Genie Out of the Bottle Part 1

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Genie Out of the Bottle.

Adventures In Far Futures.

Edited by T.K.F. Weisskopf.

Dedication: For the next generation, Katie, Max, Peyton & Jackson Hannah & Owen And, of course, for that great explorer Grandma Vera GENIE OUT OF THE BOTTLE.

Eric Flint lives in Indiana, Dave Freer lives in South Africa, but they both hang out at Baen's Bar, at bar.baen.com, which is where they met and began their collaborations. This is a tale set in the world of the authors' novels Rats, Bats and Vats and The Rats, the Bats & The Ugly.

Dave Freer and Eric Flint

Prologue.

"When shall these three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?"

The dark, hook-nosed lab-coated woman looked as if she might have been one of the witches. And, had this been one of the world of Harmony and Reason's updated Shakespearean plays at the New Globe theatre, the setting too would have seemed appropriate. What she leaned over was no cauldron with simmering eye of newt and toe of frog, but three tissue-cloning vats with their attendant electronics and gla.s.sware.

The fetuses developing under the gla.s.s covers all looked like unborn rats.

One of them was.

Mari-Lou Evans, once, twenty-four frozen light-years ago, of Stratford-on-Avon, and, like her boss, a loyal part of the New Globe Thespian society, knew her prescribed reply. "When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won," she intoned sepulchrally. Then she sighed. "If it ever is, Sanjay. If we don't just lose."

The colony's chief biologist shrugged and pulled a wry face. "Do you think I'd be playing G.o.d if we faced any real alternatives?" She pointed to the third breeding vat. "No need for another standard human control, Mari-Lou. We won't be breeding up any more vatbrats for a while. We need to gear up the equipment for ma.s.s production of that long-nose elephant-shrew mix. The army has put in impossible demands for quant.i.ty. If it tests out fine on emergence, then we're going to have to set up a production line for the creatures."

The chief geneticist nodded. She pointed to the third vat. "The ultrasounds of the bat's gastrointestinal development don't look good, Sanjay. We're going to have to tinker and tweak those genes a bit more in my opinion. Perhaps cherry-pick from the Tadarida. It's the size problem. The bigger bats are fruit-eaters, not insectivores."

"Destroy the fetus and start again, Mari-Lou. Make it smaller if need be. The army will just have to take what it can get."

It was the geneticist's turn to pull a wry face. "I hate pulling the plug at this stage."

"And I hate making them intelligent . . . to go and be cannon fodder. I hate implanting alien-built software and cybernetics that I don't properly understand into their heads. But we don't have a lot of choices. Humans are too slow to produce, and the Magh' are advancing faster than we can retreat, never mind stop them. The council of Shareholders are now talking about introducing compulsory conscription for everyone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Even that won't be enough. We need more fighters."

The geneticist knew that for a truth. The Magh' tide, even with the a.s.sistance of the alien Korozhet and their wonderful new devices, was proving very difficult to stem. She s.h.i.+fted subject. "What are you planning on using for language download?"

Her fellow amateur thespian shrugged. "It's just got to be a spoken source of vocabulary in computer-friendly format for the voice synthesizer. We're a bit short of material so I was going to download the Complete Shakespeare, and the D'Oyly Carte Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. That should do."

Mari-Lou couldn't help but smile. "Shakespearean rats, imagining themselves to be Julius Caesar."

Sanjay acknowledged a hit. "Well, they'll make good soldiers anyway."

She was wrong about that. Both language and genetics shape character. They made merry wives, bawds, rogues and rude artisans, or occasionally pirates. The Rats were great Magh' killers.

They made terrible soldiers.

In the months that followed, conscription was introduced. So, to the front lines, went the newly produced and uplifted elephant-shrew troops with their soft-cyber implants. Despite the fact that they weren't even rodents, everyone called the small Siamese-cat-sized creatures "rats." The rats and conscripts slowed the advance of the insectlike Magh' invaders . . . but it wasn't stopped. Rumor had it that genetically modified and soft-cyber uplifted bats were about to be added to the war effort. The colony, planned as the new Fabianist utopia in which harmony and reason would finally triumph, seethed with such rumors. It also seethed with frenetic parties, and young men and women in ill-fitting new uniforms.

