Two months have passed since Mmarta pressed the council with her demands.
- The last of the needy children have all been taken in by elie families and are thriving. Eight of them are due to return to the Taj in a month on the outside. Ten of the remaining still in care would never survive back in the outer zones due to the damage already done to their lungs. Plans were in progress to continue their care in the green zone. The operation to smuggle them into the dome had worked perfectly as Harkk had claimed it would. No one ever questions or inspects his carts. When Harkk headed into the green zone on a Corp project he was given whatever liberties he required. Officious dolts who deterred him from his appointed rounds suddenly found themselves escorting prisoners to the mines. That job was far more dangerous than any other a Corp cop might be assigned in the city-state, so Harkk was rarely bothered and that usually to ask a favor. So far, CommCorp seemed none the wiser about the proles inside the dome.
- Dougg is gone. He might not be gone forever, though, if he could help it. He knew enough to cause problems too. He would rather just be a hanger on and live the good life on the Lok stead.
- Knutte was never released by the Corp cops and it is expected he joined the soon to be dead masses in the mines. Qquitia was still spying for the Haps but when Knutte never returned Hhannah had decided to lay low. She still felt her day would come so she kept Qquitia on a short leash, just in case, though she did allow her to go back to the Taj. Hannah was quite certain the girl would keep her mouth shut if she knew what was good for her. She would wait for something real juicy before she struck again. This time it would be fatal for the Loks. Qquitia, however, told all to Bessie the moment she first stepped back into the Taj. The council put a plan in place to deal with the Hap woman.
- Construction in sector-22’s outer zones was nearly complete and the Corp was none the wiser. Harkk was still running utilities and there always seemed to be some small project that needed doing right now, but it was near done and everything seemed to be rolling along nicely. Harkk wasn’t quite as harried as he had been for the last few months, but there was still work to be done. The final readout had taken on far more importance and consequently, far more effort to complete. It was a formidable obstruction now that blocked off almost the entire back end of the sector from creek bank to creek bank. It was so well disguised on the side facing the green zone that it merely looked like another pile of rubble. A force coming in from the frontier would have a different view, however, though it was still a massive earthworks to confront either way.
- The general consensus was that they should consider themselves lucky that there were so few accidents that had resulted from all this work. Two workers had broken a leg or an arm falling into trenches they didn’t see and hadn’t thought to look for out in the middle of the crèche grounds right after they’d been dug. Another had been partially buried in a tunnel cave-in. All in all, that was an excellent accident ratio.
- The education effort was paying off in dividends. The kids were all participating now, even the older members of Ccassie’s crew. Cassie, who herself could read, scribe, and cipher proficiently with the best of them, had taken on the chore of teaching her own crew herself. Burtt had a hard time keeping up with conversations now, even with the younger members of the Taj, their vocabulary having expanded so dramatically in the last 5 months. Better yet, these kids were learning to be able to stand and converse with citizens, like citizens. That was, after all, Burtt’s and the council’s ultimate goal; to have these children accepted as citizens and removed from this blight of an existence. Burtt himself, rarely seemed to have the time to learn. He picked up what he could from Kkat in his sparse spare time.
- Kkat and Ssyndi were proving to be excellent medsci students but it was evident they would not be able to learn enough to become the immediate and ultimate medical answer to the children’s needs when Mmarta was gone, and Mmarta had mere weeks left if that. The four members of the council who’d been banished and now resided at the Taj, were Godsends.
- Medsci had made a breakthrough in the study of lung disease. Ssyndi was fully involved in the treatment and research to advance these studies and it was reaping huge benefits for her health. For the first time in her life, she could take in and hold a full deep breath without hacking. She was up to five laps around the Loks compound before she was out of breath. This progress was awesome and it simply added to her determination to get out of the dome and see Burtt.
- Jenna Bok made herself a thorn in Kkat’s side. That didn’t work out well for one of them. Burtt stayed clear of the cat fight.
1st day, first five-day, month 2 of year 319af
He’d been coming here early the last couple of mornings. He’d had to spell Burtt two days before when he took ill. The day before, while he was checking the trap lines he also decided to check the water lines from Green River. Several times already they’d had to splice in new sections where the rodents chewed through.
He found a couple more leaks, though these were not chewed completely through yet. He noticed that around the leaks, a very light moss was growing.
Life growing on this blighted earth? Huh! Well, there has been a few days of sun now and all this fresh water has purged the soil, maybe? Say, I wonder if we should start growing out here? There’s a lot more room out here and our crèche garden barely supports a third of the Taj, truth be told. This slope faces southwest so we could get enough sun to grow stuff right on this slope, provided the sun doesn’t go on vacation for a year or two again.
Harkk was thinking about the best way to do what he had in mind and suddenly realized that what the Taj needed was another greenhouse. He was so excited he started to rough out plans in his head and mark the boundaries with large rocks after stepping off a sizable area he thought suitable to their needs.
Finished with his project and anxious to share his idea with Burtt, he worked his way up the slope and cleared the top of the rubble pile again. He took a short break to look back at his work and his surroundings and noticed a smudge of something on the horizon.
The horizon was never too far off. There always seemed to be a haze over everything outside the domes. Lately, there had been a steady breeze blowing south and visibility was stretched a bit and the sun seemed brighter than he could remember it being in quite some time. He thought he’d seen enough smoke to recognize it when he saw it at a distance but he just wasn’t sure, so he planned to bring something to help next time and this was that next time.
There was no doubt now. Using his MilScope, he could distinguish structures in the distance with smoke coming from one, perhaps a chimney. The scope listed distances too. He could also see something else that puzzled and intrigued him. In the near distance between him and the structures, there was what looked like a green expanse and then a blue one (water?) ahead of that, the blue being closest to him.
This can’t be? That’s beyond the south wall for sure, maybe 20 kliks. How can that be? And why isn’t CommCorp doing anything about it? If it’s what I think it is? Hell, maybe CommCorp is doing something? Maybe it IS CommCorp. Holy God, there are people out there? Well into the frontier. What the hell? There are no mines there. That whole area is supposed to be a no-go zone.
Harkk was still trying to decide if he believed what he was seeing when Burtt stepped up beside him and scared the devil out of him.
“JIZMO, Burtt? Were you trying to kill me? God, you scared me to death, damn it!”
“Sorry, Harkk. Saw ya up he-ah. Figured to join ya ‘s all. Wha ‘s that? ‘N wha ya point it at?” He asked pointing to the scope.
“Ah. This is called a MilScope, Burtt. It helps to see things far away and that’s what I was pointing it at.” He said pointing at the smoke smudge.
Burtt could see that well enough without the scope and was on the defensive immediately.
“Wha dat, Harkk? Dat Fi-ah? Be comin he-ah?” Burtt’s diction reverted to the street as soon as he felt stress. He was constantly trying to correct himself, but in times of severe worry, he just didn’t think about it. It was a neverending source of angst for his tutors.
Right then he was and looked desperate. He remembered wildfires raging just outside the red zone where he and his family hid years before. The terror was suddenly fresh in his memory.
Harkk sensed Burtt’s fear and allayed them as best he could.
“Well, it looks like smoke from a cook fire Burtt, or just from a chimney. It’s certainly not wild and it isn’t moving towards us. Here, look through the scope and you’ll see soon enough.”
