The eyes of Photo 51

I was given the job of writing the Class introduction to our (my) first Gallery.  The theme is “Things we can’t do without.”  The three photos of the kids are my contribution.  There are of course much more to my list of favorite things, but my weak flash photo skills cost me good prints of the entire Family, so the grandkids won out and I had to scavenge pics from my digital camera.  I also was unable to incorporate the fireworks and the kids into one really cool frame…curses Photoshop, foiled again!  This was supposed to be on film anyway…ho-hum!  Next time…

What you see in the written word
Is the story the writer wants told.
What you see in a photograph
Is the artists story writ bold.

Both of these artists have given
What each of us wishes we could
Words and frames about the world unchained
They paint life as only they could.

All of us have some favorite things
Things that make us smile
These are the wings that lift us up
That send us that extra mile.

When all is failing and it seems life is through
When there is nothing that anyone can do
Look to your favorite rhyme in a book
Look to that photo of that special look.

Remember the faces and the places you’ve been
Remember that you can always pretend
That your there in that photo laughing and then
Know that those times can be yours again.

These are a “few of our favorite things”
We hope you find them pleasing
From the Summer ’17 Class of Photo 51
We wish you all a good evening.

Just yesterday (for Santi)

I saw you yesterday

You weren’t so far away

Not as far as most

But still, not so very close.

If I could have touched you

The ripples would roll through

To the end of days

And in so many ways

Make our spirits one

Our time would not be done

You wouldn’t be so far away

I saw you, just yesterday. 

 

Please remember my brother with me today.  Santi gave all on this day in 1972.  We all lost that day.

SP4 Santiago Herrera Escobar, US Army Scout and Patrol Dag Handler, 34th Patrol Dog Platoon, 3rd Bde., 1st Cav., Bien Hoa, RVN.  RIP Brother. 

Santi.jpg

Burtt-Part Ten, Transitions

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

BeeHive

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.

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

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

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On it! Detector Fin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

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

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

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

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

That was apparently enough for the Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

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

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

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

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

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

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

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

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

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

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

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

“Get on with, you boyo!”

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

The end of part eight.

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

 

 

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen
The Flag pastures

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone else split into three even fighting forces and take up position in the forward trenches.  We ain’t gonna die today. Do you all hear me?  We’re going to live.  We’re all going to have to work together to make that happen.  So be ready.  Yah?”

“I will stay with the lead fighting force as we withdraw, commanding our efforts throughout this action.  Robb, you have line one and second hat, if I fall.  Jass, you take over line two.  Ccassie will be here for line three in a few ticks.  She’s third hat.  Any questions?”  There were none.

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

Everyone acknowledged Burtt’s commands, went about their business and the wait began.  It wasn’t a long one.

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

Bbessie and Qquitia waited by the entrance to the tube for the first Cops to show.  Other greasers and some perservs were milling about or toiling by their huts.  Most were out of sight and ready to hit the bolt holes in the Greathall if the stuff hit the fan.  Harkk was ministering to a balky servo mounted on a spindle outside one of his servhuts.  Everything was in readiness, though no one would have predicted the force with which the Cops would hit the Taj, when it came.

The two Mil-AirTrans hovered above, observing the operation, but not yet involved directly.

The first waves of Cops through the tube spread out quickly enveloping the servhut area, while also cutting off Bbessie’s and Harkk’s personal huts from the rest of the Taj.  The girls were pinned to the ground in place with prejudice by the Cops who reached them first.  There was no hesitation.

Two cops kicked in the fencing that had housed the Ken.  Harkk realized that only providence saved the pups.  Cconnie had moved the entire Ken to the other side of the readout against the will of every working slob who kept tripping over the eternally underfoot fur balls.  To domites, Ks were pests like rats.  The troopers would have slaughtered them on sight.

Thank God, she had moved them.  Now they were not only safe but handlers were prepared to take the older, trained hounds into battle if needed to rescue trapped soldiers.  That was the only time the Ks would be risked in this scenario.  Ks against other outer-zone toughs was one thing.  Ks against armed Cops or worse yet, the Army, was a formula for disaster and to be avoided at all costs.  Sweet and her newest pups had already made the trip to Flag.

“ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  THIS IS COMMCORP SECURITY FORCES.  ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!  GET DOWN NOW!”

A midlevel Cop bellowed through a crowd control megaphone.  The decibels involved would knock down a horse.

After the envelopment was complete another platoon of Cops came straight into the servhut area and started shoving slow reacting perservs to the ground forcibly.  Harkk, pushed back hard enough to let the two Cops holding him that they had their hands full, if he decided to make it so.  He slowly took a knee.  When he didn’t feel safe pushing is luck any further, he went prone.

Once sure he wouldn’t be shot, he called out, “See here, Detector Fen, this is getting a bit out of hand, with you interrupting us every other day.  What, for the love of Norton, is going on here?  How are we to get our work done?”

“Officer Brat, restrain that prole.  If he speaks or moves again, stun him.”  The officer assumed a position over top of Harkk with one boot in his back and a hateful sneer creasing his face.

“On it! Detector Fin.”

“Anyone else have an opinion I didn’t ask for?  No? Good!  Now, where are the other proles?  Where are the ones you’re hiding?  Where are the ones you’ve already smuggled into the dome?  Quickly!  Where are they?”

Fen was going for broke.   He had no proof of anything.  All he had was Captain Clak riding his ass daily about the continuous bot alerts in sector-22.  The damn things were alarming damn near every day.  But, whenever he sent a troop out to investigate, there was that condescending great Oaf Harkk. There was never, ever any sign of unsponsored proles.

And here it looked like the same thing was going to happen again.  He’d he laughed all the way to Justice Hall himself, strapped to a crimcart.

NO!  NO!  NOT THIS TIME!  He raged internally.  If I’m going down you basta, Harkk, you and your smirking face are coming with me, only you’ll go first my large pain-in-the-ass friend.

With one last longing look around the compound only to still see nothing out of the ordinary, Fen made his officiously slow way over to where Harkk was pinned to the ground.  The Cop keeping him in place enjoyed the look on his boss’s countenance.  It was a death’s head grimace and like all of them, this cop was sick and tired of being ridiculed by their Army counterparts.  He would welcome the opportunity to end this prole.  He just needed his boss to say so.  He was about to suggest such an action when his boss interrupted him.

“Move aside Officer.”  The cop just stared at his boss for a moment too long. “MOVE ASIDE, I SAID!” Came the scream from Senior Detector Larss Fen.

Brat moved like a cat with its tail on fire.  “Sir, yes sir!”

It was almost as if Fen thought someone might be watching.  Someone he wanted to draw out.  Burtt was already moving to the forward step of the trench getting ready to call the troop to firing position.

Fen, slowing even more, circled Harkk, who hadn’t dared to move.  With deliberate motion, Fen removed his stunner from its sheathe.  Anyone in sight of him could see that he was twisting the intensity setting.  They could only guess he was setting it to max, to kill setting. Burtt readied his troop with hand signals.  Using the same signals, word was silently passed back through the comm trenches to the others that action as about to commence.

“You have thwarted me at every turn, Mr. Harkk.  You have made a mockery of justice out here.  Don’t think we don’t know.  The Corp knows all.  You think you can keep your little secrets from me?  Fool!  Fool, I say.  I have spies.  I know what you’re up to. I’ll take the rest of the info I need from these other scums.  Once they see you perish, there will be NO WILL left in them.  Today, is your end Mr. Mighty and oh so connected Harkk.”

With that he stabbed downwards to zap Harkk in the back, but Harkk knew what was coming and he rolled into his attacker’s feet, knocking the Detector down and onto his own charged stunner.  For good measure, Harkk planted a backhander full on the back of the cop’s helmet, slamming his forehead into the plascreet further knocking him senseless.  That was just in time to look up and see Officer Brat stunner zeroing in on him then too.  As Harkk tried to back away, several short Crossbow shafts appeared in the cop’s chest.  They stopped him but none seemed to penetrate his armor enough to stop him completely.  He laughed a sinister, pained sounding laugh and charged in again.  This time a full shaft found its mark and took him in the throat.

“One more crank on the bows, boys” yelled Burtt, telling his crossbowmen to add more strength to their shots so they would fully penetrate the lite Cops armor.

Harkk scrambled to his feet and while the rest of the Cop’s all stood around in shock after seeing their boss manhandled and their second in command murdered, he yelled out the appropriate code word for the situation.

At the top of his lungs so he would be sure Burtt and all heard him, he yelled, “SCATTER! SCATTER! SCATTER!” the code that would let the Taj know that the plan had changed and everyone, perservs included, should get out with the Taj.  Those who chose to stay anyway, were on their own unless they could get to the Loks or somehow signal the Flag.

This prompted a mass exodus through the quad, while the cops tried to regain control of the situation, but by then there were bolts and arrows flying everywhere.  The cops were way to busy staying alive to prevent the perservs from making good their escape, including Harkk who joined Burtt in the front rank and armed up.  In fact, the Cops didn’t pay any attention to the perservs or Harkk and they slipped away without them knowing.

“First Rank, remove!”  Burtt ordered and the first rank fell back through the center comm trench to take up positions one fighting trench removed from the last.  As each line removed backwards to take up a new tail end position, the medcrews vacated to the next section back just ahead of them.

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

This continued for five spans while the cops regrouped and a new leader took charge.  They had withdrawn five trenches deeper into the Taj and closer to safety.  Burtt observed the man he thought was the new lead looking up towards the transports with a comm unit in his hand.  With obvious prompting from above, the Cops renewed their effort to uproot the Taj fighters and defeat them in detail.

The Cops moved into the recently vacated first line of fighting trenches and made their way back to the fourth.  That’s when Harkk popped up from the far end of the fifth fighting trench and screamed “NOW TAJ, NOW!”  for all he was worth.

Bowmen laid down a withering cover fire that drove all the other Cops above ground to cover and effectively, out of the fight temporarily.

The center trench was quickly secured and blocked to any passage towards the readout.  From an outside trench, more Taj-mates came around and closed off the other side of the center trench preventing retreat in that direction.  Taj-mates poured around the corner of each end of the fourth trench, six deep and well protected from attack, with interlocked shields, in front, up top and behind.  They drove pikes relentlessly into the cops who were now trapped between the four forces and had no way to fight back effectively, or withdraw.  No ready way that is.  Some of them went berserk at the end and landed a few telling blows to Taj-mates who were hustled off the battle field faster than the Cops could finish them off.  Those Cops that fell and didn’t die right away, were finished with blades as the Taj-mates passed over them.  Twelve Cops entered but when the dust cleared, there were no live Cops left in that fourth trench.

That was apparently enough for the Army.

“ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL! ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL!  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY.  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY!  THIS IS NOT A DRILL. INCOMMING.  I REPEAT INCOMMING!”

“Burtt, under cover now.  Under cover now!”  Harkk yelled across the trench when the Mil-AirTrans PA stopped shrieking at them.  That was the signal they all knew to take cover underground.  Harkk knew the only place that could protect them and that they could all get to in time was the underground hide in Thomass old crèche.  He hoped they could get there, anyway.  The Mil Commander would give the Cops time to evac to the tube where they’d construct a quick barricade to take cover behind.  They had a few spans at least.

The Taj fighters and the support troops all made their way methodically and orderly to Ccassie’s crèche and then through her tunnel to join their mates at the underground hide.  The injured had already been moved there.  Just below ground, Burtt, and 4 other soldiers, donned iso-suits and made ready to evade into the frontier and hopefully lead the Cops and the Army away from the Taj.  They hoped the Corp troops would miss any trace of the Taj-mates passage underground.  The remaining troops, handlers and Ks were assigned to protect everyone down in the hide.  If they did have to lead the Army on a wild goose chase; Burtt could always come back to fight with his hand if he had to.  If it all went bad on them.

Burtt and Harkk came closer to the surface of Ccassie’s crèche for a better look. As the last of the Taj-mates found their places, the entire near-zone in sector-22 blossomed into a massive fireball.  Servhuts, domiciles and the Taj Greathall itself were consumed in a matter of moments.  There was just nothing left but ash and smoke.  Burtt and Harkk were both blown off their protected perch, near the top of Ccassie’s tunnel, as if made of dust.

Burtt was in shock. What could do so much damage so quickly?  He turned an unbelieving eye to Harkk, brushing at clothing that felt ready to burst into flames.

“Now you know why I don’t really cherish the idea of returning to the Wall or anywhere near.  That kind of shit happens every day out there Burtt.  Unless the wildlings have suddenly gone extinct, I’ll wager it’s just the same today, or worse. God forbid.  That thing was affectionately known by the troops as a “Wiper”, because it wipes everything out within a hundred meters of where it hits.  That AirTrans carries eight of them.  If he hits the compound with all eight, I don’t know for sure that we’ll be safe even in the underground Burtt.  I never thought they’d go this far.

Burtt wasted no more time.  He raced out of Cassie’s, stood up to be seen, and signaled with the red flags he carried for just such a need, then dove back into cover.

“Burtt, you nut.  Come on we must move.  They’ve got us pegged for sure now that you exposed our hide.  Hustle, hustle!”  the two ran like crazed rats out of a sinking ship away from the mouth of the tunnel.

With the signal given, his troops on the mounds with the rocket launchers, came out of their hides, took up position and prepared to escalate this thing beyond anything these kids had ever seen.

“Sir?  Sir?  We’re being…my Norton, Sir, we’re being targeted.  They have lock, sir.  We…”

The first rocket was out in a moment and then two more in quick succession.  The latter two were wasted.  The first ran straight and true to its target which dutifully exploded in a cascading flaming horror show of metal and men as its paired wingman evaded radically up and away.  The follow-on missiles ran right through the space that was once a Mil-AirTrans and impacted on the side of the CommCorp dome, making a 30-meter crack in the plascreet.  Atmosphere immediately started leaking from the dome.  The crack got worse and so did the leak and quickly became a hiss loud enough to be heard on the ground.  Alarms sounded from seemingly everywhere.  Two more Wipers, fired by the second in the pair of Mil-AirTrans, hit the near zone in quick succession.  The crack turned into a raging storm of pure air blasting the near zone and all the remaining debris away from the dome.

The rocketeers were blown off their feet.  They were stunned but had enough sense to grab the cases and run to a new hide.  They ran all the way to the backside of the readout and didn’t move again until it was over, though they did keep looking for more AirTrans that might get too snoopy.

Mil-AirTrans were exiting the dome now from several different ports.  Orders came down from above to belay the bombing and find the crims at all costs.  Army troops were exiting the tube at the run. The Army displaced the cops and fanned out into the Taj.  They would eventually make their way all the way out to the readout without recognizing it for what it was. Three young Taj-mates soiled themselves praying that the soldiers they heard chewing the fat no more than ten paces from where the lay cowering would stay where they were.

————.

“Burtt, Burtt!” was the startled call from a terrified young runner.  He seemed startled to find the iso-suited troops but recovered fast.  “Oh, Burtt.  You’re, okay, thank God.  Jizmo, Burtt.  What was that?  We didn’t think nobody could live through that.”

“Never mind that Carll, get back to the cellar, NOW.”  Burtt demanded, outraged that anyone would let a kid up here during all this.

“Wait, wait.  I got this for ya.  Ccassie told me to bring it to you right now.  She gots a busted foot going down the tunnel too fast.  It be Jonn Flag.  He-ah.”  He handed over Jonn’s comm unit then hightailed it back underground.

“Jonn?  Jonn?  You in there?” Burtt called.

“Hold the button down, Burtt. Hold th… Oh, give it to me.” Harkk snatched the unit out of Burtt’s hand and in moments he had the message and the plan in hand.

“Alright, Burtt.  It seems old Jonn still has some surprises in store for us.  He’s here with a rather large transport.  It’s big enough to take us all and it’s an AirTrans.  Right now, it’s laying low just the other side of Green River in a heavy smoke screen.  He can get us all in and we can evade while we remain in the smoke cloud. He also has a plan to get the Corp’s Military off our backs while we load the Taj into the transport.  He is in fact engaging that part of the plan as we speak, thus the lull in firing on us.  Ccassie is already moving the injured and non-combatants up the tunnels to the entrance.  The rest will follow her out.  Once Jonn gives his guys the go, they’ll come out to get us.  We need to make the run out to the transport in one massive dash, so anyone who needs carrying, make sure we have crews ready to do that and backups for each, yah?  And we need cover until everyone is out.”

Burtt nodded thinking for the first time since the cops showed that they had a chance.

————

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!  THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE, I REAPEAT, THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE.  I AM DECLARING A MIDFLIGHT EMERGENCY I HAVE FLOWN INTO SOME SORT OF FIREFIGHT OVER SECTOR-22 AND AM TAKING EVASIVE ACTION. PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE.  I HAVE CREW SALVAGING METAL ON THE GROUND HERE.  HOLD FIRE! HOLD FIRE!  I HAVE CIVILIAN CREW ON THE GROUND.  DAMN IT!  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING? PLEASE REPLY!”

Jonn hoped his outraged employer ploy worked and didn’t buy him an air-to-air surprise he wouldn’t much like.  He repeated his passionate plea for mercy, and was responded to on his third attempt to contact CommCorp’s Military command.

“Flag Trans One, Flag trans one.  This Is CC MilTrans 55. We read you five by five.  Say your pos. We don’t have you on our screens.  Do you copy, Flag Trans One? Over?”

 “I copy MilTrans 55.  I’m low and slow in the mud.  I was hoping you wouldn’t plaster me before I had a chance to comm you. Over!”  The truth was he was still in the edge of the smoke screen which had some rather special properties the Flags had developed for their more illegal activities.  It was impervious to detection equipment.  Nothing could scan through it.  The problem was, a smart scan operator might notice that big old black hole the cloud created, especially if it was any distance above the ground.  Jonn started sliding the trans out of cover.

“Roger Flag, prepare to send ident.  Ident on Guard, now-now-now.”

Jonn mashed the button down to send his identifying code to the Mil-AirTrans vessel above him on the requisite channel.  This would also give them his position.  The praying started in earnest.  He’d only brought a co-pilot to limit the possible collateral damage.  He was a volunteer.

“Flag Trans One we have your ident.  Show yourself. Over!”

“MilTrans 55, I’m coming up out of the soup now at your 10 o’clock low. Over!”

“Roger, Flag one.  We have you now.  Hold one for the commander.”  A few heartbeats later Jonn heard a familiar voice, one he didn’t care to hear just then, but it could have been worse.  “Jonn Flag, is that you out there causing all this commotion?  I dare say, you’ve a lot to answer for this time, my old friend.  I’ve a Mil-AirTrans down with all hands…even if the commander was an arse, I still have a hell of a mess on my hands.  How do you propose I answer for this?”  being the commander, he dispensed with the formalities of communications protocol.

“Maxx?  Maxx Card is that you, you old codger, and what are you doing with the airdales?  Over!”

Without taking any liberties at all with protocol, Jonn played along. This could go a lot better than he hoped, or worse.  Maxx was a horse trader of renown reputation.  He was also a subordinate of Jonn’s when he was with the Military many years before.  Before Jonn was brought in kicking and screaming to take over the family business from his ailing Uncle Armonn Flag.

Card was in the Army then though.  This was a step up for the soldier.  One that Army pukes rarely got the chance to take.  Then again, Maxx Card was a horse trader of legendary proportions.  He could probably work his way to the top of the Corp if he put his mind to it.  The thing was, as he was constantly reminding Jonn, there’s too much cred bait out here.  To bring him in to the dome, they must have gold plated the offer.

