Crawling down the fire-scarred steel corridors of the enemy’s lair, he says to himself, So,evil dogs … I see you quake in dread at the mere thought of my arrival!
They have apparently fled before him. The corridors are empty and silent, crackling with the energy of anticipation. The walls are smeared and gleaming, perhaps with the blood of his foes. There has been an earlier flash-attack on this sector: a flushing of the rabbits from their warrens, with humble garden hoses replaced by the searing whitefire of dissembler-grenades. He smiles at the thought, grinning from a nearly toothless mouth.
Vile pig-things, stinking scrambler bastards. Imagining my approach, you wet your pants with fright! Ho, triumph!
For an instant he tries to stand, basking in his power but it is a hopeless endeavor. His chubby thin legs are unstable, the muscles lacking all but the faintest vestiges of tone.
Somewhere, he hears a ticking.
Then the clatter of footsteps. Footsteps!
No, it is too soon!
He scrambles for all he is worth, at last sighting an adjoining corridor. His training becomes reflex and he hurl himself toward the opening, into shadows, rolling like a ball. At the last instant before slamming into the wall, he drops open like a pink flower and presses into a corner.
The steps pound louder. Voices:
“–attack on 9. We’ll need every unit in there.”
“That’s cutting it too close. If we weaken the other sectors — ”
“They’re not exposed, damn it! 9’s been peeled paper-thin.”
The footsteps are thunder all around him, the voices tumbling from high above. Squeezing back into the shadows, he glares up at the giants who have come into view. They are red-faced, panting, turning into the corridor where he is hidden.
So, must I make my stand here? Then I shall take you down with me, you filthy—
The looming figures start toward him, high, so high above. Their eyes, hidden behind shining grey lenses, do not detect him among so many shadows, but now they are moving in his direction, stalking like a storm down the corridor.
You too will die! Yah!
He leaps. He will fight until his strength is drained. He is ready to fight and die with only his small nails and nearly nonextant teeth as weapons.
But his body betrays him. His leap, though packed with all the power he can summon, takes him a matter of inches. He falls short of the tromping enemy heels and sprawls flat, gasping for air, tears starting at his eyes, his head throbbing in a halo of pain, his little pink face twisting up.
As the footsteps fade away, he realizes that they did not even see him.
Defeated, he begins to cry.
Damn them, damn them, damndamndamnthebastards!
When the sobs die down, he is breathless and shivering. He consoles himself with the thought that soon enough, his time will come. They will feel terror then. Yes! Terror! Then!
He is moving again, once more taking up the rhythm of reflexes for which he was trained. He is a hunter, yes! Mighty conqueror, strength and champion of his own people.
Crawling, he riffles the list of his weapons and defenses.
Nails, yes: finger and toe.
Limbs? No, they are not yet strong enough. None of them.
Head? For butting, perhaps? Unfortunately not. The circular scar is still tender, the bones of his skull not fully reset; they have been expanded by surgery to accommodate his new brain, and they strain at the skin. Besides, his neck is infirm … wobbly.
Teeth? No, they are but a few pale slivers on his gums.
What else? What else? There is not much, true, but he does not doubt that his training will see him through. The enemy stands no chance before me!
Now he slinks, his eyes devious slits, his pink mouth twisted with clever determination. His little fists clench as if holding knives. The concentric pain rings at his skull for just a second, and again the ticking sound seems to grow. Both of these irritations soon subside. He moves on.
From behind, enemy tread sounds again. They are coming on to challenge his might.
This time you’ll not escape! Prepare to die!
He feels no need to seek shadows. In the center of the corridor, he turns on hands and knees — ignoring a thousand tiny pangs — and faces the enemy. Faces them.
Rumble of voices, thunder of monster footsteps. Three mountains, dark and goggled, silver in their flashing uniforms, crash over him. Boom — boom — boom — boom — BOOM!
Petrified with horror, are you? I crush your fates in my very hands. Your master rises before you, and your master … is !
But … why are they not screaming? Why are they not turning to flee, albeit futilely, for how can they escape? Can they not see him for what he is?
One mountain is stooping, extending its hands, smiling.
Touch and you die, foul one!
“Why, look–” it begins, booming.
Die! Now, die! Die, do you hear me? Dissolve into ashes — wither up and blow away! Damn it, why aren’t you dying?
The others speak. “A baby?” “Where the hell did he come from?”
“Poor thing must have been abandoned during the attack.
“We’ll have to take it to the nursery.”
“What? Dian, we’re heading into combat, we can’t bring a goddamn baby with us!”
“We can’t leave him here. He’ll be safer there than here.”
Listen to me! You must put me down
“All right, but he’s your problem.”
“Fine. Let’s get going.”
And then: “Hello there, fella. What’s your name?”
He lies cradled in the hideous arms of a colossus, numb with disbelief. They do not hear him. They do not fear him. They … they seem to like him!
