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The Rats, the Bats, and the Ugly
By Eric Flint Dave Freer
Baen BooksCopyright © 2004 Eric Flint & Dave Freer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe colony world of Harmony and Reason. Enter a military vehicle, returning from the front. Its motley inhabitants, each in their own fashion, celebrating the first victory of humankind and its allies against the alien Magh' invaders.
Private Chip Connolly looked up into the terrifying upside-down gargoyle-face. The long white canine teeth gleamed against the twisted, folded blackness of that face. The batwings briefly unfolded, as the jeep hit some severe corrugations.
"Hic!" said the plump bat again, dangling from the metal struts that held the canvas cover.
"Why are you making that funny noise, O'Niel?" asked Virginia, snuggling into Chip and blinking myopically at the bat.
The bat blinked back at her. "Why Ginny, 'tis traditional when you're drunk as drunk can be. And it is feeling I am as if the drunk is turning into a hangover, indade. So in the interest o' prolonging the drunk, I'm after stickin' to the tradition."
Chip grinned. There was something reassuring about the fact that after all they'd been through, the bats still stuck to their phony Irish accent, right down to the detail of saying "indade" instead of "indeed."
"The normal method," he explained considerately, "is to drink some more." Bats were new to strong drink. It was only in the interests of trans-species friendship that they'd ventured on it at all.
The cyber-uplifted bat's genome had been spliced heavily with the leaf-nosed Rhinolophidae. It wasn't possible for the evil black crinkled face to turn pale. But the bat shuddered. "Indade... no. I... I couldn't, Chip." Somehow the voice managed to carry the very essence of a green pallor.
A long nose twitched up from underneath the seat. It was the front part of a ratlike creature the size of a small Siamese cat, which, with a stoatlike lithe sinuosity flowed up onto the seat. The ratty thing had an eye-patch, a bottle of grog and a suitably piratical expression to go with these accouterments. He waved the bottle at O'Niel in a friendly fashion. "Here, you fat swasher, take some sack."
The bat shuddered, shook his head so vigorously that his large ears flapped. By the pained grimace that followed, he plainly regretted that action. "No..." he said, weakly.
The elephant shrew wrinkled its long nose, and with a red-toothed snigger waved the bottle under the bat's nose. "I'faith, methinks 'tis a fine brew, and here we are back on wheels. 'Twas the best way to travel you said. You had to choose between drinking and flying, and, as you had a vehicle, you gave up the flying."
"To be sure, I am fond o' vehicles, Pistol," said the bat. He looked disdainfully at the truck. "Though, indade, this one is no patch on a foine noble beastie loike the tractor, but I'm after wondering if they can arrest the motion o' this one for a while. 'Tis vilely ill I think I am about to be." O'Niel descended in a sprawl of wings onto the seat.
Pistol winked at Chip and Virginia. "I will not say 'greasy egg,' O'Niel-or what of a fine fatty slab of cold Maggot?"
Chip was always amazed at the range of expression that the soft- cyber-uplifted creatures could coax out of their voice-synthesizers. Rats didn't have a lot of spare sympathy for anyone at the best of times, and, on the subject of hangovers, even less. But O'Niel, who could normally give as good as he got, looked distinctly unwell. Best keep the peace...
Before he could intervene, however, the bat lurched erect and launched for the open back of the truck. He didn't quite make it and landed clumsily on the last seat, retching.
A gargantuan ear-shattering bellow of outrage erupted. "Santa Maria, San' Marco... San' Cristophoro... you conjoneless flying mouse! Watch where you are up-a-bringing!"
The owner of the vast voice stood up and shook a furious fist at the hapless bat. The creature was considerably smaller than his voice-and smaller than the bat. Except for his tail, the little lemurlike galago would have fitted into a soup mug. He wore the remains of a frogged red velvet waistcoat, and made up for his size with volume and attitude.
The huge-eyed miniature primate-caballero twitched his tail angrily. Flicked at a spot on his waistcoat. "My honor she is impinged upon! To say nothing of my precious waistcoat! I challenge you, you... fledermaus. I demand a duel!"
"Name your seconds, sir!" he bellowed at the hapless bat. The bat was at least twice the soft-furred galago's size, but was certainly in no condition to respond.
O'Niel groaned and clung to the tailgate of the truck with his wing claws. "If it is killing me you wish, Don Fluff, could you not be after doin' it quietly? It's something of the headache I have."
