Night of the Rat God
Night of the Rat God
©2010 Michael A. Stackpole
Anderson followed me into the Wanderer’s Club quiet room. He wore the same desperate expression on his face as I did on mine. I beat him to the sideboard. “Scotch?”
I poured him three fingers, then added another and handed it off. Rogers, the club’s wraithlike major domo, cast me a stern glance for my usurpation of his prerogative. I ignored him, filled my own snifter, then swirled the dark amber liquid. The scent, full of wood smoke and peat, cleared my head.
I offered a toast. “To liars who at least pretend not to be lying.”
Anderson touched his glass to mine, drank, and moved to a comfortable chair.
I followed suit, sipping, relishing the gentle burn down my throat. “Perfect.”
Anderson nodded. “It is, though not even drinking the whole of the bottle could erase the memory. Does he truly think he’s fooling anyone?”
“That’s not his concern. As long as they laugh, he doesn’t care if it is with him or at him.” I swirled the whisky again, daring it to climb the glass’ sloping walls and fly free. “His story wasn’t completely without merit. It sparked a memory.”
“Indeed.” I sat in the chair beside his. “Yes, of the time I was in the Orient with Doctor Charon, adventuring in Mizoriaram. Have I told you this story before?”
Anderson shook his head. “You’ve mentioned Charon in the past. Odd man you once said.”
“Remarkable, really.” I looked up as a few more refugees from the banquet room filtered in. “I had more than one adventure with him, but this was one of the first that took me so far away. I’ve always thought of it as our ‘Night of the Rat God.’”
It was back before the War. I guess, actually, one can’t say that, “back before the war.” It’s more like between the wars. I’d missed the earlier one, my mother being a widow and I her sole support. I had joined the militia, found out I was a crack shot, and then developed that taste for flying. They allowed me to fly behind-the- lines mail service once or twice. As long as I was not carrying a gun, High Command didn’t seem to think it was dangerous.
Then, at university, the flying bug wouldn’t let me go. My mother passed, God bless her soul. That’s when I learned about my father—who he truly was. He wanted nothing to do with me. His lot never do. Having more money than he had sense of family, he paid me to go away. I bought my own Jenny, started tinkering with it, then barnstorming. It was in flying circles where I first met Nathaniel Charon.
How to describe him? Handsome, of course, well-chiseled features. Quite a large man, but to look at him you would not imagine it so. Well-muscled, but evenly developed. In a tailored suit, most would take him being smaller than he is. Very quick, too, sense of a tiger about him. Raven’s-wing black hair, worn at different lengths depending, and usually neatly trimmed. On the paler side flesh-wise, of course, which is most odd given his hair’s coloration.
The eyes however, are the feature most people remember. No single color describes them. I’ve called them obsidian―for they are mostly black, but hints of purple and red, sometimes even bits of gold, depending on the light and the situation. Damnedest thing, he has the best night vision of anyone I know. More of the tiger there. And so stealthy he could sneak up on Argus. He just has a way about him.
You do know he’s a genius—everyone does. He has multiple degrees from a variety of universities, and has studied everything from engineering of all stripes through biology and occultism. He’s a polymath, no doubt; and refers to himself as a thaumaturgist. I’ve heard him joke that had he been born three centuries ago, he’d have long since been burned as a witch.
I’d been tinkering in the hanger, working out a gadget to make crop-dusting a bit more efficient. I was mounting it on the Jenny when Nathaniel arrived at the hangar. I wiped my hand off and let his hand swallow mine. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
He smiled easily, but with a devilish hint of mischief. “I am headed to Mizoriaram, just west of Myanmar, in the Astrogator. I have need of an engineer, if you don’t mind a lot of lathe work and gear-fitting.”
“Mind?” I laughed. I’d gotten into a bit of a financial bind that even the most efficient crop-dusting business wouldn’t dig me out of. “I’ll be happy to join you. How long will we be gone?”
He shrugged. “Back before you know it, Jack. A month, perhaps. You’ll be compensated.” He went on to name a sum which more than generously filled the hole I’d dug myself into.
“I do believe I can free my schedule. When do we leave?”
“A week. I will bring the Astrogator by to pick you up.” He hesitated, then gave me a half-smile which, I swear, was thoroughly disarming. Wearing it alone he could have marched unmolested past legions of demons and straight out of Hell. “Lady Jane will be joining us. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not.” I returned the smile, praying he didn’t catch me in my lie. “I shall begin packing immediately.”
“Perfect, thank you.” He shook my hand again and walked off, vanishing quickly.
The warning meant more to me than the job. The fact is that Lady Jane Fortune and I did not get along terribly well. My fault, really. She’s stunningly beautiful—long white-blonde hair, perfect features with alabaster skin and ruby-red lips. Bright blue eyes, tending toward gray when she angers―something I know now, but had not known when we first met. Most would describe her as petite, but this is like describing a leopard as cuddly. She’s quite unforgiving and, regrettably, has an eidetic memory which catalogues everything.
On a previous occasion, just after I had won an air-rally, I had a bit much to drink. I took a fancy to her and proceeded to lecture her on why she should be grateful for my attentions. I made quite the ass of myself, of course, and have little memory of it. What I do retain, however, involved her explaining in explicit detail how she would take my hide off in strips were I ever to speak to her again without being given express permission to do so.
Fortunately the Astrogator is large enough of an airship that avoiding her outside of the galley would be a simple matter. So I set about, for the next week, gathering up my things in preparation for the trip. Aside from clothes, I packed six bottles of very good Scotch, my flask, and my tool-kit. I considered bringing the old Webley-Fosbery—given Charon’s penchant for adventure—but decided against it lest Lady Jane see it as provocation. I even packed Guy Newell Boothby’s latest Nikola novel, The Lust of Hate, to pass any idle time—of which, it turned out, there would be little.
