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Genie Out of the Vat: Section One

       Last updated: Thursday, December 23, 2004 03:27 EST



    A small plane rose slowly, her twin airscrews biting the thicker-than-earth air. The colony-mankind's brave leap into the future, had meant that they had to live in the past. Technology had to be self-sustaining without the inter-reliant industries of Earth. Some things had gone back a long way-like back to propeller driven aircraft.

    Conrad Fitzhugh looked out through the hole in the rear fuselage where the rear door had once been. There was smoke on the southern horizon, where the front lines lay. They'd taken Van Klomp's plane for a look. The alien invaders' scorpiaries had spread their red spirals, twinkling behind their forcefields, all the way to the Arafura Sea.

    Fitz pulled his gaze inward. He'd see the war front soon enough from a lot closer. He looked nostalgically at the battered little aircraft, and at his fellow skydivers. This would be the last jump for most of them. Bobby Van Klomp had finally gotten the go-ahead to form a paratroop unit. Collins and Hawkes were on a final pass from OCS before being posted to the front. Young Cunningham had just gotten his call-up papers. And Conrad had finally decided to join the next intake at OCS in three weeks time, despite Candice. He'd have to explain to her tonight. He'd already booked a private table at Chez Henri-Pierre.

    He tightened his harness. One of the best things about skydiving was that it stopped him thinking about her, at least for a while. Every man needs a rest from confusion.



    Confusion, smoke, dust and fear. And a dead twitching thing, ichor draining from the severed chelicerae to mingle with the blood in the muddy trench. Pseudochitin armor couldn't cover the 'scorps joints. And, once they'd learned to operate within the constraints of a personal slowshield, none of the Maggots, not even the 'scorps, could match rat speed. But there were always so many of them.

    Ariel twitched her whiskers, and fastidiously began to clean them. All the Maggots here were dead. So were the human troops.

    Another rat sauntered across the trench, pausing to rifle the dead Second Lieutenant's pockets. He shook his head glumly at the pickings. "I' faith, these whoreson new officers aren't any better than the last lot. Poorly provisioned. What's a rat to loot in such poverty?"

    "You could try looting a Maggot, Gobbo," said a plump little rat leaning against a sandbag stack, picking her teeth with a sliver of trench knife.

    Gobbo grunted. Shoved a few things into his pouch and tossed the rest. "Even thinner pickings, methinks, my little Pitti-Sing."

    The plump little rat considered Gobbo from under lowered lashes. Gently arched her long tail. "Of course, if it is less thin pickings thou art after, I wouldn't try a Maggot," she said archly.

    A rat peered out from a bunker. A particularly long-nosed rat with a rather villainous cast to one eye "Zounds! 'Tis all done then? I fought them off bravely."

    Ariel and the others snickered. "In every doughty deed, ha, ha! He always took the lead, ha ha!" she caroled. No sensible rat wanted to fight Maggots, but Dick Deadeye took discretion to the ridiculous.

    Deadeye drew himself up. "I was foremost in the fight!"

    Ariel snorted. "The first and foremost flight, ha, ha!" she said, showing teeth.

    Deadeye certainly wasn't about to ruin his reputation for staying out of trouble by rising to the bait from this particular rat-girl. Ariel might be smaller than most, but she made up for it with pure ferocity. He took in the scene instead. The dead Lieutenant, with his turned out pockets, the several dead human grunts, a dead scorp and the body-parts of several more of the aliens. "Methinks we'd better send a runner back to let them know we need human reinforcements."

    Rats had no problem with Deadeye being a coward. It was his being a brown-noser that was going to get him killed. "Art crazed?" snapped Ariel, irritably. "'Tis fully two hours to grog-ration. What need have we to alert them before 'tis needful? They'd make us work."

    Gobbo nodded, sauntered over to Pitti-Sing and leered down at her. "Methinks you can hang me up as a sign at a brothel, before I do that, eh wench?"

    Deadeye looked lecherously and rather hopelessly at the two rat-girls. "Well, then I must go myself."

    Gobbo yawned artistically. "Methinks the whoreson fancies a bit of time away from the front."

    "The swasher can take himself away from my front," said Pitti-Sing, trailing her tail along Gobbo's shoulders.

    "'Tis not an ill thought-of idea, mind," said Ariel, consideringly.

    Gobbo grinned toothily. "Ha. Ariel, I had not seen you flee a fight. Can it be that you've abandoned me to go with this swaggering knave? You saucy jade!"

