The light next to Cabot's vidphone lit up, and for a moment she considered leaving the call unanswered. No, it was bound to be important. With a sigh, she leaned forward and pressed the button to talk. "Yes, Asa?"
Asa looked as though he might crumble at any second. "Cabot, you have to get out here, it's mayhem. Brie just got back with the latest numbers and they've quadrupled, easy. The techs don't know how it's happening and TCN's been silent for hours."
"Deep breaths, Asa," Cabot said. "I'll be right out."
She disconnected the call and leaned back heavily in her chair. Asa was a fantastic assistant; he was older than most of her other staff but he had solid connections with both the Grain Council and The Cow Network, and he spoke Moo, which had saved all of their rinds in the past. This latest disaster had pushed everyone to their limits, though: cheesen, disappearing from their ship at deeply unsettling rates, leaving no traces behind save the occasional few threads from a wrap. They'd tentatively ruled out rats early on, as there was no reason for a rat to take a wrap when it was – pardon the phrase – done with the cheese. However, given Brie's latest numbers, it was time to reevaluate the rat theory. Only rats could multiply so quickly, and only rats could squeeze themselves into the miniscule holes in the ship's tunnel systems.
Standing, Cabot tugged out the wrinkles in her wrap, and grabbed her datapad. She cast a lingering look outside her window, into the inky sky studded with stars, then left the peace of her office. She greeted her personal guards with a nod, and together they walked to the rear of the ship.
Asa hadn't lied. The scene was pandemonium. Large electronic maps that ran from floor to ceiling buzzed brightly with several colours of lights, and techs shouted back and forth on their headsets. A bank of printers spit out papers at an alarming rate, only to pile up on the floor in a mess when the interns couldn't reach them fast enough. Above all, the atmosphere felt on the verge of hysteria, with all of Cabot's hand-picked cheesen on edge, as though they too were about to fall under the knife.
Cabot cleared her throat, and all activity ceased. An intern's arm reflexively jerked towards the printers and the tech at his side simply pushed the intern over, stepping smoothly in front of him.
"Asa, Brie, Stella, Jarls, Reggie, and Madam Edam, in the conference room, now. Techs, deep breaths. No one hears you any better by raising your voice. Interns, slow your roll. No single paper makes the difference."
Pivoting, Cabot resumed her march down the hallway, pausing at the door for a moment to admire the plate glass seals that adorned the double doors. Intergalactic Federation of Dairy, with a beautifully etched ribbon wrapped around the gathered cheesen. Underneath, in cursive script, was her name: Cabot, EOC. It never failed to send a shiver of pleasure through her. She'd been the Big Cheese at the IFD for nearly twenty years, and she had no intention of stopping now. If the underlying issue turned out to be rats, she'd happily call up the PITAS and the reservist String Cheese Brigade. No rat wanted to go up against cheesen packing Cammie .57s and armed with Limburbombs. Then again, no rat had infiltrated their ship without some help; rats still had lungs, as far as she knew, and they certainly couldn't survive in space on their own.
"Let's get to the rind, cheesen." Cabot dismissed the guards at the door, pulled out the chair at the head of the table and sat, plugging her datapad into the main vidscreen. "Asa, phone The Cheesemonger."
Asa nodded, stepping a few feet away and pulling out his Ringo. His voice was a soft murmur in the background.
Cabot looked expectantly at Brie. "Overview, first."
"It's no longer just the odd cheesen, rolling home late at night from the bar," Brie began, shuffling through the sheaf of papers in front of her. "Originally, we'd suspected that perhaps some were getting too close to the power grid, or had even simply forgotten to inform their neighbours of extended off-ship vacations. But over the past several hours, we've had three entire elementary schools stripped of cheesen, and another emptied of everyone who was outside at recess. After that, Parks 4, 9, and 11 were reported as being totally empty, which, given that area of the ship, is at any time statistically improbable."
"But not impossible?" Cabot asked.
"Not impossible," Brie agreed. She flicked on a laser pointer and demarcated areas on the map. "These neighbourhoods were found empty after the initial rush hour, when cheesen returned home to find their loved ones missing."
"Of course some cheesen go missing occasionally," Jarls interjected. "Not this many, not all at once."