He showed Burtt how to hold it and how to focus.
At first, Burtt was not sure what the blurry mess was all about and why Harkk had him wasting his time when the view finally came into focus. Burtt froze. He just stared for a moment. Then without removing the scope from his eye, a huge grin spread across his face. You could see him opening and closing the eye not looking through the scope, checking the difference, and marveling at it.
“Dis be gut Harkk. Ver gut. Yessuh!” He played the scope around him taking in the view near and far, then he settled back in on the structures again.
“Wha dat in front o the shacks Harkk.?” He caught himself sliding further back into street and made a half-hearted effort to correct himself. That be green? Ya see that? S’ that the end o Green Rivah we-ah all da blue is? That green be growin stuff ya tink? Damn! Thas gut, if.”
Then he thought of something else and asked, “Why we c’n see so fah Harkk? Why it so cle-ah? That be da Wahl the-ah? That dark ting? If that the Wahl, how fah them shacks be?”
Burtt was indeed referring to the wall. The southern wall, much of it was un-manned. From Sector-31, which was northwest of them around the dome, to sector-16 just east of them, there were only bot patrols on the wall and the occasional flybots over top and a maintenance crew who visited weekly for their service schedule. The land beyond was considered too bleak for any life so, scarce resources weren’t wasted there. In fact, half the ground bots were second tiers, just like those here in the red zone.
This blotch of green, with the blue expanse fronting it and some sort of structures behind, was located almost exactly in the middle of those sectors if you extended them out beyond the wall. The wall was almost exactly five kliks from the dome all the way round. There were connector tubes for high-speed maglev trams between city-states, and tubes from the dome to the wall but none in that direction.
“Yes Burtt, that’s the wall alright. There won’t be anyone there, though, just bots. Not in that area. Remember I told you about that area?” Burtt nodded so Harkk continued. “I think we can see so far lately because of the wind. That might be water closest to us and it sure looks like that would be where the Green River flows to, though I don’t know how it would get past the wall. And, yes, I think that is growing stuff. Grass or hay maybe. Though I can’t see why they’d grow grass? Could it be corn? I wonder if they know they can be seen now? According to the scope, those structures are a little less than 20 kliks out Burt”
“They caint be hidin now. Mayb’ they don wanna be seen, but the win blow f’ them too.”
“Yeah, that could be it, Burtt, or they could work for the Corp.”
It was evident Burtt hadn’t considered that. He looked disappointed.
“Cheer up Burtt. We’re going to have to find out who they are now, don’t you think?”
Burtt cheered visibly with the prospect of exploring now firmly planted in his head.
Both men took turns looking through the scope again then set off for the crèche.
“Mayb’ we go look, Harkk. See what is it.”
“Oh, I don’t know Burtt. That’s a long way off bud. I was thinking of signaling them to see if they signaled back.”
“Hmm. Thas gut. How we gon do that? Caint jes wave at em.”
Chuckling, Harkk replied, “No, we can’t just wave at them, but we can signal them with light tonight. If they signal us back, we go from there. Deal?”
“Su-ah but we nees to ask around first. Ah mean, what if it is the Corp ‘n they sees ahr light?”
“Ah. Good point. Let’s take it up with the council then. Okay? If we decide to go for it and it looks like our neighbors are from the Corp, we just put our light out and disappear until they stop looking for the source.”
“Su-ah. Das gut!”
Zobbi’s crèche somewhere in the frontier:
“I ain’t ca-ah bout no wi-ah, ya puss. I wanna kno whas goin on in dat crèche, das wha. Now, who gon do dat f’ Zobbi? Who? Ain’t no gut soljer he-ah?”
“Ah go Zobbi man. I caint stays he-ah no way. I be det ‘fore long. Ah go n sen back one ya scorts. Kay? I don’t be comin back he-ah. Ahm be dyin he-ah.”
“Ya Go Pokke? I surprise ya eben tink bout. S’ gut. Ruppe, ya goes wif Pokke and ya comes back wif his blurb. Gots it? Ya takes Rogg wif.”
Zobbi commanded two of his best and strongest soldiers to go with Pokke. Pokke wasn’t happy with the choice. He’d asked for a scort so he could yield some authority. With the two soldiers Zobbi assigned him, he’d be lucky to take a rest without them prodding him onwards. He surely wouldn’t be ordering these two around, though.
As the three set off for sector-22, Zobbi signaled Rogg to come back to him. Pokke saw but couldn’t do much about it as Ruppe guided him out of Zobbi’s frontier crèche with authority.
“When ya gets da blurb, ya kills Pokke. Gots it? I ain’t want dat puss tellin ole Burtt bout Zobbi. If him lives, you dies. Gots it? N’ I fin out if him do. Ya kill Pokke, das a’righ.”
“Ah gots ‘t boss. I gots ‘t.”
Pokke saw the exchange but could only guess at the subject matter. It was enough. He knew Zobbi well. Zobbi wasn’t about to let Pokke off the hook now. He wasn’t going to be able to just send a scort back to report, he was going to have to fend off two soldiers. He knew that probably meant a fight. He wasn’t sure he was up to it but he checked the blades and stunner he had hidden in his cloaks.
Ah fight ya den boys. Hopes ya ain’t spectin dat from ole sick Pokke. Das A’righ. Burtt, ya basta, hab some spies waiting f’ ole Pokke. Maybe dem sca-ah off dese toughs. JIZMO! Ah gots t’ gets fruit.
The Loks study:
“She’s trouble Kkat. That’s all she is and all she’ll ever be. I told you, we need to out that cretin ourselves before she ruins it for everyone. If you don’t want to do it, I will. She’s a danger to us all. And while we’re at it, we can at least out the flirt so Burtt sees her for what she is. I can’t believe the idiot isn’t aware. Boys!”
The determined set of her jaw told Kkat she wasn’t going to easily talk this female version of the headstrong Klop kids. Burtt was bad enough, but Ssyndi could argue the tail of a dragon lizard, and she had the vocabulary to make it an interesting event to observe. Kkat had to do some serious shuffling to deter this latest spat of vitriol Ssyndi spent on the Hap woman.
“Ssyn, you know we have to tread softly here. One wrong step and the Corp will be sniffing at our heels, not hers. Mmarta hardly needs that grief right now, don’t you think? Jjenna Bok is NOT a priority of any sort. She’s just a wart. I’ll freeze that pestilence off soon enough.”
Kkat hated guilting Ssyndi into compliance but some days it was all she could do to reign that enthusiasm in. If she had to throw Mmarta’s condition in her face to hold her back from the chasm, she would.
I may just have to give in and take you to see Burtt. Perhaps I could get him to come to the tube so she doesn’t have to be all the way out in the air. Oh, Ssyn. Why are you so impulsive? Kkat almost choked on her own laughter, why do you think, silly? Is she a Klop or what?
“Again? Again, you hit me with the guilt trip? Come on Kkat. You know I’m right. At least let me talk to Qquitia again. I’ll find out exactly what that Hap bitch is up to now. Then we can tell Jaredd. The Council will want to decide what to do with Hhannah at least. I’m telling you, Kkat, if we don’t squash this bug now, she’ll turn the whole crèche inside out just to get at Mmarta. You heard what Qquitia said. Hap will stoop to any level to get out from under. She’ll trade her partner and her son for a better perch.”
