Burtt – part 6: What cost freedom?

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The first day of the five-day, three months to the day after the war.

“ I wanted to kill you the first time I saw you, you know?”

“Oh? And what happy circumstance prevented you from following through on your desires?”

Kkat had come to enjoy her time with Ssyndi while learning medsci at Mmarta’s stead. Their conversations ranged from silly to morose and covered every emotion, life event, politics, science, love, hate, food, diets and even the latest in fashion, even though Kkat had zero opportunity to take advantage of such luxuries. That was okay with Kkat. She enjoyed these talks and it was a nice break from studies. It was decided that both Kkat and Ssyn would study Medsci together either inside the Lok’s condex or if Ssyndi was feeling up to it, outside on the stead grounds. No one had any illusions about Ssyndi actually performing such duties but it kept her busy and in good company.

The conversation this time, it would appear, might be a step higher up the ladder of intensity. Instead of the expected “in-your-face” confrontation, though, Ssyndi’s appearance softened.

“I snuck into the zone right after the war. No one would tell me what had happened but I’d heard enough from the perservs, ‘dozens of dead, at least as many injured, some with life-threatening injuries’, but no one knew who, or they wouldn’t say. So, I dressed up all frumpy like and made my way in with a group of volunteers from the North side. I was so afraid Burtt was hurt or, or…”, her sobs prevented her from vocalizing what she’d feared most.

“Anyway, I got through the tube and after I dropped the supplies at surgery, I saw him. Burtt had this empty, defeated look in his eye. It was sooooo NOT my Burtt. At first, I blamed you. Mmarta kept telling me about how you were his whole life and how happy he was with you. I was sure you’d broken his heart and made him soft. It never occurred to me that it might be the terrible carnage he’d witnessed that had him so down.

“Then when Mmarta brought you here to learn medsci, I almost died. I was so mad! But, since you’ve been coming here, it’s been easy to see you’re totally stuck on my brother. You never stop talking about Burtt. Never. It sickening!”

The two girls broke into an uncontrolled giggling fit.

Kkat was a few years older than Ssyndi. Ssyndi, however, felt she had an edge over her prole friend since she lived in privilege. Still, a sister was a sister. She’d had nothing like that, not even a girlfriend since Kkhloe and it was getting hard to remember Kkhloe.

Kkat and her became fast, mutually adoring friends. Kkat recognized Ssyndi’s harmless patronizing and ignored it for friendship sake. She knew Ssyn would grow out of it eventually.

Ssyndi made every effort to be part of Kkat and Burtt’s life outside the green zone, even if only in conversation. She was still trying to get Mmarta to let her see her brother in person. Mmarta insisted, though, that Ssyndi still wasn’t ready.

Truth be told her lungs were barely holding on, even in the sterile green zone environment she enjoyed now. Ssyndi, in fact, had the same disease Mmarta was dying from. Without her breather, Ssyn couldn’t jog all the way around the Lok stead. Mmarta, herself, hadn’t been showing signs of the disease at this age, though. Neither Burtt nor Ssyndi knew how serious this condition was and Mmarta was not inclined to tell them. It wouldn’t do any good. She had Ssyn on a medical cocktail that kept things mostly in working order.

When it became apparent the two girls were turning into bosom buddies, Mmarta had recruited Kkat to her side explaining Ssyn’s condition and the absolute necessity of keeping her away from anything that could further corrupt her lungs, such as the air in the near or red zones, for instance. Kkat was a willing co-conspirator and did everything possible to prevent Ssyn’s bubbling enthusiasm from causing herself irreparable harm. She also took it upon herself to tell Burtt. She convinced Mmarta that keeping him in the dark was akin to begging for unanesthetized dental surgery.

Mmarta spent every moment of spare time and every cred she could in an effort to advance the study of lung disease. In the meantime, Kkat had Harkk secretly working on a portable breathing apparatus Ssyn could wear in the zone without it being too much of a burden or making her look too much like an alien. She didn’t want to get the girls hopes up, though, so she kept the project low-key. Harkk had little time for it anyway.

This effort to corral Ssyndi was a never ending battle. Much like getting Burtt to attend phonics class and work on that horrendous street-talk dialect of his; keeping Ssyn from plotting, begging or demanding entrance to the zone so she could see her brother was becoming ever more challenging. In the absence of any progress getting herself to the outer zones, Ssyndi recruited a willing Kkat to spy on her brother for her and on all things sector-22 related.

Distracted, as she almost always was when her thoughts drifted to Burtt, Katt thought, Honestly! Doesn’t he at least want to sound civilized? OOOOOOOOO! I could smack him sometimes if it didn’t hurt so much hitting that steel hard bod of his.” The hungry smile reforming her face gave her away.

“Thinking about Burtt again? You’re so transparent, Kkat! Can’t you at least try to show some propriety? I am his sister after all and a minor child.” Ssyndi snarked bringing Kkat back to the present.

“Oh shut up, Ssyn.”

———-

Dawn, Day two:

The blood on his arms was creeping upwards towards his face. He was shaking it off as hard as he could. His arms and hands ached from the effort. The blood continued to creep up his neck until he was swiping at it and trying to keep it out of his mouth, out of his nose and eyes. All he could see, feel, smell or taste was blood. His ears soon filled with the sound of its flow as if in a river. He was drowning. He welcomed it.

As Burtt once again jerked awake from the unrelenting terror the recurring nightmare brought him most nights, he was at first aware of the sweat. He was soaked from head to toe as were his bed clothes. Then he acknowledged the shaking. It was cold now, months still from plantday. Yet he was drenched in sweat. He was naked. His bedclothes were pushed up against the wall and off of himself. The cold probably woke him. He was grateful.

Jjenna Bok was standing in the entrance to his space staring.

“Ya yellin agin, boss,” Jjenna said, slowly lifting her gaze to his eyes. She was one of Ccassie’s old crew. One who came over to the Taj with her year-old baby. She still carried the zone talk she grew up with and was a hard sell for the new way of doing things in the Taj and sector-22. Still, she was 16 and a trained spy. A good one. Burtt knew this and was hesitant to push back against her independence just yet.

Nakedness was nothing new in the zone. There was no shame in it. But the way she looked at him, the way she was looking at him now, left him feeling uncomfortable. He pulled the blankets close to him.

“Ahm okay. Jes a dream. G’on back to ya post, Jjenna.” He told her.

He was further concerned when she smiled that smile she always sent his way when no one was looking.

Damn! Dis be a prob su-ah.

It was times like these that he wished he had someone else to talk to. Not someone from the creche. Not someone who might be hurt. He thought of Kkhloe. She was always there when he couldn’t figure what to do next. But, whenever anyone else came to see what was wrong, Burtt chased them off as if they’d bit him.

Gut lead’r ’pose t’ know dis.

Burtt was still shaking and trying to shed the vision of that sea of blood lurking in the back of his mind’s eye. He dreaded the jaunt to the treen to relieve an overstressed bladder. He dreaded having to pull cold clothes over his still chilled body so he could make the run. He most dreaded seeing Jjenna at the doorway.

She still be smirkin, Ah be crackin her gut, das a’righ. he thought knowing he’d never do any such thing.

She too damn look f’ her own gut. Sum kids gon fight for dat one, su-ah. ‘N why Harkk put da damn treen way out da col, annaway?

He was more worried that he would come out of his space and see Kkat waiting for him.

Mayb’ she hab Jjen’s hide spike t’da wahl. He chuckled to himself, Dat lil vix’n get Kkat lit up ‘f she sees her coming outta he-ah.

Kkat had already told Burtt she was itching to have it out with the little flirt. Kkat seemed angry, but a different angry from what he was used to, so Burtt had kept quiet until he got to Harkk and could ask what a flirt was. He had to agree. Jjen was all of that for sure. Harkk warned Burtt about getting in the middle of a cat fight, then had to explain that saying too. Burtt was nearly a giggling fool when he left Harkk’s servhut.

He shook himself out of his reverie. He couldn’t hold it any longer. He dressed quickly and ran for the door. This time Jjenna sensed his need and let him be when he passed by her.

Morning ablutions cared for and Kkat nowhere in sight, Burtt made his morning rounds. He loved this time of the day. Little ones seemed to be able to sleep for cycles and cycles. Burt was still lucky to get three in a row, any night, but that was okay with him. If he slept more than that he woke to an uneasy feeling; afraid he’d missed something, some threat.

He did most of his thinking and planning in the early hours before anyone could intrude on his space. Sometimes, though, he just needed to put aside thoughts of the everyday business of the Taj and its many citizens. Jaredd called it a purge. This was the only time for such luxury.

Citizen, Burtt loved that word.

“Citizens! It just sounds profound”, he had told Jaredd. Using the word had given Jaredd a start, but using it in proper context and with perfect diction was, well, profound, even if Burtt did immediately revert back to his pidgin and add a “das a’righ” to the statement.

