It begins

I’ve been threatening this for almost a year now.  I think the time has come.  This is the perfect place and time to kick start the “Engage Me” project.  I have access to all kinds of artistic talent and facilities here at Las Positas College and I intend to take advantage.

Since starting this Mass Communications class, I’ve seen some of the more extreme examples of social media’s effect on lives, companies, regimes et al.  It is both frightening and inviting at the same time.  My little world of beating up liberals on Facebook isn’t even a zit on the butt end of worldwide interconnectivity via this new media.

In class, we are learning to use some of the tools associated with the new media phenomenon.  The following is a presentation I created using  Prezi.com, a simple but truly amazing tool.  I’ve only incorporated the very basic components available in the interest of getting all my assignments done on time.  Still, this is a great starting point for my project and I can certainly build on this as I go.  It’s important to note that had I tried doing this several years ago, I’d have taken days to do so.  I finished this admittedly simple presentation in two hours.

Engage Me

God save me, but I can’t do this fast enough…

ENGAGE ME. I AM ONE OF YOU.

I’d meant to publish this in it’s musical format in memory of my Brothers, but I’m just not there yet.  My voice is still shot, my guitar work is shaky, so, I decided to let it go as is for today and I’ll get back to the musical version as I can.  They wont mind as long as I didn’t forget.

RIP Santi.  I know you’re watching.  I miss you Brother.  Hi to Prince and Rex.

Engage Me

What was the price I was supposed to pay?

What quest did I fail, to whom should I pray?

Did I come back too whole to warrant your greetings?

Was my soul not enough, or were your graces too fleeting?

Best friends dying, some gone in the head

Others are drowning in poisons instead

No one back home cares a damn for this mess

They wish it was over they do confess

 

Engage me

I’m not a name on a wall

Engage me

Just one little call

Engage me

Why do you stall

Engage me

This will end in a fall

 

If you live through the chaos and make it back home

They’ll think you’ve been brainwashed, a killer drone

If you don’t conform and act just like them

You’ll be banished for life, scorned and condemned

People will leave you without recourse

No one will show one bit of remorse

They’re done with you now, you’ve outlived your need

Move along soldier, we’ve got a new breed

 

Engage me

There’s a price on my head

Engage me

I’ve made mistakes that I dread

Engage me

I’ve been so scared that I fled

Engage me

Give me some purpose instead

 

Once you were golden, the cream of the crop

The best of the best that no one could stop

Your buds had your six, they kept you alive

Twenty-four seven, three sixty-five

Now you’re a nothing, you’re on your own

Left for dead in the VA zone.

Nothing can be done, there’s nothing we can do

Just roll over there, boy, join the twenty-two.

 

Engage me

I cannot live in this place

Engage me

So, I don’t fall on my face

Engage me

My choices end in disgrace

Engage me

Give me a chance in this race

 

Nobody warned us how you would turn

That in a moment you could burn

All that we gave, and all that we saved

You’d be happy to lend us an early grave.

What if we didn’t answer the call

What if we turned away from the brawl

How would your towers still stand tall

What good would be done if we all fall

 

Engage me

I don’t want to be through

Engage me

I am one of you

Engage me

Can’t you see that it’s true

Engage me

I bleed red, white, and blue

 

I am just like you

end

Burtt – part 7, New Horizons

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Two months have passed since Mmarta pressed the council with her demands.

  • The last of the needy children have all been taken in by elie families and are thriving. Eight of them are due to return to the Taj in a month on the outside.  Ten of the remaining still in care would never survive back in the outer zones due to the damage already done to their lungs.  Plans were in progress to continue their care in the green zone.  The operation to smuggle them into the dome had worked perfectly as Harkk had claimed it would.  No one ever questions or inspects his carts.  When Harkk headed into the green zone on a Corp project he was given whatever liberties he required.  Officious dolts who deterred him from his appointed rounds suddenly found themselves escorting prisoners to the mines.  That job was far more dangerous than any other a Corp cop might be assigned in the city-state, so Harkk was rarely bothered and that usually to ask a favor.  So far, CommCorp seemed none the wiser about the proles inside the dome.
  • Dougg is gone. He might not be gone forever, though, if he could help it.  He knew enough to cause problems too.  He would rather just be a hanger on and live the good life on the Lok stead.
  • Knutte was never released by the Corp cops and it is expected he joined the soon to be dead masses in the mines. Qquitia was still spying for the Haps but when Knutte never returned Hhannah had decided to lay low.  She still felt her day would come so she kept Qquitia on a short leash, just in case, though she did allow her to go back to the Taj.  Hannah was quite certain the girl would keep her mouth shut if she knew what was good for her.  She would wait for something real juicy before she struck again.  This time it would be fatal for the Loks.  Qquitia, however, told all to Bessie the moment she first stepped back into the Taj.  The council put a plan in place to deal with the Hap woman.
  • Construction in sector-22’s outer zones was nearly complete and the Corp was none the wiser. Harkk was still running utilities and there always seemed to be some small project that needed doing right now, but it was near done and everything seemed to be rolling along nicely.  Harkk wasn’t quite as harried as he had been for the last few months, but there was still work to be done. The final readout had taken on far more importance and consequently, far more effort to complete.  It was a formidable obstruction now that blocked off almost the entire back end of the sector from creek bank to creek bank.  It was so well disguised on the side facing the green zone that it merely looked like another pile of rubble.  A force coming in from the frontier would have a different view, however, though it was still a massive earthworks to confront either way.
  • The general consensus was that they should consider themselves lucky that there were so few accidents that had resulted from all this work. Two workers had broken a leg or an arm falling into trenches they didn’t see and hadn’t thought to look for out in the middle of the crèche grounds right after they’d been dug.  Another had been partially buried in a tunnel cave-in.  All in all, that was an excellent accident ratio.
  • The education effort was paying off in dividends. The kids were all participating now, even the older members of Ccassie’s crew.  Cassie, who herself could read, scribe, and cipher proficiently with the best of them, had taken on the chore of teaching her own crew herself.    Burtt had a hard time keeping up with conversations now, even with the younger members of the Taj, their vocabulary having expanded so dramatically in the last 5 months.  Better yet, these kids were learning to be able to stand and converse with citizens, like citizens.  That was, after all, Burtt’s and the council’s ultimate goal; to have these children accepted as citizens and removed from this blight of an existence.  Burtt himself, rarely seemed to have the time to learn.  He picked up what he could from Kkat in his sparse spare time.
  • Kkat and Ssyndi were proving to be excellent medsci students but it was evident they would not be able to learn enough to become the immediate and ultimate medical answer to the children’s needs when Mmarta was gone, and Mmarta had mere weeks left if that. The four members of the council who’d been banished and now resided at the Taj, were Godsends.
  • Medsci had made a breakthrough in the study of lung disease. Ssyndi was fully involved in the treatment and research to advance these studies and it was reaping huge benefits for her health.  For the first time in her life, she could take in and hold a full deep breath without hacking.  She was up to five laps around the Loks compound before she was out of breath.  This progress was awesome and it simply added to her determination to get out of the dome and see Burtt.
  • Jenna Bok made herself a thorn in Kkat’s side. That didn’t work out well for one of them.  Burtt stayed clear of the cat fight.

————

1st day, first five-day, month 2 of year 319af

He’d been coming here early the last couple of mornings.  He’d had to spell Burtt two days before when he took ill.  The day before, while he was checking the trap lines he also decided to check the water lines from Green River.  Several times already they’d had to splice in new sections where the rodents chewed through.

He found a couple more leaks, though these were not chewed completely through yet.  He noticed that around the leaks, a very light moss was growing.

Life growing on this blighted earth?  Huh!  Well, there has been a few days of sun now and all this fresh water has purged the soil, maybe?  Say, I wonder if we should start growing out here?  There’s a lot more room out here and our crèche garden barely supports a third of the Taj, truth be told.  This slope faces southwest so we could get enough sun to grow stuff right on this slope, provided the sun doesn’t go on vacation for a year or two again.

Harkk was thinking about the best way to do what he had in mind and suddenly realized that what the Taj needed was another greenhouse.  He was so excited he started to rough out plans in his head and mark the boundaries with large rocks after stepping off a sizable area he thought suitable to their needs.

Finished with his project and anxious to share his idea with Burtt, he worked his way up the slope and cleared the top of the rubble pile again.  He took a short break to look back at his work and his surroundings and noticed a smudge of something on the horizon.

