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…

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

Part 4: Burtt’s influence grows

Well!  Here it is.  After repairing the dialog issues, the naming issues, the merging issues, the space-time continuum issues, most of the grammar and spelling issues…it’s done.  I may find more things to tweak whenever I finish this creation, whatever it turns out to be.

I also made some basic changes to Burtt’s world.  I don’t see any need for the characters to use language worse than a PG-13 level, so I got rid of the worst of the cussing in this chapter and I’ll go back to do the same to the old ones.

Oh BTW.  After the merge was done, there were 17,300+ words this go ’round, not just 10,000.  No wonder proofing takes forever

One thing I plan to work on going forward is an illustration of Burtt’s sector and the surrounding areas, just for perspective purposes.  As Nick says, it’s easier to imagine a scene when you’ve got a picture reference.  the problem there is that I absolutely suck at drawing.  Mo latah!—-MikeH

poor6

“’f ya crew do deir part; dis caint lose.  Burtt gots one sojer.  Jus one.  Hissef.  Ya gon draw him out when ya make t’ hurt d’ girl.  She wit the brats outside de crèche ever day.  You snatch her up an’ you hodin’ the blade to her throat, he gets the sig.  He come out to meet like you ask.  My crew and ya crew den kills him.  He caint kills 30 ‘f us.  Den you gets ya girl back n we snatch alla lil ones we c’n, den scat wif ‘em.  Dat what hap if you do ya par, Pokke.”  And I take de girl when we done, ya puss, Thomass thought.

Thomass was a mean looking boss from a neighboring red-zone crèche. His area was small but there were a good 20 toughs in his crew plus their families. A good-sized crèche and he made power for his crèche somehow; his was the only lighted one in the red-zone.  It was also the most populated.  Thomass’ zone bordered on the Fountain creek, south west of Pokke’s.  Pokke’s was only more prosperous because of his connection to Burtt.  Everyone knew this and everyone was jealous.  Still, Pokke didn’t have lights.

The entire near-zone was lit from caged light towers.  Proles would steal everything but the pole itself and left that only because it was sunk too deep in the ground to move.  All the servhuts were powered too from underground.  Burtt got power from the greenies when, eventually, Harkk tapped into his greaser hut feed and ran power to all the shacks and the Taj in the near-zone.

Thomass came to Pokke with his plan months ago, but Pokke was too timid to risk the good thing he had going for him with Burtt back then.  Now?  Well, now Pokke had nothing and he was getting sicker every day.

WHY COULDN’T HE GET ONE SHITTIN’ PIECE OF FRUIT?

“I don’ know man. Burtt gots a eye everwheah.  Ain’t none gets close t’ his crèche, ev.  That demon K eating spies I hears, too.” Pokke responded weakly.  “’Sides, how ya know he gots so many kids der?  I ain’t nev gets close ‘nough t’ see and I works wif Burtt.  An’ how ya know Katt be der den?”

Thomass snarled, “I know how many cuz I th’ one let Kkhloe smuggle dem out ‘f she trick f’ me.  I know she gots at least 20 out and she prolly snuck some I don’ know ‘bout.  How I know wha go on ‘n der now, none ya biz.””

“I gots t’ thin’, man.  Dis big.  I gots to thin’ hard, man.” whined Pokke.

“I bin waiting fo ya a’ready Pokke.  My crew leavin’ soon.  You in, you out.  I don’ cay.  We leavin’ and ya bes not be ‘n th’ way.  Don’ be lef behin’ jes cuz you thin’ too much.”  Thomass left with a grimace.

He scared Pokke, and that was a bold-faced threat if ever there was one.  Thomass had to pass through Pokke to get to Burtt.  He wasn’t quite as scary as Burtt was, but Pokke saw a lot more of Thomass and his crew than he ever saw of Burtt.  Still…he thought about calling Thomass back and telling him about the meet he was supposed to set up for just 3 days from now.  Burt was due to show up for his update, since Pokke didn’t send him a runner today.  He hadn’t even sent a message out.  He hated having Thomass and Burtt knowing the setup in his crèche.  Now Burtt wanted him to invite all the zone bosses in? JISMO! Pokke thought.

——

Noticing Burtt’s bugged-out eyes and crimson skin tone, Jaredd cut to the chase, “…and that is coitus in a nutshell, and I can’t stress enough the importance of avoiding coitus interruptus.  I suppose though, under the circumstances, I should stress abstinence if not contraception.  Hmmm, another day perhaps…”

Jaredd’s current lesson in sex-ed seemed to come to a screeching halt for what Burtt hoped was enough for the day.  His mouth had dropped open and his face had gotten red an hour ago, and hadn’t paled at all since.  Burtt had brought his anatom book, which Jaredd snorted at, though he did seem amazed at the paper pages.  Jaredd’s version of that same book, magically hidden in another tek wonder, he called it a pad, was far more inclusive, advanced, and updated, so Jaredd said, and it looked like he was right.  It even had reps of the insides of people, not fake ones like in his book, illustrations Jaredd called them.  He wondered who would let them do that?

He didn’t tell Jaredd, but he still couldn’t say all the words in his book’s title.  When Jaredd said them, Burtt tried his hardest to remember the sounds so he could repeat them later, but Jaredd filled his head with more crazy stuff right away.  He couldn’t remember hardly any of the words in it, but the subject matter as described by Jaredd was clear enough, and capable of inspiring immediate and total embarrassment.  Dis stuff be th’ death of him f’r sure.  Why Kkhloe don’ teach him dat?

“Do you want to discuss babies and birthing and getting pregnant still? Today, I mean.  Or have you had enough to take in for a day?  I have a million questions of my own.  And we have plenty of time to learn.”

Burtt blurted with something akin to panic in his voice, “I gots a lot t’ thin’ ‘bout, Jaredd.”  He colored again just talking about it.

Jaredd carefully did not laugh, but instead asked Burtt if there was a girl he was thinking a lot about?

“She the newbie.  One o’ the newbies.  Kkat.  She…”  He couldn’t say the words, but he was glad Jaredd asked.  He simply couldn’t sleep like this.  Last night was bad enough, he thought.  He could only ever sleep on his stomach, but last night that was, well, in the way, uncomfortable and, dear God, was it ever stiff.  Now that he knew what it was from, he was more confused about how to deal with Kkat, assuming it was her fault in the first place.  Did he ask her?  Tell her?  What?

“Hmmm.  I think I know what you mean.” Said Jaredd still trying to ease his way into Burtt’s confidence. “I met my Jjinine 3 years ago, at swim. What she looked like in that suit, well, I was stunned and had to hide my stiffy with my towel.  I was humiliated for weeks in school.  Surely, all my friends new.  Norton, what a day that was!  Oh, wait?  Do you know…oh damn!”

Burtt stared back, thinking…stiffy?  He remembered the stirrings he’d felt when he thought about Kkat and her scrub and then his sleeping issue; he first felt red, then he felt hot, then he laughed.  He just started laughing.  Soon Jaredd joined in.  It was infectious.  The two were in tears when the fit finally wound down.  A stiffy, hell yeah. das it, a’righ.

“So, I guess that’s a yes, then.” and the two were off again in a fit of hilarity until Rikk came bounding in followed by Mmarta and then Kkat.

Burtt and Jaredd gained control slowly until they both caught the serious look on Mmarta’s face. They caught their breath and Burtt’s heart sank, fearing the worst.

“To be continued…” said Jaredd.  Burtt nodded in reply.  Kkhloe always said that too, when she finished reading to him and Ssyn.  Damn, he missed Ssyn.  He missed Kkhloe more.

“Why is that retched dog lying about with these children?  Do you know what kind of pestilence these curs can bring with them?  It doesn’t go in the crèche, does it?”  She finished asking just as Dogg followed Chukk into the crèche, stub and butt in fast mode.  “Oh, Norton, no!” She cried

Burtt snickered, feeling great relief that nothing was wrong with Kkat or Rikk as he thought must be the case.

He said, “Das Dogg.  He my crew, righ now.  He bars over us all. Special at night.  No one gets by ole Dogg.”

“You call him Dog? I see.” She caught Jaredd in mid-snicker with a beseeching glare, “Well, he needs to be clean too or this won’t work at all.  I’ll bring help next time.”

“Dogg don’ need no hep Miss Mmarta.  Him n me, we good.  ‘Sides he don’ like water none.” Burtt replied, and then added, “I call him Dogg ‘fore I know’d th’ word. Too late to change up.”  He felt self-conscious about the mistake he’d made with Dogg’s naming.  For the first time, he wondered, how Chukk know dat word?

“He needs to be clean Burtt.  He can cause problems for the little ones if he brings fleas or ticks into the crèche.  They carry disease.  You understand?  Bugs?  Disease?  Okay?” Burtt nodded.  “Please trust me.  Dog will learn to like what a bath does for him too.  He’ll grow back that fur for one thing.  The scratching should stop, also.  A bath will definitely help with the skin issues.  Once a month should do, I think. Oh, dear!  Poor creature.”

“Kay, but he gon’ fight like hell.  Kids ha’ fun watchin’ anaway.”  He said with a smile.  He wondered if elies had Ks.

Dogg and Chukk came back out and both started rolling on the ground with the kids.  Rikk was anxious to get back to training while Kkat seemed overwhelmed with the attention from all the little ones.  They flocked to her like a mother hen.  Just when it looked like Kkat was about to blow, Burtt sent them scurrying after Chukk too, who squealed with delight.  Dogg loped around the whole pile, yelping like a pup.

Mmarta noted Burtt’s kindness and looked to Jaredd who subtly shook his head…tell you later…that look said.  She had to force herself to let the dog issue go.

“The crèche looks great Burtt.  Very clean, as I instructed.  Is it getting crowded?  There are so many of you and they are growing so?  Do you have enough to eat?  Oh, dear.  There I go again…mothering.”

“S’kay Miss Mmarta. I gots mo’ asks than I knows how t’ ask.” Getting his thoughts together, he continued, “Wif what you gets to me and what we buys, and trades for, and what we grows and traps, we doin’ kay.”

“That’s good. Well, Dougg isn’t back from CommCorp for hours yet, so let’s have a gab session.  What do you say?  Kkat can stay and learn too.  Hmmm?  It’s just about time, I think, that you knew the real history of CommCorp, the Meinklops, the Klops, the Loks and the rest of it.”

Burtt wasn’t sure about what a gab session was but he figured to find out soon enough, and he did.

The session went on for longer than anyone thought and it left Burtt and Kkat in shock.  Burtt was afraid to show what he felt in front of these elies now, who seemed to think that what they just said was okay enough to let it go on.  Kkat seemed to catch on and kept quiet herself.

“Jizmo!  That’s somethin’ huh?  All that?  Man.  I don’ know what t’ say righ’ now Miss Mmarta.”  Burtt did his best to hide his disappointment.  Dey jus more elies, Like de res.”

“Well, I imagine this is all very hard to hear, and I truly hate to be the one to tell you the truth about things like this.  It’s, it’s horrible.  I can’t tell you how hard this is for us to deal …”, and she caught herself, too late though.

Burtt was better at hiding his reaction.  Kkat was not.

“For you?  Hard for you?  Two days ago, my 8-year-old brother was nearly killed by this boy standing in front of us.  Instead of doing that, Burtt came and saved me from being sold into sex-toy slavery to one of your friend’s mates, maybe yours; all so the boss who owned me could get out of the red-zone.  Burtt sleeps maybe an hour a night and keeps all these children safe, fed and healthy.  But you got it bad? Jizmo!”

She turned and stalked away still muttering…Burtt heard words Kkhloe used and would beat Burtt for using himself.  Kkat was way older than he thought she was.

“That didn’t go so well, mother.  You really need to work on your delivery.  We have it bad?  Oh dear.” Snarled Jaredd.

“Burt, I…” she tried to soothe him.

“Don’.  Not now.  We talk agin t’morra.  Okay?  Kett, take Dogg n lead ‘em t’ de tube.  Be back n a ten or I’m comin’ myself.  Gots it?”

“Yeah Burtt.”

Burtt nodded to Mmarta and Jaredd without smiling and headed outdoors.

With Burtt out of earshot, Jaredd scolded, “Perspective, mother.  We must work on your perspective or you must stay away.  You’ll ruin all my hard work.  I can already see them cringing on the CommCorp board when this expose is released.  Jjinine and her daddy will eat their words.  So, you will not mess this up, mother.  Understand?”

“Hmmm. Perhaps we both need to work on our perspectives?” Mmarta replied with a bit of correction in her tone.  Jaredd was far more in with the council though.  In some things she had to yield to her son.

“Come on you two.” Ordered Kett, as if policing errant children.  In that high-pitched tone, it was almost comical.  The fun stopped when Kett called, “Dogg, to me!”  Dogg barked, snapped, and growled at the greenies all the way to the tube.  Kett seemed to enjoy the byplay watching Mmarta scoot from one side to the other of Jared, trying to keep Dogg at bay.

Burtt couldn’t come to grips with what he’d just heard.  After the Loks left, he and Kkat eventually met out front of the crèche. They just sat on the stoop, watching the red sun fade into the grey, smazy horizon.  This can’t be true, can it? he thought.

“Could all that be true, Burtt?” Kkat implored seemingly reading his mind.  She suddenly looked a child again, needing comfort.

Burtt was lost for what to do or say so he just said, “Les sleep on ‘t.  We see how tings look t’morra.”  Kkhloe always said that when things looked bad, especially when they’d had no food on a given day.

Kkat nodded and headed in to her space.

Rikk came strolling by and looked bored.

“Not playin’ wit the kids, Rikk?  They like you and Kkat.”

“I don’t play with kids, Burtt.  I watch them when I have to.”

Burtt smiled and said, “Ah. Right.”  An 8 or 9-year-ole soldier.  Ha! Burtt thought.

“Well I have bar again so I’m going to get some sleep.  Bye Burtt.  Hey Burtt, shouldn’t we have unis? You know, for the bar?”

“Where I gets unis, Rikk?”

“Oh, um…”

“’Nite, Rikk”.

“’Nite.” Rikk slunk off to his space.

Kett got back with Dogg and ran off to find Kkat.

Dogg curled up with Burtt.  He thought about bathing Dogg and laughed again at the thought of it. Wha’ a fight dat be. Where Rikk heah ‘bout unis?

