Ain’t be one he-ah? Wha dey tinkin? I don be figh’? Dem craz ‘f dat d’ way. Dem ain’t sent one kid?
Burtt fumed while waiting for Jaredd to show for his daily lessons. He hadn’t eaten, yet. The decision the red-zone bosses made to collectively defy him, scared him. He couldn’t eat that way. His food turned to mush inside and came out the same way.
Wha dat mean? Dem gon fight me?
His dander was way up and he was itching for a confrontation. He knew this was the worst way to go into any negotiation, but he was raging mad. He couldn’t stand it any longer and got up to walk. Sometimes when he was feeling overwhelmed, he would go for a walk. This would help clear his mind and calm him too. This time he ran into Harkk on the way to his servhut.
After spilling his guts to a willing ear, Harkk talked him down, so that Burtt agreed to wait before deciding until he was thinking clearly. This was sound advice and Burtt acknowledged it.
“What is it you always tell the kids, Burtt? Think first is the first think. That’s probably the most profound bit of advice I’ve ever heard, so why don’t you take your own advice, then?” The smile on Harkk face told Burtt he wasn’t insulting him, so he smiled too, and said, “Das a’righ Harkk. Das a’righ.”
He walked off to meet Jaredd.
“The difference is, Burtt, that a truly free people do not force love on anyone. Even us elies pay our sex-toys. Besides, wouldn’t you prefer that Kkat came to you willingly?”
Burtt’s confused look caught Jaredd out again, he still wasn’t in tune with what Burtt knew and didn’t know.
“Ah don b’ forcin’ Kkat t’do nuffin, Jaredd,” Burtt stated forcibly.
“I mean to say, it would be better if Kkat wanted to be with you like you want to be with her, right?” He’d gotten away from apologising for speaking over Burtt’s head, as that seemed to exacerbate the problem. He simply rephrased and restated.
“Su-ah, das a’righ. Caint do none o’ dis wron’, Jaredd. Aw gots to b’ a’righ fum da go. ’S why ah asks. Gots it?”
“Yes. I understand, Burtt. So, then, you’ll approach Kkat delicately like I suggested? Remember, girls like to be asked nicely about these things, so give it some thought before you talk to her, okay?”
“Del’kit, righ! Das a gut one Jaredd. Del’kit, Kkat lahk dat word ya tink, Jaredd?”
“Hmmm! What I’m trying to say, Burtt is that you should say these things to Kkat, or any girl, for that matter, kindly. See? Does that make more sense to you, now?”
He could see the wheels turning.
“Don’ say del’kit, be del’kit?”
“Yes, Burtt. Be delicate. Be kind. It means a lot to the girl you’re talking to. It tells her that you are sensitive to her feelings…um, that you care for her.”
Del-li-kit, ‘kay. Ah do dat. Ah go now.”
“Oh, um, Burtt. Perhaps you should wait awhile. Think about what you’re going to say first. You know, so you can talk to her without stumbling for words. Or at least to be sure you say what you really mean.” Jaredd nearly laughed at his own nervousness.
Who was going after the girl? You or Burtt?
“Why ah gots t’ tink? Ah knows wha Ah sayin’ n how ah feels. Ah jus b’ del-li-kit, lahk ya says. Das all!” he paused, with that look that told Jarred he had thought of something else, “Wha’ ‘bout lettahs n writin’ n readin’ too? When Ah do… Ah mean we, we do dat?”
“Aha!” Sometimes Burtt fed him exactly what he needed, “Well then, what about that; shouldn’t we finish our lessons for today before you run off to chat with Kkat? We still have time for more history, and if you’re going to learn to read, you really should start at the beginning, Burtt. I admire your determination, remember determination, Burtt? Yes?” When Burtt nodded, he continued, “good, but, taking on something as complex as reading, without the basics, would make the task far more difficult in the end, and you’ll only end up having to learn the letters anyway. Truly, you should learn your letters and numbers first. What do you say? The best part of that, Burtt, is that Kkat can teach you the basics, and how to read too, with my coaching; so, you’ll be spending, even more, time with her every day.”
He’d struggled to rein in Burtt’s eagerness. He wanted to know everything and he wanted to know it now. He didn’t understand why he might not get some things right off, and when he didn’t it was worse than being humiliated, he was mortified. Jaredd tried hard to rein in Burtt’s eagerness just enough to keep him in check, but not enough to bore him. It was a delicate line to walk.
Perhaps teaching them about their past isn’t the very best first thing we could’ve done with these lessers.
At least in Burtt’s case, he seemed to think he had an immense amount of catch-up to do and wanted it done yesterday. If that catch-up was ultimately meant to put the proles on an equal footing with the greenies someday, the fallout from that was going to be cataclysmic.
He’d have to bring that up with the council. In the meantime, he had to keep Burtt’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism from exploding out of control. The last thing he needed was a rebellion in the near-zone, right now, with this very capable warrior at its helm (that evaluation supplied by none other than, Harkk, a highly-decorated hero of the Wall himself).
He had a feeling that Burtt’s mind was every bit as sharp as his physique. Teaching this boy too much too fast could easily have the wrong effect. He was already showing signs of bold thought and exemplary leadership skills, to include diplomacy, value-based-bargaining, and fair play…for all.
He was becoming a very cagey horse-trader indeed. Jaredd found it more and more difficult to extract anything from Burtt as far as outer-zone data without first agreeing to some serious bartering, and he was stingy with what he did release. Fortunately, Burtt had small tastes and as such, nothing he’d asked for was out of reach, so far. Jaredd’s biggest fear was that Burtt would learn enough to decide to take matters into his own hands. He could readily imagine Burtt challenging CommCorp policies one day. Holy Norton, would they have the Loks’ asses for that.
“Dat be kay wif me Jaredd. Mayb’ she lahk me mo’ den.”
He snapped Jaredd back into focus. His smile was infectious and Jaredd followed suit.
“Yes, Burtt. That would be another way for you two to get to know each other, an excellent way. I’ll bring some primer materials, oh goodness, for 50, and a pad. I’m sure Kkat and Rikk both remember how to use them. Rikk can help. He can start the little ones on their letters and numbers now, and get them started on easy reading too. Later Kkat, Rikk and perhaps you can teach them more advanced subject matter, like mathsci and medsci.”
As an afterthought, he added, “Harkk or Bbessie might teach some of you to use your hands for other skills.”
“Das a’righ Jaredd. Dat de bes, I tink. ‘N I wan us alla hab ahr bof names. Kin ya hep w’dat? Ya knows sum ahr fam’lies, a‘righ?”
“Yes, uh, well, hmmm… Oh, Burtt, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I wish you would reconsider. This is the one thing I believe the Corp will take note of if word gets out; and if perservs start referring to each other with family names, well, word of that will get around. I told you how the Corp went out of their way to hide the plight of the proles, and more importantly to the Corp, they hid the prole’s true identities. Your actions might open old wounds and I’m not sure the Corp will just ignore it.”
“Don’ ca-ah ‘bout de Co-ah, Jaredd. Dey put mossa us he-ah. Jus be takin back a lil. Lil pride’s all. Ah ‘spect the Co-ah c’n spa-ah some o’ dat a’righ.”
“It’s risky, though, Burtt…”
“Mo-ah den livin’ out he-ah? No mo-ah argue, Jaredd. Wants da names. Alla dem ya hab an alla dem uvas wha wants.”
The determined set of Burtt’s jaw and the way he crossed his arms, told Jaredd the discussion was over. He’d found that being an advisor to Burtt didn’t carry quite as much weight as he might have expected. His age meant little to Burtt when It came time to set his jaw. For some reason, he saw power and equality in having the family name, and he was determined that all his charges would have one.
That young man had more potential as a leader than anyone he’d met in the green-zone, yet. He was simply the most amazing specimen. He’d come up from nothing to quasi-king in less time than it took CommCorp to secure its own border. This prole had a flair for inspiring his followers, finding a consensus, seeing through a bad deal, and not often being taken for granted or made a fool of. Jaredd just hoped Burtt didn’t attract too much attention to himself too soon. That would spoil everything.
At times, Jaredd felt he’d created a monster that would eventually get away from him and wreak havoc on the civilised world.
Am I assuming too much credit? Has this boy been playing me? Has he always been shrewder than all of us?
Jaredd determined to pay more attention to the subtle hints at superior intelligence this boy’s words, thoughts and actions suggested. He certainly came from good stock. The Klops were both leaders in their fields. Jaredd remembered being amazed at the resiliency Kkhloe showed and he had firsthand knowledge of just how bright Ssyndi was. That girl was more sponge than teenager the way she sucked up knowledge.
“You’ve made a good point, Burtt. Okay, I’ll provide you with as many names as I can determine from the records we’ve compiled, but you must give me access to all the children in your crèche if I’m to be thorough. Just as you allow my mother to have time with them for health reasons, I need time to determine their true identity. I need blood or saliva samples from each of them, or hair samples barring that. I already have about twenty confirmed right now, including yours, Kkat, Rikk and of course you already know the MacBride girl’s name. These were easy to determine as we knew where you came from in the City and were able to recreate your records from archives once thought inaccessible. Not much is completely hidden from the council, though their access has since been cut off. All access to archives has been cut off. Anyway, as to these other children, well, there’s no way for us to know for sure if they don’t remember themselves. I need to test them, Burtt. You see, hospital records cannot be purged by decree, in order to track and control infectious disease. Those records are hardened also, which means they cannot be destroyed or blocked. So, if I can get a sample, I can compare it against that database and hopefully, find your names for you. Can you allow me access to them for that, Burtt?”
Kkhloe had told Burtt all about blood samples and how the elies could use it to find out who they were if they wanted. She thought this might not be a good thing for some of the little ones so they decided to not get stuck.
Kkhloe also taught him something he always held dear and thought of as the most profound advice his sister had ever imparted to him, trust but make sure anyway. She’d said it was a favourite saying of a great leader from before the fall, Abramm Raygun, or sum lahk. he thought.
“Dems wha say ‘kay, su-ah. ’F dey don’ wanna, I caint be makin dem, a’righ? Dat ain’t demo-demercr, JIZMO, de-mo-cra-tic. Das wha, a’righ?”
