It’s easy to tell when I don’t want to write. I’ll post politics or gripes about the VA or such. I might write something really black that I want to throw away immediately after, but bottom line, I don’t want to be there. I’m forcing myself to keep my hand in and maintain some connection. That’s where I’ve been for a few weeks now, but this past weekend I was really bored with my honey away watching Liam. I picked up my laptop and started going over my notes. Before I knew it, was writing. So, here you are. Part ten-MikeH
Just after firsteat, 424319, at the apiary:
Jonn and Harkk were tag-teaming Burtt trying to keep him from running off to rescue Ssyndi before the optimum moment with the optimum circumstances. It was Jonn’s turn. Harkk was in the Flag’s comms hut, talking with Jaredd while Burtt was occupied. They got daily updates from the dome this way and depending on the info delivered, would plan their attack on Burtt accordingly.
Jonn’s comms-tech kept the frequency shifting randomly, that and an encryption package that made it impossible to interpret any message coming through this link usually made it a fruitless endeavor at best. Though if the Corp could lock on long enough to get a direction, that would be a problem. It wasn’t that the Corp didn’t know the Flag was here. They did. They were major trading partners. That wasn’t to say that the Flag didn’t have secrets it would rather the Corp knew nothing about, above and beyond the Taj.
So far it was proving very difficult to tag and track the signals to their comm-units, but Harkk was still concerned. He’d seen some of the new tech the Cops were using for detection and the Army simply had to have better. He and Jonn were constantly trying to find a better way. Harkk had added some monitoring equipment he brought with him. He piggybacked it on top of the transmitter/receiver in the hut and it could tell when they were being ‘sampled’. If the sampling lasted for longer than a few nanoseconds, the unit would be shut down. Comms would start up again an hour later after extensive, secure, systemwide re-syncing.
Jonn dragged Burtt to a distant small out-building. Beyond it were a dozen white boxes laying on the ground. On closer inspection, Burtt could see very small birds flying around the boxes.
“Quiet now, Burtt. This is our secret weapon. Well, it will be when we get them fully operational”, whispered Jonn conspiratorially, hiding his little joke effectively behind a serious look. Jonn and Burtt approached the busy little structures. He’d had Burtt put a screen-hat over his head, though Jonn didn’t wear one, himself. Burtt was equal parts perplexed, intrigued and apprehensive.
“Whoa! Are these bugs? I thought they were tiny birds. They fly? Hey! Hey! Get off me.” Burtt felt crawly all over and was trying for all the world to keep from being landed on while back peddling for safer zones.
“Ha! Burtt, do you realize how silly you look dancing away from these little critters? You should be happy they aren’t the type with stingers. Now, that would have been a sight, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t never seen such and they trying to land on me. They sound funny too. Like the wire does sometimes, you know. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, like that! Annaways, what are they, and what do we need them for? What’s stingers?”
“They are called Bees, Burtt. Some had stingers for protection. A stinger was a sharp appendage at the bottom of their abdomen they could stick an enemy with. There was a minor toxin introduced into the wound that would cause the wound to sting. Other bugs and small creatures would be more severely impacted than humans would be.
“Our bees have been altered to go without, since they have no predators. They perform a very important farming function and they do it while they are doing their own normal business. They do it far more efficiently than we can ever do it. They cross-pollinate our plantings, Burtt. You know about pollination, yah? We went over that in ‘prepping for plantday’ training. Yah? It’s just as important to growing as water and fertilizer.” Burtt nodded so Jonn continued, “You have also seen our people in the fields with gloves on and syringes in hand, right? Well, that’s because we are doing the pollination now, by hand. It’s a slow tedious process and we don’t always get it right.
“On the other hand, Bees always get it right. That’s what they did before the fall. For millions of years they did. Once, the entire world was blessed with enough of these little fellas to take care of all the world’s growing things. With the Fall, we lost all of that. It was only with great effort from the founding families and their scientists that we can grow anything at all now. They also were forward thinking enough to plan for the re-introduction of the various species as things became more suited to supporting life again, if ever.
“Well, The City States aren’t the only ones with a scientific community. In fact, I’d stack Flag’s scientists up against any in the world, though I won’t tell the Corp that. You’ve seen what our Techs are capable of, Burtt.” Again, he nodded. “Well, they found a CommCorp lab in the mountain that had several samples of helpful creature’s DNA in cryostasis. We now have Barn owls to control the damn rats; Bees to pollinate our crops; cattle, sheep, and horses too. Hmm! Come to think of it, how’d the canine species survive in the wild when so many others didn’t, I wonder? Anyway, back to the lab; it was a virtual Noah’s Ark, in there.”
The confused look on Burtt’s face told Jonn he’d lost his young charge.
“Ha, Burtt. Sometimes I forget. I’ll tell the story of Noah someday. Right now, you only need to know that these little babies, these Bees, are going to make us rich. You know how much cred we earn from our F-F-Foods line of products, right? Well, once we get our bees operational, our output will easily double and the most difficult produce to grow will be the bigger sellers, and as such, will demand ever higher prices. We’ll be able to produce twice what we do now simply because the pollination process will be in the expert’s hands, or appendages, I should say…and if we keep that info from our partners and customers, we can still sell it like it was rare…ha, ha, ha.”
Jonn let several bees land on his hand. Burtt’s skin was crawling again.
