Rats, Bats and Vatsby Eric Flint, Dave Freer
Chip Connolly was a conscripted grunt in trouble: stuck behind enemy lines with a bunch of cyber-uplifted rats and bats. Rats with human speech, but with rat priorities: sex, food and strong drink. And the bats were revolutionaries planning to throw off the human yoke with high explosive. Then there was the girl they'd rescued. Rich. Beautiful. With
Chip Connolly was a conscripted grunt in trouble: stuck behind enemy lines with a bunch of cyber-uplifted rats and bats. Rats with human speech, but with rat priorities: sex, food and strong drink. And the bats were revolutionaries planning to throw off the human yoke with high explosive. Then there was the girl they'd rescued. Rich. Beautiful. With a passionate crush on her "heroic" rescuer. Her entourage was a screwball Alien tutor, and a cyber-uplifted lemurlike pet galago with delusions of being the world's greatest lover.
Of course things only got worse. Seven rats, five bats, a galago, two humans, a sea-urchin-like alien and an elderly vineyard tractor without brakes...against several million inimical aliens. He was going to die.
Mind you, not dying could be even more terrible. That girl might get him.
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Read an Excerpt
Under Enemy Attack.
Down in the bunker the music issuing from Chip Connolly's small portable radio stopped. "We interrupt this broadcast of Forces-Favorite Radio with a newsflash. The bodies of the Chairman of the Board, Aloysius Shaw, and his wife, Gina, were found by household staff in an advanced state of decomposition. Despite this, servants claim that the Chief Executive Shareholder had been alive five hours previously. Foul play is suspected. Police are following definite leads and several suspects are being held for questioning."
Chip sat up. "I'll be damned," he muttered. There was no noticeable chagrin in his voice. "Somebody up and killed the rotten"
He broke off, feeling the ground shake. A moment later, the bunker rumbled with thunder. Dust and dirt showered down from the roof. Chip sighed. Clearly, the lull in the bombardment was over.
Another shake and rumble, and dirt showered down on them again. Some sifted onto Chip's face. One of the other soldiers in the bunker sneezed in the darkness. They were being softened up for an advance. For the three hours prior to that brief lull, he hadn't heard anything much except for the endless pounding thunder of Magh' artillery.
Shit! That meantChip flicked the infrared headlight on, just in time to see the whole wall behind Lieutenant Rosetski, Dermott and Mack cave in on top of them.
Out of the billowing dust stormed the stuff of nightmares: Magh'.
They were a variety of creatures designed to shred soft bodies. Their white pseudo-chitin armor gleamed and their chelicerae snapped angrily. Then the air was full of shouting and squeaking. In the wild, confused melee, headlight beams danced in the dusty air, as more and more of the invaders piled in.
The Maggot arrowscorp nearly got him. Chip rolled frantically, barely getting clear, thrusting his blade out sideways. The stupid scorp slid straight onto the Solingen steel. It wasn't standard issue, that knife. It was a real twenty-first-century chef's knife from Old Earth, which Chip had stolen from his employer's kitchen the day before he had reported to boot camp.
Good thing he had, too. The official crap the soldiers were issued wouldn't even have penetrated. The colony's steel plant would have been at home in 1870. With a standard-issue blade he'd have been dead already. Instead, Chip was able to enjoy the experience of having an arrowscorp slowly pressing down onto him, snapping its jaws eight inches from his face, about to kill him in, oh, maybe ten seconds or so.
The spine-tail streaked forward, barely missing his twisting shoulder with its venomous barb. Chip managed to grab it, just behind the stinger, and cling to the slippery, leathery pseudo-chitin. Corrosive venom dripped, inches from his arm. The Solingen steel slid slowly through some more Maggot, then stopped against a joint ridge-thickening. The Maggot's ichor dribbled off his wrist and into the dust as the creature pressed down onto him.
The back-edged jaws were only inches off his face now. The creature writhed, jaws snapping air just in front of him. Chip couldn't let go, and he couldn't win. In the clatter-clatter and effort-grunts of hand, claw and tooth combat, somebody screamed in a terrible, tearing agony. A scorp sting had obviously gone home.
"Help me!" another shrill voice shrieked above the tumult.