This morning his thoughts betrayed him. He often fell back to those terrible days three months before when so many died because of his folly. He was so sure he had it all figured out, he walked right into a death trap and his kids came to save him. So, instead of just him dying and some few toughs from the other side as he could manage to take with him; over one hundred died during that conflict in a grizzly mix of warriors from both sides. The residual psychological pain Burtt endured from that day never ended. Even though the vast majority of the dead were from the opposition, the visions of massacred children, his children, and the rest, never stopped assailing his memories, never gave him a moment when he didn’t feel guilt. Some days it was unbearable. This one was starting out that way.

This morning he’d been joined by Dogg and at least half of his still youngling brood. Burtt had assigned one youngster to each for care and training, but he usually had them at his heels for the first part of every day. Once they had kids to play with, though, Burtt was soon forgotten and left behind. Dogg stayed with him throughout most of the daylight hours and wouldn’t return to his hide until after Burtt’s nightly rounds. This morning, the pups helped lift Burtt out of his funk.

What a surprise that furry, wiggly, slurpy, happy circumstance had turned out to be. It had turned into the highlight of the creche since the war, so far. Nothing it seemed brought more delight to a child than a puppy. Burtt had set up a rotation assigning one youngster to each puppy each week for care and training, but he usually had them at his heels for the first part of every day. Once they had kids to play with, though, Burtt was soon forgotten and left behind. Dogg stayed with him throughout most of the daylight hours and wouldn’t return to his hide until after Burtt’s nightly rounds. This morning, the pups helped lift Burtt out of his funk.

Burtt took a breath. Blew it out slow like Kkhloe taught him, then headed back to the Taj to add the night’s catch to firsteat.

No time f’ cowahts, Burtt. He told himself as he moved forward.

Dogg woofed in agreement.

———-

“’T-H’. Who knows what it’s called when you put two letters together? And how do you pronounce this one? ‘T-H’?” Kkat asked her mesmerized class of over-eager students. These guys were learning faster than she could put together satisfying lesson plans for them. More than once she had to revert to playing a game or singing songs to make up the rest of their allotted time. The only reason they weren’t reading beyond preschool level is that Kkat wasn’t able to keep up with the demand of teaching them plus her own studies. It was as hard for her to hold them back as it was for them to be held back.

“’S Calt a blen, Miss Kkat. “N ya says it, thhhhhhhhh” Cconnie offered proudly, trying desperately not to spit in class. The tittering was minimal.

Kkat didn’t want to discourage the bold young lady who was so much a leader already, so instead of an embarrassing correction in front of the class, she rephrased her question as if she hadn’t been clear when she first asked it.

“Excellent, Cconnie. That’s correct. Now, I wonder if you can tell the class in proper Standard?”“Come on. I know you can.

“Come on. I know you can.” She encouraged when Cconnie looked about to shrink back into her shell. They were so delicate these flowers.

I wish I could just breathe confidence into them. They are all so bright. Come on Cconnie. Come on girl. Kkat silently pled.

“It’s called an-a blend, Miss Kkat. It is pronou…pronounced, THHHH”, was her determined response.

“Perfect!”

Was the only and best reply. Connie’s smile made Kkat’s day. Just like every day she spent with these kids.

“Who else can say the T-H blend?” Kkat asked the class, fully expecting the ear-offending round of thutting that was going on. But no-one was prepared for the thunderous spitting blast that assaulted them from the rear of the classroom.

“THTTHHHHTHTTTTHHHHHTHTHTHTPPPPGGGHHHHHHHHHT!”

By the time he’d finished his extended vocal assault, the entire class was in stitches including the school Marm. Burtt made his triumphant entrance.

Oho! The mighty Burtt finally shows up for class and he’s thirty spans late I see. Hmmm! What’s the punishment for being tardy, class?” Kkat teased.

“SWEEP THE FLOOR! SWEEP THE FLOOR! SWEEP THE FLOOR!” chanted the class gleefully.

“Alright. I guess we can end class early today but I want each of you to write me a sentence to read in class tomorrow. It can be about anything. Don’t worry about spelling. Okay?”

The worried looks and groans gave her heart a tug.

“Oh, come on now. You guys are awesome. You can do it. I promise, and there’s no right or wrong. Okay? Just write me a sentence.”

As an afterthought, she added, “Burtt will do it too. In fact, since he is either late or doesn’t show up for any class at all, he can write two sentences.”

Her look dared him to defy her. He didn’t of course and instead said, “Yes Miss Kkat.” like a dutiful little man.

“Now, off you go. Show Burtt where the broom closet is and lock the classroom door on the way out so he doesn’t try to sneak off before he finishes sweeping the floor. That’s it. See you all tomorrow.”

Jaredd was so right. I do love this, she thought with a private smile.

After the last of the gleeful crowd departed, Burtt offered, “Ya-You so gut wit dem, Kkat. S’lahk ya – hmm, ah hell, It’s like you was made fer it”. Her glare made him smile. She returned it in submission.

“Someday, Burtt?” She asked in their everyday code, for when he would get serious about trying.

“SUUMDAAY!” he overexaggerated.

Kkat punched his arm hard enough to make him wince. That was new. She’d been kind of soft at first, but thanks to Harkk’s training routines and Burtt’s insistence that all Taj mates were warriors first, Kkat included, they were all turning into hard hitters every one of them, though it was an ever more entertaining exhibit watching Bbessie try to get her buxom body around some of the defensive moves Harkk was teaching. Hilarious might be more to the point. Fortunately, Bbessie thought it was just a funny as everyone else did.

In spite of the horrific nightmares left over from the recent conflict, Burtt wasn’t fooled into complacency or timidity. He knew there was always a threat from the frontier or other near/red zones. There was a threat from the greenies now if they ever got nosy and then paranoid.

Burtt knew that whatever might come at them from wherever, they had to train to be ready for it, so train they did. Every day, as much as they did book learning, they also did physical training. Exercise, sports, and martial arts were seen as commonly on the quad as was reading, scribing and political/historical/sociological discourse (gossip). As much as he dreaded that inevitable day, they would most probably need to fight again so they would be ready if he could help it.

He was proud of their progress and yet he wished he could take them all backward in time. He feared he’d plunged them all into a cauldron of uncertainty that could cost them all their lives. He never stopped looking for that horde of crazies charging in from the frontier or for the storm troopers to come pouring out of their high-level access hatches from the dome wall. He was constantly second guessing himself. That’s what this visit was about but once again, he couldn’t quite say what was on his mind, so he went into his little song and dance routine of delay and deflect.

Unfortunately, that ploy was working less and less with Kkat. Actually, it wasn’t working at all anymore.

“Oh, Burtt. Now what? Will we actually talk about IT, whatever IT is, or will we eventually talk about something else when I give up trying to get you to talk about what you came here for in the first place?” Kkat accused.

“Ya born’d wif dat, or d’ ya mums teach ya? Dat’s some scary hoodoo, Kkat. Lahk yas in ma het. Whew! Damn!”

His complimentary smile didn’t save him from the backhand. Not nearly!

“Hey, hey! Ah caw da cops on ya gir.”

“They won’t be nearly enough to protect you, mister.”

Burtt wanted so much more from their relationship even though he wasn’t sure how to go forward and even though he was pretty sure Kkat wanted the same. But, every time he even thought about getting closer, visions of Rikk’s head leaving his shoulders flashed into his mind’s eye and he couldn’t breathe right, let alone talk. It was futile. He settled for being close to her and poking around the edges of getting closer. The longing was getting unbearable, though. Katt seemed to be getting testier about it oo. Mayb’ t’night

He finally blured, “Kkat. Ahm scared. Das it. Das all. Dat’ aw ‘t evah be. GRRRR! THAT’S ALL IT EVER IS! Ahm afraid Ah gonna put more kids in tha dirt, Kkat. Das Wha! Ever time Ah see yas trainin, Ah see yas fallin. Ah see, Ah see…”

He couldn’t finish telling her that what he saw was Rikk, more specifically, he saw Rikk’s head. He saw it staring back at him from the dirt where it lay beside his body. He saw Kkat telling him she didn’t need him. He couldn’t say it, but the horror echoed in his eyes was easily recognizable and Kkat was perceptive if nothing else.

Burtt sensed she knew he was in a bad way and was ever so grateful.

Finally! He’d gotten it out. Now he had to fret her reaction. He was, after all, the head honcho here more or less. Even Harkk looked to Burtt for agreement when it came to matters defensive. If he was afraid, it was a cinch how frightening that would be for the little ones. How could Kkat ever feel comfortable with him as her protector? Would she ever have him?

“Burtt, we’ve been through this before. I don’t blame you. No one does. The red zoners attacked you, not the other way round, and everyone who came to your aid came willingly. Even Rikk. Even Jjes. They came to fight by their leader’s side as any devoted soldier will do. They loved you, Burtt. These kids here today love you too, just as much.” She almost added, “so do I”.

“Yes, it’s a terrible price to pay Burtt, but I wouldn’t want anyone else in front of us, Burtt. No one else. I wouldn’t trust them.”

