10+30-552319, on the banks of Green river:
The dual blasts blew him 30 feet down the backside of Green River Mound. He’d fought to stay conscious but failed. When he woke, there was only the sound of the Army souring the area for survivors, remains, evidence…whatever they could find, he guessed. His crew was gone, hopefully they made it out okay. Before he’d passed out, he saw the boys make it down the mound with the launchers and remaining rocket rounds.
They were good boys. Shot the hell out of that Trans they did.
They had taken cover after the shootdown. Josepp had remained standing fascinated by the fiery crash he’d ordered done.
Now he was desperate to stay hidden until the cops and the army were surely gone. Then he’d figure out what to do next. Like a sniper, he crawled inch by inch across the debris field on the back side of the Green River Mound to the remnants of the greenhouse. A few broken panels from Burtt’s encounter with the wall was all that was left, but it was enough for Josepp to crawl under, nurse his wounds and stay quiet. He was covered in dirt so he figured he blended in well with his surroundings and that was why the overhead Mil-AirTrans hadn’t spotted him yet.
There was no sign of the Taj or the Flag anywhere, just a dissipating fog bank, receding into the frontier. The fact was, the spillover effects of the fog bank were still screwing with the Air ship’s scopes.
That’s where they are. Good! Bettah off out thay-ah than he-ah, for su-ah.
Now he just had to lay low for a while
They comin back for me. Won’t they?
Josepp dug down deeper and fell into a trouble sleep.
Eleven cycles, at the Lok Stead:
“Where do you suppose all your perservs went, Mr. Lok? What about the two Hap perservs? Where is this Burkk fellow?” A perturbed Senior Detector Fen had been grilling Jaredd for hours now. Jaredd played innocent and ill. Doctor Georgge pled his case. Fen persisted.
Finally, the CommCorp-MilSecCinC, Maxx Card, from the Army, made an appearance. With apologies to all, this Card hauled Fen out of the house and proceeded to dress him down ferociously. Fen was a simpering, cowering dolt by the time Card finished with him. Truth be told, the both were in hot water with the Corp. There’d been far too much damage incurred and nothing but speculation to show for it.
When Maxx Card stormed off, it appeared at first that Fen would return to the Lok stead for more fireworks when his comm unit chimed at his belt. He looked at the display and all the strength seemed to flow out of him. Jaredd wondered who that might be, discreetly watching from the window of his sleep quarters.
Fen, looking as though he’d been shot, sulked away to his transport yelling orders as he went.
“Sepp, to Justice Hall, on the quick, now, boy. I’ve to meet with a Justifier. Norton, this is going to get ugly. Alright. No sense, laying down now. Once you drop me there, Sepp, I need you to go to my wife and children. Trans them to somewhere near her Uncle’s stead in North-City. Understand? Don’t take no for an answer and if my son, that great oaf, gives you any trouble, stun him. You have my permission.
“Here’s the most important instruction I have for you, Sepp. It is imperative you get it right. Understand?”
Sepp nodded, his concern growing with every word from his longtime master.
“Tell Jjoan, “Missing”. That’s it, Sepp, “MISSING”. Nothing more, okay? And don’t ask any damn questions. Pick them up. Transport them to North-City wherever Jjoan tells you to, then forget you ever saw them today and get back here to me. Repeat your instructions, Sepp.”
When Fen was confident that his driver would do his bidding, they set off on what Fen knew was a new destiny, and probably one quite a bit bleaker than that which he enjoyed today. Failing for so many times to quell the “uprising” in sector-22 would have its consequences and they weren’t good. That’s why he was having his family go “missing”. The Corp didn’t just punish her failures, she punished anyone associated with the failure. Fen didn’t feel his family deserved to suffer for his transgressions. He sent them off hoping they would be safe. Her uncle was a prole sympathizer, though he kept it on the Q T. He would keep them out of sight if he could. He had a cellar no one knew of where they could hide in a pinch.
Damn that prole boy. If I don’t hang today, then one day I’ll get you Mr. Burkk. One day, I will! And when I find out who supplied you with Rockets, I don’t care who it is, they WILL hang.
Same time, in the Flag Greathall:
“Easy now boyo, there’s naught we can do about it. CommCorp owns the communications business, remember? They own the lines, the towers, the repeater stations, everything. They built that unit in your hand. If they don’t want comms outside the dome, there won’t be any. Along with the usual civilian and business wavelengths, there are several Military and cop channels they keep open all the time. But, in crisis mode, they shut down all but those official lines of communication.
“You lost your signal originally in the soup, Burtt, as everyone does. Something about all the radioactive metal still lying about. Once we got clear of that, comms should have come back. Since they didn’t, we must assume the Corp shut it down for the duration of the present crisis.
“Believe me, it’s a crisis in there right now. They have a Mil-AirTrans down, taken out by proles with SAM rockets. They have a massive dome breech to repair. Then there’s the exodus of Norton knows how many Proles from a conclave established right under their noses, with the aid of several perservs who’ve gone missing, and possibly several citizens too, some of whom have also gone missing. They must see all that by now.
“The debris left in the Taj will indicate more than just a wasteland. That one Army officer even alluded to its cleanliness. By now the underground will have been discovered. You and the Taj are well and truly blown my friend. And, they’ll also surely be wondering by now, where the hell all the sector-22 perservs are. There should have been some remains, if just bits and pieces.”
Burtt, staring longingly across the flat, towards what was once home and his sister, wondered if he’d ever see her again.
“When we get comms back ya think, Jonn? I have to let Ssyn know I ain’t aband…abnand…oh hell, leaving her there.” He was so angry at himself, he could hardly speak a handful of coherent words at a time. “No mattah. We don’t get comms by mideat, I’m going back. I’ll keep trying to get her until I do.”
“Burtt, this is reckless. We just must wait. Not long, they need comms too, but we need to wait. We gain nothing if you get captured.” This from Harkk.
“Besides, it would be better if you waited until we could get one of our comm units to her. So far, the Corp can’t tag our units to jam them or locate us. They can pick up that little unit of yours, though, without breaking a sweat.” Jonn offered.
“I ain’t get captured, Harkk. They ain’t a Corp Cop who could. And I got to call her on this first time, anyway.”
“Perhaps you won’t be captured, Burtt. How about Captain Clak, though. You know the Army Captain who leveled the entire Taj on a whim? Remember him and his partner? They have hundreds, just like them waiting for the opportunity to prove themselves to the Corp and better their lot in life. Capturing or killing the notorious outlaw, Burkk the Blade, would just about do the trick. Every gun in the Corp is out looking for you right now Burtt. Even if they don’t know your true name, they are gunning for you, son, and you can bet they know what you look like, roughly. There aren’t a whole lot of healthy, threatening 19-year-olds anywhere outside the dome. Don’t give them what they want. Please.”
Burtt was surprised at Harkk’s use of the word “son”. He fought to temper his anger for Harkk’s sake. Those around him could see the fire raging within. Burtt simply turned without saying a word and left the Flag Greathall.
Son? Not parts now, Harkk? Am I now your lesser too? Damn!
“Norton, that boy is an explosion waiting to engulf something.” Jonn stated with concern.
“Yep, that’s Burtt. One trigger pull away from cataclysm…every day, all day,” Harkk responded. “I have spent countless hours reining that energy back in or channeling it to another direction. He can learn damn near anything you teach him. So, if you want to prevent catastrophe from following him around, keep him busy. Norton, knows I try to. And every time I do try to redirect his energy, I feel him slip a little further away. He is one independent son of a blister that boy is.
“Do you know, Katt taught him algebra in three months? Not on a low-school track, after two weeks of blowing through the basics like he was learning to eat, she hit him with a full on MastersEd track and he aced it. Sure, he had some initial difficulties with the concept of formulas and using them for problem solving; but one day the light came on and it was all downhill from there. He helped me lay out the plans for the greenhouse. In fact, he did it all himself with very minor coaching on my part, and that was more about style and conformity of labeling than the actual layout itself or the dimensions of it. Kkat was asking Jaredd for more advanced materials when the stuff hit the fan.