“We can’t be sure Hhannah has enough clout to cause that much trouble Ssyn. She’s proba…’
“Probably? Probably? Kkat! Listen to yourself. We are talking about exposing the Taj to the Corp. Complete exposure, to include any from out here who might be involved. That’s not just us Kkat. Heads will roll and that Hap bitch will ride the flow of blood to the nearest tower suite. I won’t sit idly by while that happens regardless of what you decide to do, Kkat. I won’t!”
She couldn’t deny the truth in what Ssyn was saying so she tried another tack.
“Will you at least let me ask Burtt first? Please?”
“Can I come with you?”
Damn this girl!
After a full minute of staring, Kkat nodded, but before Ssyn could jump out of her skin, Kkat said, “To the tube, Ssyn. To the tube only, with the mask on, and if Burtt won’t come to the tube, too bad. And not a word to Mmarta or Jaredd. NOT ONE WORD! If those terms don’t suit you, then there’s no deal.”
Ssyn little dance of the happy feet was all Kkat needed to be sure she had Ssyn compliance.
“I need you to dress up like you did last time you snuck into the zone to make it hard for the bots and cops to recognize you.”
She thought about that and followed with, “Oh, dear. I mean the time when you snuck in after the war Ssyn, not any other time that you might have…” Kkat stopped herself wondering if this wild young girl hadn’t snuck out more than just the one time she knew of.
“Ha, ha! I only tried it the once. I heard all those conversations you had with Mmarta about me. I don’t want to die Kkat. I just really want to see my brother. I’m sure YOU can understand that, can’t you Kkat? Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t see Burtt for 6 months? Hmmm?”
With a sigh and deep concern for her friend, Kkat resigned herself to allowing Ssyndi to branch out and see her old world again, and her brother.
What would I do If I couldn’t see him…for a week, let alone a month or six? Oh, Burtt!
The Quad in front of the kennel:
“Ya has ta make ya K behave in the Taj. Caint be crazy in there. So we trains them all to be gut. There be at least three handlers for every pup, so ya all take turns with them. When ur K don do what ya tells it, ya makes it. Don hit. Ya hit ur K, I be hittin ya back. Ya jes push the butt down if it don sit. Ya works in teams to train them to stay. One says the stay and walks off, t’othah holds the K til handler says the come. We works lahk that til alla the Ks be gut and don need no lead ‘t hold ‘em. When them all gut, we teach yas t’be guards. Dogg n me don never be sneacked up on. So y’all need to be the same. Then nobody sneaks on us evah mayb.”
“What about naming Burtt? When can we name the pups?” Asked Jjermaine. He, like all the young handlers, was anxious to make a contribution to the Taj. To them, a naming day for their Ks would be a symbolic turning point. With names, they would be a real team, not just Jjack, and his K, for instance.
This was big and Burtt knew it. He understood that it was his own fault so much worth had been placed on names and now he faced another test of his ability to quench this insatiable thirst the kids had to be part of the savage world Burtt lived in. So far he had been able to reign in that urge to expose themselves to danger, in part by convincing them that they had to be fully trained not just in self-defense but in every aspect of soldiering. In part by periodically working on hot days without a tunic on, so all could see the results of living his kind of life and hopefully decide that a different way was better. The scars evident on his upper body would terrify a prize fighter.
By designating all the youngest Taj-mates as handlers, he’d added another layer of learning to the process and delayed that fateful day by more months still. Burtt had no trouble recalling the abattoir that had become sector-22 after the prole war. The very thought of even one more child’s body lying in tatters at his feet could bring him to his knees in abject terror.
Never again! He swore, knowing the truth even as he swore to deny it..
The kids, however, didn’t seem to be phased at all by memories.
This mus be why they can sleep so gut, he thought.
“Member I said, ya all is a team? Member?” he asked and they all nodded assent.
“Well, some of ya are doin gut and some not so gut. Ya all hafta hep each uthah. When ya all can do the basic tells and ya K’s is doing them off-lead for all three handlers, then we c’n have a namin day. Afta that, we move on to guard trainin. That gut?”
The disappointment on some of the older and better handlers was evident but they were soon resigned to their fate, once again joking with each other and Burtt and playing with their Ks.
There was one pup who took a liking to Burtt and kept breaking away from his handlers to run up front with Burtt and Dogg.
At first, the kids would run after him disrupting the rest of the class. Bedlam would ensue. After much laughter, yelling, tripping over leads and each other, order would be restored only to have the little miscreant try again in a few moments.
The last attempt at mischief ended with Dogg escorting the felonious pup back to his handlers. Turning with a not-very-serious growl several times to the keep the pup in place as he attempted to return to Burtt, Dogg ended up chasing the little beast back several more times much to the delight of child and adult alike. The end result was an attached lead that rarely came off. This pup was a runner and would grow to continue that trend. He escaped from the Taj more than once but always came back. His handlers would name him Roamerr. This tendency to run had Burtt thinking about how he dealt with Dogg’s enthusiasm when first they met. At one point he decided he had to let Dogg know that play time was over.
Burtt fashioned a harness with pouches on the side to carry small items of need on the trail and to attached a lead to. It was just a matter of time before Dogg caught on and he knew it was work time whenever Burtt put the harness on him. The shenanigans ended immediately.
Roamer also turned out to be the best scout the creche ever had, better even than Dogg, whom it was thought could sniff a roach out of a pile of offal. Dogg liked roaches. He seemed to take great delight in the crunching sound they made when he bit down on them. At times he wouldn’t even eat them. He just picked up one after another and crunch, crunch, crunch. Burtt was continuously pushing Dogg away after any such sessions. He couldn’t imagine Dogg licking him after he had that stuff all over him. YECK!
They finished the day’s training session on a positive note with all teams able to walk with their Ks at their sides, completely around the obstacle/exercise course and off lead, excepting Roamerr.
Harkk told Burtt this was called “heeling”. The term confused him. It didn’t sound like anything that made sense to Burtt until Harkk explained what a heel was and that if he thought about it, the Ks were being trained to just barely follow behind their handlers, at their heels, so to speak. Burtt acknowledged the logic then and in place of his accustomed “walk”, “heel” was adopted as the command for that behavior. Come, Sit, Stay, and Down were the other basics that all Ks had to learn and do without fail for each of their handlers.
The idea of rewarding the Ks when they did good was introduced. Instead of punishment for failure, they were simply made to do the behavior again until they got it right after a light “no” for an admonishment. Harkk told Burtt that in general, it was best to keep things simple with Ks or any animal since they really didn’t “understand” what people were saying to them. He explained that once they are trained, they just relate the unique sound of a word to a certain behavior. The important thing to keep in mind was that everyone had to use the same commands and try to say them the same way as everyone else in order to not confuse the Ks. This too was practiced daily. Thus the concept of repetition, praise, and reward, was adopted in the Taj. Simple, one syllable commands, were established as the standard; thus “To me” was replaced with “come”. Within months they would have the most secure creche on the outskirts of CommCorp city-state and over time this would cause them both troubles and bring them great wealth, as measured by a prole.
Eleven pups and 39 handlers preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.