“I wake ever morn and head to tha eas side mound looking for trouble. Then I run to tha utha side t’ do tha same. One day they be the-ah Kkat. Hunerts of em n I’m afraid I do tha wron thin. Agin…I hates ‘t.”

“I know you do Burtt, but you can’t take so much responsibility upon yourself. You can’t change the whole world, Burtt. Remember? Let’s keep it real? Harkk is a real smart guy, Burtt, let’s do like he says and, keep it real, okay? Let’s worry about what we can do, right now. Okay?”

‘Ye-ah. Das a’righ. Ah! That’s good, I mean.” He corrected himself in mock seriousness, he continued, “What have you got in mind?”

‘Well, now that you ask so nicely…” She took his hand and headed off to the creche proper smiling snidely, but not actually telling him just exactly what she had in mind. He waited with anticipation to find out. It was always an adventure in new territory when he and Kkat had a few spare minutes. Lasteat was in a cycle, so they actually had some. Unless something else interfered with them as always seemed to happen.

Watching from the darkness of late afternoon shadows, Jjenna Bok’s angry grimace would have had both of the star-crossed friends worried and wondering what to do with this young tart.

———-

Jasonn Hap had been beating around the edge of an accusation for the better part of ten minutes when Mmarta finally let down her guard and admitted she was healing Proles.  She knew it was his sour-faced partner, Hhannah, putting him up to this.  He hadn’t the spine on his own to stand up to a Lok.  She, however, could provoke a bear out of hibernation with that shrill biting screeching voice, if there still were such a creature.

A little more than half of the injured had been returned to normal life in the Taj. There were still 23 poor souls hanging on to dear life by a thread. Their entire existence was spent in the surgical tent with round the clock medical supervision. Mmarta was at her wit’s end trying to keep them going and was on the verge of executing her last emergency fall back plan. If things didn’t turn the corner by end of this five-day, Mmarta would present a plan to the council to admit the worst cases at least into the green zone where they could receive proper life-saving care. And if the council didn’t like it, well, that was too bad.

Mmarta had to deal with this troll first, though. Hap had some intel only someone on the ground there could have provided, she was aware. She’d have to be very delicate here.

When I find out who told this jealous toad, I’ll kill them myself.

“Oh, Jasonn, really. So what if I’m helping proles? How does that hurt anyone?”

“By ‘helping proles’ do you, in fact, mean that you’ve been aiding red-zone proles who were in a war? This is preposterous Mmarta! I can’t stand idly by while you flaunt the law. You lured us into helping you with a lie Mmarta, a bold faced lie. This has to be reported. I won’t allow my family to suffer for your wrongs, Mmarta. I won’t!”

Jasonn Hap was a mid-level manager in the maintenance wing of the CommCorp structure, one of the cogs in Harkk’s chain of command. A relatively low ranking but officious dolt who ran a tight-ass ship. His perservs liked to joke about his proclivity for contracting slender young men as his domestics, though he never made advances he had been caught looking more than once. The Haps also employed a practicing Holistic healer, Bbessie, fronting as another domestic. Hhannah Hap, Jasonn’s anti-social partner, was a fanatic about illnesses and medicines. She feared the former to the extreme and dreaded using the latter for anything, and so, had hired Bbessie, an herbalist and natural healer. That practice had been outlawed by the CityCorp’s medical commissioner as unsafe. Meanwhile, deaths in the green zone resulting from the regular use prescribed medicines were at an all time high. Only 5% of those occurrences were due to overdose.

“Ah! So, what you’ve been up to for the past 20 or so years doesn’t count as flaunting the law, did you call it, Jasonn?” Mmarta threw back in the man’s face, daring him to push it though she would never do anything to threaten either Bbessie or any of the boys this cretin kept in his pen. Life in Burtt’s Taj was way better than any other outer zone sector, but nothing was better than having your own source to greenie perks, and in sector-22 they could still stay with Burtt at the Taj.

The staring contest between the two was won by Mmarta when Jasonn finally turned away with a huff. Mmarta was hoping that would be enough to keep him quiet and debated the idea of letting Jaredd know. He would tell the council and only Norton knew what they would decide. She didn’t like Mr. Hap, but assassination wasn’t in her lexicon of acceptable tactical actions. The council, however, wasn’t beyond such an action depending on what was at stake. She decided to let it lie for the time being. She would keep an eagle eye out for trouble, though as if she didn’t have enough on her plate.

Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself. She scolded.

Mmarta didn’t see Hhanna Hap lurking in the hallway, listening to every word.

How dare that snooty bitch threaten my Jasonn. So what if he’s an impotent dolt. As if Holistics were on the same level of crime as aiding and abetting a prole war. I’ve got you now bitch and daddy can’t save you this time. We’ll see how you feel about having your darling little retard exposed, too. Your family has held us back for far too long. It’s our turn now Lok. Enjoy the squalor of your new home.

Hhanna was gleefully imagining the downfall of the Loks at her hands. It was all too delicious. Mmarta’s father had squashed the Hap boy, Claudde’s, rise through the ranks of finance. The superior bastard had Claudde classified as substandard/non-management level and removed from the progression charts, permanently.

Claudde wasn’t stupid, damn it. He was a little slow. No reason to condemn him to mediocrity. Norton take the Loks.

She continued to stew as she plotted her revenge. Hhanna Hap lived in complete ignorance of the true cause of her son’s demise and her partner’s true tastes.

Claudde was terrified by everyone, but more terrified of his mother finding out, and so, he was living a sub-civilized existence in a secret fantasy world of his own creation. Hunkered down in the upper story loft of his parent’s stead, it was an ever more difficult task for him to come out of his fantasy for eight cycles every day of each five-day to perform his assigned tasks and he was always distracted. The poor reviews from Natt Lok were fully deserved. Claudde absolutely was a sub-standard worker who lived for the offcyles between the five-days and most especially the quarterly extended offcycles.

Hhanna, who watched over her son like a mamma bear, thought she knew her son. This lazy streak was just a stage.

But he did need to grow out of it soon.

She’d been on Jasonn day in and day out. This had only driven him farther away from her.

He’s going to snap one day, she thought. What made him like this?

She had to get him sorted out and the best way to do that was to dethrone the bitch next door and take out her stuck-up bigwig daddy at the same time. Her Jasonn could then retake his rightful position atop the food chain where others would do his beck and call instead of the other way round. Then there’d be no pressure on him to perform. Others would while he took credit as leaders should.

If Claudde could just get a fair shot…I could get rid of this fool Jasonn, and the two of us could truly live high off the hog. No longer looking up at the damn Loks’ backsides. Oh yes, Mmarta Lok. You are so finished.

———-

Morning, Day three:

“Bann, don’t stop on the way. Don’t show this to anyone else, understand. Go now. Go quickly and get things rolling as best the council sees fit. Go now!”

She handed Bann the note. As soon as she woke she’d had had second thoughts about hoping the Haps would keep quiet and decided an ounce of prevention was in order.

Mmarta was in such a state that Bann just nodded and ran out. Over his shoulder, he shouted, “Dougg ha’ me sortin his tings for packin, Miss Mmarta. He gon b’ mad su-ah.” Bann didn’t seem worried. In fact, he was smiling as if he’d just heard the funniest story.

Dougg, fighting his extradition from their condex tooth and nail, using every legal means at his disposal, had delayed his departure from the Lok’s stead until now. He was near the end of every possible subterfuge available to him and was actually in the process of packing his belongings. He had no further sway on the Lok stead and yet he insisted on tying up household perservs doing his menial work as if he still had a right to. The only reason the ungrateful bastard hadn’t found himself in the mines was because Mmarta refused to bring any more grief down on her father. So, she’d never allowed him to be reported to the authorities after Kkat had set him up. Bann, delighted in being the one to report what he thought would please Mmarta and Jaredd to no end and would also be the end of his chief antagonist, had spilled the beans after leaving Dougg unconscious in the tube. Mmarta had convinced Jaredd to get help from some perservs and go fetch the errant Dougg. She filed under, don’t go there, finding out the reason Kkat had set him up. She didn’t care, as long as it hurt no one else.

Stopping Bann before he could get out of hearing she commanded, “Estebann, I know you find this a difficult thing to do and I do understand, but I must insist from this day forward, you do NOTHING further for Mr. Rencon. You do not serve him any longer. You serve my household, the Loks, only. You are to refuse his every order. They are invalid here. I wish you would also pass that info on to the rest of sector-22’s perservs. Is that okay, Bann?”

“Ye-ah, das a’righ, Miss Mmarta. Ah go now.”

“Good, don’t worry about Dougg. I’ll deal with him.”

It only took a few minutes and Bann was seated with Burtt and Harkk in the great hall going over Mmarta’s blurb together while Kett gathered the rest of the council. Harkk was by far the better reader, so he did the honors.

I deeply regret to inform you that you are perhaps in grave danger. Our neighbors here in the green zone, have become aware of the true nature of the situation in the Taj and have mentioned reporting it to CommCorp authorities.