“Yes, Our Burtt has a head on his shoulders. It appears he’s every bit the Brainerd his dad was. I knew him, I did. He came out to the Wall often. He was a decent sort who liked to do kindnesses for both us poor slobs on Wall, and the poor slobs on the frontier too. That and Jjosie’s propensity to be more outspoken than her infamous Great Uncle Henrry Meinklop, is what got them in such trouble with the Corp in the first place.”
“Perhaps we both are trying too hard, eh? With Burtt, I mean. Maybe we should let him feel his way through this stuff and only offer guidance if he asks for it or when he is obviously headed in a wrong direction. Like I said before, Harkk, that BOY is no boy, and we ought to start thinking that way. Did you see how he looked at you when you called him “son”? It wasn’t an amused smile, Harkk. It was that one he uses when he’s about to tell you nicely to, go fish”.
Jonn was also looking for answers regarding Burtt’s behavioral patterns. He needed to be able to approach Burtt without fear of reprisal for saying the wrong thing. He just didn’t know yet what it was that constituted wrong in Burtt’s book. It seemed like Harkk had the same problem. Burtt’s temper was the one thing about him that was still rooted in his childhood. It would take him down eventually, Jonn knew. He’d seen it before. Jonn’s predecessor passed because of his lack of control. The last thing both crews needed was for another wild man to take the reins.
Harkk was worried about his young friend for much the same reasons as Jonn. The fear he felt for Burtt went beyond any fear he’d ever felt for himself. The boy could turn from calm to critical mass before Harkk could blink.
Boy! Ha! There you go again. Burtt the MAN, Harkk old son, Burtt the man.
He knew this headstrong boy was going after his sister somehow. It was just a matter of how long he and Jonn could keep him tied down on the farm, so to speak. What a sin it would be to lose him now. Like Jonn, Harkk believed Burtt was the key to every one’s survival.
If anyone can spur these crews on to new heights, it’s that lad, not me. Not Jonn. It’s Burtt!
Eleven+30 cycles, outside on the Flag Compound:
There was certainly a lot to do and the doing was well under way. Work crews were organized by Harkk and Bann. For the most part, Burtt was too preoccupied for anything more than walking the perimeter staring at the Wall and beyond to the Dome.
Sometimes, Burtt thought he could still see atmosphere venting form the place Josepp’s rockets had impacted the Dome. He knew it was just more smaze at the wall playing tricks on his eyes. He wanted so much to be there. He’d gotten the Taj to safety, he should have turned right around and gone back to get Ssyndi and the rest.
Now he also knew that he didn’t get all the fighting Taj-mates out that day. Josepp’s three rocketeers were the last to make it to Jonn’s AirTrans. They came in without Josepp. Burtt didn’t notice he’d gone missing until they had left the red-zone. All the rocketeers could tell Burtt was that when they looked behind them after the blasts; Josepp was nowhere to be seen.
He felt so guilty it tore at him all day long. He had to go back. The longer he waited the less chance those kids had to get out. But every time he allowed himself to travel down that line of thought, he ended up at the same place.
If you go now; you die!
His frustration level grew.
When he couldn’t stand the idleness any longer, he filled his time with the back-breaking labor of moving huge slabs of granite into place around the new Taj compound or digging the trenches the slabs would sit in. He might be brooding out by the fence and hear a crew grunting and straining at their work. He would then hustle over to lend his brawn to the effort.
Thus, he would pass his next several days impatiently waiting for the Comm channels to clear, and, subsequently, the day he could rescue his sister and the rest of the Taj. It couldn’t come soon enough.
Same time, Flag compound and southern perimeter grazing fence:
The two had become more than fast friends. They spent every waking and sleeping moment together. You couldn’t separate them come hell or high water. Katt was perplexed. She couldn’t continue Jjenna’s lessons when Kett was around. The older girl was still uncomfortable in Kett’s presence, though he hardly paid her any attention now. Still, she tried to pass the ball to Bbessie but the old girl was having no part of it.
“That girl is your problem, Kkat. I got my hands full with Cconnie and her troop of women warriors, for lands sake. Their a bunch ten and twelve-year-old children. Warriors my fat behind! No! I’ll not be taking on another problem child for a while yet, thank you very much.”
(Sigh) “Well, then it’s up to me. Jizmo, though, if that boy even squeaks ugly, I’ll rap him so hard he won’t know what day it is.” Katt accepted her fate.
“I swear. If Burtt doesn’t snap out of this funk soon…” She left the thought unsaid.
What could she do? What could he do? Burtt was struggling too.
“It’ll all work itself out, Katt. Have you been watching those two? Jjenna and Kett? Have you?”
“Watching them what, Bbess?” Katt was thinking that Bbessie’s age and the wild was finally getting to her. Why on earth would she be watching the demon boy from hell?
See what? I don’t want to see him, hear him…whatever. She thought.
“Honestly, Kkat. You and Burtt have the same malady. Can’t see past your own grief-itis.” Bbessie audibly clucked her disapproval and continued, “Those two have been stuck to each other since we left the Taj. Like glue they have. They are even sharing sleeping space. Has he said a word to you, Katt? Has he been snooping around? Is he at your heels anymore?”
Katt had to think but then admitted, “No. Come to think of it, no, he hasn’t. Not once, in fact, since we’ve been out here. The only time I see him, he’s with Jjenna when I wasn’t to spend time on her lessons. Hmm! Can it be? This is wonderful news, Bbessie. Wonderful.” Then Katt stopped in mid gloat. For the briefest of moments, she felt a pang of jealousy.
Oh, girl, you are such a…Kkat thought.
With a sudden intake of breath, “Oh, dear. Bbessie, have I been an insufferable twit?”
“Yes dear, but all teenage girls are, so don’t fret.” Bbessie’s smirk kept Katt from a snarky retort. Instead she ran to her best female friend outside the dome and hugged her tight.
Bbessie hid the tear in her eye with Kkat’s head buried in her matronly bosom. How long had she wanted this? How long had she prayed to whatever being was in charge, if any, to grant her the blessing of children. How long had she pined away the hours with regret, ministering to the most hateful bitch the Corp could boast having as a resident. How long had she suffered that witch’s mean spirited treatment of Qquit in silence, when her baroness left her an empty, lonesome, nearly uncaring shell? Now, she had a hundred of the little darlings and there wasn’t enough time in the day to deal with half their needs, not for one person.
“No, my dear Kkat, don’t worry about being a human child. You’re supposed to have these trials. It’s all a rite of passage kind of thing. You’re just fine.
“More than that though, young lady, I need you to be a functional senior Taj-mate. I need Burtt to do the same but I’m working on you. Burtt is for Harkk and Jonn to master, and good luck to them with that, eh?” Bbessie whispered this last to lighten the moment. It worked. Kkat couldn’t help but smile at the effort it would take to even begin to temper Burtt’s ardor.
“How long have they been out there?” Katt asked pointing to the two-black sheep, barely visible at the outer grazing wire. They not only took to the farm animals, they were the first Taj-mates to volunteer for perimeter watch. Burtt didn’t volunteer, he just went there and assumed the duty.
“Harkk tells me they were up at the crack of dawn, fed the chickens, mucked the stalls and led the cattle and sheep to pasture. They took Kett’s K, Hiss, with them and now Kett is using her to help control the herds. He’s using the whistling, clicking and hand signals Burtt taught them to make the K go straight ahead or left or right. He found that he could move the herds in the general direction he chose running the K back and forth behind them.