Harmony and reason were notably absent.

1.

A small plane rose slowly, her twin airscrews biting the thicker-than-earth air. The colony-mankind's brave leap into the future-had meant that they had to live in the past. Technology had to be self-sustaining without the interreliant industries of Earth. Some things had gone back a long way-like the propeller-driven aircraft.

Conrad Fitzhugh looked out through the hole in the rear fuselage where the rear door had once been. There was smoke on the southern horizon, where the front lines lay. They'd taken Van Klomp's plane for a look. The alien invaders' scorpiaries had spread their red spirals, twinkling behind their force fields, all the way to the Arafura Sea.

Fitz pulled his gaze inward. He'd see the war front soon enough from a lot closer. He looked nostalgically at the battered little aircraft, and at his fellow sky divers. This would be the last jump for most of them. Bobby Van Klomp had finally gotten the go-ahead to form a paratroop unit. Collins and Hawkes were on a final pa.s.s from OCS before being posted to the front. Young Cunningham had just gotten his call-up papers. And Conrad had finally decided to join the next intake at OCS in three weeks' time, despite Candice. He'd have to explain to her tonight. He'd already booked a private table at Chez Henri-Pierre.

He tightened his harness. One of the best things about skydiving was that it stopped him thinking about her, at least for a while. Every man needs a rest from confusion.

Confusion, smoke, dust and fear. And a dead twitching thing, ichor draining from the severed chelicerae to mingle with the blood in the muddy trench. Pseudochitin armor couldn't cover the 'scorps' joints. And, once they'd learned to operate within the constraints of a personal slows.h.i.+eld, none of the Maggots, not even the 'scorps, could match rat speed. But there were always so many of them.

Ariel twitched her whiskers and fastidiously began to clean them. All the Maggots here were dead. So were the human troops.

Another rat sauntered across the trench, pausing to rifle a dead second lieutenant's pockets. He shook his head glumly at the pickings. "I' faith, these wh.o.r.eson new officers aren't any better than the last lot. Poorly provisioned. What's a rat to loot in such poverty?"

"You could try looting a Maggot, Gobbo," said a plump little rat leaning against a sandbag stack, picking her teeth with a sliver of trench knife.

Gobbo grunted. Shoved a few things into his pouch and tossed the rest. "Even thinner pickings, methinks, my little Pitti-Sing."

The plump little rat considered Gobbo from under lowered lashes. Gently arched her long tail. "Of course, if it is less thin pickings thou art after, I wouldn't try a Maggot," she said archly.

A rat peered out from a bunker. A particularly long-nosed rat with a rather villainous cast to one eye. "Zounds! 'Tis all done then? I fought them off bravely."

Ariel and the others snickered. "In every doughty deed, ha, ha! He always took the lead, ha ha!" she caroled. No sensible rat wanted to fight Maggots, but d.i.c.k Deadeye took discretion to the ridiculous.

Deadeye drew himself up. "I was foremost in the fight!"

Ariel snorted. "The first and foremost flight, ha, ha!" she said, showing teeth.

Deadeye certainly wasn't about to ruin his reputation for staying out of trouble by rising to the bait from this particular rat-girl. Ariel might be smaller than most, but she made up for it with pure ferocity. He took in the scene instead. The dead lieutenant, with his turned-out pockets, the several dead human grunts, a dead 'scorp and the body parts of several more of the aliens. "Methinks we'd better send a runner back to let them know we need human reinforcements."

Rats had no problem with Deadeye's being a coward. It was his being a brown-noser that was going to get him killed. "Art crazed?" snapped Ariel, irritably. "'Tis fully two hours to grog ration. What need have we to alert them before 'tis needful? They'd make us work."

Gobbo nodded, sauntered over to Pitti-Sing and leered down at her. "Methinks you can hang me up as a sign at a brothel, before I do that, eh, wench?"

Deadeye looked lecherously and rather hopelessly at the two rat-girls. "Well, then I must go myself."

Gobbo yawned artistically. "Methinks the wh.o.r.eson fancies a bit of time away from the front."

"The swasher can take himself away from my front," said Pitti-Sing, trailing her tail along Gobbo's shoulders.

"'Tis not an ill-thought-of idea, mind," said Ariel, consideringly.