For Burtt, it was a source of great pride and great concern. Soon he would not be able to curb the enthusiasm of these young wannabe warriors. He would have to start assigning them more and more dangerous duties if he was to be fair to everyone else. That they would have a K to protect them was some comfort and probably the only reason Burtt didn’t just flat out put his foot down and refuse to let the kids out of the Taj at all. None of these youngsters would work without a K, so that limited their active force somewhat. In an emergency, there would be plenty of other jobs to be done.
Bein the leader ain’t so much fun, huh Burtt?
Dusk atop the rubble mound:
They made their way to the top of the rubble mound just as the last of the light faded into the western horizon. Burtt didn’t want to worry the Taj so they had waited until Burtt would normally leave on his own with Dogg to do his rounds. All the other mates were in the creche as a rule by then anyway. The pups weren’t allowed free run anymore, They were too disruptive and they ate anything that wasn’t secured. Their handlers took turns caring for their Ks overnight and kept them on lead or secured in their new kennels, one of the last projects taken on in the Taj proper. As they became more disciplined with age, they would be granted the same free run of the creche as Dogg and Ssweet had, though you rarely ever saw Ssweet. She never seemed to accept people the way Dogg did.
“Ya tink them answer us Harkk?” He was excited again.
‘Well, it depends, Burtt. It depends on a lot of things. Is it the Corp? Are they wild people, not aligned with the Corp? Is it a new mining op? Whoever it is, are they friendly? Do they have a light? Will they be afraid to contact us? There’s a lot of ifs, Burtt. All we can do is try.”
Burtt suddenly seemed nervous.
“What is it, Burtt? Are you having second thoughts about contacting our new neighbors? We don’t have to if you don’t want. We can revisit this in the morning with the council again.”
“Ye-ah, Ahm afraid. Wha if them – erm – What if they are savi, sava…mean?”
“I think the word you wanted was “savage”, and yes that would surely be a problem. That’s why we built the Taj up so much these last few months buddy. To fend off attacks from both directions. Frankly, I’d rather face a foe from out there, than Corp troopers. At least until I find out they’re the more savage of the two.”
He paused a moment to give Burtt time to respond. When he didn’t he continued.
“So, what’ll it be Burtt? Flash ‘em or not? I’ll stand by your decision”
Burtt stood motionless staring off into the distance as if trying to see the target again. Even with the scope, it would be impossible unless the strangers had an open fire, but Burtt knew where to look. They’d set some rocks in a rough arrow pointing to what they thought was the center of the distant compound.
As if snapping out of a reverie, Burtt shook himself and turned to Harkk.
“Les do it, Harkk. Lahk ya says, we c’n always hide.”
Harkk lit his torch. He’d been charging the cell all day so the beam was bright enough to be seen from a lot farther away than the settlement. He flashed them a code he had learned in the Army for H-E-L-L-O twice, then shut off the torch and waited. He repeated the process four more times waiting for 5 spans between each.
The two had about given up hope for the night. Harkk had packed and collected his bag and was turned away from the frontier when Burtt’s anxious cry caught him in mid-stride.
“The-ah! The-ah, Harkk. I sees the light. Right the-ah. See it?”
Burtt excitement was palpable. Harkk could feel the tension in his body when he placed a hand on Burtt’s shoulder.
“Well, I’ll be. And they know the code. Damn! ‘W–H-O Y-O-U’ Damn Burtt, they want to know who we are.”
“Wha we say? GRRRRR! What do we tell them?”
“Hahaha, atta boy, Burtt. Well, I think we tell them something about us that separates us from the Corp like the council decided, right?”
“Ye-ah das, oh damn, that’s right. We do wha the council says. Okay!” Thinking for a moment, he turned to Harkk and said, “Tell them this is the Taj, callin.”
“Oh Burtt, I like it.”
Later that night at Council HQ, back in Taj Proper:
“We signaled back that we would meet them at our boundary readout at mideat 3rd day. That gives us plenty of time to prep for their arrival and to practice evac if it comes to that. The outer wire will be energized. Our soldiers will be stationed at the readout. The rest of the creche will be waiting for the signal at either Ccassie’s annex or at the Taj proper, ready to hit the hideout entrances. Before our visitors arrive, Burtt and I will be perched on the mound with the scope. We’ll be able to tell very easily if they are from the Corp or present some other danger from a long way off. If things look bad, we all head for the hideout. If there’s no apparent threat, then Burtt and I de-energize the outer wire and lower the ramps for them to enter sector-22. Everyone stays out of sight until we say otherwise, though. Any questions?”
“Have you given any thought about what happens if we don’t successfully evade their detection? Assuming they are the Corp, I mean?” Asked Kkat.
“Ah don assume they the Corp, Kkat. Les not look f’ trouble. Les see first. Kay? We have enough time to get to groun before they get he-ah. That’s why we built the readout like we did so ya caint see whats going on the othah side.” Prompted Burtt, trying to keep a positive spin on events, but Kkat was not to be deterred.
“You can’t be certain of anything Burtt and I think we need to discuss all the “what ifs”. If it is the Corp out there and they call out the bots and the Army? You know what happens to these kids when there’s some excitement. We would stand a very good chance of being seen before we can all get to ground, or worse yet, as we enter the hideout, thus entrapping ourselves there.” The stern look on her face caused Burtt to reconsider and what he remembered was the holocaust that was the last prole war.
“Hmm. Das a’ri…, um, That’s a good point Kkat. So tomorrow after firsteat, we drill. When we can evac in 15 spans, we call it gut. Okay?”
Kkat was still obviously anxious but nodded her edgy agreement with what was the best they could hope for. The rest of the council seemed to sigh in unison.
“Good. If there’s no more questions or concerns about item one; let’s move on to item Two. I believe I’ve come up with a way to add to our veggie and fruit supply. When I was last inspecting our water lines, I noticed some moss growing under a line where it was leaking. Now, I don’t think the soil is totally purged of poisons yet, but I do think that with some work and the right structure, we can triple our production levels from the grow we have in the creche proper greenhouse. If we build another greenhouse on the southwest face of the rubble, over on the banks of Green River, a much bigger one, we should be able to grow darn near anything in that sterile environment provided the sunlight remains constant. I can’t get more of the grow lights we use in the Taj greenhouse, at least not anywhere near enough of them to light the size facility I’m thinking of. So we will absolutely need the sun in order for this to be successful. I think it’s worth the effort to try. Even a little extra food is a help, right?
“I have equipment we can use to sterilize the soil we use inside the greenhouse. We’ll have to get Jaredd to supply us with the nutrients we’ll need to add back into the soil, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. The Lok stead has one of the larger private gardens in the dome, so they’ll have ample supplies. We can begin to make better use of our compost heap now too. Eventually, once we get the crop rotation down, we’ll have a self-sustaining garden that we keep in nutrients with minimal contributions from the dome.
“There will be a significant amount of work to be done here. We’ll have to dig into the hillside and make a level surface to build on. We have to acquire more clear plassheet from somewhere. I have enough left over from the other greenhouse to cover one side and the roof of the new structure I have in mind. I also have enough dark sheeting to cover the back and side walls where the dirt will be covering them anyway, the rest will need to be clear. I have plenty of plasphalt left to make a contiguous floor we can seal to the side panels. I’ve already taken as much of the clear as I can from Corp supplies, at least for a while. We’ll have to see what Jaredd can come up with. The rest of what we need we can scavenge from around sector-22. Whenever we need some material, we need to check in the spares pile in case we already have what we need or can fashion what we need from something else we already have. The less we have to smuggle in from outside the better.