The horizon was never too far off.  There always seemed to be a haze over everything outside the domes.  Lately, there had been a steady breeze blowing south and visibility was stretched a bit and the sun seemed brighter than he could remember it being in quite some time.  He thought he’d seen enough smoke to recognize it when he saw it at a distance but he just wasn’t sure, so he planned to bring something to help next time and this was that next time.

There was no doubt now. Using his MilScope, he could distinguish structures in the distance with smoke coming from one, perhaps a chimney.  The scope listed distances too.  He could also see something else that puzzled and intrigued him.  In the near distance between him and the structures, there was what looked like a green expanse and then a blue one (water?) ahead of that, the blue being closest to him.

This can’t be?  That’s beyond the south wall for sure, maybe 20 kliks.  How can that be?  And why isn’t CommCorp doing anything about it?  If it’s what I think it is?  Hell, maybe CommCorp is doing something?  Maybe it IS CommCorp.  Holy God, there are people out there?  Well into the frontier.  What the hell?  There are no mines there. That whole area is supposed to be a no-go zone.

Harkk was still trying to decide if he believed what he was seeing when Burtt stepped up beside him and scared the devil out of him.

“Hey, Harkk.”

“JIZMO, Burtt?  Were you trying to kill me?  God, you scared me to death, damn it!”

“Sorry, Harkk.  Saw ya up he-ah.  Figured to join ya ‘s all.  Wha ‘s that?  ‘N wha ya point it at?” He asked pointing to the scope.

“Ah.  This is called a MilScope, Burtt.  It helps to see things far away and that’s what I was pointing it at.” He said pointing at the smoke smudge.

Burtt could see that well enough without the scope and was on the defensive immediately.

“Wha dat, Harkk?  Dat Fi-ah? Be comin he-ah?”  Burtt’s diction reverted to the street as soon as he felt stress.  He was constantly trying to correct himself, but in times of severe worry, he just didn’t think about it.  It was a neverending source of angst for his tutors.

Right then he was and looked desperate.  He remembered wildfires raging just outside the red zone where he and his family hid years before.  The terror was suddenly fresh in his memory.

Harkk sensed Burtt’s fear and allayed them as best he could.

“Well, it looks like smoke from a cook fire Burtt, or just from a chimney.  It’s certainly not wild and it isn’t moving towards us.  Here, look through the scope and you’ll see soon enough.”

He showed Burtt how to hold it and how to focus.

At first, Burtt was not sure what the blurry mess was all about and why Harkk had him wasting his time when the view finally came into focus.  Burtt froze.  He just stared for a moment.  Then without removing the scope from his eye, a huge grin spread across his face.  You could see him opening and closing the eye not looking through the scope, checking the difference, and marveling at it.

“Dis be gut Harkk.  Ver gut.  Yessuh!”  He played the scope around him taking in the view near and far, then he settled back in on the structures again.

“Wha dat in front o the shacks Harkk.?” He caught himself sliding further back into street and made a half-hearted effort to correct himself. That be green?  Ya see that?  S’ that the end o Green Rivah we-ah all da blue is?  That green be growin stuff ya tink?  Damn!  Thas gut, if.”

Then he thought of something else and asked, “Why we c’n see so fah Harkk? Why it so cle-ah? That be da Wahl the-ah? That dark ting? If that the Wahl, how fah them shacks be?”

Burtt was indeed referring to the wall.  The southern wall, much of it was un-manned.  From Sector-31, which was northwest of them around the dome, to sector-16 just east of them, there were only bot patrols on the wall and the occasional flybots over top and a maintenance crew who visited weekly for their service schedule. The land beyond was considered too bleak for any life so, scarce resources weren’t wasted there.  In fact, half the ground bots were second tiers, just like those here in the red zone.

This blotch of green, with the blue expanse fronting it and some sort of structures behind, was located almost exactly in the middle of those sectors if you extended them out beyond the wall.  The wall was almost exactly five kliks from the dome all the way round.  There were connector tubes for high-speed maglev trams between city-states, and tubes from the dome to the wall but none in that direction.

“Yes Burtt, that’s the wall alright.  There won’t be anyone there, though, just bots.  Not in that area.  Remember I told you about that area?”  Burtt nodded so Harkk continued. “I think we can see so far lately because of the wind.  That might be water closest to us and it sure looks like that would be where the Green River flows to, though I don’t know how it would get past the wall.  And, yes, I think that is growing stuff.  Grass or hay maybe.  Though I can’t see why they’d grow grass?  Could it be corn? I wonder if they know they can be seen now?  According to the scope, those structures are a little less than 20 kliks out Burt”

“They caint be hidin now.  Mayb’ they don wanna be seen, but the win blow f’ them too.”

“Yeah, that could be it, Burtt, or they could work for the Corp.”

“Oh.  Hmm.”

It was evident Burtt hadn’t considered that.  He looked disappointed.

“Cheer up Burtt.  We’re going to have to find out who they are now, don’t you think?”

Burtt cheered visibly with the prospect of exploring now firmly planted in his head.

Both men took turns looking through the scope again then set off for the crèche.

“Mayb’ we go look, Harkk.  See what is it.”

“Oh, I don’t know Burtt.  That’s a long way off bud.  I was thinking of signaling them to see if they signaled back.”

“Hmm.  Thas gut.  How we gon do that? Caint jes wave at em.”

Chuckling, Harkk replied, “No, we can’t just wave at them, but we can signal them with light tonight. If they signal us back, we go from there.  Deal?”

“Su-ah but we nees to ask around first.  Ah mean, what if it is the Corp ‘n they sees ahr light?”

“Ah.  Good point.  Let’s take it up with the council then.  Okay?  If we decide to go for it and it looks like our neighbors are from the Corp, we just put our light out and disappear until they stop looking for the source.”

“Su-ah.  Das gut!”

Zobbi’s crèche somewhere in the frontier:

“I ain’t ca-ah bout no wi-ah, ya puss.  I wanna kno whas goin on in dat crèche, das wha.  Now, who gon do dat f’ Zobbi?  Who?  Ain’t no gut soljer he-ah?”

“Ah go Zobbi man.  I caint stays he-ah no way.  I be det ‘fore long.  Ah go n sen back one ya scorts.  Kay?  I don’t be comin back he-ah.  Ahm be dyin he-ah.”

“Ya Go Pokke?  I surprise ya eben tink bout.  S’ gut.  Ruppe, ya goes wif Pokke and ya comes back wif his blurb.  Gots it?  Ya takes Rogg wif.”

Zobbi commanded two of his best and strongest soldiers to go with Pokke.  Pokke wasn’t happy with the choice.  He’d asked for a scort so he could yield some authority.  With the two soldiers Zobbi assigned him, he’d be lucky to take a rest without them prodding him onwards.  He surely wouldn’t be ordering these two around, though.

As the three set off for sector-22, Zobbi signaled Rogg to come back to him.  Pokke saw but couldn’t do much about it as Ruppe guided him out of Zobbi’s frontier crèche with authority.

“When ya gets da blurb, ya kills Pokke.  Gots it?  I ain’t want dat puss tellin ole Burtt bout Zobbi.  If him lives, you dies.  Gots it?  N’ I fin out if him do.  Ya kill Pokke, das a’righ.”

“Ah gots ‘t boss.  I gots ‘t.”

Pokke saw the exchange but could only guess at the subject matter.  It was enough.  He knew Zobbi well.  Zobbi wasn’t about to let Pokke off the hook now.  He wasn’t going to be able to just send a scort back to report, he was going to have to fend off two soldiers.  He knew that probably meant a fight.  He wasn’t sure he was up to it but he checked the blades and stunner he had hidden in his cloaks.

Ah fight ya den boys.  Hopes ya ain’t spectin dat from ole sick Pokke.  Das A’righ.  Burtt, ya basta, hab some spies waiting f’ ole Pokke.  Maybe dem sca-ah off dese toughs. JIZMO! Ah gots t’ gets fruit.

The Loks study:

“She’s trouble Kkat.  That’s all she is and all she’ll ever be.  I told you, we need to out that cretin ourselves before she ruins it for everyone.  If you don’t want to do it, I will.  She’s a danger to us all.  And while we’re at it, we can at least out the flirt so Burtt sees her for what she is.  I can’t believe the idiot isn’t aware.  Boys!”