Brie nodded. Idly, Cabot noted that she wore a lovely cowl-necked wrap that showed off her creamy shoulders, and also the hammering of her pulse. Most days, Cabot was glad that Brie was atypical; sedate and colourless was the opposite of Brie's personality, but today was not the day to indulge in too much excitability. Slow and steady was Cabot's mantra. Deep breaths.
"We've also had several policing kiosks go dark over the past day, and reports of, well. Frayed wires," Brie said, and on-screen the red laser dot shook.
"Reggie, zip down to the cellar and grab a bottle. Have one of the techs decant it for you," Cabot instructed. Her newest intern was solid as a rock. His stability lent itself well to her team, but he'd shattered three bottles before Cabot changed the standing order to merely fetching the wine. Clearly, they could all use a glass right now.
Dilly stomped down the street, kicking at stray stones in her path. All she'd wanted was to show off her new wrap (her mum had ordered it special, from Bode's) but when she'd arrived at the Fondue Pot, no one was there. She knew where her traitorous friends had gone: Ricky's parents were constantly bringing home weird gizmos and artifacts they found on their space digs, and if it had been anyone else, Dilly would have been excited, too. But Ricky was so bland, a big oozy mass of blah. He didn't have a single vein, and he was way too easily moldable, sitting around soaking up others' flavours instead of cultivating his own. Fine. Whatever. Dilly didn't need any of them. She could just as easily phone her gran, and her gran would be so excited and get her friends gathered around the screen, and Dilly could model the wrap, and – wait, why was it completely quiet all of a sudden –
A chilly gust of wind snaked down the back of her wrap and she froze mid-step, one foot poised over the edge of the kerb where the cement gave way to a waste drain. Scanning the street and finding it empty of other cheesen, Dilly withdrew her foot and turned around, slowly, but there was nothing behind her. The neck of her wrap crinkled as the wind picked up, and she fumbled in one pocket for her Ringo. Punching in her passcode, she stared at the screen in confusion. No dots? This ship was the most technologically-advanced wheelhouse in, like, all of Serpens Caput! Dilly shook the Ringo a few times just in case, then stuffed it back into her pocket.
Grumbling, she set out again, shoelaces trailing against the bars of the grate, and she cried out when the laces caught on something, tugging her back. Wobbling, off-balance, Dilly faceplanted onto the crosswalk.
"Owwww," she moaned. A bit of gravel had gotten stuck into her side, and it hurt.
Dilly pushed herself up, knocking the gravel loose, and yanked her foot so hard that it came right out of her shoe. "What..." Turning, she crawled over to her shoe, scanning the ground for whatever the laces had tangled into; as she reached out for it, the shoe moved out of her grasp, dragged just to the mouth of the grate. "What!"
Her mum would shred her if she lost her shoe down a drain. Surging forward, she grabbed hold and whooped victoriously, right up until she caught sight of a pair of glowing green eyes through the metal bars. Dilly's grip on the shoe slackened, and she stared in confusion as the shoe was jerked out of her hand. It disappeared into the narrow space between the bars so fast that the rubber toe popped off and landed a scant inch from the edge of the drain.
Dilly edged closer, catching a glimpse of a second, then third pair of glowing eyes, and there was a sort of rustling noise that was definitely not her new wrap. Reversing direction, she backed away, gasping when a hairless tentacle pushed up out of the drain and searched around until bumping against the leftover bit of shoe, and then slurped it up too.
Cabot turned to Madam Edam, who had been the recording secretary for the previous five Big Cheeses. Cabot had inherited her with the position, and she answered only to her full title and name. Since she was older than all of Cabot's cabinet put together, Cabot enforced this quirk. It cost nothing and Madam Edam had both an eidetic memory and the fastest shorthand in the entire Federation.
"Madam Edam, have there ever been rats inside, in your recollection?"
Stella and Jarls both gasped. The laser point zigzagged off of the map. Turning away from his call, Asa raised an eyebrow at her, but Cabot couldn't waste time on niceties or worrying about her exact wording. This wasn't like the Pasteurization Trials of the mid-aughts, when every sentence out of her mouth had to be internally studied and rephrased, lest she appear to be standing with the pro- side or the anti- side. And then there were all of the words she had to refrain from using, in case they were taken as signs of classism.