It was quiet.  Finally, he could think…what they’d learned from Mmarta and Jaredd was, well, it was heart wrenching, and it pissed him off.

The condensed version of the history of the world after the fall:

Some time ago, in the year 2383ad, there was a war, a bad one.  The one everyone talked about when they said the next one would be the last.  It lasted 22 days and a bit more than 80% of the earth eventually became uninhabitable.  Only the marvels of science and every bit of wealth available saved what was left and that only because the super-rich in several countries saw it coming and prepared for it as best they could.  383 families and their closest most needed friends/acquaintances/specialists survived the initial 22 days, underground or in well isolated domes.  The initial 100 years following the war took 284 of those families and their budding empires away, via fallout, pestilence and more war between any that tried to build too close together and had to share limited resources.  The 99 families left, built the city-states that survive still today, 318 years after the fall.

These families saw the futility in the endless competitions that helped to kill off the other families and learned to compromise, mostly.  Each becoming specialized in several vital industries around which they built their empires, trading with the other cities and building their own infrastructure, populations, and might.  26 of those city-states are in what was North America.  They formed a loose coalition, The CANAMEX-Pact that rivaled the next largest, located in the southeast Pacific, The Pan-Islamic-Hindu-Pact.  CommCorp, one such city-state, is the major partner in the CANAMEX-Pact.

The city-sates are corporate headquarters for the mega-corps who owned and ran everything left on earth.  Their inner cities, walled-off and domed fortresses of lush greenery, plush homes, wondrous towers and almost plenty of everything, were reserved for the elite families, sub-families, and those select few favorites with ties to the founders and present day power brokers and of course enough hand-selected managers and clerks to keep things going.  These little areas of utopia were known as green-zones.

Each city-state had numerous zones immediately surrounding the green-zone running out to a barrier between the city-state and the wild.  Some of these zones were where the lesser people lived, if living it could be called.  These zones were of differing sizes and often separated by areas of contamination unfit for human habitat. The worst of those areas, no-go-zones, were fenced off, but might butt right up to some inhabited outer-zone neighborhoods, though never adjacent to the green-zone.  The city planners were very careful about that and had all the worst areas well mapped out before laying the first of many strips of Plasphalt over the scraped away and decontaminated remnants of a past age.

The people who lived in these outer zones were known as proles.  Each of the city-states also had dragging along behind them through history, a troop of lesser families.  Some had menial servjobs, like perservs, domestics, greasers, sex-toys and bodybars. They could be sponsored into the near-zones.  These zones were the buffer between the green-zones and all the rest.  The only access to the green-zone was through the near-zone and then through warded tubes involving a series of air-locks.  There was a sturdy electrified wire barrier separating the near-zone from the outer-zones, and there were active bot patrols along the wire, so there was some protection there. These near-zone proles still lived in shacks at best (until Burtt came along).  Most had huts lined up near the passtube where they practiced their servjob, others passed into the green-zone every day to perform them.

The bots also patrolled throughout the near-zones, and they made plenty of arrests.  There always seemed to be a few near-zoners who bordered on the verge of dangerous. They might have been caught transporting slaves to or from the outer-zones, or using physical force to take from others.  If the victim wasn’t too timid and screamed loud enough, the bots would show and the crim would be restrained and processed through the system.  Depending on the severity of the crime, the crim might only be banished to the red-zone.  Murder, rape, slaving or crimes like that, usually meant the crim was sent to the mines.

The bots in the near-zone are second tier Arties, and usually easy to spoof, but if five or six of them ganged up on you, well…the system was hard on those who got caught.  There were always four on patrol and eight to ten in reserve.

It wasn’t always a good idea to rat out a fellow prole, though.  Sometimes the bots would take both the crim and the vic.  Other times the crim had family or friends itching to seek revenge.  Then again, the crim could get away before the collectors came.

There was also the occasional case of some crazy outer-zoner busting the wire and going nuts in the near-zone.  outer-zoners (and some near ones too, Burtt knew, until Burtt caught them, that is) also raided the near-zone for little ones.  Little ones paid big creds on the black market, especially if you could get them out to an elie.  Some were baron and wanted children, others, well, they weren’t nice people.  The outer-zoners didn’t care.  They got to eat better and maybe even get sponsored to the near-zone.  It happened!  Then they met Burtt and ended up back in the outer-zones, or dead and floating in the river.

The outer zones and the near-zones too, sometimes, were kept populated through attrition from the green-zone.  Some were cast-off green-zone families when, for instance, one part of an elie marriage pact became tired of the lesser part, and kids were such a drag when you were trying to land a new mate, don’t you know.  There were other drop outs from that lofty society as well, crims for instance, who like Burtt’s family eventually ended up in the near-zone, or worse ones who found themselves in the red-zone with no way out; or just forever hangers-on that clung to the city states on the outskirts in near fallout conditions. Indeed, the borders of some red-zones, the zones closest to the near, were still hot and might never be totally clean again.  Rarely, though it did happen, a drifter would come in from the frontier, probably an escapee from the mines or another red-zone.

Except for those favored by the elies, the people out here competed for everything as if it were a life or death situation, and in most cases out of the green-zone, it was.  The biggest prize for these folks was to land a servjob with the elies.  Even the most menial position usually meant decent food and meds occasionally and perhaps a berth closer to the green-zone.  Everyone in the outer zones, who wasn’t already in a servjob were hoping for a way back into the good graces of the elies.

Burtt had a deal with one red-zone boss bordering his near-zone section to bar anyone passing through their zone into Burtt’s, but it still happened.

Unsponsored proles, minor crims, escapees and drifters lived in the red-zones.  Every red zone had one boss and the boss had a crèche for his crew.  If you lived in a red-zone and you didn’t belong to a crèche, you were basically dead, and soon.  If you had no crew, you were a target. That’s all.  It’s easy to see why folks in the near-zones protected their status with their lives.  It’s easy to see why those in the red-zone would do the things they do for their bosses, too.  Bosses owned their lieutenants, soldiers, spies and their families.  They also owned slaves – sex-toys usually – for him or herself, and any crew who didn’t have family, and for some who did.

Presently, per Jaredd’s rough count and using flybots to get a truly rough count in the red zone, there were approximately 278 proles living in the near and red zones of this sector. 76 lived in the near-zone.  50 of them were in Burtt’s crèche. The rest were older proles who’d been servs for the elies for longer than Burtt could remember.  One female, Bbessie A domestic and nanny for the Fell family, was near 30 years old.  She kept to herself, always in her lockable hut, maybe that’s why she lived so long out here.  She never didn’t have a mask on.  The next oldest at 22, was a male named Harkk.  He lived the farthest away from Burtt’s crèche.  His stone hut butted up against the rubble to Burtt’s south east. He made his way through the tube every morning, early, then returned late at night and went straight to his hut.  Until recently, he had nothing to do with anyone.  He was a greaser for CommCorp in the area.  Greasers did just what their names implied, they got dirty fixing or replacing all the elies utilities and related equipment and whatever other dirty work there was.

The other servs were employed by the elies or CommCorp in other capacities and lived in more developed shacks than Burtt’s original, but still just shacks.  They looked better than all the kids in Burtt’s crèche though, healthier.  Their skin seemed to shine a little.  He figured that getting decent food, water and meds for longer periods of time resulted in better health as you got older.  He was only partly right.  Aside from spending most of their time inside the green-zone breathing good clean filtered air, eating good food more than once a day, and taking non-bootleg meds; these adults also had good strong genes to fight off the worst effects of the pollutants they did breathe and contact every day.  Plenty of their peers, living under the same conditions, had already died off.  He would come to find that this was the defining point in survival.  Did your parents, whoever they were, leave you with an intact connection to the green-zone and the right genetic code to combat man’s worst failing; the poisoning of its own and only environment?

The others living in this sector were split up among five Red zones with Thomass’ crèche accounting for the most at 67.  At best, these crèches could field a third of their population as soldiers.  The rest were campies – families, slaves, etc.  Pokke’s crèche, the remnants of Zobbi’s, was the youngest and smallest at 36, with only 15 soldiers if they were all healthy at the same time.  Usually he could rely on 10.  Of course, they had no reliable count of babies born in the red-zone (they only knew about Kkhloe’s babes because Kkhloe had Mmarta check and care for them all, health wise).  They had no way to know if outsiders had slipped in from the frontier; Burtt knew of at least two.  They had only a partial count of babies in the near-zone.  There were some born to domestics here.  Favors from their sponsors, no doubt.  Since proles were prohibited from birthing, most kept it quiet (sponsors included) and had Burtt’s crew watch the babies while they did their servjob.  They traded food, meds and other goods for this favor.

Burtt was always finding strays to bring home too.  He had Mmarta check them.  He figured she was keeping count still.  It didn’t matter.  Unless the elies were going take his kids to a good new home with a greenie, they’d have to kill Burtt and Dogg, and probably Chukk too, to take or harm them.

Burtt had no need of the greenies knowing his business or his crèche’s numbers, but Jaredd and Mmarta promised the info would never be used for bad.  They said it was important to their research.  So Burtt allowed them their new count, hoping he wouldn’t regret it.

—–

The original CommCorp family, the Meinklops, made their wealth on communications before the fall.  They owned a significant amount of whatever net-bandwidth was available to the public.  Some said they had a hand in that catastrophe when no one knew what their neighbor was doing unless the Meinklop-Net told them.  At the end, there was so much hacking that no one knew who was telling what news to whom or if any of it was true.  The Meinklops ran to shelter in Cheyenne Mountain which they had recently purchased from the failing Government of the United Conglomerates of North and South Canamexico.

Mankind blew up all around them.  When it was over and safe for them to return to the sunlight, their commsats were still in orbit, and they still had control of them; so, their empire remained.  The Meinklops began again.  Built on the rubble of Colorado Springs by those holed up in Cheyenne mountain for over a year after the fall, CommCorp City, war free for 67 years now, was booming.

There are 33 habitable sectors in the near-zone ring surrounding CommCorp’s domed green-zone, each of these sectors separated from the next by mountains of debris backed right up against the green-zone wall and dome.  The near-zone sectors formed the base of pie shaped areas going all the way to the barrier Wall.  The farthest a Red-zone might ever be from the near was 500 paces, after that is when the air got really bad.  The poison rose from the dirt as you walked through it.

There are also 87 semi-habitable red zones beyond and around the near ones.  There are 287 no-go zones interspersed throughout the frontier, the red-zones and bordering some near zones, though no contaminated zones touch the green-zone anywhere.  The 3-outermost red-zones in Burtt’s sector bordered on no-go zones partially.

Burtt’s near-zone and the 5 red-zones beyond it, were the smallest of all the livable, joined sectors around the city and this sector was completely isolated from all the other habitable outer-zones.

To the north and west, his near-zone sector bordered on that part of the green-zone representing the stakes of the Lok and the Fell families, and a small portion of CommCorp’s total (which formerly belonged to the Klop’s, Burtt’s family).  The Spring and Fountain Creeks bordered the red-zones to the south and east.  On the other side of the creeks, there were other red zones, intermittent no-go zones, mines, and the frontier, but if you were careful and found your way around the poisoned creeks, you could travel all the way to the barrier wall without entering a no-go zone.  The bosses of the red-zones bordering on the creeks kept constant bars in play to ward off raids from crews on the other side.  There wasn’t much chance of that since the creeks were contaminated too and didn’t even look clean, but some folks would try anything once.

The only direct red-zone contact with Burtt’s near-zone was a short stretch which belonged to Pokke on the other side of a demolished superhighway, some 200 paces away from Burtt’s crèche, on the other side of a mountain of rubble.  The only easy approach from Pokke’s red-zone to Burtt’s section of the near-zone was down a narrow path excavated through the rubble of the highway overpass it used to be.  Burtt and the bots kept this approach barred 24/7/365 and that was in addition to the electrified wire barrier.  There were ways to spoof the wire and the bots, so Burtt kept at least one bar there all the time who could whistle or yell loud.  Burtt spoofed these bots all the time but he didn’t usually use the pathway to get to the red-zone.  He didn’t like being predictable or visible.  He made his own trails.

The mound of rubble extended all the way to the green-zone wall on both sides of Burtt’s near-zone, effectively isolating them from the rest of the near-zone and everywhere else too, including the adjacent red-zones.  The rest of the red-zones in this grouping were beyond Pokke’s and were enveloped by the creeks.  These natural barriers ran interference with the rest of the city-state.  The near-zone border with the green-zone had just the one tube for passage between the two.  There were bots on both ends of the tube.  These bots were first tier Arties.  Proles don’t usually spoof these bots.  Not without some tek.

So, this entire grouping of connected zones was well protected from the other zones and that info was another good thing Burtt got out of his education with the Loks, along with what Jaredd called a chart.

He was looking at it now staring at the little 2-fist-wide area Jaredd said was CommCorp city-state.  More magic, dat wha.  But, Jaredd had said, “If he ever had to go beyond the beyond, past the red zones, he now had a map.”  Kkhloe had a map and she called it that, but hers was tiny compared to Jaredd’s.  So, a chart must be de same ‘s map but bigger. Why elies so confusing?

Jaredd showed him how to identify what areas were poison and suggested he stay away from those places.  He also gave him a piece of tek called a compass and showed him how to use it to find his way following the map and the compass…ha, more n more magic, but when they went outside and checked the map and compass against what they lay out inside, it all worked out the way Jaredd said it would.  Everything lined up just so. Yep, magic!

Anaway, why he go der…ev’?  Jaredd seemed to think that there might be a day when the only place to go for help would be to the Army.  Ha!  Dey zap ‘im faser dan dey do a zone rat.

——

The map showed the city with the green zone well defined, a very narrow blue band in an irregular circle around it depicted the near zone, with parts of it striped red where it touched on no-go zones, and then splotches of red to show the red-zones.  All through the area surrounding the near-zone, even mixed in with some red-zones were white colored areas with red stripes slashed through them.  These were the no-go zones.  They should be fenced off, Jaredd said.

