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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, May 10, 2004 23:49 EDT



A grim and debatable land: a captured Magh' scorpiary, newly conquered and still smoldering.

    "What in hell are we going to do with them, Fitz?" asked Parachute Major Van Klomp, looking down over the red spiral walls of the Magh' scorpiary. His paratroopers had blown a hole into the roof to gain access to the brood-heart. Now Van Klomp had come up here to escape the chaos within. What was happening down there wasn't fighting. Not really. More like the butchery of rather nasty but stupid insects. The Magh's brains seemed to have died with their brood-heart. "We can't talk to the befokte things to persuade them to surrender, and we may just die of exhaustion killing them. I'm sick of it. I am almost missing parades by now."

    Major Conrad Fitzhugh, head of HAR Army Intelligence—at least until the MPs caught up with him—grinned tiredly. "You've always got something to bitch about, Bobby. Last time you wanted action, not display jumps. I get you action, now you want back to display jumps. There's no pleasing you!"

    Van Klomp exhaled gustily. "It's because you cheated me, boykie. You promised we could rescue some commando-heroes from certain death. And what do I find when we get in there? A bunch of drunken rats and bats having a maggot barbeque. And a solitary troepie making whoopee with Shaw's bloody daughter."

    A sleek rat head with ragged ears and a few new scars stuck her head out of the capacious magazine pocket of Fitz's BDUs. "You might have scrounged some of their drink, Van Klomp. Do you know how dry I am, and how irritable I get when I'm dry?"

    Van Klomp blew the most dangerous she-rat in the army a raspberry. But, to prove that, despite being big, he wasn't entirely stupid, he also produced a hip-flask. "You and Fitz stole all my port. You stole my Christmas bottle. You even drank the cooking sherry. But Meilin got me some rum from somewhere. You don't like rum, do you, Ariel?"

    "It's at the bottom of my list of human drinks," said the rat, reaching for it. "As for your sack, 'twas terrible stuff. I was doing you a favor drinking it." Because Ariel had spent so much time in human company, her speech was less Shakespearean than most rats. But every now and then bits slipped out, especially when she was thirsty.

    Van Klomp poured some of the contents of the hip-flask into the small silver lid-cup. "Here. And be happy. The stuff those rats were drinking made rum look like cola. A mouthful of the stuff nearly killed me."

    "And you let them take it away!" said Ariel, downing the small cup and shaking her head.

    Van Klomp shrugged. "I'd have liked to keep them all here so Fitz could debrief them when he got through with playing chase-the-maggot. But I wanted our late Chairman's daughter out of danger. Shaw wasn't going anywhere without them. And they weren't going anywhere without that grog of theirs. They'd kept her alive right through attacking this patch of hell with a fire bucket, so I reckon they must make a fairly good bodyguard. I'd have choppered them out except for this weather." The cold front was lifting now, but rain and mist had followed the army into the area. Not that it had made much difference. Most of the fighting had been in the labyrinthine tunnels of the scorpiary.

    Fitz stood up and yawned. "Well, aside from missing out on their booze, I'd have liked to talk to them myself. They know more first hand about Magh' than anyone else. And we owe our victory here to their efforts. I'd have liked an explanation of all of it—that dead Korozhet, and that other alien critter, to say nothing of all the dead Magh'—those huge bloated ones they said were the brains behind the whole nest. But realistically speaking, I won't be dealing with that intelligence. I've got to go back and face the music. I just came looking for you, to say goodbye."

    Van Klomp sighed. "I know you too damn well to think I'm going to change your mind, Fitzy. So." He reached out a large hand and took the cup from Ariel's paws. Topped it up. Handed it to the scar-faced intelligence Major. "A last drink together, Boykie. Bottoms up."

    Fitz took it. "To the living and the dead," he said, and drained it. "Pfeh. That's vile stuff. My God... it's strong... Ariel..."

    Van Klomp caught him as he fell, and lowered him gently to the ground. The silver cup was less lucky. It bounced and clattered away, rolling down the seven hundred foot slope of the scorpiary arms. "Sorry, Boykie," said Van Klomp, quietly. "But you won't look after yourself, so your mates have to. Here, Ariel. Loosen his collar. And then go and give Cunningham and Garcia a call. They're waiting just inside the first gallery with the ropes and stuff.”

    Ariel was already at her Major's throat. "You're sure he'll be all right, Van Klomp? I'll kill you if he isn't." There was no hyperbole at all in that statement.

    "You can kill me right after I kill that damned doctor, if he isn't," said Van Klomp, heavily. "I never thought he'd swallow that bit about me drinking rum."

