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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, July 12, 2004 21:55 EDT



George Bernard Shaw city, HAR Institute of Technology, Genetic Bio-research Section, and latterly on the rooftops of the city.

    Darleth waved her scent tendrils at the array of substances on the plates. The trouble was... they brought so many at once. She hadn't been able to get through to them that the odors from the other foodstuffs made it so hard to decide what could possibly be safe. Besides, right now starvation made all smells too intense, almost nauseatingly so.

    Finally she decided that she had to try the least offensive one. It looked rather like a water-roach, but smelled slightly of iodine. She took a tentative bite.

    Wasn't quite sick. Swallowed. It was salty.

    Took a second bite.



    "It's eating!" Mari-Lou held her breath and clutched the lab-coat sleeve of her assistant, causing him a great deal of unnecessary worry about how to politely fend off your boss' advances.

    "Did you see those teeth!" he exclaimed. "God help you, if that thing bites you. It looks cuddly enough, but those teeth. Like little tridents!"

    Mari-Lou exhaled. "I should have thought of that. How stupid can anyone get? I wonder if I can examine the dentition properly without causing offence? But looking at it I was so sure it was arboreal!"

    "Huh?" Not for the first time, Mari-Lou’s assistant scrambled to catch up with her.

    Mari-Lou Evans smiled and tapped her own teeth. "Its teeth. They're designed to catch slippery things. They're the same sort of teeth piscivorous mammals have. Which would fit in with what it chose to eat."

    The intercom crackled. "Dr. Evans. We have a party of Korozhet here, insisting on seeing the alien. They say it's a Jampad. A Magh' ally and very dangerous. Better get out of there."

    "It doesn't seem very dangerous. Oh, hell. Get me Dr. Liepsich. And make it fast, if the Korozhet are already on their way here. We'll run interference."



    Liepsich's trousers were in grave danger of running interference themselves. They were a standing joke among the staff of HARIT, as the physicist's personal proof that gravity could be defied.

    Right now, not even the fact that he'd had to stop and haul them up was cause for laughter. All that remained of Mari-Lou Evans was too late for saving. Her assistant, Dr. Wei, was merely unconscious.

    The door to the room where the blue furred alien had been kept was splintered. And the room within was a smoking ruin.

    Sanjay Devi was already there when Liepsich arrived. He could see the same grief and fury in her expression that he felt himself. But there was something else, too, which bordered on quiet elation.

    “The cracks are spreading,” she murmured. “Finally.”

    He shivered a little. There had never been any doubt in his mind which of the three witches, in the end, was the oldest, wisest—and the most cold-bloodedly ruthless.

    “You’re a little scary,” he grumbled.

    Her thin smile had no humor at all in it. “Big sisters are always a little scary.”



    Darleth heard the alien intercom. Only one word made any sense. The gray head-furred one rushed out with her assistant, the door locking behind them.

    Something bad was coming, and Darleth wasn't planning to wait for it to get here. Even if she had to kill one of these aliens to escape... well, so be it. She was not going to fall into Korozhet hands again.

    Darleth was already heading along the skeletal girders above the buildings, moving as fast as she could on three arms, when the explosion came.

    Perhaps taking a handful of the alien food with her had not been logical. But she was beyond logic now. Beyond anything, really, except for blind flight.



    Darleth had eaten the alien food slowly, over a number of hours, waiting for ill effects. Then, had found fresh water to drink. That had been yesterday, and she had not died, been sick, or gotten caught.

    They were certainly looking for her. She'd seen patrols of soldiers on the street. One of them had shot at an animal in a tree. The animal had plainly been someone's prized possession, because the human had come out of a house and screamed at the soldier and hit him with a heavy metal object.

    Darleth stayed away from trees, after that. She was hidden, at the moment, on the roof of a partly ruined building. But she'd have to go out foraging sometime soon. Her stomach said that now that it had had food, even strange, salty, alien food, it wanted more. Darleth tasted the evening breeze. No hint of the alien food that hadn't killed her. Jampad sense of smell was superb, at the two molecules per million level. To Darleth there were entire stories written on the breeze.

    Another thing she did not smell was the naphthalene reek of Korozhet. That pleased her more than not smelling food.

    She went out into the darkness, swinging from roof to roof. There was no water near here, or she would have taken to that.

    At length she picked up a trace of the distinctive odor of the alien food.