In a perfect circle around the whole lot was a dark black line.  That was the frontier barrier wall.  This wall separated the city-state’s frontier from the wild, the really bad-lands.  The place where demons ran loose.  The Army manned the wall 24/7/365 with first tier Arties, ground and air, in support.  Every able bodied and able minded citizen served at least two years on the wall.  Soldiers wore protective suits whenever they were outside to protect against the worst of the contamination and the air quality.  Jaredd showed him vids of soldiers in their combat suits on his inIBMac pad.  He couldn’t imagine how anyone could fight so encumbered.

The Wall, Jaredd said, was a large diameter tube itself that ran around the city-state and was the living quarters for the Army.  It was sealed off from the outside the same way the green-zone was with air locks.  It was made of the same impenetrable material as the green-zone wall was, plasteel with polymer viewing ports.  There were weapon pods attached to the outside of the wall, that could be remotely controlled from within, but were usually left in autonomous hunt and kill mode.  Burtt imagine 20-foot-tall demons to need such might in order to fight them and was glad for once he wasn’t a citizen.

All over the map, in and out of the city-states themselves, there were smaller solid black circles.  Jaredd said these were mines.  These mines provided the resources that CommCorp and all the city-states thrived on and without which they would surely die.  These mines were also brutal on machinery, let alone people.  The dust and contaminants got into and destroyed everything.  Thus, manpower, and lots of it, was mandatory along with an industry to support the machinery needs of the mines.  Transport to and from the Wall was accomplished via Tubetrams, vehicles enclosed and moving in tunnels that run to and from the green-zone along the demarcation lines between sectors.  Transport between city-states happened in three ways, Tubetrams, Skytrams or Watertrams.  There were elaborate air-lock systems allowing sky and water access to the domes. Trade between the various pacts around the world was limited but each state had their niche, and had at least one good everyone else needed but didn’t have.

The mining industry existed only outside the green-zones and supporting facilities were established as close to the mine locations as possible to reduce transport issues, every time a vehicle left the green-zone, a series of locks had to be opened and closed.  Every one of those occurrences exposed the inside to the outside.  Aside from Citizens who ran the operation from enclosed protected shells and returned to the green-zone when their day was done, crims and proles fed the manpower needs of that awful beast.  The mining industry never tired of taking their lives either.

Proles were not citizens so they didn’t have to serve in the Army, except if the city-state was under attack.  Then CommCorp made up new rules to fit the crisis du jour.  This had happened twice since CommCorp came to be.  With the promise of a new life in comfort if they served, the proles flocked to their city-state’s call to arms.  The meatgrinder machinery of modern-day warfare swallowed the prole population, nearly wiping it out each time.  If they didn’t fall to battle wounds, or to contamination (the elies didn’t provide protective gear for prole soldiers; they weren’t worth the expense); those who returned from war, came back to worse desolation than they knew before going.  There was even less of everything for the proles in the aftermath and there was certainly no ticket into the green-zone or any sort of comfort waiting for them.  Many more died in the years following.  Any orphaned prole children were left alone.  They died off slowly but die off they did, most of them.  The other survivors could barely feed their own and wouldn’t dare take on another mouth to feed.  They gritted their teeth until the pitiful cries finally stopped.  The bots, sensors alerted to the odor of rotting corpses, searched for and collected the little bodies, and then disposed of them in the city-state incinerators.  In that terrible reality, the cycle would start all over again.

As it ever was. the remaining children and other survivors would be augmented by crims, underperforming, disgraced or just out of favor families who were thrown out of the green-zone, re-seeding the near, and finally the red-zones, when the laws of diminishing returns took over in the near-zone and a new breed of crim would be born.  First stealing, then brutality and then murder would prevail until the bots could sort it out and start exiling xtracrim-proles to the red-zones.

Of course, as always, if an elie pact, or the dominant elie in a pact didn’t want a baby with that set of genes, well, that was that.  Suddenly that family was applying for another baby permit.  The official report would read something like, “child deceased due to sickness”.  It was illegal, but it was done, rather regularly. There was always a signature for sale to legitimize paperwork. There really wasn’t any ethics involved.  It was survival of the fittest at its crudest, and it was practiced at the highest levels of society.  The unwanted child would be fortunate to find a surrogate in the elie zone who was baron and willing to risk the wrath of the system should they get caught…very lucky.  More likely, the baby found itself in one of the two near-zone missions or on the market.  Some very connected higher ups could even be rid of a pact-mate if unhappy and dominant.  These days, Burtt collected these little ones from the missions.  That was a one-way street too.  There was no protection there, just elie volunteers too soft to do more than stare in abject horror when their missions were raided.

In comparison, 12 to 16-year-olds, under the direction of 16 to 20-year-olds, in the near and red zones, fought to the death with other children to protect the little bit of hell they could call their own.

Burtt had learned that there seemed never to be an end to the supply of ragged, defeated proles to feed the insatiable appetites of the elies, and their wars.  He was infuriated and felt lost at the same time.

What I do?  Nothin, thas what.  Not to elies, I caint. Except for Dougg, Jaredd and Mmarta, he had NO access to them.  He’d be dead before he got 20 paces inside the tube, if he got that far.  He only stayed in the near-zone legally on a technicality.  No one had updated the file on Kkhloe1825/domestic/Lok, (thanks to the Loks), so that prole family was still technically sponsored into the near-zone.  But that didn’t buy him access to the green-zone, nor the tube.  It left him and his unsponsored charges mostly unnoticed in the near-zone, though, just the way he wanted it.  There were enough sponsored proles roaming the area to cover for all the “extras”.  If they stayed far enough away from the wall and the areas frequented by greenies – greaser shops, whore huts, exotic food stuffs, booze, drugs, and the like – the elies ignored them anyway.  Once Burtt finished the Taj, most of the kids and eventually most everyone in his near-zone sector, moved in and spent their days and nights inside.  It was safer and healthier.  Except for Mmarta and Jaredd, and occasionally Dougg, elies stayed away from the crèche.  They knew Burtt’s rep too, if not his name.

——

Burtt’s own family, The Klops, were once prominent members of the City-State’s and CommCorp’s hierarchy.  As their name indicated, they had a direct family connection to the founders.  Indeed, being one uncle removed from the top of the clan, Burtt’s father Clarkk Klop, was 3rd in line for the throne after 4rd generation Henrry Meinklop, and his last son Josipp who were both now sterile.  Henrry was afflicted by contamination exposure over the years and Josipp from birth.  There were no other direct heirs.  The bloodline was as dead as the remaining heirs’ ability to procreate.  The Meinklop line was dying out.  (The Loks had decided earlier to hold back on the implications of Burtt’s true lineage to the scheme of things, heir-wise, unless he made the connection himself.  He didn’t, not right away.)

Modern medicines could keep you healthy if you started out that way.  But, if you were ever exposed to the fallout or contamination that followed the fall, then you and your children were living a crap shoot.  Any one older than 75 had been exposed to some degree since it wasn’t until then that dome technology and filters were perfected, and the technology needed to completely purify the green-zones was developed.  Those folks were expected to die out quickly now.  It was a miracle they’d lasted so long…a miracle, a fortune in meds, and extremely strong genetics.

The life expectancy of newer citizens was expected to grow steadily now, though.  By the time the year 400af came about, elies could expect to live to 90, easily.  Burtt was astounded.  Other than the old lady, Bbessie, Harkk, and the few mid-aged elies he knew, the next oldest people he knew were bosses in the red-zones and other servs in the near-zone, at 19 or 20.  He would be 18 soon himself.  Jaredd said he had heard of a prole woman in another near-zone, one adjacent his premate, Jjinine’s family stake, who might be as old as 33.

Clarkk Klop and his family fell out of favor first when advocating for the proles everyone else was doing their level best to ignore.  They were moved to the perimeter of the green-zone, reduced in prominence on the boards of CommCorp and their respective industries, and purged from the family hierarchical tree.  This set the socio-political landscape on fire inside the green-zone.  With no known viable heir to the Meinklop throne in evidence, every higher-up and mid-level family were viciously jockeying for position.  For that matter the lower tiers were playing a bit of cut-throat themselves.  One such, a supposed underground transplant doctor, sold the Klops out and was the final touch to their flaming crash from grace.  This eat-your-young atmosphere still exists there now.

Green-zone status was signified first by your position in the Corp.  The next indicator was your domicile.  The closer to the center of the dome and the higher up in a tower you lived, the greater your influence and worth.  The farther away you were of course indicated the opposite and you were exposed to more lesser types, managers, clerks and servs.  You lived in smaller and lower quarters too.

The Klops new locale on the edge of the green-zone was where they met the Loks, another semi-disgraced branch of another prominent family.  Mmarta’s father, however, would remain unaffected by his son-in-law’s transgressions and retained his lofty perch in Finance, protecting his daughter as well as possible.  He was a close friend of Henrry Meinklop.

The last straw for the Klops occurred when they were caught out with a third child, an offense considered worse than sex-slaving or murder in a resource conscious society.  Murder could be ignored but three children in one family-pact?  The audacity!  They were exiled directly to the red-zone.  They were so poisoned in the eyes of society they weren’t even allowed the usual consideration of an automatic sponsorship given to an exiled family so high up the food chain.  The founding family was so disgraced that no other punishment would suffice and no other family would be crazy enough to try to intervene.  As such, their best friends, the Loks, who were in on the Klop’s plans to have a third child, also turned on them, in as much as they didn’t lift a finger to help, at first.  The Meinklops themselves couldn’t be seen by society as favoring anyone, not even one of their own, in so grievous a case as this; or risk a fall from grace themselves.

The adult Klops would die within two years of entering the red-zone from plague, leaving their three children alone.  Even their eventual move to the near-zone wasn’t enough to save them.  It seemed that any sicknesses that sprung up in the outer zones took a severe toll on adults the quickest.  Kkhloe, the oldest at 12, ran the family then, the only way she could…continuing to do domestic work for the Loks who had already sponsored them into the near-zone after things cooled down.  When their parents died, the creds and goods they could scrape up bartering with their professional skills, were suddenly hard to come by.  Kkhloe turned to whoring…on both sides of the near-zone wire, without the Loks knowledge about her red-zone activities at first.  Bots wouldn’t go out of their way to stop you from going into the red-zone but don’t try coming back over without a sponsorship disc, unless you have a spoof in play.  If you did have the disc the bots could scan it and if it wasn’t reported stolen or inactive, you were good.  Kkhloe had made sure Burtt had hers before she passed.  She also told him that they did a bio check at the far end of the green-zone entry tube. So only the prole issued the disc could get past that point.  A prole caught with a disc they weren’t issued was turned over to Judicial Hall.

Anyway, he couldn’t get across to the green-zone, himself.  What he could do was throw the disc into the tube.  The bots would scan it and report to the issuers, in this case, the Loks, who would know it was an emergency and come running, sort of.  In the meantime, anyone could use the disc to get past the 2nd tier bots in the near and red zones.  You needed a spoof to pass the wire though unless the disc was yours, then the bots would disable a section of fence to let you through.

While whoring, Kkhloe had made a deal with one of the red-zone bosses, Thomass.  He let her smuggle babies and little ones out of his zone, the most populated one, and she whored for him.  He had no connection to the elies, so he couldn’t sell the babes and they were a drain on his resources.  They sure as hell couldn’t pedal for power.  With all the toughs and power-pedals in his crew, he had to provide them with whores during the down times or he’d have trouble.   He had bootleg cepts but they didn’t always work and the occasional baby was born to one of his twelve to sixteen-year-old whores.  He couldn’t have babies holding up his whores, so, thanks to Kkhloe, a lot of these babies ended up in the near zone.  Others from this and the other zones ended up in the creeks or the river beyond.

Kkhloe begged borrowed and stole whatever materials she could to build a series of shacks throughout the near-zone, as hidden from the elies as possible, who didn’t seem to care anyway, but beyond her own shack and the string of dumpsters that collected what elie debris the servs hauled out with them.  Here she could protect them from what were at the time, Zobbi’s toughs, her and her bat.  You just couldn’t always depend on those bots and anyone could spoof the wire.  On a mass raid, the crazies might even crash the wire, sacrifice the first toughs through.

She got some of the older kids, 6 to 8-year-olds, to watch for raids and taught them how to whistle or yell an alarm and then grab the little ones and hide if a it happened when she was away from the zone.  She eventually taught Burtt too, as those kids started to die in battles with Zobbi’s toughs.  Burtt was much healthier, bigger and tougher than any of the others she’d trained, though.

Every kid in Kkhloe’s near-zone ate one meal a day at least, most days. The sickest ones got two, and more clean water than the others (once Burtt found another water source there was more than enough clean water for everyone).  Their meals consisted of what foodstuffs the Loks could get to them and what Kkhloe and eventually Burtt, could beg, borrow, steal, trade, buy, trap or catch; all mixed in a stew more savory and nutritious than any meal most of these kids ever tasted in the red-zone.  Babies were harder to care for.  Without their mother’s breast milk, Kkhloe had to depend on the elies to keep the squawking babes well-fed.  It wasn’t always the best solution.  There were a lot of nights spent rocking hungry infants, who didn’t know how to stop screaming for food.

There was a clean river within walking distance of Burtt’s crèche.  He found it on one of his explorations when looking for new avenues into the red-zone.  He climbed over the mound of rubble directly west of his crèche which he’d done before, but this time, he hugged the green-zone dome until he could climb down to the next near-zone.  He’d never done that before and he didn’t know why.  He wondered if they would be hostile.

As soon as he reached what he thought must be the next habitable near-zone sector over from his, he stopped with a catch in his breath.  Where the near-zone should have been, was a torrent of what looked like crystal clear water boiling out of the ground and headed south.  He carefully climbed down to it and tentatively scooped some out and put it to his lips.  Nothing burned or smelled like Kkhloe taught him, so he sipped.  It was the sweetest water he’d ever remembered tasting.  He followed it as far south as he could but it ran around the rubble into no-man’s land, so Burtt stopped.  It was a good hundred paces across.  He set traps there for fish and hard things too that were soft and tasted good inside.  The river looked to be coming from the green zone under the wall and it had washed everything away, so, he figured the water was good and whatever they caught from that stretch was clean.  He told Jaredd, and after running some magic test, he declared it safe for consumption.  Jaredd got the greaser Harkk to run some line from the river, over the rubble, to a pump and then the other end of the pump shot water from the river out through another line.  Harkk put a spigot on the end of the line so Burtt could start and stop the water flow.  He brought it right to his crèche and Harkk ran more lines to a bunch of different places in the near-zone including his own hut.  So instead of just the stale tasting trickle of water from the green-zone pipe they’d used until then, they now had a plentiful and clean second source of the life giver.  Everyone could double up their water ration at least.  That was a happy day and the water fights were glorious.  Harkk went back to his hut after that and Burtt didn’t see him again for a while but he was forming an idea about ole Harkk.  Harkk did built a catch with one hose going to it.  He had Kett tell Burtt, “It was for wash-up.  Best to eat with clean hands.”  They eventually made it so you could sit and wash your hair too.  And then Jaredd had Harkk show Burtt how to grade a slope for drainage away from the wash station and how to get the water to filter itself through a leech field.  Then they ran that water to the grow.  The way the grow took off after that was the real magic, Burtt thought.