    "And I thought he'd notice for sure that I hadn't actually drunk any of it," said Ariel, feeling for the carotid pulse. "That's steady enough, anyway. You go and call your goons. I'll stay with him."

    Van Klomp shook his head. "If he stirs you won't be able to stop him rolling. I'll take care of him, Ariel." He gave the unconscious man a wry look. "I always have," he said quietly, "since we were kids."

    With no more than a disapproving sniff, Ariel left and ran to the hole that the attacking paratroopers had left in the Magh' adobe dome. In a few minutes she was back with two paratroopers, ropes, a field stretcher and the doctor. The doctor checked Fitz's breathing and pulse hastily. "I don't approve of this, Major," he said stiffly.

    "Ja. I know, Captain. You've said so maybe six times already. But short of me hitting him and maybe making an error of judgment—which could have been even more dangerous—how else are we supposed to deal with this? We've been leading that useless bliksem of a Lieutenant-Colonel up the garden path for about as long as we can. He's met up with Colonel Nygen now and between them they would have found Fitzy soon."

    The doctor sighed. "Are you sure—“

    Van Klomp turned to the medical officer, his face grim. "I took the radio message myself, from General Cartup-Kreutzler. Fitz is to be arrested, by force if need be. To be captured dead or alive. Preferably, according to the General, dead. He is to face summary battlefield court-martial. You served under Major Fitzhugh in this campaign. He's determined to plead guilty. But it wouldn't make any damn difference. This Lieutenant-Colonel Jeebol who is to chair the court-martial is Cartup-Kreutzler's hatchet-man. He's already tried and sentenced Fitz. You know what the maximum penalty is, in a battlefield court-martial. All we're asking is that you see to it that he stays alive long enough to get a fair, open General Court-Martial, not a kangaroo-court and summary execution."

    "I was trying to ask whether you were absolutely sure he had no pre-existing medical conditions," said the doctor irritably. "It's something we normally try and establish before administering anesthetics. I'm well aware of what high command are up to. And they're not going to succeed. I'm a doctor because I want to keep men alive. He might have to face trial, although they'd be wiser giving him a chest full of medals. But no one, and I mean no one, is going to kill him while he is in my care."

    Van Klomp bit his lip. "Sorry, Doc. I spoke too damn hastily. Made a fool of myself, again. I know he had many anesthetics after his face got ripped up like that. I never heard of any problems. Look, along with Major Del'annancio of A company, I've arranged some extra stretcher-bearers for you."

    "I don't need any. We've only got a few casualties, for a change. A pleasant change."

    Van Klomp smiled. "Doc. You've got the legal authority over any patient in your care. But your medics are—medics. They're unarmed. Lieutenant-Colonel Jeebol has a number of armed men with him. If anything unpleasant happens... just remember these men are there, under your command."

    The doctor blinked. "It won't come to that, surely?"

    "It already has," the big paratrooper replied.

    "And always remember, I'll be right next to him," said Ariel. "Human throats are a lot softer than pseudochitin, and I haven't sworn any oaths to keep anyone alive." The rat left no one in any doubt that she meant every word, and that she'd be able to do it, too.




    The medics had put together a makeshift ward in one of the now-empty scorpiary chambers. The upper levels were seldom disturbed by wandering Magh'—the leaderless creatures seemed to want to burrow down into the lower chambers. Nonetheless, there were two platoons in position behind the barbed wire and broken masonry fortifications. There were several other badly wounded soldiers in the other cots in the ward. At least, they all looked to be. They were heavily bandaged, anyway.

    Ariel lay just under the edge of Fitz's blanket and waited. She didn't have to wait long. Fitz was still in the whirly stage of semi-consciousness when they came.

    "Lieutenant-Colonel Jeebol, 3rd Motorized Division," said the voice crisply from the next chamber. "I believe you've got Major Conrad Fitzhugh here. Number 24950101803371."

    "Yes," answered the doctor. "He's out of theater and recuperating in the ward. And where do you think you're going?"

    "I have to place him under arrest. He's to be taken for court-martial immediately. Now get out of my way before I have you arrested and charged as well."

    Ariel peeked. She couldn't resist it. The Medic Captain was standing four-square in the doorway. "No," he said, calmly. "He's recovering from an anesthetic. I must forbid it."

    "Sergeant," snapped the Lieutenant-Colonel. "Arrest this man."

    "If you even attempt that, Sergeant," said Van Klomp's gravel-crusher voice. "I'll be obliged to arrest you."