Jaredd sighed. It was the same every time. Burtt simply would not give in completely to letting the elies know how big his crèche was or who all its members were, let alone the red-zone denizens
Damn stubborn SOB! Oh, he is just trying to maintain the democratic flavour of his creche. You should admire him for it, except that it flies in the face of you true goals, doesn’t it? You’re a damned unpredictable bastard, you are Mister Burtt.
“Alright then Burtt. I’ll do what I can. You’ll let me know which ones I can test?”
“Ah do dat. Ah takes wha ya gots. Da uvas wanna las name too, mayb’. Den I gets ya mo t’ tes, kay?”
Once again Burtt stunned Jaredd with his ability to reason. He’s smart enough to know that using incentive is better than using force, even if his first impulse is to drive things home with his might. It was hard to believe this boy had been here for ten years, was healthy in mind and body, and providing for 50 at eighteen years old. Most folks stuck out here that long were sick beyond saving, if not crazy as a loon too. Not Burtt, no sir, Burtt was Mister Fantastic. He could do and survive anything. And, he only seemed to go postal when things didn’t go his way.
“That’s a very good plan, Burtt. I should have thought of that. Now, who’s teaching whom?” he asked with a smirk.
“Dat be me, Jaredd? I ain’t no dum. Kkhloe larn me. She ver smar, Jaredd. You knows. You seein Ssyn ever day. She dum? Kkhloe schoo’in her too.” Burtt answered the challenge.
“No, no Ssyndi is not dumb at all Burtt. She’s very smart. Smart like you and Kkhloe.”
“Ha! Kkhloe and Ssyn be mo smar den Burtt su-ah.”
“There are different kinds of smart Burtt. There’s book smart and there’s life smart. You have more life smarts than most of the elies I know, Burtt, and I think that is the more precious gift.”
“Pressus? Don knows dat one Jaredd? Lahf-smar be gut. Lahks dat, lahf-smar, yessuh.”
“Precious, Burtt. It means that it’s very important to us. For example: with your life-smarts, and in a life or death situation, I would choose to be with you every time over anyone I know in the green-zone, and that’s the truth. You are by far, the superior survivor and having a quality like that is a precious thing. They used to call it street-smarts, in the cities before the fall.
“Das a’righ, den. Presshus! Gut one.” As an afterthought, he added, ” Who caw ‘t stree-smar, Jaredd?” without a trace of hubris at the compliment.
Around a chuckle, Jaredd replied, “Yes! Who indeed? It’s just a saying…er, oh, never mind, Burtt. It isn’t important.”
The studied look on Burtt’s face told Jaredd Burtt wasn’t through with it yet.
“Hmmm. Lahk ya says b’fore, a conse, consus…da sensus ting? Lahk dat?”
“Ha! Consensus! Yes, Burtt, like that. Very good! When someone starts a sentence with the words, “they say”, what they mean is that the consensus is such and such. Hmm? Oh dear. It means most people think that way. Does that make sense?”
“Ye-ah, ah gots.”
This conversation gave more credence to the idea that Burtt was far more perceptive than one from Jaredd’s background would normally be willing to credit a prole with. Burtt was referring to a conversation they’d had weeks before about having a consensus on the council.
Is it time to put on the brakes? Will he sense it if we do? What then?
Regardless, he wasn’t ready to put the brakes on yet. He kept digging.
“Well now, have you thought about what the others will think? The ones we don’t have second names for? Aren’t they likely to feel jealous? Do you know jealous Burtt?”
“Das a’righ, Jaredd, Ah knows it. Wha’ we do ‘bout dat?”
“Well, there are a few options…um…choices. We can test them, of course.” he looked imploringly at Burtt. When no response was forthcoming, he sighed and continued, “You could adopt the ones who don’t have last names yet and name them all Klops, or you could come up with a name on your own? A crèche name, so to speak. Eh? To adopt means to take as your own, like they were your own children. Others could do that too.”
Jaredd hoped this would never come to a legal issue. Letting them have last names seemed insane but harmless if it didn’t go too far, he hoped. Adoption might be pushing it!
“A crèche name? Ah lahk dat, Jaredd. Crèche name be bettah den Burtt name mayb’. Hey! Ah call dem all Taj, dat a’righ? Taj be dey crèche n second name bof, ‘f dem don’ gots one.”
“That’s a great idea, Burtt. Excellent!” Said Jaredd, silently cursing Burtt’s ingenuity. Mentally relinquishing the field of battle to Burtt, he moved on.
“Now, about your own schooling. I think I should spend as much time with you as possible along with the time you spend with Katt. We should accelerate your learning pace. As a leader, you should be on the same knowledge level with your parts. Right now, you are far behind them in basic skills, such as reading, scribing and computing. So is Bann, so we should include him too. I can help accelerate your learning curve in those areas with some heavy immersion learning techniques. If you both agree, of course.”
Their conversation and his lessons continued for another hour before Burtt said he’d had enough for the day. The two then headed outside and called all the crèche out for a meet.
“Alla us gon hab arh two names lahk d’ elies. Jaredd say dis sca-ah dem mayb’, but jus fa us. Dem gots no wors fum us. Gon’ hab namin days too. F’ alla us.”
The little one’s eyes sparkled at that news. Naming day, even in the outer-zones was special, though seldom celebrated by anyone other than a boss. Here, they would all get fruit at least and what would pass for a cake and party. The flatbread Kkat made was incredible. Put a little sweet on it and you’ve got one heck of a great treat, for a prole, anyway.
He looked around his audience to see if any were opposed. It didn’t seem so, but there were a lot of confused looks on the faces around him, many of them too young to understand the ramifications of having their true and full identities out here in the outer zones.
“What happens if the elies object, Burtt?” asked Harkk. He knew the risks.
“Aw-jet? Wha dat, Harkk? Don’ knows dat.”
“It means to be opposed…um…to say NO. Understand?”
“So, ‘f elies don’ wan’, dey c’n stop ‘t?”
“Well, maybe, Burtt. I don’t know that. I’m just asking, what if?”
“Den we do ‘t, ‘n don tell em. Be ahr hide.”
“Okay, but we’ll need to get all the perservs to agree to keep it quiet if that’s the case.”
“Ah tells dem, dem shuts up ‘bout it.”
“Um, I thought we agreed to ask these things first and not tell. This being a Democracy and all, right?’
Burtt’s embarrassed smirk lightened up the moment.
“Hmmm. Das a’righ Harkk. Cud use ya tinks on de council Harkk, ya and Bbessie, t’ keep da vote a’righ. Odd nummah, Jaredd says. Ya hab gut tinks, Harkk. Dem be ‘portan like jes now or ah mayb’ sen kids unnah the dirt.”
“Okay. We all make mistakes Burtt. It’s good that you want more help making important decisions. The hard ones get a lot easier when there are more people making the choices, okay? This is good, Burtt! I’m all for it…yes, that means yes. And I’ll join your council if Bbessie does too, to preserve the tie-breaker vote.” said Harkk.
He was getting more involved in the near-zone happenings every day anyway and Burtt really appreciated it. He looked up to Harkk in more ways than one, and yet Harkk never challenged Burtt for the leadership role. This confused Burtt; Harkk was a huge man, and the biggest guy nearly always took over, but that didn’t seem to be in Harkk’s nature. This allowed Burtt some comfort. He didn’t feel a need to be looking over his shoulder in the direction of Harkk, not right now anyway.
Continuing to address the crèche, “’Sides dat, alla us gon learn our lettahs and nummahs. Ah ‘spects us aw be readin b’ plantday. Jaredd say dere fiffy-ayt chapers t’ read ‘n de preschoo book. Plantday, we readin a chaper, alla us. Kkat and Rikk knows how sos dey be ahr teach. Jaredd hep. Das wha’, a’righ?”
Everyone had a different look on their faces now, Burtt noticed, and at first, it puzzled him. Then he remembered something Mmarta had said about little ones and hope.
“…the sky could be falling all around them, but with a goal to shoot for, a pat on the head or a reassuring hug, a little one’s hope knows no bounds.”
Dis b’ hope, mayb’?
“Jaredd say we nees t’ do spo-aht. Nees egersize alla us f’ stron bods. He show us wha aw. Kay? Alla us be he-ah after mideat. He show us footbaw n alla us c’n do ‘t. He say be gut fun. Gots it? Das a’righ..”
He received a loud joyous response and the smiles on their faces caused the grin on his to feel like his face would split. The kids dispersed in smaller groups, energised by the news.
Jaredd and Kkat were standing off to the side and speaking quietly. Burtt noticed them with their heads bent together and felt a queasy feeling in his gut, then he felt his face heating and getting red but not from embarrassment this time. He was, angry.
Wha dis? Who he mad at?
He thought and then realised he was mad at both and made his way through the throng of excited children to where Jaredd and Kkat were still bent in fervent conversation.
“I can’t teach all these children Jaredd. What have you done? This is too mu…”
“Nonsense, Katt. These kids adore you and teaching an eager adoring mind is easier than getting up on your first kidsled. Rikk can take over with the real little ones so you can work with the older ones. You’ll have no problems Kkat, really, you won’t, and I’ll always be nearby to help if needed. And, you get to spend more time with Burtt, too.”
Burtt let his breath out and had to retreat so his fading anger didn’t show.
Wha’ alla dat ‘bout? he wondered. Girls! He be dyin ‘fore he know’d wha’ all ‘bout dem.
Kkat saw Burtt just before he was out of sight. He looked mad at something.
I’d better go see. He does stew on things so.
“Burtt. Burtt, hold up for a minute.” He stopped, turned to see her and she saw his face was beet red.
What is this about?
“Burtt, what’s wrong?”
“Ah don’ know, a‘righ? Nees talk wif Jaredd. Ah, embars, embar-as. Ya know. Ah ‘shame.”
“Oh, Burtt. You don’t have to feel like that with me, ever. You can tell me whate…”
“CAINT!” He yelled and Kkat retreated. His shame now grown unbearable due to his outburst.
“Sor, Kkat. Ah caint. Be worser den.” He hung his head a moment. Then turned and ran so fast, Kkat didn’t get out a word before he was out of sight over the top of the rubble mound.
“Oh, that boy.” Kkat stamped her foot so hard it hurt. “OUCH! JIZMO!”
Kett was beside her instantly with his blade in hand, looking everywhere for the threat.