The determined set of her jaw told Kkat she wasn’t going to easily talk this female version of the headstrong Klop kids.  Burtt was bad enough, but Ssyndi could argue the tail of a dragon lizard, and she had the vocabulary to make it an interesting event to observe.  Kkat had to do some serious shuffling to deter this latest spat of vitriol Ssyndi spent on the Hap woman.

“Ssyn, you know we have to tread softly here.  One wrong step and the Corp will be sniffing at our heels, not hers.  Mmarta hardly needs that grief right now, don’t you think?  Jjenna Bok is NOT a priority of any sort.  She’s just a wart.  I’ll freeze that pestilence off soon enough.”

Kkat hated guilting Ssyndi into compliance but some days it was all she could do to reign that enthusiasm in.  If she had to throw Mmarta’s condition in her face to hold her back from the chasm, she would.

I may just have to give in and take you to see Burtt.  Perhaps I could get him to come to the tube so she doesn’t have to be all the way out in the air.  Oh, Ssyn.  Why are you so impulsive?  Kkat almost choked on her own laughter, why do you think, silly?  Is she a Klop or what?

“Again?  Again, you hit me with the guilt trip?  Come on Kkat.  You know I’m right.  At least let me talk to Qquitia again.  I’ll find out exactly what that Hap bitch is up to now.  Then we can tell Jaredd.  The Council will want to decide what to do with Hhannah at least.  I’m telling you, Kkat, if we don’t squash this bug now, she’ll turn the whole crèche inside out just to get at Mmarta.  You heard what Qquitia said.  Hap will stoop to any level to get out from under.  She’ll trade her partner and her son for a better perch.”

“We can’t be sure Hhannah has enough clout to cause that much trouble Ssyn.  She’s proba…’

“Probably?  Probably?  Kkat!  Listen to yourself.  We are talking about exposing the Taj to the Corp.  Complete exposure, to include any from out here who might be involved.  That’s not just us Kkat.  Heads will roll and that Hap bitch will ride the flow of blood to the nearest tower suite.  I won’t sit idly by while that happens regardless of what you decide to do, Kkat.  I won’t!”

She couldn’t deny the truth in what Ssyn was saying so she tried another tack.

“Will you at least let me ask Burtt first?  Please?”

“Can I come with you?”

Damn this girl!

After a full minute of staring, Kkat nodded, but before Ssyn could jump out of her skin, Kkat said, “To the tube, Ssyn. To the tube only, with the mask on, and if Burtt won’t come to the tube, too bad.  And not a word to Mmarta or Jaredd.  NOT ONE WORD!  If those terms don’t suit you, then there’s no deal.”

Ssyn little dance of the happy feet was all Kkat needed to be sure she had Ssyn compliance.

“I need you to dress up like you did last time you snuck into the zone to make it hard for the bots and cops to recognize you.”

She thought about that and followed with, “Oh, dear.  I mean the time when you snuck in after the war Ssyn, not any other time that you might have…”  Kkat stopped herself wondering if this wild young girl hadn’t snuck out more than just the one time she knew of.

“Ha, ha!  I only tried it the once.  I heard all those conversations you had with Mmarta about me.  I don’t want to die Kkat.  I just really want to see my brother.  I’m sure YOU can understand that, can’t you Kkat?  Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t see Burtt for 6 months?  Hmmm?”

With a sigh and deep concern for her friend, Kkat resigned herself to allowing Ssyndi to branch out and see her old world again, and her brother.

What would I do If I couldn’t see him…for a week, let alone a month or six?  Oh, Burtt!

The Quad in front of the kennel:

“Ya has ta make ya K behave in the Taj.  Caint be crazy in there.  So we trains them all to be gut. There be at least three handlers for every pup, so ya all take turns with them.  When ur K don do what ya tells it, ya makes it.  Don hit.  Ya hit ur K, I be hittin ya back.  Ya jes push the butt down if it don sit.  Ya works in teams to train them to stay.  One says the stay and walks off, t’othah holds the K til handler says the come.  We works lahk that til alla the Ks be gut and don need no lead ‘t hold ‘em.  When them all gut, we teach yas t’be guards.  Dogg n me don never be sneacked up on.  So y’all need to be the same. Then nobody sneaks on us evah mayb.”

“What about naming Burtt?  When can we name the pups?”  Asked Jjermaine. He, like all the young handlers, was anxious to make a contribution to the Taj.  To them, a naming day for their Ks would be a symbolic turning point.  With names, they would be a real team, not just Jjack, and his K, for instance.

This was big and Burtt knew it.  He understood that it was his own fault so much worth had been placed on names and now he faced another test of his ability to quench this insatiable thirst the kids had to be part of the savage world Burtt lived in. So far he had been able to reign in that urge to expose themselves to danger, in part by convincing them that they had to be fully trained not just in self-defense but in every aspect of soldiering.  In part by periodically working on hot days without a tunic on, so all could see the results of living his kind of life and hopefully decide that a different way was better.  The scars evident on his upper body would terrify a prize fighter.

By designating all the youngest Taj-mates as handlers, he’d added another layer of learning to the process and delayed that fateful day by more months still.  Burtt had no trouble recalling the abattoir that had become sector-22 after the prole war.  The very thought of even one more child’s body lying in tatters at his feet could bring him to his knees in abject terror.

Never again! He swore, knowing the truth even as he swore to deny it..

The kids, however, didn’t seem to be phased at all by memories.

This mus be why they can sleep so gut, he thought.

“Member I said, ya all is a team?  Member?”  he asked and they all nodded assent.

“Well, some of ya are doin gut and some not so gut.  Ya all hafta hep each uthah.  When ya all can do the basic tells and ya K’s is doing them off-lead for all three handlers, then we c’n have a namin day.  Afta that, we move on to guard trainin. That gut?”

The disappointment on some of the older and better handlers was evident but they were soon resigned to their fate, once again joking with each other and Burtt and playing with their Ks.

There was one pup who took a liking to Burtt and kept breaking away from his handlers to run up front with Burtt and Dogg.

At first, the kids would run after him disrupting the rest of the class. Bedlam would ensue.  After much laughter, yelling, tripping over leads and each other, order would be restored only to have the little miscreant try again in a few moments.

The last attempt at mischief ended with Dogg escorting the felonious pup back to his handlers. Turning with a not-very-serious growl several times to the keep the pup in place as he attempted to return to Burtt, Dogg ended up chasing the little beast back several more times much to the delight of child and adult alike.  The end result was an attached lead that rarely came off.  This pup was a runner and would grow to continue that trend.  He escaped from the Taj more than once but always came back.  His handlers would name him Roamerr.  This tendency to run had Burtt thinking about how he dealt with Dogg’s enthusiasm when first they met.  At one point he decided he had to let Dogg know that play time was over.

Burtt fashioned a harness with pouches on the side to carry small items of need on the trail and to attached a lead to.  It was just a matter of time before Dogg caught on and he knew it was work time whenever Burtt put the harness on him.  The shenanigans ended immediately.

Roamer also turned out to be the best scout the creche ever had, better even than Dogg, whom it was thought could sniff a roach out of a pile of offal.  Dogg liked roaches.  He seemed to take great delight in the crunching sound they made when he bit down on them.  At times he wouldn’t even eat them.  He just picked up one after another and crunch, crunch, crunch.  Burtt was continuously pushing Dogg away after any such sessions.  He couldn’t imagine Dogg licking him after he had that stuff all over him.  YECK!

They finished the day’s training session on a positive note with all teams able to walk with their Ks at their sides, completely around the obstacle/exercise course and off lead, excepting Roamerr.

Harkk told Burtt this was called “heeling”.  The term confused him.  It didn’t sound like anything that made sense to Burtt until Harkk explained what a heel was and that if he thought about it, the Ks were being trained to just barely follow behind their handlers, at their heels, so to speak.  Burtt acknowledged the logic then and in place of his accustomed “walk”, “heel” was adopted as the command for that behavior.  Come, Sit, Stay, and Down were the other basics that all Ks had to learn and do without fail for each of their handlers.

The idea of rewarding the Ks when they did good was introduced.  Instead of punishment for failure, they were simply made to do the behavior again until they got it right after a light “no” for an admonishment.  Harkk told Burtt that in general, it was best to keep things simple with Ks or any animal since they really didn’t “understand” what people were saying to them.  He explained that once they are trained, they just relate the unique sound of a word to a certain behavior.  The important thing to keep in mind was that everyone had to use the same commands and try to say them the same way as everyone else in order to not confuse the Ks.  This too was practiced daily.  Thus the concept of repetition, praise, and reward, was adopted in the Taj.  Simple, one syllable commands, were established as the standard; thus “To me” was replaced with “come”.  Within months they would have the most secure creche on the outskirts of CommCorp city-state and over time this would cause them both troubles and bring them great wealth, as measured by a prole.