“So that’s all I have at the moment unless there are questions?” Harkk finally finished and looked around for what he hoped would be excited faces. There were plenty. The council meetings had morphed into a town-hall kind of atmosphere where everyone had a say if they wanted and at times a vote was called for to settle particularly sticky issues.
There were no questions and the meeting broke up into many smaller groups animatedly discussing the day’s topics. The Taj was becoming more like a mini city-state every day.
Burtt and Harkk both wondered if that was a good thing.
Morning, day two outside sector-22’s servhuts:
The younger girl fought like a cornered street rat. Kkat had to use all her training, her wits and in the end, her nasty side and her weight advantage to gain the upper hand. Even then Jjenna wouldn’t quit trying to break free.
“Stop! Stop you, evil little witch. If you don’t, I’ll really hurt you.” Kkat wasn’t sure what else she could do, but the ruse seemed to work. Jjenna stopped fighting at least, even if she remained stiff and ready to go again at a moment’s notice.
Jjenna was weighing the benefits of continuing the fight if Kkat could bring it to another even worse level of pain and humiliation.
Da bitch prolly hab m’ thowed out.
“A’righ! A’righ! Le Go. I don be affa Burtt no mo. Kay? Le go. Jizmo!” The sex-hungry girl subsisted.
“You better be sure, Jjenna. No more! Not ever. I plan to be part of Burtt’s life forever. Understand? That will never change. Stay away. I mean it, Jjenna. Stay away! For good! He doesn’t want you Jjenna. He’s too kind to hurt you himself, so he sent me. Understand?” There didn’t seem to be any give in Kkat’s resolve. Jjenna feared for her future. It must have shown because Kkat took pity. Jjenna seemed to melt under the revelation that Kkat was Burtt’s messenger, not just a jealous suitor.
“I won’t make this an issue with Burtt if you keep up your end of the bargain. Is that clear? Is that a deal?”
“S’ a’righ. I gots it. Deal! C’n Ah gets up now?” the tone was just slightly less snarky but there was a difference. Kkat conceded the point and got up.
“Remember I’m watching Jjenna and remember that, no matter what our relationship, Burtt listens to me. Always!”
She hoped the added threat bored home to roost in this miscreant’s mind. Burtt was right, she was a great spy. She did report snooping at the wire and they found the body there the next morning. She saw them coming from her post and fired up the wire that fried the leader. She was even smart enough to NOT investigate on her own. Burtt would have locked her up or tossed her out, one or the other for that. He was crazy about the kids now and any danger they might have to face sent him into a dither.
Still, Kkat was determined to be Burtt’s mate, even if Burtt didn’t know it yet, the buffoon.
This little tart is NOT spoiling that. No way!
Jjenna left with her head down, either properly humbled or improperly spiteful. That one bore watching but Kkat admired the girl’s spunk. She managed to keep her baby healthy in the red zone before Burtt made that a safe space. As to her flirtatious aspirations, well, Kkat couldn’t really blame her. Burtt was the most attractive fish in their little secotr-22 sea, and as of that moment, he wasn’t technically committed to anyone.
We’ll see about that. Oh yes, we will, Mr. Burtt. We’ll see about that.
The same time, inside Harkk’s servhut:
“And that my friend is why you always, always, stay out of cat fights. They are vicious and anyone in the vicinity can get hurt. Badly!”
Harkk tried poorly to look serious when he turned to see Burtt’s reaction. The two burst into muffled laughter. Neither daring to be caught as Kkat was still within easy hearing distance of Harkk’s hut.
Kkat had caught up to and confronted Jjenna when the girl was sneaking out of Ccarol’s servhut. Jjenna aside from being Burtt hungry was also a thief. The confrontation started out as a challenge to the girl’s presence where she most likely shouldn’t have been with Ccarol in the dome. It quickly morphed from accusations of petty theft to mate-stealing with all the pent up rage Kkat had been storing afer each additional advance the girl made towards Burtt.
The final straw came just a cycle before when Kett came running to tell her that, “Burtt and Jjenna were drownin’ in green rivah.”
When Kkat arrived at the top of the mound herself, she found Burtt desperately trying to fend off an equally naked Jjenna whom, it turned out, had followed Burtt to his morning bath and caught him unawares.
Kkat, so angry she thought she might hurt them both, returned to the Taj and waited instead. Burtt was on her heels in seconds, he must have run the whole way.
“Kkat, ya gots ta do sumpin bout dat lil flart, flort…ah JIZMO! THAT FLIRT! Please! Taday! Ahm beggin ya. She don caught me in ma skin agin. Ahm afraid ta be hittin her”
Kkat turned to find her nemesis and stalked off in the direction of the wire, where the girl spent most of her time. When she wasn’t flirting with Burtt that is.
Burtt heard Harkk call to him quietly from his servhut. Harkk pointed over Burtt’s shoulder. Burtt looked and saw Jjenna sneaking into Ccarol’s servhut. As Burtt headed towards Harkk, he passed Kett going the other way, Kett whistled to catch Kkat’s attention. Both men saw Kkat turn with Kett’s whistle. She saw Jjenna too and forgetting about Kett, made her determined way towards the servhuts and Jjenna. Burtt realized that Kett was unknowingly headed straight towards danger and he grabbed the young man bringing him along to Harkk’s. Harkk pulled Burtt and Kett in out of the battlefield. The three watched in fascination as the events unfolded before them. All three were equally instilled with renewed respect for the lady of the Taj. Kkat was one formidable opponent. More importantly, she was a fierce ally too.
“You need to have that talk, Burtt. She wouldn’t have been that physical if she didn’t want to be with you. You need to have that talk and the sooner the better, my friend.”
“Jizmo! Das A’righ.” Said Burtt reverting to street again.
“What talk?” asked Kett with a suspicious look on his young face.
The same time on the perimeter:
Dogg would only ever leave the Taj proper with Burtt or Chukk. If Burtt was hanging out with Kkat and ignoring him, Dogg would tag along with Chukk who walked all over the sector now that it was open. After watching him for almost a year, Burtt and Kkat realized that wherever the kids could go, he would go there too. It was as if he had to check it out for himself and he had to do it sometimes daily.
He took Burtt’s place this morning walking the perimeter with Dogg. When Burtt came flying into the Taj half dressed and soaking wet, Chukk thought Burtt would be busy and took it on himself to run the morning rounds. Burtt would follow him later, without Chukk knowing, but he let the two go. He was too intent on seeing Kkat just then.
“You keep an eye open Chukk. Don let ole Dogg eat no kids now.”
Chukk got a huge kick out of Burtt’s joke and laughed his hee-haw laugh until Burtt couldn’t hear him anymore.
As Chukk neared the passage to the outer Taj, the old sector-22 red zone, three young spy trainees asked if they could come. Chukk was stumped. He didn’t know how to tell these kids no, so he grumbled but turned back to his appointed rounds. Dogg growled his disapproval.