Kkat, tutted, then thanked the lad for being there to protect her.
“What would I do without you, Kett? My Knight in shining armour.”
“Whas ahmer is, Miss Kkat?”
“Oh, not now Kett. I’ll save that story for bedtime some night, okay?”
“Su-ah, dat be a’righ.” Kett’s smile was infectious. Katt rubbed his head and returned the compliment.
“Can you help me find Jaredd, Kett? Before he goes home?”
“Su-ah ah c’n. B’ righ’ back.” And he was off to make sure Jaredd didn’t leave before his charge met with him.
He knew he should calm down first; that his temper would cloud his judgment, and right now he needed good judgement when meeting the red-zoners. Nerves would be on edge. Tempers would be ready to flair at the drop of a hat. Trust would be in short supply for sure. But he made the deal to meet at mid-day; so, he had to show or lose face with these terrible folks.
Ah caint let dat hap. Dem nees t’ fe-ah alla us, if’n Ah gets unna da dirt.
He thought about who would follow him.
Ah nees Harkk t’ soljer.
He came early to scout the area. It wasn’t beyond these people to set a trap for him but he saw that it looked as though life was continuing calmly here in Pokke’s crèche even with the excessive amount of people milling about here. There were way more than Pokke’s crew here and way more than those called to the parley.
It looked as though the entire tough aged red-zone population had come with their bosses, maybe one-hundred total. He decided he would give them a chance to talk before he went on the offensive for not adhering to his demands. None had brought even one slave to the wire yet, and he didn’t see any here either, just toughs and bosses.
Well, das not gon hol. We gon hab words. Bat ones.
He started down the mountain of rubble into Pokke’s zone, checking the draw on his blades to be sure there were no obstructions. He’d dinged the edge of one so badly a while back that it got caught on the sheath when he tried to draw it out. That little bit of delay had nearly cost him his life. As it was, he had a scar running from his right armpit to a spot just above his trousers and left hip, where his right-hand blade should have been. The only thing that saved him was having Dogg attach himself to the blade wielder’s sword arm, preventing him from fully extending his cut.
Dogg was still healing now, though, and overly protective of his little girlfriend the kids had come to call Sweet. Burtt left him tied near their little corner of the rubble. He would surely have followed Burtt into the red-zone and Burtt didn’t think Dogg was ready for another confrontation. He’d nearly lost Dogg. He didn’t realise how much he depended on that K for so much more than just barring the crèche until he almost lost him. He would forever be afraid to commit Dogg to danger again. He would do it. He had to. But right now, he didn’t need to and he let Dogg relax. The fight was surely out of the red-zoners after what happened to Thomass and the others.
As he approached, Burtt saw that things might not be as secure for him as he first thought. There were armed toughs in large numbers awaiting his arrival. He wondered if he shouldn’t just back off for now but then thought again about the consequences of giving in to these people and their threats, implied or otherwise. No, he had to do this. Besides, he was sure they didn’t come to fight. They must all be here to hear the deal. He moved to meet his fate head on.
“Dogg be bark forev n’ he don stop. Sos, ah go t’ fin Burtt ‘n ah fin im a’righ. He ovah da wire by hissef and dey be hunnerts of ret-zoners aw ‘roun im. He be goin unna the dirt su-ah.”
Kett blurted out all at once. When he came flying into the crèche’s main hall he looked as though he’d had a fight with the wire and lost. He had, and did; the wire near tore his pants all the way off. He was holding them together with one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other.
“Slow down, Kett. Where is Burtt?” asked Kkat with as much calm as she could muster while her heart was pounding away in her chest. The bass drum beat of it pounding in her ears, making it difficult to hear the boy’s ravings.
“Him ovah da wire. OVAH DEAH!” He screamed pointing towards the pass to Pokke’s zone.
The bots, already alerted by Kett’s wild passage from the wire back to the crèche without the usual spoof in play, were pacing back and forth across space in front of the crèche apparently trying to decide what to do next. Kett had been too fast for them to apprehend, so far. There was an ever-growing crowd of excited crèche-mates milling about the excited Kett and Kkat, filling the entrance-way to the creche. The bots were unsure how to proceed so they had gone into that little back and forth dance mode they go into while waiting for their 2nd tier processor to decide what to do next. More than likely that would translate to returning to normal patrol duties over the red-zone passage once the noise died down. Kett was doing his utmost to see to it that that never happened, though. He was still screaming at Kkat.
“WE GOTS T’ HEP, KKAT. WE GOTS T’ GO NOW!”
He turned and made to run for the wire.
Kkat grabbed his shoulder and scolded, “Not yet, Kett. We need to organise and we need our soldiers. Now, go get Harkk from his servhut and Bann and Bbessie, tell them what ‘s happened and to come right away.” Then added when Kett didn’t move right away, “NOW KETT! NOW! GO! And change your pants!”
Kett ran off as if his pants were afire, yelling the names of his targets.
Katt continued to get things rolling. “Jjes, take Rikk and the other trained archers, get the weapons, all of them, even the new ones and come back here.”
Jjes turned and made to run, Kkat called after her, “And ask Jaredd to come see me. Quick, now!”
“Chukk. Bring Dogg. On his chain, Chukk. Keep Dogg on the chain, Okay?” She was hoping Dogg’s fierce appearance would act as another deterrent. Chukk ran off. She found out very shortly that Chukk either didn’t understand the part about the chain or Dogg would have no part of it. He went sailing past the crew in a blur of teeth, drool, growls and whelps as if every step still hurt.
Oh, God, please keep them both safe.
She prayed, then headed off to help gather weapons and warriors.
Surprised that Bbessie even answered her door, Kett gathered the elders and sent them, fully armed or supplied for first aide duty, to meet up with Kkat.
Kett still wasn’t finished spreading the alarm, though. He and eighteen of the mid-aged kids were in pre-scort, scort or spy training and had even been working with the new combat formations Harkk introduced them to. Thinking this had prepared them for this very moment, and since Kkat and the elders were busy preparing their response; Kett went about the crèche gathering his training mates and a baffled, teary Chukk on the way. They gathered weapons and shields, then formed up to march on the red-zone and save Burtt.
“Foller me”, Kett yelled. They stunned the two bots on patrol and advanced straight to the wire and were under it in no time while their older crèche mates were still making plans in the great hall. It took them a few moments to reform the shield wall and to reacquire their nerve.
“The best plan right now, Kkat, is to get to high ground and cover Burtt as best we can with Bows and Arrows. He said he was meeting them right in front of Pokke’s crèche. That’s about 100 meters from the wire. A tough shot for a good archer, but, from up top that distance is nearly halved because of the height advantage. We can do the best from up high. Trust me!” Harkk was herding the team along against Kkat’s urgent desire to charge straight into the fray.
There were only five accomplished archers among the crèche’s occupants. Burtt was still learning himself and was only so-so. But Harkk, Bann, Hamm, Kkat and Jjes were excellent. Half a dozen other younger crèche mates seemed to have a knack for it too. Rikk was only slightly better than Burtt, so far. There was a total of ten Bows and nearly two hundred various arrows in their armoury and all were being hauled to the rubble mound west of the crèche.
“Just hurry, Harkk. I have a terrible feeling about this. Hurry before we’re too late to do anything, and he’s gone. Oh God…” she sobbed in a final plea.
With ten bows and twelve archers, she had second thoughts and sent the extras back to check on the little ones.
“Take Roff with you back to the crèche. Find Kett and the others. Tell them I said to stay put until we return. Understand, Rikk? Stay put! Be ready to help Bbessie or guard the passage.” Kkat told the disappointed young scort.
“Yes, Kkat. I’ll do it.” He wouldn’t look her in the eye.
She doesn’t trust me. I’ll show her.
“Wha dis Pokke? Ya trap me? My crew gon’ put alla ya unna da dirt fa dis. Ya gon craz?”
Dozens of toughs, aged from 12 to 17, started spreading out around Burtt. He didn’t even flinch. He knew it might be his last day anytime he set out for the red-zone. He was ready. He told himself he wasn’t going down without a fight. He told himself that people would remember this day, forever. He hadn’t even pulled his blades yet.
He stood facing Pokke, Hamill and Farukk, while their collective crews completed the envelopment. He was about to address the bosses again when there was a commotion among those trying to get around behind him. Refusing to take his eyes of the bosses, he still saw in his peripheral vision that bodies were flying around, though it looked as though they were doing so of their own volition, not being thrown this way and that. Then before his brain registered the roaring of his faithful companion, Burtt saw the furry reason and felt a moment of great pride and then deep down concern for his best friend.
“Wha ya doin he-ah, Dogg. How ya gets out?” he whispered to his partner as Dogg took a defiant, snarling stance beside his master.
Dis dam K fin his way offa da chain?
Suddenly the advance on Burtt slowed to a crawl. With the mess that was Pokke’s arm, fresh in everyone’s memory, and visible to any who cared to look, no one was willing to be the first one greeted by Burtt’s war dog. This bought him some valuable time to think and gather his wits. He hadn’t thought the red-zoners would ever consider rejecting his plan, let alone band together to stand against him.
He did a slow turn to take in every one of his antagonists finishing with a glare at the bosses.
“So, dis it? Dis wha ya wan? Wan fight Burtt? Ah c’n do dat su-ah. Ya mayb’ win, but lotta ya b’ unna da dirt wif me. Das wha ya wan? Come on den. Les go.”
The only sound to be heard over Dogg’s soft growl was the singing of two long blades sliding out of their sheaths, and then their blindingly fast passage cutting the air in front of Burtt’s face.
Burtt decided not to wait. Waiting was what losers did. So, he attacked, straight at the bosses.
Pokke ran. No hesitation, no looking back; he was just gone and not toward his crèche, he headed for the creek and the frontier.
One down, Burtt thought.
Hamill and Farukk stood their ground, however, and the fight was on. Ccassie appeared content to watch from the sidelines, for the time being, even signalling her crew to step back away from the brink and into Pokke’s crèche proper.
Dem ain’ aw frens, a’righ? Burtt thought.
Farukk had a stunner that looked big enough to drop two Chukk sized folks with one charge. Hamill held a two-handed blade that was longer than he was tall. Dogg darted in and out from every direction keeping the two bosses and their charges, off balance, while Burtt looked for the opening he needed, all the while watching out so that one kid in the crews around him didn’t suddenly grow a pair and get lucky.