    Ariel chuckled. "Pitti-sing, you're in for a grave disappointment with this swasher. He's all blow and no poignard. I'd like to stay and watch. But I might be able to buy some chocolate back there," she said, longingly. "The vatbrats sometimes have some. Give, Gobbo. The money you found in that top pocket."

    "'S mine!"

    "You got his hipflask, Gobbo," she said, closing on him with a bound. "You wouldn't want to fight with me then, would you?"

    "Hello. Methinks 'tis a threesome," said a new haughty voice. "I wouldn't hesitate to report this, unless I was insulted with a very considerable bribe."

    Ariel turned. A party of wary looking rats peered around the sandbagged corner. "T'would appear that rumors of your demise have been greatly exaggerated, Ariel," said the owner of the haughty voice, and an elevated snout, as he stepped jauntily out of cover.

    "Pooh-bah! Hasn't anyone killed you yet, you cozening rogue?" demanded Ariel, grinning.

    The rat shook his head. "No. Alack. But I am sure for suitable fee it can be arranged." He looked at the dead Lieutenant. "Methinks you'd better tuck his pockets back in," he said professionally. He gestured behind him with a stubby thumb. "They'll be here in few minutes. They don't make a fuss about us looting vatbrats, but it's the guardhouse and death for snaffling the wares of Shareholders. Didst get much?"



    The gleam of silver on the crisp white cloths, and the twinkle of crystal in the candle-light: This was George Bernard Shaw City's finest restaurant, the Chez Henri-Pierre. The crystal glasses were from old Earth. Rumor had it that Henri-Pierre had killed an indentured Vat scullion who had broken one. The astronomical distance the beautiful, fragile things had traveled was only matched by the prices of the food and the fine wines. The prices, of course, were not listed on the menu. If you had to ask you couldn't afford it. But Conrad had worked out by now that the price was related to the length of the dish's French name.

    It was also inversely proportional to the size of the portion. By the exquisite-but minuscule-arrangement on Candice's plate, it was going to cost Conrad the equivalent of an ordinary worker's annual salary. Well, no matter. Conrad was a Shareholder, even if his father wasn't old money. It wasn't as if he was some indentured Vat. And he'd be off to join the army soon. It wasn't going to be easy to break it to her. He hoped that the ring in his pocket would offset the news.

    Candice looked perfect in this setting, almost like some milk-white porcelain Meissen statuette, poised and with not a hair out of place. He cleared his throat uneasily. How should he do this?

    "Uh. Candy." As soon as he'd said it he knew it was a mistake. She hated to be called that. Van Klomp always did it, at the top of his voice. She didn't like Bobby Van Klomp. She'd done her level best to see that Conrad kept away from the big Dutchman. It was a difficult situation. He and Bobby had come down on one 'chute together. Had resultantly spent six weeks next to each other, in hospital, in traction. He owed an old friend loyalty. But Van Klomp had gone too far when he'd suggested that Candice might be seeing someone else.

    "Um. I've got to tell you something." He felt for the ring-box in his pocket.

    She looked down at her plate. Conrad noticed that she'd not eaten much of the complex stack of ginger-scented scallops and Tiger-prawns. "I've got something to tell you too, Conrad." She fiddled with something on her right hand. It was, Conrad noticed for the first time, a band of gold. On her third finger. She turned it around. It was a solitaire diamond. Tombstone size. A lot bigger than the stone on the ring in his own pocket. "I'm engaged to be married."

    Conrad stared at her, unbelievingly. Then at the ring. "Who...?" he croaked.

    "Talbot Cartup," she said coolly. "I'm sorry, Conrad. This is goodbye."

    Talbot Cartup. One of wealthiest men on HAR. An original settler, not, like Fitzhugh, the son of one. At least thirty years her senior. And recently widowed. Very recently.

    The bentwood chair and cerise satin cushion went flying. "How long has this going on for?" Conrad demanded, leaning over the table, apparently unrelated events suddenly coming together in his mind.

    She colored faintly. "That has absolutely nothing to do with you. Sit down and behave yourself. People are staring."

    "Let them stare. I want to know, damn you, Candice."

    "If you can't conduct yourself decently then I suggest you leave," she said icily. "There was no future for us anyway. They're going to raise the conscription age to twenty-six. You will be going into the army."