    Ariel blinked. Van Klomp wasn't supposed to be here! He was going to keep his nose clean, in case he needed to stick it in later. Still, she'd been none-too-sure that the Doc was going to be able to manage this. Van Klomp would.

    "I am entirely capable of dealing with this myself, Major," said the doctor, in a tone that explained very clearly that he might only be unit M.O. now, but he'd been a hospital Senior Surgeon before the war. "Understand this very clearly, Lieutenant Colonel Whoozit. This area is a Field Hospital. I am the ranking officer in charge of it. As such I have ultimate medical responsibility for the welfare of all the patients in my care. I am also the final authority on the conduct of military matters inside this area, as it may affect my patients. On medical grounds. I have given a clear instruction. Attempt to countermand it, and I'll have you thrown off the premises. And I will see you charged for it. It is a clear breach of military law. Do you understand me?"

    "You can't stop me! I've got orders from General Cartup-Kreutzler himself! Now out of my way!" yelled the Lieutenant-Colonel.

    The small Medic Captain stood his ground. His voice was frosty enough to chill liquid nitrogen, now, never mind mere Lieutenant-Colonels. "I've made it very clear to you, Sir, that I don't care if you have orders from God. Unless they're from the Army Surgeon-General and in writing, Major Fitzhugh stays here in my care until I deem him medically fit to leave. And I warn you, Lieutenant-Colonel, if you shout again and disturb these critically ill men, I'll have you removed by force and give orders to the guards that you are not to be permitted into this area again."

    The Lieutenant-Colonel was plainly unused to this. He gaped like a new-caught fish. "Don't be a fool! Fitzhugh is a dangerous criminal who is due for battlefield court-martial and summary execution!"

    "Then you can court-martial and execute him, once he is discharged from my care as fit and well," said the Captain. "Now, I have work to do. And where are you going, Samuelson?"

    Ariel saw that one of the genuine patients was staggering towards the doorway occupied by the doctor.

    "Call of nature, Sir," said the man, saluting weakly. "Needs must when the devil drives, Sir."

    The doctor sighed. "Orderly. Go with this man."

    "I'll be fine on my own, Sir."

    "If you're not back in two minutes we'll come looking for you," said the doctor irritably. "Go."

    The man went. But the interruption had eased some of the heat in the situation. The Lieutenant Colonel had had a chance to think. "Look. We'll get clearance from the Army Surgeon-General's office immediately, Captain. I've got orders to apprehend and try this man ASAP."

    "And that will be after he is discharged from our care, Sir. Now will you please leave. It's not visiting hours."

    "Ahem," Van Klomp cleared his throat. "If I can suggest something, Doctor. Let's just resolve this peacefully. While the Colonel gets clearance to move the patient, why doesn't he just leave Major Fitzhugh under guard?"

    "So long as the guard remains outside until the patient has fully come around from the anesthetic. After that you can put a guard at his bedside."

    "He must be manacled!" snapped the Lieutenant-Colonel, determined to seize whatever small victory he could.

    The doctor shrugged. "He's in plaster and in traction. He's not going anywhere. But if you insist. So long as we hold the key and the patient's comfort and well-being is not affected."

    This was not exactly what the Lieutenant Colonel had had in mind. But any further protest on his part was stymied by the arrival of a large party of soldiers. Armed and hardbitten veterans, filling the passage as far back as the eye could see. They'd arrived carrying the patient who had said that he was off to answer a call of nature. The man lolled limply between them.

    The corporal who was supporting one side of the patient managed a salute. "He walked into our platoon a few minutes ago, Sir. Said it was an emergency, Sir. Said some jackass was here trying to pull a field court-martial and execute Major Fitz, Sir. Is it true, Sir?"

    It was said loudly and clearly. It was also said in a tone that suggested that if it was true, the aforementioned "jackass" was a dead man walking.

    The doctor gave his attention to the collapsed Samuelson. "Ask the Lieutenant-Colonel," he said shortly. "While I deal with this idiot. I hope the damned young fool hasn't killed himself."

    The Lieutenant-Colonel's face was, thought Ariel, quite a study. But the corporal wasn't letting the doctor off the hook yet. "He also told us Major Fitz was injured, Sir. Is he going to be all right, Sir?"

    "He almost certainly has multiple fractures. I don't have X-ray facilities here, of course. But he should recover. I'm less than certain about this man. Come. Help me to lift him. I'll want him back in bed and I need to get IV fluids into him. And then I want this ward clear of all non-medical personnel. Before I count to three! That includes all of you. Go!"