In a coordinated attack, the two bosses separated and came at Burtt from two sides. Hamill whistled, and as one the entire mob moved in towards Burtt but not so close as to get chomped on by Dogg or slashed by Burtt’s singing blades. The effort was to limit Burtt’s mobility and he knew it. A moment of panic crept under his normally stoic mien.
Jizmo, Ah made a mess.
For the first time in his short life, Burtt felt doubt. As he set himself for his final stand, his last thoughts before he went into that cold, blood rage were the little ones, Kkat and finally of Ssyndi.
Thump, thump, thump…wha dat? He thought, trying to process the now familiar sound. As the realisation dawned on him, he saw the first of the red feathered shafts protruding from a younger girl of about 13, then another and another. He didn’t have time to feel the remorse that would set in later over the deaths of so many little ones that occurred there that day. He was too relieved that he was not alone.
He was sure he would see Harkk, Bann, Kkat and Rikk on top of the pile, firing down on his attackers. Then he realised there were far too many arrows raining down on the mob for just four shooters. While his antagonists were also shocked into frozen inaction for just a moment, Burtt dared a quick peek continuing his charge towards the bosses and saw a line of at least ten shooters atop the mound and it was evident a lot of them were kids, neither scorts, spies nor soldiers, but pre-scorts. He had no time…
Dem grab alla bows and arrers we gots f’ dis fight, but dem kids bes not b’ hurt. Das a’righ. Jizmo, ah be luck dey don gets me.
Dogg snagged Hamill’s foot and hung on, distracting him. Instead of striking at Dogg with that greatsword, he screamed as if he were being torn limb from limb. Dogg’s rep preceded him.
Burtt pressed Farukk, thinking to disarm him and hope the slouch would run like Pokke did, then he could concentrate on the real threat, Hamill. Farukk surprised him though and charged instead. Burtt barely fended off this desperate display and then watched in utter shock as Farukk then went down in a pile to slashing blades and zapping stunners in the hands of high-pitched, screaming, shielded little warriors.
Burtt’s troops had arrived, driving past and around him. They drove a wedge between Hamill and the rest of his toughs, pushing all back and away from Burtt. Burtt looked down at the tattered remains of Farukk. As he reached down to retrieve the stunner, he recalled the carnage these children had reaped and imagined a pack of rats attacking a sick creature relentlessly until there was nothing left. There was little left of Farukk.
Wha Ah do? Alla dem jes kids, he thought in horror.
There all around him now, were nearly 20 of his kids-in-training led by Kett. They had chanced death and smashed their way through the encirclement to aid one of their own. They were in the formation Harkk had suggested he train them to use and wheeling together, with the massive Chukk loose at its centre acting as a pivot, to face the enemy ahead of and all around Burtt. It was called a shield wall and it worked nearly to perfection, even to the point that they maintained the containment of the shield wall on all four sides to effectively create a phalanx., minus the roof.
Everyone in the line had a shield made of spare wood from the crèche walls. Harkk had fastened straps on the inside of the shields for them to hold onto. They also each held either a short fighting blade or stunner they used to stab over, and under the shields that were overlapped, limiting their exposure to the enemies’ weapons. Everyone had a weapon but Chukk. Burtt handed the stunner to chuck and showed him how to use it. Chukk’s toothless grin scared Burtt, but he knew Chukk would defy heaven and hell to protect those kids. The stunner was in good hands.
The toughs from the red-zone had never seen such a thing as a shield wall. Most who got close enough to have any chance at hurting Burtt’s crew were snatched off their feet by Chukk and cast away like a pile of rags or stunned into delirium and writhing on the ground to be struck down and trampled by the passing phalanx. Hamill kept his distance, willing to let the others probe this new threat, unsure of what he was seeing or how to react to it. Some got lucky and scored a hit on a Taj-mate, one fatally, but after the first two ranks of them went down in a heap while few of Burtt’s crew were injured, the red-zoners broke and ran.
Their lieutenants regained control of the mob before they got too far away to recall, and turned them back towards the fight. The momentarily jubilant Taj skirmishers, reset their feet, shields and their resolve to meet the next clash. Their bravery and discipline and the accuracy of his archers made Burtt’s chest swell with pride. Other younger crèche mates, who’d been secretly waiting just inside the wire, scooted forward and pulled the injured back. Other teams of litter carriers were waiting to transport them to the crèche. The word was out to the Loks by then that war was on, and that the Taj would need medical help.
While grateful for their arrival and his salvation, Burtt was also terrified at this development. All he could imagine were piles of dead kids at his feet. But this did leave Burtt to deal with Hamill without having to worry about the other side’s crews, so, he got down to business and charged ahead through the shield wall, isolating Hamill in the process before he could rejoin his crew. Dogg busied himself with any who tried to get in on Burtt’s flanks or from behind. The skirmishers continued their pursuit of the rest of the red-zone toughs with the archers providing over watch. By then, it looked as though at least 75 bodies lie dead or bleeding out on the field of battle, half with red feathered arrows sprouting from their still forms. The rain of death continued relentlessly from above, shifting expertly from one hot spot to another as Harkk identified build ups of enemy troops concentrations. In this manner, the red-zones crews were never able to concentrate their might and were defeated in detail.
Hamill was no pushover, though. He took Burtt to the limits of his abilities with the incredible reach of that wicked great sword. In fact, Burtt was struggling and Hamill knew it. He pressed his advantage. Backing up, Burtt slipped in the gore left from Farukk’s evisceration and went down hard losing one of his blades in the process. Hamill made to take advantage while Burtt was down and pressed in even tighter, while Burtt scooted across the ground on his back trying to keep some distance until he could regain his feet. His skirmishers couldn’t save him this time. They were too far off and totally engaged in their own fight for life. The archers were providing cover for them and not an eye was on Burtt. He struggled to present even the slightest of deflection with his remaining blade. Hamill was having none of that and was at the point where he was sure to end it all when he was taken under attack from behind.
With a battle cry that would assail the ears of the gods, Rikk leapt at Burtt’s attacker. He hit the brute in full stride knocking Hamill to one knee. Roff was right on his heels and just like he was trained, he split to one side, dividing Hamill’s attention. Burtt saw Kkat over Rikk’s shoulder on top of the rubble. She had a horrified look on her face, she was charging down and screaming something Burtt couldn’t hear. He thought he saw Jjes too. He turned his attention back to the fight and tried again to regain his footing in what seemed a river of blood.
Dogg was down with half a dozen toughs hacking at him. His yowling tore at Burtt’s heart but he was seeing the near future in his mind’s eye, and it was a nightmare. He put Dogg’s fate aside. He slid forward watching Rikk, Roff and Hamill, trying to make his body respond before it was too late.
Rikk stood over the boss ready to continue his attack but holding back. Burtt yelled to warn him but Rikk was still not prepared when Hamill feinted towards Burtt and instead spun on one foot, swinging that mighty blade in a 360-degree arc to severe Rikk’s head from his shoulders with a sickening wet, slap of blade on flesh.
Burtt was too late still to save a shocked Roff from the same fate on Hamill’s back swing or to stop Jjes from piling in herself and being impaled on that terrible blade. She had charged down the rubble, passing Kkat, to save her Rikk, only to fall beside him.
Kkat saw it all in slow motion. She was powerless to stop it. As the sword made its sweep towards her brother, the light went out of her vision and she fell to the ground, half way down the rubble mound. She didn’t move again until it was all over.
The world went red in Burtt’s eyes and the blood rage swelled in him and overflowed onto whatever was left of the attacking crews. Hamill seemed to disappear in a ruby shower of meat, blood and bone. His great sword forgotten for the moment, Hamill’s eyes grew large but, he never got the scream out that was forming on his lips when he saw the rage crazy animal that was Burtt-the-blade descending on him.
His rage not spent after ending Hamill, Burtt turned on the rest. His renewed attack chased those toughs still left away from the skirmishers; themselves near spent and just starting to reel from the horror surrounding them. They turned their attention to saving Dogg from his pursuers and their own wounded.
There seemed no place for the red-zoners to run as Burtt shepherded them towards Spring Creek. In the end, it took the combined efforts of Harkk and Ccassie to bring him down from his lust for revenge. The later begging for a truce, yelling “Parley, Parley” for everyone to hear.
His blade inches from the latest intruder on his space, Burtt caught himself a bare hair’s width from slicing Harkk’s throat before he fell to his knees in exhaustion and despair, tears streaming from his eyes. Disbelief running wetly through every earned line on his etched young face.
He tore off back to where his crew had fallen as if he just then realised what had transpired. The sight was worse than he remembered. He lost his breath and his lunch at the same time. When he recovered from sudden nausea, he still couldn’t rise.
Spread out from where he sat on his haunches, in ever bloodier piles, were the groups of the dead who fell where Burtt or the skirmishers caught them. Some lay where his archers impaled them from above, as if in a sparse forest of very straight trees with red tops. So, too were his own crew scattered among the dead. Lying next to Hamill’s desecrated corpse were Rikk and Jjes’ torn bodies and the small desecrated bodies of Roff and so much more. Katt sat with her back to Burtt, looking down as if holding something. Burtt’s eyes were too filled with tears to count all the forever unmoving bodies, let alone look at the injured, moaning and screaming ones. His rage spent, feeling emptiness, and deep down inside a terrible fear that Kkat would never forgive him, Burtt collapsed further into himself, a defeated, lost soul.
“WHY, WHY dis hap? Who gets dese kids he-ah? Who?” He pleaded, knowing it was in vain. They came to save him. It was no one’s fault but his own.
In tear-filled horror and renewed rage at the numbers of young dead and injured, Burtt tore off again to the River in pursuit of Pokke and any other survivors from the attacking crews. Kkat was still sitting where Rikk and Jess had fallen. She cradled Rikk’s head in her lap and wouldn’t let anyone near him.
After sending perserv runners to alert their sponsors and beg for more help, Harkk organised litter bearers to carry the injured to Burtt’s zone and the healing capacity of whomever Mmarta and Jaredd could muster. He recruited Ccassie and her crew to help in spoofing and to zap whatever bots showed and carrying kids to the healers.
