Burtt – Part Eight, Book 2, The Taj Moves Out

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

In a 7-day (a week), there is a Hi-day, plus (First thru Fifth)-days, plus a Lo-day (Hi and Lo days are offdays.  Every 3 lunars each citizen also enjoys an additional 7-day off.  There are no holidays but Founders Day.)

There are 7×30-day plus 5×31-day lunars (or months).

The 12-lunars tally 365-days in a solar (or year).

Every fourth solar, an extra offday is added to a random Hi-Lo day, as chosen by CommCorp.  This extra day adjusts the calendar for its discrepancy with the cosmos.  This extra offday is known as Founders Day and it’s always a treat since no one knows for sure when it will fall until the Meinklop PR office announces it.  Founders Day creates the only three straight off days of the solar, not counting quarterly breaks,

Our story began with Kkhloe’s passing in the 310th year after the fall of civilization in old earth year, 2383. At the present point in out telling, Burtt is 19.  It is a bit more than 2 lunars after his naming day, First day, First lunar.

livermoregreen
The Flag pastures

Tenth cycle, fifth day, first seven-day, Month 2, year 319af, overlooking the frontier, or

10-512319:

With Bann’s collusion and Kkat’s tentative approval, Ssyndi had snuck out of the dome once again.  This time, to see her brother off.  They stayed long after Jjenna was sure they couldn’t see the travelers.  She could barely still see them and she was atop the rubble mound. The two friends were just ahead of the readout at surface level.

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

She watched them from her perch and felt a pang for both girls.  She felt it for herself as if Burtt were leaving her too.  The last of the travelers cleared a distant mound of debris and were gone from sight.  There was a haze lying over the Wall obscuring it from sight but beyond that was a beckoning slash of green.  She wiped a tear from her eye.  She’d been doing too much of that lately.  Puss stuff.  She needed to get back to being the creature that stood up to anyone and kept herself and her baby boy alive all this time. She never backed down from Zobbi or Thomas or none of them.  Bbessie was good to her and Tukk.  No trouble there.

Thas a’righ gir.  Ya don nees no Burtt.  Ya only nees yasef.  Yessuh!  She put some serious thought to that notion. Den why Ahm still cryin? 

She collected her meager belongings, Burtt wouldn’t have trash left lying around, so Jjenna collected the remnants of her kit.  The kit that was supposed to get her across the frontier to the green beyond, just over there…she turned to look back at the hazy green blur on the near horizon.  In her peripheral vision, she saw movement close in to the next near-zone, north and west of her.  They were coming from the direction of Zobbi’s crèche.  The toughs had to be hugging the near-zones along the way.  How else could they get across?  The poisons would be a clear issue even for Zobbi’s ignorance and these folks didn’t have any protective gear on.  She dropped what she had and was in a crouch and armed in ticks.

Su-ah dint take the bastas long.  Burtt ain’t out o sight five spans yet.

Burtt had trained them all well and one bit of advice came to her right then.  When standing atop a mound like she was, a body showed up for a long way off.  She kept low and crab walked until she was below the sightline of the invaders on the back side of the mound so her head just barely poked above the top, the military crest, Harkk called it.  She had no doubt who they were.  Zobbi’s bright orange scarf showed in the dark well enough.  In the daytime, it was like a beacon saying, “Here I am, come if you dare.”  She made a beeline for the nearest alarm box.

Gut thing Harkk still he-ah, Jjenna thought as she pulled the cord that would set half the Taj on a war footing while the rest ran for cover.  She watched silently, afraid to give away her position, as Kkat first froze, looked around frantically for the threat, then grabbed Ssyndi by the arm and turned at speed heading for the Taj and the Tube entrance.  Ssyndi didn’t have the time or the energy to stop it.  She wasn’t given any.

The other lookouts spread around the Taj on top of the many mounds surrounding it, did as they were trained to do.  Since they didn’t pull the alarm and couldn’t see the threat yet. They held their positions, and watched, ready to back their teammates if called on..

Gut! They safe now, Jjenna thought, feeling a little more at ease about their situation with the two most important Taj girls in route to safety.

The way they had finished the defenses along the creeks made it impossible to enter the Taj from anywhere but straight in front of the readout at the confluence of the Spring and Frontier Creeks where the cross-current and slick footing was most problematic.  The poisoned flow of the creeks, the slick banks, the piled-high rubble dotted with sharpened stakes, and finally the live-wire strung along both creeks, funneled everything to the far end of the Taj’s operational area where it still was no picnic getting across, as Zobbi and company were soon to find out.  Surely, there was no way anyone could climb the sides of the dome, traverse sideways to reach sector-22, then drop down on the Taj unawares.  No, they had to come in the front door, as Burtt called it. Their main warrior wasn’t home for the fun though, and she knew this was a real problem for the Taj.

Jjenna knew the Taj still had some time but not enough.  Everything was set to give them time to react.  Under normal conditions, after an alarm was tripped, the ever-ready Burtt who seemed able to cross the Taj in seconds under duress, up or down hill, would meet the enemy at the gates, not in the middle of the crèche. The ready force would soon follow.

Jjenna knew instinctively that that wasn’t going to happen this time unless someone else could get to the “gates”, and right then.  It was too late for Harkk who’d long before returned to work at his servhut, or anyone else in the crèche proper to get to the wire where Zobbi’s crew were near to assaulting.  By the time anyone from the Taj forces did respond they would be at a disadvantage since Zobbi would have gained a foothold at the readout.

She didn’t think about it any further.  She acted.  She was nearly as good with blades as Burtt, but her real expertise was with the longbow.  There were always at least two bows and a stash of arrows in several hides atop all the mounds surrounding the Taj.  Jenna made her way quickly to the nearest two, collected both bows and all the arrows and made her way back to the best position she could imagine from which to fire down on their enemies, holding them at bay while the Taj mustered her remaining forces.  The position she chose allowed her to bring the enemy under enfilading fire, as Harkk had taught them.  Once again, she found reason to be grateful to these people of the Taj.  She strung her bows, readying for that moment of greatness she had dreamt of rising to.

Once set on her perch, Jjenna saw that she had made it just in time to do something.  Zobbi’s crew were just across the creeks from the front door.  She settled herself with a cleansing breathe, then popped up just enough to have a clear firing lane.  Deliberately and with extreme prejudice, Jjenna Bok began to methodically eliminate the threat from Zobbi’s and his soldiers.  The fiery girl-warrior rained down shaft after shaft, keeping the attackers behind cover.  If they broke from cover, she quickly drove them back or dropped them in their tracks.

As soon as he saw his crew start to fall, Zobbi took cover behind some large concrete slabs near Spring Creek’s confluence with Fountain Creek, just across from the Taj and a mere 50 meters from the readout.  Three of his toughs were down though and it looked to him like two of them were dead.  The other was bleeding out quickly with an arrow through his neck.  They’d brought planks to cross the creek and the wires on but they were soon slick with blood from those wounded by the marksman on the mound. Crossing into the Taj was stalled.

“Git up they-ah and kill dat basta, ya puss’s.” Zobbi screamed, but no one moved.  He swore death on every coward in his troop, but they wouldn’t move.  Whoever was picking them off was good.  Too good!

Jjenna looked down at her quickly diminishing pile of arrows and wondered two things.

C’n Ah make t’ da da nex stash?  Wha da hell da Taj waitin fo-ah?

She got one more tough with a quick shot that was still a perfect heart shot.  She saw them all pull their heads down and bolted from cover. She easily made it to the next hide and a full load of Arrows but was debating whether to return to her strategically superior previous position. She saw a water skin hanging from its peg.  The sweat on its side beckoning to her with the promise of sweet, quenching liquid.  Taking a quick few ticks to think, she decided to hydrate.  She found she was so thirsty she couldn’t even croak any more.  At first, she had been screaming as she fired down on the enemy.  Then her voice failed her.  Now she understood why Harkk and Burtt insisted there be not just arms and med kits, but food and water too at each defensive station.  Dehydration under pressure was a very real thing and a huge distraction.  She was most grateful right then as she guzzled two full liters of water in about 30 clicks.  She was also grateful that all the defenses were finally in place.  The Taj had a chance.

Ah wor ‘bout peein if Ah gits dat fah. K! Long anuf, now!

She rose from her new hide to take aim again and was startled by the one soldier in Zobbi’s troop who did have some spine left.  The combatants screamed at each other from just feet away as the tough leapt over her I-bean cover before she could bring the bow to bear.  Jjenna knew she couldn’t make it with the bow and dropped it while trying to reach her blades.  Then she realized she wasn’t going to get them out on time either.  Her last thoughts were of Burtt and then Tukk.  She stood tall.  She wouldn’t show this tough fear.

Ya don gets dat fum me. Nossuh!  She braced for impact, still screaming.

Time slowed for Jjenna.  She was still pulling her blades free watching the whole thing unfold as though detached from the event itself.  There was no sound registering for her, yet she was aware that she and her assailant were screaming.  She could feel the raw edge of her own scream in her throat.  She thought she could smell her killer’s sour breath as he swung his great blade down on her head.  Then time caught up again along with the white noise of battle and the tough just disappeared from her view.

The noise of the two screaming at each other had drowned out the sound of Dogg’s furious roaring growl.  He hit the tough with a full on frontal attack, right over Jjenna’s head.  The tough and Dogg rolled across the top of the mound and came up short against an I-beam.  Dogg yelped with the impact.  The tough rose slowly and tried to gain his balance and his wits.  He had time for neither.  Kett came at him from the side at a full gallop and ran his pike straight through the tough’s chest, from side to side.

Kett watched in abject fascination as the life bled out of the tough.  He remained until the very end, clinging to the pike as if taking the last of his enemies energy as it bled out of him, and then he turned, drawing his blades.  He wanted more.

“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”  Was the death’s head wail that came from Kett’s mouth as he then attacked down the mound to assault Zobbi and his remaining toughs, all by himself with short blades in each hand.

Jjenna came flying down the mound after him and tackled Kett from behind.  He turned on her with rage in his eyes.  He was a complete berserker.  Jjenna held fast to him and wouldn’t let go as he beat her on the back and shoulders.  What quirk of fate kept him from reversing his blades and impaling her with every blow was a subject for later.  His energy finally spent, he merely lay there and gasped great gulps of breath.  Jjenna held on to him and let him settle before she let go of him.

“Thank ya fa savin me.  Now doncha go dyin fa nuthin.  Look.” She said, pointing down towards the readout and then to Zobbi’s retreating form.  There were only six toughs remaining with him.  They’d come with twelve including Zobbi.  Jjenna and Kett had held them off by themselves and accounted for five enemy dead.

The Taj was now out in force.  Though as many of that force were girls as there were boys, they moved in choreographed perfection together.  When they came around the edges of the readout, thirty strong and in two shield-wall formation, that broke even Zobbi’s resolve.  He didn’t yell “retreat” or anything; he just ran, straight out into the frontier and the nearest no-go zone with his crew strung out behind him, following blindly into their own peril.

Two of his toughs were injured and couldn’t keep up with their yellow boss, so they sat down, cast away their weapons, interlocked their fingers behind their heads and called for a parl.  That was zone talk for surrender.  Well, for these two, it was surrender or die.  Harkk had them taken to the holding cell.  The bots would report them and they’d be taken care of by the system.  The mines would have two new recruits this day.  Some might have wanted to give them a chance. Burtt had taught them that mercy should only be given to those who never attacked first, and that sparingly, lest a bad precedent be set.

After checking to be sure the K was unharmed, Jjenna, Kett and Dogg went to meet their victorious forces.  For the first time since the fight began, Jjenna heard the hounds baying.  It seemed the entire ken was yowling.

“Them Ks be yellin da hoh fight?” She asked.

“Dey howlin soons Ah only let Dogg out.” Kett answered.

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

“Kett, Jjenna, you’ve done the Taj proud this day and I will personally make sure that Burtt and the council recognize your efforts.  This was the stuff of heroes, kids.  I am humbled by your courage under fire.  Your quick responses saved so many of us.  We all owe you a debt we cannot possibly repay.  We owe you our lives.  I think I speak for all of us when I say, thank you, form a grateful Taj.”  Harkk finished his short speech with a hug for both kids.  This surprised them.  Perhaps it surprised Kett more than Jjenna because he was feeling most rejected and humiliated by his embarrassing behavior in front of Burtt, Kkat and the rest.  He just stood there blushing ever deeper shades of red into purple.  Jjenna smiled though she wasn’t fully sure why.

Do Ah feel lahk one o da Taj now? Dis wha dat feels lahk?

She caught herself looking at Kett again.  A stranger saved her life.  She was a dead one up there on that mound until Dogg tackled the tough, then Kett ran that basta through for her.  For her?  But was it for her or was he just crazy then?  The look in his eyes was unforgettable.  It was more than terrifying.  It was like every ounce of hate one person could possibly hold inside and then let out all in one raging blast of death and destruction.  And afterwards…she didn’t want to think about him watching that poor boy die like that.

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

She shook herself loose from her reverie.  “Thanks.”  Was Jjenna’s quiet response to Harkk for both, and was further surprised, shocked really, when the entire Taj broke into cheers and applause…for her and Kett.  The two black-sheep of the Taj were suddenly heroes.

When the applause died down and the two were still standing at the dais in the meeting hall looking dazed and confused, Kkat and Bbessie came over to congratulate them both, though Kkat avoided hugging either.  Kett was too timid to meet their eyes but did say “Thanks” quietly to both.  Then the meeting broke up and everyone went their separate ways with a buzz of events sharp in their memories and still on their tongues.

Kett seemed in a hurry to escape.  Jjenna caught up to him and tugged on his sleeve.  He stopped and slowly turned to see Jjenna’s sincere smile.  She seemed at a loss for words so Kett tentatively said, “Whazzit, Jjenna?”

“Oh, nothing.  Jes thinking we c’n hang out, ya know?  Ain’t a lotta folks lahks us, so mayb’ we c’n be frens, yah?”

“I gots a woman, but, we c’n b’ frens, su-ah.” He paused as if at a loss for words, then, blurted, “Ya gut with the bow a’righ” They walked along together with Kett stealing a peak or two at Jjen as they did.

“Ya run tha basta righ through.  Dat was so killin.  So killin!”  When he smiled at that she added, “I ain’t lookin fo no man annaways.”  She lied with a new promise niggling at the edge of her consciousness.  Dis boy lookin a me a lot now.  Hmmm?  She had her first happy thought in some time.

“Ho, ‘n why ya dint run me wit dem blades up dey-ah annaways?  Ya was beatin on me hard anuf. Hmmm, tough guy?”  She teased.

Kett stared for a moment not sure what to think or say.  The silly smirk on Jjenna’s face brought a smile to his lips too.  Then he laughed.  “Ah don stics no one in da back”

“Luck Ah dint turn ovah den, huh?”  She smiled back at Kett.  She caught his quick peek at her chest, then his blush when he saw that she caught him.  He quickly looked away.

Oh, dis be bettah ‘n bettah…was Jjenna Bok’s hopeful surmise.  Ya gots a woman but caint look at her chest?  Ha!

————

Nearing midday on the frontier, just short of the Wall:

“You say you’re building another greenhouse?  On the sunny side of the western rubble mound, yah?  That’s what we saw then.  The glare had me thinking it was part of the dome.  Do you know if you can take it down easily?”

“Thas Harkk’s work, Jonn.  I jes help him.  But I think, yeah, you c’n take it apaht easy.  Lotta pahts…why?”

“Well, some things don’t grow well here, still.  Outside the dome, I mean.  They still need to start in a greenhouse until they are good and hearty, then we move them outside.  Some herbs and the like may never grow outdoors again so we either don’t grow them or grow them in the greenhouses sparingly. We have two on the compound but it’ll be some time before we can get more clear plassheet.  So, if you do come out here to live and you can bring yours with you, that will be a great help later in providing foodstuffs for the additional people in the compound and it will have a near immediate effect also.  We’ll have the capacity to start a lot more seedlings with the additional space for next plantday.

“Now! Carrying the Taj out to the new compound won’t be near as difficult as you might imagine.  You saw the float-carts we used to bring all the supplies we had with us, yah?  We have much bigger ones we use for mining.  We have two, in fact, that would carry your entire Taj hall in one load.  So, it won’t be a problem at all to load out that greenhouse, if you can take it that is.  I know some will probably be staying behind.  I’m sure your Harkk is one, yah?  Well, he has his reasons I’m sure.  The Army and the Wall changes a man, for sure it does.”

“Yeah, Harkk he been out he-ah and he don’t wanna come back, he says.  I don’t think the old Taj will need the new greenhouse if we do move out he-ah, but the council hafta decide that. Yessuh!”

Burtt emphasized the fact he would go through the council at most every turn in their conversations.  It was “the council this” and “the council that”.  He felt a need to draw Jonn out on the subject but didn’t know how.  He hoped Jon would show the insight he usually did and bring it up himself with enough prompting from Burtt.

“If you come; you’ll be staying with us until we build out your compound.   As clean as the area is, poison isn’t the only danger out there.  We are still raided regularly by the wildlings.  We’ve plenty of room to house you temporarily inside the Flag compound.  I’m not trying to be bossy, Burtt.  This is the only safe way.  Believe me.”

They were progressing through the frontier quickly and would be on the Wall in another cycle, Jorukk showed Burtt on his map.  You couldn’t see it yet.  It was a enveloped in something he called “smaze”.  It was a combination of pollutants and haze and sometimes it just hung over the ground like that for days on end.

Jonn kept the conversation going to the point that Burtt was thinking about begging off to check on his crew; just to give his ears a break.  The man could talk, and talk, and talk.  But, there was a lot to learn about, so Burtt persisted and absorbed.

“Immediately surrounding our compound is about 10,000 hectares of arable land, or about a hundred square kliks, that we turn over several times a year.  We are growing only on 2000 of those roughly and there’s so much excess right now it’s almost wasteful.  Tis why we had so much to share with you.  We’re rolling in food and water.  We have more than enough feed for the livestock too.  With all that extra acreage, we have plenty of a wide variety of grasses and grains to roll, wrap and store for winter feeding.

“We get about three months of intermittent rain during the changeover (the end of one solar and the beginning of the next).  We believe the area was once a flood plain but we don’t get the rains they got back then, I reckon, but we still use a five-meter foundation for the housing and anything critical.  We build the outbuildings up on mounds we fashion from debris we collect, pile up, then we cover it in good old Colorado Clay.  Presto, instant flood control.  Hahaha!

“Since we need to grow for at least six months a year provided we want to keep the current pace; we’ve built and irrigation system that can cover the entire 10,000 hectares if we so choose, sometime down the road.  It’s just a matter of adding pipe, pumps, spray heads and flow controls.  Oh, we also have minor pest problems.  Rodents and bugs mostly.  I haven’t yet seen any large critters or birds.  Farm animals, Ks, Rats, ground squirrels, aphids and roaches are what survived it seems.

“As is, we have so much reserve foodstuffs, we are preserving, packaging and storing for years in the future.  We also barter or sell our surplus to other rover families, the military and even to CommCorp citizens direct.  We are all the rage, our brand name that is (“FlagFunFoods”, or more commonly known as “F-F-Foods”), when it comes to exotic foods, which basically is anything grown outside the domes.

“Now, if you do join us, well, that will pretty much even out the grow rate with the consumption rate.  We’ll need to expand our capabilities to maintain that huge reserve, or sell/trade our goods, still.  You see?  All very doable, very doable, yes!  Even without your greenhouse, we can make it work.

“The point I’m trying to make is that there is plenty of room and capacity for you and yours.  So much so that we can build our compounds near enough to each other in mutually supportive positions and defensive constructions, and still not see the likes of each other for months at a time if we choose…though I sure hope that doesn’t occur.

“We simply need to extend the existing electrified perimeter fence to enclose your base-compound.  That’s where you’ll live.  The area you farm or ranch needn’t be protected.  It’s too vast an area to do so with any surety, though we do fence off whatever we’re using for grazing land at any given time, to keep the livestock from wandering.  We have specially rigged vehicles for unfurling and collecting the fence as we need it.  Greenhouses and small gardens, barns and other out buildings, coops for the fowl and the like will be built within the wires, most within the granite defensive works.

“The foundations and close in defensive walls will be made of the same Granite ours is.  We found the quarry the original owners used to cut out their foundations.  We’ve been using it to flesh out our compound defenses with a double tier of offsetting granite obstacles to further prohibit direct attacks on the compound.  Have you ever seen those highway dividers?  Yah?  No?  No matter.  Ours are three meters tall anyway.  There’s plenty remaining to build out your compound and the outer defenses too.  We’re miners, so cutting rock is in our blood.  For us, that’s the most enjoyable part of the building.  Blasting rock!  What could be more fun, eh?  Hahahahaha!”  Jonn finished with a hearty chortle

 “Seem lahk ya know what needs to be done out he-ah, Jonn.  I hope we c’n make this work.”

