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Genie Out of the Vat: Section Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 01:53 EST



    "Oink! I mean, Lieutenant," said Ewen, the big private grinning all over his ugly face. But, also, saluting earnestly.

    "At ease," said the newcomer to Ariel's chief supplier. "I feel uncomfortable enough with this birdshit on my shoulders without having to run into my old squad. What are you doing here, Ewen? I thought you'd been posted to the artillery."

    The big private shrugged. "I got caught running a black-market trade with the rats. When it got to the Court-Martial they couldn't quite pin it on me. So I got posted here to 'Fort Despair'. What did you do wrong?"

    "Other than graduate from the OCS course, nothing I can think of. Why?"

    Ewen shook his head. "You always were a bit slow-Sir-even when it came to making a bed." The private grinned broadly at the memory. "This is 'Fort Despair.' Where they send the malcontents and trouble-makers. It's a hot sector. The Maggots are pushing forward fast and hard. The Maggots are supposed to do the job for them without having to go through all the hassle of finding evidence for a Court-Martial." The Private laughed. "We read all about your little court-case, Oi... Lieutenant."

    "We'll have to keep it 'Lieutenant,' Private. Too damn difficult otherwise."

    The big man smiled. "I reckon I won't have any trouble taking orders from you. Sir."



    "This is Lieutenant Fitzhugh. He is the new OC for this sector," said the Sergeant.

    The rats seemed vastly disinterested. The humans-and they were a rough-looking lot-looked as if they were already planning to desert or kill him.

    Fitz looked speculatively at them, without saying a word, until they began to get uncomfortable. Then he sighed. "Right. Listen up all of you. I gather you are all here to save the army the trouble of killing you legally." There was low-throated grumble. "It probably hasn't occurred to you that they'd give you an officer that they feel the same way about."

    The grumble was silenced as they digested this one. Fitz ground his fist into his palm. "I'm planning on pissing on their fireworks, soldiers. I'm here because I got up the noses of certain powerful shareholders. Private Ewen here will fill you in on all the gory details. For a fee, I'm sure. But to cut a long story short, I was a boot with the conscripts. I know every 'stute trick you lot can pull. And they will not happen. Is this clear?"

    There were a few mutters. "On the other hand, I am not going to waste your time with petty crap. There will be weapons drills, come hell, high water or shelling. Your bang-sticks will be sharp and ready. Hygiene will be of the highest standard we can manage out here. God help anyone I find crapping in their foxhole. For the rest, I'm really not interested. When, if, we get out of here, you'll worry about polished boots and belt buckles. Until then, don't waste your time or mine." There was a muted cheer. He hushed it with a wave. "I'll want to talk-individually, to all of you, especially the combat vets. I've no intention of obliging anyone by dying easily. I want that attitude from all of you. Dismissed. Back to your posts."

    There was a silence. And then Ewen began clapping... It caught on.

    Fitz waved it down after a minute. "Enough. We can see if you still want to clap in a week's time. To your posts."



    Fitz leaned against the dugout wall. His father had given him two items on that last pass. "Take this tin of boiled candy. The candy is new. The tin isn't. It's been through four Earth Wars with various Fitzhughs." The tin was a thin, flat one. The paint had long since worn off. But there was a deep gouge right across it. "Tradition has it that you will keep it in your left breast pocket."

    The other thing he'd given him was a piece of advice: "Forget what they told you in OCS. When you get to your unit, talk to your NCOs. Let them lead you around quietly until you know enough not to make a fool of yourself."

    "So tell me about the rats, Sarge," said Fitz to Rat-corps Sergeant. "Before I make a fool of myself."

    The Sergeant permitted himself a hint of a smile. "Bit different from our last Lootie, Sir. He knew it all when he got to us. They told him at OCS how to deal with them."

    Fitz raised one eyebrow. "Sergeant. They also told me how to deal with vat-conscripts. Seeing as I've been one of those, and I know how they messed up there... I thought I might try asking one of the people who really run things."