Jonn, though happy to be dealing with a known entity, wondered still just what this was going to cost him.  No matter.  If they got out of this with the Taj intact, the price would be worth it.  He put his game face on because he knew what was coming next.

“What am I doing?  Why, Jonn, I am the commander of course.”

“Of all this Maxx?  Sector command?  Or Quadrant?”

“Oh, Jonn.  You know me better than that.  I am CommCorp-MilSecCinC.  I just happened to come along with this excursion because this sector has been, well, a major pain-in-the-arse, if I do say so myself and I thought I’d come see for myself what all the fuss was about.  After all, when was the last time anyone was worried about proles, for Norton’s sake, eh Jonn?

“Say now! Lets’ get to the reason I comm’d you, shall we. You wouldn’t happen to know of any subversive activity in this sector or, hereabouts would you?  You say you’re scavenging in these parts?”  there was suspicion in Maxx’s tone. Jonn had to be very careful here.

“We’ll I don’t know about subversives, Maxx, but before your people let loose the flames of hell on them, there were some few greasers and perservs in the near zone that we saw, along with a good company of Cops at least.  I think the Cops probably got to cover.  The Mil boys gave the requisite warnings.  As for the proles, well where the hell could they go, Maxx?  If there were any that shouldn’t be there.  What the hell was that man thinking?  They were a handful of perservs for Norton’s sake.  I don’t understand.” He paused, looking every bit puzzled by events.

“Well, those poor souls are gone for good and all, now, so I guess you can just say you got your man, eh?  Or men?  And women.  Jizmo, Maxx.  What a business!  I was on my way back to the Flag, to drop a load of scrap and for more supplies when the sky lit up behind me.  I turned and bee-lined back for my crew.  Norton, if your people didn’t give me apoplexy, Maxx.  Over!”

“Yes Jonn.  What a business indeed and that’s why I hope you’ll not mind, but, prepare for boarding, Jonn.  Meet me at the boarding tube at 1 klik alt, or put down in the soup, I care not, but I’ll see the inside of your ship this day I will, Jonn Flag.  And I’ll meet each one of your scavenger crew too.  Have them muster where I can scan and then question those I choose.  I better not find a crim in the lot, Jonn.  Problems, Jonn?”

“Not a one, Maxx.   I’ll put her down directly below, now.  Say, what do I call you when I see you down here? Over!”

“You’ll call me Commander, Jonn.  What else?”

“Roger that, Maxx, I…”  He was talking to dead air.

“Jizmo!  I hated that guy then.  I doubt I’ll find him to be much more likable now.”  Jonn complained to no one.  They landed away from Cassie’s crèche and he summoned his troops to him, praying Burtt wouldn’t come to him out of some sense of dedication.  Thankfully only his small planned on force came out of the murk, encumbered with whatever salvageable metal refuse they could find as cover, a lot of it rebar.  They came in from the Spring creek side of the Taj leaving the Fountain creek side, and the egress from Ccassie’s crèche out of sight.  That point would soon be under cover of the smoke screen, as the Flag AirTrans made its slow way around the Taj leaving a lingering and dense fog behind.

————

“Drop your burdens people and unwrap.  I need to see who you all are.  Then we’ll scan your papers and prints.  Provided all is in order, you’ll be on your way again before mideat.   I hope it won’t be too late to head across the frontier on foot then.  Ah, but who doesn’t love a good old fashioned campout, eh?  Rather clean here if I do say so myself.  Don’t tell me we have civic minded proles now?”

The army officer was enjoying his moment of power.  Jonn signaled his men to take it in stride.  They’d been down this road before many times, before they’d become completely legitimate.  Smugglers had to have schemes built into their schemes to stay ahead of the Cops and the Army.  The Flags were consummate pros, if a little rusty.

So far, they’d been scanned and debriefed by ground troops only.  Soon, an extremely large Mil-AirTrans put down on what was left of the sector-22 near zone. From it emerged a tall man decked out in the gaudiest dress uniform Jonn had even seen, and he’d seen what he considered the utmost in stupid-peacock, showoff-nightmare costumes some mil-folk dressed themselves out in.  This one took the cake.  This one took the whole bakery.  Plus, he had his minions roll out a plasteel mat for him to strut on.

Surrounding CinC Maxx Card was an equally overdressed company of personal guard. They made a huge display of searching each member of Jonn’s crew, again for the umpteenth time, before the CinC himself, made his grand entrance.  Jonn had to bite his tongue to keep from sniggering at the ridiculous pomposity of this small man made large by a uniform.

“Well, well.  If it isn’t my old, um, commander, hahaha, Jonn Flag.  How are you?  Looking a bit peeked, are we?  Are you not well, Jonn?”

Curse you for noticing.  Curse you for saying it.  You basta.  Go ahead. Enjoy your little game.

Notice he did though and now his crew were looking at Jonn questioningly.

“Oh. I’m fine Commander.  A bit older, as you say, but fit as can be.  How are you, Sir?  You look wonderful, if I do say so myself. Sir!”

“Yes, yes.  Just so, indeed.  This life suits me, Jonn.  I think you were too quick to turn your back to it, eh?”

Still an insufferable prig I see.  I wonder who you bribed to get so far inside the system like this?

“Ah, well, I have the Flag, you know.  A big responsibility itself.  Say, did you know we’re mining for the Meinklops direct now, so I have managed to eliminate the middle man.  That’s good for us, sure.”  Jonn hoped dropping the name would buy him some wiggle room.  Maxx certainly knew everything there was to know about the Flag.  His position made that a necessity.

“Yes. I did hear that.  Good for you Jonn. Good for you.  And business?  Is it good too?  Why, for instance, would you need to scrounge for metal here where the risk is so great of contamination?”

“Have you been out of touch so long Ma-, Commander, that you forget the value of the little things?  You know metal is still a valuable commodity that is not is great supply.  We scavenge what we can to fashion repair parts for our combines out at the compound.  Of course, you know the only source of metal is near the ruins of old cities.  Last time we came through here my boys made note of a good lot of rebar, if we ever wanted to take the trouble to hack it out of the old concrete.  And, as your ground commander noticed, it’s uncharacteristically clean here.  That’s why we’re here today.  See for yourself, Sir.  My Trans’ hold is loaded with a half-ton I was bringing back with me and here the lads have most of another.”  He showed Maxx the evidence of their gatherings.

The CinC, made a bit of a fuss checking over everyone’s prints and papers himself, again and had some fun frisking the females in Jonn’s crew.  More than one male and a normally very fiery female had to bite back their fury.  Soon he was done with his games and seeing a spot of dirt on his boot, tsk’d and nearly ran back to his ship, but not before taking one final shot across Jonn and the Flag’s bow.

“Do be careful out here Jonn.  There’s a new sheriff in town, as they say.  And this one won’t be tolerating prole loving citizens or nomads, regardless of whom they might be contracted to.  I hope I’ve made myself clear?”

“Well, of course, Commander.  Is there anything else I can do for you, Sir?”.

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

“Yes, Jonn, there is.  Don’t be here if I must send the troops in again.  Not here.  Not anywhere I have to send the troops.  Clear?” He entered his ship.

Jonn just nodded.  Nothing more was needed.  Maxx was gone.

Burtt saw the man leave and sighed a huge sigh of relief.   He moved further into the transport allowing the load master to close the ramp.  The relief he felt caused him to fall into a seat, he felt so drained.  Aside from Jonn and his crew, they all got out.  Every one of them. The Taj lived.

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

“Oh, my God, Burtt, thank God you’re alright.  How did it go.  Oh, God…you just tell me everything.”

“Well, we all got out Ssyn.  Everyone but you and the kids still in the dome.  We had to.  They was bombing us.  The Flags came and took us all off the Taj and now we headed for the Flag.  Ssyn, we gonna have to wait a bit to get you out.  I’m sorry but it would be too risky now.  I have the Comm unit.  We stay in touch.  Yah?”

Ssyndi was sobbing now. “O-Okay, Burtt.  Oh God, Burtt don’t forget me.  Don’t leave me hear.”

There was silence.

“Burtt?  Burtt?”  Oh, Burtt, no, please.”

“Ssyn?  Ssyn?  Hey!  Whas going on with this comm, damnit?”

“Easy, Burtt, Easy. We’re in the soup.  No signal here.  Call later, okay?”  He was informed by a crewmate he never met before.

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

“Mother of God. Are they gone Jorukk?  The kids?  Did they get out?”

“Gone, everyone Jonn. About a half klik out and in the soup.”

“Tell them to stay there. We’ll make our way to them.  Then you and the boys hit the road.  I’ll follow when I know that basta didn’t tag us or set a tail on us, eh?”

“Alright, boss. Don’t be too long. You know how I worries so.”  He smiled at his boss who cuffed the boy off the back of the head.

“Get on with, you boyo!”

Thank you, dear Lord, above. Now give me just another lunar to set it all straight.

The end of part eight.

Previews of coming attractions in Part nine when my head is no longer spinning

 

 

Burtt – part 8, book 1: The Taj moves out

poor

 

Fourth day, first five-day, Month 2, year 319af

 

After the initial feeding frenzy on fruit and cookies, the leaders of both groups met for hours while the rest played footie until lasteat.  Jonn had also brought something he called caff.  It was brewed in a special pot and they all enjoyed a hot drink that surprised Burtt with its tangy bitter aftertaste.  He liked it.  Later he would decide he’d had too much of it as he wouldn’t be able to sit still for hours, let alone sleep. The festivities lasted long into the night.

 

The Taj challenged the newcomers to a game of football.  The visitors accepted but with their leader in conference and guards posted they didn’t have a full 11 to fill out a team so two Taj-mates volunteered to side with the opposition. The ribbing was friendly but constant.  After two games with that alignment and the visitors winning both games easily, the teams were fully mixed and the results were evener.  It was a fun time for all.  Burtt hadn’t seen or heard the Taj so excited in the year he’d been a leader here.  He found it very difficult to pay attention at the meeting.  Hearing the kids having so much fun, he wanted to be where the fun was.  He was also worried that all the noise would attract the wrong bots and then the wrong people.  There was no way he would be able to quiet things down.  Not yet.  He set a couple of kids near the tube ot keep those tier one bots occupied and hoped that would be enough.

 

Jizmo, don be watchin ya bastasHe thought a silent prayer.

 

Jonn it seemed was just as serious about security as Burtt was and had his top three soldiers on constant patrol around the perimeter of sector-22.  It would soon be time for lasteat so the meeting broke up.  The scents emanating from the cook fires had everyone anticipating a scrumptious culinary delight.  As the council and Jonn left the meeting room and headed out into the quad, two of the guards Jonn had posted came running back to join him.  They were obviously agitated and turned very unfriendly looks at Burtt and Harkk as they reported to Jonn in a whisper.

 

Jonn’s expression changed subtly from one of concern to one of promised threat.  The tension between them was so palpable that Burtt unconsciously reached for his blades.  He stopped himself.  He didn’t want to make enemies of these people.  He wanted desperately to believe they might offer a real alternative to the subjective life of a prole.

 

“What’s the problem, Jonn?”  Harkk beat Burtt to the question.

 

The third Guard Jonn had posted came into the quad then carrying the two pair of footwear the Taj had taken off the dead toughs from Zobbi’s crèche.  Burtt and Harkk both realized, at the same time, that the gear the visitors wore as outer gear looked familiar to them because it was familiar.  It was the same material as the footwear they’d taken from Zobbi’s toughs.

 

The sight of the footwear seemed to cement Jonn’s anger. He rose turning to Burtt and Harkk with the threat of physical harm in his eyes and venom in his voice he demanded, “Is this how you planned to greet us too?  What Happened?  Were there too many of us to attack this time?”

 

When neither answered he prodded again, “Well?  Explain yourselves before I order my men to atone for the deaths of our brothers.”

With tensions rising on either side of the equation Harkk jumped into the fray.

 

“Easy friend.  Whatever you’re thinking right now, back off for a moment and let’s discuss this, okay.  You’re very wrong about us.  We were attacked by the toughs wearing those.  They tried to take some of our kids.   We had to kill them to prevent that.  We had no idea they worked for you.  We were under the impression they worked for another red zone boss.  A bad hombre named Zobbi.  He’s over in Sector-27.  Are you sure these belong to your people?  They didn’t act like you guys at all.  Like I said, they were trying to take some of our kids.  There’s a big market here for sex slaves.  Especially kids, clean ones.  I wouldn’t have taken you folks for slavers.”  Harkk finished with a mild challenge.

 

“I apologize for not mentioning the footwear sooner, we should have made the connection right away.  Please, can’t you write it off to our excitement at your arrival?  You didn’t find any more of the suits than just the boots, right?”  Kkat offered contritely trying to lead Jonn to the conclusion that they’d have the whole suit, not just the boots if the Taj took his mates out.

 

Slavers, you say?  Of course, we aren’t slavers.  Some of us used to be slaves.  Now I need to ask what you’re talking about?  My men do not take slaves.  They definitely do not attack children.  This is ridiculous.  I want answers.”  He seemed to think for a moment then continued, “Sector-27 you say?  Hmmm.  Jorukk, where did we send the team who disappeared two weeks ago?  What other sectors did we see activity in back then?  Do you remember?”

 

“’Twas from 31 to 25 ye sent them Jonn.  We’d seen scavengers in the frontier areas.  Our scouts dinna cum back.” Jorukk responded.

 

“Zobbi, you say?  Is this fella a tall one with blond hair and wears an orange scarf? An older fella?”  Jonn asked.  He had to mime tying a scarf around his neck for Burtt and Bann to understand.  He’d seen a man he thought must be the boss.  He was older, taller, carried himself with authority and most around him were obviously cowering from him.  Zobbi, it turns out, wore the scarf to hide a scar.  Some say it was from when the army tried to hang him but he wouldn’t die.  Burtt knew it was from when Thomass nearly decapitated Zobbi in a turf war.

 

When the Taj-mates agreed with his description of Zobbi, Jonn visibly relaxed, though it was more like a sigh of resignation, as if accepting a loss.  It occurred to Harkk first then to Burtt, that they were looking at a man who just realized he’d lost more of his men.  Burtt was the first to offer his condolences and swore to help bring Zobbi to justice.  After his toughs attacked the Taj, Burtt and Harkk had already decided they were going after Zobbi one way or another.  This might just be the motivation they need to get the job rolling, and now with the gear the visitors brought, it looked like they could actually make the trip safely.  Burtt offered the boots back to Jonn.

 

This acknowledgment from peers seemed to hearten the visitor.  His troops were not quite as convinced of the Taj’s innocence though and had yet to stand down.  The tension was building around them.  Several of the Taj’s older soldiers were edging closer to Burtt and Harkk to add their weight to the equation.

 

“Easy now, boys.  Let’s talk this through, okay.  I don’t think these people had anything to do with Jakk or Robb going missing.  We didn’t send them this way and both of them were accomplished trackers.  They wouldn’t have gotten this far off track.  No way!  Nope!  I think this Zobbi character is the one we want.  We’ll head for home tonight and discuss this with the group.  Tomorrow or next day we’ll deal with this Mr. Zobbi.  Yes, sir, we will.  This is my fault in the end.  I shouldn’t have sent just the two.  I’ll nay do that again, I tell you.”

 

“We have a gripe wi’ that man too.  Ah wants t’ come help. Okay?” Put in Burtt.  As a sop he added.  “Them scouts might not be dead.  Zobbi don’t waste no slaves.  They most like be workin hard, but not dead.”

 

“You’d come help us get our crew back, Burtt?” Asked Jorukk.

 

“Su-ah.” Was Burtt’s simple response.

 

“You don’t for a minute think you’re going out there alone do you?” added an extremely perturbed Kkat interjecting herself between Burtt and the visitors. 

 

Why do you have to be the one?  Always?  Let someone else take a chance on dying damn it! She thought, then she felt immediate guilt for wishing such a thing on anyone.

 

“I bring some soldiers, su-ah, Kkat.” Burtt offered by way of a peace offering.  She wasn’t buying.

 

“Why not send a crew instead of you.  We still need you here to finish fleshing out the Taj’s defenses.  You trained them to do this work.  Let them do it, while you do yours…HERE.”

 

“Kkat, if this works out, we don’t gonna need the Taj.”  He argued.

 

“I can go”, Bann offered

 

Burtt’s foot was down the minute Kkat suggested someone else take a life or death chance, so it was a moot point.  Burtt was going.  It was a matter simply of how many and who went with him.  She accepted that, satisfied that she at least got him to agree to bring backup.

 

“I take a hand with”, meaning five soldiers or a handful.  “That be all.  Jonn sending soldiers too.  Right, Jonn?”  they headed into the great hall for lasteat.

 

“Yes.  We should discuss this further after our meal.  We can decide where and when to meet so we can coordinate our efforts against this Zobbi fellow.  In the meantime, some of my boys will be heading out to recon sector-27 more fully.  No surprises this time and we’ll go in force as you say, Burtt, but I think you should consider a full twelve of your best to accompany you.  We are going to a fight probably and I find that though a hand is a good mobile force to scout with, twelve is a better number to fight with.  One thing is sure though, this Zobbi won’t be killing or slaving after then, I’ll say.”

 

“Das a’r…!  Ahem!  That’ll be good, Jonn.  Very good.”  Burtt corrected himself with a blush.  “If Taj council agrees, I bring twelve soldiers.  If not, I come alone.  We see in the morning.”

 

Quickly changing the subject before the fireworks started; Kkat had that look in her eyes, Harkk interjected, “You brought us a supply of this material you wear for outerwear.  I assume this protects you from the harsh climate out there?  Can you show us how to use it?” 

 

“Of course.  It is a simple matter of science.” Jonn began, “The entire rig is called an iso-suit.  The outer material is one-way impervious and is the most vital layer.  The CorpSci group developed it for the military.  They are having to venture out into the beyond with us to counter the wildlings and are now more exposed to the poisons.  You should know that not all of the frontier or the beyond looks like our pristine little area.  In fact very few areas do, but we’re finding that where fresh water flows, everything downstream of it is cleansed eventually.   In the bad areas, the suits protect us from the environment among other functions.  We manage to trade for a few skeins every time a milpatrol passes our compound.  One skein will make four adult wraps.

 

“Nothing passes through the material from the outside in to you while excess heat and any toxins your body excrete are passed outwards.

 

“The next layer is the distilling wrap which is also one way material; it inflates as it fills.  You step into this suit like a wetsuit.  You know wetsuit?  Yah?  Well, I’ll show you when I suit up.  This layer collects your sweat and, erm, any other liquids your body emits when properly connected.  It filters all that, gets rid of the bad and stores the good.  We’ll show you how to hook that up too.  This wrap is usually fairly loose fitting.  It will get plastered against your skin once the outer wrap covers it and bladders will fill or empty as needed.

 

“We’ve given you enough of these distiller kits for 15 men and outer skin material for ten to a dozen of you to traverse the frontier at a time.  We’ll get you more as time goes on.  Some distiller kits we’ve found might leak.  You’ll know this as you’ll overheat rather quickly.  You’ll need to test each one.  If you stay cool after 10 minutes, it is working.  Just discard the bad suits, there’s no fixing them easily.

 

“Hair is a no-no, shave it off.  We have tools for this if you need them but you must be 100% bald…everywhere, you  see?.”

 

Jonn’s crew were sneering at all there near pubescent males in Burtt’s crew.  There was barely enough body hair among them all to foul a filter.  The only hair they all had was on their heads and that would soon be gone too.  As for Burtt and his crew, the mystery of the all-bald Flags was solved.