Burtt’s forehead was knotted in thought.  He then nodded to himself as if he’d come to a conclusion and made up his mind to do something about it.

“I don’t think we c’n depend on CommCorp lettin us be.  Nossuh!  ‘N that sca-ah me crazy.  I worry alla time about them kids getting unner the ground.  Alla time!  I worry them kids still inna dome don’t be getting out.  Or Ssyndi, my sister won’t.  If we move, I worry it ain’t all gonna happen when it need to, and again, some don’t get out. We need this exodus bad, Jonn, ‘n I think we need it now, before the Corp can clamp down on us, but I worry we just too late.”

The two were quiet for a moment.  Then Jonn broke the silence.

“You’ve told me a dire secret about your people and your home Burtt.  Whether ‘Twas a good idea or not doesn’t matter a whit now.  It’s been told.  But, I can return the trust and hope you’ll see it for what it is.  This is my assurance that we have nothing but good intentions where the Taj is concerned and I’ll tell you why.  It isn’t just security, Burtt, though that’s a big concern and getting bigger all the time.  No, It’s more than that.”  He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts.  He had to state this properly.

“Do you know what incest is Burtt?  I don’t mean to put you off but it’s something folks in a small isolated community like ours must think about to remain wholesome.  If there is NO outside influence in your bloodline, well, bad things can happen when adults do adult things with too-close a blood relation.  You understand?  I’m not saying that’s what happening at Flags now, but a lot of our kids are growing and most are related to each other.  Too closely to be safe, if you catch my meaning.  We need to diversify to continue to thrive.  We, your people and mine, can give each other that very blessed thing, Burtt.  We can give each other life, yah?”

“Yeah, Mmarta and Jaredd, they from the dome, teach me all about blood lying with blood.  It’s not my firs wor, cuz we’re pretty di…, um, dive, oh hell, we’re pretty mixed, not a lotta us are related.  Most our kids are too young for that annaway.  But I know about it and I see how mixing the Taj with the Flag could help both families later, yah?  I first worry about being safe.  Then mixing come later.  Taj council got to say so too.  But yeah, I see what you’re saying, Jonn, and it makes sense, su-ah.”

“Well, that’s perfect Burtt.  I couldn’t hope for more.”  Jonn’s smile showed his genuine pleasure.  Then he had another thought.

“Next trip, do you want us to bring women and women’s gear?  That young lass was raring to go.  Did you see her up on the mound as we were leaving?  I swear she was going to follow.  I swear she was.”

“Yeah, I seen her.  That’s Jjenna Bok.  She was gonna follow but Katt talked her out of doing it.”  Burtt was smiling at the thought of an outraged Jjenna Bok if he again told her, “Nope. Sorry Jjen, you can’t go this time, either”.  Then quickly thought better of it.  He was happy she seemed to be leaving him alone mostly.  He didn’t want to stir that pot again.

“I think, if you don’t bring girl gear; we gonna have a fight when we get back.  But we still have to get council’s approval for that annaways.” He quickly added.

Jonn nodded and when it was apparent he still wasn’t going to bite on the democracy angle, Burtt made his manors and excused himself.

“I’m gonna check my crew. Make su-ah they hydrating.”

Enough was enough.  Burtt’s ears needed a break…and his brain.  He had so much to take in and consider.  He smiled at his new companions and walked back to his crew who were tail-end-Charlies in the caravan.  He knew they’d be fine.  He just needed to take a breath and absorb all this input for a minute…Ole Jonn thinks he’s a boss, does he?  Hmm!

Can’t you decide on your own boy?  Have I made a mistake about you? Damn! Jonn thought dejectedly.

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

They made good time getting to the Flag compound.  Even the younger Flags were impressed with the conditioning of Burtt’s crew.  They matched them step for step the whole way with little complaint and only one iso-suit blow-out.  It wasn’t severe and it was Burtt’s cloak.  Apparently, you could suck on the sip tube hard enough to make a water bladder pop right out of the wraps.  Both crews got a charge out of watching Burtt dance around trying to catch it before it hit the ground.  He did, but in the process, he managed to loosen a good deal more than a single wrap of his cloak and with help, he had to quickly redo it.

“Well, so much for the lesson having to so with sucking too hard on the sip-tube.  I guess we might have forgotten to mention that, eh?”  Jonn was smiling with the gentle ribbing.

“Now, Burtt.  If you’re finished with your rest time; won’t you pull out that bladder again for a minute?  There’s another lesson that rightfully goes along with that last one.” Once Burtt had his bladder in hand, Jonn continued. “Let go that bladder.  Go ahead, let go of it.”

Burtt made ready to catch it again and let go.  It only fell a foot from the wrap it was secured to.

“That’s as far as it will ever fall unless you unwrap for some silly reason.  You don’t have to save it.  We’ve dropped more than our share the same way you did, and so we made the fill tube and the sip tubes short.  In the future if it pops out again, just be easy about it and slip it back between the wraps as well as you can.”

“Das a’ri…oh, damn!  That’s good, Jonn.  Good plannin.  Or good learnin?”

“Aha!  Now you’re getting it, Burtt.  We learn from this place as we go.  She is our mistress this land we work.  She will nurture us or she will kill us.  Most of the time, that depends on us.  If we learn, and learn right, we live another day, eh?  Sometimes, though, the very first mistake we make out here, we die for it.”

————

Fifth-day, Lasteat in the Flag Greathall and real sleep:

The meal that night was an incredible feast the boys from the Taj would not soon forget.  Two runners had gone on ahead once the caravan had cleared the Wall, so lasteat was ready when the troop arrived just at sunset.  They gorged themselves until they couldn’t move.  There was a few dozen early to late teen aged girls in attendance.  The attention they paid to the newcomers was a source of great hilarity for their parents and great angst for the Flag teenage boys.  Burtt had several young maidens stuck to him like flies on stink, he thought.  He took it all in stride.

HA! Finally got a chance to use that one.  Damn, flies on stink, and you the stink, Burtt.  HA!

Jonn and the older flags watched the fun for a bit then called it a night.

“We’ll be running out before light in the early cycles.  So, travelers, we’re to bed now.  Jorukk, show our guests to quarters, will you please?”

The flames of more than one aspiring romance were doused with three short sentences from the leader.  That was something Burtt noticed here that he questioned.  There seemed not to be a council here.  At least not one like they had in the Taj.  There might be an advisory board or the like, but Jonn was clearly and unequivocally, the boss.  He wondered if that might not clash with the democratic society Burtt endorsed and the Taj was.

Item number one on the “ask the council” list. Burtt added to a list he was keeping in his head.  It was a long one already.

With minimal fuss but many promises to meet again, and soon, the two groups broke up.  Burtt had so much to think about he found it difficult to settle in but when he finally allowed himself to lay back on what had to be the most comfortable sleeping surface in the entire world, he was out cold in moments and was quite perturbed early next morning by the rude intrusion into this rarest of luxuries…sound, uninterrupted hours of sleep.

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

“Time to go, boyo.  I’ll leave you to roust your own crew.  Mine are rousing as we speak.  The sooner we go the better, eh?  Let’s go now.  Come on, come on…”

“Mmmmmmph.  Le me be Kkhloe, le me be.” was Burtt’s muffled response turning away from the intrusion.

“What?  Kkhloe?  Bu-urtt?  Come on now.  Are you one of these folks you must beat on the head to wake them?  Come on now!”

“Okay! Okay! I’m awake, Jonn.  I’m awake.  Wha was that about Kkhloe?”  Burtt’s expression was one of concern and confusion as he wiped the sleep from is eyes.

“You were calling out to some Kkhloe before you woke, is all.  A dream, I guess?  You know a Kkhloe, do you?”

“Kkhloe was my big sister.  She took care of us until she passed a while back.”

“Oh, Burtt.  I’m sorry to hear that.  Ain’t we all lost someone dear though, ain’t we?”

“Yeah.  Das A’righ!”  He smiled without correcting himself.  He turned to address his troop.

“Alright you Taj-mates.  Up and at ‘em.  Here we go boys, here we go.”  He called out to his equally lazy troop.  It seemed they all felt the same way about these sleeping surfaces. This was luxury and they all wanted more.  Just a few more winks…” GET UP YOU TERDS! GET UP!”

That got them rolling.  They were refreshed, did their business, hydrated, stacked and wrapped as the Flags called it, in a very reasonable 15 spans and only shortly later than Jonn’s own troopers.  Two penises found their way through the wrappings of still sleepy fingers, but all was set right in due course…and one hell of a lot of good natured ribbing.

Jonn began the brief. “Okay.  Because of fewer no-go zones along the way, it’s about a two-thirds shorter distance run to sector-27 from here than it was to the Taj, so we’ll take it fast.  We won’t use the smoker’s until we get in close or we’ll just outrun the smoke.  Speed is key.  If you find you can’t keep up; don’t force it.  Remember, we do this all the time so we are well-conditioned for it.  A forced march like yesterday is one thing and an admirable feat for anyone to accomplish, but what we must do today takes a lot more.

“We Flags will run about the whole way with 5-span hydration breaks every 20 spans.  Once within a half klik of their crèche, we’ll rest for 15 spans, then crank up the smokers for the attack.  That’ll take another 30 spans until we have a good enough cloud to roll in behind.  You take your time, you have plenty of it, so support us as best you can.  You’ll probably arrive as we are making our assault if not sooner, anyway.

“You use your compass and stay on track, to the Wall and over it, straight into sector-27.  We’ll leave markers for you to follow but keep referencing your map and the path I highlighted for you.  From what I could see, it very closely matches the reality on the ground.  Whoever drew it up knew his business.

“You know how to spoof the bots and we gave you enough noise makers for that.  I’ve seen what your boys can do, so I don’t expect you’ll be more than a few spans behind us, no matter, and that’s all we need.  If it looks somehow like we need more bodies and you haven’t caught up yet, then we’ll simply wait the few extra spans it takes you to get there.  Okay?”  He finished with a huge grin of satisfaction on his hardy face.

“Okay, Jonn.”

The two stared at each other as if there should be some monumental declaration at the start of so important a joint venture.

“Soooooo, are we gonna go, or you gonna speechify some more?”  Was Burtt’s smart ass response instead.

The Flag erupted into fits of laughter, the likes of which hadn’t been heard there in some time.  The future was suddenly and hopefully looking bright indeed…for two peoples.

With a good-natured rap on the back of the head, Jonn led Burtt out of the Flag compound on a quest to destroy Zobbi once and for all.

Please, dear Lord. Please?  Before you take me? Jonn silently pleaded with is God for this all to work out.  He had some great youngsters in the Flag clan, but not one was a Flag.  Not one could bear the load.

This Burtt, now, there was a lad with all the tools.  I hope so anyway, I hope so.  Just let me last long enough to find out, Lord.  Find out and train him up, is all I ask. He’s more than a match for Jorukk and those few other champions, and their all good lads.  They just aren’t Flags.  They’ll recognize the true leader, they will.

———-

Seventh hour, Lo-day, at the Hap stead:

“Don’t tell me nothing’s wrong over there you wretch.  I know you’re all in this together.  I know you ratted us out, Qquitia, and you’ll pay for that.  I swear to you, you’ll pay.  Your little mad dog revolutionary, Burkk, or whatever his name is, won’t be around forever.  Neither will the Loks.  I took care of the Klop pigs.  I can deal with the likes of the Loks just as well.  You just wait and see.  Then it’ll be your turn.”

Hhannah Hap was completely delusional now.  She was seeing spies in every corner.  The Loks, and in fact everyone in sector-22, was hoping against hope the looney would finally go over the edge and do something that would cause the Corp to have her taken away, permanently.  Qquitia, though she would be out of employment, wanted her gone more than any.  She only hung onto the job because the Taj needed her to be their eyes on the Haps.

“I do not help anyone, seniorina.  Since last time, they do not speak to me at all.  I am like a disease no one wants to touch.  That is why I beg food from you. They do not let me eat from the community fare.”  Qquitia kept her head bowed in submission, though the one thing she wanted most to do was stare this cretin in the eye and tell her to go to hell.

Just a while longer. Aiiyeee! Can I hold out though?  The diminutive domestic wondered.  Just one more week.  Then maybe I am done with this spawn of Diablo.

“What am I paying you for then?  I can scrub the shit out of undergarments as well as anyone.”

Hhannah’s hate bled out of her with every word, gesture, and expression, every day, all day.  Qquitia wondered how a person could live like that.

Why wouldn’t such a person just …just…well, explode or something?  She wondered.

“I cannot tell you what I do not know’ Mistress.” Qquitia finished hoping that would be the end of it for the day.  There was only so much a person could be expected to take, no matter the cause.

“Oh, go on.  You’re useless to me.  Get out!  GET OUT! NOW!”

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

Ninth hour, Lo-day, at the Lok stead:

“I am so glad you’re feeling better.  One has to wonder if attitude, doesn’t count for something in regards to healing, eh?”  Georgge gently ribbed Jaredd.

“I’m pleased also Doctor, but not beyond doling out a good old sock in the jaw should one be called for, I dare say.”  He said it smiling and Georgge grinned back.  “So, how, EXCATLY, is mother?  No nonsense this time either.  The girls aren’t here.  I need to know.”

“One week, at best.  In a day or two, things will start to fail.  By end of the five-day, she’ll be totally bed-ridden and probably delirious too.  Stay close, in other words, Jaredd.  Tell those you think need to know and do so sooner rather than later.  Fflo will stay with her when I’m not here and she isn’t with the girls.  I’ve provided a drip that will keep her pain free, though there is nothing I can do when she starts to lose her, erm, senses, eh?  She will not suffer, Jaredd.  That I promise you.”

“Oh, damn!”  Can you ask Bann to summon the girls here after their classes? Please?  Thank you Georgge.  I’ll see you tomorrow.  And send Fflo in with the girls too.”

Georgge was leaving a somber young man behind.  He wished he could be there for him once Mmarta was gone. He really did like the boy, but, Jaredd was that – that creature’s offspring. The very thought of it made him cringe.

“Georgge, a question please before you leave.”  Jaredd caught the doctor as he reached the door. “Can the kids make it out there, I mean way out there, beyond the wall, provided it was clean, without professional medical care?  For a while maybe?  Do you think?”

“What?  What kind of nonsense is this Jaredd?  Beyond the Wall?  Are you crazy?  What…”

“I’m just asking, Georgge.  Suppose that it’s clean beyond the wall somewhere.  Could the kids survive a while without medical care?”

“This is insane, Jaredd.  Are you telling me this whole exodus thing isn’t just some wild and crazy dream?  They are really moving with these nomads out to the beyond?  I thought it was just a recon.  Now they are all going?  Even Ssyndi?  Oh, Norton, what a disaster. Tsk!

(Sigh) “But, okay, let’s go ahead and play out this scenario.  First, you must know the nomads are accustomed to that environment like your kids may never be.  That’s just for starters, Jaredd.  Then, you have what, a hundred or so kids out there, the oldest one is what, nineteen?  You have a couple of teen-age girls who are semi trained in first aid at best.  One of these girls may or may not be able to survive breathing, let alone the myriad other perils awaiting them.  That Ssyndi-mask is still a proto, you know?  There are eight other children in the dome who will also be completely dependent on the Ssyndi-mask.  Can we produce them in time, let alone will they work?  I don’t know!

“What if any of the hundreds of serious childhood ailments should occur, and you end up with an epidemic on your hands, and the only treatment for same is here?  I mean, can you prepare for all eventualities?  And if not, how much of a chance can you justify taking on behalf of those children?  My Norton, Jaredd, the risks are enormous.  I can’t say I would venture to take such a risk myself.”

“Would you be willing to leave them to the whims of the Corp, Georgge?  What happens when I can’t get them more meds or cover their tracks with the Corp?”  When he didn’t get a response, he said, “I’m not willing to hope for a good outcome from that scenario.  There isn’t one.  Not with CommCorp and that new MilSec Chief Crap, or Crab…no, no…Carp?  Card!  That’s it.  Card!  Honestly though, what a showoff.  He reminds me of grandfather.”

He seemed to ponder his next words and then said, “I need to go to the Taj, Georgge.  I need to talk to Burtt, but more importantly, I need to talk to those fugitive-citizen medical personnel hiding out there in the Taj.  You see, I agree with you Georgge.  The Exodus plan is insane.  It’s also the only chance I believe they have, so I’m going to do what I can, in Mmarta’s name, to help them succeed.  The best thing I can think to do for them is to talk those adults into going with them.  And just think, Georgge, what if it really is clean out there beyond the beyond, eh?  What if?  Norton’s drawer’s, if that’s the case, I’m going too.  We can send testing kits along and with our own results in hand, what’s to prevent it?”

Jaredd’s enthusiasm was infectious.  Georgge was smiling too.

“Oh, a bit of fantasy I’m afraid, but, sure, what if indeed?” Georgge finished with clear doubt niggling at his tone.

————

Eighth hour, Lo-day, at the edge of Zobbis crèche:

Jonn was right about how the march would go.  Burtt and his troops kept up for a while but eventually they lagged.  Even Burtt was ill prepared for the additional burden the iso-suit represented and it showed in fatigue and overheating, so that he and his crew had to slow to a jog and then a fast walk for the last half of the run in to Zobbi’s crèche.

Still, the Taj caught up as the smoke screen was building and had a few spans to catch their breath.  The trip took the Taj five cycles.  This gave Jonn time to update them on what they’d observed to that point, which wasn’t much of anything at all.  No scouts, no guards, no activity at all, since they arrived.  Well, there was a lot of scurrying vermin about.

“Whacha think, Jonn?  They gone?”  Burtt asked.

“I don’t know Burtt and I don’t care to guess either. We’ll be a lot surer of things before we progress any further.  I’ve sent my best scouts up there now looking around.  They are due back in seven spans.”

“Don’t look good, that’s what.”  Burtt offered.

“I don’t like it much either, Burtt. No sir, I don’t.  But it’s the hand we were dealt.”

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

“What?  Oh, never mind that.  Look.  Here they come back early.”  Jonn was pointing towards a trash heap in the near distance.  Burtt saw first one then another of Jonn’s fully suited ghosts slipping out of the smoke screen and approaching the allies hide, but only when he followed Jonn’s point to find them.  They moved so slowly it was hard to see them unless you stared at the same spot and they moved across your vision, blocking what was behind them.  This was a property of the iso-suit Burtt hadn’t caught onto until now.  The awe on his face told Jonn that this bright young man just made another connection.

“Yes, Burtt.  It’s wonderful stuff and if you go slow, it’s hard as hell to be seen in it.  I’ll explain later, but it’s called cammoskin.  It’s a property of the wrap. Now, let’s see what Jorukk has for us.”

Jonn signaled so the two scouts could find their hide.  They slid silently beside their boss and got right down to business.

“There’s no one up and about Jonn.  Not a soul.  We can see a few of ‘em lying about, but no one is stirring out of the lot we see.  It’s about five maybe six toughs.  That’s it.  If there were more, they are gone.  I think one of the hurt ones is that Zobbi fella.  He has that gaudy orange scarf, but now it’s wrapped around one foot.  They all look to be in bad shape, boss, like the poison got ‘em, ya know?”

“Poisoned you think?  Well, good for them that is.  Just the same, let’s be about dispatching justice and finding our lads if we can, eh?  Have a care as we approach now boyos.  Watch your way around corners and past heavy obstacles just like we drill for, eh?  Back each other all the way in.

“How about you and your crew take the high ground, there, and there.  Once we are in the compound the smoke will clear quickly.  You keep over watch for us with those long bows of yours, eh Burtt?”  Jonn pointed to two high points in the near topography for them to gain a height advantage with.

“Bann.  You got that, okay?  Split the crew and set up where Jonn says.  Sure-shots are the only shots, yah?” Handing his bow over, he said this to his suddenly suspicious second in command.

“Yeah, Burtt.  I gots it. You goin alone?”  He challenged.  Burtt only nodded to him, waiting for further comment.  There was none.  Bann, nodded, turned and quickly set about his task, even if reluctantly.

“The Taj has a stake in this too, like I said, Jonn.  One of us is going after Zobbi with you.  That’ll be me.  Les go.”  Burtt declared and turned to follow Jorukk through the murk and smoke.

“Boyo, you have blades and a stunner.  We have projectile weapons.  What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking Zobbi ain’t got no projectile weapons and while you getting yours all set up, I’ll have ole Zobbi’s head on a stake.  Das A’righ, Yessuh!”  Burtt’s smile looked almost comically sinister and Jonn had no doubt that today was Zobbi’s last, no matter what.