As the wailing of the worst injured died down with their passage to the near-zone, those still standing could take in the immensity of what had just happened; slowly at first, but with more intensity and volume as momentum built, a new keening began. At that point every child in proximity to that abattoir wanted someone to hold onto, someone to make it all better, to make it all go away. This banshee-like wailing tore at everyone’s heart.
Back at the crèche, for the first time, anyone in the crèche could remember, Bbessie came out of her hut and was hustling around triage, helping Mmarta tend to the worst of the injured, or calming the less seriously injured little ones when there was nothing else for her to do.
Mmarta was too busy saving lives in the surgery tent to say anything, and so emotionally distraught she probably couldn’t have said anything coherent anyway.
Jaredd was in shock, himself, attempting to keep his mother and Bbessie in medical supplies while they tended to the most horrific wounds he’d ever seen. This damage had been done to children, by children, fighting to the death for survival, while his CommCorp peers troubled themselves with lofty decisions, such as, what to have for lunch.
“Was this in your plans greenie?” Accused Harkk, carrying another limp and lifeless body from the tent they’d turned into the surgery suite. Jaredd choked back his sobs. Mmarta merely turned to the next torn little body Bbessie handed her.
Aside from the occasionally leaked whimper of pain, the little warriors now stoically awaited their turn for treatment. But Norton, there were a lot of them. Too many.
He couldn’t stay here forever. This was the coward’s way, Kkhloe would’ve said.
“Face the dark, don’t ever turn from it”, she was forever telling Burtt and Ssyndi.
“If you run today, how far will you have to run tomorrow?”
Kkhloe, Kkhloe, ah don know wha ‘t do. Ah put so many kids unna de dirt, Kkhloe. God be payin me now a’righ.
Burtt wiped his swollen eyes and headed away from the clean flowing river he’d come to call Green river. He’d made his way here when the steam ran out of his rage and he wanted the only solace he thought he could find. While he cleaned most the gore from himself and his weapons, he realised that his place was with his crew, not out here feeling sorry for himself. He headed back.
He’d found a few scared and injured kids hiding and terrified of him along the way. In an epiphany, he found his salvation for the horrors of the day – some salvation, at least.
Slowly and in as non-threatening a manner as he could muster, he called them out of hiding.
“Com’ on out. Ah don b’ hurt ya. Let’s get alla ya ca-ah’d fo-ah. Don b’ sca-ah’d.”
One by one they came out of hiding, some holding cut, bruised and sometimes broken limbs or cracked heads. Some, too hurt to move, or holding onto unconscious siblings or friends, had to wait for help, but Burtt recruited any who were well enough to do so, sending them back to the wire as he could.
He scoured the sector’s entire red-zone for survivors. As he gathered more to him, others in hiding became more willing to come out themselves. In truth, the younger ones flocked to him once they got over their fear of him. It was the older ones, the toughs-soldiers, escorts and spies-that used to work for the now dead or missing red-zone bosses, that Burtt was most concerned about and to whom he addressed his most impassioned invitations to join him, at least for the parley Ccassie called for. Her crew was with her, helping with the injured and collecting the dead.
With the mention of the last remaining Red zone boss, even the most stubborn toughs finally came along but would only agree to come as far as the wire. Their help getting the wounded to the healers was critical. It probably saved several of the worst cases and Burtt made sure they knew it. It was a good start.
Once he’d gathered as many of the red-zoners as he thought were ever going to come out, he headed for the wire with the last of the stragglers. Burtt prepared to face his biggest fear. In sight of the battleground, he started shaking all over when he thought about facing Kkat again. He prepared himself for the worst he could imagine.
After the last of the injured were passed through the wire to litter teams who would carry them to the healing arms of Bbessie and Mmarta, and the toughs who refused to go further were settled in to wait for the parley, he approached his hell.
He had purposely avoided the scene of the slaughter and approached the wire from a different direction, as much for his own peace of mind as it was to spare the little ones from being reminded of what had nearly been their fate. Now he had no choice.
Kett was on guard at the wire and in charge of spoofing the bots with several teams of pre-scorts at his command while all the traffic, back and forth, continued. His eyes swollen and tear streaks staining his cheeks, he choked out the story and told Burtt that Kkat was still with her brother’s body and wouldn’t let anyone near. “Not ev’n me!”, he sobbed.
Burtt tried to calm Kett with a pat on the head, but the boy pulled away, angrily pushing at his hand.
“Aint no babe he-ah, Burtt. Don treat lahk!”
Another boy man. Him be unna the dirt fa me mayb’?
“’Kay Kett. Ah don kno hows bes ta hep. Tryin‘s aw. Ya do gut taday, Kett. Ya’s a gut scort, taday. Ya save Burtt’s lahf. We talk mo ‘bout dis latah.”
Aint nevah doin dat agin kid. Nevah! Not fa Burtt.
He turned towards the battleground feeling his fate flying uncontrollably away from him in the coppery tainted breeze. For the first time, he noted the chill of fall in the air.
Gon nee clof for the lil ones. Col comin. Nees jak’its, yessuh. Wunna ‘f Ah c’n do like Kkhloe dun. His thoughts of sewing jackets for the little ones incongruously intruded on his passage.
Alla dem kids be he-ah in m’ crèche, now. ‘S wha ah wan, but wif alla dem uvas unna de dirt? Rikk and Jjes, Roff, Jeff, Rogg, Jjane, Ellsie, Rrebca, Mikk and Makk, Rolly, Gginger, Rrose ‘n alla dem…God b’ takin m’ su-ah. Wha ‘bout alla da kilt ones on ‘t uva crews? I caint stan ‘t.
By the time he got to the scene, Burtt was ready to accept beheading as his just and deserved punishment. There could be no forgiveness for what he had wrought. Kkat would surely be his executioner.
The last two of the fallen were being collected as Burtt approached. Ccassie was covering Jjes’s tiny form in cloth. Harkk was doing the same for Rikk under Kkat’s trancelike supervision. Going about his grizzly task, Harkk was calmly trying to sooth Kkat with his voice. Kkat seemed not to notice anyone or anything around her. She stared at Rikk’s body, even after it was wrapped in blood-stained cloth, and kept humming a tune she remembered from a better past.
Burtt was frozen in place and time. Nothing stirred in him or around him. There was himself and that moment of abject desolation and despair seeing the empty defeated look on Kkat’s face, knowing that their relationship could never be the same, ever again. She was lost to him.
Suddenly, there was no reason for any of it. Life, love, hope, giving, justice, freedom – it was all a lie. One he created in his own mind thinking he, a nobody from the zone, could make a difference. Well, he’d made a difference alright. His dream killed over 100 people. His blind ambitions drove him to save his world and everyone in it and instead, he’d brought about its doom. Certainly, this fiasco would bring about the end of any life he might have had. There was no way the Elies let more than a hundred zoners reside in the near-zone, and they’d want the head of the prole who brought them in.
Da mines‘s b’ gut fah ya, Burtt. Ya killah.
Caught up in his own grief and self-pity, Burtt didn’t notice Kkat staring at him. When he did, the shame he felt instantly hurt so bad he started crying again. He wanted to say something, anything, but before he could open his mouth Kkat coldly told him that they didn’t need his help. Burtt gritted his teeth, bit back his tears, nodded, and left.
He forced himself to help transport and guide any remaining injured or just lost children into the near-zone and his crèche.
“Where is Kkat, Burtt? I need her now, damn it!” Mmarta screamed from the tent flap, the moment she first saw him.
“I-I, she comin.” Was all he could manage. “Wha Ah do t’hep?”
“Go to Bbessie’s hut. Get more bandages, more alcohol and cat-gut, you know, for sewing wounds closed like I’ve done for you. Hurry.”
Burtt didn’t answer. He was gone before Mmarta looked up to yell at him again. There were so many squirming, injured bodies lying everywhere that Burtt had to dodge them as he passed them by. There was more blood than he wanted to ever see again. His creche’s blood.
Bbessie served as a personal holistic nurse to the Loks neighbours, the Haps. The practice of such hoodoo as it was referred to, was nearly as taboo for a greenie as getting caught with a red-zone whore. So, Bbessie lived in a sort of protected status but outside the green zone and was sponsored as a domestic to the Haps. Anyway, she was well supplied. Her hut was wide open this day and quite well appointed Burtt noticed. He was happy for her.
He returned with as much as he could carry and then sensing he was just in the way, he left to help bury the dead. Harkk caught him on the way out and held him by the arm until Burtt looked him in the eye.
“You give her time boy. She needs time. You, the both of you, need each other. And this crèche needs the two of you. So be patient. Give her time. Stay clear for now. She’ll come around. Understand me?”
Burtt, eyes hollow sockets of regret and grief, simply stared at Harkk, not believing a word of it.
“’S ovah, Harkk. She put me unna the dirt she could. Mayb’ dat be bes f’ alla us.” Burtt pulled his arm away and resumed his grizzly task.
Harkk watched the retreating back of his young friend, thinking, Damn it, kid. Don’t give up! First time in ten years I feel alive and now you’re going to quit on us? God-damn it, I refuse to let this happen. JIZMO!
He stomped into the triage area with a purpose. This mess needed saving, now. The elies were going to help, or else. I bet they’d shit themselves if they had to spend even one day without freshers.
Kkat didn’t mean to eavesdrop. It was an accident but she’d heard it all. She saw the genuine pain in Burtt’s eyes and she felt for him. She was conflicted now. She was angry at everyone, not just Burtt. His pain was palpable, though. She could feel it looking at the horror etched on his beautiful face. She couldn’t hate him. She couldn’t comfort him. At once she knew for certain, she loved him.
Oh God, why now? Why throw this at me now?
The tears flowed again, but she headed for the scrub to clean up and help with these children.
“What do you mean it’s too soon for exposure? They are children. They are OUR children, by Norton, and they are dying!” Jaredd demanded.
As soon as he’d done everything he could to help back at the crèche and realised that much more needed to be done, he took the time to listen to Harkk’s impassioned plea. Together they headed for an emergency session of the secret Full Exposure Council. He called for the session as he was running to it. At this level in the council, though, he was pushing his luck. He knew it, but right now at least, he didn’t care. He wanted to shove this crisis down their collective throats because he knew that was the only way this snail envious body of elites would ever do something about it under any one’s time constraints but their own. Starting at the top was the only way to get what they needed when they needed it…which was now.