“See here? All these legs? See the little hairs on the legs? Well, when they land on a flower, the hairs collect pollen. It sticks to the hairs, you see. Then they fly to another flower and in the process of getting more pollen from that plant, the cross pollination of the two happens as a natural byproduct of the bees collecting food for their hive. Bingo! Fruit happens. Then they carry the stuff stuck on their legs back to their hive for processing in their little nature’s factory. This is what God planned, Burtt.
“We build these boxes for them to live in. If we didn’t, they’d build their own hives, but this way, we get to easily move them to where we need them. We also get to harvest another product that is probably the most exotic of all and only bees can make it. Honey. Here, try some.”
Jonn handed Burtt a wooden ladle he dipped into a Jar full of a gooey golden liquid. Burtt took a small taste and started handing the ladle back, assuming this tasting wouldn’t go over too well. His eyes lit up and he snatched the ladle back to finish it all.
The twinkle in Jonn’s eye said that he knew that taste well.
“When it’s time to pollenate, we set the hives out in the fields near where we need them. They do the rest without any more help from us. They don’t seem to ever tire; the perfect industrial engine they are. They cross-pollenate the crops, fill the hive up, we empty them and they fill them up again.
“The best part? Honey will sell like sex in the city. There is nothing that comes close to its sweetness. Our Medicos tell me its healthful properties will make it an even greater sell. Yes sir, Burtt, I can’t wait until we get this in production. The scientists say by next plantday, we can start using the bees to pollenate about 100 hectares. We have several younglings learning the art of bee-keeping. You should pick a couple too and have them team up with our crew. In two, maybe three seasons, we’ll be able to split off some new queens and hives for the Taj. Yah?”
“Yeah, Jonn. We can do that. These little guys are alright, I guess.” After a short pause Burtt asked, “Why you don’t have a hat on, Jonn?”
“Well, you honestly don’t need one. It just helps the uninitiated to be calmer with the bees first time out. They were a necessity when bees had stingers though. Now folks only need them because bees don’t really care what part of you they land on…on in. Had one in my mouth yesterday. Damndest thing. It followed me into the Greathall and flew into my mouth when I was yelling at Konn to open the flue before the whole hall filled with smoke. I couldn’t get it to come out again. I don’t know if it was stuck or what, but I damn near choked trying to NOT swallow or chomp on the poor thing. I finally coughed it out. It landed across the room. Rolled about ten feet, sort of shook itself off and flew back home to the hive. I felt that fluttering in my throat for a cycle afterwards.
“Do you know, they are not supposed to be able to fly? I don’t know. Maybe that’s what they used to call, a wives’ tale, just a story, but there are references in some old books that indicate it’s supposed to be physically impossible for those little flimsy wings to lift the weight. No matter. They can. You see it as well as I do. They damn sure can fly, the fat little buggers, eh?”
“Why caint we make this honey stuff? Your people seem to have figured out ways to make most anything?” Burtt asked.
“Oh, we can make all kinds of confections, sweet things. But there’s nothing that compares to the real deal, eh? We’re going to try to grow some cane this coming summer. Sugar cane I mean. Sweets sell like crazy in the dome. Our partners are begging for them all the time, so we are trying to source some natural sweeteners. Cane likes the heat though. So, we may not have any luck at all with it, in which case we’ll move some of our operations out to the desert south of here, and grow more Agave. That produces another fine sweet substance. Nature always makes the very best if we let her. You’d do well to remember that Burtt. If there’s a natural way to do something, that’s probably the best way.
‘I’ve seen few exceptions. Childbirth being one of them. I know from my uncle that the Flag lost so many of our young women back when we first settled here, simply because we were too pig-headed to see the light. Our Medicos were telling us to let them help when it got too hard, but our Mid-wives refused. To save the mother, the babe would be spent. ‘Twas a savage way to do things and it was taking way too long to populate the Flag.
“When the Leadman role fell to me, I decided to challenge the law. Enough elders had lost loved ones themselves to birthing, that I won out and the role of the Mid-wife became subservient to medicine, in fact most are registered as Nursemaids now. We’ve not lost a single mom or babe since, though damn near every one of those elders is gone now. After about a year of grumbling, everyone came to see that having a Medico, or at least a trained Nursemaid, present during child birth was a good thing. It helped that a Mid-wife nearly lost her own child except for the intervention of Doc Stoanne Hans. She became the first of the Nursemaids. That was Rrebca Torg.
“So, the best way is always the natural way, my friend. Always! Hmm…Well, we humans are doing birthing that way. Before we have crazy numbers of Ks running loose around here, twenty-seven is quite enough, thank you very much, we should really do something about that population, eh?” Jonn nodded towards the Ken.
“Yeah. Well, Jaredd was going to get someone in the dome to help with that. I ain’t sure what kind of help, but it’s off the table now.” Burtt still imagined the strangest things when thinking how anyone would keep a K from rutting. Most of those thoughts led to laughter or complete disbelief.
“Ah! No worries, Burtt. We have animal doctors here, too. They used to be called Veterinarians. We just call them Med-Techs. They care for our livestock. They can perform a minor procedure called neutering on your kens that’ll keep them from producing. It doesn’t hurt them and it takes no time at all. Now, you’ll want to choose from the lot, those you do want to be able to produce in the future, so we won’t neuter them. Pick the cream of the crop, if you know what I mean, yah? And pick more than one in case that one is impotent.”
Burtt nodded his understanding. Survival of the fittest in every way.
