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Genie Out of the Vat: Section Two

       Last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 14:40 EST



    "Swing those arms! Left. Left. Left. Right, left. Keep those damned tails straight!" bellowed the officer.

    With distinct lack of enthusiasm, the rats complied. "Methinks this shogging new Lieutenant hath forgotten that this is not boot-camp," snarled one of the rats, indignantly.

    "Silence in the ranks!" snapped the Sergeant.

    The Lieutenant was determined to stamp his authority onto his new troops. They'd explained at OCS that an example was necessary. He'd make one. "You. You that was talking. What's your name, Private?"

    "Parts, Sah!" said Bardolph, loudly and untruthfully, to a chorus of sniggers.

    The new Lieutenant lacked both a sense of humor and common-sense. "Sergeant. Get that Rat's number. We'll see how funny it finds being on a charge."

    The human Sergeant was not a young shareholder fresh from OCS. He was a vat who'd stayed alive in the trenches for some months. His expression was more than just wary. "Sah. If I might advise, Sah?" he asked, uneasily, sotto voce.

    The owner of the shiny new pips did not choose to be advised. To be confident enough of your authority to listen to advice from experienced NCOs, was not something they'd taught this young man. "If I need your advice I'll ask for it, Sergeant."

    Even Deadeye raised his eyes to heaven. It was done in far more unison than the ragged marching.

    "Tonight there will be a full-kit inspection! I have never seen such a sloppy, shabby, gutless lot in my life. Things are going to change around here."

    "Whoreson Achitophel, he never will be missed," muttered Ariel, shaking her head.

    "Not even," said Pooh-Bah, in a quiet but nonetheless lofty voice, "by the lord of the backstairs passage, or by the master of deerhounds or the Solicitor, or even..."

    "Straighten those backs! I'll make you lot into soldiers if it kills me."

    "'Twill," said Ariel, under her breath. Elephant-shrews were superb killers. Even cybernetic uplift couldn't make them into soldiers.



    In a boot camp not far from hell...

    In fact the sign in the middle of the camp read "Hell, 3km back." Conrad Fitzhugh was being reborn. They say that the first time is the worst trauma most humans go through.

    It wasn't any better this time around. And Conrad Fitzhugh, born with a silver spoon in his mouth the first time, was discovering that going economy class was very different. You weren't wrapped in a pure wool receiving blanket, for starters.

    "It doesn't fit."

    "Oh, we'll call the tailor so you can have it made to measure," said the quartermaster's clerk sarcastically, tossing a pile of shirts and outsize underwear at him. "Who the hell do you think you are, Vatscum? A namby-pamby shareholder? Move along. On the double. Change. Dump those civ clothes in the hopper there. You won't wear them again."

    Fitz moved. His evening-wear had been slept in and walked in. But that was a Silviano jacket even if it was a little crumpled, and he loved those half-boots. He didn't intend to throw them away!

    "They say there are only two sizes in the army. Too big and two small," said the skinny man beside him, pulling on an overall that incontrovertibly proved his point. The little fellow was unusual in the crowded room. Like Fitz he wasn't eighteen.

    "Er. Isn't there anywhere private to change?" asked Fitz, looking in startlement at the young conscripts stripping off with unconcern all around him.

    The skinny man paused in the act of putting on his horn-rimmed glasses and chuckled. "You've been out of the dormitories a while."

    A sudden harsh realization came to Fitz. He was a Shareholder. His parents had come to HAR as frozen Shareholders. Everyone else here was probably-no, almost certainly-a Vat. Bred up in a cloning vat from a tissue scrap that had made the long journey from earth. Naturally, every human on HAR was entitled to become a Shareholder. The New Fabian Society wouldn't have it otherwise. Of course, the Company was entitled to recover the costs of cloning, rearing, feeding and educating the vat-kids before they could buy that share. After all, utopia didn't come for free. Existing Shareholders were entitled to some return on their investment, naturally. Certain privileges were of course reserved for Shareholders.

    He was almost certainly the only Shareholder-boot in this camp. He known that. He'd just suddenly become aware that pointing this out could be very bad for his health. He blinked, and began stripping.

    "Yes. I've become rather spoiled." He looked at the older man. Twenty-five, at least. He must have been one of the original Vats. Conrad Fitzhugh realized that he was going to need a role-model. Skinny looked friendly enough. But how to initiate a conversation? He'd never had much to do with Vats. They were servants, mostly.