That had been a reworking of legislative rights; this was a completely different wheel of cheese. Though her constituency had been led to believe that rats were extinct, they knew of rats' existence and generally what they looked like. There was no way that the IFD could keep this entire debacle under wraps, pardon the pun.
"Never," Madam Edam replied, her tone affronted. "There have been no rats on ships in all of recorded history."
"So maybe it's not rats," Stella said, elbowing Brie. "Are we back to a serial picker?"
Serial pickers did exactly what their names implied. They rapidly picked off cheesen, usually in a circular pattern, and they were easy to catch, because they always returned to a favourite hunting ground. Pickers didn't take wraps, though, and they usually left behind partially decomposing cheese.
"However," Madam Edam said. "When we were ground-bound..."
The whole team was rapt. Even Asa leaned away from his vidphone. Cabot gestured at her to continue.
"Once, for many months," Madam Edam said. She sounded sad. "We had no idea until it was as big as a cat. It wiped out entire populations before the PITAS killed it, finally. The story is mostly legend, now, though many archeesologists have studied the disappearances. Most believe it was the work of aliens." Her sniff told everyone exactly what she thought of that explanation.
The doors banged open suddenly and Jarls yelped. Reggie barged in, trailed by a tech holding an oversized decanter and a tray of glasses. Cabot nodded at him. "On the table's fine."
Closing her eyes, Cabot savoured her wine. Deep breaths. The Cheesemonger would arrive shortly. Asa was persuasive, and consultancy fees were high. Wait, where was -- "Fresco on flatbread!"
Cabot grabbed her datapad. "Where is Dilly?"
Wine sloshed over the rims of glasses as everyone abandoned them to the table. Brie called up Dilly's tracker on the map, while Jarls tried to raise Dilly's personal detail on their private channel. He shook his head. "No luck."
Asa hung up his Ringo and hurried to Cabot's side. "We'll find her," he said, touching Cabot's shoulder gently. "Dilly's smart, takes after her mum." They shared a quick smile.
"Send out a ship-wide emergency beacon," Cabot snapped. "Tell everyone to get to their nearest melting pot. Off-duty String Cheese should report in, and those who are already in pots will stay there."
"Text or radar?" Jarls typed on his datapad. He glanced up at Cabot. "Both, got it."
"I've found her," Brie said. "She's headed east toward the Fondue Pot. I'm alerting security at that pot that she's incoming."
From her seat beside Cabot, Madam Edam spoke. "I'm messaging her now from your account. All right, I've given her the current emergency code. She knows where to go and what to do."
Stella handed Cabot a vidphone. "The General for you."
"General. I want full lockdowns on this ship and a broadcast to every sister ship in the galaxy." Cabot muted the vidphone. "Jarls, anyone even remotely connected to the IFD should be on the wheel. Get the senior techs on it." She returned her attention to General Appenzeller. "I want fully armoured traps on the streets. The PITAS should be on the ground in twenty, locked and loaded. I want full sweeps starting with the grids I'm sending you now. Use any force necessary to subdue the threat."
Cabot had always found the deep blue veins running down the General's face comforting, as they spoke of her capability and experience. On-screen, the General nodded. "Done."
"On a need-to-know basis, General," Cabot said, pausing to convey sincerity. "We're more than likely dealing with rats."
The General's face paled. "Understood. I'll come directly to you for debriefing."
Cabot nodded, then handed the phone back to Stella. "I need additional background on weaknesses, dislikes, which possible genus we may be dealing with, and if there are any proven methods of actual communication with these – creatures, or if that's even possible."
"Of course," Stella replied. Stiltons were not generally ideal to work with given their particular odiferous qualities, but Stella was an exceptional linguist. The rest of Cabot's team had never voiced opposition to the appointment; if they had, she was certain they would probably be just as happy working on a different ship.
Madam Edam touched her earpiece. "We're getting some vid feeds from the first teams of PITAS. I'll route them to the main screen."
The vid was grainy, likely shot from a helmet cam, but what Cabot saw on the screen made her glad she was already sitting down. Their ship had rats. A lot of rats.