“So, of the ones we don’t neuter, when it’s time for a bitch to go into season, we’ll keep her isolated, or we’ll let the studs have at her, whatever you want at the time. Yah? If you don’t want any surprise puppy parties, you should assign someone to keep tabs on that sort of thing, so we know in advance and can get the girl K away from the studs before the deed is done. They go into cycle every few months like clockwork and the males will know the second she does and will be right after her.”
Burtt was smiling. The thought of twenty some randy hounds going at each other unchecked until the entire green zone was covered in Ks, seemed immensely comical to him. Better still, he imagined letting them loose in the dome right after some greasy leavings found a way into their bellies.
He also knew immediately the best candidate for keeping tabs on the female Ks’ seasons. Little Cconnie already knew more about each K in the Taj, including Dogg, than anyone else. Harkk and Jonn agreed that the diminutive female was a whisperer. Burtt only wondered at that until he saw her control all 27 Ks at one time without one of them even flinching for a second, and without ever opening her mouth.
Kett had close to that relationship with his Hiss, but only with her.
Burtt and Dogg were a different thing all together. They were one creature. Burtt hardly acknowledged the rest of them and Sweet was still leery around him. But put Burtt and Dogg together and they moved as one. When they hunted, Dogg was between Burtt’s legs, the two moving like mixed liquids, until Burtt set him off to fetch the kill.
He jerked back to the present.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Jonn. That last set was a surprise and a half. We were just coming to grips with the first throw of twelve when Sweet popped out thirteen more. Damn. Imagine if humans did that? I mean twelve, thirteen at a time? Jizmo!”
“Whew! I cannot imagine it, no! Thirteen Kett Monts? Twelve Jjenna Boks? Hmmm! Norton, save us!”
The two shared a laugh and headed back to the Greathall. Burtt was edgy but understood the effort being made to hold him back until the best possible opportunity arose to rescue his sister and the rest. Word was that there was another family of exiles joining them too. These new souls were living with the kids now, waiting for their chance to flee. How uncomfortable were they hiding out underground all day and night? How anxious?
I’m coming, Ssyn. I swear I am.
Same time, under the Lok stead:
These are the little bastas that got Larss sent to the wall? These foul little beasts are the reason I am hiding in this hole like a rat? I’ll be damned if I’ll let this stand. Screw Larss and screw my uncle. I’ve had it. Norton! They even have my children talking like them. This ends today. Tomorrow at the latest. The next time Jaredd brings food, I’ll lay that scrawny twit out and make good our escape. I’ll trade this location for our continued good standing with CommCorp. Larss can rot on his damn wall for all I care. I’ll crucify him myself for subjecting me to this smell…for days!
Ellsbeth Fen was a walking, talking madwoman. Even her children were afraid of her and keeping their distance. The Taj-mates kept close watch on her, expecting some sort of crazy behavior to happen at any time and prepared to prevent her from hurting herself or others. They insulated the Fen children as best they could, with Hamm Klop running interference as much as possible. The kids, Kurtt and Bbekka Fen, made the best of a bad situation. They hung with the Taj when they could and ran obediently to their mom when she got most adamant about them staying close to her.
Once when Ellsbeth was off her guard again, Hamm asked Bbekka, “Your dam, she’s a bit off the edge, ain’t she?” They were of an age and they’d struck up a friendship as the two oldest in the group other than Ellsbeth.
“She’s just very worried about what’s going on with my father. We’ve never been without him you know. And then Uncle Samm sends us underground with total strangers…proles, no less…Oh dear, I’m sorry Hamm. I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“Hmm? By what? Why ain’t you say what you mean? Did you mean it when you said you liked me?”
Bbekka Fen, blushed. This boy was so direct. They all were, these kids. Like none of her friends at school, these kids told the truth right out, all the time, and then they’d tell you there “ain’t no wrong in true”.
“Yes, Hamm, of course I meant it. I may be an elie snit, but I don’t lie. I like you…a lot.”
Now Hamm was blushing.
“You two gonna smooch now?”
Kurtt’s sudden intrusion caught both off guard. The smirk on his kisser bought him a crack off the back of the head from an irate sister.
“DO NOT SNEAK UP ON ME, KURTT! JIZMO!”
“Ouch, Bbekka. Dang!” Kurtt whined.
“Yeah. I guess I’m okay with being an only child”. Offered Hamm with a snicker, ruffling the younger boy’s hair, as if an old timer himself, then caught one off the back of his head too.
Kurtt made great sport of that for hours. Hamm took it in good humor, as he took everything.
Ellsbeth Fen planned her escape and waited.
Ten cycles, 424319, on the Wall:
“You do realize that I know you’ve sent your family into hiding, don’t you, Fen? Trying to sway me with this pile of feces you call intel is hardly the way to assure their safety. Or, do you think I couldn’t find them if I determined they needed to be found? I’ve left it be for now only because I thought I might still have use of you.”
“Of course, sir. And, no sir, I assume nothing about your capacities, certainly not, Commander Card. I don’t doubt you at all, sir. I would like to assure you that what I’m telling you, though still in the realm of supposition, is credible. The boys here have been monitoring suspicious activity for some time now. When it got to be too much for them to write off to random noise, they brought it to my attention and now I’m bringing it to yours. I reprimanded them for hesitating at all.”
Fen paused a moment to let the implications set. He now had confirmation that Card was on to his familial plans. He simply must win this pompous ass over. He pressed on.
“You might see how something like this could be a feather in our caps, don’t you, sir? If we were to bring to light a major smuggling ring, AND this Burkk fellow too?” Fen was desperately trying to keep the pleading out of his voice. Card just stared, so Fen continued his pitch.