"Indade. Will you all be shutting up?" demanded another sleeper, in the Irish accent of the bat-voice synthesizers.
Then the vehicle veered wildly. It overcorrected and skidded, tossing them all about. With a squeal of brakes, it bounced, nearly rolled. Righted... and then came to a stop at about a forty-five degree angle.
Chip picked himself up off the floor, off Ginny. She was smiling worriedly up at him. "Is your arm all right?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he said, feeling at the laser wound on his shoulder. The infantry doctor had said it should recover more easily than a knife wound would have. "Everybody else okay?"
The bats had taken to the wing when the crash occurred. They were all fine. The fierce caballero had flung himself into Virginia's arms, and clung as tightly as only a small primate can. "I had to protect you, señorita," he said, shakily.
Meanwhile Chip was doing a quick roll-call of rats.
They were all unhurt, barring Pistol, who was nursing a cut paw-hand and lamenting over the loss of his looted bottle of over-proof brandy.
And Nym. The gigantic rat of mechanical inclination was missing. For an awful moment, Chip thought he must have been flung out of the vehicle, and be lying broken at the roadside.
Then the horrible truth dawned. Obviously, to judge by the vile language issuing from Bronstein, Fat Fal and even Doc, the same thing had dawned on all of them.
"Who let that shogging mad bastard whoreson drive?!" demanded Fal.
* * *
It proved to be true enough. Chip crawled backwards, out into the ditch full of glutinous mud, and then around to the cab. The trooper who had been driving was still sitting there, staring in shock at the ditch... and the stone wall they'd missed. Barely. And Nym was still clutching the wheel, his eyes manic and his snout still contorted in a wild grin, making brrm-brmmm noises.
Chip shook his head and sat down in the mud and started laughing.
Three minutes later, they had hauled the shocked driver out of the vehicle, even if it was apparent that the vehicle was not coming out of the ditch.
The trooper shook his head. "He said he could drive... So I thought it would do no harm to have him stand on my lap and let him hold the wheel..."
"Here," said Nym waving a bottle at him. "Some griefs are med'cinable. 'Twas not a patch on the tractor, but not a bad vehicle to drive."
"Drive? Drive! You mad animal-" The driver coughed as he took an unwary swallow of the proffered drink. It was raw, uncolored, high-test brandy looted from an abandoned wine-farm. It would have made great lighter fluid.
They all pushed. The rats and bats didn't have much push to offer, given their mass, but they tried. They bounced, heaved at the truck. Piled rocks in the ditch. Became covered in mud... and the vehicle stayed embedded in the mud-churned ditch.
"Well, at least we're stuck in the mud on this side of our lines," said Chip, digging for a jack behind the seat of the jeep. "And I'm not in that much of hurry to rejoin the army, anyway."
"Yes. Things could be worse," said Doc cheerfully, offering Melene some of the brandy. "One has to view this in Neoplatonistic terms, I think."
"Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy," said Fal sourly. "Spare me. So what do we do now? Send the bats to fetch a rescue?"
"Indade, no. I think we hang tight. A vehicle will be along presently and they can pull us out." O'Niel was one of nature's laziest fliers.
"Methinks 'tis goodly advice," said Pistol, stealing Fal's bottle. "If they're going to hang us for this, that is. If I have any choice I'll not hang sober."
"'Twas not what I meant," said the bat. "I meant a comfortable dangle by our feet."
* * *
Standing in the soft rain, looking at the truck in the ditch, listening to the rats and bats bicker amicably, with a mutual lack of understanding-despite a common tongue, Virginia Shaw had to think about her own implant. An alien-built, lentil-sized chip of imprinted semiconducting plastic that had given back her life... only it wasn't quite her old life. Without the soft-cyber implant between the hemispheres of her brain, she'd been a child in an adult body, with a damaged speech center and uncontrollable tantrums born out of confusion and an inability to communicate. With the implant, her parents had found their brain-damaged child a far more socially acceptable mechanical doll, no longer able to shame the colony's first family with her condition.
They'd never realized that she wasn't a doll. She had become a person. She was shaped, perhaps, by the material downloaded into her soft-cyber's memory chips. In her case, Brontë had had a large effect. But, just as the rats remained ratlike despite Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan, and the bats remained bats, despite Wobbly songs and Irish folk music, she remained human despite the implant. Not a doll, but someone who could think, reason and love.
She looked fondly at Chip. Private Charles Connolly...