    Now the Sergeant was grinning openly. "Ewen said you were a 'stute one. Well, Sir, there is a whole set of different rules for dealing with them. They've got no morals at all, for starters. And they speak sort of English, but they don't think like we do. They take things very literally, and they still think like rats-you know, food, sex and strong drink are the only important things in the world, and devil take tomorrow and the hindmost."

    "Ah!" said Fitz with a smile. "Like most of my boot-camp vat companions."

    "Bit like, Sir. But the difference is they don't seem to get concepts like respect for rank or a uniform. You earn respect personally. They don't have much loyalty, not even to each other. You can force them to do things, but the minute your back's turned they won't do them. The honest truth is it is easier to buy 'em than to try and do it any other way."

    He looked warily at his new C.O. "Er. I've heard, Sir, all the human rat-corps NCOs who survive, crook the mortality records so they've got some extra grog on hand."

    Fitz didn't turn a hair. "Hmm. I trust you will continue to do so. And what else do they fancy?"

    The Sergeant was getting to like his new Lieutenant. "Well, drink's best, Sir," he said with a grin, "but you'll find lads like Ewen run a good black-market in chocolate, lighters, knickknacks, fancy goods. They find tails the sexiest part of the body so they like to ornament them."

    "And where do they get the money for all this?" asked Fitz. "I was under the impression they weren't paid."

    "Ah," said the Sergeant, giving him the sort of look a proud teacher might give a star pupil. "There you have it, Sir. The rat's chief vice is looting. If the maggots had loot, we wouldn't be able to hold them back."



    The rats were lounging in the OP, discussing the curious behavior of the humans. "Methinks he is popular enough with them. They clapped."

    "You mean he is pronging yon Linda. Methinks I have heard of that. They call it Vat-shagging," said Gobbo, knowledgeably.

    Ariel stared at him in puzzlement. "Art mad? What sayest thou?"

    "Well, he hath got the clap," said Gobbo. "Ewen said he was sure he had it from her."

    "Not that sort of clap. The clapping you get for being popular."

    "Twas my thought you could not my kind without being popular," said Gobbo earnestly. " His ears twitched. "Hist. He comes."

    The rats were earnestly doing what they were supposed to when Fitz arrived. None of them leapt to attention. "As you were," said Fitz, dryly.

    They went back to their lounging, which hadn't been quite what he'd meant. That was what the sergeant had meant by "take things very literally". Well, he could work against them, or work with them...

    He sat down, and hauled out Van Klomp's parting gift. A hip-flask full of HAR's best yet attempt at a single malt. It was a reasonable exchange for the gift of an Aston-Martin replica. "Does anyone here want a drink?"

    One rat-smaller, therefore a female, at a guess-with a rakish tilt to her tail and a particularly rich chocolate color to her fur, was quickest. She snatched the hip-flask and leapt to a niche in the wall while the other were still gaping. "'Tis mine!" she squealed triumphantly.

    "'Tis not right, Ariel. That's not what the whoreson said!" protested another of the rats.

    Fitz saw that a mighty fight was brewing. So he neatly snagged the hipflask back. It came with a clutching rat. "All of us." He stared at the rat who was still clinging to the hipflask, but whose teeth were now bared viciously. "And I will personally bite the tail right off any rat who tries to hog it all. Which would be a shame as yours is one of the sexiest I've ever seen."

    To the sound of ratty chuckles and a couple of very credible wolf-whistles, she let go. And winked salaciously at him. Then she sniffed. "You've got chocolate," she said, suddenly fiercely intent.

    "Indeed. And we'll discuss my parting with some in a few minutes."

    A pompous looking rat strutted forward, a cup made out of a bangstick cartridge outstretched. He motioned at the hip-flask. "For a suitable insult, I, as Minister for Interior Affairs, will tell you her weaknesses. Although, as Minister for Defense and Lord High Archbishop, I will say Ariel's tail is not without risks."

    Ariel, remaining perfectly confidently standing on Fitz's knee, her eye fixed on his breast pocket, said, "Shut up, Pooh-Bah."

    He'd placed the names now. Ariel-the sprite in Shakespeare's Tempest. Pooh-Bah from The Mikado. The names were an affectation he'd heard about. A side-effect of the language download into their Korozhet-built soft-cyber units. As the soft-cyber unit selected the nearest approximate meaning to what the user meant, the name would probably reflect the nature of the beast. "Let's start with names."