“Now, I can’t guarantee it’s him, and sure, we all hope the basta is already dead, but someone out here was in comms with someone in the dome and we both know this Burkk had sympathizers within. That’s certain, sir. We’ve found repeaters built into the dome itself. They were coded to accept pre-programmed randomly switching frequencies. The comm times were so short it took us a month to track the repeaters to their precise locations, though we never found the comm-units themselves. That took tech savvy no prole has, I’ll wager. That greaser Harkk was a capable sort, now. He could have done all that. Those comms have stopped completely for the past month plus some. We are picking up new ghost signals now, more frequently than the others, but far more sophisticated and, so far, untraceable.
“As to all those proles, I ask you, sir, where did they all go? Do you believe we killed them all? With no trace left? No trace at all?” He didn’t give Card time to interfere, “I don’t believe that for a moment, sir. At the very least, the perservs were right there in the assembly area in front of the tube entrance; there should have been traces of their presence. There was nothing! At first I hoped they were all just obliterated, but once it was made clear that we’d found nothing of these proles or perservs, I knew something else was afoot.
I started to think they might have gotten away. To do that, I knew they had to have help and it had to come from outside the dome as well as inside. Then we found the tunnels. And that cursed fog? What was that? Where did it come from and why couldn’t our sensors see through it?
“We can be certain the Loks were the inside threat. That one will thankfully be closed forever with Mmarta gone and Jaredd on his deathbed. Dougg is a buffoon who’ll probably end up in the zones too. House arrest is a light sentence for Jaredd, yes, but he is dying and he’s going nowhere with the Guard on his stead. The brat girl will be ingested by the system. The Army is always looking for recruits, or the mines.
“It’s the outside link we need to identify, fix and destroy…together. We also need to nail this Burkk to an X, you and me; if he still breathes. I believe the one will lead to the other and I don’t for a minute believe they all died in that fool Clak’s conflagration.
“We’re not only getting random unintelligible comm hits, sir, but we are also picking up transient hits on our wall proximity sensors that would indicate the approach and subsequent breeching of our defensive perimeter. We just can’t fix them long enough to even define what we are seeing, though we do have a rough geographical area of interest…every bot in three consecutive gradients are so alarmed that half of them end up shutting down due to sensory overload. It’s never the same three grads though. We could assume the passage is occurring in the middle of that noise and send troops, but what if that’s what they want us to assume and it’s all just noise, while they pass somewhere else we aren’t looking. To be honest, that is exactly what’s happened whenever we did react.
“This is very high tech, I’m told…or our sensor equipment is completely FUBAR, sir. However, after exhaustive checks and diagnostics, we can’t find anything wrong on our end. One could make enough valid suppositions to indicate that this stealthy tech might just originate in that Flag compound out to the southwest there.” Fen pointed out the viewport to the green hazy plain in the distance. Then referring to a map on a nearby chart table, “You’ll notice, sir, that following the line of what we think is the path being used; it could very well lead from the Flag, over the wall and terminate in Sector-22.”
He was stretching his case to the breaking point he knew, but he would literally do anything to get off this foul, man-made hell. He was banking on Card’s own demise to spur him onto Fen’s plan for restoration. Card was a greedy SOB and he wanted his status back far more so than Fen did. Fen just wanted to be safe again. Card was showing signs of interest. The sneer he saved for all his underlings was replaced with something resembling, well, a less severe sneer. Fen interpreted this as an indication he should carry on before he lost his momentum.
“That all brings us to you, sir, and the reason I bring this to your attention. We don’t have the resources here to tackle this mission ourselves effectively, sir. The Corp cut funds and manpower here, ironically enough, when the Flags built their compound out beyond the Wall and effectively knocked the wildling population out there down to near extinction levels. The Corp sent the excess to more needy areas around the perimeter. As a result, we need your help to carry this through, sir. Well, we need you to bring your resources to bear on the problem.”
When Card didn’t respond right away, he tried to continue. “If you could assign, say, a few AirT…”
“I know what an operation like this entails Fen. Shush while I decide the best way forward. You say, this Flag may be involved? That would be Jonn Flag now, as I understand the hierarchy out there. Jonn took over for his uncle before him. Tis why he left the Wall, and tis the why of my rise to power.”
His memory of those bad old days was foggy, at best and he liked it that way. Jonn NearKlop, as he was known back then, the son of a scion of the Corp, and nephew to a crazed one living with the nomads out in the wild, sacrificed everything to defend the dome from the hordes of wildlings storming the Wall. He was legendary and rose through the Mil-ranks like a storm through the southern plains.
He outperformed everyone in his class at the academy and any for five cycles before and any since. He so far outclassed Maxx Card as to cause Maxx to be the laughingstock of Class VXII, and laughable he had been. Griping at every test score that Jonn aced and every fete of strength he eased through, Card looked and filled the role of the spoiled elie who couldn’t match up. Jonn was destined to instant greatness and rank, while Maxx Card would be lucky to get out with the rank of constable in charge of mucking out the stalls of the senior officer’s horses. How fitting would it be for him to bring the almighty Jonn Flag, to his knees.
Card had had to resort to some very shady dealings to get ahead at all while Jonn was the Army’s Champion of the Day. He was the first to make contact with the wildlings. It wasn’t by choice. Not by a long shot. He and his troop were sent out to scout what was now that green swath of life out to the southwest, by none other than Commander Jonn NearKlop himself. He was the only one to return.