The troop made their way towards Spring Creek. The very same split second that Dogg whirled on them, the kids also noticed the strangers trying to navigate their way up the slick bank of the creek. The older of the trio, who looked vaguely familiar to the kids, was hung up in the new wire, struggling to free himself and whispering his impassioned plea for help to the two toughs who wouldn’t approach him. They were instead chuckling. One of them, the bigger of the two finally approached the trapped man and put his foot on his shoulder forcing him down harder on the barbed wire. The older man screamed then. The two toughs shushed him looking around to see if they were discovered.
Dogg attacked, Chukk yelled a war cry, the kids screamed and the fight was on. It was short but brutal. Dogg was in among the toughs in a heartbeat snapping and ripping at them. He got a firm hold on Pokke first and latched on. The scream from Pokke’s lips had to be heard all the way to the wall, Evann thought. He was the oldest of the trainees there with Chukk and was determined to be brave.
They’ll come to help. We’ll be okay. Keep moving. Stay together. Fight only if we have to.
Evann Rose was repeating the litany in his head for the emergency evade and escape procedure they’d trained for in case of being outgunned, as Harkk described it. The only problem Evann was having as he herded the younger kids ahead of him and away from danger was that Chukk was going to be alone and that was the one thing Burtt said he would never forgive. We never leave anyone behind. It was gospel according to the Taj and here Evann was leading two kids away from the only fighter left facing three enemy soldiers. Evann was afraid and started crying, Jjulie Mitt took his hand and soothed him while Kenn Barb started blowing his whistle as loud as he could. They kept moving along the creek towards the Taj proper, but not nearly fast enough.
Chukk was conflicted. He wanted to stay with the kids but he wanted to protect Dogg too. He was frozen for a moment until he saw Evann moving the kids away from the creek, so Chukk opted to help Dogg. He managed to leap the underwater wire and waded into the creek with his monster stunner in hand and ready for use. Pokke saw it and screamed again, this startled Chukk and he backed off. Dogg continued to tear Pokke’s leg to shreds. Chukk turned away and saw the danger to the other kids and his clouded mind was suddenly crystal clear with purpose. He tore off after the toughs who were then chasing his kids
Since the K was taking care of Pokke the other two toughs saw a chance to score some clean sex slaves for Zobbi and lit out after the three trainees. Ruppe made a running leap over the wire and sprawled on the slimy pathway but managed to grab Jjulie’s ankle. The girl fell to his front and he clamped his fist around her arm. The moment he did that Chukk caught up to him and laid him out cold with a blast from the stunner. Jjulie looked up smiling gratefully at Chukk, then the smile on her face froze with the scream in her throat. Chukk only had time to turn part way round before the Rogg ran him through with an ugly rusted blade as long as his arm. Chukk’s expression slowly changed from surprised to lights out. Dogg and Evann both hit the second tough at the same time. Jjulie and Kenn joined in and there wasn’t much left.
Kenn’s whistling had brought the entire creche out. Dogg had managed to tear Pokke’s throat out before he joined the dismantling of the last tough.
Before he died, Rogg told Burtt that Zobbi was after him. Burtt dredged Zobbi’s location from him. He was in the red zone at sector 27, west of the Taj. That was supposed to be no-go zone over there.
They pushed Pokke and the toughs bodies into the creek. Harkk noted something of interest with the footwear the toughs wore. They were thigh high and made of what seemed to be an impervious material. He’d often wondered how folks managed to traverse the no-go zones. These boots were probably the answer and he wanted to see if he could duplicate them, especially in light of their potential new neighbors. He wondered how these no-go zone cretins could have come up with something this complex.
Burtt needed help carrying Chukk’s body to the burial mound. There were more vu=olunteers than he could count. Everyone came to see Chukk off. Kkat said a prayer. Burtt started humming Amazing Grace and the whole creche joined in. Katt had been teaching that song to the little ones in school. The congregation broke up into small somber groups of scared children.
Life had to go on and Burtt had learned to not let the Taj dwell on the bad stuff. They had work to do before the big meet the next day, so he got everyone back into their routines, in spite of the definite lack of desire. The Taj kept on. Training took on a more serious flavor that day and when lasteat rolled around, total evac was down to 11 minutes flat.
Later that night, Dogg laid out on top of the burial mound all night alternately howling and then whining. Burtt was worried about his partner and so he joined him.
That night, there were a full moon and a sky full of stars for a change. The weather really was changing for the better. The night was beautiful and terrible all at once. Burtt flicked away the tear forming in his eye.
Ahm sorry, Chukk. Ah loved ya ole boy. Ah should a been the-ah. Jizmo, will I evah stop killin them?
He remembered something just then. It was from his past. Way back when his parents passed. Kkhloe and he had dragged their bodies to the creek and pushed them in. The creeks ran hard back then too. It was terrible water to look at and it stunk something awful, but it ran hard and steady. Everyone in the outer zones used the creeks to dispose of the dead and any other refuse they needed to be rid of. The flow dragged everything inexorably away from the dome. Bodies were usually too heavy for kids to pick up and carry away to bury, so whatever method of disposal was the easiest for the kids was usually adopted as a normal practice. Dragging bodies to the creek was the norm back then.
Remembering that day Burtt recalled how after the bodies were long gone, Kkhloe drove a “T” into the ground on the edge of the creek. Kkhloe had told her siblings that it was a way they could remember their parents. Any time they wanted to, they could come to the creek, see the cross, she called it, and remember mom and dad. He went back to the creek on a whim to look about but the cross was nowhere to be seen.
Fiahwood b’ now su-ah.
Burtt made his way back to the Taj and found some flat strips of wood in the spares pile and some twine. It took him a few failing efforts before he finally tied the two pieces securely together to make a cross. He then climbed back to the burial grounds. Using a blade to put a point on the long end of the cross he planted it at the very top of the burial mound, right atop Chukk’s body in the freshly turned dirt. Burtt hummed Amazing Grace again. He determined that the cross would be replanted on the new top each time a Taj mate passed while praying he would be that next one and not another kid. Burtt then turned to finish his rounds before he joined his creche mates.
Morning, Day 3, prepping to meet the neighbors beyond the readout:
“I know this has been a terrible day to wake up to. I know none of us wants to continue. The circumstances prevent that. The Taj has a date with the beyond and we can’t cancel the appointment. So, let’s pick our sad selves up and get down to the business of being Taj mates again. We all will miss Chukk, but even he knew how important this day is. He was up early yesterday checking our perimeter for threats and thank God he was. We have to keep on kids. We have to. In memory of Chukk, we have to.”
Kkat implored, trying to pick up the spirits of a demoralized creche. This malaise was worse, she thought than during the aftermath of the prole war. She had taken up the lead when it seemed that neither Burtt nor Harkk could find the words.
After the burial, Kkat checked the three trainees who were with Chukk for injuries. There were only superficial physical ones but all three were scarred psychologically having watched Chukk and the others die so horribly.
Mmarta had touched lightly on maladies of the head with the girls but they certainly were not prepared for this level of mental anguish.
When morning rolled around and it was apparent that not just the three kids involved in the fracas were still in a funk, but damn near the entire Creche was lost and foundering in unspent grief, Kkat was seriously concerned. She didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Katt’s angst was visible and Bbessie came to the rescue. She had the three involved in other activities as soon as she could get them going. This seemed to do the trick as all three responded positively to having something constructive to do. More of the youngsters who were slowly coming to grips with what had happened joined in. Soon Bbessie had more than 30 little ones involved in crafts and settled in front of the Taj’s access hatches to the hideout.