Mmarta gave them vitamins too and always had meds with her when she did her monthly check ups on the kids.  She said this would help make the kids stronger.

The rest of his family history Burtt knew.

He also now knew that people did have two names.  People who counted for anything, that is.  He was going to change that, he decided.  His crew, at least, would get their names back if Jaredd could tell which family they came from.  He was going to have to talk with little Hhesther MacBride, now.  Ha, that would be fun.  That little vixen would prance and primp over this for a 7-day sure enough.  Still, he couldn’t figure how that little fire-headed imp could know about two names if he didn’t.  More asks…damn!

 “Did you know, Kkhloe?” Burtt recently started talking to Kkhloe like she was still there with him, even out loud sometimes.  He wondered if this was bad.  The kids answered with a “What” at first, but now they just looked.  ‘Nutha ask for Jaredd.

Right now, the Loks were gaming the system themselves with Jaredd playing the part of a mentally imbalanced young man, unfit for employment in any of the city-state’s industries.  He, his mother, some mysterious council, and now Burtt and Kkat, knew differently.  His own father didn’t know the truth and indeed, thought Jaredd a simpleton.  He had also mistakenly told his girl, Jjinine, who was so upset her overprotective father grilled the news out of her.  Mmarta’s dad was his boss though, so he was willing to turn a blind eye, but he never tired of letting the Loks know how disappointed he was in the higher echelons of CommCorp’s social upper crust.  Jaredd couldn’t wait to shove those words down the uppity, Hebertt Ston’s throat.

The supposed goal of this council was to first expose the plight of the proles, as if de elies din’ know ‘bout dem, and then to “right the wrongs of centuries” Mmarta declared with what she must have thought was the utmost in sincerity.  “We must all be patient though”, Burtt and Kkat were told.  “These things don’t happen overnight”.  It seemed to Burtt, as he thought back on the whole story, that it certainly did happen to his family, overnight.  He didn’t know about Kkat’s family, yet, but he imagined a similar path down here to his own, and he wasn’t far wrong.

——

Kkat’s story: When Kkat’s father tired of her mother, he turned to Kkat.  During one of his worst drunken, sexed-up rages, Rikk, Kkat and their mother, Zzhen, fought him off until Kkat could get her hands on a blade and stabbed him in the hand.

An embarrassment like this could end his cushy life forever, so the father, Zandorr Mont, 2nd in command at CommCorp’s Municipal offices, simply had them flushed from the system and directly into the red-zone before anyone, including Zzhen and her ungrateful brats, knew what was happening.  The night’s vidreel reported, “Prominent family members lost in a horrific Skytram accident in route to their vacation resort”.  Boom! They found wreckage, Jaredd had said.  So, sad.

The team that dropped them in the red-zone were company enforcers, a municipal division of the defense industry complex.  After sedating the woman and children, stripping and redressing them in more prole-worthy rags, they air-transited them out beyond the creeks and then they came back to drop them just inside Farukk’s red-zone.  When the fog in her head cleared and she got her wits restored, Zzhen, being an attractive middle aged woman, an anomaly here, used her wiles to seduce the first boss she found, Farukk, and bought her children’s safety until a rival boss changed their lives again.

Pokke, from a rival zone, slunk into Farukk’s crèche on a routine supplies raid when he knew the drunk would be snockered and out cold from swilling his tater-homebrew.  He instead found the woman and her brats chained to a metal loop in the floor first, and then from there to Farukk’s ankle in such a way so that the trio of captives couldn’t maneuver close enough to Farukk to get the key and free themselves.  He found the key on the comatose Farukk, released them from his ankle, then the loop, grabbed the sack of fruit and dragged them towards the creek.  With his blade to Kkat’s throat, the family complied with his every command and with very little noise. When he thought, he was far enough away, and using the threat of harming her kids to quiet her, he raped Zzhen, repeatedly.  The children, in shock and terrified, sat in a stupor watching this violence being heaped on their mother.  After he was spent and before she could fight back; he slashed her throat so she couldn’t talk when Farukk came to.  He didn’t need no old bitches.  He did need a cover story, though, and she would do for that.

He freed the hysterical brats from their mother’s body and chained them to a piece of metal sticking out of some concrete rubble.  He dragged the old lady’s body into the creek and left her there half submerged, adding more drag marks leading into the water.  It looked like the raid came from the other side, not within their sector.  Pokke then stole the two children.  The girl fought like crazy and Pokke had to knock her out to make her stop.  Then draped her over his shoulder and dragged the screaming boy behind.  The bitch turned out to be the golden bean.  She was a virgin, clean, and a look and she weren’t no kid.  She did her best to hide them but she had a woman’s chest.  She was every cred Pokke would ever need ever again and a ride to the near-zone at least.  To think all he meant to do that night was steal Farukk’s fruit, well, it was just too sweet, and he got the fruit too.

He had to keep this quiet though or the normally tame Farukk would go nuts if he knew it was Pokke.  He built a cage for the bitch, kept her inside his crèche, way in back, and covered her in filth, hung a sick sign on the cage, a big red “X”, so no-one would want to go near her.  He then threatened to hurt the girl if the boy didn’t spy for him and find him a buyer.  He promised the gullible boy he’d sell them together no matter what.  The boy agreed but refused to leave the cage when he wasn’t spying.  This aggravated Pokke so he decided to send the kid spying on his true nemesis, Burtt.  Maybe that loon would off the kid for him.  He more trouble dan he worf n he eat like a bodybar.

He had a hard time keeping his own hands off her.  He’d seen her naked before he had her covered in as much slime and filth as he could gather from the detritus everywhere around them.  If he closed his eyes, he could see her again.  Jizmo!  And he was sure getting tired of his other whores.  If he touched her though, all bets were off.  No elie would be paying much for that.

All that worked okay until Burtt got involved.

——

Jaredd and Mmarta, with the aid of this council they hinted at, had compiled a list of the people they knew had been exiled from CommCorp and their children, and now their children’s children, etc. here in this sector.  Other groups were conducting the same study in other sectors.  The list, going back over 100 years, was enormous, as Mmarta described it, and the results of the genetic studies done to back it up show that every person sampled in the near-zone, and the few they had access to in the red-zones, so far, could be directly tied to families who’d started out in the green-zones.  CommCorp almost always referred to the proles as outsiders, as if they came from the wild somehow; if they even acknowledged them at all.  Once out of favor, the Corp went so far as to remove them from the city’s census registers and cause them to lose any ties to the first families…even losing their family names.

Further, it was easier for the elies to disregard the criminal aspects of their interplay with the near and red-zones than it was to explain it.  So, when a prominent family disgraced itself, agents of the city-state’s enforcement divisions accosted the offenders under cover of darkness and they were quietly banished; leaving family, friends and associates to wonder forever, “Whatever happened to the so-and-sos”?  In truth, they knew.  Everyone knew what had happened to folks who had disappeared.  No one questioned it for fear of being disappeared themselves.

Of course, there were always the stupid ones who made themselves public spectacles.  Those had to be processed by the system.   Justice Hall and the system was harsh.

Grudgingly, Burtt had to admit that the Loks, in their own way, were doing a brave thing and a good service too.  He imagined what ends he would go through to stay over there, and then thought, Can I blame dem? No, I caint. How fa’ I go to keep Ssyn der?

He didn’t have to like it.  He headed in to check on his charges and get whatever sleep he could.  He knew he’d be worried about the kids on bar and be up checking on them all night, not so they could see, but so he could, and maybe stop worrying for a minute.  God, did he ever need help.  “Please Kkhloe, show me how.” He muttered out loud.

DAY 3: “Rikk.  I been watchin’ ya train and I thin’ it be okay to make ya scort.  Ya younger than I wan but I ain’t gots a choice.  Ya th’oldes boy here ‘sides me, Chukk and Bann.  So, how ya feel about going to Pokke’s wit’ a blurb for me?  I gots to meet Mmarta and Jaredd agin but I really need to blurb Pokke.  Bann, he gets the Loks agin, so, ya run to Pokke for me if ya wan’.  He won’ mess wit you.  Ya take Dogg wit.”

Rikk seemed to grow in stature as Burtt was talking to him.  His pride was bursting, so Burtt brought him down a little.

“I don’ wan ya gone for more than a quarter sixty, or I’m coming myself. Gots it? And ya come fin’ me when ya gets back right off.  Gots it?”

“I got it, Burtt.  You won’ be disappointed.  You’ll see”, he turned and was headed for the wire in a flash.

“Rikk!” Burtt yelled.

When he stopped Burtt asked, “Don’ ya wan’ know wha’ th’ blurb be?”

Rikk’s expression changed from one of sheer joy to shock and humiliation in a heartbeat.  Burtt’s smile was the only thing keeping him from crying.

“Easy now, Rikk.  Think firs’ is th’ firs’ think, arigh’?”

“Yes Burtt.  Sorry.”

“Thas okay.  I likes how ya wants to help s’ much.  Mean a lot t’ me and th’ kids and Kkat, ya know. Y’all but grow’d up a man now.”

“Okay, Think first, right.”  He brightened.

“Okay.  Here wha’ you say t’ Pokke.  1) Wheah my runna? 2) Who comin’? 3) Don’ shit on me agin’.  Now, say it back to me, Rikk.”

He did until Burtt was satisfied.  He hid the smile sneaking to his lips at the effort it took Rikk to go ahead and cuss.

“Dogg, to me! Walk!”  Called Rikk, a new pride evident in his voice.  Burtt smiled but had a sudden queasy feeling.  Did he do arigh?  Hmmm?

He had to get going.  They went their separate ways.

——

Rikk headed for Pokke’s in the red-zone.  There was a way to spoof the bots on bar.  Even if you didn’t have the disc.  If you didn’t get stupid and make noise too soon, this method worked good, too, and Burtt didn’t like letting the little ones have the disc just in case they got caught, as unlikely as that was?  Burtt’s bar for that day, young Calebb, another 8-year-old training for scort duty, already knew Rikk was coming.  Burtt told him earlier to be looking for him or Burtt himself, so when Rikk came around the corner from the crèche, Calebb saw him and that was the signal to spoof the bots.

Calebb started to yell and ran around like a crazy man then headed away from the approach to the red-zone.  The bots took off in hot pursuit as this kind of behavior was one the bots were programmed to react to, lights and alarms blaring.  After flying around the third corner in his preplanned path through the shacks, Calebb slipped into the blind they had ready for just such purposes and went silent.  In a minute the bots sailed on past.  If he waited for them to stop their pursuit, clear their alarm condition, then resume their post, he could go back and man his own and be ready for the return performance.  The bots wouldn’t know the difference unless they got a rep.  They didn’t usually do that until they got close or captured the perspective crim.  2nd tier bots scanned every prole they “saw” but if they weren’t rep’d, the bots didn’t care.  Rikk and Dogg slipped into the pathway without the bots knowing.  He’d get back the same way.  Calebb or the next bar on duty would be watching for him and they’d deploy the same tactic to get him back into the near-zone.  It worked every time, but Burtt thought he shouldn’t press a good thing, so when he needed to, he found his own way over the wire.  In fact, he found several, none were easy but if they were then anyone could use them.  That’s not what Burtt wanted.

Rikk got to the wire, stayed Dogg, set his prop so he wouldn’t get zapped, and was headed under the lowest strand, when he heard a commotion on the red-zone side and it sounded like it was right ahead of him.  He couldn’t look up or risk hitting the wire, so, having nothing to fear, he thought, he continued to slide under when Dogg suddenly went crazy behind him and was trying to get past him under the wire but there was no room for two and Dogg got a minor zap from the fence that backed him up.  Then he tried to leap the wire, with the brutal expected results.  He didn’t come close to clearing it and hit it with force. Dogg yelped like he’d been stabbed and fell on the back of Rikk’s legs who was only half way under.  Dogg was twitching and Rikk smelled burnt flesh and hair.  He thought Dogg was dead for sure and that Burtt would kill Rikk if he dared to come back with that news.

Before he could process that, someone grabbed his hands and dragged him the rest of the way under the fence.  It was Thomass, another boss.  Rikk had seen him with Pokke before.  Dogg got caught on and zapped again by the wire but not before Dogg reached his neck out and tried to snap Thomass’ fingers off.  Thomass snatched his hand away.  Rikk got zapped when his prop was knocked free. The jolt rocked him and the wire’s barbs ripped the back of his legs up.  Adrenalin was still driving him as he thought, this can’t be good.  He slowly panned around taking in his circumstances, and felt a cold chill run down his back.  There had to be more than 20 toughs right there at the wire.  What could they be doing there?  Pokke had 10 toughs at most if there weren’t any sick ones.  Rikk felt a sick feeling creeping through his gut.  They’re gonna raid the crèche ‘and Burtt is with the Loks on the other side of the zone.

With no concern for his own safety, Rikk quickly stood and started screaming the red alert words at the top of his lungs hoping Calebb would hear and trigger the crèche evac and hide plan.  “Heave to, heave to”, he screamed.  He waited a breath before yelling again, but heard Calebb repeating his alarm and felt relief.  The crack he felt on the side of his head caused him to worry about his own plight as he found himself back on the ground.  A rough hand reached down and grabbed him viciously by the hair and ran a blade up to his throat.  Rikk felt a tear come to his eye but he felt strong and rejected it.  He’d done his duty.  He stared Pokke in the eye and said, “Burtt’s gonna be pissed Pokke.”