Though it wasn’t the story he told Command when he straggled back onto the Wall, what happened was grizzly enough to break the hardest of veterans or the cruelest of minds. Maxx Card was neither, not yet.
The wildlings had tricked them. They sent a scouting party ahead ot draw Card’s troop into a trap. Card complied much to the chagrin of his senior non-coms. When the wildlings finally let loose in the perfect killing field, it was a slaughter. That’s when Card found out they weren’t as wild as everyone believed they were. He wondered if that wasn’t by design. These crazed, determined warriors had language and were smart enough to use tactics.
Despite his predicament, he’d led a determined retreat so that he held the high ground with superior fire power. He had the one repeating pulse weapon on the battlefield and he was wielding it with reckless abandon, taking out his own men with the wild ones when they clustered near his position.
In the end, the chieftain called for a Parley. Card traded the pulse weapon, all his remaining men and their equipment for his life. The humiliation stayed with him for years and turned him into the soulless creature he was today. To just have a chance at pay-back to the man who had brought so much pain into his life was delicious. He couldn’t NOT go for this.
“Before I commit to anything, Fen, I’ll have an insurance policy. I won’t have you humiliate me as you did in Sector-22. I’ll know the location of your family’s hide. Is that understood, Fen? Better still, I’ll have them as guests on my stead until the mission’s successful conclusion.” His cold stare told Fen there would be no further negotiation on that point.
“Yes, sir. I see, sir.” He was trapped. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I’ll need something in exchange. Not for myself, but for my family, sir. I’ll need your assurance, your Officer’s Oath, that they won’t suffer if the plan fails. They shouldn’t be held responsible for my transgressions, sir. Please, sir!” He pleaded. He knew his and his family’s lives were in the wind.
“Do I have your parole that you will not conspire against me, Fen? Can I trust you?”
“Of course, sir. You’ll hold all that is dear to me in sway.”
“Very well, Fen. You have my Officer’s Oath. Your family is in my charge and insulated from rebuke. I will dispatch my chief of AirOps to begin gaming this with you. I’ll expect to hear from your Spouse by the morrow.”
“It may take longer to …”
“Tomorrow, Fen. Say, ‘yes sir’.” He scolded, turning away.
“Yes sir!” Fen scalded Card’s back with a boiling rage pouring from his very soul.
BASTA! Now what? Norton, Ellsbeth will panic for sure.
Neither man knew the Corp had other plans in store for the Cards and the Fens. It wouldn’t matter how wonderful and heroic their deeds might be now. CommCorp had already declared them persona non-grata. They were done, all of them. The Corp was waiting to have all their ducks in a row first; they still hadn’t located the Fen brood after escaping the woman’s uncle’s lair. The uncle and his family had already been dispatched. If the two errant enforcers happened to do some good for the Corp in the meantime, so be it.
Ten cycles+15, 244319, in the Flag Greathall:
“…you see, then, Burtt, why I was hesitant to bring this all to your attention right off? You do, don’t you?”
Jonn’s pleading voice struck Burtt to his core. Burtt knew a new level of sincerity and dedication. He was both inspired and appalled.
How far would Jonn go for the Flag? How far would you go for the Taj, Burtt, you great oaf?
“I have to think about all this Jonn. Harkk tried explaining this version of democracy. It’s a bit hard to swallow though, when one person is still making the decisions most of the time. You say, that you only make crisis decisions on behalf of the Flag, but I see you in every decision made, every day. Maybe your people just like it that way, I don’t know. This is a lot. Ya make my head hurt. Jizmo!”
He shook his head and as Jonn was about to interrupt, he cut back in as if he’d just thought of something else.
“Jonn, I appreciate this talk. I do. And I understand why you’re having it with me and the Taj council. We all must agree to, how’d you say it, in…corpo…incorporate the two clans. I get that. We get that. And we get the whole idea of having one person authorized to make the important-can’t wait for a council-every day decisions. We do! And I really think your people just got used to you doing the heavy thinking for them is all, Jonn. No offense meant, now.” He directed this at the Flag council in session with them.
“The Taj leans on me and Harkk a lot too and we’re still a democracy. What I don’t get, and I think I speak for everyone here, is why talk about a change right now? Why is this so important, when we have so much to do and, at least in my opinion, the last thing we need is a new leader? Why now, Jonn? You’re doing a great job as far as I’m concerned. We have years of learning to do. Learning I plan to get from you, Jonn.”
“Ah. Well. That’s the rub, isn’t it?” He hesitated, unsure of how to proceed, but then decided to just jump in. He gave a signal and all the oldest males and females of both houses, who’d been waiting in the wings, joined the procedures up by the dais. The rest of the houses filed into the open spaces in the hall and settled into a nervous wait. Both houses were buzzing with questions, suppositions, rumors and flat out speculation.
He had a clapper he used to get everyone’s attention. Once he was sure he had it, Jonn began.
“By now, you all have some inkling that this might not be the best of messages I’m about to impart, and you’d be right to think so. You see, members of the Taj, and mine own people here, I have the spots. I’m expecting no more than another three lunars active, then I’ll progressively fade away. I’ve no more than six lunars at most.” He used the slang describing his brand of incurable lung disease. The suddenness and cataclysmic nature of his announcement caught the Greathall in its grasp and bedlam broke loose.
The Flags broke into the outraged declarations of naysayers and deniers. Burtt and the Taj, quite familiar with the grief of death and destruction, were also keening, waiting for the rest of the blow to land. Death was never the only harbinger of bad times to come.