    He laughed humorlessly. "I was going to go anyway. And it's just as well. If I saw that fat creep Cartup. I'd probably kill him. You've been cheating on me, Candice. And, seeing as you'd like me to, I'm leaving."

    Blundering blindly through close-set tables, and pushing aside the maitre d' hotel, he headed for the night air and his car. It was a fine reproduction of a mid-twentieth century Aston-Martin. It was his pride and joy.

    It was also in the throes of being towed away. Parking over there had been a risk, but he'd been late, and reluctant to hand the keys of his darling to the doorman. Well. He could reclaim it from the pound in the morning. And it wasn't as if he'd been going anywhere right now, except to drive too fast. He set out, walking. Walking nowhere in particular, but going there as rapidly as possible. He walked past the skeletal remains of the huge slowship that had brought the settlers here. The bulk of the twenty-first century technical heart of the Colony remained here. Conrad did not. He walked on, past the security fence that surrounded the alien Korozhet's crippled FTL starship. Onwards without purpose or direction. Brooding. Furious-with himself and with her. Miserable.

    It was well after midnight when he realized that his wandering feet had taken him far from the suburbs of George Bernard Shaw City. Far from a taxi to take him home.

    And... Relatively close to the airfield, and the hangar holding Van Klomp's jump-plane. He knew from past experience that the hangar wouldn't be locked.

    Briefly he considered taking the little Fokker-Cessna up on a one-way flight. That would show her!

    It would also ruin Bobby Van Klomp. The burly instructor had a solitary Share, and not much else beside that aircraft. Conrad knew that Van Klomp was coming in, in the morning, to do the final clearing and storage arrangements. He could scrounge a lift home then.




    The clatter of the hangar doors woke him from an uncomfortable dream-chased sleep. And there, in the bright blue sunlight, stood Van Klomp, shaking his head at him. "You dumb bastard. They're bound to think of looking here soon. Where is your car?"

    "City pound. It was towed away from the no-parking zone outside Chez Henri-Pierre, where-"

    "Where you had a fight with that bimbo, told the whole restaurant you wanted to kill Talbot Cartup, and then stormed out." Van Klomp's face was creased with a wry grin. "And left Candy with a bill to settle, and her with not a dollar in her purse, never mind her taxi-fare."

    Fitz felt himself blush. "How do you know?"

    "The cops told me, Boeta. When they woke me up at three this morning, looking for you."

    "Looking for me at three in the morning? For not settling a restaurant bill?"

    Van Klomp gave a snort of laughter. "The way I heard it, there were a couple of tables full of crockery, food and glassware-oh, and a skinny little Maitre d' that got in your way too. But that's minor, comparatively."


    "Compared to being wanted for murder.".


    "Well, it is still attempted murder, at this stage. Talbot Cartup's not dead yet." Van Klomp's face was dead-pan. "But if he dies, which looks likely, you're for the organ-banks."

    Fitz swallowed. "And Candice! Is she all right?"

    Van Klomp shook his head. "You're a slow learner, Fitzy. She's the one who put the cops onto you. Said you tried to kill him."

    Fitz gaped. "I didn't have anything to do with it, Bobby. When I saw them towing my car away, I... I was so mad and miserable that I just kept walking. Next thing I realized it was early morning and I was near here. I thought I'd wait for you to come in and cadge a lift home."

    Van Klomp slapped him on the back, grinning again. "Oh, I didn't think you'd done it, Boeta. I could just see the headline: Martial arts, dangersport and fitness fanatic ties old fart wearing woman's underwear to bed, beats him, puts plastic bag over his head and throttles him. When the cop told me about it, I said he was crazy. But face it, it looks pretty bad for you, Fitzy. You yelled that you wanted to kill him in front of a whole lot of witnesses, besides the bimbo saying that you did it."


    Van Klomp nodded. "Swears it was you, looking for revenge. You locked her in the bathroom while you did the dirty deed. Did it like that to humiliate him and incriminate her. Brave girl broke her way out and called the cops." Van Klomp tugged his beard thoughtfully. "Bet your fingerprints are all over her apartment too."

    "But...! I was nowhere near there last night!"

    Van Klomp shrugged. "Prove it, Fitzy. Me, I think it was probably a sex-game that went wrong. She panicked. Needed a scapegoat."

    "Candy!" Fitz shook his head incredulously. "No. You must be wrong, Bobby. She'd never do anything like that. She's... she so... pure. Prim. There must be another explanation."