Eleven pups and 39 handlers preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.

For Burtt, it was a source of great pride and great concern.  Soon he would not be able to curb the enthusiasm of these young wannabe warriors.  He would have to start assigning them more and more dangerous duties if he was to be fair to everyone else.  That they would have a K to protect them was some comfort and probably the only reason Burtt didn’t just flat out put his foot down and refuse to let the kids out of the Taj at all.  None of these youngsters would work without a K, so that limited their active force somewhat.  In an emergency, there would be plenty of other jobs to be done.

Bein the leader ain’t so much fun, huh Burtt?

————

Dusk atop the rubble mound:

They made their way to the top of the rubble mound just as the last of the light faded into the western horizon.  Burtt didn’t want to worry the Taj so they had waited until Burtt would normally leave on his own with Dogg to do his rounds.  All the other mates were in the creche as a rule by then anyway.  The pups weren’t allowed free run anymore,  They were too disruptive and they ate anything that wasn’t secured.  Their handlers took turns caring for their Ks overnight and kept them on lead or secured in their new kennels, one of the last projects taken on in the Taj proper.  As they became more disciplined with age, they would be granted the same free run of the creche as Dogg and Ssweet had, though you rarely ever saw Ssweet.  She never seemed to accept people the way Dogg did.

“Ya tink them answer us Harkk?”  He was excited again.

‘Well, it depends, Burtt.  It depends on a lot of things.  Is it the Corp?  Are they wild people, not aligned with the Corp?  Is it a new mining op?  Whoever it is, are they friendly?  Do they have a light?  Will they be afraid to contact us? There’s a lot of ifs, Burtt.  All we can do is try.”

Burtt suddenly seemed nervous.

“What is it, Burtt?  Are you having second thoughts about contacting our new neighbors?  We don’t have to if you don’t want.  We can revisit this in the morning with the council again.”

“Ye-ah, Ahm afraid.  Wha if them – erm – What if they are savi, sava…mean?”

“I think the word you wanted was “savage”, and yes that would surely be a problem.  That’s why we built the Taj up so much these last few months buddy.  To fend off attacks from both directions.  Frankly, I’d rather face a foe from out there, than Corp troopers.  At least until I find out they’re the more savage of the two.”

He paused a moment to give Burtt time to respond. When he didn’t he continued.

“So, what’ll it be Burtt?  Flash ‘em or not?  I’ll stand by your decision”

Burtt stood motionless staring off into the distance as if trying to see the target again.  Even with the scope, it would be impossible unless the strangers had an open fire, but Burtt knew where to look.  They’d set some rocks in a rough arrow pointing to what they thought was the center of the distant compound.

As if snapping out of a reverie, Burtt shook himself and turned to Harkk.

“Les do it, Harkk.  Lahk ya says, we c’n always hide.”

Harkk lit his torch. He’d been charging the cell all day so the beam was bright enough to be seen from a lot farther away than the settlement.  He flashed them a code he had learned in the Army for H-E-L-L-O twice, then shut off the torch and waited.  He repeated the process four more times waiting for 5 spans between each.

The two had about given up hope for the night. Harkk had packed and collected his bag and was turned away from the frontier when Burtt’s anxious cry caught him in mid-stride.

“The-ah!  The-ah, Harkk.  I sees the light. Right the-ah. See it?”

Burtt excitement was palpable.  Harkk could feel the tension in his body when he placed a hand on Burtt’s shoulder.

“Well, I’ll be.  And they know the code.  Damn!  ‘W–H-O  Y-O-U’  Damn Burtt, they want to know who we are.”

“Wha we say?  GRRRRR! What do we tell them?”

“Hahaha, atta boy, Burtt.  Well, I think we tell them something about us that separates us from the Corp like the council decided, right?”

“Ye-ah das, oh damn, that’s right.  We do wha the council says.  Okay!”  Thinking for a moment, he turned to Harkk and said, “Tell them this is the Taj, callin.”

“Oh Burtt, I like it.”

————

Later that night at Council HQ, back in Taj Proper:

“We signaled back that we would meet them at our boundary readout at mideat 3rd day.  That gives us plenty of time to prep for their arrival and to practice evac if it comes to that.  The outer wire will be energized.  Our soldiers will be stationed at the readout.  The rest of the creche will be waiting for the signal at either Ccassie’s annex or at the Taj proper, ready to hit the hideout entrances.  Before our visitors arrive, Burtt and I will be perched on the mound with the scope.  We’ll be able to tell very easily if they are from the Corp or present some other danger from a long way off.  If things look bad, we all head for the hideout.  If there’s no apparent threat, then Burtt and I de-energize the outer wire and lower the ramps for them to enter sector-22.  Everyone stays out of sight until we say otherwise, though.  Any questions?”

“Have you given any thought about what happens if we don’t successfully evade their detection?  Assuming they are the Corp, I mean?” Asked Kkat.

“Ah don assume they the Corp, Kkat.  Les not look f’ trouble.  Les see first.  Kay? We have enough time to get to groun before they get he-ah.  That’s why we built the readout like we did so ya caint see whats going on the othah side.” Prompted Burtt, trying to keep a positive spin on events, but Kkat was not to be deterred.

“You can’t be certain of anything Burtt and I think we need to discuss all the “what ifs”.  If it is the Corp out there and they call out the bots and the Army?  You know what happens to these kids when there’s some excitement.  We would stand a very good chance of being seen before we can all get to ground, or worse yet, as we enter the hideout, thus entrapping ourselves there.”  The stern look on her face caused Burtt to reconsider and what he remembered was the holocaust that was the last prole war.

“Hmm. Das a’ri…, um, That’s a good point Kkat.  So tomorrow after firsteat, we drill.  When we can evac in 15 spans, we call it gut.  Okay?”

Kkat was still obviously anxious but nodded her edgy agreement with what was the best they could hope for.  The rest of the council seemed to sigh in unison.

“Good.  If there’s no more questions or concerns about item one; let’s move on to item Two.  I believe I’ve come up with a way to add to our veggie and fruit supply.  When I was last inspecting our water lines, I noticed some moss growing under a line where it was leaking.  Now, I don’t think the soil is totally purged of poisons yet, but I do think that with some work and the right structure, we can triple our production levels from the grow we have in the creche proper greenhouse.  If we build another greenhouse on the southwest face of the rubble, over on the banks of Green River, a much bigger one, we should be able to grow darn near anything in that sterile environment provided the sunlight remains constant.  I can’t get more of the grow lights we use in the Taj greenhouse, at least not anywhere near enough of them to light the size facility I’m thinking of.  So we will absolutely need the sun in order for this to be successful.  I think it’s worth the effort to try.  Even a little extra food is a help, right?

“I have equipment we can use to sterilize the soil we use inside the greenhouse.  We’ll have to get Jaredd to supply us with the nutrients we’ll need to add back into the soil, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.  The Lok stead has one of the larger private gardens in the dome, so they’ll have ample supplies.  We can begin to make better use of our compost heap now too.  Eventually, once we get the crop rotation down, we’ll have a self-sustaining garden that we keep in nutrients with minimal contributions from the dome.

“There will be a significant amount of work to be done here.  We’ll have to dig into the hillside and make a level surface to build on.  We have to acquire more clear plassheet from somewhere.  I have enough left over from the other greenhouse to cover one side and the roof of the new structure I have in mind.  I also have enough dark sheeting to cover the back and side walls where the dirt will be covering them anyway, the rest will need to be clear.  I have plenty of plasphalt left to make a contiguous floor we can seal to the side panels.  I’ve already taken as much of the clear as I can from Corp supplies, at least for a while.  We’ll have to see what Jaredd can come up with.  The rest of what we need we can scavenge from around sector-22.  Whenever we need some material, we need to check in the spares pile in case we already have what we need or can fashion what we need from something else we already have.  The less we have to smuggle in from outside the better.

“So that’s all I have at the moment unless there are questions?”  Harkk finally finished and looked around for what he hoped would be excited faces.  There were plenty.  The council meetings had morphed into a town-hall kind of atmosphere where everyone had a say if they wanted and at times a vote was called for to settle particularly sticky issues.

