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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Thirty Three

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 31, 2004 02:57 EDT



Offices, animal holding pens, HARIT Animal Breeding and Development section.

    By eleven o'clock of the next day, Lieutenant Mike Capra was beginning to appreciate the truth of what Van Klomp had said. He was beginning to envy Van Klomp on the assault courses. The only saving grace that he could see was that the prosecuting attorney was probably going to go mad and bite his own balls off after a few minutes of cross-examination.

    "Look," he said, patiently. "You've got to tell the truth. You know what will happen if you lie under oath?"

    The paunchy rat who called himself Falstaff scratched his long snout. "Methinks our side will win."

    Mike Capra put his head in his hands. "Whatever you do, don't say that to the judge. You're supposed to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, and not to point out that you've chosen sides in the case."

    "Tis said this law is the insane root that takes reason prisoner," said the rat, grumpily. "What is the point in this testimony if not to win?"

    "Bartholemew Boarpig!" said the one who called herself Doll Tearsheet. She had been investigating the office, as they spoke. "I think we should just spring Chip and go to fetch Ginny. There's no drink in this place."

    "And have you any vittles?" demanded a very large rat.

    "Er. No. Why?" asked Capra.

    The one who called himself "Nym" pointed. "The auncient Pistol hath started to gnaw upon your briefcase. We have not had food for an age. Some three hours and a half."

    Mike snatched the case away. "I should be done in another half an hour. You'll just have to wait."

    "I deduce that this is an antinomy," said the rat wearing spectacles. "Doc," he was known as. "Out of what we now know are the needs of rat nature, your demise will show its naturalness and its necessity."

    Mike Capra blinked. Seven years of training became as nothing. "What?"

    The smallest rat explained. "Methinks Pararattus means that if you don't feed us, we'll have to eat you. He is a philosopher. They speak like that in order to confuse their prey."

    The philosopher nodded. "Indeed, Melene. He must feed us, or become a synthesis of proteins and sugars. For we cannot hold back our bestial natures with this thin envelope of civility much longer, legal human. Or you will shortly be considering the matter a posteriori, as it were."

    "Fillup me with a three-man beetle!" said Pistol, eyeing him hungrily. "You mean that it is legal to eat him?"

    Belatedly it occurred to Mike that he'd read somewhere that the "rats" were really mostly shrews in their genetic endowment—and that shrews had phenomenal metabolic rates. Although these creatures were small, they were, after all, trained to kill Magh', who in turn killed humans with apparent ease, to judge by the casualty figures from the front.

    "Ah." He cleared his throat again. "Lawyers are poisonous. And they taste terrible. Jurisprudence taints the meat. Ask anyone," he said hastily, opening his briefcase and hauling out his lunch. Better to be hungry for lunch than to be lunch for the hungry. Wasn't there a story about the rats having been trapped in a bunker for a few days and having eaten everyone in it?

    As they devoured his tuna sandwich, he reflected that at least the other creatures couldn't be as bad.



    If anything, the bats were worse.

    "Would it be at all possible to obtain a wig for Connolly?" demanded the plump bat in a morbid tone, when asked if they could provide testimony on the deaths of any of those in the bunker with Connolly.

    "A wig? Look, there is no point in disguising him."

    "Oh, 'tis not for a disguise. It is for the song immortalisin' his unjust execution," said O'Niel. "Something like 'Charlie Connolly goes to die...tah tah tum tah-tum... and around the noose the golden ringlets clung.' I'm still workin' on it, but it sounds much better than 'black spiky hair' clung."

    "Look. Most of these charges are bereft of substance. Some of them we can get the judge to dismiss out of hand. Charge V, specification 1, for starters. In terms of Special Gazette item 17, that one is right out. With the witnesses I have and based on what I know so far, Connolly should get off. They're not going to hang him. The whole point of this exercise is justice."

    "Indade? Justice is unfit? In need o' exercise, is it?"

    "The entrenched exploiters will pervert the ends o' justice to send him to the gulags," said the biggest of the bats, fiddling with the straps of his pack. "So if you'll just be telling us where the imperialist swine are keeping our comrade, we can blow them all to smithereens."

    With a start Mike Capra realized that, unless he was much mistaken, the pack was full of bat-limpet mines. Those weren't supposed to be taken out of the operational area. The regulations on the matter were exceedingly strict, which... didn't seem to mean a damn thing to the bats, did it?

    He was still looking at the evidence of intended mayhem, when the third bat swatted her wing over the satchel. "Now, Eamon. You said you'd follow my lead in the strategy here. 'Tis merely his lunch, Lieutenant. Sauerkraut sandwiches, which I have told him not to bring out in public. You won't be needing those right now, Eamon. What we were wishful of knowing was whether you'd had any word from Ginny. Virginia Shaw, I believe you call her?"