It sounded like a rat. Hell and buggery! He couldn't even help himself! Sweat was lubricating the hand that clung to the scorp's tail. Any moment now and he'd be screaming too ...
Suddenly, his headlight silhouetted a batwing flutter, then highlighted a clash of inch-long white-white fangs in an evil, black squashed-pigsnout face.
The scorp went limp, its ganglion-ladder severed.
Chip shoved it away, gasping. "Thanks, Michaela!"
"Moronic, useless, be-damned Primate!" Michaela Bronstein fluttered off, dodging other reaching and snapping claws with ease.
"Get it offa me!" groaned a smothered voice from the dusty darkness. Chip's searching headlight showed a long tail protruding from under a St. Bernard-sized armored burrower. The stocky soldier heaved the dead Maggot aside by the telson. A long-snouted plump rat-shape, as big as a small siamese cat, scrambled hastily out from under, with its red-tipped fangs exposed in a wicked, lean-jawed grin.
The rat leaped at Chip's throat, moving in a twisting maelstrom of teeth and raking claws. Sudden shreds flew ... from the joint of the saw-edged pedipalp that had been about to take Chip's head off. The rat had disabled one claw, but the other claw would soon snap the rat. Chip's Solingen steel proved its quality again, slicing an exact "X" into the double ventral ganglion knot of the attacking Maggot. A quick, neat, precise job, like carving tomato roses.
"Shee ... yit! That was nearly my head," panted Chip. He and the rat both scrambled clear of the falling Maggot.
Long insectivore teeth gleamed. "You owe me a beer, Connolly. Make it two. I've got a nice bit of tail I'd like to share it with."
"Bullshit! You owe me, Fal"
The air boomed and fragments ricocheted off Chip's slowshield. Great! thought Chip, with relief. One of the bat-bombardiers must have blown the Maggot access tunnel. Now at least they only had to deal with what was already inside the bunker. Chip stumbled over something in the dust and darkness. Fell. Landed hard.
"Get your sorry whoreson ass offa my tail," chittered a feminine voice in the darkness. "You useless effing bread-chipper!" Chip scrambled to his feet. He'd rather fight Maggots than Phylla. That was one mean rat-girl!
Then, with a slow creaking groan, the main roofbeam fell in. Either the demolition charge or the Maggot tunnel must have undermined its support. Earth and roofing material descended, in a tons-heavy avalanche. Chip grabbed the rat-girl and dived for the far wall.
In the creaking darkness a rat voice griped, "Malmsey-nosed whoremasters. My pack is somewhere under that lot."
The air was so full of dust, you could shovel the stuff. Chip coughed and felt about for his dislodged headlight. Rats and bats could manage in the total darkness. The bats had their sonar and the ratsbuilt from a mix of elephant shrew, shrew and rat genescould just about read by scent, and had keen hearing to boot. Humans still needed implanted infrared lenses and headlights. Maggots might have keen hearing, feelers and scent sensors, but were plainly blind to infrared. It was one small advantage.
"Anyone got a headlight there?" Chip asked softly. A Maggot could nail him so fast now. He still had his knife ... but it was no use poking blindly at Maggots. He knew he had to cut precisely, and that he'd only have one chance. He wouldn't have said "no thanks" to his standard issue bangstick, an assegai with a cartridge set into the blade. It wasn't a great weapon, but it allowed some margin of error. It was a lot better than the rest of the issue crap: a stupid little ice axe thing and a trench knife you couldn't slice baloney with.
The slowship which had settled the planet of Harmony And Reason had taken the colonists out of the network of industries which twenty-second century technology needed to support its complexity. So, except for the clone units on the ship, the colonists were back at self-sustaining tech levels. From the manufacturing point of view, that meant nineteenth to early twentieth century. Which meant no mono-molecular edged knives.
Chip had once tried to tell an officera Shareholder, naturallywhy the thing was effing useless compared to his own. In typical officer fashion the jerk had told him to shut up, and demanded to know where his regulation trench knife was. After all, what could a veteran grunt know about fighting Maggots? Much less than some still-wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant, of course.
Still, the bangsticks worked. When you pushed them into the right bit of Maggot, that is. He really wouldn't have minded having his. It must be buried back there somewhere....