“He told Harkk that he just watched the way Hiss interacted with the animals. How they would move away from her if she approached. From there it was just a matter of experimenting. It took some practice, but in the brief time they’ve been out there this morning, Kett has taught Hiss, to guide the herds with little chance of the livestock getting away although it probably took an hour longer than normal and I’m quite sure they scared the heck out of some of those cows, so there may be a bit of sour milk tomorrow. He had much more trouble with the cattle than the sheep. With patience, he even got some of the herds to pass through the gates to the pastures they were using. All the sheep did, but they had to work together to get the some of the cattle in the normal way, shooing the great beasts along ahead of them.”
The two were camped at the wire now, watching for intruders. They would stay there until mideat when a relief crew would come to spell them. That crew was not well versed in the art of K-handling, and would be Flags anyway, so they moved the cattle the old-fashioned way, on horseback. No Taj-mates had yet to cowboy up, as Jonn called it. They’d never seen anything so big before and were slowly coming to grips with the fact there were bigger living things in this world than humans.
Kkat saw them lean towards each other and tough foreheads. Her mouth fell open a bit. Silhouetted like that, they looked so natural, so connected…so unlike either one of them.
Can it be? Please, lord, please.
“There’s more than a little friendship going on there, Katt. Your worries in that regard are over, I’m sure. That boy is gone head over heels for someone else now, girl. You had your chance and you blew it, I’m afraid.” Bbessie couldn’t help herself and laughed uproariously at her little joke.
Katt simply blushed, pleased as pink.
24-113319, at the Lok stead:
A static hiss interrupted the silence of the night. She kept the unit on and charging all the time, just in case.
ZZZZZZZZZT, “24, that’s 24. Not down but up a half. Mumble. Out!” No response but two clicks was needed. Ssyn sent the two clicks depressing the push-to-talk button twice.
His voice. That was what she’d been waiting for. That was the answer to her every waking moment’s prayer. Jaredd had contracted Harkk long before, to construct an iso-chamber in the Lok stead for allowing discreet comms into and out of the dome. Receivers and transmitters finely tuned to an exact frequency and signal amplitude could penetrate the shell of the iso chamber electronically and the dome itself through tiny repeaters the greaser also installed discreetly while servicing other technical needs of the dome itself. It was effective for up to thirty ticks. Burtt never stayed on for more than five.
He comm’d me. He comm’d me. Oh, thank God, Burtt, I love you. You are the absolute best brother. Let’s see! “24-up-a-half-mumble” means, tomorrow at mideat, he’d be there to rescue me.
She almost started crying again but then caught herself. She had to get the kids here from all over the damn dome.
No, wait, the message only said “Mumble”. That means talk only, not escape. That message would have included the phrase “stroll the park”. Sigh! Okay. We’re not going home today. But he’s coming just the same. The kids will all be excited so, I should be too, I guess.
She gave herself permission to cry and did so, profusely. Jaredd came running to her door in a state.
“Ssyn? Ssyn? Oh, my Norton, girl, what’s the matter now?”
The tears flowing from her eyes contradicted the ear to ear smile so profoundly, that Jaredd, for perhaps the first time in his life, was left speechless, but for just a moment.
“You heard from Burtt?” When Ssyndi nodded, “Oh, thank the stars.” He smiled with her and hugged his trembling charge tightly.
“Do you suppose there’ll be room for me Ssyn? Do you?” He asked.
“I’ll make room, Jar.”
Same time, just inside the Wall within sector-22’s extended area:
“You sure they got it, Burtt? If so, close it down. Remember what I said about being live for too long on these open perscomm units. You might be screened inside the dome, but out here, the Army owns the airwaves.” Jonn senior tracker was more than a bit nervous about this mission.
“Yeah, she got it. She clicked twice like I taught her. Then shut down. It’s all okay. I’m in there tomorrow. I’m glad we came half way today, Jorukk. That was a clever idea you had. Makes tomorrow’s run in a piece of cake. Be easy brother Jor.”
“Yeah. Just so long as you run in, give her the new comm unit and run the hell right out again, then I’ll be easy. I still don’t like you going in alone.”
“Looka this fog, Jor. A horse could get in unseen in this stuff. And Baff said it be like this until Hi-day, at least. We good, brother.” Baff was the Flag weather-man.
“You say so.” Was Jorukk’s unconvincing reply.
“Ha! Worry- wart!” Burtt smiled at his newest best friend and companion.
11+30-213319, on the downslope of Green River Mound:
He saw someone on the far bank of Frontier Creek.
Damn, they still lookin? Bastas!
Josepp was getting weaker now. He couldn’t find anything else to eat. Whatever was left in the underground, the Army had confiscated. Even the rats ran away. He was living on the Green River water he crawled to after dark. Today the overcast was so heavy he was going down to the water in daylight. His stomach was screaming at him as were his bowels. Apparently, an all water diet wasn’t the best thing.
Now he’d have to scramble back to his hide before whoever that was got too much closer. He was so weak though. He slowly turned and started crawling back to the greenhouse. He only made it halfway and fell asleep. He’d been doing that a lot these past two days.
What was that over by the Greenhouse? Burtt wondered. There was something over there. It was barely moving but it was hard to see in this smaze still.
Maybe someone was sneaking around over there?
He made his way slowly, staying directly behind his target until he could see it was a man. He had been crawling slowly, then he stopped. He was just lying there now. Burtt approached slowly with blades drawn
Now that he was about to pounce, he saw the tuck. Scouts, soldiers, rocketeers all carried a tuck with personal effects like a shoulder bag but crossed over their necks and tucked into their leggings at the small of their backs. They were all made of the same material. Bbessie had sewn them each one. Only a Taj-mate would have one. He’d found Josepp.
God, let him be okay. Please. I don’t ask for nuthin else this week. Please! Burtt pleaded with his deity.
Josepp groaned when Burtt eased him over. “Oh, my stomach. Kill me please!”
“Ha! Not today I won’t, Josepp. We are going home. Yessuh!”
Josepp’s eyes opened fully and when realization that he’d been rescued set in he tried to whoop, but barely managed a squeak.
“F-f-f-food. Food, please, Burtt.”
“Easy, friend. Let’s get you out of here first, okay?”
Using the secure comm unit Jorukk had given him for personal use, he comm’d his friend,
“F2, F2, this is T1, over?”
“Go ahead, T1”
“Trans-blaster1 found. Need MedTrans asap. Trooper in distress, over.”
“Roger. F2 inbound. P-U at GRM base, over.”
“Roger, GRM base, out. Copy we need an IV for this guy.”
“Copy, Starting and IV.”
“Let’s go Josepp. Time for you to ride the FasTrans. You ain’t gonna believe this thing, Josepp. Jonn has more surprises than a first-tier bot. We got to strap you in so you don’t fly off it. I ain’t kidding either. This thing flies.”
Josepp didn’t answer. He was out again. Burtt picked him up and headed over to the base of Green River Mound.
Damn! Hurry Jorukk, hurry!
The import of Jaredd’s foresight in getting the four exiled citizens to agree to accompany the Taj to their new home was never more apparent to Burtt than it was then. There wasn’t anyone in the Taj aside from those four from the MedSci ranks of CommCorp City who would know how to deal with Josepp’s condition well enough for Burtt’s satisfaction. It didn’t matter that they really had no other alternative. Had they stayed in the Taj, they’d have died in the blasts.
Burtt began the tedious task of unwrapping. He would overheat in sudden fashion if the suit wasn’t processing. That was another key to wearing the iso-suit. If you weren’t working it, that is, making it process your bodily wastes and absorb or distribute energy, the suit would work against you. So, when you stopped exertion or didn’t need the filters, you stripped and put on the unisuit instead.
They were constantly learning new things from the Flags. The suit was only one source of mystery every Taj-mate wanted answers to. Burtt had puzzled over the concept of there being living creatures in this material; another bit of info the Flag had delayed the telling of. That bit of news was kind of creepy, so maybe it was good to take these new things on, one at a time.
Harkk had known there was no “magic” involved like every Taj mate believed there was. He pushed Jonn until Jonn gave up the secret. Harkk hadn’t found any tech in the suit, other than the material itself, so that led him to the obvious query, “What’s up with this stuff, Jonn? Really?”