    "You're Bronstein, right?" he asked. "Lance Corporal Connolly requested that I tell you that Virginia had asked how a bat called Phylla was doing."

    The bat thrust her fangy face at him. "What? We may be needing those sandwiches after all, Eamon. Something is wrong with Ginny. Talk, Lieutenant."

    Mike Capra realized with a start that he no longer thought of these creatures as some kind of recording device, or glorified parrots. If Shaw was on a par with these, despite what the law said, it wasn't rape. He was, however, feeling that he was not about to be pushed around by them for the second time that day.

    "Look," he said irritably. "You'd better give me those... sandwiches. I'll have them safely locked away. Between Lance-Corporal Connolly, those rats and you lot, you've all exhibited a total and flagrant disrespect for the law. Now, let me make this clear. You will conduct yourselves appropriately. You will stay inside the bounds of the law."

    His speech seemed to have had no effect at all. "We need to find a human called Van Klomp," said Bronstein. "He seems to have some brains in his head. No, Eamon. You can't rip his jugular open. The Lieutenant can't help being stupid. We agreed, remember? A common front, even with humans against the Crotchets, the evil traitorous spiny rogues."

    The big bat—and he was big and those fangs were long, white and very sharp—made a sarcastic sound, halfway between a snort and a raspberry. "It's a fool you're being, Michaela Bronstein! These officers are all these 'Shareholders'—exploiters, the lot of them—and they're in league with the Crotchets, damn their alien souls to hellfire. They're in traitorous league with them, I tell you, all except Ginny. And she is one of us. Now we will have to kill him."

    Mike Capra suddenly realized three things.

    First, that the big bat wasn't joking at all. If he'd been a rat, he might have been. With rats, it was hard to tell. But the bats—this one, especially—seemed a dead-earnest sort.

    Second, that the interview room at the university's old research facility was a long way from any assistance.

    Third, that the three animals in there were actually very capable of killing him. There was no braggadocio about it. No threats. They were just being matter-of-fact.

    He did some very rapid reassessment. He was in a profession where being able to talk and think fast had always gotten him out of trouble. Now he had a feeling he needed it as never before. He also had a belated understanding that he'd stumbled into something far bigger than just a court-case about one Vat. He wasn't too sure, just yet, where he stood. But staying alive to find out seemed a good first step.

    "Look," he said, raising his hands pacifically. "I can't go anywhere. And I think you've got the wrong end of the stick about several things. Bobby Van Klomp is an old friend of mine. I was going to ask him to keep those... sandwiches of yours." If he could get these lunatic creatures to Van Klomp, he would gladly make all of this his problem.

    "We'll listen. Briefly," said Bronstein, in a fashion that would have done any hanging judge proud.

    "Firstly, let me say I'll be very glad to take you to see Van Klomp. He's out on an assault training course right now. Secondly, I have got Lance-Corporal Connolly out of jail once already. Killing me... Killing anyone, will not help him. Thirdly, if I'm understanding you correctly, I think I've quite by accident found myself as the middle person between a number of people who should all be talking to each other. Do you know who Major Conrad Fitzhugh is?"

    "Is he not the fellow who was involved in the attack on the scorpiary we captured?" said O'Niel.

    "Yes. And despite that—or because of that, rather—he has been kangaroo-courted and sentenced to death. The case is under review and there will be a retrial, because the JAG is not an unfair organization and we don't take kindly to this abuse. " He raised a hand to forestall the interruption. "I am part of his defense team. He asked me to speak to Bobby Van Klomp because he believes that the aliens—who claim to be our friends—have betrayed us."

    The plump bat nodded. "'Tis right that he is, indade. We all witnessed the black-hearted spalpeen of a Crotchet betray us. The divvils are in league with the Magh'."

    "O'Niel. Will you be watching your mouth," said the big bat dangerously.

    "Och, the divvil fly away with your caution, Eamon. How far did you get with the Battybund, eh? I'll bet no further than I got with the Red Wings. Or Michaela got with her Battacus League. It's new allies we need. I'll have the throat out of this one, if he betrays us."

    He looked enquiringly at Lieutenant Capra. "You haven't a drink anywhere about you, do you? All this talking is dry business, which is why I normally leave it to these two gasbags."

    "I have not been near the sauerkraut for two weeks!" protested Eamon.

    Mike Capra could see a wedge between them to be extended here. But he was also, despite his reluctance to get involved, becoming curious. "Are we both referring to the same thing here? When you say 'Crotchet' do you mean..."

    "We mean that the evil devils have put a bias into the soft-cyber," interrupted Bronstein. "We cannot say or even think evil of the... the other aliens, whose name starts with a 'K.' They are good and wonderful and must be obeyed. But the Crotchets... they are wicked beyond even the despised humans. The Crotchets—as we call them and may thus think ill of them—have enslaved our very minds and wills. So. For that cause we'll stand wing to shoulder with humans. After that..."