He tried again. "Anyone got a light?"
Nobody replied from the darkness. But at least there were no Maggot scritch-scritch noises either.
"Who else is in here?" he asked, daring to speak slightly louder. He strained to hear one particular voice, hoping ...
He'd seen the wall come down on Dermott. The slowshield would have protected her from the debris, but had she managed to get out before the roof came down?
"I' faith. I am, and so is someone who is lying on me."
"Sorry ... Doll? Is that you?" It was the same rat voice which had been bemoaning its missing pack.
"Yes 'tis I, you fat swasher. I should have known by the familiar weight that it was you, Fal."
Chip cleared his throat, trying to clear away the constricting fear. "Let's have a roll call, guys."
"Piss off. Who do you think you are?" said another male-rat voice. Chip could tell, even in the dark. The male rats always had their vocal synthesizers adjusted to a low pitch, in the attempt to sound like real he-rats.
"I'm Connolly, rat. I'm a human, see. That means you take my orders."
"You've got more chance of falling pregnant, Connolly," groused the same voice. "You're not a whoreson officer, you're just a vatbrat."
Chip ground his teeth. There hadn't been a human reply yet. "Rat, I will pull your tail off, and then shove it down your throat until it comes out of your ass, if you give me any more lip. Now, who else is in here?"
There came a chorus of voices:
"BombardierBat Siobhan Illich-Hill."
"BombardierBat Longfang O'Niel."
"BombardierBat Cuchulain Behan."
As always, Chip thought the sound of an Irish accent coming out of their voice synthesizers was ludicrous, but the bats insisted on it.
"It is delusions of grandeur I think the human has," said another bat-Irish voice, leaden with resentment.
"Do you now, Eamon? Well, I think it is you who have the delusions. This is Senior BombardierBat Michaela Bronstein, Connolly."
Chip was relieved to hear Bronstein's voice. In some ways, he thought Michaela was even crazier than the other bats, but at least he'd always been able to get along with her.
"And, seeing as you want to know, I'm Melene, gorgeous." A rat-girl voice.
"Phylla. You flung me here." That rat-girl didn't sound too charmed about it. But Phylla was usually in a foul mood.
"Doll Tearsheetat your service."
"Not right now, Doll." Fat Falstaff sounded more cheerful already.
"Shut up, Fal. I know you're here. Anybody else?" Chip hoped for a human voice ...
"Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel."
Despite the name, that was a rat too. "Doc," as everybody else called him, was the platoon's medic.
Rats. Rats and bats. Chip felt for his torch again. Maybe he could see her. Then a bat voice said, "Try the other side of you, indade."
The bat-Irish idiom, as always, grated on Chip's nerves. "Why can't you just say `indeed,' dammit?" he muttered, as he began feeling around. "Stupid friggin' affectation ..."
The voice, still as heavily accented as ever, clarified the location: "About a foot from your knee."
He felt there. Encountered the hard roundness of his torch. Felt for the switch. On. There was no light, but he'd done enough globe changes in total darkness to manage to fix that, a lot faster than soldiers had once been able to fieldstrip their rifles. The light stabbed out through the hanging dust.
No Maggots. In the narrow uncaved-in section of what had been their bunker, a handful of rats and a cluster of bats pressed against the sandbag-wall. There were no other human survivors with them. Already one plump rat was scrabbling aside pieces of debris.
"Gotta find my pack. It's got my grog in it!" hissed fat Fal, digging frantically. "Damn near a full bottle too."
Two of the other rats hastily got up to join him.
"Oh, aye, that's right," said a bat sarcastically. O'Niel, that was. "Bring the rest of the roof down on all of us in your mad search for the daemon drink."
Fal, the paunchy rat, simply grubbed harder. "It's dig or die sober," he said with grim humor. "Besides, I might find someone. Maybe a grateful bit of tail."
"Yep. Only one thing worse than dying sober. That would be to die a virgin," said his villainous one-eyed companion, Pistol, nimbly jumping clear of a cascade of earth.
"Ha, Pistol, as if your puissant pike ever found a rat maiden that had despaired of winning a rat's affection ..."