They could also, of course, decide the other way and simply shut Jaredd, and Harkk, up. Exposure as collaborators with an opposition city-state, even via an anonymous tip, was grounds for a trumped up investigation leading to fake charges and exile or revocation of sponsorship. Mmarta and Dougg would join them, end of the problem, no one the wiser. CommCorp absorbs another stead.
Still, Jaredd thought, there was no simple way to approach this crisis. There were far too many proles in the so-called “little-used” near-zone right now; many with critical injuries needing constant professional care, and they were all, at the very minimum, malnourished. If the elies didn’t help, many of them would die.
He and Harkk had both decided, safe jobs and lives be damned, they would push this all the way to the vids if they had to. Harkk would threaten to shut down all the utilities in the sector. Mmarta, looked startled for a moment, then merely shrugged and nodded her assent when Harkk promised to keep the water and power flowing into the surgery suite at least. Enough was enough!
“We cannot sit idly by with so many children in such dire need. Please! I beg you!”
Jaredd continued his impassioned pleadings. He’d been arguing his case in front of these seemingly hearing impaired automatons for over an hour and been met with the same tired response from their chosen spokesperson, Carminn Dobs, a self-important mid-level functionary in the Services branch of CommCorp.
“We cannot possibly expose ourselves in the manner you describe. To do so would be to admit we knew about your efforts for some time. The newsvids would transfix us to an X, and once CommCorp found out, we might find ourselves wishing for the real thing. I’m sure we all are heartbroken about this prole tragedy, but I’m afraid we must insist you clean this up on your own. Do so quickly and quietly before the perservs in the area start talking. By Norton’s shade, Jaredd. How you could allow it to go this far is beyond me. Do Mmarta or Dougg know?”
“Do they know? Of course, they know. The children told Estebann, who called me from his servhut. I recruited them to help in triage once I saw the carnage.” He hoped the lie held for Mmarta’s sake.
“There are simply too many children, our children, in dire need of life-saving procedures for just one pseudo-surgeon and a nurse to handle. We need your help. By Norton, Carminn, how can YOU deny them your succour?”
He hoped that referring to the children as their own might in some way appeal to his baser, more human self. He was wrong.
“Now Jaredd, let me…”
“Stop, Carminn! Enough! Can’t you for once feel something akin to grief? Those are children. Who cares, at this point, whose children they might be?”
This from the head of the council herself, Miss Jjenna Sims, who was also 3rd in line for the head chair of the Science wing of CommCorp.
Turning her scolding stare away from the council’s spokesman, she asked, “What can we do, Jaredd?”
With a visible sigh of relief, Jared nearly sagged to the floor but caught himself and stood tall, collecting his thoughts.
Harkk took up the chore before Jaredd could fully recover.
“Madam Sims, we need medicine, bandages, IVs of plasma and saline, doctors and nurses, food-lots of it- and people who give a damn. And we need it two hours ago…and I need milclass power line to get enough juice to that surgery suite for it to be fully effective. Oh, and turn off the damn wire and bots in our sector. We don’t need it anymore and it’s causing us delays we can’t afford.”
The parade of supplies and professional elies who came to the near-zone was astounding. The council had more tentacles in the city than the Loks previously thought. Using an untraceable netchat, they called for help from any who could and/or would. They came in droves from as far away as the other side of the dome. Three hours after the end of hostilities there were 30 professionals saving prole lives in sector-22’s near-zone, and more were on the way.
“We still have to keep the number of passages down to a minimum. It’s going to be hard enough explaining the excessive number of passages we are bound to make or have made already, mother. That’s why I’m having any newcomers met at the stead and held there until the next crew is coming out or there are at least five of them.” Said Jaredd as he prevented Mmarta from entering the tube for what had to be the tenth time in two hours.
“I don’t know how much wool we can pull over the same two cops eyes, mother.” He mumbled worriedly.
There seemed to be a constant need for supplies and equipment someone hadn’t already thought to bring out with them, even though it seemed an entire MedCent now existed outside the front entrance to the crèche.
But who could ever imagine such need?
The Loks and Haps and the local rep for the Corp’s stead provided ample passage for what was being touted by the Loks and a few well-placed council members as a medical crisis running rampant through the sector-22 perserv ranks. So, the tube bots were turned passive and would remain that way except in extreme security or medical emergencies. Two CommCorp cops kept watch on the green zone side of the tube, just in case. The wire and all the near-zone bots were shut down for sector-22.
Still, too much tube traffic could surely invite curiosity no one wanted, so, Jaredd made himself useful by regulating the passages as best he could. Letting folks in and out at the same time in large numbers, rather than in dribs and drabs. And he didn’t even want to think what the Corp or the Haps would think if they saw what was really going on here and who was participating.
“What do you need? I’ll have this crew bring it back.”
“What? Not just what, Jaredd dear, but, I do need more plasma, and surgery kits and bandages and medicines and etc, etc…I have a whole shopping list here.”
She held out an actual hand written list. Jaredd stared at it as if he didn’t know she could write and he was just as surprised that he could read it.
“I also want to drag that lazy curd I’m married to down here, so he can witness some real misery and stop bitching at me about his sex life.” Mmarta chewed through clenched teeth.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Jaredd. I’ve never seen such… I can’t… Oh, Jaredd!”
She leant hard on him, her head heavy on his shoulder.
“This cannot go on. We must expose. Now! These are children!”
“I agree, mum. Right now, though, we need to save these damn kids. I used to think it was about me taking over the council one day. Now, I want to debunk it and start again. Do it right this time, and I’m not even sure what that means. Look, just look what we’ve done to them? Norton, do we even deserve the chance to make it right?”
By the time his perscomm’s ringer went off signalling the arrival on the other side of another crew of volunteers, and more supplies, a small crew of others were prepared to go back the other way on quests for more difficult things to acquire.
“Baronn! Baronn, isn’t it? Hello?” Mmarta called to a young man she recognised as a friend of Jaredd’s headed back into the dome. “Would you please deliver a message to my husband for me? I hate to leave the children.” She inquired with her most pleading voice.
“Would be my pleasure Miss Mmarta.” The boy answered with adoring eyes. Mmarta was renowned among young council members for her brash demeanour and willingness to stand up to the council elders. Ill or not, she was still a looker, too. Many a young man on the council spent dreamy nights with visions of her in their sleepy eyes.
She had what she’d really come for. Jaredd’s concerns were sound ones and she could send her request for supplies along with her appeal to Dougg. She scribed off a scathing missive to her errant husband using the most recent additions to her med kit, a stylus and parchment.
The gloves are coming off, Dougg. Come help or go away. I need your support, if not your love. If neither are available, then you are neither wanted nor needed here. Be gone before I return. – Mmarta Lok
Using her last name to remind him of who still held the purse strings, he couldn’t possibly misconstrue her meaning. Handing the note to Baronn, she also gave him the list and told him who to see to have that list filled, instructing him to return just as soon as he could, or have someone else bring out the supplies if he couldn’t. They couldn’t wait. Mmarta returned to surgery.
They were buried. Harkk had shown him a good way to make the job easier a month earlier when one of the younger kids got sick and died, Jamme. This stuff happened. It didn’t bother him as much as combat deaths did, though. Harkk had seen Burtt headed to the river with his bundle and stopped him suggesting it might not be the best place to dispose of the bodies. He tried to explain how the whole decaying cycle worked but gave up with the dazed look in Burtt’s eyes. He convinced Burtt it was better to bury them.
Together they hiked to an area not far away that Harkk knew of a place over the rubble where a huge pile of loose dirt was mounded next to the lower section of dome wall but not right next to it. This area was in the opposite direction from where Burtt had found the clean waterway but was just as isolated by the rubble and dirt mound. He thought the greenies had started to clean it out for another near-zone but gave up for some reason. Harkk showed him how to lay the body at the base of the dirt mound and then shovel dirt from the mound right over top of the body. If you kept at it for a while you could pile the dirt up as tall as Burtt stood without too much work. He told Burtt it was the way folks did it before the fall, and that it was the safest way.
The space between the dirt mound and the dome was about as wide as he was tall, so they could lay several little bodies, toes to nose, next to each other. Still, the new pile of moved dirt was thirty paces long and twice as deep as Burtt stood, this time.
He was devastated. He sent his helpers back home but remained on top of the dirt mound looking down at once on the fresh dirt pile of the dead and then on the eerily subdued world that was his crèche. He hummed the only other tune he could remember Kkhloe singing. Something about a Ggrace and being Amazing, and she sang it when they put their parents in the river.
How dem sees me now, Kkhloe? Wha dem tink o’ ole Burtt now, huh? Ah caint look dem in de eye, Kkhloe. Ah caint. She won’ nevah…and he caught himself.
He was feeling sorry for himself. Kkhloe called it being a crybaby.
Das a’righ Burtt. Now stop dis. You wor’in f’ da kids or f’ Burtt?
He absently searched the area below for her. He caught himself sniffing the air trying to find her scent. He’d told himself it was his imagination but still thought he could smell her whenever she came near. In his mind, she smelled like the breeze when he was high above it all and the stench from below was left behind. He could only smell the cold, empty stench of death, just then, though.
He caught sight of her finally as she scampered about the triage area running errands here, talking to little ones there, holding a terrified hand, calming and shushing a whimpering voice. Being Kkat. And she had cleaned up too.
Leas she be a’righ. Tank Got.
“Burtt! Burtt? Come on down. We need to talk. I need your help.” Jaredd called to him and caught Burtt by surprise. He wanted to refuse, to make an excuse. Being close and having her still not even look at him would be unbearable. He couldn’t run anymore, though. He had to go down sometime.
“Yeah, ah comin Jaredd.” He worked his way down the mound, glaring straight ahead, avoiding the triage area.
He noticed the greenie with blond hair tied back and a scarf covering most of her face who, along with several others, had just come through the tube with an arm full of life-saving supplies. There was a tug at his 6th sense but he couldn’t place it. He looked around for the source of this intrusion on his temporary calm. He couldn’t see it and continued down to Jaredd.