A week after that initial interview, the Astrogator arrived at the airfield. It has the typical cigar shape for the balloon, and twin outboard motors to drive giant propellers, but beyond that it is strikingly unique. The passenger deck sits above a cargo deck, the latter being walled with canvas over a titanium framework and decking. The prow appears to be an eagle’s head, complete with a beak. Aluminum skin covers the passenger deck on the outside, but rich woods are used inside; and insulation keeps out most sound and chill. I swear that when aboard the Astrogator, one can easily mistake the airship’s interior for that of a noble’s yacht.
Nathaniel let down the ship’s rear cargo ramp. At his suggestion I arranged my tools in his workshop. Then I got my personal belongings and stowed them in the last cabin on the port side. Before I had finished hanging up my dinner jacket and could close the wardrobe, the engines roared and we clawed for sky.
Doctor Charon and I set to work almost immediately. He showed me the prototypes of three spherical devices, the largest roughly the size of a pumpkin, the smallest a lime, and the middle one a grapefruit. Holes festooned the brass flesh of each in a random pattern, though the holes were no larger than a peppercorn. Within each gears meshed to drive a bellows system. What would actually power them I couldn’t quite tell, but I manufactured the parts for the central cylinder as per Nathaniel’s instructions. They had to securely hold octagonal green crystals which, to my untrained eye, looked remarkably like emeralds. Also, in my spare time, I modified one of the smallest spheres to work off a mainspring which could be wound by twisting the lower hemisphere around.
I’ve spoken to a few others who have accompanied Doctor Charon on his adventures and we agree that he seems to have a personal time-dilation effect around him. I worked countless hours beside him, snatching sleep when I could. No matter how early I would rise, of course, I never beat him down to the workshop. The man was utterly tireless, yet always of good spirits and showed no sign of fatigue. Time passed without my noticing and, if asked to swear upon a Bible, I’d have to say we made the trip halfway around the world in mere days, without the need to refuel. Quite impossible, of course, but that is how it seemed.
Each evening we enjoyed sumptuous meals, which appeared and vanished as if by magick. Could well have been that, since I never saw any servants. We’d end the meals with brandy and excellent cigars, commonly taken on the open deck of the eagle’s-head. Looking down at a sleeping world, occasionally seeing the dim glow of a lilliputian city, makes one feel like a god.
During this time Lady Jane warmed toward me—which is to say she went from positively arctic to merely chilly. That first night I found her in the lounge, wearing a lovely dinner gown, applying a whetstone to the razored edge of a Han backsword. The lethal blade contrasted with the elegance of her dress, yet the hiss of stone on steel reminded me to keep my tongue still in her presence.
The next night, however, in a satin gown that matched her blue eyes perfectly, she sharpened a trio of throwing knives. I resolved to remain silent, lest she employ one to pin my tongue to palate, but she actually deigned to speak to me. “Nathaniel tells me you are doing excellent work.”
I nodded. “He is most kind.”
“True, though he does not lavish praise where it is not deserved, Mr. Ravensthorpe. I may have to revise my opinion of your usefulness.” Her eyes glittered and light played off the knife-edges.
I wisely did not correct her and invite her to address me informally. In fact, I only responded to direct questions, keeping my answers polite and succinct. It occurred to me, as we ate our way through a magnificent salmon in a dill-cream sauce, that my tactic frustrated her to a certain degree. Her frustration, in turn, seemed to amuse Nathaniel, so I saw no reason to change course.
The third night Lady Jane labored over no knives. She instead entertained herself playing on the spinet in the lounge. She began with some medieval dirge, then—as provocation for comment, I suspect—segued into a medley of raucous tunes from juke-joints and dance halls. Her skill, and the spinet’s curious tones, elevated the music from its common origins, yet left it possessed of its primal vitality. She definitely seemed in higher spirits—almost reaching a level which could be described as “playful.”
For my part, I nursed my brandy and retired early, having no desire to become an irritant, or remind her that I had been one in the past.
Just after dawn we began our descent into Mizoriaram. Doctor Charon opened the loading ramp, supplying me with a vista of lush, green, bamboo forests on rugged hillsides. Here and there a grouping of thatched buildings flanked a muddy road. Bamboo had been slashed away and rice paddies, now drained, had produced a waist-high crop laden with golden crowns of seeds. These fields formed a motley patchwork over the landscape.
Below us people pointed upward and yelled, either in awe or sheer terror. Children, as they will, gathered in packs and would chase after the Astrogator’s shadow. The peoples below appeared to be Hans racially, but the presence of churches in villages of any size suggested missionaries had made significant inroads. At least one old man crossed himself as we passed over, which I took as something of a hopeful sign.
Lady Jane brought the Astrogator down in a small town named Shan-bua. The collection of wooden huts clung to steep hillsides. A dirt track zig-zagged through the heart of it, down to a sluggish river. The track continued to parallel the river in both directions, leading off to green squares of cultivated fields. Many of them had a hut on stilts built at their hearts and a few men wandered, tending the crops.
Quite a crowd collected as Doctor Charon and I deployed the mooring posts. We sank them like tent-pegs and lashed the airship to them. We let the airship rotate like a weather vane, but could haul it back in and make it fast if we needed to unload cargo. We would do that later, of course, but while we worked a welcoming committee came to greet us.
“God be praised you’ve come, Doctor Charon!” A flaxen-haired woman of good breeding, likely five years my junior, perhaps ten, parted the crowd and headed straight for Nathaniel. “I had prayed my missive had gotten to you but I dared not hope it would be in time.”
Nathaniel left off speaking in the local dialect with a headman and turned to greet the woman. “Ah, Miss Hopewell. I’m pleased we arrived before disaster.”