“Everyone has a place. Let’s be sure we are all there when this goes down. Right? Everyone knows where their place is, right? We’re all good?”
Harkk was acting like a platoon leader on his first mission in a combat zone. Nothing was perfect and he had no idea how to make it better.
Jizmo, what have I gotten myself into?
“We as gut as we gon be Harkk. S’late and we need to get up top soon. Let it be. Ever one is in place and ready, so les do this. Kay? Come on.”
Burtt recognized the nerves evident in Harkk’s behavior and was relieved to know he wasn’t the only one to suffer pre-action flutters. His smile seemed to bolster his older friend. Harkk’s soldier side kicked in then and he was all business again. This too Burtt appreciated and he deferred to Harkk’s expertise.
Bbessie still had her flock ready at the Taj proper to evac at the sound of the alarm. The rest of the non-combatants, mostly older trainees held in reserve if things went real badly, were ready to disappear at Ccassie’s. All were out of sight of the readout except for a small crew of advanced spy trainees. These Burtt had watching for flanking attacks or attacks from behind. There were several more trainees set at different locations where an EEC was located, ready to send the creche to ground if the signal was given. All the spies and of course Burtt, Bann and Harkk had whistles to use for the signal, if it was needed. Everyone was praying against all odds that they wouldn’t need them. That these people coming to visit were good people, like the Taj people. Everyone but Burtt and Harkk, who were still atop the mound, were close enough to get to an access point to the hideout if the siganl was given. Bann ran things at the readout in Burtt’s absense.
Aside from Hark and Burtt who were atop the rubble mound, there were 30 soldiers, armed and armored, after a fashion, manning the frontier facing fighting step inside the readout. The readout, like the trenches, was well sandbagged, to the front and on the roof. There were fighting slots left open from which archers and spearmen could repel an invading force.
Months prior to the day of the historic meeting with the outsiders, Burtt, Harkk and the council had puzzled long hours over the problem they had with firing a bow from confined spaces. The town hall atmosphere of their council meetings paid off in dividends this time.
Josephh, a bodybar for Jaredd, remembered reading something about an alternative weapon for just such an environment as theirs. He asked the Loks for and was granted the temporary use of an ages old book with printed illustrations. It was a collector’s item, a family heirloom and precious. Josephh protected it with a plassheet bag.
The illustration he had in mind showed a device called a crossbow. There were detailed drawings of its makeup. After several attempts, Harkk was able to fashion one with spares from their pile. Though it took a fairly large piece of wood to fashion one crossbow, Harkk learned to do so leaving pieces of scrap large enough to make the both the crosspiece and bolts from. With shorter bolts, they could make more from the same amount of stock. Hardening these bolts was even easier. At close range, with the incredible power generated by the bow, these bolts could penetrate a cop’s armor. They had very short legs though compared to a standard bow. This was still a major martial breakthrough for the Taj who would just as likely be involved in a close range battle as one from afar.
There were at present, 8 crossbows distributed throughout the readout. Each bow had 10 bolts. The rest of the warriors all had standard bows and were standing a bit farther back from their firing slots in order to accommodate the larger weapon. This limited their visibility and so they were not as effective a fighting force as their brethren with the crossbows. They did, however, have a much larger stockpile of arrows at their disposal and could start engaging invaders from quite a bit farther off.
Still, this wasn’t the ideal usage of the standard bowmen, Burtt and Harkk had come up with an alternative approach to fall back on if it began to look like they needed to bring more effective firepower to bear on their attackers.
There was a step built into both walls of the readout. With removable roof panels, standard bowmen could mount the back step and fire over their crossbowmen fellows to add accurate, distance spanning fire to their repertoire. These bowmen still had ample protection and could indeed duck back down under oppressive counter fire.
Prior to this day’s arrival, Burtt had decided that the Ks would be kept in their kennels. At least until there was evidence they were needed to defend the Taj. Dogg, and especially Roamer were not happy about this arrangement and made their feelings known with constant snapping and yapping and whining.
Everything and everyone were in place. It was approaching time for mideat. Their neighbors were due anytime now. Burtt prayed that this would turn out to be a nice peaceful getting-to-know-you kind of repast, not the other kind. For the first time, he wondered if their meager fare would satisfy their guests.
Too late to worry now, Burtt.
They settled in behind the scope, taking turns searching for this new wonder to appear. As clear as things had been these last days, this one, of all days, seemed to have a ground fog interfering with their view of the approaching territory. This had them even more on edge as the waiting became unbearable. When they finally did see them, the sudden shock of their arrival, well inside the wall and in fact, just a few hundred meters from Spring Creek left both men with open-mouthed stares.
The people, if that’s what they were all wrapped up in those cloaks, seemed to ooze out of a mist. Except for the four out front, the rest were hauling sleds that seemed to float over the ground. These were laden with something but covered so that nothing underneath could be seen. No faces could be seen either. At first, Burtt thought they must have some kind of sickness and kept themselves covered so it wouldn’t show. He tried to penetrate the coverings with the scope. But as if on cue, the leader started removing a rather complex weave of fabrics and plassheet, revealing the rather striking features and emerald green eyes of a tall, muscular but lean man. He had a mask on underneath the cloak and headscarf. He waved at Harkk and Burtt who snatched the scope away from his eye as if stung by it.
The other travelers who had been out front had some sort of mechanism in their hands. It became apparent that these machines had created the mist that hid the visitor’s approach. Wisps of the ether still leaked from the nozzles.
As amazing as this tech was, It had both Burtt and Harkk on edge immediately. They knew they had been seen so secrecy was no longer a concern. Now it was all about getting to the readout before the visitors did with whatever other magic tech they might have to spring on an unsuspecting creche.
The visitors seemed to recognize the tension of the moment and waited until Burtt and Harkk were met by Barr out front of the readout. There they waited to greet the wild ones.
Burtt waved and invited them forward. The three Taj-mates were still trying to decide if there was a threat or not when the leader deftly leaped the bank, removed the rest of his garb and with a plassheet bag he’d retrieved from a slit in the fabric covering one of the sleds, introduced himself.
“Greetings”, he stated in strangely accented standard. “I am Jonn. We come in peace. I hope you are hungry, yes? We bring lots of food and it doesn’t look like there are so many of you here. Why does the city-state not… Ach! I apologize. There is so much to talk about. I forget my place sometimes. We are your guests, so please, how would you like to proceed?”
Burtt and Harkk were speechless.
They brought food? Burtt thought.
Harkk was stuck on much the same thought when Bann stepped in and saved the moment.
“Hello, Jonn. I’m Estebann Rull. We’d like to welcome you to the Taj. You’ll understand if we’re a little wary. We don’t get visitors from out this way. Most would be too sick to let in any way. We have many questions too. Why don’t we start with getting your people on dry land and comfortable? Is there something we can help with? Oh, I do hope you’ll forgive us, but we’ll need to see that there are no hidden weapons anywhere, if that’s okay. We can’t be too careful today.”
“ Oh, that’s no problem at all. We would demand the same, I assure you. Can we come ashore first?”