    "Bardolph." "Gobbo." "Pitti-sing." "Trinculo." "Caliban." "Poo-Bah-for a reasonable fee." "Hymen." That one arched her tail provocatively at him.

    "Paws off, bawd. I found him first," said Ariel.

    No heroes. No kings. Rogues and lechers, in their own self-image, by the sounds of it. Well, he'd have to work with the clay he had.

    "Get some mugs." He gestured with the hipflask. There was a scamper and a scattering. Except for Ariel. She merely unscrewed the silver cup off his flask, and grinned rattily at him. "Methinks I'll stay put, 'til I have that chocolate."

    He shrugged. "I'll drink out of the flask."

    "I should have thought of offering to do that," she said, as he doled out liquor.

    "You snooze, you lose," he said cheerfully. "Now, to business. I've decided to pay a bounty on maggot chelicerae. For every left chelicerae you have for me after the next assault, I'll pay one HAR cent-multiplied by the number of live troops I have under my command. At the moment I have some two hundred rats and sixty men, four NCOs and myself. Work that out in booze or bars of chocolate."

    The rats began frantically counting on paws and toes and tails. After a while Ariel said. "'tis no use. Help us with the mathematics. Our base eleven doth make calculation much labor."

    "How many maggots can you kill in one assault?"

    The rats blinked at him. "As many as is needful. As many as doth threaten us. Sometimes there are too many," said Ariel. "Then we run away."

    "Call it ten each. At that rate-if everyone survives, you rats will get $26.50 each. Of course it gets less if anyone dies."

    "Methinks I have found more looting in a Lieutenant's pocket," said Trinculo.

    "Ah." Fitz was unsurprised by the admission. "But then he's dead, and there is no more. And that's one Lieutenant among two hundred. Your chances are not good. This way... you're onto a sure thing. Of course I'll have to put a ceiling onto it, or I'll go broke. Say $50 dollars a month. That's what the army gives conscripted privates."

    Ariel tapped the side of the hipflask suggestively. "I'm in. Now this rotgut sack you have in here: 'tis remarkable easy to drink compared to issue grog, even if it doesn't have a proper bite to it. How about another, then?"

    "Well, for those who are in, naturally," said Fitz, innocently. He could afford $10 000 a month for a private army, he thought as he poured. Candy's apartment had cost him about that-and he wasn't having to pay for that any more. He'd cancelled the lease.

    Ariel drank the whiskey slowly, speculatively, unlike most of the rats who were into chug-and-splutter. "Methinks I shall nursemaid this one," she announced. "For if he dies, we get naught."

    She looked curiously at him. "Besides, I want to inspect his naked weapon and see if he's adequate for a girl like me." She wrinkled her whiskers and revealed that the stories of his exploits had reached the rats. "This 'woman's underwear.' Explain?"

    Fitz was still blushing at the idea that a rat might consider his wedding tackle too small. Or interesting. The Sergeant had been right about no morals... or inhibitions! "Ah. Underclothes. Um. Panties and brassieres. Suspender belts."

    "Doth speak riddles. Small pants? Things for grilling meat?"

    "Women... um, men too, wear a second pair of pants under their clothes. To cover their private parts."

    The rats would obviously have found astrophysics more comprehensible.



    Fitz discovered that Ariel took "Nursemaid" to mean she was going to take up residence in his magazine pouch, or on his shoulder. But the day wasn't out before he discovered that this casual invasion of his privacy was worthwhile.



    The nightmare creatures struck just at dusk. None of the pictures or lectures had prepared Fitz for the reality. Or for the speed and ferocity of it all. They'd said at OCS that up to seventy percent of human soldiers never survived the first major assault. Now Fitz understood why. And he also knew that if it wasn't for his pocket assassin-cum-bodyguard, he'd have been dead five times over in that assault. Rats were everywhere. Blur-fast lethal killers with a terrifyingly casual attitude to their killing. And Fitz discovered that "ten each" was a gross underestimate of their potential and the Magh's sheer numbers.