They proceeded through the compound slowly and sure enough, there were no healthy inhabitants.  It looked as though these few who were here had been dragged through a couple of no-go zones.  Burtt was the first to come across Zobbi, who had somehow, even during his own final demise, found his way to a higher perch than his lessers.  They were lying in the dirt all around him, dying a slow agonizing death by poison.  He, was enthroned in the rusted-out remnants of an old conveyance.  There were faded letters worn nearly flat on the side of the vehicle.  F O R D, and under each letter someone had drawn in the rest of the words to spell out, Found On Road Dead!

Burtt thought, Yessuh, that’s how they gonna find you after today Mr. Zobbi. On the road, and dead!  Yessuh!”

“You pusssss.  Whachu doin he-ah?  Go way ‘n lemme die.  Sh’ur faul.   Alla it.”  Spittle and tears flowed freely from the near dead fallen zone boss. “YOUUUUU PUUUSSSSssssss….” Zobbi’s weak last scream of defiance faded as his breath and strength left him a sobbing sack of lifeless flesh awaiting its end.

Burtt looked down at his long-suffered antagonist and felt mercy.

“You don’t deserve this Zobbi.  Su-ah you don’t.  But I ain’t you.”  With that he ended Zobbi’s pain and suffering with a killing blade stroke to the heart.  The tear dripping from the corner of his eye both surprised and humbled him.

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

“Come on, son.  There’s nothing for us here.  Let’s be gone now.”  Jonn seemed determined to move along and get them away from this terrible place after they had dispatched all the remaining toughs left alive.

“Jonn?  Is that you Jonn Flag?  Did you think taking your time about it would soften my resolve about expanding, Jonn?  Is that what?  Because I’m here to tell you, I’d about decided to give in and let you have your way.  Now you’re here of course, well…”

“OHO!  Will Trop, you son of a side-winder, if it isn’t good to see your ugly mug!”  Was Jonn’s ecstatic response as he took his missing mate in a bear hug.

“And where is your brother Naffy?  Tell me he’s well too, Will, tell me.”

“Ah, he’s well enough.  You know that hard headed SOB can’t be cowed.  Not by Norton’s own banshee’s he won’t.  So, he’s a bit banged up but he’ll mend.  Hell, they’ve had us working our arses off since they took us. He can’t be too badly damaged, can he?  He’ll be right along.

“These animals went off on some excursion to ‘get even with Burtt’ the leader said, just yesterday.  They returned last night in that condition and haven’t much moved since.  All their slaves broke free and left.  The few soldiers left, freed us before running away themselves.  I was figuring a way to signal you, when, well, here you are, aren’t you? And well received too, boss.  I must say.”  The first glimpses of emotion showing through.

“Did you say he was “getting even with Burtt?”  Burtt demanded, already agonizing over his absence from the Taj before he even knew for sure what had transpired.

“Yes. That’s what he said.  I’m sure of it.”  Will replied.

“TAJ! ON ME! ON ME!  TO THE TAJ!  QUICK MARCH, LET’S GO! LET’S GO!”

Burtt was running before his troop even reacted.  Soon Bann was yelling too and they fell in behind their leader. Panic setting into all their consciousness, now that the reality of what had happened had set in.

The crew redoubled their efforts.

“Jorukk. Take six.  Support the Taj.  Bring the weapons carts.  I’ll head for the Flag and meet you at the Taj tomorrow.  Go!”

“Right, boss!”  The soldier turned and with just a touch on the shoulder of those he wanted, they were off to help their new friends.  No one needed to be told.  Three pairs of soldiers grabbed and end of a cart each and set off after Jorukk.  He and Jonn both prayed they weren’t too late.

“Here! You get suited up Will and Naffy.  We brought some suits.”  A worried Flag boss watched as his troops disappeared into the murk.

Norton, you’re doing me no favors today.  None!

————

Eleventh hour, Lo-day, in the Taj, at the supply hut outside Harkk’s servhut:

“There must be more than that Miss Kkat.  Ain’t food for them all.”  Cconnie complained, crossing her arms in defiance when it seemed everyone doubted her.

“Cconnie.  I filled the bin myself last week, darling.  They couldn’t have eaten all that by now.  Dogg’s down to just one meal a day Burtt tells me.  Sweet can’t be eating more than he does, that little bit of a thing, and the rest eat their ration a day and no more, unless someone’s feeding them more.”  Harkk countered, kindly.

“Sweet eating three four times a day, Harkk.  I watching cuz I knew this was getting t’be a problem.  She fat too.  Fat like she eats too much, fat.”  Offered the little girl.

“Fat, you say?”  This from Katt, with a knowing look to Bbessie and Harkk.

“Oh, damn” Said Harkk, “show me”.  Off they went to the Ken.  There was a train of followers to include Bessie, Kkat and a dozen other looka-loos who’d been hanging by the door to Harkk’s servhut as if waiting for an errant schoolmate to be released from hard time at the principal’s office.

They neared the Ken and were met as usual by a dozen always ravenous always starving for attention Ks.  One short, sharp command from Cconnie and they all froze in place and sat.  None moved while she made her way ahead of the rest to find Sweet curled in a corner.  Dogg tried without success and without much determination either, to deter the little girl but Cconnie was having none of it.

“OUT DOGG! OUT! Get out of…oh, my goodness!  Um, Harkk?  Katt?  You better come see this.  Damn! Oops! Sorry Kkat…”

“Oh, dear…um, that’s okay, this time…Cconnie.  Oh, dear oh dear oh dear!” Was all Kkat could muster.

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Of course, I should have guessed.  Dogg’s been stealing my bread.  You know I save a piece of bread for before bed, right?  We’ll I caught Dogg snatching it three times these last two weeks.  His missus was sending him out for a midnight snack.  Well I’ll be.  Wait until Burtt comes home.  Ha!”  Harkk seemed genuinely pleased.

Katt saw a light sparkle in Harkk’s eye and had a thought.

“You know, Harkk.  I could talk Burtt into assigning one of this brood to you.  If you want, I mean?” She offered.

“Do you think he would?”  Harkk looked almost a child for a moment.  Kkat realized that Harkk probably hadn’t had anything “homey” since he was a child or maybe, never.  Maybe he’d only read about it.

“I don’t see why not, Harkk.  You’ve done so much for us.  I can’t imagine him refusing, to be honest.”  Kkat found herself feeling pleased to be able to please this gentle, kind man who’d made a lot of their world happen.

“Hmm, boy.  That would be grand.” Was his simple response.

In moments, word had traveled throughout the Taj. Close to a hundred children of all ages crowded around the Ken taking turns stealing s peak at the newest members of the crèche. Matches were set for naming rights.  Things got just a bit pushy until Dogg became panicked and let loose with a ferocious growling bark.  Everyone heard and quiet was restored long enough for Harkk to call it quits and send everyone packing.

“Good job, Dogg.  Ya done good.”  Connie scratched between his torn-up ears before she joined the parade of Taj-mates headed in to wait for mideat.  Dogg seemed relieved the crowd had left but he had a special place in his heart for Cconnie.  He whined at her leaving.

“Oh, I be back you big puss.  I be back.  Hush, now.”

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

When Green river came into view, Burtt turned up the speed a notch and burst over the mound knocking part of the new greenhouse wall down as he passed.  He was in such a hurry he cut the corner too tight and clipped it with his shoulder.  In testimony to his strength and raw power the wall he hit virtually shattered to pieces. His momentum carried him full speed over the top where he sprawled and badly scraped his chest, arms, hands and knees sliding to a hard stop.  He ignored the pain, pushed himself fully upright in one motion and was off again before his troop had time to catch him.

The lookout on the Green River mound saw the travelers returning but had no way of knowing for sure who they were only that they were coming and coming fast.  He made it to the alarm but stopped himself at the last minute.  The lead runner was peeling his wrap and it was certainly Burtt’s scream emanating from the charging warrior’s mouth.

“Burtt!  Burtt!  Whazzit, Burtt!  Ho!  Burtt?”

Burtt stumbled to a stop half way down the mound.  A lookout was calling him from the mound he just crested and there was a football game in session on the Quad.  Well, it was in session until the raging maniac came tearing over the top of the mound.

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

“Who’s hurt, Thadd Brek?  Who’s hurt?  How many?”  he yelled at the lookout.

“Who’s what?  You okay, Burtt?  Nobody Hurt.  Oh!  OH!  You mean from this morning?  Ha!  Ain’t nobody but Zobbi and his boys hurt, Burtt.  We kicked ass, we did.  Oh, sorry Burtt.”

“Huh?  Okay.  Um.  Stick with your post.  Where’s Harkk?  Katt?” asked Burtt, his heartbeat had slowed but he was confused and intrigued now.  What the hell happened here?

“Them talking with Jaredd last I saw, in the Greathall.”

“Jaredd?  Okay, Thadd.  Good job.  Tell those coming in behind me to be easy.  Tell them there’s no threat.  Okay?”

“Okay, Burtt.  Say, whazzit out the-ah?”   Thadd asked with his eyes lit and pointing to the green slash of life beyond the beyond.

Burtt smiled a huge smile and said, “Bettah than we hoped, Thadd Brek.  Bettah than we hoped.”

This brought the desired effect with Thadd’s grin splitting his boys face.   Burtt continued into the Taj.

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

“I’m glad you’ve come back to us now, Burtt, though I’m sorry it was under such duress.  As you can see, though, your Taj came through this crisis in fine order.  Your training yielded the best possible result.  The Taj won out with no casualties.  I dare say, as I’m told, Zobbi turned tail and ran like a rat once he saw your troops coming at him in two separate shield walls that were about to envelope him.  Before that, two guards kept them pinned until help could arrive…just two, Burtt.  I’d say that was grand testimony to yours and Harkk’s efforts to defend the Taj.

Burtt was beaming.

“But that’s not what I came here to talk about and this pains me to no end.  I have some terrible news. I’m afraid.  We’ve all known this was coming.  I’m afraid the time is nigh.  Mom, Mmarta, has come to her end time.  I…I’m sorry.  I know what…” he broke down and couldn’t finish.

Burtt, Kkat, Harkk, Ccassie, Bbessie and Bann were all in shock.  Cconnie came forward and held Jaredd’s hand.  He leaned his head on her little shoulder and she bore it well.  Then all present came forward and lent their support and tears.

Bbessie recovered first.  “We have to tell the children.  Oh, dear.  This will be so horrific for so many of them.  I’m not sure what to say.  What do you think, Kkat?”

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

“Ain’t no one’s job but mine.  I’ll tell them.  We need to prepare a ceremony.  It’ll be one we’ll never forget.  I need you all to help with that part.  I’ll tell the kids.  Jaredd, can you stay until we do this?  The kids might have questions I can’t answer.  How long have you been out here?  Can you stay a bit longer or have you been exposed enough for one day?  We can do it tomorrow, though I don’t know how I’ll hold it in until then.  Or look any of them kids in the eye.  Damn!”

“I’ll stay Burtt.  That’s why I brought this.  Good test, eh?”  He held up a next-gen version of the Ssyndi-mask, then put it on.  His breathing took on a sinister note with each intake and exhale of breath through the alien-looking mask.  Harkk thought it sounded like a villain from the old vids, Varth-ader or something.

“Das a’righ, Jar.  Das A’righ.  Good test, yeah.  Ssyndi wants to come with, you know.  I think maybe that could work if we can get her there safely.” Burtt replied with a distant look of hope. “I want to do more soil and water tests that you set me up with for the next trip out, but the ones we did yesterday showed no poison anywhere.”

“Excellent!  Well, now that we’ve covered that, I’ll let Harkk tell you about the kids, Burtt.  You’re not going to believe this.  Well, maybe you will, come to think of it.” Jaredd prompted Harkk to continue with Burtt’s update.

“I reckon you’ll think this was about right for these two, but for me, well, I was shocked and I don’t mind telling you, I was most grateful too.  They saved our asses big time, Burtt.  Yes sir, they did! Who do you think we’re talking about, eh?  Who?”

“Who saved you and how Harkk?  Come on, then…”   Burtt prodded with a bit of aggravation at the obviously intentional delay.

“Okay, fine, it was…”

During mideat the story of Jjenna Bok and Kett Mont was told repeatedly to the amazement and gratification of Burtt and the returning travelers. The travelers told their tales too, of the Green plains, gushing white-waters of the gloriously clean new Colorado rivers.  They told of the stuffed full larders, thriving livestock, and healthy, hardy, and happy people of the Flag compound.  Finally, they told of the demise of Zobbi, and the mad dash from there to the Taj once Burtt heard the toughs had targeted it.

Cconnie surprised the travelers at mideat’s end with a parade of perfectly controlled Ks followed by Dogg, Sweet and a Bakers’ dozen, of new and totally darling pups in a basket.  The little fur balls had the Greathall rocking with squeals and peals of laughter well after the eating was done.  Sweet and Dogg both had become accustomed to the kids of the Taj.  There was no problem now with the children fawning over the pups.  They were part of the K family too, the kids were, just like the Ks were part of the Taj family.  The Taj were a pack in every sense.

Burtt suddenly had a troubling thought and quietly brought it up to Jaredd.  “Jaredd, if this keeps going, we gonna have a hunert Ks and more before long.  Is there something we can do to stop this?”

The obvious panic in Burtt’s expression caused Jared to snicker a bit.  “Yes, Burtt there is something we can do.  We’ll talk more about it later.  Sweet can’t get pregnant again for a while now and none of the other pups are old enough, yet…I think.  Hmmm!  Perhaps sooner is better than later.  I’ll have a friend come visit who is well versed in animal husbandry.”

With that final other concern, out of the way, Burtt turned to the duty he most regretted that night.  Burtt was troubled about having to bring the mood down.  There was no way around it though.

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

Burtt brought the Taj to order with raps of his blade handles on the Greathall’s long-table.

“Sometimes, good things, good times, are crossed with the bad.  There ain’t nothing we can do about that.  It just happens.”

Everyone recognized this as Burtt’s normal roundabout way of getting around to dispatching bad news.  They sobered quickly and waited.  Several in the crew started handing out candles and the lighting began.

“This is one of those days.  My sister, Kkhloe, used to tell us that folks come and folks go in our lives.  That we didn’t really have a say and so we should just take what good we can from them for however long we have them with us.  This is what I plan to do and I hope you all will join me.”

By now most in the group were worried deeply and many were crying.   They knew someone had passed because they never lit candles like this unless someone had passed. Burtt felt pain for them and came to the point.

“Our savior, our champion, our mother, Mmarta…”  at this the first wails began with earnest.

“…Mmarta will be leaving us soon.  I…I, oh God.” And he couldn’t go on.  Burtt fell to his knees and the Taj erupted in pain and grief.

Many heart wrenching spans later, as the Taj started a procession out into the quad, Bbessie started singing a song they had all learned.  Jaredd found the lyrics in a book after Kkat sang part of it once.

“When you’re down, and troubled…”  All the Taj eventually joined in.  In a full-throated tribute to their most favored adult they sang their remembrance for all to witness.  The ruckus created from a hundred plus voices singing in unison, just happened to catch the attention of the first-tier bot nearest the tube entrance…something about certain harmonics set off their inner alarm systems.

When the tribute concluded and everyone seemed to run out of steam.  Burtt took up the lead again.

“Jaredd, myself and Doc Georgge will find a way to get Mmarta here.  She belongs with us, not in that cursed dome.”

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

“Burtt?  Um, shouldn’t we…” Kkat was cut off by Jaredd.

“Perfect!  Burtt, that is perfect.  What better way to let the Corp know some of us are not cowed and will go to every end to make things right out here.  YES!  Burtt, you’re a genius.  Brilliant!” Jaredd was ecstatic with the prospect of spitting at the Corp one last time.

“Good!  Then when it’s time, she come out here and we put her in the ground in a special place.  She’ll never be forgot.  Never, Jaredd!”  he paused thinking, then asked, “Say, Jared. Can we talk to her like you did for me and Ssyndi?  You know, before she goes? Can we make it big so we can all hear her and she can hear us?  Out here in the quad?”

“Ha! Another great idea, Burtt, and I can go you one better.  How would you like video too?

When Burtt stared openmouthed, obviously not understanding, Jaredd shook himself and retried.

“How would you like to see her too, while you all talk to her.  That’s called a video, Burtt.  Watch!”

Jaredd took out his pad, touched some characters on the screen, and soon a holovid of Mmarta started playing.  It was a recording of a speech she’d made the year before, when she was feeling better and still active in medsci.  It took Jaredd more than a few moments to explain it wasn’t some demon that had captured Mmarta and bring all the scattering Taj-mates back to his demonstration.  Explaining something as complex as recording to proles, he found, was quite the challenge.  He eventually had to demonstrate the art by recording Burtt and Kkat standing in front of him.

“Now, that’s called a recording. What I can do for this instance is a create a live video.  You’ll see Mmarta in real time and she’ll see you too.  Here, watch Kkat and I demonstrate that for you.”

When all that was done and everyone was duly awed but finally accepted it for what it was, magic; a video confab with Mmarta was set for the next day after mideat.

“Is there annathing we can do to help, friend Burtt?”  Jorukk asked with genuine concern in his voice.  “I’m glad all was well with your crew.  I regret the demise of your Matron, sure though.  We lost ours not so long ago and we’ve not got a new one.  Not yet.”  The somber tone told Burtt this might be an issue with the Flags.  Was their Matron Jonn’s mate?  Or was she Jonn’s competition?

More damn questions.

“Thank you Jorukk.  I near forgot you were here.  Thanks for coming.  We’ll be okay.  This day has been coming for a while we knew.  Our Mmarta has been sick.  We’ll be down for some time about it though, I’m afraid. She was very special to us.  The youngers are going to take it hard.

“I see you brought them weapon carts with.  Do we need to stash them someplace safe?  Or are you gonna sit on them until you go back to the Flag?”

“Sure, would be a great load off if we could park these things somewhere out of sight say?”  Jorukk responded hopefully. “Jonn will come flying in her tomorrow morn, if he hasn’t already drove himself nutters with worry and is on his way now.

“He really wants this thing to work, you know, Burtt.  He really does.  There’s lots of reasons for it, sure and they all make dire sense, but it’s like an obsession with ole Jonn, it is.  I don’t pretend to know it all, but he sure acts like neither of our crews will make it without the other.  I swear he does!”

Burtt wasn’t sure how far he should go with Jorukk.  It seemed like he and Jonn had discussed some things Jorukk and the others might not have yet.  This would never fly in the Taj.  He would have discussed the diversity issues with the council way before talking it over with another crèche.

UGH!  God, please help me with this.  And we all really want to go now too, I think.  But I caint never submit to no boss again.  Damn!

————

Thirteenth hour, MilSec Office inside the dome, Quadrant 3:

“Sir. Sector-22, near-zone.  Bot-2281 reports, audio receptor trips, high levels of harmonics in the area just beyond the servhuts in that sector.  Possible excessive prole activities in proximity to the iso-tube.  Local Sec requests a flyby.”

“A Flyby for prole noise?  Seriously?  Is this Local Sec a puss or is he gone fishing?” asked the MilSecCOP (Military Security Chief of Operations) for that quadrant of CommCorp, Captain Jessupp Clak.  “As if I might send a patrol out there so he can screw off.  Tell that chump to send his own cops in and tell him to lead them in himself.  If they can’t handle a few Proles; we’ll come sort it out for them, but they better not be planning on keeping their jobs after that.  Damn lazy bastas!  Send THAT, comms.”

Comms officer, second class, Jeff Cot, responded with a response he hoped his superior would accept.

“On it, sir! Sending: ‘Recommend Local Command lead Local SecForces on reconnaissance. Report progress. Twenty-Nine Army Over-Watch Company will support, if needed.” Cot knew his commander’s hot temper got him in more trouble than was healthy and he did whatever he could to protect him from himself, such as translating his cryptic, sometimes caustic communications to something a bit more palatable.

“Fine!  I should dress you down properly for misinterpreting me, but I do want to retain my commission for a few more drudgingly boring years.  So, go ahead and send as you say.  That ought to be enough of a reprimand for even the dullest of cops to understand.  Send in a flyby, indeed!  Send that…what you just said.”

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

“I heard her say they was going to smuggle dozens of proles into the dome from sector-27’s old unused tube.”  Qquitia lied, hoping her pleasure at doing so to such a horrible person didn’t show.

“Are you sure?  When?”

“They comin in this third-day, I heard her say.  Yes ma’am, Miss Hhannah.”

“The Lok bitch herself said this?  Mmarta Lok?”

“Yes Ma’am, she did.  I heard her say it plain to the prole girlserv Camm, I did.”