“Quiet down now. Quiet down. Come on, come now, Flag and Taj. Will you not hear me? There is business that must be resolved before I become too feeble to lead. And that brings us to the Selection.” His voice rose to crescendo on the last word.
The Flag knew of what Jonn spoke and were immediately silenced, as if the truth of the moment was suddenly upon them. The Taj didn’t understand and continued to bemoan the folly of coming to a strange land only to lose their one trusted connection to the society they were thrust into. Now more tragedy would be heaped on a population of children who’d never known anything but.
“HUSH NOW, TAJ! WE’RE THE GUESTS HERE! HUSH!” This from Harkk. The hall fell to an uneasy silence again, though the kens could be heard howling in the distance. Every Taj felt what any Taj felt.
Jonn collected himself. This was to be the most important speech of his recent life.
“Hear me, please. We are two houses that need desperately to be one someday. Some of you may not feel that way, now. In time, you’ll see the rightness of it. I stand before you, today, and ask you all for that time. I ask you all to let that time start now.
“You Flags. You know what it takes to be Leader. It’s in our learnings from when we are wee ones. Our guests do not. I will honor that ignorance with time. If we are ever to be one house, our Leader must come from the best of both houses, so both houses MUST be equally ready to answer the call.
“With fairness in mind, then, I declare the Selection open on the first Hi Day of Sixth Lunar. Nominations are due by Lo-day next. You can nominate yourself but you’ll be paired with a top seed right off if you do. That leaves us a bit more than a lunar to prepare.
“You Flags! You will show our guests the way of the Selection Process. You will honor it by teaching our guests the true meaning of the Selection and what qualities our Leader MUST possess. You will show them how we train to showcase these qualities. You will relate to them the connection from Leader to every single Clan member. You will explain our Leader’s subservience to the Clan…even the lowliest among us. Our Leader serves for life, with his life, and will give his life for any in the Clan without a moment’s hesitation; for to hesitate once you’ve accepted the mantle of leadership would be to condemn yourself to the Din for eternity.
“You Flags will work with our new mates and help prepare them for the trials as well as you prepare yourselves. You will have to compete with our guests for this great honor. Will you have them compete at any level other than their best? Would you feel complacent having beaten someone you purposely left unprepared? I think not.
“You, Taj! You are tough and knowledgeable beyond your years. I would have no hesitance following your best into the never-ending battle for life. Learn from us. Study hard, for it is not just a great beast who will win us over, but a wise one too. This is not just a test of means my friends. No! this is as much a test of wits and wills.
“The most important thing of all, to us all, is that we, the peoples of the Taj and the Flag, are our leader’s heart and soul. Our leader is our eye on life, our ear to the wind, our voice in the rift. Our leader touches the universe and we thrive through that connection. Our leader dies for us every day until there’s nothing left. Then we select the next strongest among us to take us ever forward, ever higher, ever longer, ever freer. This is our way.”
He’d said it all with such reverence the Greathall sustained an echo of his statement for several breaths before he continued, sure he had their rapt attention still.
“Choose well among your champions my friends. Choose the ones you would follow anywhere. Not because they are your friend, but because you feel the best chance of success lies with following that person. Because you KNOW that person will be selfless in all matters, even at the expense of their own life, but who will never waste that life; for a leader is not to be wasted.
“Those of you who are chosen for the trials, honor that confidence your peers placed in you with your best effort always, even to your last breath after these Trials are long over. Surrender only to the superior candidate and then only after you have exhausted every effort to better them. There is no disgrace in bowing to a champion among champions. There is a life of disgrace in failing to accept your fate, though. Instead, vow your allegiance forever to the one who prevails. This person will have earned it via the same trial by fire that tested you. Give them your faith until they revoke it.
“Finally, your allegiance to the Selected One is the key to our future. As we do on the first Hi-day of each Solar, after the Selection of a new leader, each one of us renews our vows of fealty to the clan and obedience to the Leader in an elaborate Ceremony of Faith. This symbolic show of subservience to the clan and the leader, not the individual who holds the position, but the position itself, regardless of who holds it, is our connection to one another. It is what we all have in common. Our leader is the collective the heart and soul of the clan that we so freely gave to him or her.
“As new members of the clan, you Taj will also be expected to swear allegiance to the Clan and its Leader. This does not make you slaves in any way. This simply streamlines the chain of command in crisis situations. You’ll see that everything else still comes down to a vote by the entire clan. We have no Kings here. No bosses. No Gods on earth. We may have become a little complacent and rely more on me than we should, yes, but that little problem is about to sort itself out. No? You, whoever you are to be, Master or Mistress, Leader of the Clan, can make that your legacy. Find a more efficient way for democracy to not fall to one person.”
“These are the rules for the choosing. They may not all apply, but they must all be stated.
· Anyone, female or male, of years advanced enough to have tried before and failed, may not try again. These, if any survive still, will be called upon to be judges.
· Judges will otherwise be drawn from a pool of elders, ineligible for the trials, twenty-one full solars or older.
· Anyone, female or male, between the age of eighteen and twenty-one solars, but not older than their twenty-first nameday or younger than their eighteenth, may be nominated.
· A contestant found to be in violation of any rule of the Trials will be declared lost, and forever banished from the clan, for to blemish so sacred a trust is unforgivable.
· Parents/relatives/guardians may not intervene in the nomination process except to nominate.
· Of twenty possible categories, a total of ten will be chosen for the Trials. Five of a physical nature and five of a more cerebral one.