If this were to happen, I’m afraid your lives would all be in jeopardy. It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that the Corp will decide that their best course of action would be to eradicate the outer zone prole problem. You know what this means.

I have done what I can to keep the neighbors in check, but there is no certainty in that. I urge you to prepare as best you can. I further urge you to execute your plans without mine or Jaredd’s knowledge. What we don’t know the Corp can’t extract from us. I would also point out to you that there must be a mole in the creche. The Haps never venture out of their condex. Someone had to alert them. Ask Jaredd how to use a “bait and trap” protocol to find your leaker.

Praying for all our lives.

M

PS: ACT NOW BEFORE ITS TOO LATE!

The council, minus their advisor, Jaredd, soon was gathered around them and Harkk reread the note. The somber tone of the blurb had all of them worried and invoked many questions.

Just how serious a threat was this?

What was a bait and trap routine?

Who could this leaker be?

How much had been given away and what could they do about it?

Act now?

And do what?

Once all the questions were stated, a nervous quiet prevailed until Harkk got things going again.

“Okay. I can see by the looks on your faces that this has you all very worried. Me too.” He said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, right? We can deal with this, but it’s going to take some effort and everyone in the Taj has to be involved.” He looked purposely at Ccassie so she would know he was speaking to her and her troops too.

“Now, first things first. Mmarta is right. We need to isolate and eliminate this mole and the sooner the better. As it happens, I know a thing or two about the ole bait and trap routine and I have some ideas how to make it work for us.”

He continued, “The Haps are a low-level family. In truth, they are just one rung up the ladder from Bbessie and me on the food chain. They aren’t well off at all so, they don’t pay well at all. That means that their perservs, besides Bbessie, will be constantly looking for ways to better their lot in life and one way to do that is to help better their sponsors lot in life.

“So, if we were to slip each of them bits of false information about different fake deals supposedly going down between the Loks and some red-zone druggies, for example, the Haps will hopefully jump on another opportunity to outflank their chief nemesis, the Loks.”

It wasn’t uncommon for proles to bite the hand that fed them occasionally. This truly was a dog eat dog world they lived in. Their plan was not that farfetched.

He continued, “So, during idle chit chat with them, we’ll conspiratorially pass each of the Hap perservs details about a different fake meet happening in a different place and time in sector-22’s near zone.  Our true friends will keep it to themselves, but assuming our mole does his or her thing, the authorities should act on that intel when the mole or the Haps pass it to them. If and when the authorities show up to arrest the offenders, who of course won’t be there, we’ll have earned two feathers for our caps. One, we’ll know who our leaker is based on where and when the cops show up, and two the Haps will be seen as troublemakers not to be trusted again by the Corp. They may even fall under suspicion themselves.  We can deal with the mole then.”

With everyone in agreement as to how to proceed on that front, they moved on to plans for defending the Taj.

Burtt, however, had his own ideas about this mole. He’d been thinking about the one guy they never saw in the sector-22 near zone anymore. He was one of the Haps perservs. Not a domestic, a tech who built solutions for Jasonn Hap’s service issues within the city-state. He was technically Harkk’s co-worker though way junior to him and far less experienced. He had a servhut just inside the near-zone, similar to all the other tech, mech or sex toy servhuts.

Burtt had never thought to make it a rule that everyone in sector-22 swears allegiance to the Taj, but even if some of Ccassie’s boys did so hesitantly, everyone did except one. Knutte not only didn’t participate in any Taj activity, he didn’t acknowledge its existence. Now that Burtt had reason to suspect, Knutte came to mind first and foremost. He’d wondered why Knutte was so standoffish. He’d once worked a few trade scams with him defeating bots, but one-day Knutte just stopped coming around. He stayed in his own spaces or he was in the green zone. Burtt would visit this with the council again later.

“Now, I have some ideas how we can prepare for the worst…” Harkk continued.

The biggest item of contention during this rounds of talks was manpower. Since the proposed project would include sub-surface labor, Burtt was against making anyone work underground who didn’t want to because he hated it himself. Every time he’d gone underground scavenging or critter hunting, he came out in a cold sweat wishing he’d never considered the idea. Harkk, envisioning how any lazy troops in the crew might take advantage of such a rule felt everyone should have to do their fair share of the work, no matter what that entailed, but was willing to hear options.

When they got down to the actual physical planning, it was evident that there would be as much heavy lifting done above ground as below. Whatever they dug up would have to be moved to other parts of the creche to hide it or to aide in other constructs, such as building up a readout. A lot of that transport would happen above ground. So, there was an easy consensus found with all agreeing that it wasn’t imperative for everyone to have to go underground, though everyone would be working themselves into some seriously blistered hands and aching bodies.

Harkk would fashion some barrows to facilitate moving so much dirt and debris from point a to point b.

Schedules were worked out splitting the workload evenly across the crèche. Of course, little ones wouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting, but they could still dig, run messages and errands, get supplies, bring meals and water, and most importantly, stand guard. Ccassie’s troops made up the bulk of the brute workforce, doing all the real heavy lifting along with Harkk, Burtt, Chukk, Bann and some few of the larger middle aged Taj-proper kids. Chukk, in particular, seemed to love hauling dirt. The heavier the load the better. Weird as this was, Chukk sang when he worked. The harder he was working, the louder he sang. What was weird? He sang in a clear and beautifully melodious voice. As time went on, the other workers would chime in for the chorus. Burtt loved this about his crew. They truly were family.

This project would drastically change the sector-22 outer zones from top to bottom. In order to disguise all the underground, demolition and entrenching work to be done, there would be a concurrent clean up project continuing in the old red-zone. The noisier operations would be coordinated with above ground activities that would cover those noises just in case the bots got nosy.  They had to hope there wouldn’t be any flybots snooping around.

The plan included:

  • The very first priority was to move surgery to a safe spot just inside the red zone. There it would be as far from the greenies as possible in the event of the pending raids and yet close enough to be supported. This would entail a massive clean up effort in and around Pokke’s old crèche. This was the only area they could use without revealing the location of the rest of the works to the Loks and their greenie friends. That ramshackle mess was the perfect disguise for the soon to be constructed, environmentally sealed off MedCent. This is where all remaining patients would stay until and if better homes could be found for them in the green zone. This was given the highest priority among all the projects and the most bodies were dedicated to its construction. The manpower hours needed just to design and build the MedCent airlocks out here was mindboggling. Harkk never felt so overtaxed in his life trying to keep up with all the projects he had going along with his never-ending responsibilities to CommCorp. He was teaching Burtt and Bann as much as he could as they plowed through the many preparations for the inevitable raids. A great deal of time was spent by Mmarta, Bbessie and Jaredd coming up with a safe way to transport the worst cases from point a to point b. For a lot of them, the slightest jar set them into seemingly never-ending spasms of pain and or coughing. They finally settled on carrying each of those cases on litters and by hand with whatever tenting was necessary to protect them from the environment.  Though tiring and time consuming, this method was easier on the patients than what they’d experience on a gurney over the pockmarked outer zone surface. With backup teams in tow, and moving slowly, they figured this would be the least jarring method of transport. The rest they would move on gurneys. Finally, considering the logistics of having to move so many patients at once in an emergency, it was decided to move them as soon as the new facility was ready to receive them, hopefully before any raids occurred.
  • Leave the original red zone wire in place and unpowered to facilitate ease of surface passage between the zones in normal times. The new EEC would be incorporated into this circuit as planned.
  • Concurrent with the new MedCent construction, Rig an Emergency Evacuate Circuit (EEC, or EEK as the kids referred to it), throughout the sector, so that anyone could activate the emergency protocol with a simple pull switch. Said protocol, activated a sector-wide audio/visual alarm sending everyone scrambling for the egress points, and disabled hydraulic door solenoids to all the egress points leading from the Green zone to the sector’s outer zones. Though some troops would get through, the doors would close down again almost immediately, allowing a few vital minutes for the evacuation to get under way before CommCorp could restore control of the entrances and their storm troopers or the cops could mass and intervene. Along with this, an additional circuit would be energized and ready after a short warning period to recharge the original red zone wire, burn down the props holding the wire up and out of the way, and destroy all the modifications he’d made, leaving no trace of Harkk’s work behind.
  • They would also construct a number of forms that they could strew about the open space of the great hall when there was a need, to make it look like a storage warehouse. Harkk would remain behind to cover the egress points with these forms, and then pretend he was taking inventory when the cops showed.
  • Until the rest of the project was complete, a plan was made for an orderly evacuation from the crèche to Ccassie’s. Ccassie’s crèche was simultaneously expanded without making it look too obvious or new and modified to make it externally look like a condemned property.
  • Excavating escape hatches and a tunnel leading from the Taj, underground to the lowest level of Thomass’ old crèche, a factory from a bygone age which had 3 stories below ground, and from there to Ccassie’s. Reinforcing the underground constructs with plascreet Harkk would have to pilfer from CommCorp’s supplies.
  • Completely demolish what was left of the previously burned down street level structure at Thomass’, then reinforce and build out a living space for 150 plus souls in the deepest part of that old factory building, leaving the ground level looking as though it was unpassable rubble. The only access to this hideout would be through the underground tunnels connecting to the Taj and Ccassie’s crèche. Any passages to and from Thomass’ street level creche through the two sub-stories above the new living quarters were also buried and impassable.
  • Rig power, water, and sewage to the hideout.
  • Rig and power a new red zone wire out to the outer limits of sector-22, anchored along the Spring and Fountain creeks and very difficult to avoid on the slick steep banks. This could be energized at need and would help deter attacks from the frontier. This circuit would not be affected by the EEK in any way. This circuit could be energized at will. In emergencies, it would be energized as part of the security protocol.  There would be several activating pull switches located throughout the zones.
  • Stockpile as much as they could manage in supplies, foodstuffs, first aid, and water.
  • When all that planning was done, they decided that they might be erring on the wrong side of caution. What if they just didn’t have time to get out?  What if that unhappy circumstance occurred and it was apparent that the greenies weren’t in a mood to grant leniency but were likely on an extermination mission? What then? It was apparent that the only choice then would be to stand and fight. More was added to the plan as a result: They would build fighting trenches as hidden as possible across the near and red zones. They would build them in layers moving back into the zone and build as much protection into them as possible with perpendicular covered communication trenches connecting one layer to the next. Sending messengers or evacuating to the next layer back would not involve exposing crèche-mates to direct trooper fire. With deep covered trenches, steps up to fighting positions along the trenches, and sand bags fronting and roofing the fighting positions, their soldiers were as protected as they could make them. CommCorp’s soldiers would have projectile weapons far in advance of anything The Taj fighters had and they were armored, so facing them in open combat was not recommended. Striking at them from behind walls of dirt and wood, as difficult as that may be with bows and arrows, was the only possible way for them to have a chance at surviving the ordeal. The troopers would start out with non-lethal ordinance maybe, but once one of them went down with a red tipped arrow sticking out of an eyehole or one of their armor’s joints, the gloves would surely come off. Finally, A sandbagged and rubble HQ/Triage suite/Readout at the far end of the red zone in what had been Hamill’s crèche would be built as the last stand. The youngest, the remaining injured in the MedCent and the medical teams would be evacuated here as soon as hostilities broke out. Litter teams would be pre-positioned too. Jaredd had continued to bring them as many arrows and bows as he could safely get away with. Harkk was getting real good at fashioning near perfect arrows to add to their stockpile; getting wood was the problem and he couldn’t fashion the new composite materials without molds, ovens, and presses he wasn’t authorized to have. Nevertheless, they would pre-position most of this stockpile evenly throughout the fighting positions and trenches along with first aid kits, stretchers, water, and nutrition bars.  A fair portion of their arrow supply would be waiting in the forward most fighting positions for the best shooters in the creche. They would also construct and place bridges strategically located across trenches for ease of surface passage through the zone in normal times.  When the balloon went up, these bridges would be rotated and became part of the roof defenses. The greenies would have to be deep in the zone itself in order to see the earthworks. By then it would be too late to worry about it and it would be game on anyway, so this wasn’t considered a great security risk. There still weren’t enough bows to equip everyone in the creche. After the supply was exhausted and litter bearers and messengers were allowed for, there were still some 50 or so warriors without bows or jobs. These were broken up into melee teams. Their jobs would be to attack any cops or soldiers who got into the trenches with them, at least until the shooters could retreat to the next layer. These soldiers were armed with stunners, short blades and a new weapon Burtt developed with Harkk’s help. Using a stash of wooden almost wrist thick dowel stock longer than Harkk was tall he’d found in one of his earlier underground forays, they added a shaped stone weight to one end. Together they’d spent hours rubbing each stone weight to a thinner, finer, very sharp point. The end result was a stabbing weapon of extreme reach. The one drawback was that the stone points were brittle and broke easily. If they struck true, though, they would pierce the light armor cops used, and of course, if they struck flesh, the results could be devastating for those on the receiving end. Hark called it a spear. Each member of the melee squads also had a small shield to offer some protection from any non-lethal ordinance their enemies might use.

When the planning session concluded the meeting broke up, Burtt and Kkat remained behind while everyone else went their separate and quiet way home. Most reflected on the unhappy topic of the day and how their lives had just taken a dramatic turn. Whether it would be for better or for worse, only God knew.

“Whah ‘r peeps lahk dis Kkat? Whah we eat each othuh alahv lahk dis? We no bettah den tha rats Kkat, das a’righ. Times Ah jes feel ole. Yessuh, ole man, he-ah. Make me tiahd.”

“I wish I knew Burtt. What I do know is that I’m with the best people this world has to offer and I’ll fight with them to the death. How about you, old-timer? You up to it?” She smacked him on the arm.

“Jizmo, girl. Why Ah needs t’fight when you he-ah?”

Harkk came back and waited for the two to look his way before he intruded all the way into their space.

“Burtt, Kkat, the first thing we need to do is catch our spy. I was hoping we could spend a little time planning that out before we turn in for the night. What do you say?”

Both were willing but Burtt still had his rounds to do and limited the time to one more half-cycle.

“Gots a gut feel f’ who we nees t’spy”. Burtt offered.

“ You do? That’s great. Now, here’s what I had in mind…” Harkk started.

———-

Day four at the Meinklops Tower:

…this savage boy leader, his name is reportedly Burtt, has the outer-zone proles in sector-22 assuming the rights of true Citizens, such as naming days and using family names they’ve obviously purloined from honored families of the city-state.

That is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. The Loks have been secretly flaunting the law for years. I have only come forward because I can no longer, in good conscience, ignore this blatant disregard for the City State and CommCorp. Out of fear for my life, however, as they have repeatedly threatened me, I dare not expose myself further.

At present they are running an illicit clinic saving proles injured in a war the Loks themselves propagated by propping up this boy leader from the outer zones. They are plotting to force a confrontation with CommCorp over the plight of the proles.

As a concerned citizen, I beg you, please, take action to end this insurrection before the cost blossoms into something far more painful than a few dead proles.

Feeling threatened,

A concerned citizen.

“What am I to make of this, Natt?” Henrry Meinklop asked holding his pad out for Mr. Lok to see the anonymous comm for himself. Henrry covered his mouth as the disease slowly eating him from the inside out gripped him with another painful spasm and signaled his son to continue.

Josipp, asked from across the room, “Freshen your’s, uncle?”

As with all the upper crust of CommCorp, the familiarity shown each other was always present, except when it wasn’t. If your boss’s son didn’t refer to you as an uncle, you knew you were in severe trouble. Since Henrry wasn’t making proclamations about city-state security and Josipp was still pouring thousand cred bourbon, Natt Lok hoped he could still wiggle out of this mess like all the others his star-crossed daughter had made.

A prole war? What the hell? Mmarta, you’re killing me.

Natt Lok knew he’d been lucky, His good friend at security, Daltonn Kleg, who just happened to be the Officer of the Watch that night, had intercepted the blurb anonymously sent by Hhannah Hap over the net, and handed it directly to Henrry.

“Henrry, of course you know we all have huge targets painted on our backs. We Loks and Mmarta in particular, have our enemies too. Mmarta has made herself a vocal proponent for the ethical treatment of the proles, I know, but she would never foment open revolt. That’s ludicrous. Undoubtedly this is the jealous pushback of an anti-prole reactionary. You don’t really lend it any credence, do you?”

“Father doesn’t always know what to think anymore, do you father” Offered Josipp slurping back his third glass since Natt arrived for the conference. He slammed the glass down on the table rather more firmly than was polite, but he was getting a bit tipsy. He giggled, then caught himself and continued.

“He is often confused by all this subterfuge over there in Secotr-22, Natt. First tier bots shut down for days over some alleged mass illness with the perservs. Oddly enough, though, they looked none the worse for wear to our stead rep. Reports of massive draws on plasma, meds, food-stuffs and surgical supplies, far more than should be needed for a few ill perservs, don’t you know, but no detailed reference as to where it all might be going. Then this,” he pointed to the accusing comm.

“You can see how my father might wonder, just a little, what’s really going on over there, eh, Natt old boy?”

“Josipp, Mr. Meinklop, I assure you this is all a bit of baseless finger pointing. I will get to the bottom of this straight away. May I use Corp Detectors to run the queries? I can have preliminary results to you by end of next five-day.”

“Hmm, so, you want to run an investigation into your own activities using our cops, is that it? Am I missing something here Mr. Lok?” Josipp slurred at Natt with an obviously disbelieving sneer in his voice.

You’re obviously not as drunk as I would have thought…or hoped. Just how much do you drink now Josipp

Natt was near certain that whatever ill thoughts Henrry might have about his old friend Natt Lok, it came from the well-liquored mind of Josipp Meinklop and his cronies in the self-preservation crowd as they were known among the elite of the elites.