    The little man took it out of his hands. He had obviously made his own assessment, and probably had a very sensible reason-Fitz would make two of him. "These kids make me feel ninety. They're likely to beat us fossils up. We should stick together." He stuck out a hand. "McTavish. Call me SmallMac." He grinned wryly. "Everyone does."

    Fitz took his hand. "Fitzhugh. Um. Call me Fitz."

    "So, what was your line on civvy street, Fitz?" asked SmallMac, attempting to cram the remaining issue gear into a kit-bag, a job requiring a two more hands than he had. Fitz held the mouth of it open for him. It gave him a moment to think. All Vats worked-they were in debt. Fitz had never worked a day in his life. Only those Shareholders with very few shares or a desire to work, did. It had been a longstanding source of acrimony between him and his father. "Um. I did a lot for the Parachute-club." It was not strictly a lie.

    "Oh. Van Klomp," said SmallMac, satisfied. He returned the favor with Fitz's kitbag. "One of the best of them. Good-o. Looking at your clothes and hair, I thought you might be one of their pretty boys."

    Fitz had no doubt who "them" were. And he wasn't surprised that his new acquaintance knew who Van Klomp was. It was a small colony for a loud voice.

    "And you?"

    SmallMac smiled wryly. "Oh, I played with horses. Kept me out of the army. But they decided I wasn't young enough any more. Besides being a bit slow."

    "Move, you lot! On the double."

    Carrying their kitbags they ran again to get their heads shaved. Then to have slowshields implanted. To get infrared lenses implanted. Then, still carrying the kitbags, straight to drill.

    Fitz had gone into this strong and fit. He'd heard about boot camp-although he was sure that OCS candidates did not have nineteen year-old Vat sadists as instructors. He'd vaguely thought that the suffering associated with boot-camp would be for other people. Less fit people. His aching body was beginning to realize that the purpose of exercise here was twofold. As a secondary thing, it was to get you into condition. Principally, it was to break you. No kind of fitness is enough for that. He was as exhausted as SmallMac by the end of it.

    He'd also come to realize he'd been wrong about the wiry little man. SmallMac, while lacking in upper body musculature, had incredibly strong legs and fantastic balance. He'd been a horse-breaker for a large riding academy-quietly excused military duty because of his employer's connections. Unfortunately he'd had a falling out with his boss. So here he was, carrying a pole, at a jog.

    "Are they trying to kill us?" panted the horse-breaker.

    "No. Well, not quite. One step short of it."

    "But why?" asked SmallMac. "I thought they wanted soldiers. They'll end up with wrecks."

    "My Sensei explained it to me," said Fitz. "Most humans aren't natural killers. You can make them into soldiers, though. Humans will fight bravely, using the skills you train into them. You can either bring them up from the cradle to do this, in which case you have Samurai. Or you can make soldiers in six weeks. They won't be anything like as good as Samurai, but it is quicker. But to do that they have to get you into a state of physical and mental exhaustion, in which old habits are forgotten. The soldier doesn't think any more. He just has to obey. Obey unconditionally."

    "Hmm. A bit like breaking horses. Well, not my way. But one of the ways. I see the advantages," panted SmallMac, "to the army anyway, of getting conscripts young and fresh out of Vat-school. They're pretty blank anyway, and used to obeying orders. It's a lot harder for them-and us, dealing with old fossils."

    "Yep. We're foolish enough to question things and to think for ourselves."

    "Speak for yourself, Fitz. I'm too tired to."

    "That's the whole idea. Come on. We've got to run again."



    "This is your Bangstick." The instructor held up the short-bladed assegai. "This is your new wife. You will sleep with it. You will run with it. You will eat with it in one hand. You will clean it. You will love it. You will treasure it. God help you if I find you without it, because he is the only one who may be able to."

    Fitz looked at the issue weapon. Three feet long with a foot long blade and a cutout into which a shotgun cartridge was inserted. Personal shields, which stopped anything moving faster than 22.8 mph, made projectile weapons useless. So: you had a short little spear, a trench knife-which, as a connoisseur of knives, he was almost ashamed to touch, and a funny little ice-pick thing. Technological advances seemed to have sent weaponry back to the iron-age.

    The next three days were a blur of the worst that life had ever offered Fitz. Aside from the lack of sleep and the sheer physical grind, he'd never even cleaned his own boots before. Or made a bed.