There were no questions and the meeting broke up into many smaller groups animatedly discussing the day’s topics.  The Taj was becoming more like a mini city-state every day.

Burtt and Harkk both wondered if that was a good thing.

————

Morning, day two outside sector-22’s servhuts:

The younger girl fought like a cornered street rat. Kkat had to use all her training, her wits and in the end, her nasty side and her weight advantage to gain the upper hand.  Even then Jjenna wouldn’t quit trying to break free.

“Stop! Stop you, evil little witch.  If you don’t, I’ll really hurt you.”  Kkat wasn’t sure what else she could do, but the ruse seemed to work.  Jjenna stopped fighting at least, even if she remained stiff and ready to go again at a moment’s notice.

Jjenna was weighing the benefits of continuing the fight if Kkat could bring it to another even worse level of pain and humiliation.

Da bitch prolly hab m’ thowed out.

“A’righ! A’righ!  Le Go.  I don be affa Burtt no mo.  Kay?  Le go. Jizmo!” The sex-hungry girl subsisted.

“You better be sure, Jjenna.  No more!  Not ever.  I plan to be part of Burtt’s life forever. Understand?  That will never change.  Stay away.  I mean it, Jjenna.  Stay away! For good!  He doesn’t want you Jjenna.  He’s too kind to hurt you himself, so he sent me.  Understand?”  There didn’t seem to be any give in Kkat’s resolve.  Jjenna feared for her future.  It must have shown because Kkat took pity.  Jjenna seemed to melt under the revelation that Kkat was Burtt’s messenger, not just a jealous suitor.

“I won’t make this an issue with Burtt if you keep up your end of the bargain.  Is that clear?  Is that a deal?”

“S’ a’righ.  I gots it.  Deal!  C’n Ah gets up now?”  the tone was just slightly less snarky but there was a difference.  Kkat conceded the point and got up.

“Remember I’m watching Jjenna and remember that, no matter what our relationship, Burtt listens to me.  Always!”

She hoped the added threat bored home to roost in this miscreant’s mind.  Burtt was right, she was a great spy.  She did report snooping at the wire and they found the body there the next morning.  She saw them coming from her post and fired up the wire that fried the leader.  She was even smart enough to NOT investigate on her own.  Burtt would have locked her up or tossed her out, one or the other for that.  He was crazy about the kids now and any danger they might have to face sent him into a dither.

Still, Kkat was determined to be Burtt’s mate, even if Burtt didn’t know it yet, the buffoon.

This little tart is NOT spoiling that.  No way!

Jjenna left with her head down, either properly humbled or improperly spiteful.  That one bore watching but Kkat admired the girl’s spunk.  She managed to keep her baby healthy in the red zone before Burtt made that a safe space.  As to her flirtatious aspirations, well, Kkat couldn’t really blame her.  Burtt was the most attractive fish in their little secotr-22 sea, and as of that moment, he wasn’t technically committed to anyone.

We’ll see about that.  Oh yes, we will, Mr. Burtt.  We’ll see about that.

————

The same time, inside Harkk’s servhut:

“And that my friend is why you always, always, stay out of cat fights.  They are vicious and anyone in the vicinity can get hurt.  Badly!”

Harkk tried poorly to look serious when he turned to see Burtt’s reaction.  The two burst into muffled laughter.  Neither daring to be caught as Kkat was still within easy hearing distance of Harkk’s hut.

Kkat had caught up to and confronted Jjenna when the girl was sneaking out of Ccarol’s servhut.  Jjenna aside from being Burtt hungry was also a thief.  The confrontation started out as a challenge to the girl’s presence where she most likely shouldn’t have been with Ccarol in the dome.  It quickly morphed from accusations of petty theft to mate-stealing with all the pent up rage Kkat had been storing afer each additional advance the girl made towards Burtt.

The final straw came just a cycle before when Kett came running to tell her that, “Burtt and Jjenna were drownin’ in green rivah.”

When Kkat arrived at the top of the mound herself, she found Burtt desperately trying to fend off an equally naked Jjenna whom, it turned out, had followed Burtt to his morning bath and caught him unawares.

Kkat, so angry she thought she might hurt them both, returned to the Taj and waited instead.  Burtt was on her heels in seconds, he must have run the whole way.

“Kkat, ya gots ta do sumpin bout dat lil flart, flort…ah JIZMO!  THAT FLIRT!  Please!  Taday!  Ahm beggin ya.  She don caught me in ma skin agin.  Ahm afraid ta be hittin her”

Kkat turned to find her nemesis and stalked off in the direction of the wire, where the girl spent most of her time.  When she wasn’t flirting with Burtt that is.

Burtt heard Harkk call to him quietly from his servhut.  Harkk pointed over Burtt’s shoulder.  Burtt looked and saw Jjenna sneaking into Ccarol’s servhut.  As Burtt headed towards Harkk, he passed Kett going the other way, Kett whistled to catch Kkat’s attention.  Both men saw Kkat turn with Kett’s whistle.  She saw Jjenna too and forgetting about Kett, made her determined way towards the servhuts and Jjenna.  Burtt realized that Kett was unknowingly headed straight towards danger and he grabbed the young man bringing him along to Harkk’s.  Harkk pulled Burtt and Kett in out of the battlefield.  The three watched in fascination as the events unfolded before them.  All three were equally instilled with renewed respect for the lady of the Taj.  Kkat was one formidable opponent.  More importantly, she was a fierce ally too.

“You need to have that talk, Burtt.  She wouldn’t have been that physical if she didn’t want to be with you.  You need to have that talk and the sooner the better, my friend.”

“Jizmo! Das A’righ.”  Said Burtt reverting to street again.

“What talk?” asked Kett with a suspicious look on his young face.

————

The same time on the perimeter:

Dogg would only ever leave the Taj proper with Burtt or Chukk.  If Burtt was hanging out with Kkat and ignoring him, Dogg would tag along with Chukk who walked all over the sector now that it was open.  After watching him for almost a year, Burtt and Kkat realized that wherever the kids could go, he would go there too.  It was as if he had to check it out for himself and he had to do it sometimes daily.

He took Burtt’s place this morning walking the perimeter with Dogg.  When Burtt came flying into the Taj half dressed and soaking wet, Chukk thought Burtt would be busy and took it on himself to run the morning rounds.  Burtt would follow him later, without Chukk knowing, but he let the two go.  He was too intent on seeing Kkat just then.

“You keep an eye open Chukk.  Don let ole Dogg eat no kids now.”

Chukk got a huge kick out of Burtt’s joke and laughed his hee-haw laugh until Burtt couldn’t hear him anymore.

As Chukk neared the passage to the outer Taj, the old sector-22 red zone, three young spy trainees asked if they could come.  Chukk was stumped.  He didn’t know how to tell these kids no, so he grumbled but turned back to his appointed rounds.  Dogg growled his disapproval.

The troop made their way towards Spring Creek.  The very same split second that Dogg whirled on them, the kids also noticed the strangers trying to navigate their way up the slick bank of the creek.  The older of the trio, who looked vaguely familiar to the kids, was hung up in the new wire, struggling to free himself and whispering his impassioned plea for help to the two toughs who wouldn’t approach him.  They were instead chuckling.  One of them, the bigger of the two finally approached the trapped man and put his foot on his shoulder forcing him down harder on the barbed wire.  The older man screamed then.  The two toughs shushed him looking around to see if they were discovered.

Dogg attacked, Chukk yelled a war cry, the kids screamed and the fight was on.  It was short but brutal.  Dogg was in among the toughs in a heartbeat snapping and ripping at them.  He got a firm hold on Pokke first and latched on.  The scream from Pokke’s lips had to be heard all the way to the wall, Evann thought.  He was the oldest of the trainees there with Chukk and was determined to be brave.

They’ll come to help.  We’ll be okay.  Keep moving.  Stay together.  Fight only if we have to.

Evann Rose was repeating the litany in his head for the emergency evade and escape procedure they’d trained for in case of being outgunned, as Harkk described it.  The only problem Evann was having as he herded the younger kids ahead of him and away from danger was that Chukk was going to be alone and that was the one thing Burtt said he would never forgive.  We never leave anyone behind.  It was gospel according to the Taj and here Evann was leading two kids away from the only fighter left facing three enemy soldiers.  Evann was afraid and started crying, Jjulie Mitt took his hand and soothed him while Kenn Barb started blowing his whistle as loud as he could.  They kept moving along the creek towards the Taj proper, but not nearly fast enough.

