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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 23:04 EDT



Camp Marmain, some thirty miles from GBS City: a small and choice piece of barb-wire fenced hell, otherwise known as a transit camp.

    The camp's commanding officer looked at Chip; blinked. "But, according the records, Private Connolly, you are dead."

    "Does that mean I get to go home, Sir?" Chip paused. "Or just that I can't collect my pay?"

    "I don't need your insolence, Connolly! Any more and I'll put you on a charge. I'm trying to work out what to do with you. The remainder of your unit has been disbanded and reassigned. You should have been reassigned with them, but you're listed as dead." The Colonel looked most affronted at this. "If you're not dead, then you've been AWOL for more than a week."

    "I was trapped behind enemy lines when the enemy advance came through, Sir. Myself and a handful of rats and bats were the only survivors in our bunker."

    The Colonel snorted. "A likely story. And you fought your way out, and then found your way back here."

    Chip could see where this was heading. So he thought he might as well do it properly. "Yes, Sir. That's right, Sir. But to get out we had to destroy the Magh' forcefield generator. So we did. We killed a couple of hundred thousand Maggots, rescued Ms. Virginia Shaw, liberated a scorpiary for the army, and here I am. I knew you'd be pleased to see me here at good ol' Camp Marmion again, Sir."

    The company clerk poured her coffee onto her keyboard. Chip nearly killed his first officer by giving him apoplexy. It was fascinating. To get a lobster to go that color you had to boil them.

    The colonel, it appeared, was too incoherent to talk properly. But he did have Private Chip Connolly dragged off to the stockade in record time.



    An hour later the company clerk came over to the cells. "Private, I need some details for the charge sheets. The computer system has locked up most of your data as you're still being captured as dead."

    "Best time to capture someone, when they're dead," said Chip cheerfully. He was still lost in that heady area of lightheartedness which comes out of not being dead, when you expected to be. Somehow, being listed as dead brought it all back.

    She was not amused. "The Colonel is already going to throw the book at you at the court-martial, Connolly. Don't make things worse for yourself."

    "Oh, good. I've always wanted a book," said Chip giggling. "I could use something to read in here." He went and sat down on the bunk, still laughing.

    "This isn't a laughing matter," she snapped. "Be afraid, Private Connolly. You're in dire shit!"

    Chip got up and walked over to the bars. "Listen, Corp. I've been in dire shit for a so long that I've kind of run out of 'being afraid.' I've survived nearly six months as a front-line soldier. I've seen Maggots kill most of my squad. My girlfriend bought it in that attack. We got buried alive and over-run. We dug ourselves out inside the frigging scorpiary. We spent days on the run from the Maggots. At one stage I had a choice of starving to death or being eaten by the rats. We decided that as we going to die there, we were gonna take a lot of maggots along with us. And in the end of it, me and a handful of crazy bats and drunken rats blew the crap out of the whole scorpiary. We took on ten million-to-one odds, on a junky old tractor without any brakes. And some of us died, Corp. But I didn't. Between us we cracked the forcefield and killed the maggot colony's brains. When the paratroopers got there, I was getting lucky with a really fantastic girl, who also happens to be rich and beautiful. My mates were getting drunk and having maggot barbeque. Major Van Klomp told us that we're an invaluable military asset, and a bunch of useless drunks."

    Chip rubbed the stubble on his chin. "So when I come back to my unit like a good little soldier... The Colonel craps me out for not having shaved and puts me in the brig, because I'm dead." He shook his head at the Corporal. "And you tell me it's no laughing matter. Well, if didn't laugh, I'd have to cry. And I'm too happy to be alive to cry."

    The colonel's clerk looked at Chip as if actually seeing him for the first time. "You're either completely crazy... or you're not joking." She turned to the Sergeant who was in charge of the cells. "What do you think, Ngui?"

    The sergeant scratched his chin. "Well. Like you say, he's either crazy or telling the truth. I'd say crazy—if it wasn't for the fact that it's been on the news last night. The scorpiary being captured. Shaw's daughter being rescued. Only they said it was some Special Services Commando that did it."