    He learned. But not fast enough.



    The Corporal picked up the corner of the bed with its display of laboriously polished, ironed, starched and folded items and tipped it onto the floor. Fitz, standing to attention at the foot of the bed, couldn't see what was happening. He could hear it, though.

    The young Corporal came and stood in front of Fitz, and lifted his chin with one finger. He looked at the name stenciled on the overall. "This is a sty. And that makes the person living in it a pig, Private Fitzhugh. A filthy fucking pig. What are you?"


    "You're a slow learner, Private. I'll ask you one more time before your entire squad does two hours of bangstick drill in full-kit. What are you?"

    "I'm a pig, Corporal. A filthy fucking pig," said Fitz. And you are two seconds from being dead, you snotty vat-shit, he thought.

    "Right," said the Corporal with a nasty little smile. "Your squad mates can sort out the pig in their midst. There'll be another inspection of this tent in one hour. I expect this pigsty to have become a decently starched bed by then. Otherwise it's full-pack drill for all of you."

    He walked out.

    "You stupid bastard!" yelled Ewen, the self-elected squad tyrant. "Can't you make a bed properly? Another fucking inspection. I've got a good mind to-"

    SmallMac interrupted. "He saved us all a couple of hours full-kit drill, Marc. Come on, we've got an hour. We'd better all get stuck in."

    The stolid vat-kid from the next bed, who had been scathing about Fitz's ability to polish boots, nodded. "I reckon. Come on, Marc. You do the best hospital-corners in the company. I've got some spray starch. We're all for it otherwise. We can beat the Oink up later."

    Marc Ewen tugged his jaw. "I suppose so. Come on, Oink. Move it up. Drop us in it again and you're for it."

    The beating got delayed by a session of P.T. and a five kilometer run. In the manner of these things, it kept being delayed until it was forgotten.



    The slowshields had dispensed with small-arms in this war. Both sides still used heavy artillery, however. It could destroy defense-works, soften up or even bury the enemy. And the pounding could drive anyone mad.

    The rats knew by now that when it stopped, the legion of varied creatures that made up Magh' infantry would mount an assault. Sometimes they came surging over no-man's land like a tide. Sometimes they came pouring out of burrows like lava.

    But they always came, if the pause in the bombardment was more than momentary. From the minute the heavy shells started to fall, the troops in the trenches knew the attack was coming. The sector had been quiet for some weeks and Lieutenant Lowe thought that he had at last begun to instill some discipline in these unruly rats.

    The shells had fallen thick and fast for the last six hours. The HAR gunners tried to give as good as they got, but the humans simply couldn't match the range, accuracy or sheer volume of fire that the insect-like Magh' did. The colony had turned all their spare manufacturing capacity into producing food for the guns... but the Magh' capacity appeared to grow, along with their scorpiaries. The original invaders had set up five of the vast odd flattened termite-heaps, each one miles in diameter. One scorpiary for each of the vast ships. But the creatures were obviously reproducing a lot faster than their human opponents.

    Then the guns had fallen silent.

    "Where do you think you're going? Come on, form up. A proper military formation, now. The Magh' are coming," said the Lieutenant, his voice cracking.

    Ariel leapt acrobatically onto his right shoulder. And Gobbo to the other. "If what, you shogging whoreson?" asked Gobbo, twitching his whiskers.

    The Lieutenant nearly fell over backwards. "Get off me! Get to your posts!" He pawed at the two rats. "Argh, let go!"

    Gobbo's long red tipped fangs had closed through his thumb. Ariel was even more direct. She had her teeth at his throat.

    Pooh-Bah looked up at the Lieutenant, who was now standing very, very still. The rat said, pompously. "And secrets of state, I will sell for a very reasonable rate: This is one that never will be missed."

    Ariel pulled her fangs away from his throat. "Methinks you must choose, Bezonian. You can run and be shot for desertion. Or we'll let the Maggots kill you. And if they fail we shall deal with you. The Maggots will take the blame."

    "I...I'll have you all court-martialed and shot-eek. Magh'!" he shrieked, as the varied white grub-shapes poured over the top of the trench.



    The Lieutenant's flight lasted less than thirty yards before one of the Magh' caught up with him.

    "Help! Help me!" he yelled desperately.

    Gobbo shook his head as the venomous barbed tail stabbed through the man's uniform. "Help me, if you please, Lieutenant."

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