Pokke raised his voice and got one word out, “Fuck…”, before Dogg took his arm and started ripping like Ks do.  Rikk felt something hurt bad on his neck and reached back.  His hand came away red and sticky-wet.  He stared at his hand unsure of what to do.  He was in shock.

Rikk had thought Dogg was dead, but boy was he not dead.  He was tearing Pokke up, and when he wasn’t chawing on Pokke, he was backing the rest away with feints, growls, barks and snaps.  Some of the others including Thomass, got brave and tried to surround Dogg and Rikk.  That lasted until he turned on one and took a chunk out of a hand, arm or leg.  Dogg was like a fury blur of terror, teeth and claws.  Rikk tried to help but he knew he had to get over the wire to live and he was feeling weak for some reason.  The toughs were between him and his escape, though, and he began to panic.

Soon, they were trying to zap Dogg with their stuns.  Dogg had seen stuns before, notably from Burtt in younger days.  He knew enough to keep his distance and still he kept them on their toes too, helping Rikk to slowly work his way back towards the wire and safety on his hands and knees.  Thomass saw Rikk was just about there and lunged for him.  Rikk heard the loud sound of something hard hitting something else not as hard.  Thomass stopped two steps short of Rikk, then he fell to his knees, his eyes floated back in his head and he fell the rest of the way to the ground face first with a sickening splat.  Rikk had to dodge out of the way but still was splattered with Thomass’ blood.

Burtt stood over him with his bat in one hand resting on his shoulder, the other hand held one of his long blades, point in the ground beside him.  He’d beheaded boys with that blade when necessary and Pokke had seen him do it.  Jaredd said the blade was a samur or some such.  Whatever, it was sharp, Rikk knew. The toughs all seemed to deflate when Thomass went down so easy.  Even Pokke was retreating as fast as his feet would take him.

“Dis ain’t done, Pokke.  Nope, it ain’t.  I be back.  Ya be prayin’, I spec.  And ya tell Thomass, I b’ seein’ him too.  Ya gots two days t’ ‘range the meet, Pokke.  After dat, I ‘range a new boss heah.  Two shittin’ days and ya pray Rikk and Dogg ain’t hurt bad.”

Pokke, horrified and bleeding like a stuck pig, didn’t answer, he just faded back to his crèche leaving everyone behind to sort out the mess.

Burtt thought, dis might be it for ole Pokke.  I caint trust him, now, can I?

——

Rikk blurted before Burtt could calm him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.  I didn’t see.  They, they…”  and he broke down sobbing.  They’d just cleared the wire again.  Burtt leaned down to whisper in Rikk’s ear, “Don’ for a tic let dem see ya cry, boy.  Not for a tic.  They try to shit on you ever time dey see ya.  Gots it?  Don’ ya show dem weak.  Not once!”

Rikk snuffled but held his head up and marched ahead.  Burtt told him not to worry about the bots and go ahead through.

“Let dem bots take ya.  Don’ fight, dey won’ zap ya, gots it? Don’ Fight. I catch ya up and take care.  Okay?  Trus’ me.  Don’ wor.  Collectors don gets you.  I swear.”  Then, with Dogg in his arms, Burtt was gone, over the ruble.  He seemed to fly over it.

Rikk did as he was told and as he expected the bots detained him and marched him to the detention hut in the near-zone, where crims waited for transport to Justice Hall for processing. For some, it was the only time they would ever see the inside of the green-zone, albeit just inside.  2nd tier Bots had no capacity for evaluating a crims health.  It was possible to die waiting in the hut and it had happened.

He was feeling more and more sleepy as he waited. The strains on his wrists were so tight his fingers went numb.  He was getting worried now.  He been here for 2 10 cycles he thought, or was it 3?  He didn’t know. After they stung his butt with something he lost track of time and finally lay down.  Where was Burtt?  Why wouldn’t the blood stop?

He needn’t have worried.  There was suddenly a hell of a lot of noise outside the hut that sounded like Burtt, and the bots went into alarm mode again, the sound of their wailing fading away.  The hut door cracked open a little, then more, then with a loud crack, came open the rest of the way when the catch broke.  In the doorway, looking every bit the warrior, was Kkat.  Close on her heels was Kett and behind them was Jjes.

“Well, don’t just sit there Rikk, this is a jail break. Let’s go.” Kkat implored.

Rikk was crying again, “I can’t.  I can’t walk.  Something is wrong with my legs, Kkat.  I can’t get up”.  He was balling now.

“It’s the sting is all, Jjes said.  Bots slip in a medshot to keep ya from runnin’, ya know? It go ‘way, but we gots to get ya out o heah, now.  Come on ya two. We gots to car him.” Jjes seemed to have grown in years in just a few minutes, she looked so serious and concerned for Rikk.  There was good reason too.  The collection crew would be by any time now.  It was long enough.  Was there more than that going on with this girl, though? thought Kkat.

When she tried to pick him up under his shoulders Kkat’s hands slipped away. They were covered in blood.  She looked at Rikk who’s eyes were rolling back as he passed out.  Kkat screamed.  Jjes leaned over Rikk’s body and slapped Kkat hard on the face and yelled at her.

“WE GOTS TO GO NOW. PICK HIM UP!”

By the time Jjes got back to grabbing Rikk’s feet, Kkat had recovered and was lifting Rikk’s limp body as best she could.  They raced away to the crèche where Mmarta and Jaredd met them.  They had Rikk on a table and were closing his wound in seconds.  The cuts on his legs were superficial but ugly and would be painful.  He’d lost a lot of blood from the neck wound. Burtt had warned them when he raced in with Dogg and then raced out again to run interference with the bots so they could free Rikk and get him to Mmarta soonest.

Rikk would be alright, Mmarta said.  She’d sent Jaredd back for Plasma and was feeding it into Rikk’s arm with a stic.  He didn’t look good at all.  He looked like the ones Burtt had killed, pale, almost empty.

What I do?  This horror would stay with him for a long time.  He would forever worry about his charges.  What would Kkhloe think about today?  Burtt was shamed.

Pokke must have sliced the boy open when Dogg attacked, probably by accident.  Burtt had seen the injury at the wire but didn’t want to panic Rikk so he ignored it hoping all would pan out.  It didn’t look bad then, just bloody like dem cuts do.  Fortunately, Pokke sliced him on the back of the neck, not his throat.  Infection was the big worry now.  Burtt would be on super alert for this over the next 5-day.  So too would Kkat and with some newfound drive, Jjes.  In fact, Jjes became Rikk’s de facto nurse and personal assistant while he healed.  Kkat worried at first until she saw the genuine concern and something more in Jjes’ eyes when she looked at Rikk.  It didn’t hurt that she spent nearly all night sitting by his sleepsac either.  Nope, Jjes had a flame burning…for my brother, Kkat thought with a smile.  So, that’s what I saw.

When she woke the next morning, and found Jjes asleep at the foot of Rikk’s bed still, she determined to have a talk with Rikk.  This boy needs to grow up a bit or he’s going to have trouble with that girl.

Kkat came out of her reverie with Jjes staring at her.

“I like him a lot.  I din’ know ‘til yesday when he screamed to save the little ones and he alone with dem killers.  I been look for a man ain’t scairt.  I thin he the one, a’righ?”

“Rikk’s no man yet.  He’s a boy still and you need to let me talk to him first.  He won’t know what to think you go all sex-up on him, Jjses.  He’s a boy.  You see?  He doesn’t know anything about girls except what he knows from me.  I’m his sister, so he doesn’t know much.  Okay?  Let me talk to him”

“I wait.”  Jjes said.  “I be back afer firs eat.” She looked intently at Rikk, quickly turned and sailed out of their space.

“I meant…la…ter…on…like tomorrow, or next 30-day even.  Hmmmph!  Oh well.” Kkat stammered out.

——

It did pan out okay in the end, but Burtt had learned a valuable lesson.  De kids are too young to scort alone ‘n I can nev trus a red-zoner, not ev again.  Training would be stepped up and Burtt would get Bann more involved with the heavy lifting so to speak.  He needed scorts and soldiers and he needed them yesterday.  He had some ideas about how to get that rolling. But first things first. He had to sort out those in the red-zone once and for all.  To do that he needed Bann, at least, and maybe one more.  He asked Mmarta and Jaredd to sponsor a new kid from the crèche so he could free Bann up for other duties.  Mmarta said she try to convince Dougg to turn a blind eye again.  One day, he would say no.  What then?

Dogg was hurt too and that made Burtt feel sad.  He was responsible for that, too.  He could never have forgiven himself if Dogg had gotten killed.  He felt terrible that he was hurt.  Dogg was still whimpering, but the little ones were slathering burngel on him.  He was loving the attention at least.  Jaredd gave Burtt some meds for Dogg, too, for infection.  Burtt didn’t even know there was such a thing.  Meds f’r Ks?  But not f’r proles?  Damn!

I don’ wan’ dis rage to stop til I stan’ on Pokke’s and Thomass’ neck.

——

After he got Bann to swear to stand bar and protect the little ones with his life, he headed for his last stop before Pokke’s.

“Look man, ya live heah too.  Dey attack us and near kill a boy”

“They attacked your spy on their side of the wire.”  So, you was watchin’ huh? What more you watch?

“He wasn’t past the wire yet n, so what?  Ain’t nobody should attack a kid.”

“He ain’t no kid if he’s a scort.  Look, you’re the man around here.  What do you need me for?”

This wasn’t going per plan. Why adult let a kid get hurt like dat? I don’ unerstan dese peeps. He had to try another ploy.

Burtt changed tack, “You know ‘f I go over dere, n dey off me, nuth’ ‘tween ‘dem and ya.”

“Hmmm!”  this seemed to have struck a chord. “Don’t go over there, then.”  He turned and started walking back into his hut.

Burtt wanted to argue but couldn’t think of anything more to say.

JIZMO, then, it on me.”  He turned and furiously headed for the wire, blades in his hands and singing through their own wind in front of his face.

He used an old reliable and hidden route into the red-zone.  It looked like the toughs had just gotten themselves sorted out. There were still 3 toughs at the wire.  Burtt figured to face Thomass first and then Pokke. He surprised them by coming at them from the flank instead of under the wire but they were soon singing, loudly.

He was in a full blood rage now.  There was no stopping it until it spent itself in a perverse ballet of death and destruction.  Burtt the blade prepared himself.  He stomped to the exact location where he had been standing over Thomass’ body and challenged them all to come out and get him.

They did, slowly.  Thomass came first, his face and nose were a mess and it looked like he was missing some teeth too.  There was a mass of blood in his hair on the back of his head. He had a stun in one hand and a wicked looking hooked blade in the other.  Squinting through swollen eyes and through swollen and drooling lips he screamed,

“IMA KIW UUUU”.  And then he charged, followed shortly by any toughs brave enough to try.

Burtt spread his feet and planted, waiting for the blow.  The numbers of toughs arrayed against him were surely too many for even Burtt.  No matter, though, he was committed.

Timing his response was life or death…his time sense and natural instincts taking over, the scene around him seemed to slow, as if to give him more time to react properly.  As he began his death blow swing, a sudden surprised look blossomed on Thomass’ face before Burtt saw the shaft protruding from his chest.  It had red feathers on its end.  As his mind caught up, he recalled hearing a thump, just before seeing the shaft.  Thomass slowly drifted to the earth, it seemed he fell at a slow pace.  Then time caught up as Burtt saw two more toughs were down. Then another.  Burtt finally unfroze and charged in into the suddenly retreating melee, dropping several more himself before he tired and the blood rage cooled.  When he looked around there were 12 dead on the ground around him, and several more crawling away.  He knew he’d only killed 5 and severely wounded 3 more.  He counted and sure enough, there were 7 more dead with those shafts protruding from one vital spot or another on their bodies.

Sure his enemies were on the run, Burtt scanned the near-zone area as much as he could see with the rubble mound in the way.  As he was looking he thought, they had to come from a height, so he scanned higher and just before the figure moved out of sight, Burtt saw someone climbing from the rubble against the dome down to Burtt’s near-zone sector.  It looked like it might be near Harkk’s hut.  The figure was soon gone and Burtt had unfinished business.  He’d sort that out later. Taking people out from a distance was something Burtt wanted to be a part of in a big way.

“Pokke ya puss, ya don’ come fight wit’ ya part?  Gets out here.  Don’ make me come drag ya out.”

Pokke wasn’t far away and he slunk out of cover mewling, “Burtt, man, I ain’t no part wif’ dat trash.  He don’ had m’ caught up Burtt.  Took m’ meds n all.  Had my crèche bar’d.  I tryin to think a way out when ya boy Rikk come tru so fas’ I had no time, man, no time.  Ya knows I don’t be mess’n ya Burtt.  You knows!”

“I knows Dogg took ya’ll down, not Thomass’, that what I know.  Thomass I took down.  And now he and half his crew dead, 3 more bleed out maybe.”

“I tryin to save da boy, Burtt.  “S’why I grab im.”

“Maybe I b’lieve you Pokke cuz you don’ come out to fight agin jus’ now.  Maybe I don’.”

He gave Pokke a minute to digest, then continued, “Heah what, Pokke.  Two days.  das what you gots now.  Two days I be back.  We have dat meet and thins changin’ out here.  Thins changin’ big.  You gon change wit th’ new, or you gon’ die with th’ ole.  Gots it, Pokke?  Gots it?  This shit don’. Das’ all!”

“Yo, de hut!  Come on Harkk, man.  I seed you. What was dat you took dem boys wit?”

“That’s none of your business and you and I are going to have to come to an agreement about you sneaking up on my hut at night, Burtt.”

Burtt nearly came out of his skin when Harkk startled him from behind.  Nobody got behind Burtt.  He found his new respect for this long-range killer growing by the second.  He recovered as best he could and tried to answer with some level of calm in his voice.

“Dis my zone man.  I go wherev.  Gots it?” Harkk’s brow furrowed and was turning away. Burtt thought he should ease up a bit so added, “Hey, thas a good trick, sneakin me.”
Harkk stopped. “I saw you coming just now.  And I saw you looking at me up on the rubble mound so, I expected your visit.” Harkk offered.