"What we observe here is the moral quandary inherent in the empiricist approach to"
"Oh, put a sock in it, Doc," Pistol said.
A flash of Chip's headlight showed him a rat with a daft pince-nez made of scrap wire perched on his long nose, also digging. That was the weird Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. That rat proved sanity was not necessary for survival.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich was a soft-cyber experiment who had been drafted in when things got dire. Somebody had told Chip that Doc had been the product of load-tolerance tests on the vocabulary unit ROM of the alien-built cybernetic enhancement chips. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich had gotten a download of the whole of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic into his ratty brain, along with a mass of other philosophical claptrap.
The result: the loony medic seemed to think he was a rat reincarnation of Georg W. F. Hegel. A reincarnation, mind you, in the body of a genetically engineered creature the size of a small cat, built on the genetic blueprint of an elephant shrew, with add-ons from real shrews and rats. Yes. Crazy. Chip thought it came of having alien hardware in their heads.
At least the rest of the rats in his unit had just gotten downloaded with Shakespeare plays, Gilbert and Sullivan and, for no reason Chip could imagine, a reading of Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday. Of course, ratty nature saw to it that they identified with the lowlifes and not the heroes, even in blasted Shakespeare. No Hamlets and King Lears here! But plenty of rogues and merry wives. As Fal said: they had been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.
Fortunately the language units only picked out words from the material for the speech synthesizers. But the occasional phrases popped up, too. Usually, the rats being what they were, insults.
Chip shook his head. Musing about rat-language at a time like this? He knew, deep inside, it was because he didn't want to think about something else. Still, there was a chance, a desperately small chance.... He got up, and started pulling fallen material aside himself. He worked as fast as he could. There might still be survivors. Their personal slowshields would stop sudden impact, but couldn't resist the slow, steady pressure.
But, for all the haste with which they worked, and the badinage, Chip and his companions were alert. There was always a chance they'd dig up a live Maggot too.
"What about sober and a virgin?" said Chip to the tail end of the burrowing Fal, as he lifted a beam to allow Nym to get in to the next section. The only human they'd seen so farthe lieutenanthadn't been alive. But Chip hadn't been looking for him anyway.
"You're as bad as these other useless rowdy, lecherous drunks," said Melene, one of the three surviving rat-girls. She was also digging. It sounded as if she approved of lecherous drunks.
Chip managed a decent grin. He wasn't really in the mood for this, but he'd learned how to get along with the rats. "Just a lot more expensive to get drunk so that you can have your wicked way with me, Mel."
This provoked a snortof amusement from the rats and disgust from the bats. "I' faith, when it comes to drinking, Fat Fal will give you a run for your money," said Doll, reputed to be the baddest rat-girl in the army. She would know.
"Fal?" demanded Chip. "Run for my money? Run! Fal! Come on! Be reasonable. He gets exhausted picking his teeth."
"Listen ..." snapped one of the bats. "They're coming. Quiet!"
There was silence. Chip's less-than-cybershrew- or batborg-keen ears could hear nothing. Yet obviously, the others could. After a few seconds it came, at first a faint whisper, then growing and growing. Arthropod clicking. The sound of myriad upon myriad Maggot clawfeet, passing right above them. If they made any noise now, the Maggot-diggers would come through the roof. All they could do was wait, knowing that their comrades might possibly still be alive under the debris. Knowing too that, with each passing moment, the chances for any buried friends diminished.
Meet the Author
Dave Freer, author of The Forlorn (Baen) and of many articles in scientific journals, is an expert on sharks, an accomplished rock-climber, a wine-taster, and was an unwilling conscript in the undeclared South African-Angolan war. He lives in Natal, South Africa with his wife, two sons, and four dogs.
Eric Flint is a gifted new star of military and alternate history SF. His first novel for Baen, Mother of Demons, was picked by Science Fiction Chronicle as a best novel of the year. His latest solo work is 1632, a major novel of time-travel adventure. With David Drake he has collaborated on four novels in the acclaimed Belisarius series, the latest being Fortunes Stroke. A longtime labor union activist with a degree (Phi Beta Kappa) in African history, he currently resides in northwest Indiana with his wife Lucille.
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