Dilly stood stock-still, waiting for something else to happen, or possibly for her security detail to appear out of thin air, as they did whenever she was in a spot of trouble. She'd spent her entire life under the watchful eyes of a rotation of PITAS, more to do with their unrelenting training schedules than anything in particular that she'd done. She only ditched them to keep them on point. Dilly had heard the lecture a hundred times: the Pecorinas in Table, Air, and Space were one of the most important parts of the ship's defense, they were to be treated with respect, blah blah, yes, fine, Mum.
Several seconds passed in complete silence. Dilly stood, brushing dirt from her wrap, lifted her chin, and started walking home on auto-pilot. She kept her thoughts firmly on cute, funny things like lolbabybellz, and the time that Colby had forgotten to self-press and been voted 'most likely to find his own whey' at the yearbook meeting. Dilly giggled. She refused to acknowledge how her mind kept flitting to the emerald eyes, tentacle tails, and glimpses of sleek, dark fur she'd seen through the grate.
Sometimes, she and her friends would tell scary stories about the giant mutant cats that were kept in the underbelly of the ship, but Dilly's mum's best friend Paneer was one of the keepers, and she'd actually let Dilly visit her at work sometimes. Dilly had seen the cats, had almost touched one of the cat's paws, and she'd heard the rumble of what Paneer called a purr. The cats were not dangerous or mutants or even giant, since they had to be fed with what could be produced under a dome.
But what Dilly had seen had not been a cat. The only other imaginable possibility was that she'd seen a rat. Dilly shivered. Rats had been extinct for decades, according to her mum.
A faint vibration from her Ringo made her jump, but Dilly's fingers didn't shake at all as she checked her messages. It was a text from her mum, and Dilly felt a suffusion of warmth run through her. If her mum was all right, then everything would be fine.
In the Pot, right now. You're all I need, Dilly.
Fresco on flatbread. Dilly took off her other shoe, and tied the laces into a knot so she could use it as a weapon if she had to, and walked faster, messaging her mum back with one hand.
Now that she knew what to look out for, Dilly stayed in the middle of the streets, well under the dim circles of light from the streetlamps. To keep her mind occupied, she thought about the stories her gran used to tell, about a baby bell cheese and her adventures under the dome. There was a little song that accompanied the stories, and Dilly hummed it as she moved briskly down the road.
She was perfectly capable of letting her gaze slide right past the shadowy side streets, green glowy eyes blinking from their depths. She ignored the tentacle-tails sticking out of grates, and when the rustling noises behind her grew louder, she countered by singing out loud. "Hi, ho, the derry-o, the farmer in the dell!"
The Fondue Pot was only another few blocks away. She carefully kept her roll slow enough that she wouldn't begin to sweat; she'd heard that rats had elongated snouts with super-powerful sniffers, and sharp, jagged teeth, and jaws like snakes that enveloped their prey. Dilly suddenly remembered how the song ended. No. She was not prey. She would not be standing alone. She tightened her grip on her makeshift sneaker weapon. Just a bit further now.
Asa touched Cabot's shoulder again. "The Cheesemonger is here."
"Fine, I'll meet with him in my office. Madam Edam, Asa, you're with me. The rest of you, continue researching. Collate the data feeds from the PITAS and work out where the rats might strike next. Make sure we have open lines of communication with the labs. Contact me as soon as Dilly has been secured." Cabot gathered her datapad, slugged down the rest of her wine, and strode to the door.
The Cheesemonger had maintained a glamourous aura for as long as Cabot had known him. He had been a long-time mentor, in both professional and personal capacities, and he was one of the only civilians allowed above the Federation's first floor. He could be counted on for theatrical entrances and today proved no different; he swept into the room, a glossy, cellophane-trimmed purple wrap unfurling behind him. He used a walking staff painted shiny gold, with a ring of violet feathers tied with string at the top. "Darlings!"
Despite the tension headache creeping up her shoulders, Cabot smiled. She truly enjoyed time spent with The Cheesemonger, from his colourful wraps to what could be called a lovingly cultivated collection of Jesse Williams pictures as his datapad screen saver, to the way he made all cheesen feel special, doted upon. Aside from being a top-notch geneticist, he was attentive and vastly intelligent, and Cabot hoped to all that was holey that he would have some ideas on how to deal with rats.