“Dat was somethin’.  I gots to tell you.  How’d you do dat and so many.  How…”

“Slow down, slow down.  Height makes for a great advantage especially against a numerically superior force.  Practice helps too.  What I used is an old-world hunting implement called a combination bow and bolt.  I built it from wood I stole inside the green-zone and the bolts too.”  Harkk seemed to be warming to Burtt a little, now he noticed the unabashed admiration the boy was sending his way.

“Why the feathahs?” Burt asked, completely mesmerized and amazed to hear words like that from a prole other than Kkhloe or now Kkat.

“Makes the bolt fly straight to the target.  The tips of the bolts are sharped and burnt to hardness and will penetrate a rat, boar, fish or one of those there toughs equally well.”  That last bit he said with a satisfied smile looking over towards the red-zone.

“Jizmo!  Can I have it?”  Burtt asked without thinking, then blushing, tried again, “I mean, can you show me how to make one and bolts too?  I can eye the little ones from far off den and be doin’ ought else.”

“Hmmm. Can you get wood?  I don’t dare steal more.  Not now.  Not for a bit yet.  Too soon.”  “How ‘bout de wood in my crèche.  We gots lots of dat.”
“No, boy.  That’s not the right wood. That’s small bits of wood and plas stuck together it’ll never bend for a bow.  We might make a bolt, but no bow.  We need a solid piece of wood for the bow.”

“Burtt didn’t remember seeing a whole piece of wood, like from a tree ‘cept in the Lassie book.  They had plants in the grow, but no trees.  Maybe I could grow one up.  He asked Harkk and Harkk had a good laugh before he explained how long it took for a tree to grow.  He turned and went into his hut.  He didn’t invite Burtt in, so he left.

Burtt was confused.  Did they wait to start a war ‘til enough trees grew?  Then he thought about the Army troops he’d seen in the vid with their armor suits.  He didn’t figure a bolt would do anything but bounce off them, and then he thought, I don’ know much ‘bout much, no sir.  Huntin’ food one thing.  War’s a ‘nutha.” He didn’t see what those soldiers had for weapons clearly.  He just saw that they were long and hard looking, not bows and bolts.  He knew from Jaredd that the enforcers used stuns, nothing lethal.

Until he figured out the wood problem, he would go without, but boy did he ever want one.  That thing was a difference maker anywhere.

DAY-4: They had another gab session, Jaredd and Burtt, next day.  It occurred to Burtt that Jaredd knew so much Burtt could never hope to learn it all.  The crèche needed someone who could make the hard decisions that Burtt struggled with because he didn’t know better, he remembered sending Rikk on that mission to Pokke’s and shook all over.  He had a thought and he decided to barge in.

“’F I gets the crèche to go ‘long, will ya be our boss?  Times I caint ‘cide whatta do and I thin ya know what need knowing, s’ ya do dat for us?”  Burtt implored.

“Whoa, Burtt, whoa!  I, hmmm. Burtt, a boss, a leader, needs to be present at least most of the time.  I can’t be that person.  You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I guess. But…”

“No wait a moment, I have an idea.  I can’t be your boss, and besides, I thought you didn’t want a boss in the near-zone?  Regardless, I can be an advisor.  I can help you make those tough decisions, but you’ll be making them. You’ll be the boss or leader.”

“Uh, I din’ thin ‘bout it I guess.  Nope, we ain’t gots to have a boss. I guess das’ a’righ.  But if ya a-a-’vise us den we c’n make good thinks and I don’ be putting no kids in the dirt.  Dat okay wit’ ya?”

Jaredd was stunned, finally coming to grips with Burtt’s reality. “Yes, but Burtt. Someone has to take control and give the orders or, um, directions.”

Puzzled for a moment, he then seemed to get an idea, “How folks do it in dere when no one be boss?” Burtt asked pointing at the Green-zone.

“Ha, ha, ha.  Bright boy, you are, Burtt, bright boy.  They have what they call a committee or a council to do that.”

“Like ya council?  We do that.” Burtt whispered conspiratorially.

Jaredd smiled and said, “Yes Burtt. Like my council.  Do you have someone in mind for this council?”

He thought only a moment since there really wasn’t much choice, “Yeah, I do. Come on.  Les tell ‘em.”

“Oh, now hold on Burtt.  Normally people are given a choice.  What if they don’t want to be on your council?  You know, if you tell them, they will do it whether they want to or not.  Is that fair?”

“Hmmm.  I ask.”  Burtt conceded the point.

They all agreed.

Thus, it was that Jaredd became the official advisor to the Council of the Taj.  Bann, Kkat, Rikk, Jjes and Burtt were its first council members.  Burtt wanted to stick with 4 until he was more comfortable with Jjes, but Jaredd explained how that might make it impossible to decide some things if the vote was spilt evenly.  They settled for the five members and Jjes was included.

Before Jaredd left for the day, Burtt asked one more question, a favor.

“I wan a wood.   Like me”, he said, holding his hand at the top of his head meaning that tall.  “N like dis”, he wrapped the fingers of one hand around his wrist, meaning that thick.  “C’n ya get it for me? It’s ‘portant.”

After taking a moment to consider Burtt’s request, Jaredd asked, “What do you want wood for? It’s very difficult to acquire, you know?”

“I know.  Harkk say it.  I just…well, I wan make a combin, combono…a bow.  I wan a bow.  I saw one worked and it the bes.   Good for hunt and I thin we be safer wif’.”  He looked at Jaredd with something akin to begging.  The only time Jaredd had seen that look before was when Burtt thought Kkat might be sick and Mmarta was about to throw her out of the crèche.

“I think I have just the thing Burt, but it won’t be wood.  Okay?  Trust me?  I promise you won’t be disappointed.  I should be able to bring it tomorrow.  Do you have a supply of arrows?” the confused look on Burtt’s face made Jaredd wonder if Burtt actually knew what a bow did?  “You do know a bow needs arrows to work. Burtt, right?”

“I only know’d ‘bout the bow ‘n de bolts, Jaredd. I sorry. Whas arrers is?”

Jaredd suppressed the snicker and said, “That’s right. I’m sorry Burtt.  Bolts they are.  Do you have some?”

“Gon’ make some from the crèche wood. Ole Harkk say he help.”

“Aha.  I see. That’s a very industrious idea, but I have a great one too.  Why don’t I bring you some and save you the trouble?”

The smile on Burtt’s face reminded Jaredd of old Yule vids, from when that was a thing.  Smiling, rosy cheeked children, faces lit up with anticipation…oh, am I ever losing it…sigh.

“Right. See you tomorrow then Burtt.”

“See you too”, Burtt replied with more enthusiasm than he’d felt since Kkat came to live at the Taj.

DAY-5: The next day, Jaredd was true to his word and delivered a real combination bow and arrows.  The bow was made from a light weight ployplas and the arrows were carbonsteel alloy that just wouldn’t break and held true flight for 200 steps.  They were so light Burtt thought they were made of air.  They had feathers too but fake one and they were black.  Jaredd was an expert and spent a few hours training Burtt, Rikk, Kkat, Bann and Jjes how to tension the bow and then to somewhat effectively fire the weapon.  Burtt and Rikk were quick studies.  Bann wasn’t bad but seemed to flinch a lot.  The girls were just hopeless it seemed.

Before Jaredd left, Harkk came home early and was invited by Burtt to try the bow.  Then he was jealous but was good about it saying Burtt had the weapon to beat then.  The statement put a threatening tint on the conversation as they all came to realize what purpose this new weapon would serve.  Soon the group broke up.

Burtt thought about his meet.  At least Pokke sent a runner this time and he said everyone would be there all day.  Would the bastards really show?  Would there be trouble now with Thomass dead and Pokke beaten so bad.  Had the fight for Thomass crèche already begun?  Who was the boss now and how likely was it they would work with Burtt?  He thought he might be able to work with, Ccassie the one girl boss in their red-zone, but he wasn’t sure about the rest.  Farukk was a drunk and a pushover, Pokke had said.  Hamill was a loner but vicious if you crossed him and had the 2nd largest crèche with 18 soldiers at least.  He had the two wilders too.  They were thought to be the craziest creatures known and they were on his crew.  That left whoever took Thomass crew and Pokke.  He’d know soon enough.   He figured Hamill would be the prob.  When Burtt felt he’d made them wait long enough, he got his team together.  It was Time to lay down the law, Jaredd had called it.

——

Burtt got Harkk to back him up again from his perch on top of the rubble.  Dogg was crazy upset Burtt wouldn’t take him too, and so was Rikk.  He had Chukk tie Dogg up inside the crèche and left Jjes and Kkat to keep an eye on Rikk.  He could hear Dogg yowling all the way to the red-zone.  He took, Bann and Chukk with him using one of his secret passages over the rubble again, but left them up high looking down on the meet, Bann with the new bow and arrow in plain sight.  Chukk, as big as he was, looked a threat all by himself, if he didn’t smile.

Burtt was standing in front of the lot of them, and they had all come.  He was pleased.

“…So, das it peeps.  No mo.  No mo slavin’.  Free ‘em now, t’day.  Bring ‘em t’me ‘f ya can’t take care of ‘em.  I don’ caah, but ya free ‘em today.  I be watchin’.  There ain’t be no ‘scuses man.”

“Ya don’t raid my side no mo.  Ya want to raid each other, go ‘head.  Ya leave my crèche out. Forev.  I don’ play no mo.  Ya come over my side for no good or ya hurt one o’ mine; I hurt ya back, bad. das’ it.  Gots it?”

There was no response.  “GOTS IT?” he yelled.

There were some mumbled responses and Hamill flat out said, “JIZMO, ya shit”, while walking towards Burtt with menace in his eyes.

Thump! Thump! And two arrows were planted at his feet.  Hamill, had heard about the new threat and backpedaled like his feet were catching fire.  Ya luck ole Bann din twitch, puss.  Burtt was impressed that both arrows had landed short of the mark at almost the same time.  Magic!

“I give you ‘til t’morra.  No late.  Be back mid time. We talk again.  Be ready to choose.  Unnerstan’ you pickin’ peace or war.  Das all!”

Burtt backed to the wire and was under it and gone again before they could do much other than stare after him openmouthed.

“Shit on dat!” mumbled Hamill, but he didn’t seem that sincere.

Pokke said, “Yeah, ya do dat Ham. Lemme know how goes, huh?”

Everyone slunk away home.

“Why would she feel like that about me, Kkat?  I mean, what do I do about it?  She’s a girl and I don’t even know how to kiss.  I don’t know about all this, Kkat.”  Rikk looked about to get sick.

Kkat snickered, ‘Oh, silly.  At first you just get to know each other, okay?  It’s not so bad.  Then again, she did stay with you the whole time you were hurt and take care of you.  I didn’t have to lift a finger.  She did it all.  And Rikk, I think she likes you a LOT.  She’s an older girl too.  Older than we thought.  Maybe even 14.  She’s near a woman, you know, and ready for a mate I imagine.”  These last few lines she snuck in there to twist Rikk’s discomfort a little more.

Rikk thought about what Kkat said.  So, Jjes was caring for him.  Slowly he colored, thinking that when he woke, he was naked in his sleepsac and someone had to clean and dress his leg wounds as well as the neck wound.  As he further realized Kkat was sleeping when he woke and Jjes was the one nursing him, his embarrassment was complete.

“KKAT!”

He got no response.  Kkat, her own hormones stirring, decided to have a chat with Burtt about the blossoming birds and bees issues here in the crèche.  These things could reach crisis mode any moment now, she thought with a snide smirk.  Oh yes, Mr. Burtt, you’d better be ready.

——

After a strange gab with Kkat, Burtt decided to entertain the kids before lights-out and try to put the burngel on and get him to eat the medtab.  This had been a source of great merriment for the crèche since Dogg got zapped.

“Dogg.  Dogg!  Gets back here.  Jizmo! I gots to check ya burns ya puss.  Come on. Ya know dis don’ hurt.”

Dogg had been acting strange since Burtt got back in one piece.  Burtt thought he must be happy Burtt didn’t get hurt.  At least the little ones were enjoying the byplay, hysterical laughter was ringing in his ears.  He loved hearing it.  It was the best sound.

He got right up next to the cur and the damn thing took off again.  “What the hell is wrong Dogg?  Now gets over heah!”

Instead of coming he whimpered and slunk a little further into the dark corner of the rubble pile he seemed to be barring, almost.

“Wha th’ hell Dogg, come on.  Wha is dis?”  He reached again and this time Dogg growled.  Now Burtt knew something was wrong. He sat down and tried not to be a threat.  Sometimes when Dogg seemed antsy at night Burtt would hum the tune Kkhloe used to sing.  He tried that now…” hmmm hmmm hmmm, ya gots a fren”.  Dogg visibly relaxed but then shivered and got all crazy again growling and snapping at Burtt when Burtt leaned over.  This crazy!

“Dogg, ya come out heah and tell m’ wha wron, righ now.”  Then he laughed at himself for talking like that to Dogg.  So, he lay back and started to whistle the tune.  Soon Dogg was lying beside him. Then the strangest thing Burtt had seen all day happened.  This little bitty sweet female K came out from their hidey hole and curled up beside Dogg.

“Whas’ dis, Dogg?  Ya gots a girl?  Well, Jizmo!  Wha a look, huh.  Ain’t dis a thing now?  Firs, Jjes and Rikk, Den you and dis lil K girl.”  He thought some about Kkat and the way she talked to him about Jjes and Rikk.  There was a lot of bumping and hands-on that had confused him.  She kept talking about the two doing something like and Then Katt would do it to Burtt, and say, “See.  Like that.  They must be attracted.  You know attracted Burtt?”  No, he didn’t know that.  He hated when folks used words he didn’t know.  He would never ask Kkat.  He’d just smiled.  The way she looked back at him, though, with that strange smirk, made him think that wasn’t the right thing to do, maybe.

He unconsciously reached out to pet the little K.

“Grrrrrrr”

“Hell, ya c’n have her.  I don’ wan the lil smelly thing.”  Burtt snatched his hand back.

The end

Part Five:  Sex-ed two, War!  Harkk is a hero, again.   The Death toll is huge.  Survivors remorse sets in.  Pairings happen. A new day in the new “sector of the Taj”.  The sector joins hands. Taj becomes a single zone, near and red.  The Greenies are not happy. Jaredd takes a stand.  Mmarta learns bad news.  Kkat takes it on herself to learn how to care for the crèche from Mmarta.  Dougg tries again.