“Perfect!  PERFECT!  DAMN YOU LOKS TO HELL, this is perfect.”  Hhannah’s insanity scared Qquitia more and more each day.  She was so pleased it would soon be over.  Just a few more days now.

“Go on then.  I don’t need you today.  I have things to plan for, oh yes, I do indeed.”

Qquitia left praying she didn’t have to do this for much longer.  This lady scared her.  She left as fast as she could get out.

After the connection was made Hhannah began her plan to destroy the Loks once and for all.  “Hello, Detector Fen?  This is Hhannah Hap.  Now, I know we’ve had our differences in the past, Detector, but this time, this time, I assure you, there is no mistake.  The Loks have stepped way overboard now.  I have conclusive proof this time and you simply must do something about it.  It’s to be on this coming Third-day. She’s planning to…”

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

BLEEP! BLEEP! BLEEP!  Sounded the alarm The Taj snapped into a unified response and made their way to their respective posts as dictated by rules established for any emergency triggering of the alert signal.

Before the first cops cleared the tube entrance the only folks still in the Taj, or in sight that is, were Harkk and a handful of perservs who all looked duly panicked and shocked to see the local storm troopers invading their work space.  Most were under cover in the Taj main building working their way underground or already out by Ccassie’s crèche.  A rear-end Charlie force was slowly working their way backwards through the fighting and communications trenches, just the way they trained.  Burtt remained with Harkk assuming his role as trainee.

“Whoa! What’s this all about, boss?”  Asked Harkk in a truly cowed tone of voice which said he was genuinely worried about his wellbeing, though unsure why.

“Remain where you are. We are searching for unsponsored proles in the area.  An alert was triggered by one of the tube bots.  Have you heard a commotion of any sort out here or beyond the wire?” Senior Detector Larss Fen demanded.  His confused look told Harkk this cop expected to find lots of trouble out here.  The Hap bitch had called to pester him again and now the damn bots were going loony.  This was BAD!

“What?  Excessive prole noise?  Hmm.  Well, as you can see, it’s quiet here Senior Detector.  I can assure you, sir, we never have noise here.  It’s quite boring.  I think maybe you got a faulty bot, is what.  Oh, I bet I know what happened.” He said adlibbing, “I bet one of the bots heard the balky servo I was working on.  The screeching of those burnt bearings must sound like hell’s own damned screaming, to a bot.”  He paused for effect, then, “Say, I can look at the bot for you if you like.  I’m pretty handy with tech and I know the Corp’s techs might not get out here for lunars to come, eh?” Harkk added conspiratorially,

Suspicious of any kindness shown them, the Cops would reject any such interference and Harkk knew it. But it would seem out of place if he didn’t offer.  Harkk’s reputation as a fix it man was well known.

”No thanks, greaser.  I’ll send Corp Techs, and it won’t take no lunars either, I’ll say.”  Fen had another look around, sending troops all the way to the red-zone wire, which had dropped back in place and been made live again thanks to the alarm protocols.

Fen sounded the recall.

“All right troop.  Let’s be about it.  Back to the dome, with you.  Come on, come on.”  Senior Detector Fen directed his team out of the Taj with a great deal of suspicion.  Between the bots, the Haps and that damn Captain Clak, he was losing his mind.

We’ll see what these people are up to come Third-day, we will.  Yes sir!  Or I’ll have that Hap bitches head, one.

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

Burtt insisted that this council meet be held in front of the entire Taj.  Bbessie spoke up first.

“I think we all agree now, Burtt.  You have our blessing to begin planning and testing the waters for this exodus.  It seems obvious now.  There is no way that CommCorp is going to turn a blind eye to our ever growing home out here on their doorstep.  Hell, they will probably come to think of us as a threat before long if we keep growing and expanding.  If they are going to come out every time we celebrate something, well, we just need to go, I think.

“So, I say, begin planning in all earnest for the exodus.  I’ll go further and say that I believe we now must step up our efforts and get out as soon as possible. We need to have Jonn redouble his efforts to provide us with iso-suits.  Perhaps we can do it in shifts using the same suits repeatedly.  Of course, someone must make the trip back and forth.  I wonder if that will be a problem? There’s lots to plan. So, let’s be about it, eh?

“Oh, and on a more somber note, we must hope the Ssyndi-mask comes along quickly Burtt, but we need to also accept that it may not be ready in time.  It’s all well and good that your tests came out clean out there, but we’ve still got to get there safely first, yah?  And do we know if the iso-suits will still work with the masks?”  Bbessie’s council was always welcome. She was ever a voice of reason tempering these young aggressive minds.

“More than that, if the mask isn’t finished on time, then we need to be ready. We may need to plan on leaving some behind…just until the mask is ready.  And, and, Burtt, we need to convince all of those who must wait that they simply MUST wait.  We’ll have to work out a way to protect them while they remain here too, just in case.  Yes?”

Burtt knew she was talking about Ssyndi the other children still recovering in the dome and Jaredd even.  He nodded his assent while wondering how he could possibly accomplish what Bbessie was asking of him.

Phew.  That gonna be a fight sure, he thought.

“I can answer your query about the iso-suits.” Jorukk offered.  “There won’t be more new material for a while.  But, under the circumstances, I think, let me be clear on that now, I think, Jonn will allow the use of some of our emergency reserves.  We might be able to get you up to 15 travelers at a time using what you have and what we can maybe supplement.  I also think Jonn will see the urgency.

“We can rig your masks to work with the iso-suit no worries.  That stretchy stuff is amazing.  We have two of our own with lung issues.  They use masks too, though we keep them from coming in close here as much as possible, of course.  If your masks don’t make muster. Let us know.  We can help there too.

“There’s one more possibility I can run by you if you like and I think you might want to hear this.”

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

“Right!  You know those carts we use for transporting heavy goods and weapons?  Well, we have life-trans too.  If one of our folk needs medsci we can’t provide, we must get them into the dome.  We do that with a life-trans.  It’s a completely sealed unit that provides air and whatever might be needed during the trip.  The person inside is never exposed to the outside air during transport.  So, there’s that possibility available too though I’m told it ain’t terrible comfortable and if you have that claustrophobia thing, well, that wouldn’t be too good, yah?”

Burtt was obviously puzzled by the long word so Kkat explained.  Burtt didn’t like closed in spaces either so he understood the issue right away.  In a pinch, though, it would probably work with Ssyndi. She lived in a box mostly for years until Mmarta got her out of the zone.

The talking and planning went on into the night.  The important part was done though. Bbessie motion was put to a vote.  It passed unanimously.  The decision was made.  The Taj was moving.

Harkk seemed to become more and more down as the meeting went on.

“I wish I could have family again forever too, Harkk.  It’s not to be.  Not for us, though they will always be my kids in my heart.  Yours too?”  Bbessie tried to console him after the kids started filing out.

“Yes, Bbessie, in mine too.  Especially Burtt and Kkat though I love them all.  Lord this better work.”  He seemed to sum up everyone’s thoughts and prayers in those few fateful words.

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

Jonn and the Flags had come and gone again with the promise to return the following fifth-day with more gear.  It was possible he might lead the first of the Taj to their new home then, too.  They worked out a plan to bring some Flag women this time and some female distiller suits.  The plan was to move six and six at least with each go.  They thought they could move as many as fifteen, depending on the size of the Taj-mate and how many times they were willing to redo the wraps in each day.

Jonn’s troops left expressing their shared heartfelt grief for the loss of Mmarta.   It seemed that they valued their matron as much as the Taj valued theirs.  There was a glimmer of some past grief in Jonn’s eye as they parted, Burtt saw.  He wanted to ask, but he couldn’t.  He didn’t have it in him just then but he would have to have that talk soon.  He still felt trepidation at the possibility that Jonn was nothing more than another outer-zone boss.  There was much to be determined about the Flag and much to be demanded of them too.

Let’s get out there first, Burtt.  Be careful! But get out.  Yessuh!

Burtt recalled all this while he waited.  They all waited.

The Taj had gathered for Mmarta’s arrival.  Two solemn lines of children and perservs Faced each other and held pikes so that the tips touched, creating a formal archway for their mother to pass down on the way to her final resting place.

There were no dry eyes and no one was ashamed.  This was mom.  Burtt, Kett, Jjenna and Cconnie met the procession from the tube that included, Bbessie, Doc Georgge, Bann, Katt, and pulling up the rear wearing the third gen Ssyndi-mask were Jaredd and Ssyndi.  This mask was said ot be the final prototype, hey hoped.  It had read outs and registers, so you could see it was working. Together, these friends formed the Honor Guard who would stay with Mmarta until she was placed in the grave.

Harkk was by himself, on one of the surrounding mounds.  He had carried with him a strange looking skin with tubes sticking out of it.  Once the procession passed from the front of the entrance tube, he put one of the tubes in his mouth, started blowing on the tube and pumping the skin with his arm. At first there was just some wheezing and tooting noises emanating from this contraption and some whistling sounds, but then the sound coming from this bag seemed to take substance.  It finally began to sound familiar and soon everyone knew it to be a fair rendition of Kkat’s and Mmarta’s favorite song, Amazing Grace.

The Taj needed no prompting.  One thing they loved to do was sing and sing they did, this day.  They sang long after Mmarta was placed in her grave and covered for eternity on Memorial Mound, aside the dome, where all other Taj-mates were interred.  She was to be the very last of the Taj to be interred there and they made the most of the ceremony.  Burtt had labored many hours in Harkk’s hut in the days leading up to Mmarta’s end, fashioning a cross for her headstone.

With Harkk and Kkat’s help, Burtt carved into the hardwood cross, “Our Savior.  Our Mother.  Our Friend.  You live always in the Taj.”

“With each strike of the mallet to set the cross in place. Burtt uttered one of the three principles Mmarta had instilled in them all.

“We are Taj. We are family. We do not submit.”  The Taj echoed his chant.

“We are family.  We live for each other.  We die for each other.”  The Taj echoed their warrior chief.

“We will not submit.  We have won our freedom.  We will stay free, forever.”  Once again but with even more gusto, the Taj repeated their champion’s pledge, followed without needing a prompt with one loud voice, “WE ARE TAJ!”

Soon there followed a keening crescendo of a wail that filled the air around them.  A hundred voices leant their volume in the final call to a mother from her children.

Dogg was howling in his Ken and his entire brood joined in.  Soon the Taj joined the Ks as the youngsters had gotten into miming their four-legged companions whenever they got into a howling jag.  This was an amazing thing to experience.  The kids would wait for the first K to start.  Once they had the key down, they joined in but in harmony.  Soon there would be ten to twenty and more harmonic howls rending the ether.  It was splendid.  It was heart wrenching.  It was Taj!

————

9-322319, the Haps:

“This is twice, woman.  Twice you’ve humiliated me in front of my superiors and the Army.  You’ll answer for this.  You and your perverted little family of sickos.  I’ve had it with you Hap loons!”

Senior Detector Larss Fen was in a state.  Hhannah’s mind was working overtime trying to figure a way out.  Squirming would be a more appropriate description to look at her.  She was on her knees sliding sideways away from the obviously inflamed Cop, who just happened to have his stunner out.

“They set me up.  That prole serv bitch set me up.  She’s working with them.  I see it now.  Oh, she’s a crafty one she is.  Had me fooled for sure.  Not now though.   Now we have her Senior Detector.  Now we…”

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

“Now WE nothing, woman.  Now YOU go to Justice Hall.  You and your family, and they decide what to do with you.  I’m finished with you.  You’re nothing but trouble and good riddance to you, too.”

Hhannah Hap was a babbling, drooling lump on the floor from the first jolt.  The second, added for good measure, shut her up completely.

“Officer Jakk, remove this trash.  I’m sure if you stare hard at the other two, they’ll slither along after.”

He wasn’t far off the mark as husband and son raced behind to avoid any touch of that stunner.

The force moved out of the stead.  Fen announced, as he left, “You Hap perservs find a new sponsor.  Don’t let me find you if you don’t.  This stead is under Corp holding now and off limits to proles. You have 5 spans to gather your personal belongings only, and get out.  Understand?”

Bessie and Qquitia nodded their assent, keeping their heads respectfully bowed.  When the Cops were gone.  The girls did a little jig of joy around the stead.  They collected the little things they wanted, took one last look around and headed out to begin what was a new unknown for both.

“Well, Lordy be, whatever will I do know?”  Bbessie asked as if understanding the consequences of her actions for the first time.  “Damn!  Oh, me.  Sorry, Qquit.  I guess I never really thought it all through.  Hmm!”

“I did.  I been prayin for this day to come.  Don’t you worry, Bbessie.  Jaredd hire us both for now and I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the Taj outta he-ah.  Yessuh, I am!”  The smile on Qquitia’s face was like a sunbeam.

“Hmm!  Well, there really isn’t much to keep me here now.  Jaredd’s going too, eventually.  I guess, I guess the Taj is home and that’s where I belong.”

Both were quite pleased with the course of the day and looking forward to a new one.

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

“Another five-day at most Burtt and you’re out of here.  Now, that must be a relief, eh?”  Harkk asked.  He’d made a turnaround in attitude, Burtt could see.  It was as if he felt better about the move now.  He was sure that leaving Harkk with a pup helped too.  He took his pick of the litter, a girl he called Princess.  It seemed a lot of name for a K, but she was Harkk’s, so that was all there was to that.  He was idly scratching her ears while she napped in his lap.

“Yeah!  It does feel good, Harkk.  A load off.  Now I got to deal with Ssyndi though.  Ain’t too excited about that.  Jaredd says they had a glik…a glips, oh damn.  They had trouble with the mask again.  So, now Ssyn’s on the warpath of course and drivin everyone crazy.  Ha! That girl!”

“Um, the word was “glitch” Burtt.  Yeah, I imagine dealing with that young tigress can be a real challenge and you’re welcome to it, my friend.”  Said Harkk, sporting an evil grin.

“Oh, thanks, buddy.  You’re a real, oh, what did Jaredd call it?  A real…PAL, that’s it, yeah.  A Pal.  Thanks, Pal!”  Burtt smiled back.  The two shared a chuckle.

“So.  What have you left other than the ten in the dome?  Was that the last of the non-combatants other than med-teams?  That last crew to head out, I mean?”  Burtt nodded.  “Then what, three more trips to cover all the soldiers and you?  I don’t mind telling you it’s going to be real lonely here now, Burtt.  I’m not sure how I’m going to like that.”  His voice growing a touch more of melancholy with each sentence.

These last fifty or so Taj-mates would be leaving slowly.  They were charged with making sure the perservs all had time to get out too if they wanted, so this last five-day would see few crossings until they all did.

“You know you can come with us, Harkk.  Ain’t like before when you were out there.  I tell you, it ain’t.  You’d love it out there now.  Please, at least think about it.  I’m going to miss you something awful, Harkk, and I’m…I’m, well, I’m scared, really.”

“Scared?  Scared of what, Burtt?  Are you still worried about Jonn and their politics?  Norton, Burtt, it’s a bit late for that.  Two thirds of us are already out there.”  Harkk stated with some concerned wrinkles creeping into his features.

“I know.  That’s why I brought Bann and my best soldiers out there first, and they armed to the teeth, as you say.  But yeah, I can’t get past the way they seem to fall on his every word like he was a Zobbi or Thomass.  I caint have that for us.  Never again, Harkk.  It be nice to have you standing beside me and Bann if we ever do have to square off with the Flag.  That’s for su-ah!  Why ain’t they done this democracy thing, Harkk?”

“Burtt.  You do know there are several forms of Democracy, don’t you?  Did we cover that in History yet?  No matter.  The point is, you can still have a Democracy with just one person in charge.  If that one person is selected by the majority of the people he leads, then that too is democratic.  Do you see?  If the people in a community, choose one leader and they do so of their own free will; that too is Democracy.   Having a majority means that more people chose for one thing than chose for the other, yah?”

“Hmm!”  Burtt chewed on that thought for a moment, then seemed to brighten noticeably. “Well, that’s wonderful, Harkk.  Why didn’t nobody say so?  I been worried sick I was leading us into another prison, maybe.  Hoo boy.  I feel like my stomach just floated out my feet. Damn!”

“Besides, Burtt, why would he ever trust you with the tech he has given you if he was going to harm you.  Those suits are priceless.  Way more advanced than anything we had on the Wall.  The comm equipment is even more so.  Being able to call him for help at any time and have it so the signal can’t be traced is a great benefit Burtt and he left you with three carts full of his best arms.  Relax, Burtt.  After all the doubts I expressed about the Flags at first, if I’m comfortable with them; you ought to be too, eh?”

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

He shoved Princess into Burtt’s hands saying, “Get to your troops, Burtt.  No trainee this time.  You make for the readout and don’t come back.  They mean business this time, Burtt.  Look!”  Harkk was pointing aloft where the portal for Military AirTrans Iris was open and the nose of a transport was just becoming visible through the upper reaches of the dome.

“We work it slow like we planned and practiced Harkk.  In case you folks need to get out too.  You know that’s how we agreed to do this, so that’s how we gonna do it.”

“Alright, alright!  Go boyo, go! Get out of here. Like we practiced, yah?  Go! And if you must, you take that AirTrans down like I showed you.  You’ve enough launchers and rockets to take down ten that size.  Don’t hesitate.  Let God sort out the right or wrong of it, just live damn it!  AND GET OUT OF HERE!”

Burtt stared a long hard look at his best friend and yelled, “You follow us, Harkk. Your place is with us now.  Follow us and any who wants to come too.”  Then he turned and ran yelling crisp orders for his troops who were already instinctively in place in the fighting trench closest the tube and awaiting their commander.

“By the numbers, troop, by the numbers.  We give them nothing so all the perservs have time to get to cover if they must.  I want a double eye on Harkk.  If the Corp try to take him down, yell out.  Then we all fire on whoever has him under duress.  Clear?  Ain’t nobody be left behind here today who ain’t safe from the Corp.  Nobody!  We take them all with us if we have to.”

“Hanss, get word to the Loks.  Use the unit I comm Ssyndi with.  It’s in Harkk’s hut. She’ll pick right up.  They are to stay under lock and key unless told otherwise.  They are to take orders from only me or the chain of command as I’ve set it.  Ssyndi knows it too.  Tell her I’ll comm personally after its all over.  Then get back here and make sure you don’t lose that unit.”

“Hectorr, set the backup troops in the outer comm trenches, have them ready to replace fallen troops and for trench skirmishes.”

 “Cconnie, take princess down to the underground with the others.  Then get back here.  I need you on the inner comm trench directing those transporting the wounded to the MedCent. Make sure you got plenty of med-kits, litters and bearers, yah?”

The center communications trench running perpendicularly from one fighting trench to the next, was the only straight trench that ran the entire way to the red-zone wire and under it to empty out near the readout and the MedCent.  All other comm trenches were offset from each other to make it hard to take large numbers of Taj-mates under concentrated fire, while providing ample egress points from one fighting trench to the next one back or forward, as called for.  The central trench had had almost complete overhead cover from end to end to the red-zone wire.

“Ccassie, get out to the readout.  Comm Jonn.  Tell him we need mass-safe-transport and we need it now.  He’ll know what you mean.  Then get back here.  I’m going to need you to lead one line of defenders for me.  Bann isn’t here.  I’ll save the last crew for you, but hurry, girl.”

“Josepp, you take six soldiers with rocket training.  Place two each at the weapons caches Jonn left us.  If those transports come down on us, you stop ‘em.  Got it?  You know how.  You’re in command of Taj Rocket Force for today..

“Everyone else split into three even fighting forces and take up position in the forward trenches.  We ain’t gonna die today. Do you all hear me?  We’re going to live.  We’re all going to have to work together to make that happen.  So be ready.  Yah?”

“I will stay with the lead fighting force as we withdraw, commanding our efforts throughout this action.  Robb, you have line one and second hat, if I fall.  Jass, you take over line two.  Ccassie will be here for line three in a few ticks.  She’s third hat.  Any questions?”  There were none.

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

Everyone acknowledged Burtt’s commands, went about their business and the wait began.  It wasn’t a long one.

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

Bbessie and Qquitia waited by the entrance to the tube for the first Cops to show.  Other greasers and some perservs were milling about or toiling by their huts.  Most were out of sight and ready to hit the bolt holes in the Greathall if the stuff hit the fan.  Harkk was ministering to a balky servo mounted on a spindle outside one of his servhuts.  Everything was in readiness, though no one would have predicted the force with which the Cops would hit the Taj, when it came.

The two Mil-AirTrans hovered above, observing the operation, but not yet involved directly.

The first waves of Cops through the tube spread out quickly enveloping the servhut area, while also cutting off Bbessie’s and Harkk’s personal huts from the rest of the Taj.  The girls were pinned to the ground in place with prejudice by the Cops who reached them first.  There was no hesitation.