“Not entirely, I’m afraid.” She spoke with an American accent, from somewhere in the mid-Atlantic states. She wore a white blouse buttoned to the throat and a grey skirt that went to her knees—her attire was a model of feminine modesty especially compared to the brighter colors worn by the native Mizori people. Her only concessions to conditions in Mizoriaram were some oversized rubber galoshes, which she tied shut at mid-calf, and a conical coolie hat which, now, hung down against her back, trapping her long hair. She had blue eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks.
Nathaniel nodded sagely. “I’m certain we will sort things out. Let me present my associates. Lady Jane Fortune, this is Diana Hopewell. And this is Jack Ravensthorpe.”
Lady Jane, who had dressed in a white blouse, jodhpurs and brown boots, with a broomhandled Mauser at her right hip, smiled as one might when watching an amusing child. “Pleasure.”
Miss Hopewell gave me a dazzling smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come. I have been praying you would make it. Things have become much more… complicated.”
Nathaniel frowned. “After I received your letter, I did some research in various archives. What you’ve described…”
“…yes, is a naturally occurring cycle.” He spread his arms. “Every fifty years or so the bamboo forests blossom. They produce fruit, then die off en masse. This process of fruiting, however, allows the black rat population in the forests to explode. By the time the bamboo have ceased flowering, the rat population has grown exponentially, and deprived of bamboo fruit, the rats sweep over the rice fields, eating everything. If the farmers here are lucky, they will be able to harvest the grain before the last great rat birthing takes place.”
“That is certainly the basis for things, Doctor, but there is more, much more.” Miss Hopewell crossed herself. “The Mizori are Christians, you see, and have been for generations. Yet in their hearts still dwell the sins of superstition and idolatry. They believe the bamboo’s flowering presages the Rise of the Rat God, Tiango. Those who do not freely give food to vermin, those who have trapped and killed rats, will feel his wrath.”
I snorted. “Poppycock.”
“So you say, Mr. Ravensthorpe, but I have seen…”
Before she could finish her explanation, a shout arose among the Mizori. The crowd parted and a mud-streaked man wearing a loincloth of tattered rat-skins, with dying grasses braided into long, unkempt locks, came galloping down from the top of the hill. His nails dug into the earth as he bobbed and hopped toward us. He looked a fright and, most peculiarly, had a large, fat rat that somehow maintained its purchase at the back of his neck. It clung to his hair as if a man riding with hands on a horse’s mane.
I, of course, stepped forward, interposing myself between him and Miss Hopewell. I still carried the sledgehammer I’d used on the mooring posts. It gratified me that Miss Hopewell hid in my shadow, though Lady Jane’s drawing her pistol and stepping in front of me robbed my gesture of its full heroic effect.
The lunatic drew up short, then straightened as the rat moved to his right shoulder. I noticed, at that point, that he stood taller than the Mizori people and lacked the epicanthic fold that would have marked his origin as Asian. In fact, truth be told, he reminded me a great deal of Simon de Grenier. Arrogant man, as all the Gauls are, and annoying when I met him at the Club a few times. He’d disappeared in the jungles of Siam, which is likely why he came to mind. That the rat-man spoke with a hint of a Gaulish accent heightened my suspicions.
“Go away. This village is forfeit.” He growled his words, as if speaking English actually hurt his throat.
Nathaniel stroked his chin. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Doctor Nathaniel Charon.”
The rat-man hissed, then drew back. The rat stood on hind feet and sniffed. “I know what you are. You are insufficient. If you stay, you will die.”
He then raised his face to the sky and began a piercing squeal. The rat joined him, and a few of the local curs began to howl.
Then, from the surrounding bamboo forests, many voices; countless, tiny voices; took up the cry. Waves of sound crashed into the village from downhill, across the river, north and south. Some voices echoed from beneath huts. Children screamed and dogs cowered. The squealing of tens of thousands of rats tore at our sanity.
I clapped hands over my ears and would have cursed to fight back, but I did not want to give Miss Hopewell the wrong impression. Even Lady Jane appeared staggered by the sound, but not Nathaniel. It broke on him like waves on a promontory lighthouse. His hands curled into fists, but I gathered that was more in defiance than any involuntary concession to the din.
The rat came back down on all fours and nuzzled the man’s ear. He grew quiet and slowly, like water running back into the ocean, the sound receded. The rat-man smiled—clearly insane and thinking himself the victor—then pointed a finger at all of us.
“If they would be saved, they will build a temple to Tiango. They will offer sacrifice. You will leave in your cloudboat. Take her with you.”
Nathaniel lifted his chin. “And if we do not?”
“Tiango will eat you all, everything.” The man cackled, then spun on his heel and raced back toward the forest depths and sanctuary.
Lady Jane drew a bead with the Mauser, but Nathaniel waved her off. “That won’t do anything.”
“Shooting him will make me feel better.”
Nathaniel smiled. “I suspect you will, in the coming days, have cause to feel very good.”
She holstered the pistol and snorted, then glared at me as if her frustration was, somehow, my fault.
I, for my part, said nothing.
Nathaniel came over and rested his hands on Miss Hopewell’s shoulders. “You have nothing to fear, Miss Hopewell. We’ll be able to deal with this.”
“Really?” She looked up with eyes that brimmed with tears. “These poor people. To save their bodies they would have to surrender their souls.”
Nathaniel smiled and infused his words with so much sincerity that I felt my mood soar. “Then you see to their souls, Miss Hopewell, and we shall see to saving their physical well-being.”
This made Miss Hopewell very happy. She dried her tears on a handkerchief Nathaniel handed her, then gathered her flock and ushered them back toward the church. The sound of hymns soon emanated from the bamboo building and did much to dispel the dismal miasma caused by the rats’ serenade.
Lady Jane, Nathaniel and I returned to the Astrogator and dropped it lower into the valley. We proceeded north to the field closest to the forest and began offloading our equipment. Nathaniel spoke with the Mizori men and set them to preparing four foot long lengths of bamboo pipe. They made them in two different diameters, roughly corresponding to the small and medium balls we’d assembled during the flight. They placed the smallest pipes ten yards from the forest, spacing them ten yards apart. The medium pipes were placed in a circle at the heart of the field roughly twenty yards in diameter. At the heart of the circle we placed wooden barrels from the Astrogator.