Ssyndi said nothing, even turned her head away when Burtt’s glance touched her. If anyone found out they’d send her back so fast her head would spin. She’d had to see for herself, though. Mmarta was like a stone wall and wouldn’t answer any of her comms. Neither would Jaredd and Dougg, well, he was Dougg. He couldn’t keep his hands to himself and he couldn’t take a hint. Regardless, she had to see for herself that Burtt was okay. He was, she could see, at least physically, but there was something new in his eyes. A rejected, defeated look she’d never seen in her indestructible super-hero brother. He looked empty.
If this is that witch, Kkat’s fault, she going to wish she was shot, not just exiled. I’ll kill you, lady. Just wait.
Ssyndi dropped her cache of supplies at the surgery suite’s flap and quietly moved back into and through the tube to the green-zone.
“Wha ya nees?” Burt asked Jaredd defensively.
“It’s not what I need, Burtt. It’s what these kids need. They need you. They need to see you and to know that you are still their champion. The last thing they remember about you is your back as you ran after Pokke. Show them your face, Burtt. Show them your proud leader’s face. Let them know how magnificently they performed for you today. Give them hope, because frankly, Burtt, for some of them, hope is all they have. Do you see, Burtt? Some are very badly injured and may not make it. If they are to have any chance at all they need to see that there is still hope. That there is still a Burtt there for them. Without you, there is no hope. Not for them, there isn’t”
Burtt’s face was paling. He could feel it along with the queasiness in his gut.
Ah caint look in dems eyes. Ah caint!
“Burtt, please!” Jaredd pleaded again.
“AH CAINT! JIZMO! GOT AMIGHT! AH CAINT!” he screamed so that anyone near backed away from him.
He was stunned. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He was having trouble breathing. Got, Ah ready fa ya. Come on, den.
He was stunned further when he felt her soft touch on his arm and then heard her softer voice.
“It’s okay, Burtt. We can do it together.”
Kkat took his arm and led him towards the triage centre and the crèche. He was aware only of moving again until he could see the flap to the tent in front of him. He froze up and resisted again, but Kkat was there, holding his face in her hands, soothing the beast until he could bring his own fears under control. Together they entered the land of the near dead, the surgery tent. Only the worst cases were still here, eight hours after the last of the injured were brought under the wire.
Some of the council elies still here were occupied with saving the children still under the knife in the surgical tent. Others were providing the intensive care needed to maintain the ones recently recovering from surgery out in the open post op area, or maintaining and prepping the next ones in. All these elies showed signs of exhaustion. It was a cinch none of them had ever had the need to be so severely impressed into lifesaving service for so many cases or for so many consecutive hours. The last City-state level war was over long ago and injuries incurred at the Wall were treated at the wall.
Jaredd had started a rotation. Sending a handful of volunteers at a time to a separate tent for a few hours R & R, keeping just enough bodies on the floor to keep everyone alive.
The first child Burtt and Kkat came upon was so badly cut, Burtt couldn’t imagine how she could still be alive or how she could possibly last through the night. Her ravaged chest more cat gut than skin and her complexion paler than some of the dead he’d seen, he wondered at how she could still be breathing? He looked the question at Mmarta, who only closed her eyes and as imperceptibly as possible shrugged her uncertainty about the child’s chances.
The tugging on his sleeve was not as unnerving as the perfect salute this near-dead young warrior presented her field commander, once he turned his attention to her.
Burtt’s heart filled with pride. Suddenly, he understood what Jared had meant and he believed it. If he could just give them hope enough to hang on. Hope enough to help them want to recover. With this understanding, he found hope, himself.
Burtt formally returned the salute. Then smiled and took the little girls hand in his.
“Easy time, sojer! Ya res now. Ya’s gut taday, Ccarol, real gut. I membah dat. Yessuh. Now, ya gets bettah, gots it? He-ah b’ Kkat.”
They moved together through the pre and post-op areas, then to recovery, just inside the crèche entrance, and further on into the crèche main room where the rest of those with minor, treated injuries and the uninjured were huddled in small groups, quietly seeking solace in the company of those nearby. The older kids handing out fruit and water.
“Ah took gut ca-ah o’ Rikk and Jjes, Kkat. I cover dem gut, so’s da rats ain’t gits ‘em, kay? Ah-Ah so-sor, Kkat. I try. I dit, real try, Kkat. I dit.’
Tears formed in his eyes and ran freely from them. He didn’t try to hide or wipe them away. Kkhloe said you don’t hide tears for the dead.
Kkat, choking back her own tears, said, “I know Burtt. I saw.” She couldn’t say more, yet. She headed back to help in surgery.
Burtt then remembered Dogg with a start. He started to whistle then thought better of it in case Dogg was injured again.
Craz K b’ run annaway.
“Kett, Chukk! Whe-ah Dogg be?” He called out.
“Hm b’ ova his hol, Burtt man”, said little Cconnie, a shy blond with one blue eye and one green. “Mmarta lady fit him up and gets me t’ take him t’ da creche but him pult me ova de-ah.”
“‘Kay, Cconnie. Tanks.” He turned to go find his friend.
“Dogg b’ kay Burtt man? Mmarta say.” The tear forming in her eye was more than Burtt could stand. He walked back, snatched her up in his arms and hugged her tight.
“S’kay lil one. Burtt nos Dogg b’ gut. Him gots ya t’ca-ah fo-ah. Das a’righ.”
His smile seemed to allay her fears and she smiled back. It made Burtt feel strange, kind of warm.
Burtt made for the hidey hole in the base of the rubble wall where Dogg liked to make his home. Dogg struggled a bit to do so, but he came out to greet Burtt. It almost seemed to Burtt that Dogg was trying to keep him away from little Sweet again. He was taped and scewed together just like Burtt often needed after a fight, but he didn’t look too bad. Not hardly as bad as Burtt expected, though he was limping. He was relieved and decided not to push the issue about getting close to Sweet again until later. He had more important things to do anyway. He said goodnight to Dogg, threw him a scrap to eat and turned to go about his rounds. He was too far away to hear the tiny squeals of many new and hungry mouths Dogg and Sweet would be responsible for now.
Girls and boys from different crews found themselves drawn to each other out of need. As the night went on and the waiting for news about the last ones still in surgery grew to nerve-wracking communal angst, these small groups morphed into bigger ones that led to bigger ones still until the entire crèche was as one. Eighty-eight souls in the crèche proper swore fidelity, not to a boss, but to each other. They swore to protect each other and the Taj from all comers, and to do so together and forever. They did all this without Burtt or Kkat or Harkk or Bbessie or Ccassie’s input. There were no zones there that day. There were no crèches, plural. There was only the one and it was the Taj and everyone belonged who wanted to.
There were 56 severely injured still in post-op or varying stages of recovery. Some went back in and out of surgery every day or every other one. 118 total had died as a direct result of the two days of war, so far.
Ccassie confessed after things settled down finally that she would never be comfortable under the eyes of the Corp, and so would stay in the red-zone and be the de facto leader of those few toughs still out there, if they’d have her. She agreed to keep an open dialogue between the Taj and the outer zone so that wars like this last one never happened again. She took it one step further and suggested her crèche be an annexe to the Taj, but with the condition that she be a sitting member of the Taj’s council. Once Burtt understood what that meant, he was all for it. They would have to find another to join with her to keep the tie-breaker option open. With Rikk and Jjes gone, two replacements were needed anyway. One of the power slaves, Gregg, from Thomass’s creche who’d joined Ccassie after Thomass fell, swore to destroy whatever remained of the former slave creches in the red-zone, and everyone in sector-22 was all for that. Gregg might just be that second council member they were looking for. Burtt declared a burning night for the destruction so all could watch. He also promised to run power and clean water to her creche and to share the supplements they got from the greenies. Negotiations continued…
“How long, doctor, and no bullshit this time.”
“Mmarta, I have always tried to be honest while upbeat. You know this. Don’t be angry with me now. Norton, knows, I’d do anything to be able to tell you differently, but I can’t. Not now, anyway. Six months is a strong estimate, perhaps overly optimistic, but with proper diet, medications and rest, and if you stay away from that damn zone over there, six months is very doable. Yes.”
“Oh dear. I can’t possibly finish what I’ve set out to do in six months. We simply have to do better than that doctor, or I’m going to need a new physician.” Mmarta prattled, desperately trying to sound more positive than she felt. The despair that gripped her insides, though, was impossible to hide.
“Save the brave act for someone who doesn’t see right through it, Mmarta. If that means you’re going to ignore my advice and charge on into the fray with these proles, then, yes, I suggest you do get a new doctor. I won’t stand by and watch you voluntarily kill yourself.”
“Oh Georgge, don’t be so melodramatic. Six months, eight months, four months, a year, not a whole lot of difference is there Georgge? It’s getting a bit late in the game for hysterics don’t you think?”
“No! I don’t think! Continued exposure to that air will only kill you sooner, Mmarta. I’ve told you that time and again. Yet, there you go, every day, and without a mask most of the damn time I might add.”
“STOP IT, GEORGGE! STOP! I insist, right now, stop” Mmarta blurted.
Silence gripped them both for agonising moments while both composed themselves.
“There is nothing to be done about it, Georgge. I’m dying. I will not, I repeat, NOT, stop living just to wait for that unhappy moment to arrive in some artificial comfort. My dying ambition (excuse the pun), is to see to it that those kids over there are acknowledged and accepted by the damned evil city-state who spawned them. Now, that’s all there is to that, Georgge. Agreed? And I’m surely going to need your help even after I’m gone. That girl is a wiz, but even with all she’s been through, she is just a child still. I’m going to sponsor her as my domestic and begin her training. You’re going to find a way to continue her highed when I’m gone. Is that clear? You’ll, of course, be well compensated.”. She ended the comm and burst into tearful sobs. She was too distraught right now. She’d send Dougg. The bastard never did come to help and he damn sure hadn’t left either. He could do this much at least, then she’d deal with him too.
Kkat was reeling.
How could the creche stand now?
“…So, under the circumstances, Mmarta sent me to ask you to accept her sponsorship into the medical intern program. I know she told you to take your time thinking about it, but time is not something you or she has now. Mmarta is sick. She doesn’t have much time. You need to get going on this.”
The gravely concerned look on his face seemed off to Katt. She couldn’t tell why. This all somehow just felt, wrong.
“I can help you along too, I have lots of contacts in the health field and in highed. I can smooth things along for you, you know? Make it easier for you to get by with all the spoiled elie brats that’ll be giving you a hard time. Especially since they’ll know your background.”