 

“You wear only the very briefest of undergarments underneath, as you’ve seen when we unwrapped.  We find we do better with the G-strings you saw us wearing and women wear the very of slightest strapless garments on top.  Too much energy is lost with so much skin covered and the garments tend to bunch up and can interfere with a good fit.  If you don’t have these, do the best you can with what you do have.  The real limiting factor is the plumbing…erm, well, you’ll see later.  With more than a G-string the plumbing gets real complex some times.”  Jonn was turning beet red. Everyone looked at him as if he had two heads.  Except for Kkat, Bbessie, a few other perserv women and Harkk, The Taj didn’t use undergarments.

 

“Never mind that Jonn.  We’ll figure out that part, okay?  Unless the undergarment is imperative?” Put in Kkat.

 

“No, it’s not imperative at all.”  He seemed puzzled for a moment but then continued with the slightest of smiles nipping a the corners of his mouth, when he understood.  “Some find it easier to, erm, hold things together with an undergarment you see?  Fact is though, the less underneath the better.  We can show you other ways to wrap too.” Jonn blushed again, smiling at the thought of teaching kids to wrap naked bodies in a iso-suit so that various parts didn’t go flopping about or poke through the wrap’s layers, but quickly continued.

 

“The Corp provides these iso-suits to anyone working out of the domes along with uni-suits.  We carry the uni-suits in our hip pouch to change into when we strip out of the iso-suits, and vice-versa.  Next visit I’ll bring some of our women and female kits to show your women how to suit up.  The first time, though, should be all men.  Yah?”

 

It was clear the girls present weren’t happy, especially Jjenna Bok.

 

“Gimme one dem suits n’ Ah figger ‘t out.”  The murmur of agreement heard throughout the hall caught Burtt’s attention.

 

“Hahahaha.  We didn’t bring the right gear for women, girl.  You wait.  Your turn will come, Yah?”

 

She wasn’t happy but when Burtt Looked her way sternly, she quieted with a worried look sent Kkat’s way.  Kkat was only looking, not sneering, so Jjenna pushed her luck.

 

“Don nees no girl gear. Ah good as any boy.”

 

“That’s not at question young lady.  The issue is that we don’t have the gear with us to hook you up down there.  We don’t have the right plumbing for a girl.” he said pointing at her midsection.

 

“The distiller wraps I’ve brought with me are strictly for male equipment if you catch my meaning.”

 

 “The trip takes well over 8 hours with needed hydration breaks and spoofing the wall bots.  By the time we get across the expanse you’ll have pissed yourself three or four times and that, my dear girl, will ruin the suit if not collected and processed properly.  Urine breaks down the material.  With the proper iso-suit fit, all that is processed through the built-in filters.  Without the right plumbing, you see, we can’t connect you up.

 

“After all that, you’re left with a near self-sustaining water supply, supplemented with water skins fitted into the upper wrap and filled before we head out. There’s a tube comes out of one of the top wraps on your face, if you wrapped it right, that you can sip from as you go. The toxins are passed out of the filters through separate tubing that runs down to your foot and out the bottom of the boot wraps. Why not just drink from a skin You ask?  Once you’re in the iso-suit, you don’t expose any skin to the outside.  Not until we are in the clear again.  Even the little bit of exposure I got when we first arrived here, to show you I wasn’t a threat, is more than we recommend.

 

“We all fast before a trip and don’t even suit up until we’ve done our solids business.  There’s no way to process poop inside the suit.”

 

Jjenna’s jaw was stuck open as if she had just then considered what he was talking about.  It left her speechless.  A lot of Taj mates snickered.

 

“The material is too hard to come by and we won’t be getting more for another month at least.  You’ll just have to be patient, miss and wait until next trip.  I admire your spunk, though.  Are all your people this inspired, Burtt?

 

“No matter.  Now!  Before we leave we’ll also show you how to fashion the footwear and the upper body wrap.  This is the hardest part to do correctly.  If you don’t get it right, it’ll unravel as you walk and that’ll be game over for you.  You’ll probably lose that bit of material too.  If that sounds a bit callous, well, that material is life out there.  So, in a lot of ways, it’s almost as valuable as life itself.  Keep that in mind before you spend it.  Once the inside of the wrap is exposed to the poisons in the soil and air, we’ve never been able to get them clean enough to wear again.

 

“You can keep the two pair of boots you have here but have the care to find the right feet for them.  The fit is critical.  Too loose and you’ll have blisters like you never had before.  Too tight, you’ll bust right through.  If you can’t find a good fit, you’re better off unraveling the material and starting over with it.  The stuff is tougher than plascreet too so don’t worry too much about wear and tear.  It will wear out eventually but you’ll get a good few years out of a well fitted suit.

 

“We’ll teach you how to weave the boots properly and then how to wrap your upper body.  The material is stretchy/clingy.  It will fit you like a skin.  That’s why we weave the footwear.  You can loosen the boots enough to slide your feet and legs in and out of them without completely unwrapping like you must do with the cloak, or upper wrap.  The boots should come to your groin.  The Cloak to your mid thighs or lower if you can carry the weight.  It is weighty, so make no mistake.  That’s why you have to hydrate.  You will sweat carrying this weight and it doesn’t breath, remember, it collects and processes, which takes time; you wont soon cool off if you do overheat.

He couldn’t help but mime the act of wrapping while taking, “If you start at the top, get that first wrap around the top of your head and as the wrap comes back around front of your face, bite the sip-tube.  Make one more wrap then let go of the tube.  if it stays where you can bite it again easily, your good.  If not; start over.  We’ll show you before we leave.

 

“Now I’ve saved the best news about the iso-suit for last.”  He paused for effect, waiting until everyone there looked about to burst with anticipation before he finally told them, “Once you reach our compound, well, to be true, once you reach that green area you say you can see from atop your mound, you can de-suit and carry it the rest of the way.  The land is clean beyond there for as far as we’ve scouted.  If you more or less remain in sector 22’s extended cone, that is.”

 

He spent a few moments drawing a crude map in the dirt with sector-22’s dividing pie shape lines extended way out beyond the wall.

 

“By some quirk of nature, you have this lovely flow of clean water you call the Green River flowing past your front door, so to speak, and ours, yes?  We have another flow that bubbles up out of the ground a half klik west of our compound and it has formed it’s own path which has converged with your Green River.  We call it the Blessed River.  We called yours the Sacred River until now.  We’ll call it the Green from now though.

 

“When we first scouted in this sector, oh, four maybe four and a half years ago, the entire plain from the wall to the Rockies was flooded. The Rockies are those mountains you can see to the west on really clear days, yah?” Harkk nodded so Jonn continued but none of us had seen anything higher than the mounds surrounding the Taj.  Harkk had seen the mountains from the Wall.

 

“Well, when the waters finished digging out their current paths and the flooding receded to river flows only, what was left was so green it hurt the eyes to look on it.  We started building right away.  In fact there were the beginnings of a compound already in place.  There must have been a ranch on the land prior to the fall, but a lot of the compounds layout was already done, the foundations for several buildings, that is.  We just built on what was there.  There was even a lot of raw material to work with as if they had planned to build something huge just before it all went to hell.  We figure this land was flood plain even before the fall.  The materials were stored in the one structure that was complete.  The structure was built on stilts and contained only building materials.   The foundations were all five meters tall and constructed of carved granite.

 

“Whatever brought about this happy circumstance, their demise benefitted us, so we are grateful to them, who ever they were.  We mention them in our solemns and devotions before lasteat, as we do all our ancestors.

 

“The flooding apparently cleansed the land.  We’ve been testing it and the water since the day we settled there and not once have the tests shown even slight traces of the poisons that near killed us all.  The land is clean from the confluence of the two rivers south and west, all the way to Cheyenne Mountain , in an ever widening cone reaching out from your sector.  If you remember to look while we’re out there tomorrow, you’ll see the remains of the roadway the Meinklops used to migrate from the mountain to the Colorado Springs debris field that is now CommCorp.  It ran right through the center of that flood plain.”

 

The discussion went on for a lot longer than anyone had planned.  The visitors, who called themselves the Flags after the founder, Antonn Flag, stayed to help properly outfit twelve Taj-mates, plus Burtt.  Harkk decided he wasn’t going, so with the savings that provided plus the two extra sets of boots, two littler boys could be fully outfitted.  In general, Taj-mates were smaller than Flags, so the material they brought with them went further than it would with the outsiders.  They still had to shuffle among eighteen of the best trained soldiers to find twelve they could outfit after Burtt’s suit was done.

 

Jonn had to ask Burtt’s hospitality for the night.  Not even he and his twelve strong band of men would chance a night crossing if they didn’t have to.  They would do that if on the attack, so they could get the drop on a sleepy enemy, but that was a rare exception.

 

The Flags laughed at the children’s tales of demons but even they knew there were things somewhat less than human out there and these denizens roamed the frontier and the beyond at night.  The Army was reporting some recent advancements and innovation on the part of the wildlings.  Their war-fighting capacity was becoming fearsome indeed.  Jonn and the Flag’s own efforts towards security had trebled over the last 6 months.  Security lay in numbers which was another reason Jonn was pushing the Taj to join ranks with the Flags.  Having listened to his crew tell of Burtt’s exploits, Jonn also plagued himself with horrifying thoughts of someone as advanced a leader and warrior as Burtt taking up residence in the beyond.

 

By evening’s end, the Taj and the Flags agreed to leave in the morning with Burtt and perhaps the twelve soldiers the council might agree to send with him.  They would head for the Flag’s compound first, spend the rest of Fifth-day there eating, hydrating, resting and gearing up.  Then move on Zobbi’s crèche to be there shortly after the dawn of the off-cycle, on lo-day.

 

Jonn promised to introduce them to Mil-grade projectile weapons, though he didn’t have enough to share with the Taj.  He still wanted the added firepower present when they confronted Zobbi and his crew, so he would be happy with whatever weaponry Burtt and his crew could bring to bear.  He would work out a plan with Burtt that would keep his Taj-mates relatives safe.

 

When space was allocated for the Flags to bed down, Burtt, Kkat, and Harkk finally headed for their own spaces.

————

 

Outside the meeting hall:

“Why you don wanna come wif, Harkk?” asked Burtt with a nod to Kkat acknowledging his dialect slip.

 

“Hmm.  Well, I guess we’re going to have this conversation sooner or later, so we might at well have it now.  Let’s go to my hut, okay?”  Without waiting for a reply, Harkk turned and walked off.  Kkat and Burtt soon followed when Harkk didn’t stop and was soon out of sight.

 

“What the heck?”  Asked Kkat wondering what had gotten into Harkk.

 

“Him pist fer su-ah” Kett offered from his perpetual station somewhere at Kkat’s heels.  He startled her and Burtt both.  Finally, Kkat had to turn Kett away, twice.

 

“Go to bed, Kett”.

 

“Caint sleep now.  I feel like my legs is movin themsefs.”

 

“Kett!  GO TO BED! NOW!”

 

The boy sulked off muttering.

 

Katt turned back and bumped into Burtt.  He was such a wall.  She bounced off him and would have sprawled had he not caught her.

 

“Boyfriend problems, Kkat?” Burtt snickered, once he was sure Kett was out of earshot. “I bet that boy had his fill o that caff.  That stuff got me all fizzy feeling.”

 

Kkat smiled after her little hero, “I’m going to hate breaking his heart Burtt, but my heart is set on another.”

 

The look in Kkat’s eyes melted his heart.

 

“Kkat, Ah don…”

“Shhhhhh”. She kissed him.  He kissed her back.  It seemed like for the first time and it seemed to last forever.

 

“Hey, are you two lovebirds coming or would you rather talk some other time?”

 

They would have expected Harkk’s comment to be a snarky one meant to humor them.  The look on his face told them otherwise.  Harkk looked either angry or was that the look one had when they were afraid?  They hurried up to his hut.

 

Before Burtt had a chance to get comfortable, Harkk was on him.  “I hope you know what you’re about, boyo.  Those frontier folks might not be all we hope they are and they are a lot more suited to that environment than any of us are.  What if they are just slavers too?  Have you thought of that?  As for me, I’ve had my day on the frontier.  I don’t care to return.  I’ll be staying right here.”  He ended by staring at Kkat as if expecting her to take up the cause.

 

“Burtt, please listen to Harkk.  Please.” Katt implored.

 

Burtt was conflicted.

 

“Alright.  In the morning we’ll call a council meeting.  I caint just pass on this.  If we decide that it ain’t a great idea to have a whole crew go, then I’ll go alone.  We need to see if we can do this farming thing.  WE NEED TO!  If we can get these kids out of here, we ain’t got no choice.  Das a’righ!”

 

Kkat and Harkk both knew they would get no further concessions from Burtt.

 

Kkat was quiet on their walk back to the Taj.

 

As they passed Kkat’s sleeping space, Burtt took her in his arms and kissed her hard again.

 

“I got to go Kkat.  We need this.  You know it too.”  He looked deep into her eyes until she nodded her consent.

 

He kissed her again lightly and turned to leave.

 

She reached for him and pulled him back to her.  “Not tonight, Burtt.  Don’t leave me tonight.  Please?”

 

Katt gently urged him into her space and below the covers of her sleep space.

 

————-

 

In the hall broom storage space near where all the sleep spaces were:

Jjenna Bok watched them go from the dark.  Saddened that she would never have that man to lie with unless she killed Kkat.  She didn’t really want that.  Kkat was trying to help her now.  Spending extra time tutoring her.  Volunteering to pair up with her on team events and sports.  She liked Kkat.  She was head over heels in love with Burtt though and the emptiness she felt in his presence hurt her to the core.  She couldn’t do this.  She had to get out.  If she had to follow them tomorrow, she would.  Maybe they needed women at the Flag compound.  She could come back later for Tukk, her son.  The tears in her eyes stung.  She slung them from her face.  She NEVER cried!

Kett watched too, from behind Jjenna.  She had taken his favorite hide, so he moved to his alternate,  farther back in the same space.  The rage he was feeling made him grit his teeth, groan and grimace, like a growl with teeth showing, he thought.  He fought to keep it in check so Jjenna wouldn’t hear.  It hurt so hard he had to bite it back.

 

————

 

Morning, Fifth-day:

Jonn and his crew were ready to go at sun up.  That was the agreed upon time to depart so they’d have enough time to eat and rest on the back end of the trek before they headed back out to sector-27 early next lo-day.  The Taj, however, were not ready.  They were still in council.

 

“Democracy, eh Jonn?” Jorukk joked.

 

“Hmm.  They must have had second thoughts after we parted last night.  I wonder what the problem is?”

 

“Ha!  Have you ever trusted folks you met for the first time with your life?  Or the lives of your people?  I think they ran into some wiser heads is what.”  Romann offered.

 

“Ah!  Now that I hadn’t thought of.  Good point Romie boy, good point.  We’ll give them time to chew on it then, eh?”

 

They settled in for the short haul, removing their outer cloaks to conserve energy and fluids.

 

————

 

Council meeting hall:

 

He’d practiced most of all night for this moment with Kkat’s coaching.  He had to get this right.  He had invited the eleven potential other travelers to the council meet since this involved them.  Bann, who sat on the council, had also been fitted with an iso-suit and made up the last of Burtt’s twelve potential co-travelers.

 

“This is the chance to save the kids I’ve dreamed about.  I admit, I always thought we’d be headed into the dome to do that, but now that we’ve had some of us in there already, well, it’s clear we don’t fit in and maybe we never will.  Even the people who took us in to help us heal couldn’t wait to be rid of us.

 

“Yes, we’ve gone to great ends to defend the Taj and it would seem a great waste to turn away from it now. But, my new biggest fear has been that we get greenies to bring the kids in and then they all turn on them while they’re defenseless.  I sure couldn’t live with that.

 

“Now, while I think you folks and those kids out there are the best folks ever, and you train harder than anyone, I don’t really think we could withstand an all out attack from the dome, not if the army is called in.  We’d hurt ‘em su-ah, but we’d die in the end.

 

“I think we need this escape, but all I’m asking for now is to scout the place out.  See if Jonn and the Flags are for real.  If there really is room for us to farm and ranch as they say and that’s it’s truly safe too.

 

“Now, I wanna bring a dozen Taj-mates since we’ll be marching on Zobbi too, but if the council says no; I go alone.   We just wait til I return and then we’ll see if the council says we’re good with this exodus plan.  Das a’ri…um, That’s good!

 

“But, just so we all clear, now, I’m goin with Jonn and the Flags, no mattah!”

 

The silence across the table had Burtt worried at first.  Then Bbessie cleared her throat and said,

 

“Well.  Burtt!  I must say, that’s the absolute most I’ve ever heard you say in one sitting.  That’s quite astounding really, and eloquent!  I guess that tells us how sure you are about this endeavor and how certain it is that you will be leaving this morning with the Flags.

 

“I won’t pretend to speak for us all, but I will say that I think it would be a grave mistake for us to allow you to go alone.  In fact, I think our soldiers ought to accompany you.  On that note, and in acknowledgment that you are going and you won’t have it any other way, I second your proposal to join the Flags on this quest and I further propose you be accompanied by the twelve fully trained Taj soldiers whom you’ve already seen fit to gear up for the trip…anyway!”  Bbessie finished with a flourish of her hand, sweeping the motion onto the table for a vote.

 

“Is there a second?” barked Harkk, clearly still upset by Burtt’s choice.

 

“I second the motion,” Offered Bann. “and I volunteer to be among those to accompany Burtt.”

 

The vote ensued and was passed with just one dissenting vote.

 

“Okay.  Let’s have a quick meet with everyone while the Taj is still at firsteat to let them know the plan, then we get ready.  Remember, no-one whose traveling can eat.  Hydrate as much as you can.  Ssarah, go tell Jonn and his crew we gon gear up, then we be ready to go.  Bann, you and the other eleven get weapons for all of us.  No crossbows, okay?  Blades and long bows, arrers and stunners.  Katt and Bbessie, can ya make sure we got what we need to take, food and dry goods, first aid and the like?  Hmmm?  Pack the food deep.  We won’t need it until we get to the Flag compound.”

 

“Okay, Burtt,” Bbessie answered when Katt didn’t.

 

The two women moved off to get started.  Katt seemed to be in la-la-land.

 

“What’s wrong with you girl?  You knew this was coming.  Don’t you go clamming up on him now.  You talk to him before he goes now, you hear me?”  After a moment Katt lifted her head and Bbessie recognized the starry look in Kkat’s eye, Bbessie, sighed. “Oh, dear” was her short report.

 

They moved off to gather supplies for thirteen headed into an environment none of them knew what to expect from.

“Now, I know we don’t have everything here I would prefer them to take along so I’ll need you to run off to the Loks if you will.  Kkat?  Kkat?  Oh, come on girl!  Fine! If you don’t think you can, I’ll send Qquitia to the Haps instead.”

“What?  Oh dear.  Bbessie, I’m sorry.  I haven’t heard a thing you’ve said.  What was that?”

“Never mind.  Come along.  We’ll discuss it as we go.”  Bbessie smiled at the memory of a long ago love…

 

————

 

Just outside the Council’s Door as the meeting breaks up:

 

 “Kett, I caint take ya.  I’m only taking soldiers.  That’s all the council approved, buddy.  You’ll be scout soon enough, Kett.  Don’t be pushin it.  Live some first, Okay?  Sides, I need you to watch out for Kkat while I’m gone.”  Burtt tried hard to soothe the youngster’s fire without dousing it completely.  That didn’t seem to settle the boy’s ardor at all, though.  Maybe he shouldn’t have brought Kkat into the conversation.