This cannot be happening, not to him, not to the conqueror, the commando, the merciless warrior-slayer, not to him!
“Deedledeedledee! Deedledeedledee!” The fiend’s huge digits prod and tickle him. “There’s a honey, yes!”
He lunges for the throat of his assailant, but his hands are smaller than he had judged; he is mercilessly beaten back and exhausted by the pounding gait of his enemy, who is running. He collapses, limp, sobbing, and sees himself reflected in the grey insectoid goggles: tiny and pink and … God, so helpless! Can it really be him?
And now he understands ….
They are fooling him! These are clever ploys designed to make him doubt himself, to weaken his mind.
It won’t work! I’m too smart for you! But you will burn for this — burn!
“Don’t cry,” says the voice in soothing mockery. “There’s a good boy, there we go. Whoops!”
The voice of another breaks over him: “Keep it low, we’re almost there.”
With these words, a sudden flash of light licks at them, coupled with a roar ten times as mighty as that of the giants, nearly as powerful as his own imperial bellow. The blinding pain of it makes the fragmented bones of his skull throb and the scar beneath his scalp tear with agony; makes the ticktickticking suddenly bloat within his ears. He winces, writhes, twists within the titan arms and—
Another explosion bursts over them.
His carrier rolls, nearly crushing him as the ground comes up beneath them. He is dropped. His vision flashes and his thoughts dull for an instant. Before he too can roll and come up fighting, his captor once more incapacitates him, holding him close, pinioning his limbs.
He sees the ruins of a corridor before him. Its entire side has been ripped away. Beyond gapes a night that blossoms with light. Out there are his own people, firing on this place where he is held helpless … helpless in the stronghold of the enemy!
He cries out in frustration.
“It’s all right, babe, it’s okay. There you go!”
Voices are shouting nearby, giving directions to scurrying figures that move through the ragged shadows like perambulating worlds. Occasional explosions throw them into silver-etched relief. There are dozens, firing plumes of light into the darkness, diving away as grenades burst outside. He writhes again, struggling against the grasp of his captor, wanting only to join his own people in this pivotal battle.
Let me go!
The giant is relentless. He sags into himself, weeping. What is his purpose here if not to fight, kill, conquer? Why have they sent him on such an impossible task? Why?
Another giant moves to where they lie in darkness.
“Dian, where’d you find that?”
“In a corridor. Isn’t he cute?”
I am not cute! I am not cute! But he falters, now uncertain.
“Odd. That’s really odd.”
“Someone else found a baby about fifteen minutes ago, wandering down near Data Central. It was — well, the damn thing was trying to crawl behind the main library core.”
And now he remembers.
He remembers his brothers and sisters.
Another shape moves closer, clicking charges from its weapon, adjusting its goggles. “Yeah … and they found three in sector 7. Just crawling around …. ”
Ginger hands set him on the ground, with respect. The three figures back away, and now there are eyes on him. Goggled eyes, yes, but he can sense the fear within them as they back off, move away, into the growing silence. The battle itself seems to still for this moment.
My brothers, yes! Do you hear me now?
“Hey, man, something’s going on here. I don’t like it.”
He cannot count the eyes on him, riveted to his tiny, pink body.
Yes, see me for what I am: your master! Kneel, I say, for I and my brothers and sisters are your conquerors!
“But it’s only a baby … ”
He hears the ticking surge, louder.
“Oh my God, what’s it doing?”
“Let’s get out–”
It is time!
The ticking stops, echoing in his ears. Into the vacuum he feels the rush of fire, swelling within him, swelling and growing, blowing and burning and cleansing.
My supreme moment! My triumph! My—
Spreading warm wetness.
His excitement is too great. The instant of victory is shattered as he wets himself …
And only then explodes.
* * *
“Rattleground” copyright 1993 by Marc Laidlaw. It first appeared under the title “Babe At Arms” in The Dog Factory #2 (1993), edited by Les Escott.
Unlike most of the other previously unpublished stories I’ve been posting on this site, “Rattleground” actually was sold at one time. In fact, written in the summer of 1978, it was among my first professional sales. Reginald Bretnor bought it for the first volume of The Future at War, a predecessor to the series There Will Be War, shortly after I commenced college. Later it was bounced from the anthology by forces beyond his control (presumably Jim Baen), and Bretnor’s apologetic letter bounced around to a variety of expired dormitory and off-campus apartment addresses before I finally learned its fate. Bretnor retitled it “Babe At Arms” but I have restored the original title.
UPDATE: I forgot until recently that it had ever seen any sort of publication, but I came across a copy of a small zine put out by my friend Les Escott, of Bath, England, and realized that I had given Les the story to print in his zine. In exchange, as I recall, Les, sent me a copy of an early William Vollmann book in its first (UK) edition…so this was certainly the best payment I ever received for a story in a zine!