We repeated this process at the southernmost field, and set the smaller pipes along the river intermittently. Then, as you might have come to surmise, we placed one of each of the appropriate balls into the pipes and barrels. No attempt was made to disguise the pipes, though the rice plants amid which they nestled, hid them fairly easily. Nathaniel and I had to make up more of the smallest variety, but accomplished all that by early evening. Before dusk all the balls had been placed, save for the spring-operated one which I’d created.
The villagers, as you might expect, prepared a feast in our honor that evening. Since the rice had not yet been harvested, the fare could at best be described as meagre. The Mizori boiled and mashed bamboo fruit into a rather tart compote. This they mixed with a variety of spices, including a small, orange pepper which many people grew around the base of their huts in the belief that its heat would repel rats. The compote became the foundation for a sauce to be poured over almost everything, and a broth in which anything else would be poached. This utterly disguised the taste of the meat which was, of course, rat.
Not having been on the front in the war, I never developed a taste for ‘trench-veal,’ but these rats had grown quite plump. Tasted nothing like chicken, but then chicken would have tasted nothing like chicken were it boiled in the bamboo-fruit compote. As the villagers gave us kingly proportions, I ate what I could with a smile. Nathaniel complimented the meal in their tongue, and I nodded as he spoke. Our reaction was taken well by the assembled multitude.
After dinner we thanked Miss Hopewell and Nathaniel told her that if there was any kindness she needed, he would be happy to oblige.
“Actually, Doctor, I had hoped you would indulge me.” She smiled warmly. “I’ve read of your Astrogator, of course. I would love to see inside it.”
“My pleasure.” Nathaniel nodded to me. “Jack, if you would do the honors. Lady Jane and I have a bit more work to do.”
I conducted Miss Hopewell on her tour, showing her everything but the staterooms. I thought that would be indelicate. I offered her a post-prandial libation, but she was of one of those American sects that eschews drinking. To be polite, I abstained—despite fiercely wanting something to cut the cloying taste of dinner—and we ended up on the observation deck, peering east over the dark valley.
She seemed a bit sad, so I made to comfort her. “Don’t be concerned, Miss Hopewell. Doctor Charon knows what he’s doing.”
“Oh, no, I have the utmost faith in him.” She smiled, albeit briefly, and looked down. “When I wrote him I felt foolish. I’d only read of him in a silly magazine—The Adventurers’ Gazette. I’d not have read in it, of course, but I was homesick and mad to read anything in English. To be quite truthful, I scarcely believed he existed, but I took a chance and wrote him care of the publisher. I still don’t believe he came.”
I might have recognized it then had this not been my first true adventure with Nathaniel, and were I not smitten by Miss Hopewell myself. It was the freckles mostly, and that damned American accent. She stared back at the Astrogator’s cabin, as if expecting Nathaniel to join us. “Do you know him well, Mr. Ravensthorpe?”
“Moderately, yes, Miss.”
“Are he and Lady Jane… I mean, the story I read made no mention of her and I shouldn’t think an unmarried woman would come all this way unescorted…”
“Lady Jane is more than capable of taking care of herself. But you must remember that Doctor Charon is an honorable man.”
“Oh, yes, of course, I know that.” She grew quiet for a moment, then sighed and looked at me. “And I am quite certain you are as well, Mr. Ravensthorpe. He would not have invited you were you anything but.”
It occurred to me then, of course, that she had eyes only for Nathaniel. My heart sank because, compared to him, I would have looked scarcely better than the rat-man. For a moment I grew angry at Lady Jane’s earlier action facing down the speaker-for-vermin, but dismissed my ire quickly. I felt fair certain that Lady Jane would somehow perceive my resentment, and I did not want to deal with the consequences.
Diana sighed again. “Does he have no one, Mr. Ravensthorpe? Can so bold a man have to go through life without finding his soulmate?”
I hesitated for a moment, biting back my initial response. “I believe you will find, Miss Hopewell, that a man like Doctor Charon foregoes many things in order to help people, much as you have separated yourself from your people to carry on your mission here. Just as you draw solace from your faith in God, and know that your reward will be forthcoming; so Nathaniel knows that someday, he will find his soulmate.”
I watched the emotions flickering over her beautiful face and hastily added, “And, God permitting, will be able to return to her and take her with him at the right time.”
You might think me cruel in saying that, of course, but my statement was not born out of my frustration or sadness. At that moment, because her fear had led her to reach out to a hero; and because she came to regard that hero highly, she needed my words. They gave her hope. Whether she realized that or not, she accepted my comment with a girlish smile which I remember warmly even to this day.
Our conversation thus concluded, I conducted her back to her quarters and returned to the Astrogator. I headed to the lounge to get the drink I had resisted earlier. Lady Jane already had poured it for me and sat in a wing-back chair with her own snifter.
I eyed my drink suspiciously. “What did you do to it?”
“Nothing. You’ve earned it.”
I sniffed. It smelled right. “How did I do that?”
She laughed. “Saved me the trouble of breaking Miss Hopewell’s heart.”
I sipped to stop myself from saying something which would get me killed.
Lady Jane’s smile send a chill through me. “Men all suffer from the ‘White Knight Syndrome.’ A woman mews for help and you fall all over yourselves to rescue her. It’s mildly endearing when she is truly in danger; and exceedingly pathetic when she is acting so she can use you for her own gain.”
My eyes narrowed. “I hardly think Miss Hopewell is doing that.”