 

“I seed you kissin her last night.  I seed it!”  He said accusingly.  Burtt angered but tempered his response.  Kett was a boy still.

 

“Kett, you caint do that.  You caint spy on a girl in her space.  You know that.  What were you thinkin?”

You  was in her space.” He added on to the charges.

 

“I was invited, Kett.  You know that Kkat and I love each other, right?  She’s too old for you anyway Kett.”

 

You says so!” Kett turned and stomped off in angry defiance

 

Well, what do you make of that?  Damn, Kkat.  You got trouble girl.

 

Burtt made a note to mention this to Katt before he left, but he forgot.  It would turn out to be a serious lapse of memory.

 

He made his announcement at firsteat. After that, he impatiently paced until they were ready to go.

 

“Steff, make sure you string those arrows tight.  We caint be losin none in the frontier.  Okay?”  He yelled over to one of the soldiers prepping the weapons loads.  He was just being overly cautious now.  His soldiers knew what they were about.

 

Burtt went to find Jonn and the Flags to invite them to check the Taj’s load out and their first attempts at getting in to iso-suits.


On top of the western rubble mound, overlooking Spring Creek, Green river and beyond:

“I figured I’d find you here.  You can’t go Jjenna.  That’s all there is to it.  You’ll die out there.”

 

Jjenna jumped at the intrusion on her hide at the top of the rubble pile under a huge protrusion of metal.  She was waiting for the men to pass on their way to the Flags compound.  She would follow at a distance.  She had he feet wrapped in extras from Harkk’s plassheet supplies, some goggles and some paper masks to wear during her crossing along with a skin of water.

 

“Don stop me Kkat.  Ah ain’t gots no plac he-ah.  Ah ain’t nuffin he-ah.  Ah gots to get out.  Ah be back for ma boy soons I can.  I jes nees to fin a man.  Den we comes back for Tukk.  You gots to lemme go Kkat.”

 

“Jjenna, please listen.  You wont make it.  You’ll die out there.  What you have on isn’t enough to save you.  Those paper masks barely do anything to help us here in the near zone.  Out there, they wont do a thing to protect you.  Plassheet melts in the creeks, Jjenna.  How can you expect it to protect your feet out there?”

 

Jjenna was crying by then.

 

“I caint stay Kkat, I caint.  I love him too.”  She feel to her knees her sobs violently shaking her.

 

“You can, and you will Jjenna.  We’ll help.  I’ll tell Burtt to send women back just as soon as it can be arranged.  You can wait a few more days surely?  Just until next 5-day.  I promise, okay?” Kkat made the promise hoping that neither Jonn nor Burtt wouldn’t deny them.  She knelt besides the girl and hugged her until the sobbing subsided.  Jjenna agreed to wait but sulked off to her spaces alone.

 

Kkat headed off to see her man one last time before he ventured off into the unknown.  She’d hoped for a few moments of privacy with him but when she arrived at the quad she found the entire Taj was out to bid the travelers farewell.  Everyone but Jjenna Bok, Harkk and Burtt.  While Jjenna was out of sight completely, Kkat could see Harkk standing in the doorway to his servhut talking to someone but she couldn’t see who it was though she was certain it would be Burtt.

 

Is there more about the frontier and beyond that Harkk knows but isn’t telling us?  She worried herself with thoughts of demons and deviltry.  She ran that way to find Burtt before going to the Loks for more supplies.

————

Outside Harkk’s servhut:

He didn’t want their Ks to follow them into the frontier, so Burtt was hustling from Harkk’s across the quad to make sure Dogg and his brood were secured in their ken just beyond the tube entrance when his heart nearly stopped from shock.

“Sneaking off to the wild beyond without saying goodbye big brother?” The mask came off just before she startled him.

 

“JIZMO! Ssyn?  What the hell?”  Burtt was stunned at her sudden appearance in front of him and then at her appearance in general.  “Hoo boy!  Looka you girl.  Damn!  What a look!  Wait!  Whachoo doin he-ah?”  Burtt stumbled through a full circle checking for unwanted eyes but found none.  Then he rushed and picked her up in a bear hug, squeezing until Ssyndi squealed with delight and a little bit of hurt too.

 

“Burtt?  Ouch!  Put me down.  Norton!  You are a brute.  Kkat is right.” She smiled and Burtt couldn’t help but return it.

 

The two looked at each other for a few moments taking each other in, measuring the changes.

 

“You look great…”  they both said simultaneously and then laughed together.

 

“Tell me about this Flag fellow and what the plan is.  I want to know it all and I’m telling you right now, Burtt, don’t even begin to think you’re leaving the Taj without me.”

 

Already imagining a long drawn out confrontation, if what Kkat told him about is sister was any indication, Burtt began to beat back the flames of adventure his sister was obviously fanning within herself.  Her determination was cascading over him and he had to keep his own enthusiasm in check in order to check hers.  She still had to wear that contraption Harkk built her so she could breath outside the dome.  This was not going to go well, he thought.

 

“First off, Flag is just the name of the compound.  It’s named after the founder.  Their leader now is called Jonn.  If he has a second name I don’t know it.  Now, this first trip is really just a recon I think ya call it.  We’re going to check it out.  See if we are a fit.  Yah? Once we get back, we’ll talk about all the options.  This time, just men are going.  It’s all we have gear for, see?”  He hoped he wouldn’t have to get into the “whys” involving male verses female suits.

 

“So.  You’re coming back, then?  Okay.  When?” Ssyndi seemed a bit relaxed now.

 

“Maybe by last eat of lo-day.  No later than mideat on hi-day.  We can have a council meet on first-day of next five-day.  If Jaredd is up to it, you come with.”  Burtt hoped this would be enough to placate her until his return.  The meet would be inside the Taj proper so she would be somewhat protected from the harsh environment.

 

“Okay.  But I WILL be included, Burtt.  I will!  Agreed?” She replied to a relieved brother.  But he knew that this fight would be rekindled one day down the road.  How would he handle that?  He’d have to recruit Kkat, Jaredd, Mmarta, if she was still with them, Bbessie and whomever else they could to convince Ssyndi that she simply couldn’t live outside the dome.  Not for long.

Ah hell, maybe they will get the breather right…

 

“Agreed sis.  I couldn’t just leave you behind anyway.”  He hoped the lie wasn’t too transparent.  He couldn’t look her in the eye saying it.  Ssyn didn’t seem to notice.

 

“By the way, big bad burly street tough brother of mine; you sound right elie to me with them newly ay-quired speechifying skills.  I te’ ya wha!”  The smile on Ssyndi’s face could have split the sun.  Burtt’s heart burst with the sight of it.

“Das a’righ, den.” He playfully replied, planting a big brother kiss on her rosy cheek.  “Now, ya gits that mask back on ya gir”

Ssyndi split from Burtt and headed back to the tube.  She met up with Kkat on the way and after a short discussion to bring Kkat up to date with Ssyndi’s new knowledge, the two quickly headed off to the Lok stead for the first-aid supplies Kkat couldn’t provide from their meager provisions.  Kkat would have to steal a minute with Burtt after she got back.

 

From a hide across the quad:

 

“Kissin two, huh Burtt?  Not f’long o fe-ahless one.  Not f’long, nossuh”, Kett mumbled to himself .  He watched Ssyndi leave Burtt from his hide across the quad.  He kept low to avoid being seen until he was around the other side of the servhuts, then with an evil grin, set off to find his woman and get ready stake his claim once and for all.  He’d missed Katt by a few ticks as she ran around the front of the same huts where she ran into Ssyndi.

 

I set her straight ‘bout ole Burtt.  She come runnin t’me now, su-ah.  I make her crawl some mayb’.

 

He found a place where he could watch for the perfect chance.

 

See how ya likes dis, Burtt?

 

Just After firsteat at the Lok stead:

 

“Now?  Now doctor?  How can I…?  What…?  Oh Norton help me, I can’t do this.  Why now mom, please…”  Jaredd was so distraught, the doctor thought he might need to sedate him too.  Mmarta herself was so devastated, he’d had to put her under for the night already.  When Mmarta took this latest bad turn, Jaredd seemed to lose faith and was showing signs of relapse himself. He seemed to be losing all desire to live and was as much a basket case as Mmarta was.  Marta angst was due to the fact she couldn’t be wither beloved proles.  Jaredd’s was simply self-pity.

 

“Jaredd, we talked about this.  It’s her time.  We need to let her rest and pass on as comfortably as we can make it for her.  I need your help to do that.  I can’t say for certain, but she can’t have more than a month left Jaredd and I can’t be here all day.  We must prepare and we must tell those children.”

 

When Jaredd still didn’t move, or respond to this prompt, Doctor Georgge Greg made up his mind.

 

“Very well, Jaredd.  I’ll deal with this.  You rest for now.  If you decide you would like to participate in the rest of your mother’s life, or your own for that matter, please do let me know.”  The acid in his voice would spur some reaction he hoped.  Anything would be better than this malaise.  Jaredd merely groaned and turned his back, rolling over on his bed.

 

Georgge shook his head in resignation and left the room, closing the door behind him.

 

That damn lout.  Norton!  I’ll have to tell the girls I suppose. This can only lead to more concern for poor Ssyndi regarding her own condition. Oh dear!

 

He suddenly had a thought.  He knew the Loks wouldn’t like it but there was little choice now.  He needed help.  He left the Loks stead with a purpose.  He would bring Dougg Rencon back to care for the Loks on a daily basis until it was over, at least.  He’d deal with Jaredd’s coming fury when that happened.  But if Jaredd wouldn’t get off his ass, then he’ll just have to deal with Dougg for a bit.  Once Mmarta was gone, Jaredd could light a fire under himself or rot.  Mmarta was Georgge’s concern.  He’d never forgiven himself for letting that twit Dougg steal her out from under his nose in mass-ed.  He didn’t much care for Dougg or his offspring.  But he would have to make arrangements for the girl.  Ssyndi wouldn’t thrive under the care and tutelage of Jaredd or Dougg it seemed.

 

Inside the dome at the tube exit five spans later:

 

“…I’m afraid I can’t make it sound any better than it is, girls.  It’s just time.  I am hoping you will help me to prepare the Taj for the sad news.  She is resting quietly and comfortably and I intend to keep it that way, but since Jaredd isn’t responding well to treatment at the moment, I don’t feel we can depend on him to see this through.  We need help.  Adult, and please don’t take offense, but absolutely legal help.  So, I’ve decided to ask Dougg to come back until Mmarta passes at least.  He will be under contract, so he’ll have no claim after she passes but he will collect a stipend and be granted living privileges on the stead.  Mmarta led me to understand the issues you girls have with him so, the randy basta certainly needn’t be in the stead proper.  There are quarters near enough to her spaces for him to reside which are outside the main stead itself.  He’ll have access to Mmarta’s private spaces and his quarters, but no access to any other area.  Perservs can bring his meals to him. When the contract is over, he will move on unless Jaredd decides to retain his services for himself.

 

“Now, if you’re concerned that Dougg might not take proper care of Mmarta, consider that he is at present living in very sub-standard shared spaces without the Lok influence.  I dare say he won’t even consider disrupting the circumstances that bring him back to the cushy life, however briefly, eh?

 

“One final thing I must mention.  Once Mmarta leaves us, I would prefer to never come back here.  I know that you will still need care though, Ssyndi, and the two of you will want to continue your studies certainly, so I am going to refer you to one of my best apprentices.  She is a whiz kid, if you will, a savant and she has an ed-cert.  I’ve not met a more insightful student.  I think you’ll grow to love her as did Mmarta.  Her name is Fflorence, Fflorence Gale.  I’ve saved the best about her for last.  Like Mmarta, she is determined to find a way to help the proles and specializes in breathing ailments/treatments/cures with a minor in toxicology.

 

“Mmarta and I have said nothing to her about our connection to you children, but we will today.  I’m bringing Fflo in to meet with Jaredd.  She will be taking over his care.  May I bring her to meet you two?  Please?  I would be so relieved, and so would Mmarta.  She knows how I feel about staying on after wards, though not why.  At least I don’t think she does.”  The doctor finished with a sad bob of his head, as if accepting his loss once and for all.

 

“She loves you too, Georgge.  If she wont tell you, I will.  You deserve that much at least.  She talks of you like no other man.” Said a mournful Ssyndi.  Doctor Greg smiled as a tear stole free from his eye.

 

“I have never…”  He couldn’t finish.

 

“She knows, doc. Surely she does.”  Kkat added.

 

The three sat and reminisced about the few fun times they’d spent with Mmarta over the last few months of her demise.  Mmarta was ever the trooper, never down and always smiling, making light of their everyday follies.  The only down side to all this for Mmarta was that she couldn’t be in the outer zone with the people she loved most on earth.

 

They made plans to break the news to the Taj.  It would be a terrible day.  Neither girl cherished the chore so they determined to do it together.  They decided to do it the next lo-day, in a week.  That day would also be Ssyndi’s official introduction to the Taj. Ssyndi realized then that she’d never be able to live even a little while with Dougg around.  If Jaredd decided to keep him on, well, that would not be optimal.

 

I have to get out of here, so this might just as well be the catalyst, but what a terrible way to finally come to my people, she thought.

 

“There’s one thing and one thing only I want for me from you and your apprentice, Doc.  I want out.  I want to live with my brother and our people.  Out there.” She pointed towards the Taj.  “So, you get that tech I asked for.  You get it right for me, Doc, cuz this ain’t my life in here.  My life is out there with my brother, my people.  I don’t care if I have to wear the ugliest mechanical contraption ever made.  I don’t care if it weighs me down so much I stoop from it.  I want out Doc and I’m going whether or not you find a safe way for me to do so.”

 

Kkat and Georgge were locked in disbelief.  Neither expected Ssyn to take the news about Mmarta lightly but they also didn’t think she’d be hell bent on leaving the safety of the dome as soon as Mmarta was gone.

 

“Ssyn, really, we need to talk…”

 

“No, Kkat, we don’t.  I’m done here as soon as that tech arrives and I know you’re close because I watched you testing it last week Doc. Was that Fflorence?”

 

“Yes, that was Fflo.  Ssyndi, please lets discuss this.  That rig you saw us testing is not quite a finished product.  We are still checking how well it holds up to normal use.  We haven’t had it outside the dome yet.  Please.  Give it a little more time, okay?  Please?” Georgge was frantic.  That at this late date he might fail his love in the one task she set for him, was beyond his capacity.  It showed.  The material they were using for seals around the edges of the mask and the filter holes were breaking down faster than they could come up with replacements.

 

“Easy, Doc.  I’m not going anywhere while Mmarta lives.  But know this.  I am going.  It’s up to you to find a way for me to be able to do that for more than a few days, if you can.  But, even if you can’t and the breather project is a total failure, I’m going anyway.

 

“There are eight more prole kids here in the dome.  None of them are wanted.  None of them will survive out there without the breather.  So, let’s get a move on, eh?  I am your Guinea pig.  Please, double your efforts.  We need this. And we need it yesterday.”

 

“She’s right Doc, Kkat.  We do need it.  Even I need it.  I think we ought to pull out all the stops now.  Sure, bring Dougg in. He’ll do the things I dread to do and be happy for the opportunity.  But we absolutely need to kick this breather project in the ass and get it rolling.  So, as the de-facto ruling adult of the Lok stead, I declare that from this day forward we will dedicate 40% of the Loks holdings towards the research and development of the Ssyndi-breather.  Further, we’re putting a development drop-dead date on the project or heads will roll…thirty days.  We don’t actually have to do any of that, but saying so will drive people to great ends I think.  At least that’s how dear Granddaddy Natt does things.”

 

The interruption from the doorway to the study caught all three off guard.

 

“Jaredd, I thought you were…sleeping?” Georgge tentatively prodded.

 

“One can only sulk for so long.  Especially when younger females are showing signs of having more balls that I do.”  He replied.  The despair was still evident in the lines on his face but there was something else there now too.  Determination.

 

“I knew you’d come around, Jar.” Ssyndi added with an encouraging smile.

 

Planning began anew and with fresh enthusiasm.

 

————

 

Outside the exit from the tube in the Taj, ten spans later:

 

“He ain’t no gut f’ya miss Kkat.  Him a cheatah.  Him gots girs all ovah.  I seed him kissin on a blont one jes now, I dit.” The look of satisfaction on Kett’s face was more worrying than the fact he was tattling on a crèche leader.  The little man confronted her when she returned to the Taj after leaving the Loks.

 

“Kett, what’s this really about?  Burtt is not that kind of boy.  He barely knows…”
HIMS A CHEAT.
  YOU NEES TO F’GIT HIM.  AHM YOUR MAN.  NOT HIM!”  the raw hatred etched in his outburst terrified Kkat.  She hurriedly backed away from the fired up Taj-mate.  This seemed to enrage him further and he lurched for her.  This was too much for Dogg who’d been watching from his ken. He leapt the fence in one bound as if it didn’t exist and came in a blur to Kkat’s rescue.

 

“HIM AIN’T NO GUT!  YOU HE-AH!  HIM AIN’T” Kett was till screaming and crowding Kkat when Dogg hit him full on the side and bowled him over like a broken twig.  Dogg straddled Kett with a roaring growl, teeth bared and hackles risen.

 

“OUT! OUT! OUT, DOGG! OUT!” Kkat screamed once she caught her breath again. “Heel!”

 

Dogg came to her side and sat, still growling at the boy who was now whimpering and writhing in the dirt, as if Dogg were mauling him.

 

“Wha th’ hell?”  was Burtt’s excited exclamation as he rounded the corner of Harkk’s hut to find the trio unraveling.  Harkk was short on his heels.  “What’s goin’ on he-ah?  Kkat?  Kett?  Well?  Someone say something!”  Burtt was losing his temper.  Kett saw this and after his near life-ending confrontation with Dogg, the boy had no courage left.  He rose and raced off without a word or a look back.

 

“Well, I be damned!  Kkat, what the hell?”

 

“Burtt, let it be.  Please, um, Kett…Kett made a mistake is all.  Oh God, Burtt, he…he was crazy.  He went absolutely bonkers on me…about you.  I was so afraid and then Dogg was there so fast, I thought he was going to…to…Oh, Burtt”  Kkat broke down into his arms.  The heavy sobs wracking her body.

 

“S’okay, Kkat.  S’ovah now.  S’all gut agin.  You’ll see.  Burtt fix it.”  Burtt was fuming inside, though.  Harkk recognized the look in his friends eye and caught his attention.  With a nod in the direction Kett ran and pointing to his own chest, he signaled Burtt that he would address the issue with the errant boy.  That would have to do.  Burtt knew he wouldn’t deal judiciously with the boy right now.  He nodded his thanks to his friend.

 

Harkk didn’t find Kett and the boy didn’t show again until after Burtt and the crew were long gone with the Flags.

 

————

 

In the quad, before the explorers left for the Flag compound one cycle after firsteat:

 

Under the watchful eyes of the Flags, the Taj’s travelers were ceremoniously shaved bald.  When Jonn told Burtt, Bann and those other few boys who might have pubic hair that they had to shave down there too, there was a mass exodus to the treens to accomplish this delicate task out of the eyesight of the rest of the Taj.  More than one adolescent let out a yelp after a nick here and there and then a secondary even more excruciating sounding yelp when they applied the astringent to stop the bleeding.  The job was finally done to the satisfaction of the visitors and they all moved back out to the quad to finish preparations.