    Mike Capra had a quick mind. And by now he'd put a number of pieces of several disparate puzzles into place—and found that all of them were beginning to interlock. He took a deep breath. "There is someone I think you need to talk to. You can talk to Van Klomp first, if you like. But I am sure he'd bring you to Liepsich. I know he was planning to talk him last night about your 'Crotchets.' Liepsich needs to know what you've just told me. He needs to know it as soon as possible. And I think I am beginning to see where your Lance-Corporal and Virginia Shaw fit into this. I thought he might be a valuable witness for the defense of Major Fitzhugh. I'm now beginning to wonder which is the more important case."

    He pointed to the telephone. "I want to call Dr. Liepsich. He's here at the University. He's humanity's expert on alien hardware. Will you trust me?"

    "Och. Why not?" said O'Niel. "Is it not he that Van Klomp said he'd be sendin' the stuff from the Broodheart chamber to, Bronstein?"

    "That was the name, yes. But if he calls someone else... I have no knowledge of these telephone-devices," she said, suspiciously.

    The big bat shrugged. "Be easy, Michaela. I'll rig a bat-mine on a hair-trigger to his legs. If he betrays us, well, as the rats would be putting it, the next bang he has will be his last one. And these humans attach near as much importance to their private parts as those lecherous rats."



    So a few minutes later Mike Capra was on the telephone.

    Sitting very still indeed.

    "I don't care. This is a matter of vital importance, to do with alien equipment. Yes. I'll hang on."

    He put his hand over the mouthpiece. "I must warn you. Dr. Liepsich is the colony's resident genius. Unfortunately, he was too busy learning everything else to ever manage to learn manners. He's supposed to be the rudest man on Harmony and Reason. I've used him for expert testimony a couple of times. He is the expert, but it is hardly worth it, usually. He insults the judges. That's not wise."

    "And now? What the hell are you wasting my time with now, you fleabag lawyer?" bellowed someone on the telephone. "Not another one of your moronic courts full of microcephalic idiots. I won't do it, Capra. I'm busy."

    There was only one effective way to deal with Liepsich. That was to catch his interest. You could do that by swapping insults with him, but very few people could manage that. Or you could offer him bait. "I've got information about Korozhet technology."

    There was a silence. "Little pitchers," said Liepsich in an entirely different voice. "And why should I care? Goodbye." The line went dead.

    "What happened there?" asked a curious Michaela.

    "Tis a fine grasp of the invective he has, " said O'Niel, admiringly.

    Mike steepled his fingers. "Unless I am much mistaken he said someone might be listening in. 'Little pitchers have big ears.' I think he'll come across here within ten minutes. It was an internal call and his secretary will tell him that. He'll find us. In the meanwhile, I think you need to tell me everything you can. You might as well start with when you were trapped in the bunker with Connolly."

    He'd only had five minutes worth of their misadventures before an out-of-breath Liepsich arrived. His first act was to set a pager on the table.

    "If that beeps we've got to run like hell," he panted. "It means the Korozhet are coming. I've got students on lookout duty. The Korozhet are monitoring communications, you idiot. Now what have you got for me?"

    "The soft-cyber units fitted into the rats and bats we use for most of our soldiers have an inbuilt bias in favor of the Korozhet."

    Liepsich raised his eyes to heaven. "Look, why don't you go and do some divorce cases and traffic violations, Capra? And leave the thinking to those who can. I've suspected that for eighteen months. We've known it for nearly six weeks. "

    Mike Capra felt his jaw fall open. The fact that it was mirrored by the bats did not make him feel any better.

    Eamon was the first to catch his jaw. "Indade," he said dangerously. "And you've no fear to coming into a belfry of Crotchet-controlled beasts."

    "According to my... friend, you should be unaware of it," said the scientist, hiking his jeans up. "Now, get up and let me sit down, Capra. I'm too old and fat for running around. This is actually interesting. The guys working on the source code say it should be impossible for rats or bats to be told. That the information triggers an if/not loop."

    Mike sat tight. "I can't get up for fear of blowing my balls off. And unlike you, I still have some use for them. I've got a bat-mine with a hair-trigger on my lap to ensure my good behavior. I hope they put one on yours too."

    The scientist sat on the table instead. The table groaned. "That's a remarkably good idea, Capra. A few of my lady-students would be in favor of making it a permanent arrangement for you. Now, tell me just how you implanted creatures have managed to circumvent some of the basic programming in your software?"

    "Indade. 'Tis by employing what Doc calls 'the natural sophistry of the English language.' We can think of them as 'Crotchets' who are evil. Crotchets are similar to, but not quite equal to the Korozhet who we know must always be good."