“Yes, yes, rise to her defense. You’re thick in the syndrome, Ravensthorpe.” She drank, then swirled the brandy in the bulbous glass. “Women often suffer from the reverse, the ‘Damsel Disorder.’ They fixate on any man who rescues them. His heroism erases all faults and flaws. She will do anything for him, including whelping his get and turning a blind eye to his failings. Poor girl has so romanticized Nathaniel that she’d promote him into that Trinity she worships.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Beware blasphemy! You don’t want God angry with you.”
“Gods aren’t nearly as scary after you’ve killed one.” Lady Jane regarded me with the sort of piercing gaze falcons reserve for mice. “I would have told Miss Hopewell that she should abandon her fantasy. I would have suggested that if we survive tomorrow, she will never see Nathaniel again. And if she still persisted in her illusions, I would tell her that chances were he would have forgotten her inside a year.”
“Efficient and realistic.” She shrugged and drained her glass. “But you let her down easily. You let her dream. You know, for the rest of her life, she’ll wait for his return. Even if she marries and has a dozen children, she will expect he will find her.”
I glanced down into the amber pool in my glass. “She seemed more sensible than that.”
“If she was thinking, she might be.” Lady Jane shook her head. “She was feeling, so no logic applies.”
“I hope you do. It will save you a great deal of trouble later.” She rose from her chair. “You’ll want to finish your drink and get to sleep. If you manage to live through it, tomorrow will be the longest day of your life.”
That next day dawned clear and warm. This excited the people of Shan-bua. Another day or two of warm weather and the rice crop would be ready for harvest. People repaired baskets and honed sickles in anticipation of getting the harvest in. What had been a previously dour mood lightened considerably.
Nathaniel’s work through the night did not add to the good mood. He’d caught and dissected a number of rats from the fields. He’d shifted some things around in the Astrogator’s workshop, turning it into a makeshift surgery. He had several of the rats laid out the table, and pointed toward the female rats’ wombs with a scalpel.
“Each of them was carrying five to six pups, but more importantly, take a look at the womb.”
Lady Jane peered closely. “The dark spots on the interior wall, those are umbilical scars.”
“Yes, and recent.” Nathaniel’s obsidian eyes narrowed. “These rats have given birth to eighteen or so pups already, and were a week from giving birth to six more.”
I did some rough calculations. “Half would be female. How many to start?”
Nathaniel stroked his chin. “You can start with six hundred in the nearby forest, half of those capable of bearing young. And it’s been four months since the first blossoming.”
“We’re looking at over 16,000 rats or more, give or take.” I shivered. I envisioned a black rodent blanket rippling over the fields.
“If the cycle has progressed enough, we could be looking at over twice that.”
Lady Jane smiled, her eyes bright. “Target rich environment.”
I stared at her. “It would be impossible to kill that many rats.”
“Won’t know until we try.” She laughed lightly, looking about happy as I’ve ever seen her, and left the workshop.
I turned to Nathaniel. “What can I do?”
“We’ve done all we can, so far. This evening will be the test.” He clapped me on the shoulders. “I think you should be morale officer. We want everyone in Shan-bua feeling good and confident. That will sustain them through tonight.”
“And if the rats win?”
His expression tightened. “Then at least they will have had one last good day.”
I took my mission seriously and determined to make everyone happy. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to get children laughing and having fun. Allow adults to join in, and anything can become a rousing success. And if you start with a bit of a secret, people are intrigued, and that gets them involved just that much more quickly.
I exited the Astrogator and sent some boys off on an errand. They gathered the necessary lengths of bamboo and rat-skins. I set them to work with the smaller lengths of bamboo, while I enlisted Miss Hopewell’s aid through her sewing skills. I took several larger pieces of bamboo into the workshop and inside the hour was ready to proceed.
I introduced the noble sport of Cricket to the people of Shan-bua.
I fashioned several bats out of bamboo while the boys, as per my instructions, had set up wickets. Miss Hopewell had stitched rat-skins into a cricket ball which had a sand-filled sack for a heart surrounded by grasses for stuffing. It wasn’t as hard as a cricket ball should be, but was firm enough to bounce up off the pitch and heavy enough to take a wicket when bowled well.
At University I’d been an indifferent player, but this was great fun. I did the bowling to start, taking it easy on the children. They batted until they got at least one hit, then moved into the field, jabbering away in their local tongue. Their laughter and enthusiasm brought the adults around and a few of the men wanted to take a turn batting. I stepped my speed up with them, of course, and a few of them managed to hit the ball a long way. A couple of men wished to bowl, so I got my chance at batting—acquitting myself well enough that Miss Hopewell applauded and brought me some water when I retired from the pitch.
“You are quite the sportsman, Mr. Ravensthorpe.”
“You’re very kind.” I took the water from a bamboo cup. “You know things will turn out well, don’t you?”
She sighed. “I hope so. I pray so, but I must admit that shaman terrifies me.” She lowered her voice. “I believe some people have set up a small temple to Tiango in the forest in an attempt to appease him. It’s pure idolatry and puts their souls in jeopardy.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that remark.
“I believe, Miss Hopewell, your God will be more forgiving than you might be inclined to imagine.”
I turned quickly, spilling some water. Nathaniel, big as he was, had come up behind me without making a sound. “Is there something wrong?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Nothing to be alarmed about. If I could have your help for a moment, Jack, I would appreciate it.”
“Of course.” I turned and handed Miss Hopewell the cup. “Please, excuse me.”
She smiled sweetly. “Do hurry back.”
I followed Nathaniel into the Astrogator. In the hold that had formerly been our workshop, Lady Jane sat, clearly in a foul mood. She plied a whetstone to the blade of a knife that already looked sharp enough to slice up from down.
I hesitated in the hatchway. “What is the problem?”
Nathaniel turned, his face grim. “Lady Jane and I conducted a reconnaissance of the forest. We’ve had ample evidence that the rat population has been growing very swiftly. What would that lead you to expect to also be present?”