Gobbo grinned toothily. "Ha. Ariel, I had not seen you flee a fight. Can it be that you've abandoned me to go with this swaggering knave? You saucy jade!"

Ariel chuckled. "Pitti-Sing, you're in for a grave disappointment with this swasher. He's all blow and no poignard. I'd like to stay and watch. But I might be able to buy some chocolate back there," she said, longingly. "The vatbrats sometimes have some. Give, Gobbo. The money you found in that top pocket."

"*'S mine!"

"You got his hip flask, Gobbo," she said, closing on him with a bound. "You wouldn't want to fight with me then, would you?"

"h.e.l.lo. Methinks 'tis a threesome," said a new haughty voice. "I wouldn't hesitate to report this, unless I was insulted with a very considerable bribe."

Ariel turned. A party of wary-looking rats peered around the sandbagged corner. "*'Twould appear that rumors of your demise have been greatly exaggerated, Ariel," said the owner of the haughty voice, and an elevated snout, as he stepped jauntily out of cover.

"Pooh-Bah! Hasn't anyone killed you yet, you cozening rogue?" demanded Ariel, grinning.

The rat shook his head. "No. Alack. But I am sure for suitable fee it can be arranged." He looked at the dead lieutenant. "Methinks you'd better tuck his pockets back in," he said professionally. He gestured behind him with a stubby thumb. "They'll be here in few minutes. They don't make a fuss about us looting vatbrats, but it's the guardhouse and death for snaffling the wares of Shareholders. Didst get much?"

The gleam of silver on the crisp white cloths, and the twinkle of crystal in the candlelight: This was George Bernard Shaw City's finest restaurant, the Chez Henri-Pierre. The crystal gla.s.ses were from old Earth. Rumor had it that Henri-Pierre had killed an indentured Vat-scullion who had broken one. The astronomical distance the beautiful, fragile things had travelled was only matched by the prices of the food and the fine wines. The prices, of course, were not listed on the menu. If you had to ask you couldn't afford it. But Conrad had worked out by now that the price was related to the length of the dish's French name.

It was also inversely proportional to the size of the portion. By the exquisite-but minuscule-arrangement on Candice's plate, it was going to cost Conrad the equivalent of an ordinary worker's annual salary. Well, no matter. Conrad was a Shareholder, even if his father wasn't old money. It wasn't as if he was some indentured Vat. And he'd be off to join the army soon. It wasn't going to be easy to break it to her. He hoped that the ring in his pocket would offset the news.

Candice looked perfect in this setting, almost like some milk-white porcelain Meissen statuette, poised and with not a hair out of place. He cleared his throat uneasily. How should he do this?

"Uh. Candy." As soon as he'd said it he knew it was a mistake. She hated to be called that. Van Klomp always did it, at the top of his voice. She didn't like Bobby Van Klomp. She'd done her level best to see that Conrad kept away from the big Dutchman. It was a difficult situation. He and Bobby had come down on one 'chute together. Had resultantly spent six weeks next to each other, in the hospital, in traction. He owed an old friend loyalty. But Van Klomp had gone too far when he'd suggested that Candice might be seeing someone else.

"Um. I've got to tell you something." He felt for the ring box in his pocket.

She looked down at her plate. Conrad noticed that she'd not eaten much of the complex stack of ginger-scented scallops and tiger prawns. "I've got something to tell you too, Conrad." She fiddled with something on her right hand. It was, Conrad noticed for the first time, a band of gold. On her third finger. She turned it around. It was a diamond solitaire. Tombstone size. A lot bigger than the stone in the ring in his own pocket. "I'm engaged to be married."

Conrad stared at her, unbelievingly. Then at the ring. "Who . . . ?" he croaked.

"Talbot Cartup," she said coolly. "I'm sorry, Conrad. This is good-bye."

Talbot Cartup. One of wealthiest men on HAR. An original settler, not, like Fitzhugh, the son of one. At least thirty years her senior. And recently widowed. Very recently.

The bentwood chair and cerise satin cus.h.i.+on went flying. "How long has this been going on?" Conrad demanded, leaning over the table, apparently unrelated events suddenly coming together in his mind.

She colored faintly. "That has absolutely nothing to do with you. Sit down and behave yourself. People are staring."