When she caught up to him finally she tried not to show the amusement she felt at his fidgeting after shaving.  She was well aware of that sensation.

“So, that’s about all the news Burtt.  I’m sorry it isn’t all good, but we knew this day would come.” Kkat finished updating Burtt on the changes happening at the Loks and with Ssyndi and her care. “The one thing I’m truly concerned about is that cretin Dougg being anywhere near Ssyndi again.”

 

“Hmm! Das wha…, Oh damn!  That’s what I’ve been thinking too.  I have just the cure for that problem in mind.  Ole Dougg, he doesn’t much like ole Bann now that Mmarta told Bann to ignore anything Dougg ordered.  I think we’ll station Bann at the Lok stead until Dougg is gone again.  Tell doc to keep Dougg away until we get back.  Okay?  How’s that sound?”

 

“Perfect, Burtt.  Just perfect.  He is TERRIFIED of Bann.  He’s more terrified of you, so knowing Bann and you are partners will have Dougg on his best behavior I expect.  Excellent!”

 

“Okay, I’ll brief Bann this off-cycle while we are with the Flags.  He’ll be ready to assume his new duties when we return.  In the meantime, why don’t you stay with Ssyndi for a few days.  Might be best for all concerned, eh?”  He didn’t say his name but Kkat knew Burtt was referring to Kett, not just Dougg.  She decided to not say anything just yet about Jjenna Bok.  Burtt had enough on his mind and he was headed into the unknown. He didn’t need any more to think about just then.  It would keep, she thought.

 

“Sure.  That’s a great idea.’ Kkat continued, “Besides, I can keep a better eye on that girl.  She took her mask off when she was here earlier?  Really?  What is wrong with that girl?  I’ll be having a few words with her about that, I will.  Damn!”

 

Burtt just smiled.  He knew the effort it took to control that headstrong girl.

 

“We figure it all out, Kkat.  Yes, we will.  Good things are happening here.  I just know it.  I do!”

 

The brightness of his enthusiasm lent a spark to her own.  She allowed hope to burst through her shield for the first time since her parents passed.  She hoped it wasn’t a mistake. She didn’t think she could take another letdown.

She thought she was free and clear but Burtt wasn’t letting go just yet. 

“What about Jjenna?  That girl be scaring me still, the way she sneaks and spies.  Something wrong there still.”

“Oh.  You’ve noticed that, huh?  She thinks you don’t see her.  She’s mad in love too, Burtt.  With you, and I can understand that.  We had a talk a little while ago.  She was going to sneak after you and try to make it to the Flags where she hopes she can find a man.  I had to promise you’d bring girls next time.  Well, I actually said next five-day.  I know I should have asked, Burtt.  I’m sorry but I didn’t see any other way to keep her here.”

“S’okay.  I figure it out with Jonn.  You done good.  She worries me but I don’t want to see her hurt, or her little boy. Tukk?”

“Yes, the boy’s name is Tukk.  You’re a good man to remember, Burtt.  I think Jjenna’s a good girl, Burtt.  She’s just young and restless and feeling quite a bit of desperation, I would expect, right now.  It’s a girl thing, Burtt.  Trust me.”

“Oh hell yeah!  I ain’t even close to figuring you girls out, so yeah.  You deal with it.  I’m good with that.”

 

“Well now, are you folks about ready to get a move on?  We’re losing daylight my friend.”  Jonn’s interruption was only partly forgiven.  The two star-crossed lovers stared a last needy look at each other then broke apart to prepare for the Taj’s first expedition’s start.

 

“We coming now, Jonn.  You ready?  We been waitin all mornin for ya?”  Burtt smirked to his new travelling companion.

 

“OHO! Tis a joker you are, Burtt.  Well, that’s a fine one…waitin on us all mornin…HAH! Come on let me check your rig Burtt.  That girl of yours is right handy, but these suits are tricky to get right.  Let’s see.  Hmm, erm, well, looka that.  Everything done nice and neat like, and correctly too.  Tis a smart one that girl, Burtt. Don’t be losing her, now.  First time too?  Are ya sure you weren’t practicing all night?”

 

Truth told, when they weren’t canoodling that’s exactly what they were doing most of the night. While practicing Burtt’s speech to the council, they wrapped and re-wrapped his suit to be sure he could do it correctly even in the dark.  They also tested each of the distilling suits for proper function.  All but one tested good.

 

This morning Kkat helped him wrap up and the other travelers found Taj-mates to help them do the same.  Jonn and the Flags watched this with admiration and an even greater respect for these children than they would ever have granted them prior to coming to the Taj.  Upon inspection, they found very few mistakes and those were so minor as to have been negligible.  They only pointed them out to be thorough.  These children just weren’t children, not by any standard the Flags knew.  Children this age back in their compound were pampered much like domed citizens would be still in ed and play-time.

 

Jonn and his crew wondered at the transformation that would take place in these proles and their lives if they did venture out into the frontier.  They all anticipated the kid’s emancipation with great wonder.  Jonn was old enough to have seen it in some of their own, but this would be a whole community of self-sufficient children finding true freedom.  What greatness would evolve from that?  How far could this champion of theirs’, this Burtt, take them?

 

The future suddenly looked enticing again and Jonn was oh so grateful.  The Flag was beginning to fold in on itself.  To become too isolated.  To be honest, there weren’t enough unrelated males and females to go around just now.  This unhappy circumstance was the cause of more than one fall for a gypsy family of rovers like the Flags.  Now that they had settled somewhere, Jonn hated the very thought of their creation falling apart due to a lack of interest in each other. Diversity was needed badly, and soon.  The Taj could be just the ticket.  The Flag adults were all settled and paired off, it was their children who needed to branch out and a lot of the Taj were just the right age to fill that need.

 

With all preparations made, daylight wasting and twenty-six iso-suited travelers sweating in place, the moment had come.

 

Tears and cheers assaulted the ears of the heroes.  Burtt sought out and held the eyes of Kkat while he proudly led his troop of soldiers into the frontier for the first time.  He caught sight of movement to his right and up.  He couldn’t find the source at first but eventually he saw Jjenna Bok’s flaming red trusses poking out from behind her I-beam hide.  He looked back to Kkat who had watched him track Jjenna’s spot and shook her head at him, letting him know it was okay.

 

Burtt saw Harkk last.  He and Kett were atop the rubble mound at Green River and the site of the new greenhouse.  Harkk had his hand on Kett’s shoulder.  Kett just stared directly at Burtt then he flung Harkk’s hand off, ran down the backside of the mound and out of sight.

 

There was no time for that.  They were out of the Taj and on their way to adventure.

————-

 

 

So ends book one of part eight in the adventures of Burtt Klop and his crèche.  Be sure to read part two for the exciting conclusion to their first adventure outside the Taj.  Will Jonn and the Flags be everything Burtt hopes they are?  Will Zobbi meet justice, finally?  Will Jjenna and Kett find peace?  How long will Mmarta last and will Jaredd rebound?  Are the girls safe from Dougg?  Really?  Is CommCorp not aware of what’s going on in secotr-22?  What of the Haps?

 

Ah, how the thick plottens, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

Burtt – part 6: What cost freedom?

poor2

The first day of the five-day, three months to the day after the war.

“ I wanted to kill you the first time I saw you, you know?”

“Oh? And what happy circumstance prevented you from following through on your desires?”

Kkat had come to enjoy her time with Ssyndi while learning medsci at Mmarta’s stead. Their conversations ranged from silly to morose and covered every emotion, life event, politics, science, love, hate, food, diets and even the latest in fashion, even though Kkat had zero opportunity to take advantage of such luxuries. That was okay with Kkat. She enjoyed these talks and it was a nice break from studies. It was decided that both Kkat and Ssyn would study Medsci together either inside the Lok’s condex or if Ssyndi was feeling up to it, outside on the stead grounds. No one had any illusions about Ssyndi actually performing such duties but it kept her busy and in good company.

The conversation this time, it would appear, might be a step higher up the ladder of intensity. Instead of the expected “in-your-face” confrontation, though, Ssyndi’s appearance softened.

“I snuck into the zone right after the war. No one would tell me what had happened but I’d heard enough from the perservs, ‘dozens of dead, at least as many injured, some with life-threatening injuries’, but no one knew who, or they wouldn’t say. So, I dressed up all frumpy like and made my way in with a group of volunteers from the North side. I was so afraid Burtt was hurt or, or…”, her sobs prevented her from vocalizing what she’d feared most.

“Anyway, I got through the tube and after I dropped the supplies at surgery, I saw him. Burtt had this empty, defeated look in his eye. It was sooooo NOT my Burtt. At first, I blamed you. Mmarta kept telling me about how you were his whole life and how happy he was with you. I was sure you’d broken his heart and made him soft. It never occurred to me that it might be the terrible carnage he’d witnessed that had him so down.

“Then when Mmarta brought you here to learn medsci, I almost died. I was so mad! But, since you’ve been coming here, it’s been easy to see you’re totally stuck on my brother. You never stop talking about Burtt. Never. It sickening!”

The two girls broke into an uncontrolled giggling fit.

Kkat was a few years older than Ssyndi. Ssyndi, however, felt she had an edge over her prole friend since she lived in privilege. Still, a sister was a sister. She’d had nothing like that, not even a girlfriend since Kkhloe and it was getting hard to remember Kkhloe.

Kkat and her became fast, mutually adoring friends. Kkat recognized Ssyndi’s harmless patronizing and ignored it for friendship sake. She knew Ssyn would grow out of it eventually.

Ssyndi made every effort to be part of Kkat and Burtt’s life outside the green zone, even if only in conversation. She was still trying to get Mmarta to let her see her brother in person. Mmarta insisted, though, that Ssyndi still wasn’t ready.

Truth be told her lungs were barely holding on, even in the sterile green zone environment she enjoyed now. Ssyndi, in fact, had the same disease Mmarta was dying from. Without her breather, Ssyn couldn’t jog all the way around the Lok stead. Mmarta, herself, hadn’t been showing signs of the disease at this age, though. Neither Burtt nor Ssyndi knew how serious this condition was and Mmarta was not inclined to tell them. It wouldn’t do any good. She had Ssyn on a medical cocktail that kept things mostly in working order.

When it became apparent the two girls were turning into bosom buddies, Mmarta had recruited Kkat to her side explaining Ssyn’s condition and the absolute necessity of keeping her away from anything that could further corrupt her lungs, such as the air in the near or red zones, for instance. Kkat was a willing co-conspirator and did everything possible to prevent Ssyn’s bubbling enthusiasm from causing herself irreparable harm. She also took it upon herself to tell Burtt. She convinced Mmarta that keeping him in the dark was akin to begging for unanesthetized dental surgery.

Mmarta spent every moment of spare time and every cred she could in an effort to advance the study of lung disease. In the meantime, Kkat had Harkk secretly working on a portable breathing apparatus Ssyn could wear in the zone without it being too much of a burden or making her look too much like an alien. She didn’t want to get the girls hopes up, though, so she kept the project low-key. Harkk had little time for it anyway.

This effort to corral Ssyndi was a never ending battle. Much like getting Burtt to attend phonics class and work on that horrendous street-talk dialect of his; keeping Ssyn from plotting, begging or demanding entrance to the zone so she could see her brother was becoming ever more challenging. In the absence of any progress getting herself to the outer zones, Ssyndi recruited a willing Kkat to spy on her brother for her and on all things sector-22 related.

Distracted, as she almost always was when her thoughts drifted to Burtt, Katt thought, Honestly! Doesn’t he at least want to sound civilized? OOOOOOOOO! I could smack him sometimes if it didn’t hurt so much hitting that steel hard bod of his.” The hungry smile reforming her face gave her away.

“Thinking about Burtt again? You’re so transparent, Kkat! Can’t you at least try to show some propriety? I am his sister after all and a minor child.” Ssyndi snarked bringing Kkat back to the present.

“Oh shut up, Ssyn.”

———-

Dawn, Day two:

The blood on his arms was creeping upwards towards his face. He was shaking it off as hard as he could. His arms and hands ached from the effort. The blood continued to creep up his neck until he was swiping at it and trying to keep it out of his mouth, out of his nose and eyes. All he could see, feel, smell or taste was blood. His ears soon filled with the sound of its flow as if in a river. He was drowning. He welcomed it.

As Burtt once again jerked awake from the unrelenting terror the recurring nightmare brought him most nights, he was at first aware of the sweat. He was soaked from head to toe as were his bed clothes. Then he acknowledged the shaking. It was cold now, months still from plantday. Yet he was drenched in sweat. He was naked. His bedclothes were pushed up against the wall and off of himself. The cold probably woke him. He was grateful.

Jjenna Bok was standing in the entrance to his space staring.

“Ya yellin agin, boss,” Jjenna said, slowly lifting her gaze to his eyes. She was one of Ccassie’s old crew. One who came over to the Taj with her year-old baby. She still carried the zone talk she grew up with and was a hard sell for the new way of doing things in the Taj and sector-22. Still, she was 16 and a trained spy. A good one. Burtt knew this and was hesitant to push back against her independence just yet.

Nakedness was nothing new in the zone. There was no shame in it. But the way she looked at him, the way she was looking at him now, left him feeling uncomfortable. He pulled the blankets close to him.

“Ahm okay. Jes a dream. G’on back to ya post, Jjenna.” He told her.

He was further concerned when she smiled that smile she always sent his way when no one was looking.

Damn! Dis be a prob su-ah.

It was times like these that he wished he had someone else to talk to. Not someone from the creche. Not someone who might be hurt. He thought of Kkhloe. She was always there when he couldn’t figure what to do next. But, whenever anyone else came to see what was wrong, Burtt chased them off as if they’d bit him.

Gut lead’r ’pose t’ know dis.

Burtt was still shaking and trying to shed the vision of that sea of blood lurking in the back of his mind’s eye. He dreaded the jaunt to the treen to relieve an overstressed bladder. He dreaded having to pull cold clothes over his still chilled body so he could make the run. He most dreaded seeing Jjenna at the doorway.

She still be smirkin, Ah be crackin her gut, das a’righ. he thought knowing he’d never do any such thing.

She too damn look f’ her own gut. Sum kids gon fight for dat one, su-ah. ‘N why Harkk put da damn treen way out da col, annaway?

He was more worried that he would come out of his space and see Kkat waiting for him.

Mayb’ she hab Jjen’s hide spike t’da wahl. He chuckled to himself, Dat lil vix’n get Kkat lit up ‘f she sees her coming outta he-ah.

Kkat had already told Burtt she was itching to have it out with the little flirt. Kkat seemed angry, but a different angry from what he was used to, so Burtt had kept quiet until he got to Harkk and could ask what a flirt was. He had to agree. Jjen was all of that for sure. Harkk warned Burtt about getting in the middle of a cat fight, then had to explain that saying too. Burtt was nearly a giggling fool when he left Harkk’s servhut.

He shook himself out of his reverie. He couldn’t hold it any longer. He dressed quickly and ran for the door. This time Jjenna sensed his need and let him be when he passed by her.

Morning ablutions cared for and Kkat nowhere in sight, Burtt made his morning rounds. He loved this time of the day. Little ones seemed to be able to sleep for cycles and cycles. Burt was still lucky to get three in a row, any night, but that was okay with him. If he slept more than that he woke to an uneasy feeling; afraid he’d missed something, some threat.

He did most of his thinking and planning in the early hours before anyone could intrude on his space. Sometimes, though, he just needed to put aside thoughts of the everyday business of the Taj and its many citizens. Jaredd called it a purge. This was the only time for such luxury.

Citizen, Burtt loved that word.

“Citizens! It just sounds profound”, he had told Jaredd. Using the word had given Jaredd a start, but using it in proper context and with perfect diction was, well, profound, even if Burtt did immediately revert back to his pidgin and add a “das a’righ” to the statement.

This morning his thoughts betrayed him. He often fell back to those terrible days three months before when so many died because of his folly. He was so sure he had it all figured out, he walked right into a death trap and his kids came to save him. So, instead of just him dying and some few toughs from the other side as he could manage to take with him; over one hundred died during that conflict in a grizzly mix of warriors from both sides. The residual psychological pain Burtt endured from that day never ended. Even though the vast majority of the dead were from the opposition, the visions of massacred children, his children, and the rest, never stopped assailing his memories, never gave him a moment when he didn’t feel guilt. Some days it was unbearable. This one was starting out that way.

This morning he’d been joined by Dogg and at least half of his still youngling brood. Burtt had assigned one youngster to each for care and training, but he usually had them at his heels for the first part of every day. Once they had kids to play with, though, Burtt was soon forgotten and left behind. Dogg stayed with him throughout most of the daylight hours and wouldn’t return to his hide until after Burtt’s nightly rounds. This morning, the pups helped lift Burtt out of his funk.

What a surprise that furry, wiggly, slurpy, happy circumstance had turned out to be. It had turned into the highlight of the creche since the war, so far. Nothing it seemed brought more delight to a child than a puppy. Burtt had set up a rotation assigning one youngster to each puppy each week for care and training, but he usually had them at his heels for the first part of every day. Once they had kids to play with, though, Burtt was soon forgotten and left behind. Dogg stayed with him throughout most of the daylight hours and wouldn’t return to his hide until after Burtt’s nightly rounds. This morning, the pups helped lift Burtt out of his funk.

Burtt took a breath. Blew it out slow like Kkhloe taught him, then headed back to the Taj to add the night’s catch to firsteat.

No time f’ cowahts, Burtt. He told himself as he moved forward.

Dogg woofed in agreement.

———-

“’T-H’. Who knows what it’s called when you put two letters together? And how do you pronounce this one? ‘T-H’?” Kkat asked her mesmerized class of over-eager students. These guys were learning faster than she could put together satisfying lesson plans for them. More than once she had to revert to playing a game or singing songs to make up the rest of their allotted time. The only reason they weren’t reading beyond preschool level is that Kkat wasn’t able to keep up with the demand of teaching them plus her own studies. It was as hard for her to hold them back as it was for them to be held back.

“’S Calt a blen, Miss Kkat. “N ya says it, thhhhhhhhh” Cconnie offered proudly, trying desperately not to spit in class. The tittering was minimal.

Kkat didn’t want to discourage the bold young lady who was so much a leader already, so instead of an embarrassing correction in front of the class, she rephrased her question as if she hadn’t been clear when she first asked it.

“Excellent, Cconnie. That’s correct. Now, I wonder if you can tell the class in proper Standard?”“Come on. I know you can.

“Come on. I know you can.” She encouraged when Cconnie looked about to shrink back into her shell. They were so delicate these flowers.

I wish I could just breathe confidence into them. They are all so bright. Come on Cconnie. Come on girl. Kkat silently pled.

“It’s called an-a blend, Miss Kkat. It is pronou…pronounced, THHHH”, was her determined response.

“Perfect!”

Was the only and best reply. Connie’s smile made Kkat’s day. Just like every day she spent with these kids.

“Who else can say the T-H blend?” Kkat asked the class, fully expecting the ear-offending round of thutting that was going on. But no-one was prepared for the thunderous spitting blast that assaulted them from the rear of the classroom.

“THTTHHHHTHTTTTHHHHHTHTHTHTPPPPGGGHHHHHHHHHT!”

By the time he’d finished his extended vocal assault, the entire class was in stitches including the school Marm. Burtt made his triumphant entrance.

Oho! The mighty Burtt finally shows up for class and he’s thirty spans late I see. Hmmm! What’s the punishment for being tardy, class?” Kkat teased.