Asa moved to greet him, but The Cheesemonger held up his hands. "No, no formal pleasantries today, my dears. We are under attack, you say. Cabot has surely put the fear of Roquefort in the troops. We must get right to the rind." He eyed the rest of the room critically. "But where is the rest of your cabinet?"
"Working," Cabot said shortly. "I'll bring you up to speed, and we'll rejoin them as soon as we can."
With the Fondue Pot in sight, Dilly sighed with relief. There was a wall of armoured cheesen ringing it, and four of them stepped forward when they saw her, beckoning her to the side elevator. Behind her, something let out a high-pitched squeal of fury. She couldn't waste time turning round to see what it was. Instead, Dilly broke into a run, uncaring if she was the best-smelling thing on the entire block. Without warning, a weight fell on her back. Screaming, she whirled, letting her sneaker fly out like a bolas as she tried to dislodge whatever clung to her. The sneaker thumped into whatever it was – a rat, it's a rat! – but it only held tighter with sharp claws digging in, the brush of slippery fur, and the tickle of whiskers on the back of her neck.
"Down, get down!" Two lanky cheesen sporting String Cheese Brigade patches on their uniforms were lining up a Limburbomb to be shot through a cheese cannon.
Dilly dropped to the ground, covering her face with her arms. Her last thought before the projectile hit was that she was going to have to incinerate her beautiful new wrap. The stench would be eternal.
The Cheesemonger and Madam Edam were friendly, having known one another since cheesen were ground-bound, and Cabot bit back a grin when Madam Edam practically swooned as The Cheesemonger laid a delicate kiss on her wrist.
"Now he has time for proper greetings," Asa grumbled.
"Jealous?" Cabot said. She checked her messages. One new text from her daughter, which was a relief even if she knew Dilly was safe.
omw. ur all i need 2
"All right, I've heard from Commander Moz, and Dilly's being escorted directly into the Pot. They've got about half of Park 6 safely inside. Any word from Appenzeller, Jarls?"
Jarls nodded. "Grid sweeps have turned up an infestation, all right. They're in the drainage grates, and the waste system, but somehow bypassed all of the main tunnels. No wonder the cats didn't raise an alarm. I talked to Paneer, she's managed to get most of the access doors closed. We'll need to send teams down to pick up any stragglers, but for the most part the underbelly is secure."
"Any civilian casualties so far?" Cabot glanced over at The Cheesemonger, who'd torn himself away from Madam Edam and was listening intently.
"No, and no deaths resulting from skirmishes. A sweep team from the Brigade got in a tussle with a rat and they've been rushed to hospital for amputation, temporary, of course. String cheese reattaches in..." Jarls checked his notes.
"Three months, give or take," The Cheesemonger interjected. "My great-grand-niece fell off the playground roundabout recently."
"General Appenzeller also reported that the rats are highly affected by the Limburbombs," Brie said. "They were showing varying degrees of anosmia, unconcerned by nearby cheesen, like they couldn't even detect them. "
Stella passed a folder down the table to Cabot. "Here's the background research you requested. Also, several of the first captures were taken to the labs, where the medical team's been running tests. All of the exposed rats have displayed signs of post-combat swiss disorder, showing holes in their short-term memory, and going, uh, a little nutty."
"We can work with this," Asa said, and Cabot nodded.
"They've also –" Stella hesitated. "The rats in the lab tests, they've since gone blind."
"Now that is interesting," The Cheesemonger said. He pulled a datapad from his pocket and flipped it open.
Madam Edam touched her earpiece. "Yes, Reggie. Oh! Yes, I'll tell her." She turned to Cabot. "You'll never believe who's trying to raise you on the ship's open channel."
Dilly took small, shallow breaths and utterly failed in her quest not to smell herself. She reeked. She more than reeked. She smelled like she'd been doused with liquid Limburger at ten thousand times its normal aromatic level. Oh right, she had. Her wrap was ruined, and she'd have to wait until they reached the main pot to search out a fresh one. She met the eye of the PITAS standing at attention by her side. "I'm so sorry."
"Just glad you're safe," the PITAS choked out, looking a little green in spots.
"What's your name? I'll send you a box of wine," Dilly said. "Two boxes."
