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Genie Out of the Vat: Section Seven

       Last updated: Friday, January 28, 2005 01:43 EST



    In the seven weeks that followed, Fitz's section survived a sequence of small probes and one more direct assault. This was somewhat worse than the first one. But Fitz's new system of buddying two rats to each human soldier worked remarkably well. The rest of the rats he used as a free range strike-force. And this attack seemed almost like a spear-point aimed at his piece of the line. Once they'd stopped it, they didn't even have to deal with the other sections. And then even artillery bombardment slacked off.

    They eventually had to retreat after three weeks of near idleness and weapons drill, because the line had folded to the west of them. "It's almost as if they won't hit here, because we're strongest here," grumbled Fitz. He never thought he'd miss Magh' attacks, but the boredom made keeping the troops in readiness hell. There was drunkenness, gambling, and several fights about women... and fights about men among the women. Only the rats seemed content.

    Sergeant Ellis nodded. "It's always like that, Sir. The Maggots always attack where we're weakest."

    "Suggests good intelligence, doesn't it, Sarge."

    "Can't be Military intelligence then, Sir," said the Sergeant, handing him a couple of sealed dispatches.

    Fitz cracked the first open. "Well, glory be! This'll cheer the troops up. We've done our two month front-line stint and we're being pulled back to third line for a month to rest the men."

    "Be about the fullest company to get rested," said the Sergeant. "Half the time the companies have to be replaced and reformed before that. The lads'll see some leave too. You get a week when you're on third trench," she said with relish.

    "That'll be a shock to civvy street," said Fitz dryly. Life expectancy in the trenches was about forty days at the moment. Inside, he was deeply grateful that he would be returning some eighty-three percent of his men past that. It was something you didn't dwell on here. But it did make boredom sweet. He opened the second envelope. Blinked. "It appears this bunch of ne'er-do-wells is due to attend a medals parade at sector headquarters. And yours truly is promoted to Lieutenant first class. With the corresponding increase in pay of seven dollars a day, and family and retirement benefits."

    "The family and retirement benefits sound good, Sir," said the Sergeant. She'd given up trying to get into Fitz's pants a while back. Ariel was a good dog-in-the-manger. But the Sergeant still cast sheep's eyes his way sometimes. Fitz avoided them with care. That was a set of complications he didn't need here, as their CO. Still, as a normal male there were certain intentions he was planning to follow up on that seven-day pass, when he didn't have a minder.



    In dress BDUs that now had a row of ribbons on the chest, and a second pip on their shoulders, Fitz blinked at the bright lights outside the troop disembarkation station. He put his bag down and wondered just where to go now.

    "To find some food and drink," said the bag, in Ariel's voice, obviously guessing his thoughts.

    "What the hell are you doing in there?" he demanded.

    "Methinks I am crossing my legs and tying a knot in my tail. Hurry up and let me out before I pee on your kit."

    Given the alternative, letting her out seemed the only option. And, tempting though it might be, he couldn't just run off and leave her there. She had kept him alive in the trenches, after all. So, with a curious rat peering out of his magazine pocket he took a taxi into town. It was at her orders he stopped at the Paradise Pussy Club, too. It had a flashing neon cocktail-glass sign.



    The bouncer eyed the man in uniform uncertainly. While officers in full-dress uniform, complete with ceremonial swords, were regular and welcome visitors to the club, men in BDUs were not. However this was definitely an officer, even if he was wearing dress BDUs. Against his better judgment he'd let him in.



    In the pale hours of morning, Fitz looked cheerfully back at the club. It had been a great evening. The lap-dancer would no doubt recover from the bite on her well-padded tail-end...

    He gently patted the rat whose long nose protruded from his pocket, issuing ladylike snores. He'd had a wonderfully vulgar evening with a delightful girl, who had just discovered Cointreau. She'd thought that the strippers and pornographic backdrop-movie were the best live-entertainment she'd ever seen. Well, it was also the only show she'd seen. Of course, Ariel had also thought it was the side-splittingest comedy she'd ever seen. Rats have no taboos about genitalia or even sex. But what a wonderful girl. She had a biting sense of humor and just happened to be a rat. Damn fool of a bouncer should have understood that. The man would almost certainly recover. Saunas weren't that hot, were they?

    It seemed a little early on such a delightful evening-or morning-to go and visit the parental abode. His own residence had been sold. He'd terminated the lease on the only other place he'd had a claim on, and anyway, Candy probably wouldn't have been glad to see him. Perhaps four AM was a little late to go and see if Van Klomp had gone soldiering, finally. He walked idly through an alleyway, where a foolish man waved a knife at him.

    "Empty your pockets, soldier," sneered that shifty soul.