“SWEEP THE FLOOR! SWEEP THE FLOOR! SWEEP THE FLOOR!” chanted the class gleefully.

“Alright. I guess we can end class early today but I want each of you to write me a sentence to read in class tomorrow. It can be about anything. Don’t worry about spelling. Okay?”

The worried looks and groans gave her heart a tug.

“Oh, come on now. You guys are awesome. You can do it. I promise, and there’s no right or wrong. Okay? Just write me a sentence.”

As an afterthought, she added, “Burtt will do it too. In fact, since he is either late or doesn’t show up for any class at all, he can write two sentences.”

Her look dared him to defy her. He didn’t of course and instead said, “Yes Miss Kkat.” like a dutiful little man.

“Now, off you go. Show Burtt where the broom closet is and lock the classroom door on the way out so he doesn’t try to sneak off before he finishes sweeping the floor. That’s it. See you all tomorrow.”

Jaredd was so right. I do love this, she thought with a private smile.

After the last of the gleeful crowd departed, Burtt offered, “Ya-You so gut wit dem, Kkat. S’lahk ya – hmm, ah hell, It’s like you was made fer it”. Her glare made him smile. She returned it in submission.

“Someday, Burtt?” She asked in their everyday code, for when he would get serious about trying.

“SUUMDAAY!” he overexaggerated.

Kkat punched his arm hard enough to make him wince. That was new. She’d been kind of soft at first, but thanks to Harkk’s training routines and Burtt’s insistence that all Taj mates were warriors first, Kkat included, they were all turning into hard hitters every one of them, though it was an ever more entertaining exhibit watching Bbessie try to get her buxom body around some of the defensive moves Harkk was teaching. Hilarious might be more to the point. Fortunately, Bbessie thought it was just a funny as everyone else did.

In spite of the horrific nightmares left over from the recent conflict, Burtt wasn’t fooled into complacency or timidity. He knew there was always a threat from the frontier or other near/red zones. There was a threat from the greenies now if they ever got nosy and then paranoid.

Burtt knew that whatever might come at them from wherever, they had to train to be ready for it, so train they did. Every day, as much as they did book learning, they also did physical training. Exercise, sports, and martial arts were seen as commonly on the quad as was reading, scribing and political/historical/sociological discourse (gossip). As much as he dreaded that inevitable day, they would most probably need to fight again so they would be ready if he could help it.

He was proud of their progress and yet he wished he could take them all backward in time. He feared he’d plunged them all into a cauldron of uncertainty that could cost them all their lives. He never stopped looking for that horde of crazies charging in from the frontier or for the storm troopers to come pouring out of their high-level access hatches from the dome wall. He was constantly second guessing himself. That’s what this visit was about but once again, he couldn’t quite say what was on his mind, so he went into his little song and dance routine of delay and deflect.

Unfortunately, that ploy was working less and less with Kkat. Actually, it wasn’t working at all anymore.

“Oh, Burtt. Now what? Will we actually talk about IT, whatever IT is, or will we eventually talk about something else when I give up trying to get you to talk about what you came here for in the first place?” Kkat accused.

“Ya born’d wif dat, or d’ ya mums teach ya? Dat’s some scary hoodoo, Kkat. Lahk yas in ma het. Whew! Damn!”

His complimentary smile didn’t save him from the backhand. Not nearly!

“Hey, hey! Ah caw da cops on ya gir.”

“They won’t be nearly enough to protect you, mister.”

Burtt wanted so much more from their relationship even though he wasn’t sure how to go forward and even though he was pretty sure Kkat wanted the same. But, every time he even thought about getting closer, visions of Rikk’s head leaving his shoulders flashed into his mind’s eye and he couldn’t breathe right, let alone talk. It was futile. He settled for being close to her and poking around the edges of getting closer. The longing was getting unbearable, though. Katt seemed to be getting testier about it oo. Mayb’ t’night

He finally blured, “Kkat. Ahm scared. Das it. Das all. Dat’ aw ‘t evah be. GRRRR! THAT’S ALL IT EVER IS! Ahm afraid Ah gonna put more kids in tha dirt, Kkat. Das Wha! Ever time Ah see yas trainin, Ah see yas fallin. Ah see, Ah see…”

He couldn’t finish telling her that what he saw was Rikk, more specifically, he saw Rikk’s head. He saw it staring back at him from the dirt where it lay beside his body. He saw Kkat telling him she didn’t need him. He couldn’t say it, but the horror echoed in his eyes was easily recognizable and Kkat was perceptive if nothing else.

Burtt sensed she knew he was in a bad way and was ever so grateful.

Finally! He’d gotten it out. Now he had to fret her reaction. He was, after all, the head honcho here more or less. Even Harkk looked to Burtt for agreement when it came to matters defensive. If he was afraid, it was a cinch how frightening that would be for the little ones. How could Kkat ever feel comfortable with him as her protector? Would she ever have him?

“Burtt, we’ve been through this before. I don’t blame you. No one does. The red zoners attacked you, not the other way round, and everyone who came to your aid came willingly. Even Rikk. Even Jjes. They came to fight by their leader’s side as any devoted soldier will do. They loved you, Burtt. These kids here today love you too, just as much.” She almost added, “so do I”.

“Yes, it’s a terrible price to pay Burtt, but I wouldn’t want anyone else in front of us, Burtt. No one else. I wouldn’t trust them.”

“I wake ever morn and head to tha eas side mound looking for trouble. Then I run to tha utha side t’ do tha same. One day they be the-ah Kkat. Hunerts of em n I’m afraid I do tha wron thin. Agin…I hates ‘t.”

“I know you do Burtt, but you can’t take so much responsibility upon yourself. You can’t change the whole world, Burtt. Remember? Let’s keep it real? Harkk is a real smart guy, Burtt, let’s do like he says and, keep it real, okay? Let’s worry about what we can do, right now. Okay?”

‘Ye-ah. Das a’righ. Ah! That’s good, I mean.” He corrected himself in mock seriousness, he continued, “What have you got in mind?”

‘Well, now that you ask so nicely…” She took his hand and headed off to the creche proper smiling snidely, but not actually telling him just exactly what she had in mind. He waited with anticipation to find out. It was always an adventure in new territory when he and Kkat had a few spare minutes. Lasteat was in a cycle, so they actually had some. Unless something else interfered with them as always seemed to happen.

Watching from the darkness of late afternoon shadows, Jjenna Bok’s angry grimace would have had both of the star-crossed friends worried and wondering what to do with this young tart.

———-

Jasonn Hap had been beating around the edge of an accusation for the better part of ten minutes when Mmarta finally let down her guard and admitted she was healing Proles.  She knew it was his sour-faced partner, Hhannah, putting him up to this.  He hadn’t the spine on his own to stand up to a Lok.  She, however, could provoke a bear out of hibernation with that shrill biting screeching voice, if there still were such a creature.

A little more than half of the injured had been returned to normal life in the Taj. There were still 23 poor souls hanging on to dear life by a thread. Their entire existence was spent in the surgical tent with round the clock medical supervision. Mmarta was at her wit’s end trying to keep them going and was on the verge of executing her last emergency fall back plan. If things didn’t turn the corner by end of this five-day, Mmarta would present a plan to the council to admit the worst cases at least into the green zone where they could receive proper life-saving care. And if the council didn’t like it, well, that was too bad.

Mmarta had to deal with this troll first, though. Hap had some intel only someone on the ground there could have provided, she was aware. She’d have to be very delicate here.

When I find out who told this jealous toad, I’ll kill them myself.

“Oh, Jasonn, really. So what if I’m helping proles? How does that hurt anyone?”

“By ‘helping proles’ do you, in fact, mean that you’ve been aiding red-zone proles who were in a war? This is preposterous Mmarta! I can’t stand idly by while you flaunt the law. You lured us into helping you with a lie Mmarta, a bold faced lie. This has to be reported. I won’t allow my family to suffer for your wrongs, Mmarta. I won’t!”

Jasonn Hap was a mid-level manager in the maintenance wing of the CommCorp structure, one of the cogs in Harkk’s chain of command. A relatively low ranking but officious dolt who ran a tight-ass ship. His perservs liked to joke about his proclivity for contracting slender young men as his domestics, though he never made advances he had been caught looking more than once. The Haps also employed a practicing Holistic healer, Bbessie, fronting as another domestic. Hhannah Hap, Jasonn’s anti-social partner, was a fanatic about illnesses and medicines. She feared the former to the extreme and dreaded using the latter for anything, and so, had hired Bbessie, an herbalist and natural healer. That practice had been outlawed by the CityCorp’s medical commissioner as unsafe. Meanwhile, deaths in the green zone resulting from the regular use prescribed medicines were at an all time high. Only 5% of those occurrences were due to overdose.

“Ah! So, what you’ve been up to for the past 20 or so years doesn’t count as flaunting the law, did you call it, Jasonn?” Mmarta threw back in the man’s face, daring him to push it though she would never do anything to threaten either Bbessie or any of the boys this cretin kept in his pen. Life in Burtt’s Taj was way better than any other outer zone sector, but nothing was better than having your own source to greenie perks, and in sector-22 they could still stay with Burtt at the Taj.

The staring contest between the two was won by Mmarta when Jasonn finally turned away with a huff. Mmarta was hoping that would be enough to keep him quiet and debated the idea of letting Jaredd know. He would tell the council and only Norton knew what they would decide. She didn’t like Mr. Hap, but assassination wasn’t in her lexicon of acceptable tactical actions. The council, however, wasn’t beyond such an action depending on what was at stake. She decided to let it lie for the time being. She would keep an eagle eye out for trouble, though as if she didn’t have enough on her plate.

Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself. She scolded.

Mmarta didn’t see Hhanna Hap lurking in the hallway, listening to every word.

How dare that snooty bitch threaten my Jasonn. So what if he’s an impotent dolt. As if Holistics were on the same level of crime as aiding and abetting a prole war. I’ve got you now bitch and daddy can’t save you this time. We’ll see how you feel about having your darling little retard exposed, too. Your family has held us back for far too long. It’s our turn now Lok. Enjoy the squalor of your new home.

Hhanna was gleefully imagining the downfall of the Loks at her hands. It was all too delicious. Mmarta’s father had squashed the Hap boy, Claudde’s, rise through the ranks of finance. The superior bastard had Claudde classified as substandard/non-management level and removed from the progression charts, permanently.

Claudde wasn’t stupid, damn it. He was a little slow. No reason to condemn him to mediocrity. Norton take the Loks.

She continued to stew as she plotted her revenge. Hhanna Hap lived in complete ignorance of the true cause of her son’s demise and her partner’s true tastes.

Claudde was terrified by everyone, but more terrified of his mother finding out, and so, he was living a sub-civilized existence in a secret fantasy world of his own creation. Hunkered down in the upper story loft of his parent’s stead, it was an ever more difficult task for him to come out of his fantasy for eight cycles every day of each five-day to perform his assigned tasks and he was always distracted. The poor reviews from Natt Lok were fully deserved. Claudde absolutely was a sub-standard worker who lived for the offcyles between the five-days and most especially the quarterly extended offcycles.

Hhanna, who watched over her son like a mamma bear, thought she knew her son. This lazy streak was just a stage.

But he did need to grow out of it soon.

She’d been on Jasonn day in and day out. This had only driven him farther away from her.

He’s going to snap one day, she thought. What made him like this?

She had to get him sorted out and the best way to do that was to dethrone the bitch next door and take out her stuck-up bigwig daddy at the same time. Her Jasonn could then retake his rightful position atop the food chain where others would do his beck and call instead of the other way round. Then there’d be no pressure on him to perform. Others would while he took credit as leaders should.

If Claudde could just get a fair shot…I could get rid of this fool Jasonn, and the two of us could truly live high off the hog. No longer looking up at the damn Loks’ backsides. Oh yes, Mmarta Lok. You are so finished.

———-

Morning, Day three:

“Bann, don’t stop on the way. Don’t show this to anyone else, understand. Go now. Go quickly and get things rolling as best the council sees fit. Go now!”

She handed Bann the note. As soon as she woke she’d had had second thoughts about hoping the Haps would keep quiet and decided an ounce of prevention was in order.

Mmarta was in such a state that Bann just nodded and ran out. Over his shoulder, he shouted, “Dougg ha’ me sortin his tings for packin, Miss Mmarta. He gon b’ mad su-ah.” Bann didn’t seem worried. In fact, he was smiling as if he’d just heard the funniest story.

Dougg, fighting his extradition from their condex tooth and nail, using every legal means at his disposal, had delayed his departure from the Lok’s stead until now. He was near the end of every possible subterfuge available to him and was actually in the process of packing his belongings. He had no further sway on the Lok stead and yet he insisted on tying up household perservs doing his menial work as if he still had a right to. The only reason the ungrateful bastard hadn’t found himself in the mines was because Mmarta refused to bring any more grief down on her father. So, she’d never allowed him to be reported to the authorities after Kkat had set him up. Bann, delighted in being the one to report what he thought would please Mmarta and Jaredd to no end and would also be the end of his chief antagonist, had spilled the beans after leaving Dougg unconscious in the tube. Mmarta had convinced Jaredd to get help from some perservs and go fetch the errant Dougg. She filed under, don’t go there, finding out the reason Kkat had set him up. She didn’t care, as long as it hurt no one else.

Stopping Bann before he could get out of hearing she commanded, “Estebann, I know you find this a difficult thing to do and I do understand, but I must insist from this day forward, you do NOTHING further for Mr. Rencon. You do not serve him any longer. You serve my household, the Loks, only. You are to refuse his every order. They are invalid here. I wish you would also pass that info on to the rest of sector-22’s perservs. Is that okay, Bann?”

“Ye-ah, das a’righ, Miss Mmarta. Ah go now.”

“Good, don’t worry about Dougg. I’ll deal with him.”

It only took a few minutes and Bann was seated with Burtt and Harkk in the great hall going over Mmarta’s blurb together while Kett gathered the rest of the council. Harkk was by far the better reader, so he did the honors.

I deeply regret to inform you that you are perhaps in grave danger. Our neighbors here in the green zone, have become aware of the true nature of the situation in the Taj and have mentioned reporting it to CommCorp authorities.

If this were to happen, I’m afraid your lives would all be in jeopardy. It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that the Corp will decide that their best course of action would be to eradicate the outer zone prole problem. You know what this means.

I have done what I can to keep the neighbors in check, but there is no certainty in that. I urge you to prepare as best you can. I further urge you to execute your plans without mine or Jaredd’s knowledge. What we don’t know the Corp can’t extract from us. I would also point out to you that there must be a mole in the creche. The Haps never venture out of their condex. Someone had to alert them. Ask Jaredd how to use a “bait and trap” protocol to find your leaker.

Praying for all our lives.

M

PS: ACT NOW BEFORE ITS TOO LATE!

The council, minus their advisor, Jaredd, soon was gathered around them and Harkk reread the note. The somber tone of the blurb had all of them worried and invoked many questions.

Just how serious a threat was this?

What was a bait and trap routine?

Who could this leaker be?

How much had been given away and what could they do about it?

Act now?

And do what?

Once all the questions were stated, a nervous quiet prevailed until Harkk got things going again.

“Okay. I can see by the looks on your faces that this has you all very worried. Me too.” He said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, right? We can deal with this, but it’s going to take some effort and everyone in the Taj has to be involved.” He looked purposely at Ccassie so she would know he was speaking to her and her troops too.

“Now, first things first. Mmarta is right. We need to isolate and eliminate this mole and the sooner the better. As it happens, I know a thing or two about the ole bait and trap routine and I have some ideas how to make it work for us.”

He continued, “The Haps are a low-level family. In truth, they are just one rung up the ladder from Bbessie and me on the food chain. They aren’t well off at all so, they don’t pay well at all. That means that their perservs, besides Bbessie, will be constantly looking for ways to better their lot in life and one way to do that is to help better their sponsors lot in life.

“So, if we were to slip each of them bits of false information about different fake deals supposedly going down between the Loks and some red-zone druggies, for example, the Haps will hopefully jump on another opportunity to outflank their chief nemesis, the Loks.”

It wasn’t uncommon for proles to bite the hand that fed them occasionally. This truly was a dog eat dog world they lived in. Their plan was not that farfetched.

He continued, “So, during idle chit chat with them, we’ll conspiratorially pass each of the Hap perservs details about a different fake meet happening in a different place and time in sector-22’s near zone.  Our true friends will keep it to themselves, but assuming our mole does his or her thing, the authorities should act on that intel when the mole or the Haps pass it to them. If and when the authorities show up to arrest the offenders, who of course won’t be there, we’ll have earned two feathers for our caps. One, we’ll know who our leaker is based on where and when the cops show up, and two the Haps will be seen as troublemakers not to be trusted again by the Corp. They may even fall under suspicion themselves.  We can deal with the mole then.”

With everyone in agreement as to how to proceed on that front, they moved on to plans for defending the Taj.

Burtt, however, had his own ideas about this mole. He’d been thinking about the one guy they never saw in the sector-22 near zone anymore. He was one of the Haps perservs. Not a domestic, a tech who built solutions for Jasonn Hap’s service issues within the city-state. He was technically Harkk’s co-worker though way junior to him and far less experienced. He had a servhut just inside the near-zone, similar to all the other tech, mech or sex toy servhuts.

Burtt had never thought to make it a rule that everyone in sector-22 swears allegiance to the Taj, but even if some of Ccassie’s boys did so hesitantly, everyone did except one. Knutte not only didn’t participate in any Taj activity, he didn’t acknowledge its existence. Now that Burtt had reason to suspect, Knutte came to mind first and foremost. He’d wondered why Knutte was so standoffish. He’d once worked a few trade scams with him defeating bots, but one-day Knutte just stopped coming around. He stayed in his own spaces or he was in the green zone. Burtt would visit this with the council again later.

“Now, I have some ideas how we can prepare for the worst…” Harkk continued.

The biggest item of contention during this rounds of talks was manpower. Since the proposed project would include sub-surface labor, Burtt was against making anyone work underground who didn’t want to because he hated it himself. Every time he’d gone underground scavenging or critter hunting, he came out in a cold sweat wishing he’d never considered the idea. Harkk, envisioning how any lazy troops in the crew might take advantage of such a rule felt everyone should have to do their fair share of the work, no matter what that entailed, but was willing to hear options.

When they got down to the actual physical planning, it was evident that there would be as much heavy lifting done above ground as below. Whatever they dug up would have to be moved to other parts of the creche to hide it or to aide in other constructs, such as building up a readout. A lot of that transport would happen above ground. So, there was an easy consensus found with all agreeing that it wasn’t imperative for everyone to have to go underground, though everyone would be working themselves into some seriously blistered hands and aching bodies.

Harkk would fashion some barrows to facilitate moving so much dirt and debris from point a to point b.

Schedules were worked out splitting the workload evenly across the crèche. Of course, little ones wouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting, but they could still dig, run messages and errands, get supplies, bring meals and water, and most importantly, stand guard. Ccassie’s troops made up the bulk of the brute workforce, doing all the real heavy lifting along with Harkk, Burtt, Chukk, Bann and some few of the larger middle aged Taj-proper kids. Chukk, in particular, seemed to love hauling dirt. The heavier the load the better. Weird as this was, Chukk sang when he worked. The harder he was working, the louder he sang. What was weird? He sang in a clear and beautifully melodious voice. As time went on, the other workers would chime in for the chorus. Burtt loved this about his crew. They truly were family.

