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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, July 16, 2004 00:46 EDT



INB head office, a rather run-down and light-industrial part of GBS City.

    Chip was intensely grateful that Nym wasn't with him. Chip's first experience of a sports car, albeit what the reporter referred to disparagingly as a "kit-car," was a delicious shock. He'd only been on a vat omnibus, or a troop-transport truck, or in the sealed-and-not-meant-to-carry-passengers back of Chez Henri-Pierre's van before. Oh, and at the wheel of the vineyard tractor that had taken them nearly all the way to the brood-heart.

    Chip hoped that this vehicle differed from that one in two important respects. Firstly, that it had brakes. Secondly, that it had a qualified driver.

    He was sure Nym wouldn't have noticed the comfortable seats. He was certain Nym would have sworn that the racing shift and small walnut steering wheel meant it was built for him to drive. They sped away from the court.

    "Phew!" exclaimed the reporter. "I thought someone would hook onto what I was getting away with. But they're all too busy mobbing Van Klomp. He's the flavor of the moment with HBC, although I hear there is some general at headquarters ready to murder him. No one has managed to get their hands on Fitzhugh yet, so Van Klomp is the best, so far."

    All of this was as confusing as fog to Chip. He knew, by now, that Fitzhugh was the intelligence major who had orchestrated the army's move into the scorpiary. Fitzhugh had apparently seen the explosions that Chip and his motley crew had created on satellite images. He'd put two and two together, and taken things into his own hands to take advantage of the situation. It was just as well he had, Chip supposed, or they'd have had to fight their way out again. "It's a beautiful car," he said.

    "She is a beaut, isn't she?" said the owner proudly. "Even if she's just a kit-car crib, the engine gives me 470 kilowatts at 5200 rpm. She's a twelve cylinder twin turbo."

    "Er. Fascinating."

    The driver grinned and looked at his passenger. Chip restrained himself from telling the guy to watch the road. After all, he'd once gotten the tractor to nearly thirty miles an hour, on a steep downhill. This guy could presumably drive. "Doesn't mean much to you, does it?"

    "Er. No. But I know a rat who would commit mayhem to listen to you, and kill to drive this thing."

    "A rat!" exclaimed Fuentes. "Drive? Those critters can't handle mechanical stuff, can they? Anyway, they're far too small."

    Chip found himself a bit stung on the rat's behalf. "Well, technically speaking, Nym did drive the tractor. And he adores mechanical things. He figures that he loves them, and would do anything for them, so they must love him and be prepared to do anything for him."

    "You make this animal sound as if he were almost human," said the driver with amusement. "Drove a tractor! The mind boggles."

    "Mister," said Chip, his hackles beginning to rise. Shareholder arrogance! "You've got to get one thing straight. As far as I'm concerned the rats and bats aren't animals. Not if you mean 'animals' like a side of pork. A side of pork doesn't think and reason and... and talk. I bet you've never spent ten minutes talking to your pork chop. Try it with a rat or a bat. They're... they're just like people."

    The reporter grinned. "I did an interview with a lady you'd get on well with. The Colony's Chief Scientist. Real little old battleaxe. She said we'd created two new intelligent species, and we'd have to make space in our society for them. It was on a late night nature slot. She kept quoting Shakespeare at me."

    "So do the rats," said Chip.

    "Might make a story," said the reporter, thoughtfully.

    Chip began to realize that this man saw the whole world as simply a place for news stories.



    The first stars were out when they turned into a parking-lot at a small, rather dingy downtown building. By that time of night, this part of town—mostly offices and light industry—was almost deserted except for the building's parking lot, which was close to being full.

    "Welcome to Independent News Broadcasting," said Fuentes grandiosely. He smiled wryly. "Bit of a dump, really. The area is going downhill fast. We've had to put a fence and guard on the car-park, because the cars were getting trashed at night."

    They drove up to the boom. "That's odd. He's supposed to be on the gate. Do you mind opening the boom for me?

    Chip got out, and walked over to the boom. As he got there, he tripped over someone in the dark.

    The guard was still breathing, at least. Well, he groaned.

    War-honed reflexes cut in. Chip looked for foes. And found two. Like all infantrymen, Chip had IR sensitive implanted lenses. The men lurking in the deeper darkness between the vehicles were less invisible than they'd hoped to be.

    "Mister Fuentes," said Chip evenly, not taking his eyes off the lurkers. "Drive off and use that phone to call the cops. Do it!"

    The reporter was unfortunately not a veteran. He said "What?" and then "Why?"

    "Go! Call the cops," snapped Chip.

    Fuentes reacted at last. He stalled the car. One of the two shadows stood up with a gun in his hand. "Don't think of starting it again," he said. "Just keep dead quiet and get out slowly." Behind him, the second man also stood up. He only had a pry-bar in his hand.

    "Help!" yelled the reporter.

    Things happened very fast then. There was a shot and the shattering of glass. Chip was already moving. Briefly. His slowshield froze for an instant, absorbing the bullet impact. A door and several windows were flung open. The two men were now running straight towards Chip.

    Chip Connolly didn't think, he just reacted. If you lived through your first week in the trenches you had to react fast. The man with the pry bar had overtaken his companion. He swung, viciously. Only Chip wasn't there. All that was in the way was Chip's Solingen, returned by Sergeant Ngui. You weren't supposed to take side-arms with you on pass—but Chip hadn't gone back to Camp after Ngui had returned it to him. This knife wasn't the trash they issued as a trench-knife to the infantry. It was stolen from Chip's old place of employment, the Chez Henri-Pierre. It was a monomolecular-edged chef's knife, a piece of late 21st century engineering from old Earth. Nothing produced on Harmony and Reason came anywhere near.

    It was a very, very, very sharp knife, in the hands of a combat veteran who had formerly been a Sous-chef. Not a combination to argue with, as the now screaming attacker found out the hard way. The pry-bar fell as he clutched an arm slashed to the bone from hand to shoulder.

    Leave a Maggot-warrior alive, and you are dead. The Scorps took no prisoners. Chip moved in for the kill, without any conscious thought.

    Fortunately, his victim wasn't a Magh'. The aliens didn't know what "run away" meant. This man did. He fled like an antelope, screaming at the top of his lungs.

    "You bastard!" yelled his companion, taking a pistol marksman's stance and firing again.

    The slowshield had been one of the two main "gifts" from the Korozhet, along with the soft-cyber implant. It had changed war from mass, long-range combat, to hand-to-hand fighting, which Magh' mostly did better than people. The slowshield Chip wore was standard issue to all troops. It was implanted just above the breastbone, and powered in the "reception state" by the wearer's own bioelectric field. It hardened, using the kinetic energy of any object coming into the passive exclusion zone that was moving faster than 22.8 miles per hour.

    That included bullets. A bullet is a low-mass, high-velocity item. It doesn't activate a slowshield for long. Not long enough for the horrified shooter to realize that he ought to give up trying to reload, and run too.

    Long enough for Chip to stop operating on automatic and think, which undoubtedly saved the gunman's life. It would have been awkward for Chip if the fellow hadn't been so terrified, as Chip had absolutely no idea how to take a prisoner. "Drop it," he said, holding the knife to the man's gizzard. "Drop the gun or I'll gut you like a herring."

    And then people bundling out of the building seized the gunman. In the distance a siren wailed.

    Chip turned and ran back to the little sports-car. Fuentes was still there, his face bloody, the windscreen shattered.

    The reporter blinked, and wiped at the blood on his forehead. He looked at it, unbelievingly. "My God! Where the hell was my camera-man?"

    There were already some cameramen spilling out of the building. It was a news-broadcasting studio, after all.

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