    "Sector headquarters on the blower, Lieutenant."

    "Hell's teeth. Have you told them we're under attack?!"

    "They know, Lieutenant. The line on either side of us folded. They're sending reinforcements into those trenches, hoping to hold line two. They thought we-being in the center of the attack-must all be dead. They want us to retreat."

    "Tell 'em we're still holding. We don't want to be outflanked though." Fitz turned one of the NCOs. "What are our losses like, Corporal?"

    The man was grinning like a dervish, despite the blood soaking his shirt from a gash on his chest. "Slight, Sir. Five men I know of. Some wounded, but there are no more Maggots coming over. We're fighting them coming along the trenches from the sectors next door now."

    "Are we going to hold them, Corporal?"

    The man nodded. "The rats have gone kill-crazy, Lieutenant. I've never seen anything like it. The maggots usually send a lot of scorps. This is all light fast stuff. Easy to kill. Those damned rats would have killed twice as many if they didn't stop to take a claw off each one. Some kind of new rat-craze."

    "Tell 'em. Hell, no. I'd better tell them." Fitz ran for the field-telephone bunker.

    "Lieutenant Fitzhugh here."

    "Captain Dewalt here. Colonel's orders. Sound a retreat for any survivors, Lieutenant," said the voice on the other end.

    "We've held them off, Sir. And there are no more Magh' coming. We're mopping up."

    His words didn't appear to have registered with the Captain. "We'll have stretcher teams in the second trench line. Leave the rats...

    "We've held them off, Sir," repeated Fitz, louder now. "No need to retreat."

    There was a stunned silence. "What! That's ridiculous... I'd better confer with the Colonel. Stay near the field telephone."

    Fitz didn't. Instead he left-at a run-to see how the fight with the Magh' from the next-door sector was doing.

    The answer was: not well. The rats were there... but several of them were sitting down, leaving the fight to the human troops. And those that were still fighting were going to die. It was not that the Magh' were overwhelming. It was just that the rats seemed to be behaving like clockwork toys... in need of rewinding. "What's wrong?" yelled Fitz to Ariel as he ran forward to the fray.

    "Methinks they're faint with hunger."

    Of course! He'd been told the Elephant Shrew genes gave the rats phenomenal appetites. They must have fast metabolisms and little stamina. "Feed the rats! Give them any food you've got, especially sugar or we're dead!"

    He hauled out the tin of sucking candy and flung it at a sergeant, before running into the fight. "Get someone across the west side and tell them," he yelled, bangstick stabbing through pseudochitin.

    He had no idea how fast the rats recovered. He was relieved to discover that it was really quick, and that the average grunt-when faced with death, or parting with precious little luxuries he kept next to his skin, would reluctantly part with the luxuries. The east side trenches of the late Lieutenant Zuma would be Magh' free soon.

    As he set off across to the West side, he was met by a panting private. "Sir. Colonel Brown on the line. He's insisting we retreat."

    Fitz stopped. "Did you give him your name, Private?"

    "I couldn't get a fucking word in edgeways, Sir. Sorry, pardon language, Sir."

    "This is a war, not a kindergarten, Private. A pity Private Johnstone was killed before he could give me the message. He is dead, isn't he?"

    The Private grinned. "Yessir. I saw him die. Poor fellow."

    "Stick to that story," said Fitz. "And see that the field telephone has a convincing accident. Cave part of the bunker in. The fight's all over on the east side. If we can lick them on the west, I'm not running."

    Ten minutes later Fitz called in from the west-side's field telephone. "Yes, Sir. My apologies, Sir. I was called away from our field telephone to deal with an immediate crisis. Unfortunately the instrument was destroyed and the man I had instructed to remain with it was killed."

    He waited for the volcano to subside and then answered the last question.

    "Where am I calling from, Sir? Why Section B3, Sir. On our west side. We've already secured the east side. We'd like some relief, Colonel. We're pretty thin spread holding three pieces of the line."

    There was a long silence from the other side. Then: "You're making your fellow officers look bad, Lieutenant. Hum. I'll get some men up to you at once. They're waiting in trench-line two."

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