The answer was long and very high-tech. Harkk was puzzled himself by a fair amount of the science involved. It took three of the Flags’ best to explain it all in layman’s terms. The material was the home of tiny creatures (nannies, the Flags called them) who thrived on human liquid impurities, pollutants and poisons, and whose excrement was suitable for human use, up to and including hydration. These nannies also absorbed radioactive materials and reprocessed them into benign waste that were passed out the bottom tube back into the soils it came from, though without the 10,000-year half-life issues.
Yes, this was some amazing stuff. One could live for three days without replenishment if the suit remained intact. They were still working on ways to process poop. The common thread of thought in their science community was that if they could figure that one out, they might extend that replenishment window to a full 7-day.
The Taj conceded, unanimously. It was all MAGIC!
12 cycles, at the Lok Stead:
ZZZZZZZZT-zzzzzzzzzzzzt… “in 5” was the short cryptic message.
Her excitement nearly sent her head over heels downstairs and out the door.
“Remember what we said about looking suspicious, Ssyn?”
“Oh Jar, I’m so excited I can’t help it.”
“I know. Let’s just take a walk and meander on over to the tube. Then if anyone asks we’ll say we decided to look at the devastation. It will be the first time we’ve dared to venture outside since that terrible day with those terrible proles mucking about out there.”
“Oh, you are ever so devious, Jar. I love it! Shall we?”
“Yes, let’s.” Jaredd escorted Ssyndi to their first meet with a prole since the day of the exodus. To Ssyndi, it seemed months had passed.
12+5, at the tube exit into the sector-22 near-zone:
“I don’t see him, Jaredd. Where is he?” Ssyn was frantic. They’d been here 5 spans without seeing a hint of Burtt. It was past the 5 spans Burtt had stated in his comm. There wasn’t anything here to see so they couldn’t stay much longer without drawing unwanted attention. As it was, the guard on the other side of the tube was mightily suspicious and asked way more questions than they’d anticipated. Jaredd finally had to assert himself and gain access via his family’s name.
“He’ll be here, Ssyn. He’s watching from somewhere, making sure it’s clear. Hmm! Perhaps we…” he paused a moment, then, “There! There he is. See? Just behind the debris pile the robodozers left where the Taj hall was located. Aha! I bet that’s where the tunnel to the underground began. Let’s wander over that way, shall we?”
They strolled, seemingly without purpose towards the pile looking every bit the curious citizens just taking in the sights.
Ssyndi was the first to hear it. It started as a barely heard tinkle, then became clearer as they got closer. Someone was whistling Kkhloe’s song. Ssyn joined in with the lyrics. “When you’re down, and troubled, and you need a helping hand,”
“You always were a bettah singer, sis. Probably why I whistle so much.” Burtt whispered from beyond view of the tube and the dome. “I wish I could hug you. Ain’t no time though. Not he-ah. I got you a new comm unit. This one the Corp caint listen to. We plan your escape using this unit. Jonn says we should try to be patient. Give the Corp time to settle down again and stop being so vigilant. It would be no good to try a rescue just to get caught, right?”
“Yes, Burtt. That makes sense, though I hate it. Humph!” Ssyndi had expected this but it still rankled.
“Come on, Ssyn. It ain’t gonna be for long. Now that the dome is repaired, the level of Mil-AirTrans traffic has gone back to almost normal. I figure a week…two at the most.” Burtt lied.
Harkk and Jonn both insisted that they wait a full lunar still. Burtt hoped that if he was in comms with Ssyn, the headstrong girl would be able to hold on, barely.
“How are things progressing out there, Burtt?” Jaredd interjected, nodding towards the beyond and deftly deflecting Ssyn’s growing pique.
“Slow, Jaredd but it’s coming. We got so much work to do it’s crazy and still the Taj is rising to the challenge.” He paused as if thinking what was worth the telling in the short window of time available. He decided there was one piece of info that Ssyn would love to hear.
“Kett Mont and Jjenna Bok are a thing. Can ya believe that? Hah! Kkat’s like in heaven without that boy in her space all the time. They’re like, how’d Bbessie say it? Oh yeah. Two peas in a pod. I ain’t sure what that is but it sounds about right, don’t it? We’re going to have peas with a meal soon, so I guess I’ll find out, eh?” Burtt finished with a huge grin. Ssyndi was ecstatic. Towards the end of the Taj’s stay in Sector-22, there wasn’t a day that Kkat let go by without complaining about that boy.
“Oh, Burtt, that’s wonderful. Tell her I said, “yay”, okay? She’ll know!” She was positively beaming and Burtt figured he should make his break now on a positive note. They needed to get Josepp out of there, too.
“Alright, sis. It’s time for me to go. Let me show you how to work the comm unit.” He did so but couldn’t help noticing his sister’s face grow long and the few tears she allowed to fall from her eyes.
“It’ll go quick Ssyn. I promise it will. You’ll see!” He started to reach for her, but Jaredd shifted in time to block any view of that errant limb from the tube. Burtt snatched his hand back quickly with a hollow feeling building in his chest. He placed the unit at the edge of the tunnel.
JIZMO! You a dope or what, Burtt?
“Go on, Burtt. We’ll be waiting. I know how to use the comm unit. What call sign will you answer to?” This from Jaredd as Ssyndi was too choked up to speak. She blew a kiss to her hero then turned and ran weeping toward the tube.
“I’m T1. Jonn is F1 and Jorukk is F2. Why don’t we make your call sign D1, for dome, eh?” He looked over towards his sister’s parting back and whispered a final promise. “Soon Ssyn…soon.”
“Jaredd, you be ready to go, too. Ain’t no place for you he-ah either.”
Unable to express his gratitude without an emotional outburst of his own, Jaredd merely nodded his ascent and smiled. He stooped low, picking up dirt, debris and rocks, allowing it to slowly sift through his fingers; he discreetly pocketed the new comm unit, rose and turned towards the tube.
Oh, dear Norton, thank you, Burtt. Thank you!
“Ssyndi? Ssyndi…wait. You can’t be distraught in the presence of those tube bots. Wait please! Damn, that girl.” Jaredd picked up the pace.
As he made his way slowly back into the smaze, Burtt was on his comm.
“F2 this is T1. FC at CC in 5.” Was Burtt’s quick missive to Jorukk telling him to meet at Fountain Creek outside Ccassie’s old Creche.
“T1, roger. Double quick. Trooper failing. Break!” Was Jorukk’s strained response. Burtt lit out with renewed determination.
Same time, in the soup just beyond the red-zone in sector-22:
“Repeat that last Medic. I say again, repeat that last.” Jorukk was trying to fly, hold Josepp’s hand, and talk with the medics back at Flag Compound.
“You have to stick the IV needle in his vein. Do you hear me? Hello? HELLO?” Samm Spayd, the medic on the line was yelling by the time he finished. To the tech next to him, he asked, “Can he hear me okay do you think?”
“Hmm! I’ll tell you what sir, if you yell in his ear again I think he’s going to pop you in the nose when he gets back here. Just talk to him. Yelling won’t help. When you finish saying something, and want him to confirm, say over, remove your finger from the PTT, and wait for him to reply. When you’re done talking to him, say out. Okay? Calm, now.”
“Stop yelling, damnit!” came the angry response, then, “Oh crap. F2 to base. Copy your last. I’m flying now. Will get back to you in 5 spans, stand by, out.”
When he seemed about to reply, CommTech Redd Fox grabbed the hand unit from Spayd and said, “No response needed after you hear, out. Just wait.”
12+30, on the Wall:
“Are you sure? Certain sure? I won’t have it said that I am now seeing the sky fall at every turn.”
Junior Detector Larss Fen was gun shy. He’d had his fill of reacting, underreacting and overreacting to that demon ghost from Sector-22. He wondered now if there ever was such a creature. Life on the Wall will give one pause.