    Fitz shrugged. "On your head be it."



    A few minutes later, now in search of an all-night store which sold chocolate, he'd gently woven his way up to two men in uniform with white bands around their hats and asked directions. One had been about to prod Fitz in the gut with a night-stick, when he saw the pips on his shoulders. While the MPs were pointing Fitz towards an all-night convenience store, someone with a much faster metabolism was opening the doors to the paddy-wagon. Ariel had not survived her only brush with the law to not recognize one.

    They zigzagged their course onwards rather like that extra stray neutron in a fissionable mass. Letting a rat inside the doors of something like Aladdin's cave was rank foolishness. Fortunately, Fitz was by now sober enough to point out the closed circuit television to her. She was even more fascinated by this concept and insisted on breaking into the security room to inspect the monitors. The puzzled alarm-response crew found nothing.

    Then, it was dawn, and since a passing taxi was available, Fitz had taken her to see Van Klomp. Unfortunately for the HAR Bolshoi Ballet company...

    Van Klomp was only due back from his new unit that night. Fitz had peacefully fallen asleep-a good soldier can sleep anywhere, anytime-on Van Klomp's sofa. So that left Meilin talking to Ariel. And the subject, naturally enough, was Fitz himself-his reputation, and the trouble he'd had with the law, and, of course... Candy.

    What was less predictable-unless you knew rat nature-was that this long discussion should also involve pornographic backdrops and closed-circuit television. Meilin knew quite a lot about the latter, as that was one aspect of Van Klomp's business. Neutrons are very small. What they can cause is not.



    There was a sonic boom. Well. The return of Van Klomp, anyway.

    "Can't you keep away from troublesome women?" demanded Van Klomp, on meeting the rat with a glass of his port in her hand.

    She blew him a raspberry, a rather good one, as she'd only learned to do so the night before.

    He blew one back which nearly flattened her ears. "So what have you been doing so far, boykie? Nothing as stupid as last time, I trust."

    Fitz grinned. "We've toured one of GBS city's finest establishments, namely the Paradise Pussy club, and visited my father. Cordial terms are restored, but his advice is that we're too alike to keep it that way if we share a house. So I've come to bum a piece of floor. It's got to be drier and more comfortable than where I've been sleeping lately."

    "And welcome. Pull up any piece you like. So, what did the old man think of a visit by a rat?" He looked disapprovingly at the bottle Ariel was clutching. "Did you steal his booze too?"

    Ariel lifted her nose at Van Klomp. "Pshaw. Of course I was well-behaved. 'Twas an experience. I never met a real live progenitor before. He told me to look after Fitz, because it is obvious he can't look after himself."

    "True," said Van Klomp, taking the bottle away from her. "And having visited the ancestral home, what excitement is planned for tonight? More visits to cat-houses?" he asked with vast tolerance.

    Fitz lifted his aristocratic nose. "I am going to introduce Ariel to culture."

    Van Klomp snorted. "There's a Bavarian beerfest tomorrow night. Or is that a bit upmarket for a rat who has stolen half my Port? Or maybe you were thinking of Chez Henri Pierre again. He won't let a Vat in the front door. I'm sure he'd be charmed at a rat-especially after your last visit. And then you could go and watch the HAR Bolshoi Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker Suite."

    "The latter sounds about right. I think we will give Henri Pierre the go-by," said Fitz, loftily. "His portions are too stingy for Ariel, anyway."

    "Besides, I haven't finished all your port, yet. And Meilin is cooking dinner for us. Curried tripe," said Ariel with an expression of bliss.

    Van Klomp laughed. "I'm tempted to come along just to see what a rat makes of the Ballet. But I've got work to do tonight. And beside, the beerfest is more my sort of thing."



    The acrobatic Ariel thought Ballet was quite funny for about five minutes. She was mostly fascinated by the large-flatscreen DVD backdrop, which was a great saving in set-changes. When Ariel pointed out it was rather reminiscent of last night's pornographic one, only with worse dancing, Fitz had to turn his laughter into a fit of coughing. He still attracted a number of disapproving "hushes".

    Ariel also alarmingly disappeared from their private box for a while. There were no screams or other sounds of pandemonium, so Fitz didn't allow the look of glee on her ratty face to worry him too much. She did however adore the Cointreau-centered liqueur chocolates he'd bought her.

    He'd have slept less soundly if he'd known that she'd spent the rest of the night driving around with Meilin, part of it in a very exclusive Shareholder neighborhood. And part of it visiting a couple of Vat-girls of negotiable virtue and adaptable morality. It was, Ariel concluded, a lot more fun than the ballet.

    "This lot should bring down the house," said Meilin with a particularly evil grin when she'd finished editing the film.