    Chip's shoulders shook. "Commandos, my ass. We told them we were just a bunch of grunts in the wrong place at the right time. The reporters wouldn't believe us. That's all there was to it, Sarge. The maggots didn't know how the hell to deal with us, once we were inside their nest. We got lucky, and we got out alive. And now I've come back."

    The both stared at him. Finally the corporal spoke. "But... did they just send you here without any travel instructions?" The colonel's clerk plainly lived by paperwork. It was obviously hard for her to accept that anything could be true without it.

    "Who's 'they,' to write it in the first place?" asked Chip, shrugging. "Lieutenant Rosetski isn't writing anything without an Ouija board. He died the first hour of the Magh assault. And the next officer I saw was Major Van Klomp. He was told by some major general at HQ to send Ginny Shaw back at once with an armed escort. Ginny told him that she wanted us for an escort. So he radioed the general and said he was sending her back with us."

    Chip had to grin at the memory. Van Klomp had described the rats and bats as "the toughest Commando group in the HAR army. Really special Special Services soldiers." Which, as Van Klomp had said afterwards, was a fine description so long as the major general didn't actually see them.



    "Major Van Klomp organized an escort back to line three," he continued, "and a driver and transport to take us to divisional headquarters. Weather was really down and the choppers couldn't fly."

    "But... didn't he get his clerk to cut you any orders?" demanded the colonel's clerk.

    Chip looked pityingly at her. She was a slight young woman with a pale face, and she walked with a pronounced limp. He would wager a guess that she was probably stationed in the camp because she was medically unfit for combat duty. That was hardly her fault, even if a lot of women would like to swap places with her. She obviously knew very little about front-line conditions. "Things were kind of confused, Corp. There were a lot of maggots still around, and not one hell of a lot of paper. We had an escort from the major with us back through to the vehicle. There was supposed to be an escort waiting there for us, but it got delayed, and we didn't wait."

    She thrust her head forward inquisitorially. "Then how did you get back here from divisional headquarters?"

    "I asked some brigadier... Charlesworth. Yeah, that was his name, where we should go now. He was kind of taken up with fawning over Ginny and was in a flap because somebody had locked him up in his own headquarters. You can't believe the chaos there. I thought the captured scorpiary was a mess, but that camp was more like a disturbed ant's nest than a camp. He said we should get to our units as soon as possible. I asked around and they told me that the remains of my unit were sent back to Camp Marmian. I tried the transport officer. He didn't know or care who some grubby Vat was, but he told me that I could go on next Vat redeployment trucks in a week or two, if I could find space. Or make my own plan. He said much the same but worse about the rats and bats. He was too busy trying to please explain why they'd co-operated with Major Fitzhugh and would I bugger off. So I did. I cadged a lift with one of the trucks transporting the captured Magh' stuff back to the University research unit. Got the driver to drop me at the turn-off and walked to the gates. Made the guard commander take me to the colonel and told him I was reporting for duty. He told me I needed a shave and threw me in the brig."

    The corporal looked at the sergeant. Looked at Chip. Then back at the sergeant.

    The sergeant reached for his keys. "Nobody could actually make up such a stupid story, Corporal. Nobody, but nobody, is quite that dumb. So he's probably telling the truth, you know."

    The corporal put her hands around her head. "What a mess. I'm sorry, Private."

    "What are you doing?" demanded Chip, as the sergeant began unlocking the cell.

    "Letting you out," said the sergeant tersely. "It's not procedure, but I'm damned if I'm going leave you in the cells for a minute longer. I was a front-line soldier myself, before I was invalided out, and this isn't right. We'll go and explain to the colonel now."

    Chip reached through the bars and caught his hand. "Oh no you don't, Sarge. I'm staying right here. I'm happy here." He grinned. "I'm dead. Dead people need lots of rest. You guys just leave it, and me, alone."

    "I think he is crazy," said the corporal, warily.