Burkk! Hah! There must be such a one. That basta cost me a star he did. Bah! Why complain, Larss. You’re not in the mines, are you? You go home every night to your empty quarters and sleep in peace. Better than these poor buggers stuck out here all the time. Norton, who would opt for the military over the cops? And how did I manage to stay out of real punishment? It’s nice to have a benefactor, but it would be nicer to know who it was.
“Yes, sir. We checked across several sensor banks. There’s been passages across the wall in both directions over the past lunar sir. The traces are mere ghosts though, sir. That’s why we haven’t reported them until now. We’ve have nothing solid to point to. Then, when the sensors lit off again this morning, First Rank Pors decided that this alert was one too many, sir. We both decided to bring it to your attention. Begging your pardon, sir.”
“That’s quite alright, Second Rank Tok. That’s why I am here purportedly. If the two of you are sure, let’s have a look at the data, eh?”
A command position at the Wall wasn’t normally the place for a Cop, but Fen’s embarrassing failure at Sector-22 brought his commander under fire. It was all the Chief of Cops could do to keep his most senior detector salvageable, and he’d had to call in some owed favors to keep Fen from the mines. This assignment and the demotion, which represented a severe cut in pay, was meant to teach Fen a lesson.
Quadrant III Chief of CommCorp-Police, Jaxx Bik, didn’t want to teach Fen a lesson. He wanted Fen to keep doing his job, so that Bik didn’t have to, nor did he want to spend the time finding a new Senior Detector so capable. CommCorp didn’t exactly promote the idea of independent thinking even with its higher-ranking officers. So, Fen would spend a few lunars living like a common soldier, then get his old job back. Bik would fill in himself in the meantime, delegating what he could to several semi-literate second-tier Detectors.
Fen was grateful beyond words at this happy ending but hadn’t yet decided to bring his family back into the light, so to speak. Something kept niggling at his consciousness, telling him that he wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet. He left his wife and sons in Limbo on the other side of CommCorp City. He never considered it might be the Chief who saved his bacon. The chief hated him. The feeling was mutual.
The bastas are probably waiting for me to bring my family home before they drop the hammer.
The drumming of the soldier’s fingers on his pad shook Fen form his reverie.
“Hmm! This looks like noise to me Tok. What do you base your analysis on?”
“Well, sir; It’s just that we don’t normally see the same patterns repeatedly. Noise is noticeably random, sir. The signals we’re picking up are the same every time. First Rank Pons decided to start recording the hits last 5-day. Take another look, sir. That can’t be noise, sir. Can’t!”
“Show me the other scans, again.” He waited while they were brought up one by one on the soldier’s pad. The similarity from one to the next was too remarkable to be random.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He looked about him getting oriented, then, asked, “Isn’t that the Flag compound out that way?” pointing through the viewport towards the Green Slash of open pastureland well beyond the Wall.
“Out there some where’s, yes sir.” The soldier replied.
“I wonder what that old codger, Flag, is up to? Isn’t he the one they caught flying into that melee on sector-22?”
“Yes sir, it was him. We were listening in on the whole op, sir. Quite a mess, eh? Who’d thought a bunch of pro…” He caught himself when he turned to see the red flush rising in Fen’s complexion. “Sorry, sir!”
“Ahem! No need! No need! It wasn’t your fault, was it? That damn Burkk. By Norton, I’ll…”
“Who’s that, Sir?” the soldier was having a great deal of difficulty keeping the smirk off his face. Word had spread like wildfire about the Cop and that great smelly turd, Maxx Card, being handed their arses by a prole with a rocket launcher. It was a source of great entertainment to the troops who’d suffered long and hard under that basta Card before he moved to the dome. Any time a Cop took heat was a good day too. They worked half as hard as the Army and lived high off the hog in the dome.
“You know damn well who, Tok. Don’t play coy with me. I know you boys are having a swell time laughing behind my back. You’d do well to remember that one day, I’ll go back to the dome. One day, I’ll have direct access to your bosses again. Hmm?”
The smirk slowly slid off the soldier’s mug. No doubt this officious basta would do what he threatened.
“Yes, sir!” Was the only expected and acceptable response.
“How far from us is the crossing occurring, Tok?”
“It’s hard to say for certain, sir. The soup is a cold beast when you need it to be warm and vice versa, signals wise, sir. It’s really a crapshoot trying to guess distances or even vectors sometimes, but First Rank Pors thinks the signal is coming from the part of the Wall that is usually most engulfed in smaze that rises from that swampy area just inside the Wall. Just so happens, that section of the Wall is directly in line with the Flag compound from Sector-22’s near zone. Close in to the Wall, we’ve cleared the debris for a killing zone, just in case the crazies do get in behind us some day. Anyway, that clear zone lets us see into that area a little better with our sensors. Pors thinks that why we got any hit at all but the smaze in that area makes it all a bit iffy. It looks like some real high tech counter detection equipment is involved, sir.”
“Is it, now? Is it? Hmm! Just what are you up to Mr. Flag?” For the first time, Fen began to wonder if this Burkk wasn’t really a new phenomenon to hit the wilds. What if he wasn’t some new someone else altogether? What if Jonn Flag was this Burkk fellow, too?
Bah! To what end? The Flags have everything including freedom from the damn Meinklops. What could he possibly need in sector-22? Nothing, that’s what. Damn!
He wanted so badly to make someone pay, but he had no target. He wondered if he’d ever win his way back into the Corp’s good graces.
Better not bet on that, Larss. Better not!
“Very well, Tok. Keep monitoring. Intensify the signal strength. Get me something substantial I can take to the Corp. Understand?”
“Yes sir, but if we intensify the signal, it’s gonna burn through our screens too. Then whoever it is will know we are watching, especially if it’s the Flags, if you catch my meaning, sir. Those guys got some serious tech, sir. If we up the ante, they might call our bluff, so to speak, and make it even more difficult to track them.”
“Yes. I do know what you mean, Tok, and who said anything about a bluff? Do it!” the Flags were technically advanced enough to be able to detect the increased signal strength and might shut down whatever they were doing or configure some new tech trick to spoof the scanners. Fen thought it was worth taking the chance.
I’ll do anything to get off this damn Wall.
“Then get Pors to connect me with CinC Card. On the quick now, Tok, on the quick.”
A plan was forming in Fen’s mind. He and Card both were in the dog house with CommCorp for their failure to protect the dome and her citizens against the unwashed proles. If the two could coordinate their efforts and bring this notorious Burkk/Flag to Justice Hall together, that would go a long way towards correcting their career paths, and bring Fen back into the dome. Card had been placed on administrative detention until his disposition could be determined. The Corp was quite disappointed in their newest CinC. He would be more than willing to go out on a limb with Fen, if it bought them some respite.
Fourteen+15, just south of the Wall, ten kliks shy of the Flag Compound:
“Shhhh, Burtt, shhhh. Listen.” Jorukk impatiently shushed his friend so they could both listen to the static white noise on the Trans’ receiver. Jorukk had been tweaking the dials for the last few minutes seemingly searching for something.
“Damn! I know I heard it. It’s here somewh…THERE! Did you hear it? Did you?”
“Jizmo, Jor. I ain’t hearing nothing but static. Are you okay?”
“Oh, Burtt. I got to teach you how to listen. It’s so clear. They’re watching us Burtt. They’re watching us from the Wall.”
Burtt was pulling his blades, staring around the cabin of the Trans as if to find their enemies within.
“Oh, Jizmo, Burtt, put them away. THEY ARE OUT THERE! They are still out there in the Wall but watching us with their scanners. I should say they are trying to watch us. They sure as hell ain’t getting no good signal. Not in this shit and not with Jonn’s tech running, they ain’t.”
Jorukk puzzled the idea in his head for a minute then added.
“They are getting hits though, or I wouldn’t hear them at all. Just feint, but hits just the same. I’ll have to let Jonn know. Maybe he can do some more magic on these birds so we’re not spotted again, even if just so-so.”