This project would drastically change the sector-22 outer zones from top to bottom. In order to disguise all the underground, demolition and entrenching work to be done, there would be a concurrent clean up project continuing in the old red-zone. The noisier operations would be coordinated with above ground activities that would cover those noises just in case the bots got nosy.  They had to hope there wouldn’t be any flybots snooping around.

The plan included:

  • The very first priority was to move surgery to a safe spot just inside the red zone. There it would be as far from the greenies as possible in the event of the pending raids and yet close enough to be supported. This would entail a massive clean up effort in and around Pokke’s old crèche. This was the only area they could use without revealing the location of the rest of the works to the Loks and their greenie friends. That ramshackle mess was the perfect disguise for the soon to be constructed, environmentally sealed off MedCent. This is where all remaining patients would stay until and if better homes could be found for them in the green zone. This was given the highest priority among all the projects and the most bodies were dedicated to its construction. The manpower hours needed just to design and build the MedCent airlocks out here was mindboggling. Harkk never felt so overtaxed in his life trying to keep up with all the projects he had going along with his never-ending responsibilities to CommCorp. He was teaching Burtt and Bann as much as he could as they plowed through the many preparations for the inevitable raids. A great deal of time was spent by Mmarta, Bbessie and Jaredd coming up with a safe way to transport the worst cases from point a to point b. For a lot of them, the slightest jar set them into seemingly never-ending spasms of pain and or coughing. They finally settled on carrying each of those cases on litters and by hand with whatever tenting was necessary to protect them from the environment.  Though tiring and time consuming, this method was easier on the patients than what they’d experience on a gurney over the pockmarked outer zone surface. With backup teams in tow, and moving slowly, they figured this would be the least jarring method of transport. The rest they would move on gurneys. Finally, considering the logistics of having to move so many patients at once in an emergency, it was decided to move them as soon as the new facility was ready to receive them, hopefully before any raids occurred.
  • Leave the original red zone wire in place and unpowered to facilitate ease of surface passage between the zones in normal times. The new EEC would be incorporated into this circuit as planned.
  • Concurrent with the new MedCent construction, Rig an Emergency Evacuate Circuit (EEC, or EEK as the kids referred to it), throughout the sector, so that anyone could activate the emergency protocol with a simple pull switch. Said protocol, activated a sector-wide audio/visual alarm sending everyone scrambling for the egress points, and disabled hydraulic door solenoids to all the egress points leading from the Green zone to the sector’s outer zones. Though some troops would get through, the doors would close down again almost immediately, allowing a few vital minutes for the evacuation to get under way before CommCorp could restore control of the entrances and their storm troopers or the cops could mass and intervene. Along with this, an additional circuit would be energized and ready after a short warning period to recharge the original red zone wire, burn down the props holding the wire up and out of the way, and destroy all the modifications he’d made, leaving no trace of Harkk’s work behind.
  • They would also construct a number of forms that they could strew about the open space of the great hall when there was a need, to make it look like a storage warehouse. Harkk would remain behind to cover the egress points with these forms, and then pretend he was taking inventory when the cops showed.
  • Until the rest of the project was complete, a plan was made for an orderly evacuation from the crèche to Ccassie’s. Ccassie’s crèche was simultaneously expanded without making it look too obvious or new and modified to make it externally look like a condemned property.
  • Excavating escape hatches and a tunnel leading from the Taj, underground to the lowest level of Thomass’ old crèche, a factory from a bygone age which had 3 stories below ground, and from there to Ccassie’s. Reinforcing the underground constructs with plascreet Harkk would have to pilfer from CommCorp’s supplies.
  • Completely demolish what was left of the previously burned down street level structure at Thomass’, then reinforce and build out a living space for 150 plus souls in the deepest part of that old factory building, leaving the ground level looking as though it was unpassable rubble. The only access to this hideout would be through the underground tunnels connecting to the Taj and Ccassie’s crèche. Any passages to and from Thomass’ street level creche through the two sub-stories above the new living quarters were also buried and impassable.
  • Rig power, water, and sewage to the hideout.
  • Rig and power a new red zone wire out to the outer limits of sector-22, anchored along the Spring and Fountain creeks and very difficult to avoid on the slick steep banks. This could be energized at need and would help deter attacks from the frontier. This circuit would not be affected by the EEK in any way. This circuit could be energized at will. In emergencies, it would be energized as part of the security protocol.  There would be several activating pull switches located throughout the zones.
  • Stockpile as much as they could manage in supplies, foodstuffs, first aid, and water.
  • When all that planning was done, they decided that they might be erring on the wrong side of caution. What if they just didn’t have time to get out?  What if that unhappy circumstance occurred and it was apparent that the greenies weren’t in a mood to grant leniency but were likely on an extermination mission? What then? It was apparent that the only choice then would be to stand and fight. More was added to the plan as a result: They would build fighting trenches as hidden as possible across the near and red zones. They would build them in layers moving back into the zone and build as much protection into them as possible with perpendicular covered communication trenches connecting one layer to the next. Sending messengers or evacuating to the next layer back would not involve exposing crèche-mates to direct trooper fire. With deep covered trenches, steps up to fighting positions along the trenches, and sand bags fronting and roofing the fighting positions, their soldiers were as protected as they could make them. CommCorp’s soldiers would have projectile weapons far in advance of anything The Taj fighters had and they were armored, so facing them in open combat was not recommended. Striking at them from behind walls of dirt and wood, as difficult as that may be with bows and arrows, was the only possible way for them to have a chance at surviving the ordeal. The troopers would start out with non-lethal ordinance maybe, but once one of them went down with a red tipped arrow sticking out of an eyehole or one of their armor’s joints, the gloves would surely come off. Finally, A sandbagged and rubble HQ/Triage suite/Readout at the far end of the red zone in what had been Hamill’s crèche would be built as the last stand. The youngest, the remaining injured in the MedCent and the medical teams would be evacuated here as soon as hostilities broke out. Litter teams would be pre-positioned too. Jaredd had continued to bring them as many arrows and bows as he could safely get away with. Harkk was getting real good at fashioning near perfect arrows to add to their stockpile; getting wood was the problem and he couldn’t fashion the new composite materials without molds, ovens, and presses he wasn’t authorized to have. Nevertheless, they would pre-position most of this stockpile evenly throughout the fighting positions and trenches along with first aid kits, stretchers, water, and nutrition bars.  A fair portion of their arrow supply would be waiting in the forward most fighting positions for the best shooters in the creche. They would also construct and place bridges strategically located across trenches for ease of surface passage through the zone in normal times.  When the balloon went up, these bridges would be rotated and became part of the roof defenses. The greenies would have to be deep in the zone itself in order to see the earthworks. By then it would be too late to worry about it and it would be game on anyway, so this wasn’t considered a great security risk. There still weren’t enough bows to equip everyone in the creche. After the supply was exhausted and litter bearers and messengers were allowed for, there were still some 50 or so warriors without bows or jobs. These were broken up into melee teams. Their jobs would be to attack any cops or soldiers who got into the trenches with them, at least until the shooters could retreat to the next layer. These soldiers were armed with stunners, short blades and a new weapon Burtt developed with Harkk’s help. Using a stash of wooden almost wrist thick dowel stock longer than Harkk was tall he’d found in one of his earlier underground forays, they added a shaped stone weight to one end. Together they’d spent hours rubbing each stone weight to a thinner, finer, very sharp point. The end result was a stabbing weapon of extreme reach. The one drawback was that the stone points were brittle and broke easily. If they struck true, though, they would pierce the light armor cops used, and of course, if they struck flesh, the results could be devastating for those on the receiving end. Hark called it a spear. Each member of the melee squads also had a small shield to offer some protection from any non-lethal ordinance their enemies might use.

When the planning session concluded the meeting broke up, Burtt and Kkat remained behind while everyone else went their separate and quiet way home. Most reflected on the unhappy topic of the day and how their lives had just taken a dramatic turn. Whether it would be for better or for worse, only God knew.

“Whah ‘r peeps lahk dis Kkat? Whah we eat each othuh alahv lahk dis? We no bettah den tha rats Kkat, das a’righ. Times Ah jes feel ole. Yessuh, ole man, he-ah. Make me tiahd.”

“I wish I knew Burtt. What I do know is that I’m with the best people this world has to offer and I’ll fight with them to the death. How about you, old-timer? You up to it?” She smacked him on the arm.

“Jizmo, girl. Why Ah needs t’fight when you he-ah?”

Harkk came back and waited for the two to look his way before he intruded all the way into their space.

“Burtt, Kkat, the first thing we need to do is catch our spy. I was hoping we could spend a little time planning that out before we turn in for the night. What do you say?”

Both were willing but Burtt still had his rounds to do and limited the time to one more half-cycle.

“Gots a gut feel f’ who we nees t’spy”. Burtt offered.

“ You do? That’s great. Now, here’s what I had in mind…” Harkk started.

———-

Day four at the Meinklops Tower:

…this savage boy leader, his name is reportedly Burtt, has the outer-zone proles in sector-22 assuming the rights of true Citizens, such as naming days and using family names they’ve obviously purloined from honored families of the city-state.

That is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. The Loks have been secretly flaunting the law for years. I have only come forward because I can no longer, in good conscience, ignore this blatant disregard for the City State and CommCorp. Out of fear for my life, however, as they have repeatedly threatened me, I dare not expose myself further.

At present they are running an illicit clinic saving proles injured in a war the Loks themselves propagated by propping up this boy leader from the outer zones. They are plotting to force a confrontation with CommCorp over the plight of the proles.

As a concerned citizen, I beg you, please, take action to end this insurrection before the cost blossoms into something far more painful than a few dead proles.

Feeling threatened,

A concerned citizen.

“What am I to make of this, Natt?” Henrry Meinklop asked holding his pad out for Mr. Lok to see the anonymous comm for himself. Henrry covered his mouth as the disease slowly eating him from the inside out gripped him with another painful spasm and signaled his son to continue.

Josipp, asked from across the room, “Freshen your’s, uncle?”

As with all the upper crust of CommCorp, the familiarity shown each other was always present, except when it wasn’t. If your boss’s son didn’t refer to you as an uncle, you knew you were in severe trouble. Since Henrry wasn’t making proclamations about city-state security and Josipp was still pouring thousand cred bourbon, Natt Lok hoped he could still wiggle out of this mess like all the others his star-crossed daughter had made.

A prole war? What the hell? Mmarta, you’re killing me.

Natt Lok knew he’d been lucky, His good friend at security, Daltonn Kleg, who just happened to be the Officer of the Watch that night, had intercepted the blurb anonymously sent by Hhannah Hap over the net, and handed it directly to Henrry.

“Henrry, of course you know we all have huge targets painted on our backs. We Loks and Mmarta in particular, have our enemies too. Mmarta has made herself a vocal proponent for the ethical treatment of the proles, I know, but she would never foment open revolt. That’s ludicrous. Undoubtedly this is the jealous pushback of an anti-prole reactionary. You don’t really lend it any credence, do you?”

“Father doesn’t always know what to think anymore, do you father” Offered Josipp slurping back his third glass since Natt arrived for the conference. He slammed the glass down on the table rather more firmly than was polite, but he was getting a bit tipsy. He giggled, then caught himself and continued.

“He is often confused by all this subterfuge over there in Secotr-22, Natt. First tier bots shut down for days over some alleged mass illness with the perservs. Oddly enough, though, they looked none the worse for wear to our stead rep. Reports of massive draws on plasma, meds, food-stuffs and surgical supplies, far more than should be needed for a few ill perservs, don’t you know, but no detailed reference as to where it all might be going. Then this,” he pointed to the accusing comm.

“You can see how my father might wonder, just a little, what’s really going on over there, eh, Natt old boy?”

“Josipp, Mr. Meinklop, I assure you this is all a bit of baseless finger pointing. I will get to the bottom of this straight away. May I use Corp Detectors to run the queries? I can have preliminary results to you by end of next five-day.”

“Hmm, so, you want to run an investigation into your own activities using our cops, is that it? Am I missing something here Mr. Lok?” Josipp slurred at Natt with an obviously disbelieving sneer in his voice.

You’re obviously not as drunk as I would have thought…or hoped. Just how much do you drink now Josipp

Natt was near certain that whatever ill thoughts Henrry might have about his old friend Natt Lok, it came from the well-liquored mind of Josipp Meinklop and his cronies in the self-preservation crowd as they were known among the elite of the elites.

“That’s enough Josipp.” Henrry interrupted around coughing fits. “I have no problem with my old and dear friend, Natt, getting to the bottom of this. In fact, I would tend to agree with his assessment. Some jealous lesser is trying to make a better life for himself at the Loks expense. I’ll not have it I tell you!” The elevated volume brought on a new fit. This time it lasted several minutes and included some heavy blood flow from his mouth.

Norton save us, thank you, Henrry. Natt sighed in relief. Please don’t die on me now, though, Henrry.

Natt and Josipp both noticed the bloody drip and without conferring with Henrry agreed to end the session then and continue it at a later date.

“Please do keep us informed, Uncle.” Said Josipp. This time the emphasis on the word uncle seemed a bit contested.

Don’t for a minute think I am as naïve as this old man, Josipp thought with contempt.

Natt Lok nodded his assent and left them wondering if he would see his old friend Henrry again. He was certainly not long for this life. Natt had no misconceptions about how things would change for the Loks once Josipp was the boss. He wasn’t one to tolerate ethical treatment of any sort for the dirty scum of the outer zones. If it were up to him he’d send extermination crews out there periodically to scourge the earth of these denizens.

Through Natt’s contacts, Mmarta had worked her charms to bring about some compassion for the proles among the elies. But they wouldn’t hesitate to turn on her and the Loks with the passing of the torch to Josipp.

It’s too bad you don’t pass with Henrry, you weak little shit. Natt retreated with one intent. That stubborn woman must cease and desist now. Damn it!

———-

Another month passed before the cops acted on the intel they’d received from Knutte. They spent the time in between trying to verify what they could about the Loks, the Haps and this suddenly civic-minded prole whom they had no record of at all. They had him in custody and were working him periodically to see if his story changed. It didn’t so the day finally came and they moved on the near zone of sector-22 with a squad of armored cops. This was being kept a civil affair involving the cops only. After all, it was just a drug deal as far as they were concerned. So far there was no corroborating evidence backing any of the other claims as recorded by remote flybots. All they had now was a non-credible lead on a drug deal possibly involving red zoners and citizens. And that was the only reason they were here. If it involved a citizen, it had to be investigated.

Obviously, the Taj had adjusted well to the crisis and kept their visibility way down. The flybots were a pain but not insufferable. Distractions could be generated that would open small windows of opportunity for creche mates to get Taj business done while the pesky spies were busy investigating false flags elsewhere.

Kkandi saw the first armored Corp cop come through the tube lock. For barely a second she hesitated. She was in training to be a domestic with the Loks and was just returning to the Taj herself when she sensed the air pressure change in the tube. She turned just before she made the corner to head for her servhut and drop off her tools of the trade. The unmistakable deadliness of that armored boot stepping through the barrier caused her to pause first, then she sprang for the EEC.

Three things happened in quick succession that startled her even though she expected them. She heard the clang of the airlock slamming shut and prayed there was no one in the way of the crushing maw of the clamshell doors. The shriek of the alarm and the flashing red lights came shortly on the heels of that clang. Kkandi peeked around the corner and as Harkk had predicted the one cop who’d gotten through was frantically pecking away at the door’s control panel and speaking into his comm unit, paying no attention at all to what was going on behind him.

The lights and alarms would not seem out of place to the cops as they were the same alarm and light patterns expected with a door malfunction. Since there were no outside lights in direct sight of the tube proper, the cop inside the tube (or cops if that were the case) wouldn’t know the light and audio alerts were repeated throughout the compound. When the emergency ended, so would all the alerts. The cops would have to look hard to find these alert devices and would need a reason to do so in the first place. Harkk was gambling the cops in the tube wouldn’t venture very far from the door until their compatriots on the other side joined them. Strength in numbers and all such things being considered.

Fortunately, they had completed moving all the injured to the new med center long before. The importance the council had placed on finishing that facility first was suddenly clear to Kkandi and she smiled as she took her preplanned place at her servhut where she would be found sewing her spare uniform should someone come looking.

The first test of the EEC was moving along flawlessly, Harkk thought.

So what is Burtt doing headed for the tube?

Harkk checked once more to be sure there were no more stragglers.

Ah makes dem pay ‘fore dem gets one o mah kids. Das a’righ, Burtt thought, spreading his feet, prepared to meet his fate. He drew his blades and took up guard just around the corner from the tube exit, between the Taj and its potential enemies. He was determined to stand between the two until he was sure all his crèche mates had safely passed through to the nearly finished escape route, or he was dead.

They could now at least get beyond the rubble mound underground then dash the rest of the way to Ccassie’s out of site of the near zone if they could just get out of the crèche first. Any mates above ground and close to it would dash through the approach alley to Pokke’s old crèche. The wire was still propped up out of the way and carried no voltage until the final stage of the EEC re-charged the wire and destroyed all the props. There would be a short all-clear audio alarm then and the flashing lights would change from red to orange for a brief interlude before going dim again for good. This would warn anyone not under the wire already to beware and take precautions.

Harkk made his way to Burtt while the last of the crèche slipped into the escape hatches. The only ones left now were supposed to be here, sponsored perservs or trainees. Except for Burtt.

“Burtt, the kids are all out. It’s your turn now. You’d better go. Burtt?”

He seemed to be ignoring Harkk so Harkk moved around in front of him. Burtt was flushed and seemed to already be in that crazy battle state he got into when pumping himself up for a fight. Harkk fretted he wouldn’t be able to calm this boy before it was too late.

What is it like to have no fear, he wondered.

“Burtt! Please. It’s time to go. The kids are safe. GO!”

“Dem kids ain’t safe ‘f da cops go lookin f’ dem Harkk. Ah stay he-ah wif you, Ah c’n watch from up top f’ dem go inna ret zone. ‘F dem gets t’ killin’ kids Ah c’n stop sum annaway. Mayb’ dem let ‘t go affa Burtt unna da dirt.”

“Burtt, these are CommCorp Cops, not the military. They never go to the red zone, never. That’s why we reported the fake drug deals were happening in the near zone. You should go now before they crack the doors again. There is no need for you to be taken now. You know what they’ll do. Think of the kids. Think of Kkat. You damn sure are not leaving me to explain to Kkat how I watched you be taken by the cops. Come on, Burtt. Please. I have to tidy up the great room still”

Burtt sheathed his weapons causing Harkk to sigh with relief. But that respite was short lived.

“Evah uhdah perserv he-ah hab a trainee. ‘Bout tahm ya hab one too, Harkk. C’mon. Ah hep ya tidee up. Les go boss.”, he snarked at Harkk with a huge grin on his face, as if he cherished this grand game of fooling the cops.

Against his better judgment but conceding that he’d never change this stubborn young bull’s mind, Harkk determined to make the most of it and he choreographed their exchange with the cops that would soon be pouring through the tube.

In this type of emergency, as this would certainly be interpreted by now, there would already be a backup portable airlock erected on the green zone side in order to facilitate a bypass of the tube’s lock once they cracked it open again. Inside this lock, the entire squad of cops would be waiting not so patiently to raid the near zone in one determined rush. At this point, the cops had no idea what had happened and therefore had to assume the worst. Until the cause of the malfunction was determined, the local military establishment would also be put on alert and would be standing by at the higher level egress points from the dome. What the would ultimately find would be a faulty control module. Harkk’s EEC’s final act before relinquishing control to the local door control panels only, until the faulty control module was replaced, was to burn out that very control module, further slowing any reinforcement effort that might follow.