Mercifully, the elevator doors opened. Buoyed by an excruciatingly stinky wave, they came out onto a walkway that ran above the main floor of the Pot.
"Staff Sergeant Pepato. This way, please. We keep a selection of clean wraps in the storage lockers. It won't be the same as a brine bath, but those are locked down until... for a while. Apologies."
"Yeah," Dilly responded. "Ugh."
"I have been authorized to inform you that your gran has been reported as status safe, in the melting pot at Park 19," Pepato said, stiffly, and did not duck out of the way in time when Dilly lunged forward and pressed against Pepato in a hard hug.
"Can you tell me if anyone from my school is here?" Dilly asked. Her smile grew wider as Pepato flipped open a datapad and listed off several of her friends, including Colby and Ricky. Dilly decided that she wouldn't even mind if Ricky droned on about one of the rat conspiracy theories so popular among the archeesologists.
"You're joking," Cabot said. She raised one hand to forestall Madam Edam's indignation. "I know you're not joking, I just wish you were." She pointed at Stella and Jarls, who hurried to turn off the electronic maps and hide any sensitive materials from sure-to-be prying eyes.
"He does have a knack for wrong place, right time," Brie said. "I've alerted the General; she'll have squadrons in the air within five minutes."
Deep breaths. Cabot tilted her head from side to side, stretching her neck. "All right. Patch him through."
The image that appeared on the main vidscreen was of a large, glistening cheesen, composed of several shades of yellow and white, mounded up in the seat of an equally large, ornately carved wooden chair. The cheesen wore a wrap that looked like a raggedy patchwork quilt, and the screen cut off just under his bare kneecaps, creating odd proportions. The very sight of him made Cabot want to reach through the pixels and press him out of existence... again.
"Tyro," Cabot ground out. "You know you're not supposed to contact the Federation. That was a part of your exile agreement."
"Such a grim affair!" Tyro did not sound the least bit apologetic.
Asa made a guttural noise of outrage. "You kidnapped and tortured over fifty cheesen!"
"All for the good of cheesekind," Tyro said. "That is old business. Let us discuss new business now."
It had very much not been for the good of cheesekind, but rather for Tyro's twisted, narcissistic ends. Tyro Smofla had once been a respected geneticist, like The Cheesemonger, but over the years Tyro had become obsessed with creating hybrid cheesen. After his funding had been denied, he'd gone rogue, kidnapping innocent cheesen to use in his experiments. He had outlined his plans in great detail during his trial; the summation was hybrids that would act as incubators, alive but brain-dead, existing only to be used for harvesting starter parts for Tyro's army of mutant cheese warriors. In short, he'd melted down.
Cheesekind had reacted with fury, condemning Tyro to banishment from the entire galaxy. Decades ago, he had been set adrift in a tiny pod. Cabot shuddered to think of how he'd managed to locate a decent ship with real communicators, and, possibly, real weapons.
"The Intergalactic Federation of Dairy has no business with you," Cabot stated. "We have no business with you."
"Well..." Tyro looked down. "I wondered if..."
The seconds ticked by. Cabot flicked a look at Madam Edam, ready to shut down the call.
"Perhaps you've seen my pet rats?"
The Cheesemonger moved first, shoving his chair back from the table and retreating from the vidscreen's view. His expression was stricken, and he leaned on his walking stick for balance.
"Don't go, Cheesemongrel!" Tyro taunted. "I didn't even see you there. Come back, don't be mouldy!"
"Tyro," Cabot said sharply. "Explain."
"They're quite ingenious, to be sure. I decided not to bother with cheesen again because you were all rather fussy after that whole, you know." A mean smile flickered across Tyro's face. "Luckily, I was able to stow away a few things before you so rudely kicked me off of your ship." He mimed flicking away a pest.
"Anyway," he continued, looking put out at the lack of a reaction from his audience. "I used to have a lab down near cold storage. You assigned it to me, Cabot. Remember? You said, 'I'm sorry that you weren't able to get your funding secured, Tyro, we had to give your laboratory to someone who could.' Do you remember that?"
"You're mad about funding?" Stella burst out, incredulity colouring her voice. "You're responsible for even more cheesen going under the knife because you didn't get your preferred lab space?"