Chukk was conflicted.  He wanted to stay with the kids but he wanted to protect Dogg too.  He was frozen for a moment until he saw Evann moving the kids away from the creek, so Chukk opted to help Dogg.  He managed to leap the underwater wire and waded into the creek with his monster stunner in hand and ready for use.  Pokke saw it and screamed again, this startled Chukk and he backed off.  Dogg continued to tear Pokke’s leg to shreds.  Chukk turned away and saw the danger to the other kids and his clouded mind was suddenly crystal clear with purpose.  He tore off after the toughs who were then chasing his kids

Since the K was taking care of Pokke the other two toughs saw a chance to score some clean sex slaves for Zobbi and lit out after the three trainees. Ruppe made a running leap over the wire and sprawled on the slimy pathway but managed to grab Jjulie’s ankle.  The girl fell to his front and he clamped his fist around her arm.  The moment he did that Chukk caught up to him and laid him out cold with a blast from the stunner.  Jjulie looked up smiling gratefully at Chukk, then the smile on her face froze with the scream in her throat.  Chukk only had time to turn part way round before the Rogg ran him through with an ugly rusted blade as long as his arm.  Chukk’s expression slowly changed from surprised to lights out.  Dogg and Evann both hit the second tough at the same time.  Jjulie and Kenn joined in and there wasn’t much left.

Kenn’s whistling had brought the entire creche out.  Dogg had managed to tear Pokke’s throat out before he joined the dismantling of the last tough.

Before he died, Rogg told Burtt that Zobbi was after him. Burtt dredged Zobbi’s location from him.  He was in the red zone at sector 27, west of the Taj.  That was supposed to be no-go zone over there.

They pushed Pokke and the toughs bodies into the creek.  Harkk noted something of interest with the footwear the toughs wore.  They were thigh high and made of what seemed to be an impervious material.  He’d often wondered how folks managed to traverse the no-go zones.  These boots were probably the answer and he wanted to see if he could duplicate them, especially in light of their potential new neighbors.  He wondered how these no-go zone cretins could have come up with something this complex.

Burtt needed help carrying Chukk’s body to the burial mound.  There were more vu=olunteers than he could count.  Everyone came to see Chukk off.  Kkat said a prayer.  Burtt started humming Amazing Grace and the whole creche joined in.  Katt had been teaching that song to the little ones in school.  The congregation broke up into small somber groups of scared children.

Life had to go on and Burtt had learned to not let the Taj dwell on the bad stuff.  They had work to do before the big meet the next day, so he got everyone back into their routines, in spite of the definite lack of desire.  The Taj kept on.  Training took on a more serious flavor that day and when lasteat rolled around, total evac was down to 11 minutes flat.

Later that night, Dogg laid out on top of the burial mound all night alternately howling and then whining.  Burtt was worried about his partner and so he joined him.

That night, there were a full moon and a sky full of stars for a change.  The weather really was changing for the better. The night was beautiful and terrible all at once.  Burtt flicked away the tear forming in his eye.

Ahm sorry, Chukk.  Ah loved ya ole boy. Ah should a been the-ah. Jizmo, will I evah stop killin them?

He remembered something just then.  It was from his past.  Way back when his parents passed. Kkhloe and he had dragged their bodies to the creek and pushed them in.  The creeks ran hard back then too.  It was terrible water to look at and it stunk something awful, but it ran hard and steady.  Everyone in the outer zones used the creeks to dispose of the dead and any other refuse they needed to be rid of.  The flow dragged everything inexorably away from the dome.  Bodies were usually too heavy for kids to pick up and carry away to bury, so whatever method of disposal was the easiest for the kids was usually adopted as a normal practice.  Dragging bodies to the creek was the norm back then.

Remembering that day Burtt recalled how after the bodies were long gone, Kkhloe drove a “T” into the ground on the edge of the creek.  Kkhloe had told her siblings that it was a way they could remember their parents.  Any time they wanted to, they could come to the creek, see the cross, she called it, and remember mom and dad.  He went back to the creek on a whim to look about but the cross was nowhere to be seen.

Fiahwood b’ now su-ah.

Burtt made his way back to the Taj and found some flat strips of wood in the spares pile and some twine.  It took him a few failing efforts before he finally tied the two pieces securely together to make a cross.  He then climbed back to the burial grounds.  Using a blade to put a point on the long end of the cross he planted it at the very top of the burial mound, right atop Chukk’s body in the freshly turned dirt.  Burtt hummed Amazing Grace again.  He determined that the cross would be replanted on the new top each time a Taj mate passed while praying he would be that next one and not another kid.  Burtt then turned to finish his rounds before he joined his creche mates.

————

Morning, Day 3, prepping to meet the neighbors beyond the readout:

“I know this has been a terrible day to wake up to.  I know none of us wants to continue.  The circumstances prevent that.  The Taj has a date with the beyond and we can’t cancel the appointment.  So, let’s pick our sad selves up and get down to the business of being Taj mates again.  We all will miss Chukk, but even he knew how important this day is.  He was up early yesterday checking our perimeter for threats and thank God he was.  We have to keep on kids.  We have to.  In memory of Chukk, we have to.”

Kkat implored, trying to pick up the spirits of a demoralized creche.  This malaise was worse, she thought than during the aftermath of the prole war.  She had taken up the lead when it seemed that neither Burtt nor Harkk could find the words.

After the burial, Kkat checked the three trainees who were with Chukk for injuries.  There were only superficial physical ones but all three were scarred psychologically having watched Chukk and the others die so horribly.

Mmarta had touched lightly on maladies of the head with the girls but they certainly were not prepared for this level of mental anguish.
When morning rolled around and it was apparent that not just the three kids involved in the fracas were still in a funk, but damn near the entire Creche was lost and foundering in unspent grief, Kkat was seriously concerned.  She didn’t know what to do.  Fortunately, Katt’s angst was visible and Bbessie came to the rescue.  She had the three involved in other activities as soon as she could get them going.  This seemed to do the trick as all three responded positively to having something constructive to do.  More of the youngsters who were slowly coming to grips with what had happened joined in.  Soon Bbessie had more than 30 little ones involved in crafts and settled in front of the Taj’s access hatches to the hideout.

————

“Everyone has a place.  Let’s be sure we are all there when this goes down. Right?  Everyone knows where their place is, right?  We’re all good?”

Harkk was acting like a platoon leader on his first mission in a combat zone.  Nothing was perfect and he had no idea how to make it better.

Jizmo, what have I gotten myself into?

“We as gut as we gon be Harkk.  S’late and we need to get up top soon.  Let it be.  Ever one is in place and ready, so les do this. Kay?  Come on.”

Burtt recognized the nerves evident in Harkk’s behavior and was relieved to know he wasn’t the only one to suffer pre-action flutters.  His smile seemed to bolster his older friend.  Harkk’s soldier side kicked in then and he was all business again.  This too Burtt appreciated and he deferred to Harkk’s expertise.

Bbessie still had her flock ready at the Taj proper to evac at the sound of the alarm.  The rest of the non-combatants, mostly older trainees held in reserve if things went real badly, were ready to disappear at Ccassie’s.  All were out of sight of the readout except for a small crew of advanced spy trainees.  These Burtt had watching for flanking attacks or attacks from behind.  There were several more trainees set at different locations where an EEC was located, ready to send the creche to ground if the signal was given.  All the spies and of course Burtt, Bann and Harkk had whistles to use for the signal, if it was needed.  Everyone was praying against all odds that they wouldn’t need them.  That these people coming to visit were good people, like the Taj people.  Everyone but Burtt and Harkk, who were still atop the mound, were close enough to get to an access point to the hideout if the siganl was given.  Bann ran things at the readout in Burtt’s absense.

Aside from Hark and Burtt who were atop the rubble mound, there were 30 soldiers, armed and armored, after a fashion, manning the frontier facing fighting step inside the readout.  The readout, like the trenches, was well sandbagged, to the front and on the roof.  There were fighting slots left open from which archers and spearmen could repel an invading force.

Months prior to the day of the historic meeting with the outsiders, Burtt, Harkk and the council had puzzled long hours over the problem they had with firing a bow from confined spaces.  The town hall atmosphere of their council meetings paid off in dividends this time.