Two cops kicked in the fencing that had housed the Ken.  Harkk realized that only providence saved the pups.  Cconnie had moved the entire Ken to the other side of the readout against the will of every working slob who kept tripping over the eternally underfoot fur balls.  To domites, Ks were pests like rats.  The troopers would have slaughtered them on sight.

Thank God, she had moved them.  Now they were not only safe but handlers were prepared to take the older, trained hounds into battle if needed to rescue trapped soldiers.  That was the only time the Ks would be risked in this scenario.  Ks against other outer-zone toughs was one thing.  Ks against armed Cops or worse yet, the Army, was a formula for disaster and to be avoided at all costs.  Sweet and her newest pups had already made the trip to Flag.

“ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  THIS IS COMMCORP SECURITY FORCES.  ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!  GET DOWN NOW!”

A midlevel Cop bellowed through a crowd control megaphone.  The decibels involved would knock down a horse.

After the envelopment was complete another platoon of Cops came straight into the servhut area and started shoving slow reacting perservs to the ground forcibly.  Harkk, pushed back hard enough to let the two Cops holding him that they had their hands full, if he decided to make it so.  He slowly took a knee.  When he didn’t feel safe pushing is luck any further, he went prone.

Once sure he wouldn’t be shot, he called out, “See here, Detector Fen, this is getting a bit out of hand, with you interrupting us every other day.  What, for the love of Norton, is going on here?  How are we to get our work done?”

“Officer Brat, restrain that prole.  If he speaks or moves again, stun him.”  The officer assumed a position over top of Harkk with one boot in his back and a hateful sneer creasing his face.

“On it! Detector Fin.”

“Anyone else have an opinion I didn’t ask for?  No? Good!  Now, where are the other proles?  Where are the ones you’re hiding?  Where are the ones you’ve already smuggled into the dome?  Quickly!  Where are they?”

Fen was going for broke.   He had no proof of anything.  All he had was Captain Clak riding his ass daily about the continuous bot alerts in sector-22.  The damn things were alarming damn near every day.  But, whenever he sent a troop out to investigate, there was that condescending great Oaf Harkk. There was never, ever any sign of unsponsored proles.

And here it looked like the same thing was going to happen again.  He’d he laughed all the way to Justice Hall himself, strapped to a crimcart.

NO!  NO!  NOT THIS TIME!  He raged internally.  If I’m going down you basta, Harkk, you and your smirking face are coming with me, only you’ll go first my large pain-in-the-ass friend.

With one last longing look around the compound only to still see nothing out of the ordinary, Fen made his officiously slow way over to where Harkk was pinned to the ground.  The Cop keeping him in place enjoyed the look on his boss’s countenance.  It was a death’s head grimace and like all of them, this cop was sick and tired of being ridiculed by their Army counterparts.  He would welcome the opportunity to end this prole.  He just needed his boss to say so.  He was about to suggest such an action when his boss interrupted him.

“Move aside Officer.”  The cop just stared at his boss for a moment too long. “MOVE ASIDE, I SAID!” Came the scream from Senior Detector Larss Fen.

Brat moved like a cat with its tail on fire.  “Sir, yes sir!”

It was almost as if Fen thought someone might be watching.  Someone he wanted to draw out.  Burtt was already moving to the forward step of the trench getting ready to call the troop to firing position.

Fen, slowing even more, circled Harkk, who hadn’t dared to move.  With deliberate motion, Fen removed his stunner from its sheathe.  Anyone in sight of him could see that he was twisting the intensity setting.  They could only guess he was setting it to max, to kill setting. Burtt readied his troop with hand signals.  Using the same signals, word was silently passed back through the comm trenches to the others that action as about to commence.

“You have thwarted me at every turn, Mr. Harkk.  You have made a mockery of justice out here.  Don’t think we don’t know.  The Corp knows all.  You think you can keep your little secrets from me?  Fool!  Fool, I say.  I have spies.  I know what you’re up to. I’ll take the rest of the info I need from these other scums.  Once they see you perish, there will be NO WILL left in them.  Today, is your end Mr. Mighty and oh so connected Harkk.”

With that he stabbed downwards to zap Harkk in the back, but Harkk knew what was coming and he rolled into his attacker’s feet, knocking the Detector down and onto his own charged stunner.  For good measure, Harkk planted a backhander full on the back of the cop’s helmet, slamming his forehead into the plascreet further knocking him senseless.  That was just in time to look up and see Officer Brat stunner zeroing in on him then too.  As Harkk tried to back away, several short Crossbow shafts appeared in the cop’s chest.  They stopped him but none seemed to penetrate his armor enough to stop him completely.  He laughed a sinister, pained sounding laugh and charged in again.  This time a full shaft found its mark and took him in the throat.

“One more crank on the bows, boys” yelled Burtt, telling his crossbowmen to add more strength to their shots so they would fully penetrate the lite Cops armor.

Harkk scrambled to his feet and while the rest of the Cop’s all stood around in shock after seeing their boss manhandled and their second in command murdered, he yelled out the appropriate code word for the situation.

At the top of his lungs so he would be sure Burtt and all heard him, he yelled, “SCATTER! SCATTER! SCATTER!” the code that would let the Taj know that the plan had changed and everyone, perservs included, should get out with the Taj.  Those who chose to stay anyway, were on their own unless they could get to the Loks or somehow signal the Flag.

This prompted a mass exodus through the quad, while the cops tried to regain control of the situation, but by then there were bolts and arrows flying everywhere.  The cops were way to busy staying alive to prevent the perservs from making good their escape, including Harkk who joined Burtt in the front rank and armed up.  In fact, the Cops didn’t pay any attention to the perservs or Harkk and they slipped away without them knowing.

“First Rank, remove!”  Burtt ordered and the first rank fell back through the center comm trench to take up positions one fighting trench removed from the last.  As each line removed backwards to take up a new tail end position, the medcrews vacated to the next section back just ahead of them.

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

This continued for five spans while the cops regrouped and a new leader took charge.  They had withdrawn five trenches deeper into the Taj and closer to safety.  Burtt observed the man he thought was the new lead looking up towards the transports with a comm unit in his hand.  With obvious prompting from above, the Cops renewed their effort to uproot the Taj fighters and defeat them in detail.

The Cops moved into the recently vacated first line of fighting trenches and made their way back to the fourth.  That’s when Harkk popped up from the far end of the fifth fighting trench and screamed “NOW TAJ, NOW!”  for all he was worth.

Bowmen laid down a withering cover fire that drove all the other Cops above ground to cover and effectively, out of the fight temporarily.

The center trench was quickly secured and blocked to any passage towards the readout.  From an outside trench, more Taj-mates came around and closed off the other side of the center trench preventing retreat in that direction.  Taj-mates poured around the corner of each end of the fourth trench, six deep and well protected from attack, with interlocked shields, in front, up top and behind.  They drove pikes relentlessly into the cops who were now trapped between the four forces and had no way to fight back effectively, or withdraw.  No ready way that is.  Some of them went berserk at the end and landed a few telling blows to Taj-mates who were hustled off the battle field faster than the Cops could finish them off.  Those Cops that fell and didn’t die right away, were finished with blades as the Taj-mates passed over them.  Twelve Cops entered but when the dust cleared, there were no live Cops left in that fourth trench.

That was apparently enough for the Army.

“ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL! ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL!  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY.  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY!  THIS IS NOT A DRILL. INCOMMING.  I REPEAT INCOMMING!”

“Burtt, under cover now.  Under cover now!”  Harkk yelled across the trench when the Mil-AirTrans PA stopped shrieking at them.  That was the signal they all knew to take cover underground.  Harkk knew the only place that could protect them and that they could all get to in time was the underground hide in Thomass old crèche.  He hoped they could get there, anyway.  The Mil Commander would give the Cops time to evac to the tube where they’d construct a quick barricade to take cover behind.  They had a few spans at least.

The Taj fighters and the support troops all made their way methodically and orderly to Ccassie’s crèche and then through her tunnel to join their mates at the underground hide.  The injured had already been moved there.  Just below ground, Burtt, and 4 other soldiers, donned iso-suits and made ready to evade into the frontier and hopefully lead the Cops and the Army away from the Taj.  They hoped the Corp troops would miss any trace of the Taj-mates passage underground.  The remaining troops, handlers and Ks were assigned to protect everyone down in the hide.  If they did have to lead the Army on a wild goose chase; Burtt could always come back to fight with his hand if he had to.  If it all went bad on them.

Burtt and Harkk came closer to the surface of Ccassie’s crèche for a better look. As the last of the Taj-mates found their places, the entire near-zone in sector-22 blossomed into a massive fireball.  Servhuts, domiciles and the Taj Greathall itself were consumed in a matter of moments.  There was just nothing left but ash and smoke.  Burtt and Harkk were both blown off their protected perch, near the top of Ccassie’s tunnel, as if made of dust.

Burtt was in shock. What could do so much damage so quickly?  He turned an unbelieving eye to Harkk, brushing at clothing that felt ready to burst into flames.

“Now you know why I don’t really cherish the idea of returning to the Wall or anywhere near.  That kind of shit happens every day out there Burtt.  Unless the wildlings have suddenly gone extinct, I’ll wager it’s just the same today, or worse. God forbid.  That thing was affectionately known by the troops as a “Wiper”, because it wipes everything out within a hundred meters of where it hits.  That AirTrans carries eight of them.  If he hits the compound with all eight, I don’t know for sure that we’ll be safe even in the underground Burtt.  I never thought they’d go this far.

Burtt wasted no more time.  He raced out of Cassie’s, stood up to be seen, and signaled with the red flags he carried for just such a need, then dove back into cover.

“Burtt, you nut.  Come on we must move.  They’ve got us pegged for sure now that you exposed our hide.  Hustle, hustle!”  the two ran like crazed rats out of a sinking ship away from the mouth of the tunnel.

With the signal given, his troops on the mounds with the rocket launchers, came out of their hides, took up position and prepared to escalate this thing beyond anything these kids had ever seen.

“Sir?  Sir?  We’re being…my Norton, Sir, we’re being targeted.  They have lock, sir.  We…”

The first rocket was out in a moment and then two more in quick succession.  The latter two were wasted.  The first ran straight and true to its target which dutifully exploded in a cascading flaming horror show of metal and men as its paired wingman evaded radically up and away.  The follow-on missiles ran right through the space that was once a Mil-AirTrans and impacted on the side of the CommCorp dome, making a 30-meter crack in the plascreet.  Atmosphere immediately started leaking from the dome.  The crack got worse and so did the leak and quickly became a hiss loud enough to be heard on the ground.  Alarms sounded from seemingly everywhere.  Two more Wipers, fired by the second in the pair of Mil-AirTrans, hit the near zone in quick succession.  The crack turned into a raging storm of pure air blasting the near zone and all the remaining debris away from the dome.

The rocketeers were blown off their feet.  They were stunned but had enough sense to grab the cases and run to a new hide.  They ran all the way to the backside of the readout and didn’t move again until it was over, though they did keep looking for more AirTrans that might get too snoopy.

Mil-AirTrans were exiting the dome now from several different ports.  Orders came down from above to belay the bombing and find the crims at all costs.  Army troops were exiting the tube at the run. The Army displaced the cops and fanned out into the Taj.  They would eventually make their way all the way out to the readout without recognizing it for what it was. Three young Taj-mates soiled themselves praying that the soldiers they heard chewing the fat no more than ten paces from where the lay cowering would stay where they were.

————.

“Burtt, Burtt!” was the startled call from a terrified young runner.  He seemed startled to find the iso-suited troops but recovered fast.  “Oh, Burtt.  You’re, okay, thank God.  Jizmo, Burtt.  What was that?  We didn’t think nobody could live through that.”

“Never mind that Carll, get back to the cellar, NOW.”  Burtt demanded, outraged that anyone would let a kid up here during all this.

“Wait, wait.  I got this for ya.  Ccassie told me to bring it to you right now.  She gots a busted foot going down the tunnel too fast.  It be Jonn Flag.  He-ah.”  He handed over Jonn’s comm unit then hightailed it back underground.

“Jonn?  Jonn?  You in there?” Burtt called.

“Hold the button down, Burtt. Hold th… Oh, give it to me.” Harkk snatched the unit out of Burtt’s hand and in moments he had the message and the plan in hand.

“Alright, Burtt.  It seems old Jonn still has some surprises in store for us.  He’s here with a rather large transport.  It’s big enough to take us all and it’s an AirTrans.  Right now, it’s laying low just the other side of Green River in a heavy smoke screen.  He can get us all in and we can evade while we remain in the smoke cloud. He also has a plan to get the Corp’s Military off our backs while we load the Taj into the transport.  He is in fact engaging that part of the plan as we speak, thus the lull in firing on us.  Ccassie is already moving the injured and non-combatants up the tunnels to the entrance.  The rest will follow her out.  Once Jonn gives his guys the go, they’ll come out to get us.  We need to make the run out to the transport in one massive dash, so anyone who needs carrying, make sure we have crews ready to do that and backups for each, yah?  And we need cover until everyone is out.”

Burtt nodded thinking for the first time since the cops showed that they had a chance.

————

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!  THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE, I REAPEAT, THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE.  I AM DECLARING A MIDFLIGHT EMERGENCY I HAVE FLOWN INTO SOME SORT OF FIREFIGHT OVER SECTOR-22 AND AM TAKING EVASIVE ACTION. PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE.  I HAVE CREW SALVAGING METAL ON THE GROUND HERE.  HOLD FIRE! HOLD FIRE!  I HAVE CIVILIAN CREW ON THE GROUND.  DAMN IT!  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING? PLEASE REPLY!”

Jonn hoped his outraged employer ploy worked and didn’t buy him an air-to-air surprise he wouldn’t much like.  He repeated his passionate plea for mercy, and was responded to on his third attempt to contact CommCorp’s Military command.

“Flag Trans One, Flag trans one.  This Is CC MilTrans 55. We read you five by five.  Say your pos. We don’t have you on our screens.  Do you copy, Flag Trans One? Over?”

 “I copy MilTrans 55.  I’m low and slow in the mud.  I was hoping you wouldn’t plaster me before I had a chance to comm you. Over!”  The truth was he was still in the edge of the smoke screen which had some rather special properties the Flags had developed for their more illegal activities.  It was impervious to detection equipment.  Nothing could scan through it.  The problem was, a smart scan operator might notice that big old black hole the cloud created, especially if it was any distance above the ground.  Jonn started sliding the trans out of cover.

“Roger Flag, prepare to send ident.  Ident on Guard, now-now-now.”

Jonn mashed the button down to send his identifying code to the Mil-AirTrans vessel above him on the requisite channel.  This would also give them his position.  The praying started in earnest.  He’d only brought a co-pilot to limit the possible collateral damage.  He was a volunteer.

“Flag Trans One we have your ident.  Show yourself. Over!”

“MilTrans 55, I’m coming up out of the soup now at your 10 o’clock low. Over!”

“Roger, Flag one.  We have you now.  Hold one for the commander.”  A few heartbeats later Jonn heard a familiar voice, one he didn’t care to hear just then, but it could have been worse.  “Jonn Flag, is that you out there causing all this commotion?  I dare say, you’ve a lot to answer for this time, my old friend.  I’ve a Mil-AirTrans down with all hands…even if the commander was an arse, I still have a hell of a mess on my hands.  How do you propose I answer for this?”  being the commander, he dispensed with the formalities of communications protocol.

“Maxx?  Maxx Card is that you, you old codger, and what are you doing with the airdales?  Over!”

Without taking any liberties at all with protocol, Jonn played along. This could go a lot better than he hoped, or worse.  Maxx was a horse trader of renown reputation.  He was also a subordinate of Jonn’s when he was with the Military many years before.  Before Jonn was brought in kicking and screaming to take over the family business from his ailing Uncle Armonn Flag.

Card was in the Army then though.  This was a step up for the soldier.  One that Army pukes rarely got the chance to take.  Then again, Maxx Card was a horse trader of legendary proportions.  He could probably work his way to the top of the Corp if he put his mind to it.  The thing was, as he was constantly reminding Jonn, there’s too much cred bait out here.  To bring him in to the dome, they must have gold plated the offer.

Jonn, though happy to be dealing with a known entity, wondered still just what this was going to cost him.  No matter.  If they got out of this with the Taj intact, the price would be worth it.  He put his game face on because he knew what was coming next.

“What am I doing?  Why, Jonn, I am the commander of course.”

“Of all this Maxx?  Sector command?  Or Quadrant?”

“Oh, Jonn.  You know me better than that.  I am CommCorp-MilSecCinC.  I just happened to come along with this excursion because this sector has been, well, a major pain-in-the-arse, if I do say so myself and I thought I’d come see for myself what all the fuss was about.  After all, when was the last time anyone was worried about proles, for Norton’s sake, eh Jonn?

“Say now! Lets’ get to the reason I comm’d you, shall we. You wouldn’t happen to know of any subversive activity in this sector or, hereabouts would you?  You say you’re scavenging in these parts?”  there was suspicion in Maxx’s tone. Jonn had to be very careful here.

“We’ll I don’t know about subversives, Maxx, but before your people let loose the flames of hell on them, there were some few greasers and perservs in the near zone that we saw, along with a good company of Cops at least.  I think the Cops probably got to cover.  The Mil boys gave the requisite warnings.  As for the proles, well where the hell could they go, Maxx?  If there were any that shouldn’t be there.  What the hell was that man thinking?  They were a handful of perservs for Norton’s sake.  I don’t understand.” He paused, looking every bit puzzled by events.

“Well, those poor souls are gone for good and all, now, so I guess you can just say you got your man, eh?  Or men?  And women.  Jizmo, Maxx.  What a business!  I was on my way back to the Flag, to drop a load of scrap and for more supplies when the sky lit up behind me.  I turned and bee-lined back for my crew.  Norton, if your people didn’t give me apoplexy, Maxx.  Over!”

“Yes Jonn.  What a business indeed and that’s why I hope you’ll not mind, but, prepare for boarding, Jonn.  Meet me at the boarding tube at 1 klik alt, or put down in the soup, I care not, but I’ll see the inside of your ship this day I will, Jonn Flag.  And I’ll meet each one of your scavenger crew too.  Have them muster where I can scan and then question those I choose.  I better not find a crim in the lot, Jonn.  Problems, Jonn?”

“Not a one, Maxx.   I’ll put her down directly below, now.  Say, what do I call you when I see you down here? Over!”

“You’ll call me Commander, Jonn.  What else?”

“Roger that, Maxx, I…”  He was talking to dead air.

“Jizmo!  I hated that guy then.  I doubt I’ll find him to be much more likable now.”  Jonn complained to no one.  They landed away from Cassie’s crèche and he summoned his troops to him, praying Burtt wouldn’t come to him out of some sense of dedication.  Thankfully only his small planned on force came out of the murk, encumbered with whatever salvageable metal refuse they could find as cover, a lot of it rebar.  They came in from the Spring creek side of the Taj leaving the Fountain creek side, and the egress from Ccassie’s crèche out of sight.  That point would soon be under cover of the smoke screen, as the Flag AirTrans made its slow way around the Taj leaving a lingering and dense fog behind.

————

“Drop your burdens people and unwrap.  I need to see who you all are.  Then we’ll scan your papers and prints.  Provided all is in order, you’ll be on your way again before mideat.   I hope it won’t be too late to head across the frontier on foot then.  Ah, but who doesn’t love a good old fashioned campout, eh?  Rather clean here if I do say so myself.  Don’t tell me we have civic minded proles now?”

The army officer was enjoying his moment of power.  Jonn signaled his men to take it in stride.  They’d been down this road before many times, before they’d become completely legitimate.  Smugglers had to have schemes built into their schemes to stay ahead of the Cops and the Army.  The Flags were consummate pros, if a little rusty.

So far, they’d been scanned and debriefed by ground troops only.  Soon, an extremely large Mil-AirTrans put down on what was left of the sector-22 near zone. From it emerged a tall man decked out in the gaudiest dress uniform Jonn had even seen, and he’d seen what he considered the utmost in stupid-peacock, showoff-nightmare costumes some mil-folk dressed themselves out in.  This one took the cake.  This one took the whole bakery.  Plus, he had his minions roll out a plasteel mat for him to strut on.

Surrounding CinC Maxx Card was an equally overdressed company of personal guard. They made a huge display of searching each member of Jonn’s crew, again for the umpteenth time, before the CinC himself, made his grand entrance.  Jonn had to bite his tongue to keep from sniggering at the ridiculous pomposity of this small man made large by a uniform.