I frowned. “Aside from abundant evidence of rats, I suppose I’d expect to see predators. Snakes, cats. There’s a civet native to this area, isn’t there, and leopard-cats, as well as their larger kin?”
Lady Jane looked up. “Someone was awake during biology courses at university.”
“I volunteered at the Royal Zoological Gardens during the war.” I glanced at a silver tray on a table at the heart of the room. A torn piece of tissue, looking much like a scrap of carpet, lay upon it. I came closer and Nathaniel smoothed it out. “That can’t be.”
“But it is. That’s all we found.”
There was no mistaking what the palm-sized scrap really was: a tiger pelt—a tiny portion of it anyway. I suppose it was possible it might have been torn from the creature’s side, but by what?
I looked up. “You saw no other sign of predators?”
Lady Jane stood, sliding the blade home in a boot-sheath. “Nothing. No prints. No scat. No kills. Nothing. Just this, along with obvious signs of a struggle. They ate everything, even down to the bones.”
“But that’s not natural.”
Nathaniel sighed heavily. “It’s not, not at all. That’s why I’m going to need your help.”
“Anything I can do.”
Nathaniel glanced out one of the portholes. “We’ve got six hours before dusk. I’m going to need to be out in the fields to deal with the rats. With your help, I think I can put something together that will give me a bit more staying power than the tiger had.”
With the help of the village smith and a local tanner, we managed to put together what had to be the ugliest suit of armor every devised. Strips of iron ran parallel to all of Nathaniel’s long bones. We joined them with mail rings and riveted them to the hide. More mail covered his chest and groin. From within the Astrogator came a diving helmet and pectoral plate of bronze, which we fitted with a makeshift snorkle. The entire suit, with the pelts worn fur-side out, made Nathaniel look like a piebald cat which had collided with a street car—whilst underwater.
About the only bit that looked elegant was the pair of gloves Nathaniel wore. Made of bronze with styling which drew heavily on Art Deco aesthetics, they covered him halfway up his forearms. The fully-articulated fingers all had oval panels made of coral and, though I knew it wasn’t possible, the back of each hand featured what appeared to be an emerald disk two inches in diameter. I asked where he’d gotten them and Nathaniel—a man who has a keen understanding of the stress-relieving properties of a good jest—smiled at me and answered, “Atlantis.”
The three of us emerged from the Astrogator. Lady Jane carried a shotgun, her Mauser and, I am guessing, an equal weight of metal to Nathaniel’s armor. In her case it came in the form of knives and other throwing blades distributed about her person.
The only weapons I bore were the sphere I’d created, tucked in my pocket, and my cricket bat. Given what the rats had done to a tiger, I decided that my bat would be as effective as anything against them. Crushing would work as well as cutting. If Nathaniel’s estimates of the rat population were even close, missing targets was not going to be a problem.
Miss Hopewell took one look at us and blood drained from her face. “You look as if you’re going to war.”
Lady Jane laughed as if we were actually off on a walk in the park. “Always good to be cautious.”
Nathaniel unscrewed the helmet and pulled it off. “Miss Hopewell, it will be up to you to see to the safety of the people of Shan-bua. Gather them in your Church. Have them pray.”
She shook her head. “We can be out there with you. We can help.”
He gave her a broad smile. “You will help the most if you keep them safe and calm. We will deal with the rats.”
Miss Hopewell looked crestfallen for a moment at being sent away, but then she seemed to bask in the notion that Nathaniel wanted her to be safe. “You must be careful, Nathaniel. And, you should understand, some people have deserted the village.”
Lady Jane cocked an eyebrow. “How many? Are they armed?”
“I don’t know. A half-dozen, perhaps. I just know some have gone.”
Lady Jane gave Miss Hopewell a disapproving glance, shouldered her shotgun, then marched down the hill toward the north field.
“Thank you.” Nathaniel nodded and turned to trail in Lady Jane’s wake.
Miss Hopewell took a tentative step forward, but his long legs took him away quickly. She, therefore, turned to me. “Jack, don’t let anything happen… you know.”
To him? “It will all be fine. Go. Get to the Church. Sing some hymns and sing them loudly.”
“I shall.” She leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
I tossed her a wink, then ran off to catch up with my companions. I reached them halfway down the hill. Its shadow had already fallen over the fields and forest. A light appeared ahead of us, deep in the bamboo, off to the north but heading in our direction. By the time we reached the field, the light resolved itself into a handful of men with torches surrounding Tiango’s crazed shaman. Among them I recognized the tanner and his brother. While none of the new devotees had deteriorated to the level of the rat-man, they had torn their clothes and smeared themselves with mud.
The shaman, the large rat still perched on his shoulder, pointed a crooked and filthy finger at Nathaniel. “Tiango gave you warning. You will learn the error of your ways.”
In one smooth motion, Lady Jane’s shotgun came down. The muzzle-flash froze the scene for a heartbeat. The blast hit the rodents’ chaplain on the right side of his chest, spinning him around. The rat went flying. The man’s body slammed back against two of the other men, who then went down beneath it.
She looked up at Nathaniel. “Work your magick and let us leave this sorry place.”
“It’s not going to be that easy, I’m afraid.”
Nathaniel stared at the forest. Here and there a pair of eyes lit up. Then a few more, and a few more, and then they were everywhere. In the underbrush. High in the trees. Clinging to bamboo stalks. Thousands of them, tens of thousands. Perhaps more.
A black rodent river poured from the forest. It flooded over the shaman’s body. I couldn’t tell if the shot had killed him. It really didn’t matter. The rats sheathed him, then his body jerked and he sat upright. He laughed and then rose on a pedestal of rats. He regained his feet, steadied by the rats, which covered him in a dark writhing mass of living armor.
“You were given your chance. No more.”