Josephh, a bodybar for Jaredd, remembered reading something about an alternative weapon for just such an environment as theirs.  He asked the Loks for and was granted the temporary use of an ages old book with printed illustrations.  It was a collector’s item, a family heirloom and precious.  Josephh protected it with a plassheet bag.

The illustration he had in mind showed a device called a crossbow.  There were detailed drawings of its makeup.  After several attempts, Harkk was able to fashion one with spares from their pile.  Though it took a fairly large piece of wood to fashion one crossbow, Harkk learned to do so leaving pieces of scrap large enough to make the both the crosspiece and bolts from.  With shorter bolts, they could make more from the same amount of stock.  Hardening these bolts was even easier.  At close range, with the incredible power generated by the bow, these bolts could penetrate a cop’s armor.  They had very short legs though compared to a standard bow.  This was still a major martial breakthrough for the Taj who would just as likely be involved in a close range battle as one from afar.

There were at present, 8 crossbows distributed throughout the readout.  Each bow had 10 bolts.  The rest of the warriors all had standard bows and were standing a bit farther back from their firing slots in order to accommodate the larger weapon.  This limited their visibility and so they were not as effective a fighting force as their brethren with the crossbows.  They did, however, have a much larger stockpile of arrows at their disposal and could start engaging invaders from quite a bit farther off.

Still, this wasn’t the ideal usage of the standard bowmen, Burtt and Harkk had come up with an alternative approach to fall back on if it began to look like they needed to bring more effective firepower to bear on their attackers.

There was a step built into both walls of the readout.  With removable roof panels, standard bowmen could mount the back step and fire over their crossbowmen fellows to add accurate, distance spanning fire to their repertoire.  These bowmen still had ample protection and could indeed duck back down under oppressive counter fire.

Prior to this day’s arrival, Burtt had decided that the Ks would be kept in their kennels.  At least until there was evidence they were needed to defend the Taj.  Dogg, and especially Roamer were not happy about this arrangement and made their feelings known with constant snapping and yapping and whining.

Everything and everyone were in place.  It was approaching time for mideat.  Their neighbors were due anytime now.  Burtt prayed that this would turn out to be a nice peaceful getting-to-know-you kind of repast, not the other kind.  For the first time, he wondered if their meager fare would satisfy their guests.

Too late to worry now, Burtt.

They settled in behind the scope, taking turns searching for this new wonder to appear.  As clear as things had been these last days, this one, of all days, seemed to have a ground fog interfering with their view of the approaching territory.   This had them even more on edge as the waiting became unbearable.  When they finally did see them, the sudden shock of their arrival, well inside the wall and in fact, just a few hundred meters from Spring Creek left both men with open-mouthed stares.

The people, if that’s what they were all wrapped up in those cloaks, seemed to ooze out of a mist.  Except for the four out front, the rest were hauling sleds that seemed to float over the ground.  These were laden with something but covered so that nothing underneath could be seen.  No faces could be seen either.  At first, Burtt thought they must have some kind of sickness and kept themselves covered so it wouldn’t show.  He tried to penetrate the coverings with the scope.  But as if on cue, the leader started removing a rather complex weave of fabrics and plassheet, revealing the rather striking features and emerald green eyes of a tall, muscular but lean man.  He had a mask on underneath the cloak and headscarf. He waved at Harkk and Burtt who snatched the scope away from his eye as if stung by it.

The other travelers who had been out front had some sort of mechanism in their hands.  It became apparent that these machines had created the mist that hid the visitor’s approach.  Wisps of the ether still leaked from the nozzles.

As amazing as this tech was, It had both Burtt and Harkk on edge immediately.  They knew they had been seen so secrecy was no longer a concern.  Now it was all about getting to the readout before the visitors did with whatever other magic tech they might have to spring on an unsuspecting creche.

The visitors seemed to recognize the tension of the moment and waited until Burtt and Harkk were met by Barr out front of the readout.  There they waited to greet the wild ones.

Burtt waved and invited them forward.  The three Taj-mates were still trying to decide if there was a threat or not when the leader deftly leaped the bank, removed the rest of his garb and with a plassheet bag he’d retrieved from a slit in the fabric covering one of the sleds, introduced himself.

“Greetings”, he stated in strangely accented standard.  “I am Jonn.  We come in peace.  I hope you are hungry, yes?  We bring lots of food and it doesn’t look like there are so many of you here.  Why does the city-state not… Ach!  I apologize.  There is so much to talk about.  I forget my place sometimes.  We are your guests, so please, how would you like to proceed?”

Burtt and Harkk were speechless.

They brought food? Burtt thought.

Harkk was stuck on much the same thought when Bann stepped in and saved the moment.

“Hello, Jonn.  I’m Estebann Rull.  We’d like to welcome you to the Taj.  You’ll understand if we’re a little wary.  We don’t get visitors from out this way.  Most would be too sick to let in any way.  We have many questions too.  Why don’t we start with getting your people on dry land and comfortable?  Is there something we can help with?  Oh, I do hope you’ll forgive us, but we’ll need to see that there are no hidden weapons anywhere, if that’s okay.  We can’t be too careful today.”

“ Oh, that’s no problem at all. We would demand the same, I assure you.  Can we come ashore first?”

Bann looked to Burtt for direction.  He nodded and Bann signaled the switchman to cut power to the wire.  Jonn absorbed all this and paled with the sudden realization that had he slipped coming over the wire, he might well be barbecued meat right now.  Several more soldiers came running from the readout then to lower the ramps and Jonn’s crew came ashore.  More Taj soldiers came to help haul the sleds up the ramps.

Once defrocked it was evident that they all were armed as any smart man would be out here.  Nothing was hidden though and all the sleds were indeed loaded with food or dry goods.

They brought veggies and fruit of every sort.  They brought rice and loaves of bread.  They had smoked meat and fish on racks.  The sheer amount of food made Burtt’s mouth water. There were skeens of the material that their cloakes were made of and it looked very much like the footwear they’d removed from Zobbi’s toughs.

When Jonn reached into the bag and pulled out the brightest, reddest apple any of them had ever seen, there were fifty kids all over the visitors in moments, coming from every direction at once.

Soon the entire Taj were feasting on more fruit than they’d seen in months and something else they’d never had before.  It was a sweet confection of sorts that Jonn called cookies.  There were two dark wafers sandwiching a creamy substance that made Burtt’s teeth hurt.

“Ah. The white stuff is excellent, eh?” asked Jonn.  “It took us years to perfect.”

Burtt didn’t answer.  He stuffed another in his mouth.

————

Hours later, with fat bellies and completely sweetened out, the kids took to playing outside and the adults sat around talking.

“We should talk about the future and CommCorp, whatever.  Before we return to our home.  Yah?”   Jonn asked.

With Burtt’s mouth full of food, Harkk said, “Yes, we should.  This is going to be a problem I’m sure.”

“What, with the Corp?  Not so much, Maybe.  CommCorp knows us.  We run mining operations in the no-go zones.  There is a lot of wealth there that we can recover.  We have adapted and learned how to protect ourselves from the environment.  We are not the only group operating like this.  We are a loose coalition of lone wolf operations, independent from the city-states, but doing business with them.  We can only extract the minerals they need.  They must refine and make use of them.

“How can you stand against the Corp? That’s crazy.”  Declared and incredulous Bann.

“Most of us, like this man here from the Wall Warriors,” he said pointing at Harkk and stealing a quick glance at Harkk’s tattoo, “are ex-military. We don’t scare so easily and some of us just happened to hold onto a few of our most favorite toys.  Like the kind that can shoot down TroopTrans.  We’ve had a few confrontations with various city-states, but the results are never in their favor, so we’ve come to an uneasy truce.  A working agreement, so to speak.

“We go where no one else will.  Occasionally we get lucky and find these gems for settlement locations.  The place we settled south of here is one such.  Like all the other places we’ve been able to inhabit, the clean water that is flowing from the dome has cleansed the area south of here.  Once the soil isn’t poison, the air cleans up too.  Hectares and hectares of good growing land exist that no one is using.  They won’t come out of their domes.  So, we do and when we find these gems, we build there and find mines that will sustain us.

“Now, we’ve been watching you for a while really.  For once we’ve been impressed with, well, how do I say it, your civilized behavior.  This is non-existent in the outer zones in our experience.   Still, it is evident that you suffer the abuses of the elites, though, and we’d like to help if you’ll let us.