“Well, well.  If it isn’t my old, um, commander, hahaha, Jonn Flag.  How are you?  Looking a bit peeked, are we?  Are you not well, Jonn?”

Curse you for noticing.  Curse you for saying it.  You basta.  Go ahead. Enjoy your little game.

Notice he did though and now his crew were looking at Jonn questioningly.

“Oh. I’m fine Commander.  A bit older, as you say, but fit as can be.  How are you, Sir?  You look wonderful, if I do say so myself. Sir!”

“Yes, yes.  Just so, indeed.  This life suits me, Jonn.  I think you were too quick to turn your back to it, eh?”

Still an insufferable prig I see.  I wonder who you bribed to get so far inside the system like this?

“Ah, well, I have the Flag, you know.  A big responsibility itself.  Say, did you know we’re mining for the Meinklops direct now, so I have managed to eliminate the middle man.  That’s good for us, sure.”  Jonn hoped dropping the name would buy him some wiggle room.  Maxx certainly knew everything there was to know about the Flag.  His position made that a necessity.

“Yes. I did hear that.  Good for you Jonn. Good for you.  And business?  Is it good too?  Why, for instance, would you need to scrounge for metal here where the risk is so great of contamination?”

“Have you been out of touch so long Ma-, Commander, that you forget the value of the little things?  You know metal is still a valuable commodity that is not is great supply.  We scavenge what we can to fashion repair parts for our combines out at the compound.  Of course, you know the only source of metal is near the ruins of old cities.  Last time we came through here my boys made note of a good lot of rebar, if we ever wanted to take the trouble to hack it out of the old concrete.  And, as your ground commander noticed, it’s uncharacteristically clean here.  That’s why we’re here today.  See for yourself, Sir.  My Trans’ hold is loaded with a half-ton I was bringing back with me and here the lads have most of another.”  He showed Maxx the evidence of their gatherings.

The CinC, made a bit of a fuss checking over everyone’s prints and papers himself, again and had some fun frisking the females in Jonn’s crew.  More than one male and a normally very fiery female had to bite back their fury.  Soon he was done with his games and seeing a spot of dirt on his boot, tsk’d and nearly ran back to his ship, but not before taking one final shot across Jonn and the Flag’s bow.

“Do be careful out here Jonn.  There’s a new sheriff in town, as they say.  And this one won’t be tolerating prole loving citizens or nomads, regardless of whom they might be contracted to.  I hope I’ve made myself clear?”

“Well, of course, Commander.  Is there anything else I can do for you, Sir?”.

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

“Yes, Jonn, there is.  Don’t be here if I must send the troops in again.  Not here.  Not anywhere I have to send the troops.  Clear?” He entered his ship.

Jonn just nodded.  Nothing more was needed.  Maxx was gone.

Burtt saw the man leave and sighed a huge sigh of relief.   He moved further into the transport allowing the load master to close the ramp.  The relief he felt caused him to fall into a seat, he felt so drained.  Aside from Jonn and his crew, they all got out.  Every one of them. The Taj lived.

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

“Oh, my God, Burtt, thank God you’re alright.  How did it go.  Oh, God…you just tell me everything.”

“Well, we all got out Ssyn.  Everyone but you and the kids still in the dome.  We had to.  They was bombing us.  The Flags came and took us all off the Taj and now we headed for the Flag.  Ssyn, we gonna have to wait a bit to get you out.  I’m sorry but it would be too risky now.  I have the Comm unit.  We stay in touch.  Yah?”

Ssyndi was sobbing now. “O-Okay, Burtt.  Oh God, Burtt don’t forget me.  Don’t leave me hear.”

There was silence.

“Burtt?  Burtt?”  Oh, Burtt, no, please.”

“Ssyn?  Ssyn?  Hey!  Whas going on with this comm, damnit?”

“Easy, Burtt, Easy. We’re in the soup.  No signal here.  Call later, okay?”  He was informed by a crewmate he never met before.

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

“Mother of God. Are they gone Jorukk?  The kids?  Did they get out?”

“Gone, everyone Jonn. About a half klik out and in the soup.”

“Tell them to stay there. We’ll make our way to them.  Then you and the boys hit the road.  I’ll follow when I know that basta didn’t tag us or set a tail on us, eh?”

“Alright, boss. Don’t be too long. You know how I worries so.”  He smiled at his boss who cuffed the boy off the back of the head.

“Get on with, you boyo!”

Thank you, dear Lord, above. Now give me just another lunar to set it all straight.

The end of part eight.

Previews of coming attractions in Part nine when my head is no longer spinning

 

 

Time out

I’m taking a break

from making my fake

character come alive.

Burtt is his name

blades are his game

his exploits I do contrive.

So I’m here now to say

that soon comes the day

Burtt’s story will once again jive

with your spare reading time

you’ll see there’s still rhyme

and that Burtt continues to thrive.

 

Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!  My inner poet needed OUT!

 

back to Burtt….this is going to be a great one.  I can’t wait to read it! ;~)

Burtt – part 8, book 1: The Taj moves out

poor

 

Fourth day, first five-day, Month 2, year 319af

 

After the initial feeding frenzy on fruit and cookies, the leaders of both groups met for hours while the rest played footie until lasteat.  Jonn had also brought something he called caff.  It was brewed in a special pot and they all enjoyed a hot drink that surprised Burtt with its tangy bitter aftertaste.  He liked it.  Later he would decide he’d had too much of it as he wouldn’t be able to sit still for hours, let alone sleep. The festivities lasted long into the night.

 

The Taj challenged the newcomers to a game of football.  The visitors accepted but with their leader in conference and guards posted they didn’t have a full 11 to fill out a team so two Taj-mates volunteered to side with the opposition. The ribbing was friendly but constant.  After two games with that alignment and the visitors winning both games easily, the teams were fully mixed and the results were evener.  It was a fun time for all.  Burtt hadn’t seen or heard the Taj so excited in the year he’d been a leader here.  He found it very difficult to pay attention at the meeting.  Hearing the kids having so much fun, he wanted to be where the fun was.  He was also worried that all the noise would attract the wrong bots and then the wrong people.  There was no way he would be able to quiet things down.  Not yet.  He set a couple of kids near the tube ot keep those tier one bots occupied and hoped that would be enough.

 

Jizmo, don be watchin ya bastasHe thought a silent prayer.

 

Jonn it seemed was just as serious about security as Burtt was and had his top three soldiers on constant patrol around the perimeter of sector-22.  It would soon be time for lasteat so the meeting broke up.  The scents emanating from the cook fires had everyone anticipating a scrumptious culinary delight.  As the council and Jonn left the meeting room and headed out into the quad, two of the guards Jonn had posted came running back to join him.  They were obviously agitated and turned very unfriendly looks at Burtt and Harkk as they reported to Jonn in a whisper.

 

Jonn’s expression changed subtly from one of concern to one of promised threat.  The tension between them was so palpable that Burtt unconsciously reached for his blades.  He stopped himself.  He didn’t want to make enemies of these people.  He wanted desperately to believe they might offer a real alternative to the subjective life of a prole.

 

“What’s the problem, Jonn?”  Harkk beat Burtt to the question.

 

The third Guard Jonn had posted came into the quad then carrying the two pair of footwear the Taj had taken off the dead toughs from Zobbi’s crèche.  Burtt and Harkk both realized, at the same time, that the gear the visitors wore as outer gear looked familiar to them because it was familiar.  It was the same material as the footwear they’d taken from Zobbi’s toughs.

 

The sight of the footwear seemed to cement Jonn’s anger. He rose turning to Burtt and Harkk with the threat of physical harm in his eyes and venom in his voice he demanded, “Is this how you planned to greet us too?  What Happened?  Were there too many of us to attack this time?”

 

When neither answered he prodded again, “Well?  Explain yourselves before I order my men to atone for the deaths of our brothers.”

With tensions rising on either side of the equation Harkk jumped into the fray.

 

“Easy friend.  Whatever you’re thinking right now, back off for a moment and let’s discuss this, okay.  You’re very wrong about us.  We were attacked by the toughs wearing those.  They tried to take some of our kids.   We had to kill them to prevent that.  We had no idea they worked for you.  We were under the impression they worked for another red zone boss.  A bad hombre named Zobbi.  He’s over in Sector-27.  Are you sure these belong to your people?  They didn’t act like you guys at all.  Like I said, they were trying to take some of our kids.  There’s a big market here for sex slaves.  Especially kids, clean ones.  I wouldn’t have taken you folks for slavers.”  Harkk finished with a mild challenge.

 

“I apologize for not mentioning the footwear sooner, we should have made the connection right away.  Please, can’t you write it off to our excitement at your arrival?  You didn’t find any more of the suits than just the boots, right?”  Kkat offered contritely trying to lead Jonn to the conclusion that they’d have the whole suit, not just the boots if the Taj took his mates out.

 

Slavers, you say?  Of course, we aren’t slavers.  Some of us used to be slaves.  Now I need to ask what you’re talking about?  My men do not take slaves.  They definitely do not attack children.  This is ridiculous.  I want answers.”  He seemed to think for a moment then continued, “Sector-27 you say?  Hmmm.  Jorukk, where did we send the team who disappeared two weeks ago?  What other sectors did we see activity in back then?  Do you remember?”

 

“’Twas from 31 to 25 ye sent them Jonn.  We’d seen scavengers in the frontier areas.  Our scouts dinna cum back.” Jorukk responded.

 

“Zobbi, you say?  Is this fella a tall one with blond hair and wears an orange scarf? An older fella?”  Jonn asked.  He had to mime tying a scarf around his neck for Burtt and Bann to understand.  He’d seen a man he thought must be the boss.  He was older, taller, carried himself with authority and most around him were obviously cowering from him.  Zobbi, it turns out, wore the scarf to hide a scar.  Some say it was from when the army tried to hang him but he wouldn’t die.  Burtt knew it was from when Thomass nearly decapitated Zobbi in a turf war.

 

When the Taj-mates agreed with his description of Zobbi, Jonn visibly relaxed, though it was more like a sigh of resignation, as if accepting a loss.  It occurred to Harkk first then to Burtt, that they were looking at a man who just realized he’d lost more of his men.  Burtt was the first to offer his condolences and swore to help bring Zobbi to justice.  After his toughs attacked the Taj, Burtt and Harkk had already decided they were going after Zobbi one way or another.  This might just be the motivation they need to get the job rolling, and now with the gear the visitors brought, it looked like they could actually make the trip safely.  Burtt offered the boots back to Jonn.

 

This acknowledgment from peers seemed to hearten the visitor.  His troops were not quite as convinced of the Taj’s innocence though and had yet to stand down.  The tension was building around them.  Several of the Taj’s older soldiers were edging closer to Burtt and Harkk to add their weight to the equation.

 

“Easy now, boys.  Let’s talk this through, okay.  I don’t think these people had anything to do with Jakk or Robb going missing.  We didn’t send them this way and both of them were accomplished trackers.  They wouldn’t have gotten this far off track.  No way!  Nope!  I think this Zobbi character is the one we want.  We’ll head for home tonight and discuss this with the group.  Tomorrow or next day we’ll deal with this Mr. Zobbi.  Yes, sir, we will.  This is my fault in the end.  I shouldn’t have sent just the two.  I’ll nay do that again, I tell you.”

 

“We have a gripe wi’ that man too.  Ah wants t’ come help. Okay?” Put in Burtt.  As a sop he added.  “Them scouts might not be dead.  Zobbi don’t waste no slaves.  They most like be workin hard, but not dead.”

 

“You’d come help us get our crew back, Burtt?” Asked Jorukk.

 

“Su-ah.” Was Burtt’s simple response.

 

“You don’t for a minute think you’re going out there alone do you?” added an extremely perturbed Kkat interjecting herself between Burtt and the visitors. 

 

Why do you have to be the one?  Always?  Let someone else take a chance on dying damn it! She thought, then she felt immediate guilt for wishing such a thing on anyone.

 

“I bring some soldiers, su-ah, Kkat.” Burtt offered by way of a peace offering.  She wasn’t buying.

 

“Why not send a crew instead of you.  We still need you here to finish fleshing out the Taj’s defenses.  You trained them to do this work.  Let them do it, while you do yours…HERE.”

 

“Kkat, if this works out, we don’t gonna need the Taj.”  He argued.

 

“I can go”, Bann offered

 

Burtt’s foot was down the minute Kkat suggested someone else take a life or death chance, so it was a moot point.  Burtt was going.  It was a matter simply of how many and who went with him.  She accepted that, satisfied that she at least got him to agree to bring backup.

 

“I take a hand with”, meaning five soldiers or a handful.  “That be all.  Jonn sending soldiers too.  Right, Jonn?”  they headed into the great hall for lasteat.

 

“Yes.  We should discuss this further after our meal.  We can decide where and when to meet so we can coordinate our efforts against this Zobbi fellow.  In the meantime, some of my boys will be heading out to recon sector-27 more fully.  No surprises this time and we’ll go in force as you say, Burtt, but I think you should consider a full twelve of your best to accompany you.  We are going to a fight probably and I find that though a hand is a good mobile force to scout with, twelve is a better number to fight with.  One thing is sure though, this Zobbi won’t be killing or slaving after then, I’ll say.”

 

“Das a’r…!  Ahem!  That’ll be good, Jonn.  Very good.”  Burtt corrected himself with a blush.  “If Taj council agrees, I bring twelve soldiers.  If not, I come alone.  We see in the morning.”

 

Quickly changing the subject before the fireworks started; Kkat had that look in her eyes, Harkk interjected, “You brought us a supply of this material you wear for outerwear.  I assume this protects you from the harsh climate out there?  Can you show us how to use it?” 

 

“Of course.  It is a simple matter of science.” Jonn began, “The entire rig is called an iso-suit.  The outer material is one-way impervious and is the most vital layer.  The CorpSci group developed it for the military.  They are having to venture out into the beyond with us to counter the wildlings and are now more exposed to the poisons.  You should know that not all of the frontier or the beyond looks like our pristine little area.  In fact very few areas do, but we’re finding that where fresh water flows, everything downstream of it is cleansed eventually.   In the bad areas, the suits protect us from the environment among other functions.  We manage to trade for a few skeins every time a milpatrol passes our compound.  One skein will make four adult wraps.

 

“Nothing passes through the material from the outside in to you while excess heat and any toxins your body excrete are passed outwards.

 

“The next layer is the distilling wrap which is also one way material; it inflates as it fills.  You step into this suit like a wetsuit.  You know wetsuit?  Yah?  Well, I’ll show you when I suit up.  This layer collects your sweat and, erm, any other liquids your body emits when properly connected.  It filters all that, gets rid of the bad and stores the good.  We’ll show you how to hook that up too.  This wrap is usually fairly loose fitting.  It will get plastered against your skin once the outer wrap covers it and bladders will fill or empty as needed.

 

“We’ve given you enough of these distiller kits for 15 men and outer skin material for ten to a dozen of you to traverse the frontier at a time.  We’ll get you more as time goes on.  Some distiller kits we’ve found might leak.  You’ll know this as you’ll overheat rather quickly.  You’ll need to test each one.  If you stay cool after 10 minutes, it is working.  Just discard the bad suits, there’s no fixing them easily.

 

“Hair is a no-no, shave it off.  We have tools for this if you need them but you must be 100% bald…everywhere, you  see?.”

 

Jonn’s crew were sneering at all there near pubescent males in Burtt’s crew.  There was barely enough body hair among them all to foul a filter.  The only hair they all had was on their heads and that would soon be gone too.  As for Burtt and his crew, the mystery of the all-bald Flags was solved.

 

“You wear only the very briefest of undergarments underneath, as you’ve seen when we unwrapped.  We find we do better with the G-strings you saw us wearing and women wear the very of slightest strapless garments on top.  Too much energy is lost with so much skin covered and the garments tend to bunch up and can interfere with a good fit.  If you don’t have these, do the best you can with what you do have.  The real limiting factor is the plumbing…erm, well, you’ll see later.  With more than a G-string the plumbing gets real complex some times.”  Jonn was turning beet red. Everyone looked at him as if he had two heads.  Except for Kkat, Bbessie, a few other perserv women and Harkk, The Taj didn’t use undergarments.

 

“Never mind that Jonn.  We’ll figure out that part, okay?  Unless the undergarment is imperative?” Put in Kkat.

 

“No, it’s not imperative at all.”  He seemed puzzled for a moment but then continued with the slightest of smiles nipping a the corners of his mouth, when he understood.  “Some find it easier to, erm, hold things together with an undergarment you see?  Fact is though, the less underneath the better.  We can show you other ways to wrap too.” Jonn blushed again, smiling at the thought of teaching kids to wrap naked bodies in a iso-suit so that various parts didn’t go flopping about or poke through the wrap’s layers, but quickly continued.

 

“The Corp provides these iso-suits to anyone working out of the domes along with uni-suits.  We carry the uni-suits in our hip pouch to change into when we strip out of the iso-suits, and vice-versa.  Next visit I’ll bring some of our women and female kits to show your women how to suit up.  The first time, though, should be all men.  Yah?”

 

It was clear the girls present weren’t happy, especially Jjenna Bok.

 

“Gimme one dem suits n’ Ah figger ‘t out.”  The murmur of agreement heard throughout the hall caught Burtt’s attention.

 

“Hahahaha.  We didn’t bring the right gear for women, girl.  You wait.  Your turn will come, Yah?”

 

She wasn’t happy but when Burtt Looked her way sternly, she quieted with a worried look sent Kkat’s way.  Kkat was only looking, not sneering, so Jjenna pushed her luck.

 

“Don nees no girl gear. Ah good as any boy.”

 

“That’s not at question young lady.  The issue is that we don’t have the gear with us to hook you up down there.  We don’t have the right plumbing for a girl.” he said pointing at her midsection.

 

“The distiller wraps I’ve brought with me are strictly for male equipment if you catch my meaning.”

 

 “The trip takes well over 8 hours with needed hydration breaks and spoofing the wall bots.  By the time we get across the expanse you’ll have pissed yourself three or four times and that, my dear girl, will ruin the suit if not collected and processed properly.  Urine breaks down the material.  With the proper iso-suit fit, all that is processed through the built-in filters.  Without the right plumbing, you see, we can’t connect you up.

 

“After all that, you’re left with a near self-sustaining water supply, supplemented with water skins fitted into the upper wrap and filled before we head out. There’s a tube comes out of one of the top wraps on your face, if you wrapped it right, that you can sip from as you go. The toxins are passed out of the filters through separate tubing that runs down to your foot and out the bottom of the boot wraps. Why not just drink from a skin You ask?  Once you’re in the iso-suit, you don’t expose any skin to the outside.  Not until we are in the clear again.  Even the little bit of exposure I got when we first arrived here, to show you I wasn’t a threat, is more than we recommend.

 

“We all fast before a trip and don’t even suit up until we’ve done our solids business.  There’s no way to process poop inside the suit.”

 

Jjenna’s jaw was stuck open as if she had just then considered what he was talking about.  It left her speechless.  A lot of Taj mates snickered.

 

“The material is too hard to come by and we won’t be getting more for another month at least.  You’ll just have to be patient, miss and wait until next trip.  I admire your spunk, though.  Are all your people this inspired, Burtt?

 

“No matter.  Now!  Before we leave we’ll also show you how to fashion the footwear and the upper body wrap.  This is the hardest part to do correctly.  If you don’t get it right, it’ll unravel as you walk and that’ll be game over for you.  You’ll probably lose that bit of material too.  If that sounds a bit callous, well, that material is life out there.  So, in a lot of ways, it’s almost as valuable as life itself.  Keep that in mind before you spend it.  Once the inside of the wrap is exposed to the poisons in the soil and air, we’ve never been able to get them clean enough to wear again.

 

“You can keep the two pair of boots you have here but have the care to find the right feet for them.  The fit is critical.  Too loose and you’ll have blisters like you never had before.  Too tight, you’ll bust right through.  If you can’t find a good fit, you’re better off unraveling the material and starting over with it.  The stuff is tougher than plascreet too so don’t worry too much about wear and tear.  It will wear out eventually but you’ll get a good few years out of a well fitted suit.

 

“We’ll teach you how to weave the boots properly and then how to wrap your upper body.  The material is stretchy/clingy.  It will fit you like a skin.  That’s why we weave the footwear.  You can loosen the boots enough to slide your feet and legs in and out of them without completely unwrapping like you must do with the cloak, or upper wrap.  The boots should come to your groin.  The Cloak to your mid thighs or lower if you can carry the weight.  It is weighty, so make no mistake.  That’s why you have to hydrate.  You will sweat carrying this weight and it doesn’t breath, remember, it collects and processes, which takes time; you wont soon cool off if you do overheat.