“That’s enough Josipp.” Henrry interrupted around coughing fits. “I have no problem with my old and dear friend, Natt, getting to the bottom of this. In fact, I would tend to agree with his assessment. Some jealous lesser is trying to make a better life for himself at the Loks expense. I’ll not have it I tell you!” The elevated volume brought on a new fit. This time it lasted several minutes and included some heavy blood flow from his mouth.

Norton save us, thank you, Henrry. Natt sighed in relief. Please don’t die on me now, though, Henrry.

Natt and Josipp both noticed the bloody drip and without conferring with Henrry agreed to end the session then and continue it at a later date.

“Please do keep us informed, Uncle.” Said Josipp. This time the emphasis on the word uncle seemed a bit contested.

Don’t for a minute think I am as naïve as this old man, Josipp thought with contempt.

Natt Lok nodded his assent and left them wondering if he would see his old friend Henrry again. He was certainly not long for this life. Natt had no misconceptions about how things would change for the Loks once Josipp was the boss. He wasn’t one to tolerate ethical treatment of any sort for the dirty scum of the outer zones. If it were up to him he’d send extermination crews out there periodically to scourge the earth of these denizens.

Through Natt’s contacts, Mmarta had worked her charms to bring about some compassion for the proles among the elies. But they wouldn’t hesitate to turn on her and the Loks with the passing of the torch to Josipp.

It’s too bad you don’t pass with Henrry, you weak little shit. Natt retreated with one intent. That stubborn woman must cease and desist now. Damn it!

———-

Another month passed before the cops acted on the intel they’d received from Knutte. They spent the time in between trying to verify what they could about the Loks, the Haps and this suddenly civic-minded prole whom they had no record of at all. They had him in custody and were working him periodically to see if his story changed. It didn’t so the day finally came and they moved on the near zone of sector-22 with a squad of armored cops. This was being kept a civil affair involving the cops only. After all, it was just a drug deal as far as they were concerned. So far there was no corroborating evidence backing any of the other claims as recorded by remote flybots. All they had now was a non-credible lead on a drug deal possibly involving red zoners and citizens. And that was the only reason they were here. If it involved a citizen, it had to be investigated.

Obviously, the Taj had adjusted well to the crisis and kept their visibility way down. The flybots were a pain but not insufferable. Distractions could be generated that would open small windows of opportunity for creche mates to get Taj business done while the pesky spies were busy investigating false flags elsewhere.

Kkandi saw the first armored Corp cop come through the tube lock. For barely a second she hesitated. She was in training to be a domestic with the Loks and was just returning to the Taj herself when she sensed the air pressure change in the tube. She turned just before she made the corner to head for her servhut and drop off her tools of the trade. The unmistakable deadliness of that armored boot stepping through the barrier caused her to pause first, then she sprang for the EEC.

Three things happened in quick succession that startled her even though she expected them. She heard the clang of the airlock slamming shut and prayed there was no one in the way of the crushing maw of the clamshell doors. The shriek of the alarm and the flashing red lights came shortly on the heels of that clang. Kkandi peeked around the corner and as Harkk had predicted the one cop who’d gotten through was frantically pecking away at the door’s control panel and speaking into his comm unit, paying no attention at all to what was going on behind him.

The lights and alarms would not seem out of place to the cops as they were the same alarm and light patterns expected with a door malfunction. Since there were no outside lights in direct sight of the tube proper, the cop inside the tube (or cops if that were the case) wouldn’t know the light and audio alerts were repeated throughout the compound. When the emergency ended, so would all the alerts. The cops would have to look hard to find these alert devices and would need a reason to do so in the first place. Harkk was gambling the cops in the tube wouldn’t venture very far from the door until their compatriots on the other side joined them. Strength in numbers and all such things being considered.

Fortunately, they had completed moving all the injured to the new med center long before. The importance the council had placed on finishing that facility first was suddenly clear to Kkandi and she smiled as she took her preplanned place at her servhut where she would be found sewing her spare uniform should someone come looking.

The first test of the EEC was moving along flawlessly, Harkk thought.

So what is Burtt doing headed for the tube?

Harkk checked once more to be sure there were no more stragglers.

Ah makes dem pay ‘fore dem gets one o mah kids. Das a’righ, Burtt thought, spreading his feet, prepared to meet his fate. He drew his blades and took up guard just around the corner from the tube exit, between the Taj and its potential enemies. He was determined to stand between the two until he was sure all his crèche mates had safely passed through to the nearly finished escape route, or he was dead.

They could now at least get beyond the rubble mound underground then dash the rest of the way to Ccassie’s out of site of the near zone if they could just get out of the crèche first. Any mates above ground and close to it would dash through the approach alley to Pokke’s old crèche. The wire was still propped up out of the way and carried no voltage until the final stage of the EEC re-charged the wire and destroyed all the props. There would be a short all-clear audio alarm then and the flashing lights would change from red to orange for a brief interlude before going dim again for good. This would warn anyone not under the wire already to beware and take precautions.

Harkk made his way to Burtt while the last of the crèche slipped into the escape hatches. The only ones left now were supposed to be here, sponsored perservs or trainees. Except for Burtt.

“Burtt, the kids are all out. It’s your turn now. You’d better go. Burtt?”

He seemed to be ignoring Harkk so Harkk moved around in front of him. Burtt was flushed and seemed to already be in that crazy battle state he got into when pumping himself up for a fight. Harkk fretted he wouldn’t be able to calm this boy before it was too late.

What is it like to have no fear, he wondered.

“Burtt! Please. It’s time to go. The kids are safe. GO!”

“Dem kids ain’t safe ‘f da cops go lookin f’ dem Harkk. Ah stay he-ah wif you, Ah c’n watch from up top f’ dem go inna ret zone. ‘F dem gets t’ killin’ kids Ah c’n stop sum annaway. Mayb’ dem let ‘t go affa Burtt unna da dirt.”

“Burtt, these are CommCorp Cops, not the military. They never go to the red zone, never. That’s why we reported the fake drug deals were happening in the near zone. You should go now before they crack the doors again. There is no need for you to be taken now. You know what they’ll do. Think of the kids. Think of Kkat. You damn sure are not leaving me to explain to Kkat how I watched you be taken by the cops. Come on, Burtt. Please. I have to tidy up the great room still”

Burtt sheathed his weapons causing Harkk to sigh with relief. But that respite was short lived.

“Evah uhdah perserv he-ah hab a trainee. ‘Bout tahm ya hab one too, Harkk. C’mon. Ah hep ya tidee up. Les go boss.”, he snarked at Harkk with a huge grin on his face, as if he cherished this grand game of fooling the cops.

Against his better judgment but conceding that he’d never change this stubborn young bull’s mind, Harkk determined to make the most of it and he choreographed their exchange with the cops that would soon be pouring through the tube.

In this type of emergency, as this would certainly be interpreted by now, there would already be a backup portable airlock erected on the green zone side in order to facilitate a bypass of the tube’s lock once they cracked it open again. Inside this lock, the entire squad of cops would be waiting not so patiently to raid the near zone in one determined rush. At this point, the cops had no idea what had happened and therefore had to assume the worst. Until the cause of the malfunction was determined, the local military establishment would also be put on alert and would be standing by at the higher level egress points from the dome. What the would ultimately find would be a faulty control module. Harkk’s EEC’s final act before relinquishing control to the local door control panels only, until the faulty control module was replaced, was to burn out that very control module, further slowing any reinforcement effort that might follow.

Burtt was unstrapping his weapon belts and harnesses as they trotted through the compound. He found an empty construct he could hide them in and cover with bolts of the cloth they used for windows. He and Harkk spent what time they had covering the escape hatches and rearranging construction forms in an orderly fashion as if in a warehouse.

“Remember, Burtt. You have to act submissive or this will never fly. Got it? Act like I’m the meanest red-zone boss you’ve ever lived under.”

“Ah gots it, Harkk. Ya don wor, kay?”

They made busy work. Harkk checking items off on his pad as if taking inventory, Burtt sweeping up on the far side of the great room. He was also nearest the escape hatch closest to the entrance where the cops would come into their world. Burtt suddenly ran back across the room and dragged the construct holding his weapons cache closer to where he would be stationed. The sudden chill he felt when he realized how far away they were from him wouldn’t allow him to leave them so. The EEC cut off just as he retrieved his broom.

The momentary different beeping sound and amber flashes of light suddenly followed by silence and a lack of any flashing lights were the first indicators. Harkk and Burtt knew that at this time, the cops had cracked the doors and were flooding into the near zone hell bent for nailing their perps in the act of a drug deal. Their many bootheels slamming down in the quad was the next thing they heard and it was a most ominous sound. This was something Burtt had not heard before and it was inspiring to him, but he imagined his kids might think differently about it. He was glad they weren’t here for this. He also knew that they and the rest of the perservs and trainees had to remain calm while showing surprise if and when the cops accosted them, in spite of this awesome display of might. Burtt suddenly felt small again.

At this time the props were burning down at the red zone entrance and the wire was being recharged. All of Harkk’s bypasses and modifications were being destroyed.