Burt, man and master

poor4

Kkat stared at the strange man who’d come to Pokke’s crèche, armed to the teeth. When he called Pokke a “slime streaked, puss” while pulling those wicked looking blades from no where she could see, the trembling started. She was properly cowed in front of Pokke, but had no respect for him. This man made her knees weak. That he appeared to not be afraid of Pokke, or any of the ten toughs surrounding him, only added to the mystique. Who wasn’t afraid of Pokke?

With the backing of that near-zone demon, Burtt, no one would even try to stand against Pokke. That he’d sent her brother to spy on the legend had her and Rikk worried sick. Neither had slept that night before Rikk left and now he was late returning. Then this crazy loon shows up. “God, please bring my brother back safe”, she quietly pled from her cage across from Pokke’s stand; “and, if it is your will, Lord, please let this idiot get out of here alive, too.” She turned towards Pokke so she wouldn’t witness the carnage about to happen before him.

Pokke jumped to his feet, his expression changing from one of superior loftiness, to wonder, to questioning, to abject terror in less time than it took him to finish standing. Kkat couldn’t imagine what could have caused such a dramatic change overtaking her antagonist and froze, watching. Surely this stranger, a nobody, and younger than Pokke by at least a year, couldn’t possibly cause Pokke to tremble so. Could he? But those ten boys were all cowering now and acted as though they were backing away from death.

She realized the truth as Pokke blurted, “Burtt, my man, what brings you to my crèche? You come to hang with us real proles? Getting bored over with the elies, are you? What’s with the blades, fren? We got a grieve to…”

“Shut up, puss. You know why I’m here. What the fuck were you thinking? What is it with you stupid fucks out here? You murder, run slaves and terrorize your way to being a boss, then throw it all away trying to get more? From me? How many of your drones do I have to kill before you assholes out here get the fucking message?”

This was a calculated risk Burtt was taking. He could see her starting to react. He didn’t really want to hurt the girl like this; if that was Kkat in the cage, and now he thought she probably was. Rikk was okay, but Burtt’s rep was at stake and he wanted Pokke off balance. He’d make it up to the girl later if he needed to. If she was just another sex-toy-slave, he’d free her before he left as part punishment to Pokke. If she was Katt; she would be reunited with her brother soon enough, provided this worked, and there’d be no chains or cages involved either. Let her scream for now.

“You fucking pigs. I’ll kill you both. Let me out of here Pokke, you pile of rat shit, so I can rip your eyes out. Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhgggggggg!” She sank to her knees wailing, further covering herself in the filth they’d thrown at her for food. Kkat’s identity no longer an issue, Burtt reconsidered his plans. Rikk hadn’t said how old Kkat was, but now that Burtt could see her, she was older than Rikk by a year or two, at least, and she was a look too; underneath all that dirt, that is. No wonder Pokke had her caged. He could make a fortune off this one, especially if he kept her clean…away from the proles. The elies would pay double creds; provided he could get Burtt to go along, which wasn’t likely he knew, or he could take over the near-zone himself and then do whatever the fuck he wanted.

No, Burtt thought. No way was he letting Pokke damage this soul like so many others. No way Kkat ends up like Kkhloe…not while Burtt breathes.

Continuing that line of thought, because he didn’t really know what he was going to do to Pokke when he started down this way, Burtt figured Pokke must know he needed to be rid of Burtt. To do that, he needed spies. Rikk was one. As it turned out, Rikk was one of many.

As he pondered his next words, the sound of her despair tore through Burtt like watching Kkhloe pass from this life. He pushed it aside concentrating on Pokke. Pokke was a puss. He lived and ruled his crèche like a dictator but his strength came from his coalition with Burtt. Just the same, even a sickly red-zone rat was trouble when cornered. Pokke would be no different, except that he was bigger than a rat and armed.

“Whoa! Whoa, Burtt my man!” Pokke pleaded while back peddling away from those terrible blades. “I-on’t know what the hell you talkin’ ’bout, man. I ain’t sent nobody nowhere, man. ‘Special not your way. What I look, stupit?”

“Yes you did, you basta. Yes you did. My brother, my brother!” the girl sobbed. “You’d better keep me in here forever because the second I get out, I’m killing you.” Burtt was reminded of Kkhloe standing in the door of their shack, warding off whatever slime made it through the wire to try to “git some” that night.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP, BITCH! SHUT UP!” Pokke was losing it.

That was exactly what Burtt was hoping for. Pokke, in a nervous snit, was easy to manipulate and Burtt didn’t want to change hands here right now.   He needed Pokke and his crew in place as a buffer. This was a scare the shit out of Pokke meeting, not a finish him off one. He didn’t have time to flesh out a new boss for the red-zone area bordering his own near-zone crèche. Not right now, he didn’t.

He’d just recently been able to establish an honest-to-God crèche of his own in the near-zone. The “step up” to a crèche over a shack was symbolic as far as Burtt was concerned. His rivals over the red-zone wire, if that’s what you would call all those pusses, all ran their crews out of one central location. An old Fac or Shop served the purpose well. As long as it had walls, a roof, and could fit your whole crew, that was nirvana in the red-zone. Everyone else lived in shacks, boxes, sewers, or out in the open…and one or two nights at most away from dead. Burtt couldn’t afford to be seen in less lordly digs.

With the combined efforts of all the proles in his part of the near-zone, backed financially by Mmarta and Dougg, they bought, bartered, scavenged and built what was thought of in both zones as the Taj. He tried finding a reference to that word but failed. He had no idea what it meant, but that’s what Mmarta had called it on one of her 30-cycle med-visits, and the name stuck once all the little ones heard her call it that. He was too shamed to ask, but it sounded rich. There were 46 souls in his crew now, all kids, except for Chukk. He hope to add two more by days end. Two adults by their standards and greatly needed. He also needed to end this before Pokke grew his balls back.

Burtt raised his voice to ear shattering volume, “BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP, Everyone else get out of here, now.” He turned his gaze and his blades on Pokke. All resistance and backbone sloughed off Pokke in a rush. He seemed to melt in front of Burtt and fell back into his rest.

Pokke made a half hearted gesture to his crew, telling them to comply, but one of Pokke lieutenants decided to be a hero and tried to get to Burtt from behind. He was an older youngster, maybe 14 or 15. Burtt’s sixth sense, Pokke’s widening eyes, and Dogg’s roar, who came flying out of a darkened comer where Burtt had stayed him, all contributed to warn him of the danger. He sidestepped the attack to the right. He turned the blade in his left hand, the weaker one, and clocked the boy on the side of the head with the butt-end of the knife handle. The boy went down in a heap and didn’t stir. This was probably a good thing since Dogg would go for the throat always if he got there first. The fight with that threat was over for good if that happened.

“You like to sacrifice your boys, don’t you, Pokke. That’s the sign of a true lost cause. Are you a lost cause, Pokke? Do I need to dig up a new boss for this crèche already?”

Pokke signaled for some in his hastily retreating crew to return and drag the dazed boy away before this demon decided to do more damage. They did so reluctantly with Dogg watching their every more, teeth bared the whole time.

“What? What? No, man! Fuck no! I got this shit covered, Burtt. Ain’t I always kept you safe on the other side there? Ain’t I?” Pokke was panicked. This was perfect.

“Oh. I see. You keepin’ me safe. Is that it? Well, what was I thinking?”

“Oh, Come one, man. You know what I mean. Anybody gots to go through me first, right?   That how it always be, right. I gots your back Burtt. I always gots your back. You knows that, man.”

“Hmmm. Then who was that pile I just offed? He had your crew’s mark on him.”

“OH, HIM! Oh, man, you mean ‘lil Rikk. Oh that boy, he so dumb sometimes. I don’t know, man. All I tole him to do was scout the area. Make sure no one done bust the wire. You know? Thas all. Now, what he go and do? I swear Burtt, man. I make it up. Whatev. I do it.”

The girl was screaming again and shaking her cage enough to feel the rumble in the floor. Burtt gave her a sideways glance, afraid she would do herself damage. He had to speed this up. The worst was yet to come, as far as she was likely to see tings.

“You don’t really expect me to believe that shit do you Pokke? Before you start choking on your own bullshit, you owe me. Big. How we gonna settle this score? You better come up with something good, puss. Think of me like I was your God, Pokke. I know you don’t b’lieve in nothing like, but ‘tend, just this time, that I am your God, and you want to make me real happy. What you gots for me Pokke?”

“Look, Burtt, you know me. I’m good for whatev you want. You just name it. Whatev.”

He had him. “I’ll take the girl.” Said Burt, slowly turning a lusty look on her as if to show his own seedy intentions.

While she sang a new chorus of invective this time in the direction of Burtt, he walked to the cage and shook it. Then he winked at her so only she could see. She was duly stunned, and shut up.

Pokke was stunned, too, but for an entirely different reason. This had turned into his worst nightmare. For the first time in his shitty life, he’d found a sure-fire way out. A clean, unblemished, untouched beauty like Kkat came around in the red-zone exactly NEVER TIMES. With the right neon, and a good sponsor, he could move to the near-zone. Now he was going to lose that. All because of one stupid, shit-for-brains runner who couldn’t spy without getting caught. FUCK!

“Come on, man. You can’t do this to me. She my cred, man. Come on, please!” he pleaded.

“Should have thought of that before you tried to off me, puss. Besides, you know how I feel about slavin’, special sex-slavin.” Burtt countered with a leap to Pokke’s rest, his knives crossed in front of his throat. “Too fucking late for begging, now. Cut her fucking lose or I’ll need a new boss here in about 5 tics. Four…three…two…”

“OKAY! OKAY! Let me up , man. I’ll cut her loose. Let me up.”

He did that, and the second the cage opened, she sprung first at Pokke, ripping him a dandy new scar from ear to chin, but missing the eye she’d promised; then tried for Burtt. Burtt caught both her hands in his, after somehow miraculously sheathing his blades in less time than it takes for an eye to blink. He then gently, but firmly pushed her back in the cage and closed the door, latching it shut. He looked her directly in the eye, winked again, then put his finger to his mouth, shushing her, like Kkhloe would, and mouthed BINGO.  For the second tome and this time with a shocked looked, she complied.

Burtt made Pokke get him a hauler and with the help of several of Pokke’s toughs, he got the cage on the hauler and headed home.

“One more time, Pokke, you puss. Fuck with me one more time. If you don’t kill me then, run. You got no other choice. Got it, puss?”

“Hey man, it was a mis. You know? No harm, no foul you always say, right Burtt, man? We good, right?”

“Do you think Rikk feels the same about the no harm, no foul part, Pokke? Do ya? Shut the fuck up asshole before I change my mind. Now that I think, you get word out, Pokke, to all the bosses. I want a meet, here, in a five-day. No ‘cuses, no bee-es, everyone better be there. Got it? This shit ends after that. For you it ends now. Got it?”

Pokke stared after him open mouthed. When it looked like Burtt was about to come back to get an acknowledgement, he blurted out, “Right, boss, Right. I gots it. Everbod be there, in a five. What time you think, boss?”

“Really? I give you the time, you have twenty toughs waitin’ fo’ me? No fucking way, puss. You tell them to be here. I show when I show. They ain’t here, I know who my fren are, don’t I?” He didn’t give Pokke time to argue.

——

Kkat didn’t say anything at first, but slowly she started to cry as they neared the wire and then it turned to rage again. Just as they were clearing the wire and entering the near-zone she screamed so loud, Burtt’s crèche emptied into the street in a heartbeat. The last to get to see who was making such a racket was Rikk and his handler, Chukk. The two siblings made eye contact and Burtt opened the cage moving quickly to the side, just in case those claws came out again.

“Let him go Chukk. It’s okay big guy, and take Dogg for food. Okay?” Burtt said. Chukk didn’t answer. He almost never did. He just did what he was told. They walked off together, Dogg’s stub a goin’. He knew what time it was.

The two siblings met in a crash, then ended up huddled on the ground alternatively howling and laughing and crying.

When calm returned and most had gone about their business except for the littlest of the little ones who stared at the two strangers, especially Kkat as if they must be from the back-shadows, Rikk and Kkat turned to their savior. Rikk appeared speechless. Kkat, however, came to Burtt and submitted to him in the way slaves do in the zones, prostrate on the dirt in front of him. Rikk hastened to follow her example. Burtt caught him before he could finish the gesture and at the same time reached down to lift Katt from the ground. He looked at them both with as much sincerity as he could muster, and said, “NO! Not here! We never do that. We are family here and that’s how we treat each other. No bowing. No scraping. We all do our part, here, whatever that is. We all eat good and are healthy. I lead us now, but I am NOT a boss. Someday, some one else will lead. That’s what our crèche gots if you want in. You don’t have to stay, though, I’ll try to find you a sponsor, or I’ll get you back over the wire where Pokke won’t find you, but your on your own after that. Deal?”

The siblings were so stunned they couldn’t react at first. Then Katt started sobbing followed soon by Rikk, the two were so overwhelmed by their good fortune.

Rikk regained his composure first and sobbed , “Of course we’re in, Burtt. What do we have to do?”

“If your sister agrees, you just did it.” She nodded, still dumfounded by the turn of events. An hour ago she was in a cage. Now she was free? Her brother was too? She cried and cried…

“Good. Do you want a scrub or food first?”

“A scrub?” Kkat screamed and started crying again all over again. Scrubs were a community event in the red-zone and kids got the left overs if any.  the bosses and their toys got first dibs,

Oh Jesus save us, what have I done? Burtt thought as he stared at this incredibly enticing creature. He wanted, at that moment, nothing more than to comfort her…to hold her. What?

“I-I’ll take that as a yes. It’ll take the-the kids a while to heat it up, but they’ll come get you when it’s ready.” He blushed and turned away thinking about her in the scrub, no, getting in the scrub. What? He was remembering pictures in the other book he owned. Besides, “Lassie come home”, he had a book with mostly pictures in it. Pictures of the body, girls and boys and just then he was feeling a bit strange, thinking about Kkat like that.  Kkhloe could read it whenev the kids got hurt bad or sick. She even learned from that book to scew Burtt up closed when he got cut bad fighting. She said the name was “The Hum anatom and its functons”, or something like. He tried to remember what Kkhloe said about mates, but it was so long ago and most of what she said was like crazy stuff he’d never remember. That book was near useless to him except for the pictures. The words were huge.  Mmarta, please come help me, he pleaded silently.