    "Nope, Corp. Well, not more than most of the front-line troops, hey Sarge," said Chip cheerfully. "But if I go out there, ten to one the bastards will have me doing drill. Or your colonel, who sounds like a real champion at handling things well, will post me back to the front. Now. I don't like drill. I sure as hell don't need to get back to the front in a hurry. Here I can sleep, and the Sarge'll see I get three squares a day. I'll probably even get a shower and a quiet mooch in the exercise yard. Carrying rocks and the other delights of Detention Barracks doesn't start until you've been court-martialed and sentenced, do they?"

    "Uh. No."

    "If you get me out of here, do you see your colonel giving me a week's pass?" asked Chip.

    "Uh." The corporal shook her head. "To be honest, no. The colonel will probably feel you made a fool of him, and he's a vindictive son-of-a-bitch."

    "Yeah. That's about what I figured," said Chip. "I also reckon I owe him the chance to make a proper fool of himself. So, have I actually done anything wrong? I mean, when they get to the court-martial can they actually do anything to me?"

    "You got witnesses for the brigadier giving you the order?" asked the sergeant.

    Chip started to giggle. "I got one better. The guys who were filming Ginny filmed that bit. One of them came and tried to interview me, afterwards. Thinking about it now, I reckon Charlesworth hadn't figured out that we were the bunch that had rescued her. He thought we were just part of the escort. He told me to tell my platoon sergeant to give me a demerit for my uniform and not having shaved. Got maybe fifty witnesses. About half of them civilians—shareholders, no less."

    "So long as we can find some of those people, it should be open and shut. You were given a legitimate order from the senior ranking officer, and you obeyed it."

    Chip shrugged. "Piece of cake. Tim Fuentes, INB. There were the rest of the bats and rats too. You should have seen that brigadier's face when Ginny said we must come along."

    "Well, rat testimony has been used in a few cases," said the sergeant. "So that's got precedent. And tracking down this INB guy should be easy."

    The corporal nodded, serious faced, just the edge of an unpracticed dimple in her cheek showing. "And you reported for duty to the colonel. He accused you of going AWOL..."

    "He's a prat. It should have been desertion under fire," interrupted the sergeant. "AWOL is for back here, out of the combat zone."

    "AWOL," continued the Corporal smoothly. "You told him exactly where you'd been. I heard every word. He decided to throw you in the brig." She smiled, transforming her face. "We'll get you a shave, shower, clean uniform and a defense attorney from the JAG's office. You're entitled to that, even for a Regimental Court Martial, which is what you're up for. You just tell your story with a nice straight face and you should actually get a public crow-eating, and, if you play your cards right you'll probably get some leave too. They owe you."

    "The Army owes you," said the sergeant, heavily. "But, speaking as someone who has been through the system, it doesn't usually pay, Corporal. It collects. Look, son. I still reckon we should go and talk to the colonel. But it's up to you. You do it the way you want to. You can stay in my cells just as long as you like. But anytime you change your mind I'll take you up to the colonel. Should take 'em a while to get to the court martial. They might even work out what is going on and come looking for you before that."

    Chip yawned. "They might. And it's fine if they do. But I reckon this lot couldn't find their own ass without both hands. And I haven't slept on a mattress for a long time," he said, longingly.

    The corporal looked at the inch-thick strip of grey foam. "Uh. Sergeant. Couldn't he get a better one?"

    Chip yawned again. "Don't bother, Sarge. It's not mud, it's not rocks, and it's probably going to stay dry. Sounds great to me."

    Chip heard them talk as they walked away, and he snuggled down on the mattress and pulled the thin grey blanket over him. Just snatches...

    "Combat veteran all right..."

    "Pictures in the newscast. I thought the face looked familiar..."

    "It's not right..."

    "Post traumatic stress..."

    "What he wants, Corporal."

    They weren't quite right. What he really wanted was Virginia. Well. Maybe he wanted to sleep first. He was too screwed up about the way she'd turned her back on him to feel up to handle the question of Ginny right now. But a veteran learns to sleep when he can. And where he can.

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