    She moved stealthily towards it. The scent came from a well-lit building, with white pillars hung with some kind of leafy greenery, and oddly-blue tinted many-paned windows. Undoubtedly some kind of human eatery. She found her way up a building opposite and settled down to watch, hungrily, on an iron staircase on the outside of the building.

    Smelly vehicles were discharging patrons, and it appeared business was brisk. Darleth picked up a trace of Korozhet, too. Not as if they were there in the building themselves, but as if the patrons had been with some of the enemy recently.

    Eventually, Darleth became aware that she too was being watched. Black beady eyes were looking at her through the expanded metal landing above her.

    She knew those eyes. And recognized the smell, now that she was thinking about it.

    There was one thing about the soft-cyber chips that the Korozhet had sold humans so that they could uplift creatures to fight the Magh', that the Korozhet somehow forgot to mention: The default language is Korozhet. And obedience to orders in that language and bias towards it, is built into the programming. The Korozhet feared slave-revolts more than anything else... with good reason. They insured against it with the soft-cybers.

    Darleth did not see mere uplifted rats, therefore. She didn't even see hungry runaway deserters. She saw tools, that could be seized from her enemies and turned against them.

    "Come down here," she commanded, in a language that they could understand and would obey. It would be good to have something to talk to, even if she hadn't been planning on making them into her private army.



    Pooh-Bah was at the moment a rat in search of a meal. But he had been a number of other things, from Minister of Defense to Chancellor of the Exchequer, not to mention Groom of the Back Stairs. So he'd been a bit doubtful about the meal-qualities of the blue hairy thing, even before it spoke.

    Of course, the best way to experiment with meal-quality was to eat some, preferably after another rat. But dinner had just talked back—and in a language that Pooh-Bah understood, but had never heard before. Various parts of Pooh-Bah's multiple personalities recoiled in alarm. However, something else insisted that he obey. None of the personalities liked that much. But, looking at Gobbo, the other rat was obeying too. Cautiously, reluctantly, but going down.



    The creature was odd, Pooh-Bah thought. Blue fur was a little unusual except down at that club on Dellman street. And six limbs tended to go with delicacies like grasshopper or cockroach, which didn't usually have fur. This was also a little large. Not even the family-size roach was quite that big.

    "You will find you can speak this language," said Blue-fur. "Are you two soldiers in this human army?"

    "Not recently," said Gobbo warily.

    "Good. They are trying to kill me."

    "Well, I think they'd do that to us too. We are... people from vast acreages of sand." Pooh Bah was sure that wasn't quite what the word meant, but that was the best translation the soft-cyber could do.

    "I am wanting to get some food from that place." Blue-fur pointed to the restaurant across the street.

    "It's a dump," said Gobbo dismissively. "Doesn't even do curried tripe."

    The creature peered at them from under the blue-fur fringe. Pooh-Bah realized that the English words puzzled it. He filed the information in his mind under the Archbishop, a devious thinker, for future reference.

    "Still. I can smell a food-kind I can eat there,” said Blue-fur. "I am hungry. I have eaten only one handful in many days."

    Days! "Well, excuse us," said Gobbo, backing off. "'Tis needful for us to eat every four hours. So: we're off foraging now. Bye."

    Pooh-Bah realized that the soft-cyber had translated hours, a concept rats were rather vague about, into a measure of time he understood with precision. The more he dealt with this alien language, the less he liked it.

    "I need you to help me raid that place," said Blue-fur, pointing.

    "It's hard work," protested Gobbo. "It is quite rat-proof, too. There's places with better food and grog which are much easier to get into."

    "Food for you, maybe," said Blue-fur. "But I have only found one kind of local food I can tolerate yet. And I am wary of using my body to experiment with."



    Half an hour later, they were sitting in the rooftop nest the rats had assembled. Blue-fur, concluded Pooh-Bah, was a positive addition to burglary. It had thumbs—four of them, in fact, two better than humans—and that made burglary a lot simpler. It didn't want a share of the grog they'd stolen. A double bonus.

    "Are there many of you people from vast acreages of sand here in this city?" it asked.

    Gobbo yawned. He'd eaten, drunk and wanted to sleep. "Quite a few. Living is soft here. We came to see a human who owed us. Got lost. Been here ever since. We've cut out a nice piece of territory for ourselves. It's better than fighting in the front-line, although we don't get a grog-issue. We nearly went back to the army until we found we could steal it for ourselves."

    "I want to make a network of all of you in this town," said Blue-fur.

    "Why?" asked Gobbo.