"Let them stare. I want to know, d.a.m.n you, Candice."

"If you can't conduct yourself decently, then I suggest you leave," she said icily. "There was no future for us anyway. They're going to raise the conscription age to twenty-six. You will be going into the army."

He laughed humorlessly. "I was going to go anyway. And it's just as well. If I saw that fat creep Cartup, I'd probably kill him. You've been cheating on me, Candice. And, seeing as you'd like me to, I'm leaving."

Blundering blindly through close-set tables, and pus.h.i.+ng aside the maitre d'hotel, he headed for the night air and his car. It was a fine reproduction of a mid-twentieth-century Aston Martin. It was his pride and joy.

It was also in the throes of being towed away. Parking over there had been a risk, but he'd been late, and reluctant to hand the keys of his darling to the doorman. Well. He could reclaim it from the pound in the morning. And it wasn't as if he'd been going anywhere right now, except to drive too fast. He set out, walking. Walking nowhere in particular, but going there as rapidly as possible. He strode past the skeletal remains of the huge slows.h.i.+p that had brought the settlers here. The bulk of the twenty-first-century technical heart of the Colony remained here. Conrad did not. He continued on, past the security fence that surrounded the alien Korozhet's crippled FTL stars.h.i.+p. Onward without purpose or direction. Brooding. Furious-with himself and with her. Miserable.

It was well after midnight when he realized that his wandering feet had taken him far from the suburbs of George Bernard Shaw City. Far from a taxi to take him home.

And . . . relatively close to the airfield, and the hangar holding Van Klomp's jump-plane. He knew from past experience that the hangar wouldn't be locked.

Briefly he considered taking the little Fokker-Cessna up on a one-way flight. That would show her!

It would also ruin Bobby Van Klomp. The burly instructor had a solitary Share, and not much else besides that aircraft. Conrad knew that Van Klomp was coming in, in the morning, to do the final clearing and storage arrangements. He could scrounge a lift home then.

The clatter of the hangar doors woke him from an uncomfortable dream-chased sleep. And there, in the bright blue sunlight, stood Van Klomp, shaking his head at him. "You dumb b.a.s.t.a.r.d. They're bound to think of looking here soon. Where is your car?"

"City pound. It was towed away from the no-parking zone outside Chez Henri-Pierre, where-"

"Where you had a fight with that bimbo, told the whole restaurant you wanted to kill Talbot Cartup, and then stormed out." Van Klomp's face was creased with a wry grin. "And left Candy with a bill to settle, and her with not a dollar in her purse, never mind her taxi fare."

Fitz felt himself blush. "How do you know?"

"The cops told me, boeta. When they woke me up at three this morning, looking for you."

"Looking for me at three in the morning? For not settling a restaurant bill?"

Van Klomp gave a snort of laughter. "The way I heard it, there were a couple of tables full of crockery, food and gla.s.sware-oh, and a skinny little maitre d' that got in your way too. But that's minor, comparatively."

"Comparatively?"

"Compared to being wanted for murder."

"Murder?"

"Well, it is still attempted murder, at this stage. Talbot Cartup's not dead yet." Van Klomp's face was deadpan. "But if he dies, which looks likely, you're for the organ banks."

Fitz swallowed. "And Candice! Is she all right?"

Van Klomp shook his head. "You're a slow learner, Fitzy. She's the one who put the cops onto you. Said you tried to kill him."

Fitz gaped. "I didn't have anything to do with it, Bobby. When I saw them towing my car away, I . . . I was so mad and miserable that I just kept walking. Next thing I realized it was early morning and I was near here. I thought I'd wait for you to come in and cadge a lift home."

Van Klomp slapped him on the back, grinning again. "Oh, I didn't think you'd done it, boeta. I could just see the headline: Martial arts, dangersport and fitness fanatic ties old fart wearing woman's underwear to bed, beats him, puts plastic bag over his head and throttles him. When the cop told me about it, I said he was crazy. But face it, it looks pretty bad for you, Fitzy. You yelled that you wanted to kill him in front of a whole lot of witnesses, besides the bimbo saying that you did it."

Genie Out of the Bottle Part 1

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Genie Out of the Bottle Part 1 summary

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