“So, it is Magic!” Burtt exclaimed.
“Huh, no mattah. Do you think we should, um, what did Jonn call it? Evade? Is that it? Evade?”
“Yeah, evade, and yes I do think we should. And NO, it isn’t magic at all, Burtt. We’ll zig further west and north a bit then come down on the Flag from the Mountain side of the valley. It’ll take longer, but it’ll be better. Your man Josepp is stable now once I got the damn IV in his arm. Whoever thought sticking a vein could be such a bitch, huh? Damn thing kept moving away from the needle as soon as I started to stick him. I ain’t never seen the like, Burtt, I swear.
“Anyway, if whoever it is that’s watching us does get another fix, even a feint one, it’ll be while we’re heading away from the Flag, not towards it. Once we get beyond and start heading back, nothing we do will ever reach the Wall or the Dome. Jonn’s tech base at the Flag Compound blocks everything except what Jonn doesn’t want blocked.”
“Okay Jor. Let’s do it. I miss my Taj.”
Jorukk knew that Burtt was still unsure of his pristine environment and didn’t like being away from his crew for long. Having some of them still stuck in the dome was making him a bit crazy, too.
“Hey! Don’t you worry about your people, Burtt. We’re going to get them out. Jonn don’t make promises he can’t keep.”
“Ain’t Jonn’s promise I have to worry about.” Burtt was just being persnickety now. The frustration of not having all his charges with him was wearing him thin.
Same time, at the Flag Compound:
“…so, that’s what’s driving his fears now, Jonn. He doesn’t know what to think of you and your form of government. He’s had all he’ll ever take of bosses and kings. He’ll fight you, even me, I think, to keep his kids from that life again. To the death, he will, Jonn, make no mistake.”
Harkk was opening the door to further discourse that would hopefully bring Jonn and Burtt closer together. He at least hoped this would get all their secrets on the table. He knew there was no building a trusting relationship from hidden agendas and untold facts. He knew Burtt’s fears. He was hoping to expose Jonn’s. It worked.
“Damnit, Harkk. I don’t care for secrets. I know what you’re about, man. This is not my first rodeo either. I haven’t been fully up front with Burtt because I just don’t know what to think about him or the Taj yet. Not fully! I know he’s leery of me. I can tell he is. But I’m leery of him too. If he doesn’t pan out to be the man I think he is, this could easily turn into the worst thing I could have done to the Flag; bringing you all out here, I mean.
“Oh, Damn! Here it is, Harkk. All of it. We don’t just need numbers and new blood. We need a leader. One leader for both houses. I don’t know about the Taj. You folk are young as far as clan lives are tallied. Flags have been around since the year 101af. We are a democracy, in as much as we decide critical long term matters by vote. But, and this is a big but, we are led, on a day to day basis, by one man and one man only.
“You see, we’ve been down the road where a committee rules in every matter all the time and we’ve nearly been wiped out because of it any time we did. Committees take too damn long in a pinch. One confident, able leader can easily do in a moment of quick decisive decision making, what it might take a committee forever and a lifetime, literally, to do. So, we select a “leader for life”, who is the go to guy in those desperate situations when calling a committee meeting and taking a vote is NOT appropriate. It’s usually an elder of the clan and can be a man or woman.
“You may have noticed that I said we select our leaders, we don’t elect them. We elect the council and we nominate candidates for the Lead posting. The leader selection process involves trials of strength, skill, wits, cunning and will. Yes, you guessed it. It’s a trial by fire process. Only the most qualified in ALL five categories can prevail. I won over my rivals by sheer will and strength of arms, and those included my wife of 5 years. All my rivals, by the way, perished in subsequent action against the wildlings or the Army or because of the poisons. That was a while back, before we made our peace with the Army and started wearing them Iso-suits. Now, they pretty much keep the wildlings at bay for us, but some still leak through.
Jonn seemed to runout of steam.
“Okay, Jonn, I get that much, but why are you worried about a leader now? You…, oh shit!”
“Hush, now Harkk. Not even my own people know this. I have somewhere between three lunars and maybe six on the outside to settle my house’s business. I have a tumor the size of a small nut in my head. It’s going to get big enough to shut me down completely first. Then I’ll go rather quickly after that. I need a leader here, Harkk. I’ve some wonderful lads and lasses here, but not one of them is leader quality. Not one. Still kids, are what they are. Now, your Burtt; that boy, well, he is no boy, whether by quirk of fate or not that boy is a man. He’s more man than most of my rivals were back when I fought for my role. He’s the Real McCoy, we used to say.
“I need him, Harkk and I need you to help me groom him for the job. My boys will fall in line. The trials will determine that, I’m sure. Once all your people are safely here, I intend to announce and then stage the trials.”
“Norton, Jonn. I-I…”
“Ah! There’s naught to say, Harkk. I’m a goner and that’s all. I’ve had a good life. I’m only sorry the damn poisons took my wife first and before we could have our own brats.”
“I’ll do what I can to help, Jonn. You have my word.” He thought a moment, then added with trepidation, “I don’t mean to intrude where I’m not wanted, but, if it gets that bad in the end, and you want…”
“Ah, thank you, Harkk. A soldier’s man you are. Never let a brother suffer. I’ll keep the offer in mind.”
Harkk’s offer to end Jonn’s pain if it got too bad was a precious gift. He wouldn’t spend it unless everything else was taken care of first, but if he could and if it turned out that he needed to, it would be a comfort to know the option was there. He couldn’t knowingly do it himself, not even by poison.
Eight cycles, H24319, on the Flag quad:
Burtt was headed over to confront Jonn when they ran into each other outside the Flag Greathall.
“It’s taking too damn long, Jonn. I caint wait anymore. I was just talking to her for the tenth time in two days and Ssyndi threatened to walk if I didn’t come this 5-day. Jizmo, why I couldn’t be an only child?”
Jonn’ smirk got Burtt to laughing at himself.
“I was coming to talk about that very thing, Burtt. You see, we discussed it, the Flag council, and since it appears the Corp isn’t going to settle back into its old comfortable routine of NOT actively patrolling the near-zones anytime soon, we may just have to go in as is, to finish the job, and finish it we will, or my name isn’t Jonn the Flag.
“So, I was coming to call you and your council in for a confab with our council. This will surely take some in-depth planning to get it right, my friend, and we need to start now or your sister is going to be peeling our skins when she sees us next, eh?”
“Phew! Jonn. I thought I was in for another fight. Thank God. I’ll round up the Taj council and we’ll meet you in the Greathall, yah? Those Ssyndi-masks are tested and ready now too. This is perfect.” His enthusiasm was infectious.
“That’ll be fine Burtt. We’ll plan on having mideat while the meeting is in progress so we don’t interrupt the planning process. I have maps of course but why don’t you bring yours too. I can mark it up on that plassheet overlay like before.”
“Through Mideat, Jonn? It’s only eight now. How long you gonna talk?” Burtt was only partially joking. How long did Jonn plan to talk about a simple run in to the dome? How much was there to talk about?
“Ha! Well, my friend, these things take detailed planning. I don’t go into the dome often and then only to pick up supplies I can’t get from the military or from the other clans out here. When we go in for some clandestine operation, we plan well ahead of time and we plan with a mind towards overkill. This is more than just a simple raid for raw materials though. We are going to illicitly interact with the citizens of the dome. That act alone is enough to end the career of the most influential of nomad clansmen, let alone extricating some dozen or so of those very citizens.
“No sir, Burtt. We’ll do this right or not at all. What we need is a major distraction. One that will occupy the Army, and the Cops, while you get those kids out of the dome.
“Now! Here’s what I have in mind…”
The meeting went on for hours as Jonn predicted and still, after mideat was done and gone, they were still planning the details. Burtt had fallen asleep several times only to be jerked awake by Jonn’s stentorian rebukes. Finally, when they’d covered everything possible, twice, Jonn conceded the point and let everyone break from the tedium and get about prepping and packing for the trip.