He couldn’t help but mime the act of wrapping while taking, “If you start at the top, get that first wrap around the top of your head and as the wrap comes back around front of your face, bite the sip-tube.  Make one more wrap then let go of the tube.  if it stays where you can bite it again easily, your good.  If not; start over.  We’ll show you before we leave.

 

“Now I’ve saved the best news about the iso-suit for last.”  He paused for effect, waiting until everyone there looked about to burst with anticipation before he finally told them, “Once you reach our compound, well, to be true, once you reach that green area you say you can see from atop your mound, you can de-suit and carry it the rest of the way.  The land is clean beyond there for as far as we’ve scouted.  If you more or less remain in sector 22’s extended cone, that is.”

 

He spent a few moments drawing a crude map in the dirt with sector-22’s dividing pie shape lines extended way out beyond the wall.

 

“By some quirk of nature, you have this lovely flow of clean water you call the Green River flowing past your front door, so to speak, and ours, yes?  We have another flow that bubbles up out of the ground a half klik west of our compound and it has formed it’s own path which has converged with your Green River.  We call it the Blessed River.  We called yours the Sacred River until now.  We’ll call it the Green from now though.

 

“When we first scouted in this sector, oh, four maybe four and a half years ago, the entire plain from the wall to the Rockies was flooded. The Rockies are those mountains you can see to the west on really clear days, yah?” Harkk nodded so Jonn continued but none of us had seen anything higher than the mounds surrounding the Taj.  Harkk had seen the mountains from the Wall.

 

“Well, when the waters finished digging out their current paths and the flooding receded to river flows only, what was left was so green it hurt the eyes to look on it.  We started building right away.  In fact there were the beginnings of a compound already in place.  There must have been a ranch on the land prior to the fall, but a lot of the compounds layout was already done, the foundations for several buildings, that is.  We just built on what was there.  There was even a lot of raw material to work with as if they had planned to build something huge just before it all went to hell.  We figure this land was flood plain even before the fall.  The materials were stored in the one structure that was complete.  The structure was built on stilts and contained only building materials.   The foundations were all five meters tall and constructed of carved granite.

 

“Whatever brought about this happy circumstance, their demise benefitted us, so we are grateful to them, who ever they were.  We mention them in our solemns and devotions before lasteat, as we do all our ancestors.

 

“The flooding apparently cleansed the land.  We’ve been testing it and the water since the day we settled there and not once have the tests shown even slight traces of the poisons that near killed us all.  The land is clean from the confluence of the two rivers south and west, all the way to Cheyenne Mountain , in an ever widening cone reaching out from your sector.  If you remember to look while we’re out there tomorrow, you’ll see the remains of the roadway the Meinklops used to migrate from the mountain to the Colorado Springs debris field that is now CommCorp.  It ran right through the center of that flood plain.”

 

The discussion went on for a lot longer than anyone had planned.  The visitors, who called themselves the Flags after the founder, Antonn Flag, stayed to help properly outfit twelve Taj-mates, plus Burtt.  Harkk decided he wasn’t going, so with the savings that provided plus the two extra sets of boots, two littler boys could be fully outfitted.  In general, Taj-mates were smaller than Flags, so the material they brought with them went further than it would with the outsiders.  They still had to shuffle among eighteen of the best trained soldiers to find twelve they could outfit after Burtt’s suit was done.

 

Jonn had to ask Burtt’s hospitality for the night.  Not even he and his twelve strong band of men would chance a night crossing if they didn’t have to.  They would do that if on the attack, so they could get the drop on a sleepy enemy, but that was a rare exception.

 

The Flags laughed at the children’s tales of demons but even they knew there were things somewhat less than human out there and these denizens roamed the frontier and the beyond at night.  The Army was reporting some recent advancements and innovation on the part of the wildlings.  Their war-fighting capacity was becoming fearsome indeed.  Jonn and the Flag’s own efforts towards security had trebled over the last 6 months.  Security lay in numbers which was another reason Jonn was pushing the Taj to join ranks with the Flags.  Having listened to his crew tell of Burtt’s exploits, Jonn also plagued himself with horrifying thoughts of someone as advanced a leader and warrior as Burtt taking up residence in the beyond.

 

By evening’s end, the Taj and the Flags agreed to leave in the morning with Burtt and perhaps the twelve soldiers the council might agree to send with him.  They would head for the Flag’s compound first, spend the rest of Fifth-day there eating, hydrating, resting and gearing up.  Then move on Zobbi’s crèche to be there shortly after the dawn of the off-cycle, on lo-day.

 

Jonn promised to introduce them to Mil-grade projectile weapons, though he didn’t have enough to share with the Taj.  He still wanted the added firepower present when they confronted Zobbi and his crew, so he would be happy with whatever weaponry Burtt and his crew could bring to bear.  He would work out a plan with Burtt that would keep his Taj-mates relatives safe.

 

When space was allocated for the Flags to bed down, Burtt, Kkat, and Harkk finally headed for their own spaces.

————

 

Outside the meeting hall:

“Why you don wanna come wif, Harkk?” asked Burtt with a nod to Kkat acknowledging his dialect slip.

 

“Hmm.  Well, I guess we’re going to have this conversation sooner or later, so we might at well have it now.  Let’s go to my hut, okay?”  Without waiting for a reply, Harkk turned and walked off.  Kkat and Burtt soon followed when Harkk didn’t stop and was soon out of sight.

 

“What the heck?”  Asked Kkat wondering what had gotten into Harkk.

 

“Him pist fer su-ah” Kett offered from his perpetual station somewhere at Kkat’s heels.  He startled her and Burtt both.  Finally, Kkat had to turn Kett away, twice.

 

“Go to bed, Kett”.

 

“Caint sleep now.  I feel like my legs is movin themsefs.”

 

“Kett!  GO TO BED! NOW!”

 

The boy sulked off muttering.

 

Katt turned back and bumped into Burtt.  He was such a wall.  She bounced off him and would have sprawled had he not caught her.

 

“Boyfriend problems, Kkat?” Burtt snickered, once he was sure Kett was out of earshot. “I bet that boy had his fill o that caff.  That stuff got me all fizzy feeling.”

 

Kkat smiled after her little hero, “I’m going to hate breaking his heart Burtt, but my heart is set on another.”

 

The look in Kkat’s eyes melted his heart.

 

“Kkat, Ah don…”

“Shhhhhh”. She kissed him.  He kissed her back.  It seemed like for the first time and it seemed to last forever.

 

“Hey, are you two lovebirds coming or would you rather talk some other time?”

 

They would have expected Harkk’s comment to be a snarky one meant to humor them.  The look on his face told them otherwise.  Harkk looked either angry or was that the look one had when they were afraid?  They hurried up to his hut.

 

Before Burtt had a chance to get comfortable, Harkk was on him.  “I hope you know what you’re about, boyo.  Those frontier folks might not be all we hope they are and they are a lot more suited to that environment than any of us are.  What if they are just slavers too?  Have you thought of that?  As for me, I’ve had my day on the frontier.  I don’t care to return.  I’ll be staying right here.”  He ended by staring at Kkat as if expecting her to take up the cause.

 

“Burtt, please listen to Harkk.  Please.” Katt implored.

 

Burtt was conflicted.

 

“Alright.  In the morning we’ll call a council meeting.  I caint just pass on this.  If we decide that it ain’t a great idea to have a whole crew go, then I’ll go alone.  We need to see if we can do this farming thing.  WE NEED TO!  If we can get these kids out of here, we ain’t got no choice.  Das a’righ!”

 

Kkat and Harkk both knew they would get no further concessions from Burtt.

 

Kkat was quiet on their walk back to the Taj.

 

As they passed Kkat’s sleeping space, Burtt took her in his arms and kissed her hard again.

 

“I got to go Kkat.  We need this.  You know it too.”  He looked deep into her eyes until she nodded her consent.

 

He kissed her again lightly and turned to leave.

 

She reached for him and pulled him back to her.  “Not tonight, Burtt.  Don’t leave me tonight.  Please?”

 

Katt gently urged him into her space and below the covers of her sleep space.

 

————-

 

In the hall broom storage space near where all the sleep spaces were:

Jjenna Bok watched them go from the dark.  Saddened that she would never have that man to lie with unless she killed Kkat.  She didn’t really want that.  Kkat was trying to help her now.  Spending extra time tutoring her.  Volunteering to pair up with her on team events and sports.  She liked Kkat.  She was head over heels in love with Burtt though and the emptiness she felt in his presence hurt her to the core.  She couldn’t do this.  She had to get out.  If she had to follow them tomorrow, she would.  Maybe they needed women at the Flag compound.  She could come back later for Tukk, her son.  The tears in her eyes stung.  She slung them from her face.  She NEVER cried!

Kett watched too, from behind Jjenna.  She had taken his favorite hide, so he moved to his alternate,  farther back in the same space.  The rage he was feeling made him grit his teeth, groan and grimace, like a growl with teeth showing, he thought.  He fought to keep it in check so Jjenna wouldn’t hear.  It hurt so hard he had to bite it back.

 

————

 

Morning, Fifth-day:

Jonn and his crew were ready to go at sun up.  That was the agreed upon time to depart so they’d have enough time to eat and rest on the back end of the trek before they headed back out to sector-27 early next lo-day.  The Taj, however, were not ready.  They were still in council.

 

“Democracy, eh Jonn?” Jorukk joked.

 

“Hmm.  They must have had second thoughts after we parted last night.  I wonder what the problem is?”

 

“Ha!  Have you ever trusted folks you met for the first time with your life?  Or the lives of your people?  I think they ran into some wiser heads is what.”  Romann offered.

 

“Ah!  Now that I hadn’t thought of.  Good point Romie boy, good point.  We’ll give them time to chew on it then, eh?”

 

They settled in for the short haul, removing their outer cloaks to conserve energy and fluids.

 

————

 

Council meeting hall:

 

He’d practiced most of all night for this moment with Kkat’s coaching.  He had to get this right.  He had invited the eleven potential other travelers to the council meet since this involved them.  Bann, who sat on the council, had also been fitted with an iso-suit and made up the last of Burtt’s twelve potential co-travelers.

 

“This is the chance to save the kids I’ve dreamed about.  I admit, I always thought we’d be headed into the dome to do that, but now that we’ve had some of us in there already, well, it’s clear we don’t fit in and maybe we never will.  Even the people who took us in to help us heal couldn’t wait to be rid of us.

 

“Yes, we’ve gone to great ends to defend the Taj and it would seem a great waste to turn away from it now. But, my new biggest fear has been that we get greenies to bring the kids in and then they all turn on them while they’re defenseless.  I sure couldn’t live with that.

 

“Now, while I think you folks and those kids out there are the best folks ever, and you train harder than anyone, I don’t really think we could withstand an all out attack from the dome, not if the army is called in.  We’d hurt ‘em su-ah, but we’d die in the end.

 

“I think we need this escape, but all I’m asking for now is to scout the place out.  See if Jonn and the Flags are for real.  If there really is room for us to farm and ranch as they say and that’s it’s truly safe too.

 

“Now, I wanna bring a dozen Taj-mates since we’ll be marching on Zobbi too, but if the council says no; I go alone.   We just wait til I return and then we’ll see if the council says we’re good with this exodus plan.  Das a’ri…um, That’s good!

 

“But, just so we all clear, now, I’m goin with Jonn and the Flags, no mattah!”

 

The silence across the table had Burtt worried at first.  Then Bbessie cleared her throat and said,

 

“Well.  Burtt!  I must say, that’s the absolute most I’ve ever heard you say in one sitting.  That’s quite astounding really, and eloquent!  I guess that tells us how sure you are about this endeavor and how certain it is that you will be leaving this morning with the Flags.

 

“I won’t pretend to speak for us all, but I will say that I think it would be a grave mistake for us to allow you to go alone.  In fact, I think our soldiers ought to accompany you.  On that note, and in acknowledgment that you are going and you won’t have it any other way, I second your proposal to join the Flags on this quest and I further propose you be accompanied by the twelve fully trained Taj soldiers whom you’ve already seen fit to gear up for the trip…anyway!”  Bbessie finished with a flourish of her hand, sweeping the motion onto the table for a vote.

 

“Is there a second?” barked Harkk, clearly still upset by Burtt’s choice.

 

“I second the motion,” Offered Bann. “and I volunteer to be among those to accompany Burtt.”

 

The vote ensued and was passed with just one dissenting vote.

 

“Okay.  Let’s have a quick meet with everyone while the Taj is still at firsteat to let them know the plan, then we get ready.  Remember, no-one whose traveling can eat.  Hydrate as much as you can.  Ssarah, go tell Jonn and his crew we gon gear up, then we be ready to go.  Bann, you and the other eleven get weapons for all of us.  No crossbows, okay?  Blades and long bows, arrers and stunners.  Katt and Bbessie, can ya make sure we got what we need to take, food and dry goods, first aid and the like?  Hmmm?  Pack the food deep.  We won’t need it until we get to the Flag compound.”

 

“Okay, Burtt,” Bbessie answered when Katt didn’t.

 

The two women moved off to get started.  Katt seemed to be in la-la-land.

 

“What’s wrong with you girl?  You knew this was coming.  Don’t you go clamming up on him now.  You talk to him before he goes now, you hear me?”  After a moment Katt lifted her head and Bbessie recognized the starry look in Kkat’s eye, Bbessie, sighed. “Oh, dear” was her short report.

 

They moved off to gather supplies for thirteen headed into an environment none of them knew what to expect from.

“Now, I know we don’t have everything here I would prefer them to take along so I’ll need you to run off to the Loks if you will.  Kkat?  Kkat?  Oh, come on girl!  Fine! If you don’t think you can, I’ll send Qquitia to the Haps instead.”

“What?  Oh dear.  Bbessie, I’m sorry.  I haven’t heard a thing you’ve said.  What was that?”

“Never mind.  Come along.  We’ll discuss it as we go.”  Bbessie smiled at the memory of a long ago love…

 

————

 

Just outside the Council’s Door as the meeting breaks up:

 

 “Kett, I caint take ya.  I’m only taking soldiers.  That’s all the council approved, buddy.  You’ll be scout soon enough, Kett.  Don’t be pushin it.  Live some first, Okay?  Sides, I need you to watch out for Kkat while I’m gone.”  Burtt tried hard to soothe the youngster’s fire without dousing it completely.  That didn’t seem to settle the boy’s ardor at all, though.  Maybe he shouldn’t have brought Kkat into the conversation.

 

“I seed you kissin her last night.  I seed it!”  He said accusingly.  Burtt angered but tempered his response.  Kett was a boy still.

 

“Kett, you caint do that.  You caint spy on a girl in her space.  You know that.  What were you thinkin?”

You  was in her space.” He added on to the charges.

 

“I was invited, Kett.  You know that Kkat and I love each other, right?  She’s too old for you anyway Kett.”

 

You says so!” Kett turned and stomped off in angry defiance

 

Well, what do you make of that?  Damn, Kkat.  You got trouble girl.

 

Burtt made a note to mention this to Katt before he left, but he forgot.  It would turn out to be a serious lapse of memory.

 

He made his announcement at firsteat. After that, he impatiently paced until they were ready to go.

 

“Steff, make sure you string those arrows tight.  We caint be losin none in the frontier.  Okay?”  He yelled over to one of the soldiers prepping the weapons loads.  He was just being overly cautious now.  His soldiers knew what they were about.

 

Burtt went to find Jonn and the Flags to invite them to check the Taj’s load out and their first attempts at getting in to iso-suits.


On top of the western rubble mound, overlooking Spring Creek, Green river and beyond:

“I figured I’d find you here.  You can’t go Jjenna.  That’s all there is to it.  You’ll die out there.”

 

Jjenna jumped at the intrusion on her hide at the top of the rubble pile under a huge protrusion of metal.  She was waiting for the men to pass on their way to the Flags compound.  She would follow at a distance.  She had he feet wrapped in extras from Harkk’s plassheet supplies, some goggles and some paper masks to wear during her crossing along with a skin of water.

 

“Don stop me Kkat.  Ah ain’t gots no plac he-ah.  Ah ain’t nuffin he-ah.  Ah gots to get out.  Ah be back for ma boy soons I can.  I jes nees to fin a man.  Den we comes back for Tukk.  You gots to lemme go Kkat.”

 

“Jjenna, please listen.  You wont make it.  You’ll die out there.  What you have on isn’t enough to save you.  Those paper masks barely do anything to help us here in the near zone.  Out there, they wont do a thing to protect you.  Plassheet melts in the creeks, Jjenna.  How can you expect it to protect your feet out there?”

 

Jjenna was crying by then.

 

“I caint stay Kkat, I caint.  I love him too.”  She feel to her knees her sobs violently shaking her.

 

“You can, and you will Jjenna.  We’ll help.  I’ll tell Burtt to send women back just as soon as it can be arranged.  You can wait a few more days surely?  Just until next 5-day.  I promise, okay?” Kkat made the promise hoping that neither Jonn nor Burtt wouldn’t deny them.  She knelt besides the girl and hugged her until the sobbing subsided.  Jjenna agreed to wait but sulked off to her spaces alone.

 

Kkat headed off to see her man one last time before he ventured off into the unknown.  She’d hoped for a few moments of privacy with him but when she arrived at the quad she found the entire Taj was out to bid the travelers farewell.  Everyone but Jjenna Bok, Harkk and Burtt.  While Jjenna was out of sight completely, Kkat could see Harkk standing in the doorway to his servhut talking to someone but she couldn’t see who it was though she was certain it would be Burtt.

 

Is there more about the frontier and beyond that Harkk knows but isn’t telling us?  She worried herself with thoughts of demons and deviltry.  She ran that way to find Burtt before going to the Loks for more supplies.

————

Outside Harkk’s servhut:

He didn’t want their Ks to follow them into the frontier, so Burtt was hustling from Harkk’s across the quad to make sure Dogg and his brood were secured in their ken just beyond the tube entrance when his heart nearly stopped from shock.

“Sneaking off to the wild beyond without saying goodbye big brother?” The mask came off just before she startled him.

 

“JIZMO! Ssyn?  What the hell?”  Burtt was stunned at her sudden appearance in front of him and then at her appearance in general.  “Hoo boy!  Looka you girl.  Damn!  What a look!  Wait!  Whachoo doin he-ah?”  Burtt stumbled through a full circle checking for unwanted eyes but found none.  Then he rushed and picked her up in a bear hug, squeezing until Ssyndi squealed with delight and a little bit of hurt too.

 

“Burtt?  Ouch!  Put me down.  Norton!  You are a brute.  Kkat is right.” She smiled and Burtt couldn’t help but return it.

 

The two looked at each other for a few moments taking each other in, measuring the changes.

 

“You look great…”  they both said simultaneously and then laughed together.

 

“Tell me about this Flag fellow and what the plan is.  I want to know it all and I’m telling you right now, Burtt, don’t even begin to think you’re leaving the Taj without me.”

 

Already imagining a long drawn out confrontation, if what Kkat told him about is sister was any indication, Burtt began to beat back the flames of adventure his sister was obviously fanning within herself.  Her determination was cascading over him and he had to keep his own enthusiasm in check in order to check hers.  She still had to wear that contraption Harkk built her so she could breath outside the dome.  This was not going to go well, he thought.

 

“First off, Flag is just the name of the compound.  It’s named after the founder.  Their leader now is called Jonn.  If he has a second name I don’t know it.  Now, this first trip is really just a recon I think ya call it.  We’re going to check it out.  See if we are a fit.  Yah? Once we get back, we’ll talk about all the options.  This time, just men are going.  It’s all we have gear for, see?”  He hoped he wouldn’t have to get into the “whys” involving male verses female suits.

 

“So.  You’re coming back, then?  Okay.  When?” Ssyndi seemed a bit relaxed now.

 

“Maybe by last eat of lo-day.  No later than mideat on hi-day.  We can have a council meet on first-day of next five-day.  If Jaredd is up to it, you come with.”  Burtt hoped this would be enough to placate her until his return.  The meet would be inside the Taj proper so she would be somewhat protected from the harsh environment.

 

“Okay.  But I WILL be included, Burtt.  I will!  Agreed?” She replied to a relieved brother.  But he knew that this fight would be rekindled one day down the road.  How would he handle that?  He’d have to recruit Kkat, Jaredd, Mmarta, if she was still with them, Bbessie and whomever else they could to convince Ssyndi that she simply couldn’t live outside the dome.  Not for long.

Ah hell, maybe they will get the breather right…

 

“Agreed sis.  I couldn’t just leave you behind anyway.”  He hoped the lie wasn’t too transparent.  He couldn’t look her in the eye saying it.  Ssyn didn’t seem to notice.