    "I'm glad the originator of your language downloads isn't around to hear that," said Liepsich dryly. "She's become quite overinflated enough with her own cleverness. So the fuzziness of the English language is the key, is it? Just the news a respectable empiricist needs to hear. The worthless poets proved right, in the end."

    "But there is also Doc who can speak of it directly. He uses paper."


    "Plato's forms. I wouldn't mind filling in some myself."

    A small smile cracked the scientist's visage. "And where is this 'Doc'—this unsung genius who has found a purpose for either paperwork or philosophy, both of which I had previously considered completely useless."

    "He's over in the rat section," said Mike Capra, almost standing up to go and fetch him before he remembered what was attached to him.

    "You'd better disconnect that thing," said the scientist, pointing to Capra's lap. "He has no concentration span, and he nearly forgot it and disturbed my concentration. I know we should see blowing his nuts off as evolution in action, but still. He's supposed to be one of the finest minds in the legal profession, which probably makes him almost good enough for Physics 101. That's a rare thing in the law. I suppose we should preserve it, more as a curiosity than anything else."

    "You're slipping, Dr. Liepsich. That could almost be a compliment," said Mike Capra.

    "It was," said the physicist. "Why don't one of you unwire him, one of you go and fetch this rat-philosopher, and the third one tell me just how you came to undo this programming? We've been struggling to work out how to do that in theory. Maybe we can get some closer clues, especially from the one and only experience to run directly counter to it." He picked up the phone. "I need one of my programmers to sit in. It'll make her day anyway, seeing lover-boy Capra like this, so don't be in too much of a hurry to undo that circuit."

    "There is another one who managed to override the Crotchet installed bias," said Bronstein. "She actually managed to refuse a direct order. A direct order spoken in Korozhet. We could not do that."

    "And is she around too?" asked Liepsich.

    "No," replied the bat. "We fear Virginia is in dire trouble. The message we have from her suggests she needs rescue."

    The scientist's eyes narrowed. "Virginia Shaw?"

    Bronstein nodded.

    "Leave that mine on his testicles," said Liepsich, irritably. "An explosion down there might stir his brains into activity. Nothing else would. How long have you been sitting on this group, Capra? Van Klomp said last night he'd arrange for them to come to me. The big Dutchman seemed to find it funny, as usual. You idiot! I've been wanting to get my hands on these for about two weeks."

    Mike Capra had the satisfaction of seeing his captors looking nearly as puzzled as he felt. And he could tell that the abrasive Liepsich had shifted to genuine irritation instead of conversational abuse. "Why?" he asked cautiously.

    "Because these are the nearest I have to first hand witnesses of the Magh's—or the Magh's borrowed technology—at work. The biologists, especially the animal behavior section and xenobiologists, are just about eating their own socks with eagerness. We need more insight into these... Crotchets, and the Magh'."

    "If you've known about this for six weeks and suspected it for so long—why have you not told the world?"

    "Because, Capra, we're a fraction less stupid than we look. We have a general public besotted with the Korozhet, we have an army reliant on them, we have not one but two armies of rats and bats who cannot help but be loyal to the... Crotchets, and we have a large, undoubtedly heavily armed ship full of enemies sitting right here in our midst. Right next to most of our unprotected key targets. We've lost one scientist already when the... Crotchets came to kill the blue-furred alien. We know they're monitoring our communications. We know that they're transmitting a narrow beam to someone or somewhere inside Magh' territory. Moving openly right now would be about the stupidest thing we could do."

    "Methinks that not all these humans are as slack-witted as we had thought," said Nym, from the windowsill. "You'll forgive us listening in, but we rats have no liking for surprises."

    "Nym!" said Bronstein. "Are you all there?"

    "No, just myself and my companion of the unbounded stomach, Falstaff. The rest hath gone a-foraging."

    Fal poked his nose around the corner. "Aye, and we fain wish to know why you keep such poor table. And what this is about Ginny?"

    Mike Capra had used the interruption to gather his scattered wits. "You knew Virginia Shaw had an implant?" he asked Dr. Liepsich.

    Liepsich shrugged. "We found out recently. Her behavior has some interesting corollaries. We had suspected that there might be more flexibility when an implant was inserted into creatures with a higher level of cerebral function. I'd like to do some research there too—but access has been explicitly denied."

    "She's been issued a subpoena," offered Capra. "She'll be at this case. The one that I am trying to interview these witnesses for."

    "I see. And when is this happening?"

    "Two days time. It has been set forward under major political pressure apparently. Ridiculously, I thought. I was going to open my arguments with an insistence on a postponement so that proper investigation could take place."

    Mike looked at his lap, at the rats and bats. "Now, I am of the opinion: the sooner the better."

    "Maybe we should leave that gadget attached to you," grunted Liepsich. "It seems to improve the blood circulation to your brain, anyway."

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