By now the fired up CommCorp Cops were beginning to wonder what the heck was going on? There sure didn’t seem to be any threat here, just a bunch of shocked working perservs. They’d run, in perfect assault formation, to the spot they expected to find an illicit drug deal in play. The location told Harkk and Burtt all they needed to know in order to identify their mole. Only Knutte was told the deal was going down in and old hut by the dumpsters. Burtt’s old hut.

The commander of the squad called a halt and looked about for someone to talk to. He noticed a tall man standing in the doorway of what appeared to be a huge polyplas and plywood shack further back in the compound from where he and is men stood.

“Turian Griff, stand alert with the troop. Biks and Rull will attend me.”

Tenant Tope made his way towards Harkk and the Taj, two privs at his heels. Harkk deliberately put his pad away in his hip pouch and approached the official with a questioning look on his face. He would try to keep the man from entering the Taj if at all possible. Burtt watched from the darkness, so far, invisible to the Tenant and his men. None had brought vision enhancers either that Burtt could see, so he wouldn’t hang his head like a beaten K until he was sure they could see him.

“What can I do for you Tenant? Is something wrong?” Harkk asked in his most innocent voice, showing his 5th division Wall-Warrior tat with a flourish of his huge right bicep as he reached to shake the man’s hand, brother to brother.

“Are you Harkk Rodin, CommCorp Maintenance Tech for Sector-22?” The cop demanded, refusing the offered hand.

Harkk knew this man was well aware of his identity and was simply being an officious dolt.

He probably feels like an idiot parading his storm troopers out here terrifying these innocent sponsored proles.

“Yes. That’s me. Now, what’s this all about, sir?” Still trying to play the man’s ego.

“We’ve had reports of a prole enclave setting up roots in the near zone and we’re here to identify for eradication any such infestation. We also have credible intel leading us to believe there was a full surgery facility here, clandestinely run by CityState Citizens and in support of a prole uprising. Finally, we were told there would be a drug deal hereabouts, possibly involving citizens.”

Harkk tried hard and succeeded in looking duly stunned.

“What? Tenant, that’s preposterous. Look around. Are you kidding me?”

Harkk was betting the obviously innocent day to day activities being displayed would turn this man’s suspicions around shortly. He prayed Burtt kept his cool if he was listening.

That’s all we need, now. God save us, someone knock that boy out or something, please. Harkk prayed a silent prayer.

Burtt, who’d moved closer to the entrance and had indeed heard the exchange was steaming. He knew what an infestation was and how one was dealt with. He started back towards his weapons cache when Bbessie came out of her new nursing/work space within the Taj and intercepted him. She’d been listening too and knew Burtt well enough to know what was going through the young man’s mind.

“Give him time Burtt. Let our Harkk work on this man. Even if he comes in here, let Harkk work on him. Please, Burtt.” She sternly begged him.

Burtt took a deep breath and nodded his agreement just as Harkk and Tenant Tope entered the Taj. Burt returned to his sweeping and kept his head down, as a properly cowed trainee would in the presence of his boss and a cop. Bbessie busied herself pretending to collect needed supplies from a storage bin by her spaces.

“You see? This is good dry storage space for all the various projects I’m responsible for. I keep the forms here because the Corp bitched about them always getting trashed in the rain and having to pay for new ones all the time. So, I req’d some ply and plas and voila, dry storage space. What do you think? Not bad, huh, for a bunch of surplus trash, eh?”

Harkk’s smile was infectious and the Tenant allowed the corners of his lips to turn up just noticeably. Every military man appreciated the talents of a good scrounge.

“That guy over there sweeping up is Johnn. He’s my newest trainee, though so far he ain’t proving to be worth much more than sweeping. I may have made a mistake with that one. We’ll see. The lady is a domestic for the Haps. I let her use some space here for storage.”

The matter-of-fact mood of the statement removed any chance of suspicion. The two moved through the Taj completing the tour, then moving outside and on through the near zone, going as far as the wire to test it.

“You see, Burtt? As a very wise person once told us all. ‘Think first is the first think’”

Bbessie’s scolding tone cut Burtt to the core.

“After all this, don’t you dare uselessly take a chance on leaving all those kids without their father? Don’t you dare!”

Burtt realized there was no answer. His shoulders sagged as Bbessie, sure her point had been made, turned to get on with her day.

Das a’righ, Burtt. Ya dum.

Humbled but still steaming, he couldn’t wait for Harkk to return so they could plan on dealing with Knutte before he did any more damage. For lack of anything better to do until then, he continued to sweep. He was so preoccupied he didn’t see Jjenna watching from the shadows of a storage alcove.

Ya watch out fo us? Ah do dat fa ya, boss. Ah do lots f’ ya boss, n ‘t won b’ no tease. Kkat jes a tease Burt man. Ya d’serves bettah. Ah gots wha ya nees. Ah gots aw wha ya nees. Yessuh>

———-

“Are you sure there was no one there? I mean, I’m sure a prole wouldn’t make up something like this. This is far too serious to take that chance. What fool would ever challenge the Loks, let alone a prole?”

Hhannah barely kept the nervous quiver in her voice under control. The detector was instantly on alert for any further reference to the Loks.

“There was no one there Mrs. Hap, other than working perservs. We must’ve looked pretty damn foolish, twenty of the armed and armored City’s best raiding the near zone only to startle sector-22’s own perservs, don’t you think? There wasn’t an unauthorized prole in sight. No surgery suite, no prole nest with “hundreds of them breeding like rats”, I believe were this informant’s words. And no drug deal either.”

With no visible reaction from her, the cop continued.

“It was your man, Knutte, who put us onto it. That and an anonymous tip. Could he have a grudge to settle with the Loks or someone else, say out in the outer zones? Another perserv higher up the food chain perchance? Or even another citizen? Could he maybe have been acting on your behalf? Perhaps he took it on his own to seek revenge for a perceived slight in your name?”

The CommCorp Security agent slid that last in without a flicker of nuance. He was fishing, Hhannah knew. She would tread lightly as if her life depended on it. He’d come two days after the failed trap sprung on the supposedly unwary Loks and their accomplices. Now Hhannah had to wonder if Knutte hadn’t sold her out and this cop was trying to trick her into a confession. She was terrified, but she could hold her own with the best of them.

“Knutte, you say? Why that’s a shock to be sure. He’s been with us for years and has never been any trouble. I can’t imagine what might have caused him to go over the edge like this. It’s so unlike him. He’s always been so quiet, really.” She finished without looking the cop in the eye; looking off as if imagining some worrisome event in her past and purposely not acknowledging the subtle hint that the prole might be doing the Haps bidding.

Then, as if thinking of something for the first time, “I wonder if Jasonn had anything to do with this? He has been acting strange lately and Knutte is one of his. Honestly, that man worries me sometimes.” She finished with a question in her voice.

“How do you mean that, Mrs. Hap?” The cop asked, taking the bait.

“Oh, I don’t know. Just strange, you know? Like sneaking about late at night. Stepping out, even in the chill evenings. Comms he takes in his den only. That sort of thing. Oh, I don’t know. I may just be paranoid now.”

“Hmm. Well, you never know. I’ll look into it Mrs. Hap. Thank you for your time. Here’s my commdat. If you think of anything more, please comm me, anytime.”

“You can count on that Detector Roth. Oh, please do let me know how to address this issue with Knutte as soon as you can. I won’t be comfortable with him in our employ if he is the source of the false lead. What more might he try?”

“Oh, don’t worry Mrs. Hap. If after interrogation we have reason to believe that he was falsely leading us on, you won’t be seeing him again. If you do see him, assume he passed muster. After all, he might have just been a victim of misinformation himself and honestly thought he was doing his civic duty.”

She saw them to her door, thanking the Detector for his prompt and professional response to this near crisis, carefully not showing any reaction to the suggestion that Knutte might come through the interrogation unscathed, and all that might infer about the Haps own safety.

I’ll have to deal with Knutte if he survives the inquisition.

Detector Roth left the Haps stead with his squad of foot cops, an hour and a good search of the stead later. There was a bit of a blow up when they reached Claudde’s sanctuary and Hhannah got her first look at what possessed her son so fully. Claudde was at work and hadn’t even tried to cover his tracks. Fortunately for them, kiddy porn on a pad was no crime. The current complexity of animation was so advanced, the porn providers simply claimed that the actors were animations. There was no way to prove otherwise, so Detector Roth left it with a disgusted sneer at Mrs. Hap.

The search ended with no further closet ghosts exposed to besmirch the Haps reputation. Hhannah was impulsively careful about leaving no traces of her treachery behind. She silently sighed in relief that her husband hadn’t left any secret time bombs lying about the house for these drones to find.

I’ll have his head for this! She thought, fuming at her son. How could he do this to me? How long has this been going on? Oh Norton, now what will I do? Neither man in my life is worth a damn! That Lok bitch has something to do with this. I know it. Stupid damn idiot Knutte probably exposed me to her. That’s why that damn cop was so persistent. I’m not done with you Lok. I have more than one spy.