    "Because something that wants us all dead or in slavery is here. I do not wish to be a slave."

    Pooh-Bah considered, and found that all of the people that he was agreed with that. He was a bit worried about Blue-fur's enslavement designs himself, but the creature seemed content to thieve beside them, rather than sending them out to do it. And he had to admit that the alien creature was good at it too. Better than humans, anyway.


Military Animal regrouping centers—Camp Marmian for rats and bats


    The collection of body hair and B.O. that was the cook's assistant at Microsceledia Military Animal Regrouping and Holding Center 4 hefted cardboard boxes out of the ten tonner. He then began hauling the boxes in a kitchen storeroom that was the kind of place even roaches tended to avoid. Of course, that could also have been because the rats ate them. Despite the name, the "rats" were primarily derived from an insectivorous genome.

    One of the boxes the cook’s assistant was carrying burped. Loud and long.

    He dropped the box, which split. It disgorged the remains of twenty kilos of pre-cooked curried tripe, third grade. And a very plump and irritated rat.

    "Malmsey-nosed whoremaster! What sort of welcome is this, to be flung about as if by some angry flood?" demanded Fal. "Have you no respect for the dead, man?"

    "Henry! There's a muckin' rat in the boxes!" squalled the cook's assistant.

    The cook and two more assistants arrived at a run. "The thieving bastards get in everywhere," said the cook. He slammed the metal-clad outer door.

    The next box popped open. "Some of us did think to sleep, perchance to dream of some rest," said Nym, irritably. "Canst not kill Fal quietly?"

    "What the hell are you doing in the food boxes?" demanded the cook. "What do you want here, eh?"

    "A cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber in it,” said Doll, sleepily.

    "Half of this box has been emptied out! You—you—rats!”

    "Tch. A beggarly account of empty boxes for returning heroes. Fie!" Loftily, Melene preened her tail.

    "Lowe, get Captain Clewes. We'll make an example of these food-stealing devils. Why the hell did I have to end up cooking here? I'm beginning to think even front-line soldiers have a better deal."

    "Ha," said Fat Fal rubbing his paunch. "Knowest nothing of the front, then."



    And so it was that the rats returned in triumph to their unit, and were promptly put in the cage. Punishment, except for the death sentence, required no more than the whim of the camp's commander. They got three weeks of confinement on basic dry rations for their crime.

    It was quite a good deal, Nym thought. In the front lines they'd get basic dry ration, and Maggots would try to kill you. Here they only got the basic dry ration.

    They had explained they'd been on the front and been told to come here. But then the rat-minders didn't really care where they had come from. Dealing with the rats was the lowest of all jobs in the human army, and tended to have the lowest caliber of humans.

    Still, Nym thought, after two days gossip to passers-by, they were doing rather well at fulfilling their promise to the bats. The better part of the rats on the front, transferring in and out of here, knew their story by now. And also had heard a story that the soft-cyber chip in their heads left them forced to obey something called "the Crotchets.” The rumor that "the Crotchets" were Korozhet was a separate one, also circulating. Sometimes the two met, with a bump.

    If there was one thing that rats didn't believe in, it was being guaranteed to be Number Two. In every rat's mind, he or she is Number One. From what Bronstein had said, bats felt that this meant that they'd have to try harder. The rats knew it simply meant that you'd have to do in Number One.



    Bronstein had to admit that when it came to a natural ability for ignoring the law, any one rat had the edge on all of batdom.

    If it had been left to her, or O'Neil or Eamon, they'd still have been getting the fly-around from various human officials, trying to get a ride back to their units. Instead the rats had taken things into their own paws—driven, admittedly, by the need for food. She would never have thought of helping herself to a ride back. To the rats, once the vehicle had been identified, the thought was as natural as a scamper and leap up to the ropes securing the canvas cover, while the driver was being signed out by the stores depot's gate-guard.

    The two Military Animal Regrouping Centers were close together, and it was simply a matter of flapping off the truck when the Bat Center came in sight. The rats had cheerfully assumed that there would be some horrendous penalty incurred by them for returning to Base, having failed in the human expectation of dying to defend humans. They were rather like Connolly, in that way. Bats lost in the tide of war did flutter into Bat-Base from time to time. It was accepted. Bats owed no loyalty to humans, at least as far as the bats could see, but had a vast amount of loyalty to the other bats. Bats might lose their units, but they did not desert. If rumor was to be believed, there were quite a few rat-deserters, living out lives of quiet banditry on their own. There was no bat equivalent.

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