Fifteen cycles, on the quad:
It was fifteen cycles and Burtt was staring off towards the dome as was his want lately. Jjenna surprised him, “If you lookin for volunteers, we ready.” She said this with Kett at her side. He met Burtt’s glare steadily. Burt, for the first time in a while, realized that Kett was “over it”. He and Kkat could relax now and, he prayed, depend on these two to live up to their potential.
“That’s a great idea. Then I don’t have to disrupt any of the construction work crews. I’ll use only a hand in the old Taj and let Jonn and his team handle the rest. Thanks, you two. This is going to be an immense help.” His gratitude was genuine and it showed. The two smiled and left to prepare their gear. Burtt wondered at their changeover. It was so dramatic. Human nature was a wonder, for sure, he thought.
Twenty Cycles, in their sleep space:
“Can it work, Burtt? Are you sure? There’s so much riding on this one escapade. What if they are ready for you somehow? What if the cops or the army can listen to your comms and we just don’t know it? Oh, my god, Burtt, So, much can go wrong.” Kkat was frantic with worry,
“So much can always go wrong, Kkat. Tomorrow only a little more so. We got to go, Kkat. You know that and the longer we wait the harder things could get for Ssyn and the kids in the dome. We got to go.”
“Oh, I know. I just wish…”
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! The percussion of projectile weapons invaded on their intimacy. Burtt was out the door and armed in seconds headed for the wire but unsure where the threat lie. He looked about frantically for guidance.
Kkat ran for the kids’ spaces, organizing their protection as she ran.
Jorukk yelled at him from across the quad, “From the south! Wildlings! Look to your own people. Longbows to the roofs. Go, brother, go. Jonn and Harkk have the wire with our ready force. To the roofs.” He disappeared, headed to the aid of his commander.
The Taj was rousted now. Burtt found his next in command.
“Bann, long bows there and there, ten to each building. Be prepared to support Jonn and the Flag if they are driven from the wire.” He pointed to the two tallest structures in the compound.
“Kett, Jjenna, form two skirmish lines. On the quick. Let’s go!”
Everyone jumped to his commands. His pride shone through with a whoop, when his two team leaders had their charges formed up and heading towards the fight. He joined the second line with Kett at its pivot point. Jjenna Bok filled the same role in the other.
At the south wire:
“Jorukk, well met, lad. To the western front. Hustle now, hustle. Hold them while I roll this crew up. We’ll come in on your opponents from their eastern flank. Yah?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. It was understood that his troopers would do as they were told. Jorukk was on the job in seconds. Jonn headed to the eastern flank to shore up those defenses, form a counterstrike and then overwhelm the mob on his eastern flank. They would then wheel onto the flank of the attackers hitting the center of the defensive emplacements.
The explosion caught them not only off guard but completely unprotected and the far eastern position of the Flag defenses were obliterated in a flash of light, sound and gore. Not just the fighters, but the wire and trench itself disappeared in the conflagration.
Jonn couldn’t hear and was in shock himself, just feet from suffering the same fate as his crewmates. When the wave of wildlings came pouring through the gap left open by the explosion, Harkk barely pulled the Flag boss out of harm’s way.
They had runout of luck, though. He couldn’t carry his friend and backpedal fast enough to evade the crazed invaders. He was preparing to do the best he could to turn and defend himself and his friend when the wildlings started to scream and drop behind him. The Taj archers had found the mark and were driving the wild men back. Hark made it to the next group of defenders and first aid for the Flag leader. Jonn was hustled away to the MedTent.
Harkk returned to the fight. The breach was still open. Sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm even the archers’ efforts. The wildlings came with every available warrior for this fight. They were as desperate for survival as anyone in this insane world. The Flag represented a richness in resources the wildlings would never see at one sitting unless they stole it. That they’d managed somehow to procure explosives, raised the stakes significantly.
The Wildlings hesitated only long enough to gather their might before renewing their attack on the Flag. The very moment their leader decided was the right moment to attack, was the same moment Burtt reached the fight with his two shield walls.
The wildlings hesitated again at seeing this new challenge, but only long enough to catch their breath, begin screaming again and renew their attack.
The Shield walls split wider apart, side-stepping in perfect unison to Jjenna and Kett’s clear, concise orders, never exposing a single human link. The wildlings then attacked simultaneously in two different directions, effectively splitting the op-force in two and drawing them away from the Flag forces still reeling from the breach. Jonn’s troops rallied then with Harkk at their head and hit the wildlings from behind. their projectile weapons now fitted with stabbing tools on the ends. With the Taj slashing and stabbing at them, Burtt racing around and attacking from every direction at once it seemed, and the Flag’s rally, it became a rout at that point. Less than twenty of the invaders made it back into the wilderness before the fight was over, harassed all the way by archers.
In total, the Flag suffered, eight dead, almost all in the explosion, and twelve injured. The Taj came through it in much better shape with three injured, one critically. He was hit with a projectile from behind. The Taj learned its first terrible lesson about friendly fire. The man who fired the round was being run through by a wildling at the time.
The wildlings suffered thirty-nine dead, over twenty critically injured, most not expected to survive, and another 12 slightly injured, who chose not to run away but instead sat down in place and mimed their hunger and thirst. These people had no language at all, but grunts and hand signals. The Taj and the Flag watched in stunned silence as these Neanderthals would change from grateful, childlike angels, to demonic creatures from the dark in seconds, when they didn’t get their way, immediately. The injured had to be strapped down to treat their injuries; while scratching, snapping and biting at everyone the entire time. The Medicos finally gave up and sedated them.
The Wildlings were insanely afraid of the Ks though and would immediately go dormant in their presence. That was the only way to describe it, they would literally lay down, close their eyes and wouldn’t move. Harkk and Bbessie thought it was a learned behavior, used to protect themselves from predators, but no one could imagine that working somehow.
Burtt had them corralled in an isolated pen, surrounded by Ks and handlers. They were anything but a threat at that point and that’s how Burtt wanted them until he got back from rescuing his sister. He had to see if the plan was still a go, though. He couldn’t blame the Flags if they needed time to mourn their dead, but holy Jizmo, how would he tell Ssyn?
24+30-124319, at the Med Tent:
There was something wrong. Burtt had been refused entry when he came to check on the Flag’s and Taj’s injured troops. The posted guard wasn’t exactly unkind, but he sure wasn’t welcoming either.
“No one enters, you. Stay back!” The guard, Rapp, demanded.
“Hold on, son, we have troops in there too. We…” Harkk tried.
“I said stay back.” The guard had his stunner in Harkk’s midriff. The tension around the MedTent was palpable. Burtt was stunned at the guard’s reaction.
“Easy, friend. We’re on your side. Remember? What’s this about, now”? Burtt calmly prodded. The soldier was clearly intent on doing Harkk harm if provoked at that moment. Kett had moved slowly around to the side and was setting himself to attack.
“Jonn be okay in thay-ah? Jjenna, broke the tension. She was a look and at that moment she looked all sweet and poufy. The guard flinched for just a moment before he resumed his staunch guard’s position in front of the tent flap, though retracting his stunner to a more neutral position. The tension was broken. Kett eased up and returned to Jjenna’s side.
“Jorukk said to keep everyone out, so I’m doing just that. Okay? Now back off! Alla ya. Okay? I don’t know if Jonn’s okay. They don’t tell me yet. Just said to guard the flap ‘n keep everyone out.”
A sudden stirring at the tent flap caused the guard to start and everyone else to duck. Jorukk bowed through the exit.
“S’okay Rapp. Jonn’s okay. He’ll be laid up for a few days though. He caught a fair piece of that blast and it tore up his leg some. He needs to rest and stay off it for a few days. Good thing your docs were here.” Jorukk said to Burtt, as he exited the tent. There was more sadness in his eyes and in that statement than Burtt could fathom just yet.