Now attempting to put a jack under a vehicle that was chassis-deep in mud. He was neither Heathcliffe nor Edward Rochester. He was just himself: a Vat-born human, born in poverty, raised to servitude, indebted for life to the company of which her father had been the majority shareholder. A company whose founding purpose, in theory, had been to build a new utopia based on the ideals of Fabian Socialism.
Like the truck, the ideal had lost its course, got stuck in the ditch and was now axle deep in the mud. It had become trapped in entrenched privilege. It had betrayed the trust that the clone-fathers of such men as Chip had put in the dream. And now, with the Magh' invasion, the new Utopian dream had become bogged down in worse: Enslaving two new-created species, the rats and the bats-on the assumption that they were biomechanical cannon fodder, not creatures of reason who should be accorded the same rights as any sentient being.
Like getting the jeep out of the ditch, it wasn't going to be easy to change the status quo. It had taken betrayal, capture and living side- by-side with them, having her own implant, and then falling in love, to do it for her.
As if he'd been aware of her gaze, Chip turned and looked at her. He dropped the jack, walked over, and took her in his arms. "Chin up, Ginny. It's not that bad."
She smiled at him. She couldn't wait for new glasses, to see him clearly again. Not, she admitted to herself, that he was the nobly born, handsome-faced, swallowtail-coat clad hero that she'd once dreamed of. He was short, stocky, spiky-haired, and full of combat-scars. The battered remains of his uniform bore not even the vaguest resemblance to an elegant coat of superfine. He was, as the bats put it, as common as vatmuck. But he was a hero, her hero, and worth ten of any noble from between the covers of a Regency romance. She kissed him, treasuring what she'd found.
"I am surprised it's not a full-on debauch you'd be indulging in," said a disapproving Bronstein.
* * *
Chip was good at ignoring Bronstein, at least while he was kissing Virginia. Well, if by "ignoring" he meant not standing to attention and doing what Senior BombardierBat Michaela Bronstein said. The bat was one of nature's organizers. But kissing Ginny was a powerful distraction. He'd wasted a lot of time thinking her one of the vile Shareholder class. Someone better put up against the wall and shot, than kissed. It had taken everything the war and treachery could throw at him to change his mind.
Fat Falstaff, the paunchiest of the rats, snorted. Chip watched him with one eye while continuing his lip-and-tongue gymnastics. Fal turned to his henchman, Pistol, who was sampling the canvas cover of the jeep for flavor. Knowing the rats had engaged in rampant gluttony less than an hour ago, and, in the way of field soldiers on this or any other world, had packs bulging with looted food, Chip wasn't too worried. Otherwise-given the rats' metabolic rate-once they started to eat the furniture, it was usually a sign that you might be next on the menu. For all that the alien cybernetics had uplifted the cloned creatures they remained essentially shrewlike. Their morality was not that of humans. Actually, they only had any morals at all, if and when it suited them.
"Well, Auncient Pistol? What think you? Methinks 'tis fine talk from a set of cozening flyboys who have mass orgies."
Pistol shook his head mournfully and spat out a piece of canvas. "No texture this stuff has. I say for a good long-lasting well-flavored chew you can't beat Maggot-hide, and a few little kickshaws on the side-like a fresh Maggot. But," he added, composing his villainous face into his best effort of injured sanctimoniousness, "if you refer to the amorous peck of our companions, and the self-righteous 'plaint of the bats... You have the right of it. To think of all of them indulging in the slipping of the muddy conger in concert, in a public place like that. Shocking, I call it."
The bats rose to the bait. Bats, Chip had long since concluded, were a trifle dim that way. They thought deeply about things, which rats never did. Politics was meat and drink to them, and argument about it was as intrinsic as breathing. Humor and sarcasm, natural to the rats, came only with effort to the bats-if it came at all.
"Indade, 'tis not like that!" protested Eamon. "We're a social species, and live together. Estrus just occurs simultaneously. We're faithful to our spouses."
Doll Tearsheet, reputed to be the naughtiest rat-girl in the army, lowered her eyelashes and said thoughtfully: "I'faith, 't must be true they're full. To think of waiting a year before having to do it again."
"You mean, to think of being able to wait a year," grinned Melene, the littlest rat-girl.
Excerpted from The Rats, the Bats, and the Ugly by Eric Flint Dave Freer Copyright © 2004 by Eric Flint & Dave Freer. Excerpted by permission.
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