· All candidates will train for all twenty disciplines as the ten choices won’t be selected until game day.
· In tests of mean strength pitting one contestant against another, the dominant opponent must offer mercy if called for; injuries prove nothing but recklessness in this case. One can win by sheer beauty of performance in fetes of strength, as well as by brute force. Neither necessarily holds sway in the judge’s eye, but both can.
· In tests of will and wits, the same lack of stubbornness when losing must be exercised.
· No form of external aide may be incorporated into the competition. No form of help my be provided to a contestant. No tool, nor weapon, nor any form of supplies, not provided for by the rules of the Trials, shall be had. No contestant will leave the competition’s boundaries until removed by the judges. No contestant will leave an injured contestant without succor. No contestant will ridicule, period!
· Except in the case of injury, a candidate may not drop out of the competition, nor may they skip a Trial, but must finish every category of the Trials.
· In case of a tie in any category, the winner will be the one who scored higher in the next higher discipline in importance.
· If, at the end of the regular Trials, there is still a tie at the top. The competition will continue until a winner can be declared. The judges will pick from the remaining ten Trials, three at a time, until there is a winner.”
· If all Trials are exhausted without a clear winner, the judges will pick from a select group of ever more difficult backup Trials, until there is a winner.
· No one quits.
· The Trials will not break for twenty-four hours after they start. A four-hour break for nutrition, hydration and rest will follow. Then the Trials will resume for another twenty-four hours. Repeat until a winner is declared.
· There can be only one.
Jonn deflated. The steam had run out, and it showed.
“That’s all I have folks. If there are any questions…”
The hall lit up with them and the conversation continued well into the night. Meals were served there in the Greathall along with a new brew Jonn introduced as mead. The children were not allowed to have any, but were given a taste of honey instead. Not much more was resolved after Jonn’s speech. There was more denial, tearful remembrances, drunken story telling along with the requisite hilarity and then a sudden return to reality when one or another of the clanmates would remember what they’d just listened to.
The Clan, as they were beginning to think of themselves, ran themselves out of energy eventually and went home in the wee hours of the morning, well after newday. Burtt was smart enough to lay off the Meade when his head started to spin. Kkhloe had told him about Zobbi’s home brew and how it distorted your abilities.
Two cycles+15, 344319, following the Taj back to their compound:
“A penny for your thoughts?” Katt whispered as she and Burtt made their way home at the end of the Taj procession.
‘I guess I’m afraid again, Katt. I don’t know what to think. Is this a good thing? Harkk says, empires are built on the strong arms of young men, not the older ones, so, I guess this will be okay in the end. I just caint bring myself to the idea of taking orders from someone other than Jonn. Even then I was hesitant to give over to him completely, or Harkk, for that matter.”
Kkat was smiling, barely able to hold it in.
‘What? What? Come on. I know that smile. What I do now?”
“Oh, Burtt. You’re so cute, thinking there’s another within a hundred kliks of here on a par with you…or that Jonn doesn’t already know that too. Um, um! Yessuh! You one kina craze, you is, Burtt, master bossman.”
“What? What are you talking about now and why are you talking like that? I don’t understand you sometimes, K…OUCH! Jizmo!”
She’d smacked him off the back of the head again.
“Let’s go to bed, dopey. You need your beauty sleep. Boy, do you ever!”
Eight cycles+20, in front of the Taj’ Temporary Greathall:
“What’s this? Jenna? Kett?”
The two had cornered Burtt after firsteat and refused to let him pass.
“We decided we caint foller no Flagger but Jonn, so you gots to win. We he-ah to hep ya train. We caint try ahsefs, so we heps you. We tough, you knows, and we faster than you, so we c’n hep wi’dat. Ahm bettah with a bow and Kett he the boss with a pike. Yessuh!”
“Ha! You train me, eh? Well. Hmm! You are faster, the both of you, and I could surely use some help with all the weapons other than these blades, that’s sure. What do you have in mind.” Burtt was fascinated. After all the trouble the two had been, they were his staunchest allies now. They backed him in every endeavor and volunteered for anything they thought would benefit the Taj. This could prove interesting.
“Well, first, is this…” the two took off like lightning bolts towards the pastures to the south. Looking over his shoulder Kett yelled, “Come on, old man, catch us if ya can.”
In stunned silence Burtt stood there watching the distance grow. A crew of Taj and Flag mates had gathered by then and were watching the challenge go unanswered. Soon, some good-natured hooting started up with the Taj’ headman as its target.
“Burtt is a turtle. Burtt is a turtle. Burtt is a turtle.” The chant soon grew to twenty, then thirty voices strong. He couldn’t avoid the challenge then.
“Oh, Jizmo, I’m gonna pound you when I catch you two.” Burtt jokingly howled after the quickly shrinking silhouettes ahead.
“No, you won’t…” was the fading response.
“Cconnie, hold these.” He stripped his belts and harnesses, leaving only his leggings and a light top shirt. He kicked off the sandals they’d been given since moving to the Green, as they had come to call their new home. Then peeled off after the much speedier younger clanmates.
It took the better part of 40 spans of non-stop all out running, but he caught the two eventually. As it turned out, the kids slowed to let him catch up. He looked to them as though he was about to drop, and they knew their leader would never quit. It wouldn’t do to have ot carry him back to the compound.
“After a minute of gasping and feeling almost normal again, Burtt looked up at his captives and sighed.
“Damn. You two ain’t even winded. I am sooooo, screwed!”