Then Jorukk continued, “The wound was a bad one. He lost a lot of blood. Not only did your MedCrew from the dome stabilize and save him, one of them happened to have his blood type. It’s rare and we only had two pints of it in stores. I don’t think our crew would have been so lucky…or should I say skilled? Here’s more we owe the Taj anyway, and thanks for that too. We still have our Jonn.”
The crowd that had gathered outside cheered, Taj and Flag alike, hugging and holding hands in shared joy and hope. Burtt and Kkat saw this and staring into each other’s eyes, rejoiced. This was going to work, they both thought. The Taj and Flag fought together and prevailed. Now in the aftermath, they also shared grief and joy. This is community. This is Family. Burtt squeezed Kkat’s hand so hard she winced and cried out.
“Jizmo! Sorry Kkat. I feel funny though.”
“It’s okay, Burtt, I understand. I feel it too, just not quite so vehemently, hmmm? That feeling you feel, Burtt? It’s called hope, and when we feel it we should cherish it and never let it go. Okay? Can we just do that? Please?” Katt smiled at Burtt rubbing her damaged hand. “And let go, before you do that again. Okay? Jizmo, Burtt! I still can’t feel my fingers.”
Burtt’s smile was an embarrassed slash across his face.
“Das A’righ. Yessuh!” Kkat punched his shoulder…and immediately regretted it.
“Ouch! Damn it! Burtt!”
Shaking his head at his girl, he noticed his friend, Jorukk, alone and lost in thought. He couldn’t help but notice the pain and concern etched in Jorukk’s expression.
“Is there something I can do, Jor?” Burtt gently probed.
“Did you know? Did he tell you?” the question sounded as much accusatory as inquisitive.
“Did I know what, Jor? You’re worrying me. What’s this about? You ain’t been right since you come out of that tent. I thought you’d be happy he’s still alive. I know you took a lot of losses, Jor. Is that it?”
“So, you don’t know about Jonn’s…condition?”
“Condition? What are you talking…”, a sudden intake of breath indicated that Burtt was beginning to understand. Kkhloe had a “condition”.
“Oh God, Jor. I swear, I didn’t know it. We didn’t know…”.
“Well, now, wait. I did. I knew. He told me a while back and asked me to honor his confidence. I couldn’t do any less, so I kept my mouth shut. I just now found out that the medicos spilled the beans and came straight here. I knew this would be a touch, irksome. I’m sorry, Jor. A man’s word…” Harkk came from behind them and tried to intercede before Burtt took too much heat.
The steam seemed to flow put of Jorukk’s anger. “I know what you mean Harkk and all is forgiven. It’s some harsh knowledge to gain though I don’t mind saying.”
There wasn’t much to be said then. They huddled with the mix of Taj and Flag outside the MedTent, listening to the hubbub around the Flag. The mood could swing on a pin with one bad piece of news. If word of Jonn’s condition were to burst onto the Flag’s scene right then, only god knew the result.
Harkk had heard how surprised everyone was that the casualties hadn’t been greater. They’d been hit with much smaller wildling forces before and paid a much greater price for it than they did this time, in numbers injured, notwithstanding the bomb, and they’d certainly never lost so many dead in one go. That bomb was new and it was why they’d suffered so many fatalities this time.
Still, the combined Flag/Taj forces prevailed and with far less casualties than the Flag expected. This laid bare the finer differences between the Taj and the Flag. The Flag was used to giving up a lot to keep what they wanted. If the Taj army had suffered so many casualties, Burtt would go catatonic.
Knowing there was a lot more to be said on an occasion such as this, and reeling from the possibility of an out-of-control Flag due to the certain loss of their leader, Harkk stepped in.
“We fought together and won today. We also lost today. We lost some dear family and friends. We can carry that knowledge as a weight to drag us down together, or we can carry that knowledge as a beacon. Our victory today can be the shining light we follow to the future. A better future for us all. One that we create for ourselves, freely, in the fashion we wish it to evolve. We lost some of our own today but we did NOT buckle.
“Today proves that we are right for each other, Taj and Flag. Today proves that in the tradition of the old world, the world before the City States, family ties are far stronger than corporate loyalty will ever be. Crews that love each other like brothers and sisters, like family, will never fall to the automatons of the City States, certainly not to a bunch of savages. Together we faced down a far stronger force and turned the tide when it looked most desperate. Why? Because we didn’t give up. The wildlings did that and we routed them. You Flaggers have prevailed against Wildling and Army alike. That doesn’t come from luck, friends. That comes from love and dedication to duty. We don’t fight to take what’s before us, we fight to protect those behind us. If we stay whole; learn from this day’s tragedies and build to prevent them in the future, no one will beat us. We will prevail.”
The cheer that followed Harkk’s speech was more a testimony to the truth of Harkk’s words than a celebration. There were brothers and sisters to bury. No one was ready to forget the cost they paid for their freedom. This was the price the Flag and other clans paid to be free of the domes. That freedom didn’t come cheap and it is only slightly less expensive now than it was when the Flag first ventured out into the wild.
8-124319, at the hide Harkk built under the Lok stead:
“Be quiet, lady, You’ll sca-ah the rats.”
The tittering surrounding her raised the hairs on the backs of her arms.
“Who’s there?” Who are you? Children, stay close to me. Don’t let them touch you. You there, stay away. Do you hear? I said, STAY AWAY!”
Jjoane Fen, was backtracking as fast as she could away from these wretches. What did her uncle get her into? He told her this was the only safe place left for them. Word was out that they were seeking high and low for the Fen family. Once they had them, they could once and for all deliver justice to the citizens of CommCorp City for the sector-22 debacle.
Card was another matter. The Corp was certain he had supplied the proles with the rockets. They would sweat him for as long as it took to get the confession the Corp desired.
“Take it easy lady. The kids are just funnin ya. Nobody gonna hurt you he-ah. We all jest hidin out he-uh ‘til we can join the E-K-S-O-D-U-S.” Harr Klop took the lead as spokesman for the crew, though he was just 12 solars himself. “He-ah. Have some water. Ya gots t’ hydrate down he-ah. It gets mighty dry.”
“Oh, Larss, what did you do?” she mumbled to no one at all. Her children were easily taken in by the others and soon they settled down to their daily routine of learning. The Fen children were far advanced and turned out to be a major source of additional learning for the Taj refugees as the days wore on.
“We have to get word to Burtt or Jon. Somehow they need to get word to Fen before the poor bastard hangs himself.” Jjoane’s uncle told Jaredd.
“I’ll work it out, Benn. Go before you’re found out too. Go!”
8+30-124319, on Boot Hill:
With the aid of some heavy equipment the Flag kept for moving lots of earth, the bodies of the dead wildlings were quickly dealt with and buried beyond the refuse heaps the Flag was using to dispose of solid wastes, well away from the living compounds.
The Flag had a burial ground too, much like the Taj did, and their ceremony was no less formal. They gathered in the quad at dawn of the next morning. In a great procession, they wound their way through the Flag compound, so that all might see their passing brethren one last time. The procession ended on a hill they call Boot hill where there is a great pyre ready for the job.
The bodies of the fallen Flag-mates were then placed atop the pyre and some fuel was lit below it that fully engulfed the platform, quickly turning their mates to dust. Jonn gathered the dust solemnly into small containers called urns, and then very reverently carried it to a line of Flag-mates who passed the urn from hand to hand, to its final resting place in the dirt of Boot Hill. The Flag then joined in a solemn hymn of travels and travails that reminded all, it seemed, of too much sadness and not enough joy.
When the Flag seemed to be done with their traditions, Harkk began to blow Amazing Grace on his windbag. The Taj chimed in in perfect multi-part harmony. The Ks joined from their Ken. Tears were spent to ease the dead’s passage from the temporal place they held in their friends and loved one’s hearts. The dead went home. The Taj and the Flag turned their efforts to building effective defenses against explosives and to finish plans for a new compound and an escape.
Thus ends Book 9 of Burtt’s Story, The Taj Goes Green.