Hhannah Hap fell into a deep depression. When her husband returned from his day at the office, their bedroom suite was closed and locked. He guessed Claudde was up in his loft with the music screaming from his audsys.

Hhannah didn’t answer his many pleadings to allow him in. He finally accepted her denial and planted himself in the common room for a long lonely night. A hungry one too it looked; there was not a bit of food ready for him to eat and she’d let all the perservs go home. He settled in with some nutrition bars and bourbon to watch the vids wondering, “what he’d done this time?”

Word of the raid and the resulting visit to the Hap stead reached Mmarta via Bbessie, who heard almost everything that went on there during the day. Mmarta was worried about what would happen to Bbessie and the others if the Haps were exiled? She wasn’t worried about what the Haps might do to their ex-servs because they’s be exiled far away from their own sector. But their perservs would be sponsorless. CommCorp would certainly never acknowledge them. Mmarta determined to engage them all herself.

———-

“They can’t survive for more than another month, even here, Jaredd. We have to do something. I know we just barely escaped exposure visa vis the Haps. That pales in comparison to having all these children die because we were too afraid to lose our caviar. We must act and I mean now.” Mmarta pleaded. She had backed down from her previous threat to go to the nuclear option as she liked to call it. She had wanted to force the issue with the council and find a way to transport these children into the green zone.  the effort died with the threat from the Haps looming over htem.

“Mother! I don’t want to die in the red-zone. You do see that don’t you? Exile is what you’re asking for, especially after the elaborate subterfuge we ran on them to get the Haps off our backs. If CommCorp gets to the bottom of that, and they will get to the bottom of it if we keep pushing our luck and stumble; we are done. Kaput! They won’t even ask for an explanation. We’ll be lucky to be sent to the mines. You might not care for your own sake, Mother, but I care about you…and me, regardless how much time you have left. Do you hear me? For Norton’s sake, what happens to those kids with you and I out of the picture, even if the Corp doesn’t find them?”

He paused for effect, then continued.

“The new MedCent is holding up well. The children are responding well to the purified environment. Let’s proceed carefully. Okay? That’s all I ask. We can hold out a little longer. Please?”

Jaredd realized he didn’t know what miracle he was waiting for but was determined not to ruin their lives just yet if he could help it. Not until they had a new plan in place. One that left them a reasonable chance at survival.

The argument once again left both unsatisfied and afraid. Jaredd for their safety, Mmarta for the children’s.

Mmarta was at her wit’s end. They were out of options. The professionals from the council who’d been helping to care for the children were slowly fading away. They did have their own lives to live and jobs to hold down. The longer they did this the more chances they took to be caught themselves. They wanted to move on.

The new facility was perfect for their needs temporarily, but it was a 24/7 operation and without a lot of greenie support, it was doomed. She continued to press them with constant meetings and pleadings, but soon it would be back down to a few volunteers plus her, Jaredd, Bbessie, and Kkat caring for them all. That was way too much for them to be able to do realistically.

There were plenty of souls, council members, in the green zone willing to help; that is, take in and provide care for one or even two of these needy children, but not if it was going to cost them their citizenship. Mmarta hadn’t yet figured out a way to pitch this to CommCorp in a way they might buy into it, nor had she been successful in convincing any into taking the chance on doing it illegally. Harkk was certain he could smuggle them in using a modified service cart but still, there were no takers. Either CommCorp agreed or there was no agreement.

“Very well”, she addressed this latest gathering of the council’s rank and file, the third she’d called this five-day. “You leave me little choice. I refuse to allow even one of them to die out there. Not one, do you hear? I will bring them to my stead one at a time, the worst cases first until I have them all in my care. I will do this until they are all either well enough to return to the Taj, or until I can no longer do so. The only thing that will prevent this is if I’m taken by the Corp for interrogation.”

The subtle threat needed no more elaboration. Get on board or when I talk, as I will no doubt do under the inquisition, you can be sure who’s names might be on my lips and who’s might not.

She measured each member’s response to the current dire need, as Mmarta saw it. They now knew that if taken, she would temper her responses to the Corp’s inquisitors according to how they each met the need of the Taj’s dying children in Mmarta’s eyes. At least for as long as she could hold out anyway. Eventually, she would spill everything about everyone, but it was never a nice experience being the first ones the inquisitors came for.

The mood in the room took a sudden and sour turn. The arguments carried on long into the night. But in the end, it was agreed that a plan to save the children by secretly bringing them into the green zone would be drafted. This was endorsed unanimously if not with great enthusiasm. An uneasy truce was set in place before everyone left the Lok stead very late that evening. Mmarta was appeased, but only enough to keep her quiet for now. She was too savvy to believe she was out of the woods with these folk or that her efforts would ensure the children would indeed find their way to good health again. And, she had no time.

Norton only knew who else might spring up and try to make a better life for themselves dropping a bit of intel in the right ear.

I need to watch them all now. Mmarta thought. Certainly, some of these people will be exposed and will need to go underground. Some may be caught and exiled. What would keep them from blabbing if they were taken?

In fact, two couples had already paid the ultimate price caught at the same time smuggling medical supplies out of their facilities in the green zone. Fortunately, they were of tough stock and gave up nothing. Instead, they made up a story about swapping meds for illicit drugs in the outer zone. They were presently residing with Burtt in the Taj. The council’s contacts in security enabled the offender’s exile to sector-22. That had yielded its own dividends, as all four of them had been in the medical profession and now had plenty of time to spend in the MedCent.

———-

When Marta left the meeting room to relax in her spa, she didn’t see Qqitia in the linen alcove. In a desperate ploy, Hhannah had coerced the diminutive domestic perserv into spying for her and had gone so far as to refuse to let Qqitia return to the Taj. She snuck into the Loks easy enough. The terrified girl tucked the corder into her tunic and hoped it had captured what her master wanted.

She didn’t want trouble. She was a good quiet girl. No one paid her any attention. Quiet little Qqitia was a ghost. When younger, she wouldn’t slave for one of the red zone bosses and was burn-scarred when he doused her in acid. She had scars all over her body. No one ever looked at her because of the scarring. It was horrendous to behold. The way folks ignored her allowed her to become invisible.

She was lucky to have a sponsor. Bbessie, who cared for the girls burns, recommended her to Mrs. Hap who was happy to have a cheap perserv neither her husband nor her son would have any interest in. She was also the perfect spy Hhannah thought.

When Hhannah directed her to spy Qqitia had no real choice but to follow through. The one choice she did have was whether or not to tell Bbessie, who would get word to the Loks. She chose to say nothing instead, and now hoped that lapse wouldn’t come back to haunt her. Just sneaking into the Loks had terrified her. She’d been shaking since she came in. Now she was spying on these poor people for that horrible Mrs. Hap.

I can’t do this. I can’t. Oh, God, please help me. Qqitia tortured herself, knowing she would do exactly what her master told her to do. She was no one. She couldn’t stand up to the Haps. She couldn’t!

When Mmarta was clear and she couldn’t hear anything but the ticking of the clock in the hallway, Qqitia snuck back out of the stead, invisible as usual, or was she?

———-

And just what is it you think you’re doing here girl? Who are you spying on and for whom are you spying? I’d better let Kkat know at least. Yes, I’ll tell her first so these greenies can’t bury it. Another damn prole spy. How many of these jerks do you have to deal with brother?

She struggled to get a good angle but managed to capture a reasonable rep for to help Kkat identify this perserv with.

What is going on out there?  I hope Kkat isn’t holding back on me too.

Ssyndi worried herself to sleep that night worried about her brother and their crèche and wondering if she could get word to them in time to make a difference.

Who was that scary looking girl? Her face was a real mess.

Her dreams were tortured with nightmare battles raging in her head…

———-

“Dirkk was shock’d up bat fum da wi-ah. Him were screamin inna wadah and him kilt der. We haffa go o dem gets us. Ders Ks everwhe-ah n da wi-ah go alla rount.”

“Slow kit, slow! Tell ole Zobbi agin. Wha wi-ah? Pokke don say ‘bout no wi-ah. POKKE! Gets yo ass out he-ah.

“Ye-ah Boss?” Pokke answered. He was still a wreck and looking worse every day.

“Wha dis shit ‘bout a new wi-ah rount my zone? Ya tryin ta trap Zobbi, Pokke? Ya trick Zobbi ya puss?”

The end – Part 6

Coming in Par 7: The zone construction is completed.  At Harkk’s suggestion, Dogg and Sweet’s brood of Ks are assigned to multiple handlers and the pairs train together as Sentry Teams.  The secret transfer of the last of the injured to green zone care is begun. Red zone clean up is so successful, Harkk begins construction of greenhouses on the side of the rubble pile facing Green River.  Zobbi tries his luck, again.  Romance induced backstabbing find their way deeper into Taj Life. And old mate passes. Visitors from beyond the Green River basin arrive with an offer for Burtt and the Taj.  They bring entire wagons of fresh vegetables and smoked fish.  Flybots can’t help but note increased activity in the zone after the visitors leave.  It can’t be helped.  The Corp takes note.

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