"No!" Tyro yelled, startling everyone except Madam Edam, who didn't even pause in her transcription. "I'm mad because my rats have abandoned ship! I made them! And I want them back."
Jarls looked confused. "You – made them?"
"I made them, so they're mine!" Tyro looked on his way to another meltdown. "I took the rat DNA, and I reformed it. I crafted those rats to do my bidding. I'm not some watered-down, crusty old punk like your precious Cheesemongrel; I brought rats back to life!"
Asa exchanged a wide-eyed look with Cabot.
"What did you plan on doing with them?" Jarls asked.
"Oh, well." Tyro sank back into his chair. Looking away, he waved a hand in the air. "Nothing of consequence."
Cabot smiled. "If they're not meant for important things, why do you need them back? Actually, what makes you think we've seen them?"
"Very funny," Tyro sneered. "I know you have them because I was docked against your ship so I could run a few, um, diagnostics. It's possible that my latest batch may be a teensy bit more intelligent than the previous ones. Obviously they slipped from their cages. I can't be looking everywhere at once!"
Cabot glanced at Brie, who was already typing into her datapad. General Appenzeller would soon be explaining to Cabot how the military had missed a strange ship inside their perimeter.
"I know they must be having a wild time," Tyro said, raising an eyebrow. "Within days, they multiply. They nibble cheesen right out of their wraps. Don't they."
Cabot stared at Tyro, keeping quiet.
"You are such a mould spot," Tyro said. "Fine, I was going to use them against your ship, and all of cheesekind, but not in a retaliatory way."
Asa huffed out his disbelief.
"Really," Tyro insisted. "I've changed."
"You recreated rats," Brie said. "That is a direct contradiction."
Tyro let out a long-suffering sigh. "Maybe at first, when I was still mad. But recreating them was a lot of work, you know, and difficult. The rats on your ship are from lot number 309. The first few hundred batches had... gone off. Here, see."
The camera panned down past Tyro's sweaty legs and refocused on several rats surrounding him. They were horribly mangy, mutated and misshapen, with feet sticking out of their sides, shortened tails, bald patches, and a few were completely hairless.
"I may vomit," Stella warned everyone.
"They're sweet enough, really," Tyro said as he came back into view. "For rats that can't tell cheese from corn."
"But the latest lot..." Cabot prompted.
"As I said, they're more advanced. Not in a bad way! Just more efficient. Their orders have only been to help me, I wanted to use them to help further my hobby." Tyro pointed to his wrap. "I've taken up wrapper collecting!"
It took some willpower to keep her expression blank, but Cabot managed it. "That's great. We'll get back to you." She nodded at Madam Edam, who cut off the call.
"Holey," Asa breathed out.
"What do we do?" Jarls asked.
"I think he's lying," Stella said. "That is, he's almost probably lying because he's Tyro Smofla, but there was something in his speech patterns that caught my attention, or maybe his inflection." She brought up a language program on one of the smaller vidscreens. "I need a few minutes."
Cabot nodded. "Go ahead. Brie, how are evacuations progressing?"
"Ninety-nine percent of cheesen are accounted for, and inside melting pots. We won't get many more than that, you know how some won't leave their houses even if they're on fire. The String Cheese Brigade has fallen back inside as well, and PITAS are on their second grid sweep. They're using sonic crackers on packs of rats, and simple Cammie shots on the loners. Wait, I've just gotten a report from the labs." Brie scanned the message. "The Limburbombs have affected the rats like a nerve gas. They're definitely losing their sight, as well as their senses of smell. The first group that was captured – oh, they're dead." She looked up at Cabot.
"Inform General Appenzeller," Cabot instructed. She caught Reggie's eye from where he hovered by the doorway. "Reggie, in or out, you're making me antsy."
Reggie bounded forward. "What about the cats?"
"What about the cats," Cabot said. "The cats!"
"PITAS could herd the rats toward the tunnels," The Cheesemonger said. "The cats won't eat them if they're stinky, but it would be an ideal place for, well. Their last hours, away from the public."
"They'd be blind, anyway," Cabot mused.
"The cats would keep them contained," Reggie said. "They'd make sure no rats wriggled out."
"Even so, we'd post PITAS inside and out," Jarls said. "The rats won't be able to smell them anyway."