    Ariel looked puzzled. "Why? 'Tis very funny, but not explosive."

    Meilin snorted with laughter. "Believe me, this is H.E."

    "And her," corrected Ariel, pedantically.



    "You're Lieutenant Conrad Fitzhugh?" The MP at Van Klomp's door asked.

    "Yes," said Conrad warily. What had Ariel been up to? Besides running up the beer-waitress's dress last night?

    "Colonel Brown has ordered your recall, Sir," said the MP apologetically. "There's been a major incursion in your sector. We've got transport waiting for you."

    Fitz nodded. "Give me five minutes to get into uniform and get my kit together."

    Ariel was unbelievably dozy. It was almost as if she hadn't slept.

    It was a long drive to the front. She snoozed most of the way, contentedly.



    The General bowed his tiara-wearing plump wife into her seat. Ballet wasn't really his favorite entertainment, although he'd known an entertaining ballerina a year or two ago. But Maria was a true aficionado. And when all was said and done, it was her money. The war and cost-plus on artillery ammunition had made the Cartup clan enormously rich.

    Having ogled the dancers and ordered some champagne, and salmon and watercress sandwiches for the interval, he settled into a comfortable doze.

    He was woken by the buzz in the audience.

    And no-one was saying "hush".

    It took a few moments of unbelieving blinking to be sure he wasn't hallucinating .

    This was taking avant garde theater to new limits. The last time he'd seen anything like that backdrop had been at the Paradise Pussy Club. And that hadn't been quite so explicit. And while the female in the leather outfit wielding the whip was a stunning platinum blond... her partner did absolutely nothing for his lacy polka-dot knickers and black bra. And even fishnet stockings couldn't help legs like that.

    The two dancers continued to pirouette with grim artistic determination as the huge screen behind them showed the details of his brother-in-law's face.

    Talbot Cartup had always liked to sport a figure in high society. He was frequently seen at the opera and ballet. But never before in quite such detail.

    The General missed the part showing the interviews with the two ladies of the night, discussing his transvestite bother-in-law's enjoyment of the rather bizarre perversion of semi-suffocation. They did mention their prices for what was a very risky pastime. But General Cartup-Kreutzler was too busy trying to break into the very securely locked projection unit.

    As it turned out, the DVD in the unit was amazingly bare of fingerprints.

    And while the booking for the ballet trebled it did rather change the way people regarded the art-form.



    "Captain?" said Fitz, looking at the bars.

    "We're out of officers," said the Colonel, grumpily. "We lost seven including two Captains and a Major when we were pushed back to line three. Those troops of yours are heading for Court-Martial. They're not exactly refusing orders. They want you. We just lost another two officers and your NCOs pulled the men back into the trenches. And what is this story about troops fraternizing with the rats?"

    For a moment Fitz thought that Ariel must have put her head out of his pocket. Then he realized what the man was getting at. "Ah. It's a system we've evolved that works. Men have the stamina, rats the speed."

    "Well, like your crazy idea about paying them, I'm not having any of it," said the Colonel, cholerically. "Just see you that get them over the top and that you recapture line two. You've got two new second Lieutenants fresh out of OCS. See what you can do, Captain Fitzhugh. Put some discipline into this lot."



    "Impossible, Talbot. He's back in combat. And Major Van Klomp is on a forced march with his men." The General looked in disgust at the telephone. Waited for his brother-in-law to stop rabbiting on. "There is nothing you, or even I, can do about it. Anything direct is almost certain to backfire on you now. I would certainly quietly withdraw those charges, because if the matter comes to court you're going to end up being sued out of existence. You're a laughing-stock and the best you can do is to go to that place of yours in the North and stay there. The town won't forget you in polka-dot panties for a long time."



    Candy Foster was sitting looking gloomily at the door. He hadn't been near here since it happened. Hadn't called. It was his fault, not hers. She did it because that was what he wanted. She had no real interest in sex. Never had had. But it was a useful lever. So she'd panicked when he wouldn't come to after the plastic-bag thing. Her fingers had been stupid with fear and she hadn't been able to get it off. But at least she'd managed to tear the plastic, and hide that stupid leather outfit under a gown when the paramedics came. The story about Conrad had been born out of that panic. Talbot had decided to stick to it to save face. Had that ever blown up in his stupid face!

    A brown envelope dropped through the letter slot in the door.

    Candice opened it with trepidation. Talbot's brother-in-law's influence had stopped her getting call-up papers before. But this letter definitely began with...


    With her academic marks she knew she'd wash out of OCS. Let it be catering or nursing services. That was where nice girls were posted to. She could change her hair-color and use some skin pigment. Maybe change her name too. No-one would recognize her. Hopefully.

    Infantry school.

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