Kkat imagined a creek rat slithering along the banks, hunting smaller ones, maybe even its own.
“I’m sure you’d love to help me. Exactly what would that cost me? Tell me also Dougg, how would anyone around here know my past? I’m not from a sector anywhere near here. No thanks, Mr Lok, I’ll take my chances with Mmarta’s guidance alone. Does she want me to come to her? Now?”
“Yes. Now would be best”, he was too quick and spoke with an angry sneer in his voice. Something in his eyes told her to deflect him, too.
“Please tell her I’m sorry, but I promised Burtt I’d help him with something today. I’ll see her tomorrow when she comes for her visit with the injured. Surely, it can wait until then. If that’s all, then, I’ll be going now.”
She turned to walk away but Dougg grabbed her arm and forcefully pulled her to him. She was so close she could smell his stinking breath. Now she knew what had been bothering her about Dougg. He was a pig. She could tell just from the way he looked at her and the other girls in the crèche. She wondered how Burtt’s sister could stand it.
Well, I don’t have to!
“Don’t you turn away from me you, prole bitch. I’ll tell you when I’m done with you.”
Dougg had no idea how much trouble he was in. Kkat was one of the best hand-to-hand students Harkk had ever taught, and since their war, she had excelled at every discipline he showed her. This would prove to be Dougg’s final and complete undoing and it started with a bang.
After she drove his testicles up to his throat with her right knee, Kkat spun around behind him and put him in a chokehold until he passed out. She then had two of the older boys carry him to the tube and deposit him there after splashing a healthy dose of red-zone hootch all over him. Even in passive mode, the tube bots would eventually identify and then arrange transport for him. By then the hootch will have eaten through at least some of the fabric of his tunic, and the stench would be horrendous.
She had Bann bring Mmarta her message and asked him to request a way to get by the tube bots and guards without needing Dougg, and to explain about Dougg too. Bann left with a huge smile on his face. This was something he’d wanted to do for so long.
Oh, boy it would be great to see him laid out in the tube. Oh boy, would it ever.
Bann thought his face might split.
Kkat hoped this would be the end of Dougg. Being picked up in such a condition by tube bots was decidedly not a good thing for one’s reputation with the Corp. One was supposed to be more discreet in regards their dealings in the outer zones. With Dougg’s already blemished rep, he was surely done for.
Mmarta deserved much better anyway, especially now.
She thought of what the news about Mmarta meant, to her and to the crèche. So many depended on Mmarta for care and her motherly attributes. What would they do now? Surely Mmarta didn’t think Kkat would be able to fill in for all that? She would accept the internship for the sake of the crèche but she wondered just how much responsibility they would try to saddle her with and how much could she stand?
Finally, she thought, dear God, Mmarta is dying and I’m worried about my workload. JIZMO!
“Alla us wha gots las names from Jaredd, das gut. Alla res gonna hab “Taj” for las name ‘til we finds ya real one. ‘R mayb’ sumun adops ya n ya hab dat name. Das a’righ.”
After sorting out the logistics, the kids all tried on their new names for size, many laughing at the first-time sounds. The most fun ones were Klipp Klop, who wanted to be adopted by Burtt along with 12 others. Then there was Rajj Taj, Festerr Chester, Rrosie Posey, Ssandi Butte. And Mortt Mort, one of Kkat’s 18 adoptions, all under 10 and even three infants.
Most of the outer zoners decided to stay with the Taj. Some when they healed, others chose right away after the fight, though a lot of the oldest ones insisted on going out to be with Ccassie, especially her original crew. They all swore allegiance to the Taj and were all offered naming too.
Ccassie happened to remember her last name, it was Meinklop. She was the disgraced, long mysteriously gone missing daughter of the head of CommCorp himself. She didn’t believe throwing that bit of history at the Corp would buy them any favours, so she kept it to herself and her crew all settled for Taj.
Every one of the little ones, aged 14 and under, stayed with Burtt and Kkat in the near-zone. Everyone agreed this was best for them.
Eight girls who had been sex-slaves stole away into the red-zone as soon as they could get away and came back with infants they’d been hiding from their bosses. Two of them were dead, the other six weren’t in much better condition but they at least had a chance, now. All these babies were in the med-tent and in incubation chambers Harkk fashioned with Bbessie’s coaching. Burtt took the two grieving mothers to the burial ground and helped them put their babies to rest.
Three more girls from Ccassie’s crew came over the wire with their infants, too. They were in comparatively good condition as Ccassie was still mostly human. Mmarta and Kkat would enlist these girls to help to build and to supply a nursery over the next few days. They needed to get these babies out of the surgery suite.
Education became the next most important aspect of life in the crèche after nutrition and health. Courses were even set up for Ccassie’s crew. No one was forced to learn but everyone had to contribute to the crèche in some way. A lot of the older kids decided to learn a skill from Harkk or Bbessie or one of the other domestics or perservs, instead of more formal schooling.
Romance blossomed, and faded, often. There were even some feuds arising from jealous mates or jilted aspirers. The Taj council worked on ideas to help educate everyone about the follies of lovelorn foibles and adjudicate the worst cases of love driven violence. They also worked on keeping the real young ones single.
When petty jealousies over small possessions started to break out across the creche, the council, under Jaredd and Harkk’s guidance, finally concluded that their newly conjoined outer zones needed some form of regulation if they were truly going to attempt to be a civilised society. The bots were basically useless in this regard as anyone can spoof them. So, the council conferred and came up with the beginnings of an idea to self-police the zone. A design for the police force was laid out with great emphasis on fairness to all. The wire between outer zones remained dead in sector-22. Even after the greenies recharged it, Harkk had built in a bypass. The passage between the zones was eased.
Jaredd lived up to his word and he provided footballs and flags to mark out a field of play. Everyone learned to play footie over the next little while. In time, teams were set and competitions scheduled, with awards for best teams and players. It was great fun for all. Even Burtt and Kkat played. Everyone learned the value of fair play and how to win or lose gracefully. Everyone learned that some could, and some couldn’t and that most fell somewhere in between.
The Taj slowly recovered and indeed, thrived.
So, it went through the next few days, nights, weeks and months after the war. A new nation was born for all intents and purposes. One that would in time, challenge a giant. the children, Like Ssyndi, were magnets for knowledge. The more time moved forward the more this whole concept of exposure took form.
Burtt had avoided this place since that terrible day. So, it seemed, had everyone else. A new path into the red zone had been worn into the soil that avoided the battleground itself. Today Burtt decided it was time to clean up all signs of that carnage. With Hamill’s huge blade in his hands, he knelt and prayed as he had never done before. The crew that came with him left him alone. They’d never seen him like this before and it spooked them. They headed for the Taj or to Ccassie’s crèche without him.
“Lor’ Got, ya gots t’ take ole Burtt ‘fore he put no mor kids unna da dirt. I knows times b’ nees to dah, but don’ lets me kilt da wron ones agin. No mo lil ones, Lor’, no mo. I caint stans ‘t.”
Burtt checked his work. Happy that there were no more signs of the battle, he headed back to the Taj, determined to never again allow his rage to cloud his judgement. NO more would he charge into battle willy-nilly. He knew the consequences now. He knew his creche-mates would never let him go it alone, regardless of their capabilities. No more!
He only wondered now what to do with this great sword. It had proved its worth in battle against Burtt, so he didn’t want to just throw it away. But, it was covered in hardened blood and gore left from the battle, and Burtt couldn’t imagine the time it would take to clean it, remembering that savagery again.
He looked up to the heavens. Kkhloe had taught him to never throw a good tool away, or weapon.
Kkhloe whs a’righ?
His eye caught a glint of light sparkling off something shiny at the top of the rubble mound where the archers fought from, where Kkat was. He clawed his way to the top and found what he was looking for. He remembered it hanging around Jjes’s neck. It was gold, she said. Her mum’s cross, she called it.
Burtt used a large chunk of concrete to pound the blade half way into the mound. The top of pommel was still up to Burtt’s chest. He hung Jjes’ necklace from the hilt and hummed Amazing Grace again.
“Well, well! Looky wha da tide drug in. “’F aint my ole fren, Pokke. Wha brin ya way out he-ah, fren?”
Pokke recognised the predatory look in Zobbi’s eyes and Zobbi looked real sick now. He was gone way over the edge and Pokke wet himself anew. This had been a terrible week for him already. He couldn’t imagine how in the hell he managed to run into this crazy bastard on top of all that, way the hell out here?
Why ain’t dis basta det?
“Zobbi, my man. Ah so hap t’ see ya. Oh my, Burtt gon craz and b’ killin’ ever’one. Ah bare gets out a’righ, and he gots a ho pack o demon Ks runnin wit.” He whined.
“S’okay, ole Pokke. Ya safe he-ah. Ya in Zobbi’s crew now. Ya tell awwww ’bout ole Burtt. Ever’tin you know. Gots it? We gon take ca-ah him, gut. Yessuh!”
The death’s head grin plastered on Zobbi’s face emptied the rest of Pokke’s bladder.
“JIZMO, Pokke. Grow sum. Get dis clown out o he-ah and get da stink out ‘fore you brin back. Gots it? G’on!” he yelled at two grovelling toughs.
They pushed a whimpering Pokke ahead of them towards a sickening looking water hole they called clean. When he wouldn’t go in himself, they pushed him in. He thrashed about and screamed that he couldn’t swim. His captors only laughed until he finally realised he was in waste deep water and could stand up.
Harkk drew up a rudimentary map of sector-22 so Burtt didn’t have to expose his good one to the harsh elements of the outer zones.
Part 6 –The most seriously injured in the war need more care than could be given in the near-zone. The Taj council decides to push the issue. Mmarta, Jaredd and some in the greenies secret Full Exposure Council agree. A movement is begun to bring the neediest children into the green zone. Under the guise of the immense threat these outer-zoners presented with their unclean existence, the Corp reacts. They send troops and Bots to clean up the rabble in near-zone sector 22. Burtt stands in defiance. Some in the city do too but at great cost and some must go underground. The children have a whole passel of new wiggly, slurpy, messy, hungry pals to play with…and learn to care for. Ssyndi spies on Kkat. Zobbi sends spies to find holes in the Taj’s defences and intel on these new mysterious weapons Pokke was so terrified of. His day will come…