Lady Jane fired again. A dozen rats flew in pieces, but more flowed up to replace them. Then a wave crested over the shaman, submerging him beneath a squirming mound. His human aides recoiled and fled, yet did not get far. More rats swarmed over them, and the men simply dissolved beneath their voracious assault..
Nathaniel shouted. “Get back, both of you. Go. Go!”
The mound of rats rose up and took a shambling step forward. Without a single sharp edge, it resolved itself into a hulking human simulacrum. I supposed the shaman was in there somewhere, at its heart, but it didn’t matter. The creature reared up, raising both thick arms. When the hands met, the creature shrieked with the falsetto of a thousand rat voices joined in unison. “You have angered Tiango! Know his wrath!”
An unholy black light poured from the joined hands. A pillar of fire, really, with shadow-flames licking at the edges, it shot down at Nathaniel. His hands rose. The emeralds glowed. The black energy slammed into a invisible demi-sphere, splashing off it as molten wax might splatter off an egg.
Part of that black energy spattered me, catching the side of my face. I expected burning heat, but got gnawing cold. One tooth burst, pain stabbing into my brain, but that was not the worst of it. The pain vanished beneath a sensation of being smothered by rats. I knew that this was an insane fantasy because none of the rodents had reached me, but reality made no difference. I could feel them crawling over me, their fury bodies wriggling against me. Claws scraping. Whiskers tickling before sharp teeth nipped. Their musky scent filled my nose. I could taste them. Hairless tails filled my mouth. Talons raked across my eyeballs.
My mind broke. I ran screaming. Rice plants whipped against me. Ripe kernels showered me. I tripped, fell headlong. I could hear the rats catching up with me. I could feel them darting up my pants legs and under my shirt. I heaved myself up, went to a knee again, and almost surrendered myself wholly to the madness of panic.
And I would have, because the fear of being eaten alive—perhaps the most primal fear any creature possesses—ran deep. But my salvation lay in answering another call, a more noble call. I heard someone else shrieking. A female voice, off to my right. Through my panic rose the knowledge that I had a duty to protect her. I responded to the equally primal call to defend another human. To preserve a female and thereby preserve humanity. Though certain I would die in the attempt to save her, to run now was to abandon any claim I had to the noble lineage of the Homo Sapien.
I cut to the right and stood there, brandishing my bat. I placed myself between the forest and where Lady Jane lay, knees drawn up to her chest, giving free voice to terror. “Fear not, my lady, I shall save you!”
I hoped I shouted the words defiantly.
I would have settled for growling them fiercely.
I’m afraid they may have just barely squeaked out.
The undulating mound of rats had risen to thirty feet in height. The conical legs were six feet in diameter at the ground. The creature held its arms out, swaying left and right. Roiling black plasma balls in each palm sparked with silver electricity. A blast came from the left, then the right, lethal lightning jetting in at Nathaniel. His protective sphere held. Each strike sparked green from his unseen shield. One bolt hammered him to a knee. The creature laughed, redoubling its effort. Its assault became relentless in its ferocity.
The shield began to shrink.
“We have to hurt it. Hurt it badly.” Lady Jane appeared at my side, her face ashen. She broke her shotgun open and stuffed in two shells. “I want to cripple, but I can’t blast deep enough.”
“Want to take a leg off at the hip?” I laughed, and not at all nervously. “I have just the trick.”
I pulled the sphere from my pocket and, tucking my bat beneath my arm, wound the lower hemisphere up. “Left or right hip?”
Her eyes hardened. “Your choice.”
“Right it will be.” Taking the bat in my right hand, I lofted the sphere with my left. Both hands on the bat, I watched the metal ball descend, then swung. Crack! I caught all of it and sent it dead on target.
I’d had no idea what Doctor Charon’s spheres would do, but I’d fixed mine to wreak havoc. When struck with the bat, the sphere’s two halves popped apart about a quarter of an inch. Spring-loaded portions of a circular saw blade snapped back together and began to spin. The batted ball arced in at the right hip, slicing through and scattering rats. It burrowed in deeply. The blurred blade spat out bloody hunks of rodent.
Lady Jane fired both barrels. One must have been buckshot. It enlarged the hole my sphere had carved, reducing rats to a red froth. The other was a slug that blew clean through the rat-beast. It opened a hole all the way through to the other side.
Rats swarmed to fill the wound, but the giant’s swaying created unstoppable stresses. The creature came apart at the hip. The torso twisted around to the left, crashing back into the bamboo forest. The ground shook when it hit, stunning rats and toppling bamboo.
The two of us darted forward. I applied my bat with gusto, sending broken rats flying two and three at a go. Lady Jane’s knives and darts flashed through the night, wringing dying squeals from countless rats. We reached Nathaniel, who remained hunched over, down on one knee. His chest heaved as if he’d just run a marathon. Rats covered him, doing their best to gnaw through the armor.
We grabbed him by the shoulders and scattered the rats. I got beneath Nathaniel’s right arm. He stumbled, but I caught him. We retreated toward the middle of the field. Lady Jane acted as rear guard, carpeting the path of our retreat with twitching rodents.
When we reached the center of the bamboo cyclinders, right beside the barrel, Nathaniel squeezed my shoulder. “We have to stop here.”
Lady Jane looked at him. “You can’t, Nathaniel. You’re exhausted. This could kill you.”
“I don’t think it will matter.” He pointed back toward the forest.
What had been a mound had become a torrent. Ten feet tall and at least that wide, the wall of rats poured forward. Bodies reached the top, then toppled down the front, to form the base as the flood crept closer. It was akin to watching sand dunes approach, save that no wind drove them.
Their squeals pulsed, thrumming through our chests. My ears rang. Then the voices condensed into an outraged squeal. “Tiango will not be thwarted. We need not a human vessel. Not any more.”
The torrent spread out, shrinking in height, but advancing wings to surround us. “There is no escape.”
Lady Jane reloaded the shotgun.