“You see, as I was saying, there are hectares of unused farm and pasture land going to waste…fallow, do you know fallow?”  Harkk nodded, Burtt and Bann looked duly ignorant.  Jonn continued anyway.

“Anyway, we talked about it after you signalled us and decided to approach you with an offer to share the land and the mining workload too.  We’ve located a massive coal seam southeast of Cheyenne Mountain in a grade b hot zone.  That’s not a concern with our gear but still, it’ll take years for us to extract it all alone.  We could really use the help.  And, you get to move your people the hell out of here.”

The sudden and frank offer left the three stunned.

“Of course, we’re interested, Jonn. Tell us more.”  Kkat offered.

“Ye-ah!  Das a’righ, su-ah!  Oh crap!” Blurted Burtt and the group had a comfortable laugh at the break in all this stunning news.

————-

“They’ve been seen. Whatever they’re doing, Jaredd, they are caught.  My friend at CorpSec intercepted bot-comms from 22 again. This time, he didn’t get all of them. Some got through to the Corp’s Datvault.  It’ll be on the net soon and folks will want answers. What then?”

Natt Lok was very agitated.  He almost never comm’d his daughter.  He came in person.  Jaredd wondered if there was more bad news than just more rumored mischief in sector-22.

“I’m sure it’s just some extra perserv activity Grandfather.  Nothing to worry about.”

“You don’t seem to be too worried Jaredd.  What’s the problem?  Is the shine wearing off on your little crusade?” Natt Lok sneered at his grandson.  He’d never agreed with their obsession with bettering the lives of proles.  It could only bring them down.  Whatever was going on in the outer zone now might just be that last straw too.

“You and your mother should reject these dregs, Jaredd. Get on with your lives. What can you expect to gain from this other than more heartbreak?  Hasn’t she had enough?  Haven’t you?”

“Enough? What’s enough, Natt?” Asked Jaredd with a little more acid in his voice than he would normally address Natt Lok with.

“Be careful, boy.  You aren’t in charge of anything yet.” Demanded the Lok patriarch.

Jaredd laughed.

“Oh, I’m sorry grandfather, I forget myself sometimes.  Concepts of enough and time intrude on my thoughts and I tend to let the truth about that unhappy match poison my attitude.”

He was surely and desperately depressed and that was decidedly not a trait common to the Loks. They were always upbeat even in the worst of times.

“What is it Jaredd?  What?”

“Oh grandfather…”  Jaredd broke down in unchecked sobs.  Natt Lok was suddenly and completely terrified.

Has her health taken a turn for the worse?

Ten minutes and a lifetime’s tears later, Natt Lok knew that he was not only losing his daughter, and very soon, he was also likely to lose his only other heir, Jaredd.  The test results were in. They had them done yearly because the Loks had a history.  This year’s test showed a positive result for Jaredd.  Two retests showed the same result.  Jaredd was dying of lung disease too.  He would begin treatment immediately and aggressively.  He was only slightly older than Ssyndi.  Maybe…

Jaredd interrupted Natt’s thoughts.

“I have to inform the Taj.  They need to be prepared in case the Corp does take notice and acts. Norton, what will they do after, after…?  Can Ssyn handle things do you think Grandfather?  Will you help?”

Natt Lok, once again realized, he was still running second fiddle to those damn brats in the outer zones.

My own children gone.  A red zone freeloader living in the stead, and me helping them.  There isn’t enough Boulder Brandy to get me through this night.

The end

Coming in part 8, The Taj moves out.  Farming and ranching happen.  Zobbi attacks an empty sector-22 but triggers Corp alarms.  Bots and the Army respond.  Mmarta illness progresses unchecked.  Jaredd and Ssyn continue to get better with treatment, though Jaredd lags.  The Haps see daylight with the deteriorating Loks health, but Qquitia had grown and is no longer afraid.  Naming days for kids and Ks.  Graduation from trainee status for most.  Nuptials for some.  A couple of old hands stay home.  New alliances are made with other free mining clans.  Trade agreements are made and caravans are introduced to facilitate that trade.  For those who are not in tune with the sedentary farmer’s life, these caravan’s are a welcome break from the tedium of compound life.  New enemies are encountered.  Some two-legged and others with four and more, or no legs at all.  One Taj mate is torn.  His mate won’t leave the Taj.

Save

Burtt, Part 5: Welcome to the Taj

taj

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.

“Tanks Harkk.”

“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.

Dogg, nooooooo!”

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.

———-s

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.

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The end

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…

 

The hopes we have…

What Trump could do.

What I see in my mind’s eye, when I think about the results of a Trump presidency, partially described by Ron Paul.

I do NOT see Trump reforming the nation so much that we revert back to any of the boogeyman fears being thrown about.  I DO see a change from the previous mentality in several other respects.

  • I believe Veterans will see a YUGE bump in care and competence at the VA, or heads WILL roll.
  • I believe the war on the Police will soon be OVER!  The gloves should come off at least.
  • I believe SCOTUS will be returned to being a bastion of strict constitutional justices, thus preserving the union, as it was meant to be, for years to come.
  • I believe we will reestablish our credentials with our true allies, Britain and Israel prominent among those.
  • I believe education will return to an emphasis on the three Rs to begin with and then Science.  The only thing common about education will be the good ole “common denominator”.  Charter and non-secular schools will show the way and public schools will catch on or catch fire.  A&E may take a hit, but it is just A&E, after all.  We are saving a nation here and we already know Hollyhood doesn’t care.
  • I believe religion will once again be an okay thing, all religion, and that the myth of a predominantly anti-Muslim right, will be dispelled through kindness, even as we eradicate the real threat of radical Islam.  Note that there are millions of Muslims involved in that struggle, on our side, already.  This is not new.
  • I believe we will win that war too, but NOT without the help of those millions of Muslims.
  • I believe a newly deregulated industry and energy independence, both accomplished without burning down the barn environmentally, will lead the USA through the present malaise in  our business might.  We are not as well off as these inflated economic figures we are shown today seem to infer.  One day the TRUE numbers of unemployed will be known, to include the millions taken off the work force altogether when their benefits ran out and they still had no job.  One day the true nature of the theft of our nations wealth which was transferred to trillions in debt instead, will be revealed.  BUT WE WILL RECOVER!
  • I believe the IRS, the FED, the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the NSA and all the other myriad alphabet bureaucracies that make up our convoluted form of government, will begin to function as designed again.  I don’t know if the recovery will be total.  It would seem that eight years might be needed.
  • I believe, sadly, that the rift between right and left will continue through a midterm that will, thankfully however, have brought more Americans to our side, and thus result in a senatorial majority too, enabling some real USA friendly legislation contributing greatly to our then growing wealth.
  • I believe that government and ultimately business in general will once again be focused on the USA first.
  • I believe we’ll all look back four years from now and say, “Wow.  What a great trip this has been.”  Those of us smart enough to get on board, that is.
  • I believe a renewed Military will quieten the recently amplified drumbeat of oppression heard across the earth.  When the USA draws red lines and the world knows that we NOW stand firmly on those red lines, the bad actors will stand down.  They always have.  They only stood up recently when we retreated into a pseudo-safe space sanction mentality that our adversaries laughed at as they took whatever the hell they wanted to take…and we backed up a little more each time, casting the most egregious verbiage at the Iranians, Russians, Syrians, North Koreans, Chinese…etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  Retreating is not winning.
  • I believe there will be a reckoning of health care issues that will leave us all in agreement if not all completely satisfied.
  • I believe the same will come true in regards to Social Security and Medicare.
  • I believe that even the most hateful of anarchistic lefties will come around, because they also like their Calvin Klein undies, and that sixty dollar an hour job they just got on January 20 only lasts for a week or so, if that.
  • I believe freedom will ring and the flag will fly.

Vietnam Helicopter Museum Support Needed

http://www.vietnamhelicopters.org/

I am a Veteran.

I ask not a lot.

A chance to get better, then

Take my best shot.

The few things I need

Won’t even fill a page

It’s nothing to do with greed

It’s all about a stage.

I’ve nothing more to prove

So, to move along is fine

But time denies our move

If the stages don’t align

Some of us need to keep on going

Right up to the end

Others of us are gently slowing

Even going ‘round the bend.

So why put obstacles in our way

When the right thing to do is plain

Why not write a different play

One with a brighter refrain

We are all veterans of these United States

We all left a part of us in some rotten, stinking place

All we ask is a little respect, some kindness and some grace

So please, let The Vietnam Helicopter Museum be our healing place.