    Ariel had been amazed when they did. Mind you, she'd nearly scrambled out of the bed herself. And she didn't have the human disadvantage of a lifetime of conditioning to obey doctors. She lay there quietly, until the man himself came to check on Fitz, which was quite some time later. Fitz was distinctly restless. He'd already made two half-hearted efforts to sit up.

    "Is that soldier going to live? And is this really going to work?" whispered the rat.

    "He's put himself in hospital on antibiotics for another month," said the doctor quietly, checking Fitz's pulse. "But the boy should live. And as for your major here, it's a post-hypnotic, rat. So long as we stick to the story he'll believe it."

    He sighed. "Though why the hell I'm doing this I'll never know. I could be struck off for malpractice."

    Ariel shook her head at him. "'Tis not what I meant. I meant with that base phrygian Turk who wanted to kill Fitz out of hand. We've made it so Fitz cannot even defend himself. And he certainly can't run, even if I could persuade him to. He has but to get an order from your Surgeon-General. You humans have a depressing habit of following orders, even when they're really stupid. Then there'll be nothing for it but for me to kill that Jeebol."

    The medic officer laughed softly. "I suppose you've only seen this war from a rat's point of view, and in the ordinary army. Let me explain. Most of the army command has its origin in the pre-war force. To understand what's happening here, you have to understand who those people were. The colony needed an army like a man needs an extra left leg. No enemies. No reason to exist. It's had twenty-seven years of getting more and more ornamental and useless. The officer corps lost everyone with even the smallest vestige of real ability or ambition. Apparently it was not uncommon back on Earth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the same to thing to occur between wars. That's parallel to the industrial and in many ways the social period we're going through here."

    "Oh, I know they're useless," said Ariel. "Fitz and I were at military headquarters, you know. But what does that have to do with this situation?"

    "Everything, actually. You see, back on Earth, when they had a war, even if they had these sort of losers still in the military, you always had a few that weren't. And good officers who'd left came flocking back. But, because of the age and fitness constraints on the cryopreservation, only people under the age of thirty-five came to HAR from Earth. Wealthy under-thirty-fives. Not senior officers. So, twenty-seven years on, when we finally had a military emergency—we only had these jerks."

    Ariel scratched the stump of her tail, thoughtfully. "I see. But I still don't see what that has to do with your Surgeon General?"

    The doctor smiled beatifically. "Everything, as I said. Before the war there was no Medical Corps. The Surgeon-General must be a medical doctor. So: Surgeon-General Paul DiMillio is a fine physician, as well as my ex-medical superintendent. Lord! I'd give anything to see his reaction when he gets General Cartup-Kreutzler on the line, demanding he order me, of all people, to release a patient."

    "Ah. So you mean the senior medical officers are not such fools as the rest of them?" enquired Ariel. Her tone was skeptical, almost caustic.

    Doctor Scott could exchange sarcasm with the best. "I wouldn't go that far. But almost all the officers were simply doctors before the war, not part of this military system. The same thing applies to the Judge Advocate's department. Most of the officers were attorneys. The quartermaster, technical and mechanical support are mostly part of the old slowship crew, so they're also fairly good at what they do too."

    Fitz opened his eyes. Tried to move. "What the hell...?"

    "Just lie still. You're fine, Major."

    "Ariel?" he croaked, trying to focus.

    "I'm right here, Fitzy. Lie still, dearest."

    Fitz blinked. "I can't move anyway."

    "Correct, Major," said the doctor. "You're in hospital in traction. You have a possible fracture of the left femur, an almost certain fracture of the right radius and ulna, a possible concussion and a possible spinal fracture. A lot of nasty possibilities."

    "What happened...? All I remember was having a last drink with Bobby."

    Ariel, standing on his chest, said solemnly, "You triggered a Magh' archway deadfall, which collapsed through to the next level. You're lucky to be alive."

    "I wish I wasn't," said Fitz. "It would solve a few problems. God... I feel sick."

    "It's the anesthetic," said the Doctor. "Don't worry. It'll wear off."

    Fitz attempted to move. With the skin-traction on his leg and strapped to a fracture board, he failed. "Not as sore as last time."

    "You're full of pain-killers, and the bones have been set and immobilized. You're due for a long bedrest, but you won't feel much pain. They'll have you on electronic muscle stimulus so you won't even lose muscle tone. Six to eight weeks and you'll be as good as new. We can't take a chance on moving you yet."

    But Fitz had lapsed back into sleep.

    The Doctor stood up. "Work on your story. You're not very convincing," he said to Ariel, as he turned to leave.

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