Nathaniel smiled as he laid a hand on her forearm. “You have to admit. We now have optimal distribution for our little experiment.”
“Tiny silver lining, Nathaniel. Big cloud.”
I laughed, tightening my grip on the cricket bat. “Come on, then. Don’t keep us waiting.”
The voices squeaked again, but didn’t build to the power they’d had before. I didn’t understand why, then cocked my head. Faint strains of a song came to me. A hundred voices, sweetly woven together in a familiar song.
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone.
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God to Thee.
I joined in with the refrain. “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!”
The wall of rats wavered for a moment.
I laughed. “Tiango has no power in the face of their pure faith.”
Then the rats squealed. “Powerless I may be, but not so my minions.”
Tiango’s oppressive sense vanished. The rat wall began to disintegrate. My heart soared for a second, then reality sank in. We stood in a circle of voraciously hungry rats.
I dug in and got ready to swing.
Nathaniel reached over and clasped the barrel around the middle. His gauntlets’ emerald disks glowed. Air boomed, first from the barrel, then from bamboo tubes in sequence. The coughed thunder continued, each tube with its own pitch, sounding much like popping corn hitting the height of frenzy. The metal spheres shot into the air, greenish light glowing through the perforations.
Then they cut loose.
They began to spin, spitting out tiny projectiles. The spheres trailed steam in their wake, moving up and to the side. Some wove serpentine patterns. Others jerked at right angles. They swooped and blasted, rising, spinning, to descend again and again.
I couldn’t tell what they were shooting, but I could not mistake the result. The pellets ripped into the rats, tearing pelts and crushing bone. They didn’t kill instantly, but that hardly mattered. Rats, frenzied at the scent of blood, fell upon each other. The cannibals hardly benefited from their action, however, as the balls returned to blast them to pieces as well.
Lady Jane never hesitated. She made liberal use of her shotgun, cutting fearful swaths through the rats. When she ran out of shells for it, she cast the gun aside and used her Mauser. Though the darkness made it difficult to be certain, she seemed to take great delight in blowing the heads off any rat rising on its haunches to study us.
For my part I plied my bat and launched any rats that made it into the circle back out again. At least one, which I sent high into the air, evaporated beneath the barrages of two spheres. Our defense was undoubtedly my finest turn with a bat. I fully lost count of how many rats I killed, and only stopped when the spheres retreated to surround us, hovering silently.
My shoulders and arms aching, I sank to a knee beside Nathaniel. “Is it over?”
He sat up, nodding. “It is. At least for another fifty years.”
I looked to the north, at the hillock of rat corpses. “What was that?”
Doctor Charon smiled. “There are a number of theories I could advance. The simplest is that these rats, like locusts, go through periodic changes under certain conditions. They go from being individuals to adopting more of a flocking behavior. I may write a paper on this, in fact, since this was a most peculiar circumstance.”
“And the voices? Tiango?”
“The Austrian, Freud, might suggest it was hysteria on our parts. Faced with a natural phenomenon we could not explain, we conjured up an explanation, using pieces of local custom to provide reason and flavor.” He shrugged. “Or, if you wish, you can look to pre-Christian times when every creature and location seemed to have a native spirit. It could be that the spirit of the rats, when they are gathered in sufficient population, has enough strength to manifest in a variety of ways.”
I’d heard of Freud, of course, and was inclined to lean in that direction. “Then hearing the hymn and positing that the locals’s faith counteracted the power of a primitive god would be more rationalization?”
I nodded toward the gauntlets and the hovering spheres. “And how can one explain how they work?”
He chuckled. “A dynamic transference of bio-mechanical and piezoelectrical energy by parallel and sympathetic vibrations. It’s something I’ve been working on. The crystals powered the spheres. They drew moisture from the air, compressed it into small ice pellets, and used them to kill the rats. They worked quite well but, I should think, are quite played out.”
And at that, the glow from the emerald disks died, and the spheres plopped down in the rice field.
Lady Jane and I helped Nathaniel back to his feet. Together, slowly, we marched uphill through tall, ripe rice plants, heading toward the sounds of hymns placidly filling the night.
We remained at Shan-bua for another two days, helping to bring in the harvest. The people held another feast—to jointly celebrate the harvest and our victory. Doctor Charon downplayed our part in things and instead praised Miss Hopewell. She basked in the glory of his attention, yet seemed somewhat melancholy because he evidenced no personal interest in her.
We collected up all the spheres and brought them aboard the Astrogator before taking to the air. I had intended to take one apart to study its workings more closely, but Nathaniel—unaware of my intentions—disassembled them while I slept through the first twelve hours of our departure. He apologized and promised to send me the specifications for them for later study.
After making that promise, Nathaniel excused himself, desiring to sleep, leaving me alone with Lady Jane in the lounge, cleaning her Mauser.
I desperately wanted a drink, but refrained from pouring one. I rather hoped she’d forget I was there, or refuse to acknowledge my existence.
I was to be disappointed.
She looked up from her task, her gaze pinning me in place. “Mr. Ravensthorpe, I should like to reach an understanding with you about that night in the rice field.”
I nodded slowly. “I thought you might. Please, before you begin…”
“I had hoped that night would not be mentioned again.” I glanced down, refusing to meet her eyes. “I am mortified that you found it necessary to feign terror to shock me back to manhood. You knew the ‘White Knight Syndrome’ of which you had spoken would snap me out of my panic. That my cowardice forced you, in that most dire time, to pretend to be distressed, will haunt me eternally. I have no right to ask it, but if you would be so kind as to completely forget my conduct that night, I should forever be in your debt. If not, I feel I shall die of shame.”
She set her pistol aside, stood, and upon reaching the sideboard, poured two generous whiskies. She handed me one and raised the other. “I believe, Mr. Ravensthorpe, I can accommodate your request. A toast, then, to comrades who understand that truth is the first casualty in any conflict, and that survival is the only victory.”