“No you ain’t. Das why we he-ah.” This from Jjenna. “If ya trains wif us ever day, in thirty plus, you be pleny fas enuf. Nobod gon beat you straight up, so we just gots to get you runnin fasser an longer, an gets you shootin straight.”
Then Kett chimed in, “We know ya gots other things ya gots to do. We knows ya gonna go get the rest of the Taj too. Ya still gots t’ train. One cycle at least, ever day, we do that. We train you up hard too. After you goes to get Ssyn and them, we double up the training time. Yessuh! D’as a’righ!” He said with a grin, mimicking Burtt’s own earlier favorite phrase.
“You had this all planned out, did you?” Burtt was still surprised at the turn around these kids had made is so short a time. This was a glorious world.
“When Jonn told the rules and we seed we couldn’t compete, we decided. Yeah! Then we planned. Then we come to you. We gots a whole plan laid out. The onliest othah ones we’d foller is Qquitia or Kkat. They trying, but They ain’t gonna win. Nossuh! Jorukk n’ sum uthas gon beat them su-ah.” Kett offered.
“Well! Thank you. I, I don’t know what to say. You surprise me, you two. You’ve grown so much and you’ve done so much. We are all so grateful to you, already. And now this? Phew!”
Burtt really was stunned. The kids seemed to grasp that and smiled. Both reached out to shake Burtt’s hand in the Taj way, gripping the others wrist, but Burtt had a surprise for them. He hugged them both to him and planted a kiss on each forehead.
While both kids stared in openmouthed shock, Burtt whispered, “If you tell anyone I did that I’ll pound you both for a week…if I can catch you.”
The three broke into uproarious laughter that cascaded for minutes afterwards, dying down for a moment then rising back up in full hilarity just to die down again, and then repeat.
Jjenna Bok was crying. She turned away wiping her eyes, hoping the men thought it was from the laughter.
I don know wha dis is, what I feel, but I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it. Please, Got. If you dere, don let dis be a lie too. Please!
She turned back to find the two boys still rough-housing with each other. Oblivious!
Men! Why them don feel crazy stuff too?
Same time, at the Flag infirmary:
“I can’t believe how good I felt last week and now I feel like crap again. What’s going on Doc? Really?” Ccassie was concerned. After about a week of breathing clean air, and some treatments from the Medicos at the Flag, she’d started hacking up some god-awful looking stuff from her lungs. At first, she felt horrible and congested beyond anything she’d experienced in sector-22, but eventually the congestion cleared.
After that short period of extreme discomfort, life changed. She didn’t feel tired after short periods of exertion. She could taste food. She could take a deep, deep breath and not explode into a coughing fit. These were all new phenomena for Ccassie. She’d never breathed right before now. So, what happened to make her feel so terrible now?
“Well, Ccassie, my dear, unlike your worst nightmares, this has nothing to do with your lungs. Well, it does, but it’s not lung disease that’s got you down now. You’ve got a cold. It’s a common malady out here. What’s odd, Ccassie, is that back there, in your sector-22, the cold bug is dead. Out here, it’s alive and well. A real pain in the ass it is, but it’s a nuisance only. You’ll feel crappy for a day or two then spring right back. Do not worry. Take one of these every day to ease your breathing and sleep. You’ll bounce back I promise. Hmm! I still marvel that this common little bug has survived years of medical advances beyond your wildest imaginings. In order to kill it, we literally had to kill ourselves too.”
“Oh, thank Norton! I was terrified, I don’t mind telling you Mmarg. I debated telling you at all in case you made me go back. Ha! How childish!”
“Oh, Ccassie, dear, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but it is no more. Do you hear me, Girl? It is no more.”
Ccassie’s tears, the sobbing heaves and her head on Mmarg’s shoulder were answer enough.
Eleven cycles+45-525319, prior to mideat at the Loks hideout:
“OOF!” was the exclamation heard from Ellsbeth Fen when her attempt to ambush the much shorter Jaredd Lok with her self-fashioned weapon, fell short on the much taller Doctor Georgge. She bounced off and fell back into the hide.
Hamm was on her in a moment, just before Jaredd, coming into the shelter behind the Doctor, lashed out with his stunner. Hamm had her wrapped in a bear hug causing her to drop her club. Her children were screaming at her, then at Hamm, then at Jaredd. The doctor fell to his knees, nursing a bruised shoulder. Then he stood up.
“ENOUGH!” He screamed at the top of his lungs. “STOP THIS, YOU FOOLS!” He continued with only slightly less volume and acid in his voice.
“You, stupid woman. Do you think for a minute the Corp will reward you for tossing this sanctuary over to them? Do you? Fool! Fool, woman.” The vehemence in his voice caused her and everyone within hearing distance to wince and to back away.
“The Corp has a warrant out for your arrest, you and your brats. Your Uncle and his family are already forfeit. The moment the Corp finds this place; you, your family AND your husband are finished. Caput! Do you understand now, Ellsbeth Fen?
These proles are your only chance at life. WAKE THE HELL UP, WOMAN! For God’s sake, wake up. If not for your own sake, then for your children.”
Incapable of grasping her new reality, Ellsbeth Fen fell back to the confines of what darkness she could find, to the farthest corner of their hide, away from those unclean scum, away from the Loks and their cursed doctor, away from her own treacherous children. Just …away…
“Come children, it’s time for your shots and checkup. Come, come, who’s first this week? I have candy…”
End Chapter Ten, Burtt’s Story.