    Van Klomp took a deep breath. "Rule my brother told me once: Never criticize a man's mother or his girlfriend if you want to stay friends. So: Now I'm going to tell you something that I've avoided saying because I liked you, Fitz. I've known Candy Foster all her life. Her mother also had exactly one share. Lived three apartments down from me, on Clarges street. I bet she never told you that."

    She hadn't. Clarges street was just one step up from the Vat tenements. Fitz's parents were comfortably upper middle-class Shareholders. "No... but I'm sorry, Bobby. I don't see what that's got to do with it."

    "Nothing. Except Candy always planned to move up in the world. She didn't have brains or business sense. She did have a pretty face and a good body. She was damned good at being just what the men who were stepping stones on her way wanted. You wanted a pure little ice-maiden. You got one, kid. Candy's been around. You ask any of the boys on Clarges street what sort of ice-maiden she was."

    "I don't believe you, Van Klomp," said Fitz stiffly, knowing deep inside that he was making a fool of himself. "You're making her out to be a prostitute."

    "Oh no, she's not that. A hooker is at least fairly honest. And unclench those hands, Fitzy. I'm your mate, trying to help you, even if you don't believe me," the big man said gently.

    Fitz took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Van Klomp. You don't like her and you never have. Okay I admit, you were right about her seeing someone else. It's kind of obvious now, thinking back. This Talbot engagement didn't just spring out of nowhere. But I can't believe she'd..."

    The big man shrugged. "Suit yourself. Believe anything you please. But Talbot is in a coma. And you're going to take the fall for it, unless he comes round. Even then... he might decide to stick to her story." Van Klomp grinned ruefully. "I would."

    "But-surely I can explain. I'm innocent!"

    "Get this straight. It's Talbot Cartup we're talking about. The cops want to catch someone to satisfy the Cartup family. And they want someone in a hurry. And that someone, right now, is you. You'll be pieces of liver and lights in a nutrient bath within the next three days, if they find you. There are roadblocks all around town. I came through one on the way here." Van Klomp grinned evilly. "One thing on your side is they're still looking for the Aston-Martin. Someone's face is gonna be red. But it's only a matter of time before they look here too."

    "So you think I should run?"

    Van Klomp shook his head. "Nope. I think you should join the Army."

    He pointed out of the hanger door. "They've set up a camp just across the other side of the airfield. Ten minutes walk."

    "But... That's a Vat camp. I'm going to OCS."

    "The next OCS intake is in a few weeks time," said Van Klomp, grimly. "You're not going to live that long."

    "They'll find me there anyway. I'd rather hand myself over and face my trial. They haven't got the evidence to convict me."

    "Boeta. If they had to make that evidence they will. The Special Branch are good at that. They're hunting you hard. But if you walk across to that camp and join the queue... once you're inside, they won't find you. Just like they haven't found your car. And even if they do find you, as an army volunteer, they can't touch you."

    Van Klomp smiled beatifically. "Thanks to Special Gazette item 17 of 11/3/29, all civil legal matters are held in abeyance until the volunteer is demobilized at the end of hostilities. And service time will be considered to be in lieu of imprisonment and deducted from the sentence. As it happens, just last night I was talking to Mike Capra at the Pig and Swill. The law was introduced at the start of the war, to try and draw in more volunteers. Even though there is conscription now, it hasn't been repealed. Mike reckons it's a problem looking for a place to happen."

    Fitz stood up. "I'll join up," he said determinedly. "But I still want to clear my name. I don't want to take the blame for something I didn't even have the pleasure of doing."

    "First things first," said Van Klomp. "And first is to stay alive, Boeta. Now, I suggest you leave through the side door and take the long way around. There's a fair forest of bushes just beyond the south end of the runway. I've been trying to get the airfield authority to trim them." He patted Fitz on the shoulder awkwardly. "Good luck, Fitzy. Keep a low profile among the Vats. I'll be in touch, somehow."




    Fifteen minutes later, standing in the queue of miserable looking men at the gate of a barbed-wire enclosed camp, Fitz saw a police car drive slowly over the grass to Van Klomp's hanger. Then the clerk at the gate asked for his call-up papers.

    "I'm a volunteer."

    The man shook his head. "There's one born every minute. Name and ID number?"



    By that evening Fitz was beginning to think that maybe the Organ Banks hadn't been such a bad option after all. But he hadn't had much spare time to think about Candice, either.

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