 

“By the way, big bad burly street tough brother of mine; you sound right elie to me with them newly ay-quired speechifying skills.  I te’ ya wha!”  The smile on Ssyndi’s face could have split the sun.  Burtt’s heart burst with the sight of it.

“Das a’righ, den.” He playfully replied, planting a big brother kiss on her rosy cheek.  “Now, ya gits that mask back on ya gir”

Ssyndi split from Burtt and headed back to the tube.  She met up with Kkat on the way and after a short discussion to bring Kkat up to date with Ssyndi’s new knowledge, the two quickly headed off to the Lok stead for the first-aid supplies Kkat couldn’t provide from their meager provisions.  Kkat would have to steal a minute with Burtt after she got back.

 

From a hide across the quad:

 

“Kissin two, huh Burtt?  Not f’long o fe-ahless one.  Not f’long, nossuh”, Kett mumbled to himself .  He watched Ssyndi leave Burtt from his hide across the quad.  He kept low to avoid being seen until he was around the other side of the servhuts, then with an evil grin, set off to find his woman and get ready stake his claim once and for all.  He’d missed Katt by a few ticks as she ran around the front of the same huts where she ran into Ssyndi.

 

I set her straight ‘bout ole Burtt.  She come runnin t’me now, su-ah.  I make her crawl some mayb’.

 

He found a place where he could watch for the perfect chance.

 

See how ya likes dis, Burtt?

 

Just After firsteat at the Lok stead:

 

“Now?  Now doctor?  How can I…?  What…?  Oh Norton help me, I can’t do this.  Why now mom, please…”  Jaredd was so distraught, the doctor thought he might need to sedate him too.  Mmarta herself was so devastated, he’d had to put her under for the night already.  When Mmarta took this latest bad turn, Jaredd seemed to lose faith and was showing signs of relapse himself. He seemed to be losing all desire to live and was as much a basket case as Mmarta was.  Marta angst was due to the fact she couldn’t be wither beloved proles.  Jaredd’s was simply self-pity.

 

“Jaredd, we talked about this.  It’s her time.  We need to let her rest and pass on as comfortably as we can make it for her.  I need your help to do that.  I can’t say for certain, but she can’t have more than a month left Jaredd and I can’t be here all day.  We must prepare and we must tell those children.”

 

When Jaredd still didn’t move, or respond to this prompt, Doctor Georgge Greg made up his mind.

 

“Very well, Jaredd.  I’ll deal with this.  You rest for now.  If you decide you would like to participate in the rest of your mother’s life, or your own for that matter, please do let me know.”  The acid in his voice would spur some reaction he hoped.  Anything would be better than this malaise.  Jaredd merely groaned and turned his back, rolling over on his bed.

 

Georgge shook his head in resignation and left the room, closing the door behind him.

 

That damn lout.  Norton!  I’ll have to tell the girls I suppose. This can only lead to more concern for poor Ssyndi regarding her own condition. Oh dear!

 

He suddenly had a thought.  He knew the Loks wouldn’t like it but there was little choice now.  He needed help.  He left the Loks stead with a purpose.  He would bring Dougg Rencon back to care for the Loks on a daily basis until it was over, at least.  He’d deal with Jaredd’s coming fury when that happened.  But if Jaredd wouldn’t get off his ass, then he’ll just have to deal with Dougg for a bit.  Once Mmarta was gone, Jaredd could light a fire under himself or rot.  Mmarta was Georgge’s concern.  He’d never forgiven himself for letting that twit Dougg steal her out from under his nose in mass-ed.  He didn’t much care for Dougg or his offspring.  But he would have to make arrangements for the girl.  Ssyndi wouldn’t thrive under the care and tutelage of Jaredd or Dougg it seemed.

 

Inside the dome at the tube exit five spans later:

 

“…I’m afraid I can’t make it sound any better than it is, girls.  It’s just time.  I am hoping you will help me to prepare the Taj for the sad news.  She is resting quietly and comfortably and I intend to keep it that way, but since Jaredd isn’t responding well to treatment at the moment, I don’t feel we can depend on him to see this through.  We need help.  Adult, and please don’t take offense, but absolutely legal help.  So, I’ve decided to ask Dougg to come back until Mmarta passes at least.  He will be under contract, so he’ll have no claim after she passes but he will collect a stipend and be granted living privileges on the stead.  Mmarta led me to understand the issues you girls have with him so, the randy basta certainly needn’t be in the stead proper.  There are quarters near enough to her spaces for him to reside which are outside the main stead itself.  He’ll have access to Mmarta’s private spaces and his quarters, but no access to any other area.  Perservs can bring his meals to him. When the contract is over, he will move on unless Jaredd decides to retain his services for himself.

 

“Now, if you’re concerned that Dougg might not take proper care of Mmarta, consider that he is at present living in very sub-standard shared spaces without the Lok influence.  I dare say he won’t even consider disrupting the circumstances that bring him back to the cushy life, however briefly, eh?

 

“One final thing I must mention.  Once Mmarta leaves us, I would prefer to never come back here.  I know that you will still need care though, Ssyndi, and the two of you will want to continue your studies certainly, so I am going to refer you to one of my best apprentices.  She is a whiz kid, if you will, a savant and she has an ed-cert.  I’ve not met a more insightful student.  I think you’ll grow to love her as did Mmarta.  Her name is Fflorence, Fflorence Gale.  I’ve saved the best about her for last.  Like Mmarta, she is determined to find a way to help the proles and specializes in breathing ailments/treatments/cures with a minor in toxicology.

 

“Mmarta and I have said nothing to her about our connection to you children, but we will today.  I’m bringing Fflo in to meet with Jaredd.  She will be taking over his care.  May I bring her to meet you two?  Please?  I would be so relieved, and so would Mmarta.  She knows how I feel about staying on after wards, though not why.  At least I don’t think she does.”  The doctor finished with a sad bob of his head, as if accepting his loss once and for all.

 

“She loves you too, Georgge.  If she wont tell you, I will.  You deserve that much at least.  She talks of you like no other man.” Said a mournful Ssyndi.  Doctor Greg smiled as a tear stole free from his eye.

 

“I have never…”  He couldn’t finish.

 

“She knows, doc. Surely she does.”  Kkat added.

 

The three sat and reminisced about the few fun times they’d spent with Mmarta over the last few months of her demise.  Mmarta was ever the trooper, never down and always smiling, making light of their everyday follies.  The only down side to all this for Mmarta was that she couldn’t be in the outer zone with the people she loved most on earth.

 

They made plans to break the news to the Taj.  It would be a terrible day.  Neither girl cherished the chore so they determined to do it together.  They decided to do it the next lo-day, in a week.  That day would also be Ssyndi’s official introduction to the Taj. Ssyndi realized then that she’d never be able to live even a little while with Dougg around.  If Jaredd decided to keep him on, well, that would not be optimal.

 

I have to get out of here, so this might just as well be the catalyst, but what a terrible way to finally come to my people, she thought.

 

“There’s one thing and one thing only I want for me from you and your apprentice, Doc.  I want out.  I want to live with my brother and our people.  Out there.” She pointed towards the Taj.  “So, you get that tech I asked for.  You get it right for me, Doc, cuz this ain’t my life in here.  My life is out there with my brother, my people.  I don’t care if I have to wear the ugliest mechanical contraption ever made.  I don’t care if it weighs me down so much I stoop from it.  I want out Doc and I’m going whether or not you find a safe way for me to do so.”

 

Kkat and Georgge were locked in disbelief.  Neither expected Ssyn to take the news about Mmarta lightly but they also didn’t think she’d be hell bent on leaving the safety of the dome as soon as Mmarta was gone.

 

“Ssyn, really, we need to talk…”

 

“No, Kkat, we don’t.  I’m done here as soon as that tech arrives and I know you’re close because I watched you testing it last week Doc. Was that Fflorence?”

 

“Yes, that was Fflo.  Ssyndi, please lets discuss this.  That rig you saw us testing is not quite a finished product.  We are still checking how well it holds up to normal use.  We haven’t had it outside the dome yet.  Please.  Give it a little more time, okay?  Please?” Georgge was frantic.  That at this late date he might fail his love in the one task she set for him, was beyond his capacity.  It showed.  The material they were using for seals around the edges of the mask and the filter holes were breaking down faster than they could come up with replacements.

 

“Easy, Doc.  I’m not going anywhere while Mmarta lives.  But know this.  I am going.  It’s up to you to find a way for me to be able to do that for more than a few days, if you can.  But, even if you can’t and the breather project is a total failure, I’m going anyway.

 

“There are eight more prole kids here in the dome.  None of them are wanted.  None of them will survive out there without the breather.  So, let’s get a move on, eh?  I am your Guinea pig.  Please, double your efforts.  We need this. And we need it yesterday.”

 

“She’s right Doc, Kkat.  We do need it.  Even I need it.  I think we ought to pull out all the stops now.  Sure, bring Dougg in. He’ll do the things I dread to do and be happy for the opportunity.  But we absolutely need to kick this breather project in the ass and get it rolling.  So, as the de-facto ruling adult of the Lok stead, I declare that from this day forward we will dedicate 40% of the Loks holdings towards the research and development of the Ssyndi-breather.  Further, we’re putting a development drop-dead date on the project or heads will roll…thirty days.  We don’t actually have to do any of that, but saying so will drive people to great ends I think.  At least that’s how dear Granddaddy Natt does things.”

 

The interruption from the doorway to the study caught all three off guard.

 

“Jaredd, I thought you were…sleeping?” Georgge tentatively prodded.

 

“One can only sulk for so long.  Especially when younger females are showing signs of having more balls that I do.”  He replied.  The despair was still evident in the lines on his face but there was something else there now too.  Determination.

 

“I knew you’d come around, Jar.” Ssyndi added with an encouraging smile.

 

Planning began anew and with fresh enthusiasm.

 

————

 

Outside the exit from the tube in the Taj, ten spans later:

 

“He ain’t no gut f’ya miss Kkat.  Him a cheatah.  Him gots girs all ovah.  I seed him kissin on a blont one jes now, I dit.” The look of satisfaction on Kett’s face was more worrying than the fact he was tattling on a crèche leader.  The little man confronted her when she returned to the Taj after leaving the Loks.

 

“Kett, what’s this really about?  Burtt is not that kind of boy.  He barely knows…”
HIMS A CHEAT.
  YOU NEES TO F’GIT HIM.  AHM YOUR MAN.  NOT HIM!”  the raw hatred etched in his outburst terrified Kkat.  She hurriedly backed away from the fired up Taj-mate.  This seemed to enrage him further and he lurched for her.  This was too much for Dogg who’d been watching from his ken. He leapt the fence in one bound as if it didn’t exist and came in a blur to Kkat’s rescue.

 

“HIM AIN’T NO GUT!  YOU HE-AH!  HIM AIN’T” Kett was till screaming and crowding Kkat when Dogg hit him full on the side and bowled him over like a broken twig.  Dogg straddled Kett with a roaring growl, teeth bared and hackles risen.

 

“OUT! OUT! OUT, DOGG! OUT!” Kkat screamed once she caught her breath again. “Heel!”

 

Dogg came to her side and sat, still growling at the boy who was now whimpering and writhing in the dirt, as if Dogg were mauling him.

 

“Wha th’ hell?”  was Burtt’s excited exclamation as he rounded the corner of Harkk’s hut to find the trio unraveling.  Harkk was short on his heels.  “What’s goin’ on he-ah?  Kkat?  Kett?  Well?  Someone say something!”  Burtt was losing his temper.  Kett saw this and after his near life-ending confrontation with Dogg, the boy had no courage left.  He rose and raced off without a word or a look back.

 

“Well, I be damned!  Kkat, what the hell?”

 

“Burtt, let it be.  Please, um, Kett…Kett made a mistake is all.  Oh God, Burtt, he…he was crazy.  He went absolutely bonkers on me…about you.  I was so afraid and then Dogg was there so fast, I thought he was going to…to…Oh, Burtt”  Kkat broke down into his arms.  The heavy sobs wracking her body.

 

“S’okay, Kkat.  S’ovah now.  S’all gut agin.  You’ll see.  Burtt fix it.”  Burtt was fuming inside, though.  Harkk recognized the look in his friends eye and caught his attention.  With a nod in the direction Kett ran and pointing to his own chest, he signaled Burtt that he would address the issue with the errant boy.  That would have to do.  Burtt knew he wouldn’t deal judiciously with the boy right now.  He nodded his thanks to his friend.

 

Harkk didn’t find Kett and the boy didn’t show again until after Burtt and the crew were long gone with the Flags.

 

————

 

In the quad, before the explorers left for the Flag compound one cycle after firsteat:

 

Under the watchful eyes of the Flags, the Taj’s travelers were ceremoniously shaved bald.  When Jonn told Burtt, Bann and those other few boys who might have pubic hair that they had to shave down there too, there was a mass exodus to the treens to accomplish this delicate task out of the eyesight of the rest of the Taj.  More than one adolescent let out a yelp after a nick here and there and then a secondary even more excruciating sounding yelp when they applied the astringent to stop the bleeding.  The job was finally done to the satisfaction of the visitors and they all moved back out to the quad to finish preparations.

When she caught up to him finally she tried not to show the amusement she felt at his fidgeting after shaving.  She was well aware of that sensation.

“So, that’s about all the news Burtt.  I’m sorry it isn’t all good, but we knew this day would come.” Kkat finished updating Burtt on the changes happening at the Loks and with Ssyndi and her care. “The one thing I’m truly concerned about is that cretin Dougg being anywhere near Ssyndi again.”

 

“Hmm! Das wha…, Oh damn!  That’s what I’ve been thinking too.  I have just the cure for that problem in mind.  Ole Dougg, he doesn’t much like ole Bann now that Mmarta told Bann to ignore anything Dougg ordered.  I think we’ll station Bann at the Lok stead until Dougg is gone again.  Tell doc to keep Dougg away until we get back.  Okay?  How’s that sound?”

 

“Perfect, Burtt.  Just perfect.  He is TERRIFIED of Bann.  He’s more terrified of you, so knowing Bann and you are partners will have Dougg on his best behavior I expect.  Excellent!”

 

“Okay, I’ll brief Bann this off-cycle while we are with the Flags.  He’ll be ready to assume his new duties when we return.  In the meantime, why don’t you stay with Ssyndi for a few days.  Might be best for all concerned, eh?”  He didn’t say his name but Kkat knew Burtt was referring to Kett, not just Dougg.  She decided to not say anything just yet about Jjenna Bok.  Burtt had enough on his mind and he was headed into the unknown. He didn’t need any more to think about just then.  It would keep, she thought.

 

“Sure.  That’s a great idea.’ Kkat continued, “Besides, I can keep a better eye on that girl.  She took her mask off when she was here earlier?  Really?  What is wrong with that girl?  I’ll be having a few words with her about that, I will.  Damn!”

 

Burtt just smiled.  He knew the effort it took to control that headstrong girl.

 

“We figure it all out, Kkat.  Yes, we will.  Good things are happening here.  I just know it.  I do!”

 

The brightness of his enthusiasm lent a spark to her own.  She allowed hope to burst through her shield for the first time since her parents passed.  She hoped it wasn’t a mistake. She didn’t think she could take another letdown.

She thought she was free and clear but Burtt wasn’t letting go just yet. 

“What about Jjenna?  That girl be scaring me still, the way she sneaks and spies.  Something wrong there still.”

“Oh.  You’ve noticed that, huh?  She thinks you don’t see her.  She’s mad in love too, Burtt.  With you, and I can understand that.  We had a talk a little while ago.  She was going to sneak after you and try to make it to the Flags where she hopes she can find a man.  I had to promise you’d bring girls next time.  Well, I actually said next five-day.  I know I should have asked, Burtt.  I’m sorry but I didn’t see any other way to keep her here.”

“S’okay.  I figure it out with Jonn.  You done good.  She worries me but I don’t want to see her hurt, or her little boy. Tukk?”

“Yes, the boy’s name is Tukk.  You’re a good man to remember, Burtt.  I think Jjenna’s a good girl, Burtt.  She’s just young and restless and feeling quite a bit of desperation, I would expect, right now.  It’s a girl thing, Burtt.  Trust me.”

“Oh hell yeah!  I ain’t even close to figuring you girls out, so yeah.  You deal with it.  I’m good with that.”

 

“Well now, are you folks about ready to get a move on?  We’re losing daylight my friend.”  Jonn’s interruption was only partly forgiven.  The two star-crossed lovers stared a last needy look at each other then broke apart to prepare for the Taj’s first expedition’s start.

 

“We coming now, Jonn.  You ready?  We been waitin all mornin for ya?”  Burtt smirked to his new travelling companion.

 

“OHO! Tis a joker you are, Burtt.  Well, that’s a fine one…waitin on us all mornin…HAH! Come on let me check your rig Burtt.  That girl of yours is right handy, but these suits are tricky to get right.  Let’s see.  Hmm, erm, well, looka that.  Everything done nice and neat like, and correctly too.  Tis a smart one that girl, Burtt. Don’t be losing her, now.  First time too?  Are ya sure you weren’t practicing all night?”

 

Truth told, when they weren’t canoodling that’s exactly what they were doing most of the night. While practicing Burtt’s speech to the council, they wrapped and re-wrapped his suit to be sure he could do it correctly even in the dark.  They also tested each of the distilling suits for proper function.  All but one tested good.

 

This morning Kkat helped him wrap up and the other travelers found Taj-mates to help them do the same.  Jonn and the Flags watched this with admiration and an even greater respect for these children than they would ever have granted them prior to coming to the Taj.  Upon inspection, they found very few mistakes and those were so minor as to have been negligible.  They only pointed them out to be thorough.  These children just weren’t children, not by any standard the Flags knew.  Children this age back in their compound were pampered much like domed citizens would be still in ed and play-time.

 

Jonn and his crew wondered at the transformation that would take place in these proles and their lives if they did venture out into the frontier.  They all anticipated the kid’s emancipation with great wonder.  Jonn was old enough to have seen it in some of their own, but this would be a whole community of self-sufficient children finding true freedom.  What greatness would evolve from that?  How far could this champion of theirs’, this Burtt, take them?

 

The future suddenly looked enticing again and Jonn was oh so grateful.  The Flag was beginning to fold in on itself.  To become too isolated.  To be honest, there weren’t enough unrelated males and females to go around just now.  This unhappy circumstance was the cause of more than one fall for a gypsy family of rovers like the Flags.  Now that they had settled somewhere, Jonn hated the very thought of their creation falling apart due to a lack of interest in each other. Diversity was needed badly, and soon.  The Taj could be just the ticket.  The Flag adults were all settled and paired off, it was their children who needed to branch out and a lot of the Taj were just the right age to fill that need.

 

With all preparations made, daylight wasting and twenty-six iso-suited travelers sweating in place, the moment had come.

 

Tears and cheers assaulted the ears of the heroes.  Burtt sought out and held the eyes of Kkat while he proudly led his troop of soldiers into the frontier for the first time.  He caught sight of movement to his right and up.  He couldn’t find the source at first but eventually he saw Jjenna Bok’s flaming red trusses poking out from behind her I-beam hide.  He looked back to Kkat who had watched him track Jjenna’s spot and shook her head at him, letting him know it was okay.

 

Burtt saw Harkk last.  He and Kett were atop the rubble mound at Green River and the site of the new greenhouse.  Harkk had his hand on Kett’s shoulder.  Kett just stared directly at Burtt then he flung Harkk’s hand off, ran down the backside of the mound and out of sight.

 

There was no time for that.  They were out of the Taj and on their way to adventure.

————-

 

 

So ends book one of part eight in the adventures of Burtt Klop and his crèche.  Be sure to read part two for the exciting conclusion to their first adventure outside the Taj.  Will Jonn and the Flags be everything Burtt hopes they are?  Will Zobbi meet justice, finally?  Will Jjenna and Kett find peace?  How long will Mmarta last and will Jaredd rebound?  Are the girls safe from Dougg?  Really?  Is CommCorp not aware of what’s going on in secotr-22?  What of the Haps?

 

Ah, how the thick plottens, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

Two, that’s two

I wrote for two whole hours yesterday.  Mostly editing, but I wrote.  Yippee!

Burtt fair missed you all.  I could tell because he jumped out of the keyboard, did a flip while whirling his blades to either side of his head like batons; then exploded into the frontier, headed for the beyond and who knows what.

The Taj beckons…and I respond. Sigh!

Saddle up

What would you do if you didn’t want to?

Would you turn your back and pout?

How in the world would you make do?

Wouldn’t you just as soon shout?

Given my choices this day are poor

I have little to choose from that’s fun

Sitting around isn’t hard to endure

But it’s never been my number one.

I picked up my pen, my keyboard for true

I started to peck out these words

When all of a sudden, out of the blue

I happened upon these chords…