Burtt was unstrapping his weapon belts and harnesses as they trotted through the compound. He found an empty construct he could hide them in and cover with bolts of the cloth they used for windows. He and Harkk spent what time they had covering the escape hatches and rearranging construction forms in an orderly fashion as if in a warehouse.

“Remember, Burtt. You have to act submissive or this will never fly. Got it? Act like I’m the meanest red-zone boss you’ve ever lived under.”

“Ah gots it, Harkk. Ya don wor, kay?”

They made busy work. Harkk checking items off on his pad as if taking inventory, Burtt sweeping up on the far side of the great room. He was also nearest the escape hatch closest to the entrance where the cops would come into their world. Burtt suddenly ran back across the room and dragged the construct holding his weapons cache closer to where he would be stationed. The sudden chill he felt when he realized how far away they were from him wouldn’t allow him to leave them so. The EEC cut off just as he retrieved his broom.

The momentary different beeping sound and amber flashes of light suddenly followed by silence and a lack of any flashing lights were the first indicators. Harkk and Burtt knew that at this time, the cops had cracked the doors and were flooding into the near zone hell bent for nailing their perps in the act of a drug deal. Their many bootheels slamming down in the quad was the next thing they heard and it was a most ominous sound. This was something Burtt had not heard before and it was inspiring to him, but he imagined his kids might think differently about it. He was glad they weren’t here for this. He also knew that they and the rest of the perservs and trainees had to remain calm while showing surprise if and when the cops accosted them, in spite of this awesome display of might. Burtt suddenly felt small again.

At this time the props were burning down at the red zone entrance and the wire was being recharged. All of Harkk’s bypasses and modifications were being destroyed.

By now the fired up CommCorp Cops were beginning to wonder what the heck was going on? There sure didn’t seem to be any threat here, just a bunch of shocked working perservs. They’d run, in perfect assault formation, to the spot they expected to find an illicit drug deal in play. The location told Harkk and Burtt all they needed to know in order to identify their mole. Only Knutte was told the deal was going down in and old hut by the dumpsters. Burtt’s old hut.

The commander of the squad called a halt and looked about for someone to talk to. He noticed a tall man standing in the doorway of what appeared to be a huge polyplas and plywood shack further back in the compound from where he and is men stood.

“Turian Griff, stand alert with the troop. Biks and Rull will attend me.”

Tenant Tope made his way towards Harkk and the Taj, two privs at his heels. Harkk deliberately put his pad away in his hip pouch and approached the official with a questioning look on his face. He would try to keep the man from entering the Taj if at all possible. Burtt watched from the darkness, so far, invisible to the Tenant and his men. None had brought vision enhancers either that Burtt could see, so he wouldn’t hang his head like a beaten K until he was sure they could see him.

“What can I do for you Tenant? Is something wrong?” Harkk asked in his most innocent voice, showing his 5th division Wall-Warrior tat with a flourish of his huge right bicep as he reached to shake the man’s hand, brother to brother.

“Are you Harkk Rodin, CommCorp Maintenance Tech for Sector-22?” The cop demanded, refusing the offered hand.

Harkk knew this man was well aware of his identity and was simply being an officious dolt.

He probably feels like an idiot parading his storm troopers out here terrifying these innocent sponsored proles.

“Yes. That’s me. Now, what’s this all about, sir?” Still trying to play the man’s ego.

“We’ve had reports of a prole enclave setting up roots in the near zone and we’re here to identify for eradication any such infestation. We also have credible intel leading us to believe there was a full surgery facility here, clandestinely run by CityState Citizens and in support of a prole uprising. Finally, we were told there would be a drug deal hereabouts, possibly involving citizens.”

Harkk tried hard and succeeded in looking duly stunned.

“What? Tenant, that’s preposterous. Look around. Are you kidding me?”

Harkk was betting the obviously innocent day to day activities being displayed would turn this man’s suspicions around shortly. He prayed Burtt kept his cool if he was listening.

That’s all we need, now. God save us, someone knock that boy out or something, please. Harkk prayed a silent prayer.

Burtt, who’d moved closer to the entrance and had indeed heard the exchange was steaming. He knew what an infestation was and how one was dealt with. He started back towards his weapons cache when Bbessie came out of her new nursing/work space within the Taj and intercepted him. She’d been listening too and knew Burtt well enough to know what was going through the young man’s mind.

“Give him time Burtt. Let our Harkk work on this man. Even if he comes in here, let Harkk work on him. Please, Burtt.” She sternly begged him.

Burtt took a deep breath and nodded his agreement just as Harkk and Tenant Tope entered the Taj. Burt returned to his sweeping and kept his head down, as a properly cowed trainee would in the presence of his boss and a cop. Bbessie busied herself pretending to collect needed supplies from a storage bin by her spaces.

“You see? This is good dry storage space for all the various projects I’m responsible for. I keep the forms here because the Corp bitched about them always getting trashed in the rain and having to pay for new ones all the time. So, I req’d some ply and plas and voila, dry storage space. What do you think? Not bad, huh, for a bunch of surplus trash, eh?”

Harkk’s smile was infectious and the Tenant allowed the corners of his lips to turn up just noticeably. Every military man appreciated the talents of a good scrounge.

“That guy over there sweeping up is Johnn. He’s my newest trainee, though so far he ain’t proving to be worth much more than sweeping. I may have made a mistake with that one. We’ll see. The lady is a domestic for the Haps. I let her use some space here for storage.”

The matter-of-fact mood of the statement removed any chance of suspicion. The two moved through the Taj completing the tour, then moving outside and on through the near zone, going as far as the wire to test it.

“You see, Burtt? As a very wise person once told us all. ‘Think first is the first think’”

Bbessie’s scolding tone cut Burtt to the core.

“After all this, don’t you dare uselessly take a chance on leaving all those kids without their father? Don’t you dare!”

Burtt realized there was no answer. His shoulders sagged as Bbessie, sure her point had been made, turned to get on with her day.

Das a’righ, Burtt. Ya dum.

Humbled but still steaming, he couldn’t wait for Harkk to return so they could plan on dealing with Knutte before he did any more damage. For lack of anything better to do until then, he continued to sweep. He was so preoccupied he didn’t see Jjenna watching from the shadows of a storage alcove.

Ya watch out fo us? Ah do dat fa ya, boss. Ah do lots f’ ya boss, n ‘t won b’ no tease. Kkat jes a tease Burt man. Ya d’serves bettah. Ah gots wha ya nees. Ah gots aw wha ya nees. Yessuh>

———-

“Are you sure there was no one there? I mean, I’m sure a prole wouldn’t make up something like this. This is far too serious to take that chance. What fool would ever challenge the Loks, let alone a prole?”

Hhannah barely kept the nervous quiver in her voice under control. The detector was instantly on alert for any further reference to the Loks.

“There was no one there Mrs. Hap, other than working perservs. We must’ve looked pretty damn foolish, twenty of the armed and armored City’s best raiding the near zone only to startle sector-22’s own perservs, don’t you think? There wasn’t an unauthorized prole in sight. No surgery suite, no prole nest with “hundreds of them breeding like rats”, I believe were this informant’s words. And no drug deal either.”

With no visible reaction from her, the cop continued.

“It was your man, Knutte, who put us onto it. That and an anonymous tip. Could he have a grudge to settle with the Loks or someone else, say out in the outer zones? Another perserv higher up the food chain perchance? Or even another citizen? Could he maybe have been acting on your behalf? Perhaps he took it on his own to seek revenge for a perceived slight in your name?”

The CommCorp Security agent slid that last in without a flicker of nuance. He was fishing, Hhannah knew. She would tread lightly as if her life depended on it. He’d come two days after the failed trap sprung on the supposedly unwary Loks and their accomplices. Now Hhannah had to wonder if Knutte hadn’t sold her out and this cop was trying to trick her into a confession. She was terrified, but she could hold her own with the best of them.

“Knutte, you say? Why that’s a shock to be sure. He’s been with us for years and has never been any trouble. I can’t imagine what might have caused him to go over the edge like this. It’s so unlike him. He’s always been so quiet, really.” She finished without looking the cop in the eye; looking off as if imagining some worrisome event in her past and purposely not acknowledging the subtle hint that the prole might be doing the Haps bidding.

Then, as if thinking of something for the first time, “I wonder if Jasonn had anything to do with this? He has been acting strange lately and Knutte is one of his. Honestly, that man worries me sometimes.” She finished with a question in her voice.

“How do you mean that, Mrs. Hap?” The cop asked, taking the bait.

“Oh, I don’t know. Just strange, you know? Like sneaking about late at night. Stepping out, even in the chill evenings. Comms he takes in his den only. That sort of thing. Oh, I don’t know. I may just be paranoid now.”

“Hmm. Well, you never know. I’ll look into it Mrs. Hap. Thank you for your time. Here’s my commdat. If you think of anything more, please comm me, anytime.”

“You can count on that Detector Roth. Oh, please do let me know how to address this issue with Knutte as soon as you can. I won’t be comfortable with him in our employ if he is the source of the false lead. What more might he try?”

“Oh, don’t worry Mrs. Hap. If after interrogation we have reason to believe that he was falsely leading us on, you won’t be seeing him again. If you do see him, assume he passed muster. After all, he might have just been a victim of misinformation himself and honestly thought he was doing his civic duty.”

She saw them to her door, thanking the Detector for his prompt and professional response to this near crisis, carefully not showing any reaction to the suggestion that Knutte might come through the interrogation unscathed, and all that might infer about the Haps own safety.

I’ll have to deal with Knutte if he survives the inquisition.

Detector Roth left the Haps stead with his squad of foot cops, an hour and a good search of the stead later. There was a bit of a blow up when they reached Claudde’s sanctuary and Hhannah got her first look at what possessed her son so fully. Claudde was at work and hadn’t even tried to cover his tracks. Fortunately for them, kiddy porn on a pad was no crime. The current complexity of animation was so advanced, the porn providers simply claimed that the actors were animations. There was no way to prove otherwise, so Detector Roth left it with a disgusted sneer at Mrs. Hap.

The search ended with no further closet ghosts exposed to besmirch the Haps reputation. Hhannah was impulsively careful about leaving no traces of her treachery behind. She silently sighed in relief that her husband hadn’t left any secret time bombs lying about the house for these drones to find.

I’ll have his head for this! She thought, fuming at her son. How could he do this to me? How long has this been going on? Oh Norton, now what will I do? Neither man in my life is worth a damn! That Lok bitch has something to do with this. I know it. Stupid damn idiot Knutte probably exposed me to her. That’s why that damn cop was so persistent. I’m not done with you Lok. I have more than one spy.

Hhannah Hap fell into a deep depression. When her husband returned from his day at the office, their bedroom suite was closed and locked. He guessed Claudde was up in his loft with the music screaming from his audsys.

Hhannah didn’t answer his many pleadings to allow him in. He finally accepted her denial and planted himself in the common room for a long lonely night. A hungry one too it looked; there was not a bit of food ready for him to eat and she’d let all the perservs go home. He settled in with some nutrition bars and bourbon to watch the vids wondering, “what he’d done this time?”

Word of the raid and the resulting visit to the Hap stead reached Mmarta via Bbessie, who heard almost everything that went on there during the day. Mmarta was worried about what would happen to Bbessie and the others if the Haps were exiled? She wasn’t worried about what the Haps might do to their ex-servs because they’s be exiled far away from their own sector. But their perservs would be sponsorless. CommCorp would certainly never acknowledge them. Mmarta determined to engage them all herself.

———-

“They can’t survive for more than another month, even here, Jaredd. We have to do something. I know we just barely escaped exposure visa vis the Haps. That pales in comparison to having all these children die because we were too afraid to lose our caviar. We must act and I mean now.” Mmarta pleaded. She had backed down from her previous threat to go to the nuclear option as she liked to call it. She had wanted to force the issue with the council and find a way to transport these children into the green zone.  the effort died with the threat from the Haps looming over htem.

“Mother! I don’t want to die in the red-zone. You do see that don’t you? Exile is what you’re asking for, especially after the elaborate subterfuge we ran on them to get the Haps off our backs. If CommCorp gets to the bottom of that, and they will get to the bottom of it if we keep pushing our luck and stumble; we are done. Kaput! They won’t even ask for an explanation. We’ll be lucky to be sent to the mines. You might not care for your own sake, Mother, but I care about you…and me, regardless how much time you have left. Do you hear me? For Norton’s sake, what happens to those kids with you and I out of the picture, even if the Corp doesn’t find them?”

He paused for effect, then continued.

“The new MedCent is holding up well. The children are responding well to the purified environment. Let’s proceed carefully. Okay? That’s all I ask. We can hold out a little longer. Please?”

Jaredd realized he didn’t know what miracle he was waiting for but was determined not to ruin their lives just yet if he could help it. Not until they had a new plan in place. One that left them a reasonable chance at survival.

The argument once again left both unsatisfied and afraid. Jaredd for their safety, Mmarta for the children’s.

Mmarta was at her wit’s end. They were out of options. The professionals from the council who’d been helping to care for the children were slowly fading away. They did have their own lives to live and jobs to hold down. The longer they did this the more chances they took to be caught themselves. They wanted to move on.

The new facility was perfect for their needs temporarily, but it was a 24/7 operation and without a lot of greenie support, it was doomed. She continued to press them with constant meetings and pleadings, but soon it would be back down to a few volunteers plus her, Jaredd, Bbessie, and Kkat caring for them all. That was way too much for them to be able to do realistically.

There were plenty of souls, council members, in the green zone willing to help; that is, take in and provide care for one or even two of these needy children, but not if it was going to cost them their citizenship. Mmarta hadn’t yet figured out a way to pitch this to CommCorp in a way they might buy into it, nor had she been successful in convincing any into taking the chance on doing it illegally. Harkk was certain he could smuggle them in using a modified service cart but still, there were no takers. Either CommCorp agreed or there was no agreement.

“Very well”, she addressed this latest gathering of the council’s rank and file, the third she’d called this five-day. “You leave me little choice. I refuse to allow even one of them to die out there. Not one, do you hear? I will bring them to my stead one at a time, the worst cases first until I have them all in my care. I will do this until they are all either well enough to return to the Taj, or until I can no longer do so. The only thing that will prevent this is if I’m taken by the Corp for interrogation.”

The subtle threat needed no more elaboration. Get on board or when I talk, as I will no doubt do under the inquisition, you can be sure who’s names might be on my lips and who’s might not.

She measured each member’s response to the current dire need, as Mmarta saw it. They now knew that if taken, she would temper her responses to the Corp’s inquisitors according to how they each met the need of the Taj’s dying children in Mmarta’s eyes. At least for as long as she could hold out anyway. Eventually, she would spill everything about everyone, but it was never a nice experience being the first ones the inquisitors came for.

The mood in the room took a sudden and sour turn. The arguments carried on long into the night. But in the end, it was agreed that a plan to save the children by secretly bringing them into the green zone would be drafted. This was endorsed unanimously if not with great enthusiasm. An uneasy truce was set in place before everyone left the Lok stead very late that evening. Mmarta was appeased, but only enough to keep her quiet for now. She was too savvy to believe she was out of the woods with these folk or that her efforts would ensure the children would indeed find their way to good health again. And, she had no time.

Norton only knew who else might spring up and try to make a better life for themselves dropping a bit of intel in the right ear.

I need to watch them all now. Mmarta thought. Certainly, some of these people will be exposed and will need to go underground. Some may be caught and exiled. What would keep them from blabbing if they were taken?

In fact, two couples had already paid the ultimate price caught at the same time smuggling medical supplies out of their facilities in the green zone. Fortunately, they were of tough stock and gave up nothing. Instead, they made up a story about swapping meds for illicit drugs in the outer zone. They were presently residing with Burtt in the Taj. The council’s contacts in security enabled the offender’s exile to sector-22. That had yielded its own dividends, as all four of them had been in the medical profession and now had plenty of time to spend in the MedCent.

———-

When Marta left the meeting room to relax in her spa, she didn’t see Qqitia in the linen alcove. In a desperate ploy, Hhannah had coerced the diminutive domestic perserv into spying for her and had gone so far as to refuse to let Qqitia return to the Taj. She snuck into the Loks easy enough. The terrified girl tucked the corder into her tunic and hoped it had captured what her master wanted.

She didn’t want trouble. She was a good quiet girl. No one paid her any attention. Quiet little Qqitia was a ghost. When younger, she wouldn’t slave for one of the red zone bosses and was burn-scarred when he doused her in acid. She had scars all over her body. No one ever looked at her because of the scarring. It was horrendous to behold. The way folks ignored her allowed her to become invisible.

She was lucky to have a sponsor. Bbessie, who cared for the girls burns, recommended her to Mrs. Hap who was happy to have a cheap perserv neither her husband nor her son would have any interest in. She was also the perfect spy Hhannah thought.

When Hhannah directed her to spy Qqitia had no real choice but to follow through. The one choice she did have was whether or not to tell Bbessie, who would get word to the Loks. She chose to say nothing instead, and now hoped that lapse wouldn’t come back to haunt her. Just sneaking into the Loks had terrified her. She’d been shaking since she came in. Now she was spying on these poor people for that horrible Mrs. Hap.

I can’t do this. I can’t. Oh, God, please help me. Qqitia tortured herself, knowing she would do exactly what her master told her to do. She was no one. She couldn’t stand up to the Haps. She couldn’t!

When Mmarta was clear and she couldn’t hear anything but the ticking of the clock in the hallway, Qqitia snuck back out of the stead, invisible as usual, or was she?

———-

And just what is it you think you’re doing here girl? Who are you spying on and for whom are you spying? I’d better let Kkat know at least. Yes, I’ll tell her first so these greenies can’t bury it. Another damn prole spy. How many of these jerks do you have to deal with brother?

She struggled to get a good angle but managed to capture a reasonable rep for to help Kkat identify this perserv with.

What is going on out there?  I hope Kkat isn’t holding back on me too.

Ssyndi worried herself to sleep that night worried about her brother and their crèche and wondering if she could get word to them in time to make a difference.

Who was that scary looking girl? Her face was a real mess.

Her dreams were tortured with nightmare battles raging in her head…

———-

“Dirkk was shock’d up bat fum da wi-ah. Him were screamin inna wadah and him kilt der. We haffa go o dem gets us. Ders Ks everwhe-ah n da wi-ah go alla rount.”

“Slow kit, slow! Tell ole Zobbi agin. Wha wi-ah? Pokke don say ‘bout no wi-ah. POKKE! Gets yo ass out he-ah.

“Ye-ah Boss?” Pokke answered. He was still a wreck and looking worse every day.

“Wha dis shit ‘bout a new wi-ah rount my zone? Ya tryin ta trap Zobbi, Pokke? Ya trick Zobbi ya puss?”

The end – Part 6

Coming in Par 7: The zone construction is completed.  At Harkk’s suggestion, Dogg and Sweet’s brood of Ks are assigned to multiple handlers and the pairs train together as Sentry Teams.  The secret transfer of the last of the injured to green zone care is begun. Red zone clean up is so successful, Harkk begins construction of greenhouses on the side of the rubble pile facing Green River.  Zobbi tries his luck, again.  Romance induced backstabbing find their way deeper into Taj Life. And old mate passes. Visitors from beyond the Green River basin arrive with an offer for Burtt and the Taj.  They bring entire wagons of fresh vegetables and smoked fish.  Flybots can’t help but note increased activity in the zone after the visitors leave.  It can’t be helped.  The Corp takes note.