Bann looked to Burtt for direction. He nodded and Bann signaled the switchman to cut power to the wire. Jonn absorbed all this and paled with the sudden realization that had he slipped coming over the wire, he might well be barbecued meat right now. Several more soldiers came running from the readout then to lower the ramps and Jonn’s crew came ashore. More Taj soldiers came to help haul the sleds up the ramps.
Once defrocked it was evident that they all were armed as any smart man would be out here. Nothing was hidden though and all the sleds were indeed loaded with food or dry goods.
They brought veggies and fruit of every sort. They brought rice and loaves of bread. They had smoked meat and fish on racks. The sheer amount of food made Burtt’s mouth water. There were skeens of the material that their cloakes were made of and it looked very much like the footwear they’d removed from Zobbi’s toughs.
When Jonn reached into the bag and pulled out the brightest, reddest apple any of them had ever seen, there were fifty kids all over the visitors in moments, coming from every direction at once.
Soon the entire Taj were feasting on more fruit than they’d seen in months and something else they’d never had before. It was a sweet confection of sorts that Jonn called cookies. There were two dark wafers sandwiching a creamy substance that made Burtt’s teeth hurt.
“Ah. The white stuff is excellent, eh?” asked Jonn. “It took us years to perfect.”
Burtt didn’t answer. He stuffed another in his mouth.
Hours later, with fat bellies and completely sweetened out, the kids took to playing outside and the adults sat around talking.
“We should talk about the future and CommCorp, whatever. Before we return to our home. Yah?” Jonn asked.
With Burtt’s mouth full of food, Harkk said, “Yes, we should. This is going to be a problem I’m sure.”
“What, with the Corp? Not so much, Maybe. CommCorp knows us. We run mining operations in the no-go zones. There is a lot of wealth there that we can recover. We have adapted and learned how to protect ourselves from the environment. We are not the only group operating like this. We are a loose coalition of lone wolf operations, independent from the city-states, but doing business with them. We can only extract the minerals they need. They must refine and make use of them.
“How can you stand against the Corp? That’s crazy.” Declared and incredulous Bann.
“Most of us, like this man here from the Wall Warriors,” he said pointing at Harkk and stealing a quick glance at Harkk’s tattoo, “are ex-military. We don’t scare so easily and some of us just happened to hold onto a few of our most favorite toys. Like the kind that can shoot down TroopTrans. We’ve had a few confrontations with various city-states, but the results are never in their favor, so we’ve come to an uneasy truce. A working agreement, so to speak.
“We go where no one else will. Occasionally we get lucky and find these gems for settlement locations. The place we settled south of here is one such. Like all the other places we’ve been able to inhabit, the clean water that is flowing from the dome has cleansed the area south of here. Once the soil isn’t poison, the air cleans up too. Hectares and hectares of good growing land exist that no one is using. They won’t come out of their domes. So, we do and when we find these gems, we build there and find mines that will sustain us.
“Now, we’ve been watching you for a while really. For once we’ve been impressed with, well, how do I say it, your civilized behavior. This is non-existent in the outer zones in our experience. Still, it is evident that you suffer the abuses of the elites, though, and we’d like to help if you’ll let us.
“You see, as I was saying, there are hectares of unused farm and pasture land going to waste…fallow, do you know fallow?” Harkk nodded, Burtt and Bann looked duly ignorant. Jonn continued anyway.
“Anyway, we talked about it after you signalled us and decided to approach you with an offer to share the land and the mining workload too. We’ve located a massive coal seam southeast of Cheyenne Mountain in a grade b hot zone. That’s not a concern with our gear but still, it’ll take years for us to extract it all alone. We could really use the help. And, you get to move your people the hell out of here.”
The sudden and frank offer left the three stunned.
“Of course, we’re interested, Jonn. Tell us more.” Kkat offered.
“Ye-ah! Das a’righ, su-ah! Oh crap!” Blurted Burtt and the group had a comfortable laugh at the break in all this stunning news.
“They’ve been seen. Whatever they’re doing, Jaredd, they are caught. My friend at CorpSec intercepted bot-comms from 22 again. This time, he didn’t get all of them. Some got through to the Corp’s Datvault. It’ll be on the net soon and folks will want answers. What then?”
Natt Lok was very agitated. He almost never comm’d his daughter. He came in person. Jaredd wondered if there was more bad news than just more rumored mischief in sector-22.
“I’m sure it’s just some extra perserv activity Grandfather. Nothing to worry about.”
“You don’t seem to be too worried Jaredd. What’s the problem? Is the shine wearing off on your little crusade?” Natt Lok sneered at his grandson. He’d never agreed with their obsession with bettering the lives of proles. It could only bring them down. Whatever was going on in the outer zone now might just be that last straw too.
“You and your mother should reject these dregs, Jaredd. Get on with your lives. What can you expect to gain from this other than more heartbreak? Hasn’t she had enough? Haven’t you?”
“Enough? What’s enough, Natt?” Asked Jaredd with a little more acid in his voice than he would normally address Natt Lok with.
“Be careful, boy. You aren’t in charge of anything yet.” Demanded the Lok patriarch.
“Oh, I’m sorry grandfather, I forget myself sometimes. Concepts of enough and time intrude on my thoughts and I tend to let the truth about that unhappy match poison my attitude.”
He was surely and desperately depressed and that was decidedly not a trait common to the Loks. They were always upbeat even in the worst of times.
“What is it Jaredd? What?”
“Oh grandfather…” Jaredd broke down in unchecked sobs. Natt Lok was suddenly and completely terrified.
Has her health taken a turn for the worse?
Ten minutes and a lifetime’s tears later, Natt Lok knew that he was not only losing his daughter, and very soon, he was also likely to lose his only other heir, Jaredd. The test results were in. They had them done yearly because the Loks had a history. This year’s test showed a positive result for Jaredd. Two retests showed the same result. Jaredd was dying of lung disease too. He would begin treatment immediately and aggressively. He was only slightly older than Ssyndi. Maybe…
Jaredd interrupted Natt’s thoughts.
“I have to inform the Taj. They need to be prepared in case the Corp does take notice and acts. Norton, what will they do after, after…? Can Ssyn handle things do you think Grandfather? Will you help?”
Natt Lok, once again realized, he was still running second fiddle to those damn brats in the outer zones.
My own children gone. A red zone freeloader living in the stead, and me helping them. There isn’t enough Boulder Brandy to get me through this night.
Coming in part 8, The Taj moves out. Farming and ranching happen. Zobbi attacks an empty sector-22 but triggers Corp alarms. Bots and the Army respond. Mmarta illness progresses unchecked. Jaredd and Ssyn continue to get better with treatment, though Jaredd lags. The Haps see daylight with the deteriorating Loks health, but Qquitia had grown and is no longer afraid. Naming days for kids and Ks. Graduation from trainee status for most. Nuptials for some. A couple of old hands stay home. New alliances are made with other free mining clans. Trade agreements are made and caravans are introduced to facilitate that trade. For those who are not in tune with the sedentary farmer’s life, these caravan’s are a welcome break from the tedium of compound life. New enemies are encountered. Some two-legged and others with four and more, or no legs at all. One Taj mate is torn. His mate won’t leave the Taj.