"I like this plan," Cabot said. "Good work, everyone."
From her perch by the vidscreen, Stella exclaimed, "Hah! I knew it!"
She looked ready to launch into a lengthy explanation, so Cabot said, "Summarize it, please."
"It wasn't a particular thing he said, but that he kept fishing for information. He knew we had rats from the beginning, and The Cheesemonger's reaction to Tyro's phrase 'pet rats' confirmed they were still not contained. Tyro spoke of them in the present tense the whole time; he knew that we hadn't yet worked out how to defeat them. He needled you, Cabot, bringing up sore subjects, hoping you'd let something slip about any lab tests we'd performed. And he dropped lots of his own breadcrumbs, trying to get confirmation on the rats' behaviour. He knows they're eating cheesen, and their wraps, and he's gleeful about all of it."
"I did give him ammunition," The Cheesemonger said.
"I did, too," Stella said.
"Let's not get caught up in blame," Cabot said. "This was a test run, for him. It's time to end this, for cheesesake."
The moment that Tyro appeared on the vidscreen, Cabot said, "Sorry to have kept you waiting. It's quite chaotic here right now, as you can imagine."
"Chaotic?" Tyro feigned surprise.
"We have your rats, and they are definitely interested in cheesen," Cabot said. "We are being overrun."
Tyro's mouth twitched. "How dreadful!"
Cabot imagined that if Tyro had a mustache, he would be twirling it. "We're at our wits' end. You said earlier that they will obey you?"
"They should," Tyro replied. "I can't make promises, but I do have this." He rooted around in a pocket and came up with a rectangular black stick. "It's a kill switch. I would need to be closer to them for it to work, of course."
Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Cabot nodded. "You have permission to come aboard. I'll meet you in the transporter room."
Ending the call, Cabot turned to her Cabinet. "Asa, you're with me. Brie, call me when the General's finished with the rat herding. Stella, connect me with Paneer as soon as I'm done with Tyro. The rest of you, go home. You've all made me proud. We'll need to coordinate a press conference, but first, get some rest."
Madam Edam moved to follow Cabot, but Cabot shook her head. "This one's going to be off the books."
The door to the Fondue Pot swung open, and a crowd of cheesen came rolling past. Cabot waited until Dilly appeared at the mouth of the entrance, and rushed to her, pressing close and smothering her face with kisses.
"Mum!" Dilly's eyes were wet.
"Dilly, my sweet baby bell," Cabot said, pressing closer.
"Aw, Mum, don't call me that," Dilly said, squirming.
"I'm not sorry," Cabot said. "Holey. You reek."
"I know," Dilly moaned. "Sergeant Pepato threw away my new wrap."
"We will get you another," Cabot stated. "Let's get you home and into a brine bath."
"Maybe we should get two," Dilly said. "Just in case."
"Two new wraps," Cabot said, considering it. "I think that can be arranged."
"Are all of the rats gone?" Dilly asked, her voice small.
"They are no longer a threat," Cabot confirmed. "And the cheesen who was responsible is in custody. He won't be seeing the stars for a long, long time."
Cabot thought back on Tyro's enraged face as he was led from the transporter room and brought in front of her. He'd accused her of mistreatment, when he was there to help. The PITAS had confiscated the kill switch, and this was no way at all to treat a fellow cheesen.
Cabot had leaned in, speaking softly into his ear. "You're no cheesen. You endangered my daughter, my ship, my entire constituency, and the rest of cheesekind. Your rats ate their way through hundreds of cheesen. How is that considered helping, in any galaxy?"
Tyro sputtered, his cheeks puffing out in anger. "You lied!" His protestations cut off as the echo of an explosion reached his ears.
Cabot leaned back. "You're lucky we didn't blow up your poor excuse for a ship with you on it."
Tyro gaped at her.
"That's right. Your ship is gone. Your rats are dead. There, and here. And you'll never roll anywhere outside this ship again."
The threats that Tyro shouted at her as he was dragged away were pretty creative, but he fell silent when Cabot said, "Take him to the Cryovac chamber."
"Mum?" Dilly tugged at Cabot's wrap. "After my bath, can we have strawberry shortcake?"
"That sounds perfect," Cabot said. "Absolutely perfect."