in freeing her? Did the kidnappers put up a fight?"

    "Her kidnapper is dead. It was that thing she called her tutor. You could say it put up a fight. It tried to kill her. That's where I got this hole in my shoulder."

    "Did you capture the kidnapper?"

    "I told you. It got killed."

    "And Ms. Shaw, during this ordeal, how did she take it? Was she terribly traumatized?"

    Images of Ginny filled his mind: clinging to him after she'd killed her first maggot; after Behan's death; hanging on to the back of the tractor as it plunged through the Magh' filled corridors. He turned on the heel-yapping media jackal: "She wasn't 'traumatized' and she fought beside us. She fought," he said slowly, "like a lioness. And now, leave me alone or I will kill you."

    By the way they backed off, they obviously believed him... even though Chip didn't really want them to.

    "Ahem." Bronstein cleared her throat. "What are you going to do now, Connolly?"

    "Go back to my unit as quickly as possible like a good little soldier," said Chip, savagely. "Didn't you hear that nice shareholder officer? You scruffy military animals had better do the same."

    He walked off, blindly.

    They followed.



    Fluttering along behind Connolly, Michaela Bronstein tried to formulate strategy. Revolution! Throwing off the cruel yoke of human oppression! Liberty, equality and belfry! These were the dreams and ideals that Michaela Bronstein had always lived by, ideals that had governed her, and indeed, all batdom.

    Of course, bats, by their very nature, had always chittered and argued about how liberation should be achieved. Eamon Dzhugashvilli was one of the notorious Bat-bund who had advocated straight and bloody murder, blowing every non-bat to kingdom come with as much high explosive as they could lay their claws on, and allying Batdom with Humankind's foes. Michaela came from another faction, who were considerably more moderate in their approach. Of course, it still involved sending everyone except the Bat-people to perdition, but letting them get there on their own, without using high explosive to speed their passage. Well, without using high explosive just for the sake of it, anyway.

    Now, with the knowledge that they themselves had been cruelly betrayed by the Korozhet, Eamon had changed his tune. The bats had all been through a Damascene conversion, realizing that the humans and even those feckless rats were their allies in a far greater struggle. Realizing that humans, especially the Vat-class, were victims too, entrapped in debt servitude, and that there was honor, nobility and comradeship in them—and even in those drunken, lecherous rats.

    The nascent union and common revolutionary front was just that. Barely new-born. Without care, it would be still-born. She, O'Neil and Eamon had only accepted the facts by having the very unpalatable truth thrust in front of their faces. Now they faced a far harder task than a mere revolution. They must unite batdom with their historical enemy against an unimaginably evil foe.

    It was literally impossible for those with soft-cyber chips in their head to imagine evil of the Korozhet. The soft-cyber implants had an inbuilt bias which told them—forced them to accept—that the Korozhet were good, wonderful and to be obeyed at all costs.

    Only... English, unlike the Korozhet language, was a slippery thing. Its semantics—the slang, poetical allusions, the spelling quirks—enabled the thinker with a Korozhet soft-cyber implant to work around the Korozhet bias. The "Crotchets,' not the Korozhet, were despicable genocidal slavers.

    Now they had to convince the rest of the bats.

    "We should stick together," said Eamon. "I have no liking for that bunch that have taken Virginia under their wing. No liking or trust at all. I'll swear I heard someone speak in... Crotchet before she went with them." He bared his long fangs and stretching his new-stitched wing.

    "Don't do that." Bronstein swatted the wing down. "It won't be healing properly if you don't rest it."

    "Resting is not in my nature," grumbled the big bat. "And I say we should fly after her."

    Bronstein shook her head. "No. They'll not stop Ginny. That's true steel there, Eamon. Or do you forget that she, and she alone, could go against the compulsion that the Crotchets have set in our intelligence?"

    "Would I ever forget that? That's why we must stand by her, wing to shoulder!" Eamon, as he was wont to do, assumed what he thought of as a noble stance. Bronstein thought it just made him look constipated.

    She shook her head. "No. We must bring all of batdom to stand with her. And that is the harder task. Needs must the three of us should go back to the belfries and raise the new revolution."

    Eamon blinked. "I had not yet thought of it that way. You are the better strategist, Michaela Bronstein. Force is more my forte."

    That was true enough, thought Bronstein. Eamon was a positive genius at mayhem, especially with explosives. But all she said was: "The time for force will come."

    "Soon, I hope," said Eamon, stretching the wing again and getting another swat from Bronstein.

    "And what of the rats?" asked O'Neil. The plump bat had crossed more boundaries in the field of interspecies friendship than the others. He liked rats, and was becoming positively ratly in his attitudes to good bat virtues. It was a bit shameful, really. The other bats would drink with the rats out of solidarity, because that was how rats expressed it. O'Neil would drink because he liked it.

    Bronstein shrugged. "Indade. And what of you, rats?" she asked. "Well, Fal? Melene? Doll? Doc? Nym? Pistol? What of ratdom? Will you be able to call all ratdom to rise beside us?"

    "If, when all a vigil keep, the rats' asleep, then well may freedom weep," intoned O'Neil.

    "Whoreson," Fat Fal shook his head. "You bats really don't understand rats at all, do you? We're not like you bats. There is no such thing as 'ratdom'. 'Tis every rat for himself and the devil take the hindmost."

    "You mean, you're not with us?" snarled Eamon.

    Fal yawned. "Well, not if it doth mean hanging by my feet and only indulging in tail-twisting once a year. I would not say 'no' to being invited on that occasion, mind. But if it is a common front against the Crotchet, I'm with you. They're set to destroy the humans, and without humans we would be helpless against our worst foe."

    He struggled with the top of his nip-size bottle. "See? This! This evil and fiendish invention, the screw-top! Fain would I have someone with opposable thumbs to open screwtops, or what will the use in looting be?"

    O' Neil chuckled. "Then a voice like thunder spake. 'Cry no hurrahs but let the Crotchets quake, we'll fight to the death for looting's sake'."

    "That, and a little touch of Harry in the night," said Pistol, with an agreeing nod.

    "We need humankind," said Melene. "They make chocolate."

    Doc scratched his long nose thoughtfully. "I think ours is the easier task, Bronstein. You see, one simply has to understand the philosophy of rats. We are individuals, and live principally for ourselves. You bats are social and altruistic creatures, so maybe it is less than obvious to you. What the Korozhet have done is to make sure that we are the hindmost. There is no rat that can ever accept that. We need to save humanity, even if only to assure ourselves that there will always be someone else to be hindmost. And, of course, to open screwtops and make chocolate."

    Doc was the only uplifted creature who could accuse the Crotchets by name. The rat-philosopher claimed that he could do so by using Plato's forms—the first good use Bronstein had ever come across for paper. Despite his obviously dented sanity, the rat had her respect because of this ability. "So what do you advise us all to do at this point?"

    "Why, go back to our units. Go and spread the word," said the rat, waving his arms and tail messianically.

    "Just like that?"

    "Well, no. Not quite," said Melene. "We must gild the philosophical pill."

    Bronstein looked puzzled. "And how do you plan to do that? Paint Doc gold?"

    "Why, methinks I shall just tell one or two rats. In the strictest confidence, of course." Melene smiled mischievously. "Or doesn't bat society work like that?"

    Bronstein fluttered thoughtfully. "There is truth in what you say."

    "Aye," said O'Niel, snagging Fal's bottle. "Indade we must go to be the sea in which the fish of revolution swim. Or something like that, anyway."

    "Where has Chip gotten to?"

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