“Oh yeah, um, you get 5 mins a 7-day, so make the most of it, okay? Sorry, no exceptions.”, Burt told them.  “Coke costs us more creds and trade than food does.”  Coke, that black dusty sooty devil that causes as many problems breathing as it solves with warmth to live in and heat for cooking, was worth more than food, indeed for some, it was worth more than life, in the winter.

“Well, at least I can get some of this crud out of my hair.” Kkat, said as she tried to drag her fingers through the snarls mounded on her head.

“Oh, we have lots of cold water to do your hair with. From a pipe that comes from the elies side. It’s clean and there’s plenty of it, and it goes right into a catch, so’s you can just hang your head over it. We run that water through a filt. A Leechy Field or something, Dougg calls it, and then we use that water for the grow. See that little pond down the row and the gard nexto? The water bubbles up, down there, after it runs through the leech. Anyway, the scrub is a sit down one, but it takes a while to heat the water up, see? We use that time to really clean the rest of, well, the rest of…us…our parts, bodies. You know.” He blushed again, this time Katt saw it before he could turn away. She smiled to herself, and then realized she was blushing too. Hmmmm?

She couldn’t keep the moan of delight from her voice thinking about such a luxury…and hot too?

“Hey, um, Burtt? Um, I don’t have to take one do I? In water?” asked Rikk imploringly.

“Sorry, bud. Every one stays clean here. So says the doc and the doc rules, when it come to our health. Don’t worry. I take one too. It don’t hurt…too much”. He smirked but hadn’t turned to face them yet. He felt the burn in his face still. God, he needed to talk to Mmarta. Then he thought, Jesus! Can I ask her about that?

“Oh, okay!” answered Rikk, the terror readily apparent in his voice.

“Stop worrying you baby. I used to bath you not so long ago when we could get enough water, don’t forget little brother.” Was Kkat’s response to her brother’s trepidation. So, she was more than a year or so older than Rikk, or maybe Rikk was a lot younger than he looked. Burtt was like that too.

KKAT!” Screamed Rikk, humiliation now apparent in his voice.

Burtt snickered. “One of the kids will find you a space and some sleepsacs. They’ll come get you for the scrub when it’s ready. Sup will be before the turn. We don’t like having food around after…the preds come out then and we like to be safe behind the bar, with the food safe in the coldlok before they can get at it. Another rule we have is no one goes out after dark without me. As more of us become trained adults, we’ll add to the list of scorts, but for now its just me, okay? Questions?”

When no one had one, he continued, “One of you will probably be bar for part of the night tonight. We all do it, so don’t complain. There’s two rules when you have bar; No one gets past the bar unless you’ve first, blown the alarm (an old horn that’s always kept by the bar), and second, you died trying to stop them.   Whoev you relieve will show you how to blow the horn. Got it?”

They both nodded.

“Burtt? Who are Dougg and the “doc”? Kkat asked.

“You’ll meet them later. This little one is Kett, He’ll take you to your space.” He said pointing to a tiny boy peeking around Burtt’s leg. He seemed enthralled by Kkat, as Burtt knew all the little ones would be. Kkat would be the oldest girl by a lot of years in their crèche. By the looks of it, she might be their new fav, he thought, as he started to move off. Burtt smiled at that. He felt weird when the little ones came to him for comfort. Could this maybe be some relief for that? Kkat reached out to the boy and he nearly ran to her in his enthusiasm.

Burtt, Kkat and Rikk all laughed. Kett smiled and blushed so bright, Kkat called him a name that rang a bell with Burtt, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. “Whoa, Bashful!”, she said.

He thought about asking but wasn’t ready to admit he didn’t know so, he let it go and instead said, “I’ll be back in a sixty.”

The siblings numbly nodded their assent and then Burtt shouted, ” Dogg, to me!”, and then he was gone.

With Burtt out of sight Katt said, “Pinch me, Rikk. I don’t believe this. OUCH! Jizmo, you roac!”

Rikk thought he’d never figure girls out.

Kett stared at Rikk with something like a threat in his eye. Kkat saw it, smiled and calmed him, telling him Rikk was her brother.

They headed into the crèche, Kkat almost shaking from anticipation and asked to be taken to the catch so she could wash her hair first before her scrub. She wouldn’t be able to sit still anyway.

Rikk stayed in their space and was fast asleep in minutes.

Kett took Kkat to the catch and watched with fascination, along with twenty or so other little ones as she slowly cleaned the bugs, dirt and other detritus from her raven black locks. When she was finished, her hair shone like a rav.

She looked up and was startled to see them all. There had to be twenty little ones watching her now.

“Burtt feeds all of you?” she asked.

“And a lot more too. Maybe two more now?” Stated a small girl with impossibly curly hair so red it looked to be on fire. Kkat had never seen such a color before and asked the girls name.

“Hhesther” she stated with pride. Hhesther MacBride, I am.”

“Well hello Hhesthermacbride. I’m Katt. How be you?”

“Hhesther MacBride! Two words. Not one.”

“Oh, okay. Hhesther MacBride it is.” Kkat thought, if that was as bad as it got, this was an okay kind of crazy. Two names? Ha!

—–

He was late. Esteban would wait, though. He had to. He was a perserv, so he obeyed. That’s all. Thank God, too, because Burtt had an urgent blurb for Mmarta…”com talk sun. B”.

They met. Burtt took his supplies and urgently directed the boy to go.

He hoped she would come soon. He’d have to check back everyday at the normal time to see if Estebann was back with a response. The more he thought about Kkat, the more questions he had. He’d never experienced these feelings before. He was confused by them. God, please send her here quick, he thought.

Estebann was standing there, still. He looked like he thought he was going to be stunned for a defy.

“What you waiting for, boy?”, Burtt slurped around bites of a maddeningly juicy red apple.

“I’m s’pose to give you this and wait for you to finish.” He said, holding out a thin silver piece of tek without looking at Burtt. Burtt had never seen anything like and wouldn’t take it.

“Please, boss. I can’t go back without you call her first.” Estebann said, still averting his eyes.

“Estebann. You don’t have to do that with me.” Burtt replied with aggravation evident in his tone. He thought this behavior among proles was some kind of silliness…AND he was in a hurry.

“Do what, boss?”

“That. Don’t call me boss, I ain’t one. And don’t look away. I ain’t no “sir” you got to worry about fendin’. We both proles, Estebann. You look me in the eye and you call me Burtt. Got it?”

“Um, o-okay, um, B-Burtt. Thanks. Nobody treats me like a eek. I’m in the middle you know? I a perserv but I got no sponsor to the near-zone. I just lucky to pay for a safe spot near the wire in Pokke’s crèche.” Then he looked like he stuck his finger in a rab-Ks maw. and looked away again.

“You sayin you work for Dougg but he don’t put you up in the near-zone? AND you’re in Pokke’s crèche?” Burtt suddenly smelled a rat. The apple hit the ground after his knives were in his hands. It happened so fast, Estebann was on his knees shaking without knowing he’d done so.

“What goin on here, Estebann? What the trick-up? What they put you to? You spy? For both?” Burtt’s knives were crossed in front of Estebann’s neck. Burtt slid behind him and kept jostling the boy and nicking his neck repeatedly, without doing serious damage. The sight of his own blood on those terrible blades had the desired effect and Estebann let it out in a rush.

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Hell, I hatin this ever since Mr. Dougg start me.” Burtt let up on the blades, let the boy turn around, then sat him on the ground, sat opposite him with blades crossed in his lap and said, “Talk.”

Estebann started, and didn’t stop for a ten-sixty-cycle.

Dougg had started Estebann watching Burtt back before Dougg brought in the toughs to take Burtt out. Estebann didn’t care. He was glad to have what he had. He was paying Zobbi back then. After Burtt crashed that party, Dougg orderedd Estebann to keep and eye out and let him know if it looked like Burtt was planning to ambush Dougg.

Then Zobbi got outed and he had free run of his spot until Pokke made his deal with Burtt. Then Pokke made a deal with Estebann once he found him squatting on his crèche, but not until Estebann explained he could get elie goods. They came to an agreement then, but as time went on Pokke found out that Estebann supplied Burtt too. That’s when he changed the deal. Estebann had to report on Burtt’s daily schedule.

“Well? Did you?”

“Well, I-I did as far as Pokke knew. I knew you had guards watching all the time and a good alarm system. I never told him or Zobbi that. Ain’t that why Zobbi’s boys didn’t get you? I could have told him that but I didn’t. I-I was…”

“You was what, Estebann?”

“I was there. I watched that night when they came. I almost yelled out when there was such a noise. It sounded like knockers on the side of a crowd lorry. I looked around and finally I saw them. Those kids across the alley throwing stones at your shack. Then I saw you come out of nowhere and take down half the crew before they knew they were being carved up, and I just faded back into the dark.”

“Anyway, I didn’t tell Pokke about you. He just another pig”

“Alright, Estebann. I b’lieve ya. You get back to Mmarta and deliver my message and I’ll think about how to deal with this scut. We’ll talk later.” He turned to walk away when Estebann pleaded again, “Please Bos—Burtt. Please, she won’t have me back if you don’t talk to her.”

“Who you talk ’bout boy? Her who? Where is she if I gonna talk to her?”

“Oh, no Burtt. You use this”. He again held out the tek.

Burtt backed away again demanding, “Now you keep that tek off me, Estebann. I ain’t know what to do with that?”

Estebann was confused but then realized Burtt probably never saw a perscomm before now. He smiled and said, “S’okay Burtt. I show you. See?” He pushed a hidden button and said into the air, “he here now”. Then held the tek out for Burtt again.

Burtt tentatively reached out for the strange device, so much like magic it scared him to even think about holding it. As Estebann put it in Burtt’s hand the thing spoke to him. “Burtt? Burtt? Is that you? Burtt? Are you there?”

Burtt threw it away from him and ran for his crèche, blades flailing over his head, warding off whatever evil this was assailing him. The voice didn’t stop and in a strange kind of hollow way, it sounded like…no, it couldn’t be.

“You’ll die for this boy!” He screamed at Estebann, who was frozen in place staring open mouthed at Burtt.

“HA! Hahahahahahaha!” Estebann couldn’t help himself and then realized his mistake. He quieted and then slowly bent to pick up the comm unit again. He didn’t want to startle this mad man any more.  Burtt had stopped and turned, facing Estebann with blades at the ready and his stare one of murderous intent.

When the voice stopped, he said to Burtt, “See Burtt, no magic, just tek…a perscomm. For talking when you ain’t together”. Heading slowly towards Burtt again, he pressed the button and said into it, “He is here. Please wait, Miss Ssyndi.”

Estebann was watching Burtt closely in case the mad man decided to hurt him after all. Burtt was now staring at the device in apparent awe of hearing his sister’s voice, confirmed when Estebann said her name. He was still afraid it meant something terrible…as if the elies had found a way to stuff her in that little box.

“My sister? Ssyn? But how…?”

“I don’ t know Mr., um Burtt. Miss Ssyndi give to me. Show me how to work it and told me to bring it to you so you can talk. I gots to take it back with me. It would be bad if you got caught with it…or me. The Loks would be punished too.”

“What are Loks?” Burtt asked.

“That’s their name. Um, elies, they name their crèches too, kind of.”

Estebann continued, “You want to try it?”

“Yes. How…”

Estebann helped Burt find the push-to-talk button, then told him to say something.

“Hello?”

The screech that came back over the device started to terrify him and he almost dropped it but the voice was so familiar.

“Ssyn? Is that really you?”

Sobbing was all he could hear for a few seconds and then, “Yes, yes, oh yes, Burtt. It’s me. It’s your Ssyn. I’m here. How are you big brother?

Still not believing what he was hearing he began to sob too. His finger was on the PTT button for most of that time. Estebann turned and walked a short distance away, praying this wouldn’t take too much longer.

He finally let up on the PTT and he immediately heard his sister crooning to him like Kkhloe used to do. “you got a fren’…”

They talked until Burtt finally noticed it getting dark and Estebann pacing. Burtt told Ssyn about Estebann’s circumstances. Ssyn was just as upset as Burtt had been at Dougg’s callous attitude toward his servs and promised to “do something about it tonight.”

“Great. If you can get him sponsored here, I’ll bring him into our crèche, if he wants, until he clears the scans. If he decides to stay, he can start watching Dougg for me.”

“That’s a good idea Burtt. Dougg is a basta. I don’t trust him and, well, I hate the way he looks at me sometimes. I feel dirty after. Jizmo!”

Burtt felt his face color. This was terrible. He couldn’t do anything about this.

He turned to Estebann and said, “You tell Mmarta I need to talk now, okay? Don’t tell Dougg. When you leave there to go home, you stop here again, okay?”

He pressed again and said, “Estebann is coming back now, Ssyn. Can you tell Mmarta he has a message from me without Dougg knowing?”

“Yes, of course. Dougg’s a pig. Mmarta is my friend. I’ll tell her.”

“Okay, good. Estebann has to go so, this is it, I guess.”

“What? Oh! No, its not it. We can do this every time you get your supplies, okay? And when I’m better, I’ll come myself.”

Burtt’s face lit up like a torch. “Yeah? That’s great. Um, see ya, er, well, talk soon, huh? Luv you. I miss you too, sis.”

“Oh, so do I Burtt, so do I. See you.”

“Um, Burtt”, Estebann started, “I can’t stop on the way back. Pokke has rules about how late he lets folks pass the bar, you know?” I got to go straight from the Loks.”

“No, you don’t. Not no more. If Dougg does what I want him to do, and he will if he know what good for him, you’ll be sponsored before you come back. Then you can stay here if you want or whatev. I’ll take care of Pokke. You don’t gots that wor. No sir, that one’s mine. And I’ll take care of that right now.”

Estebann, not sure at first what to do, slowly started to shake and then he slipped to his knees sobbing with obvious joy. He was embarrassing Burtt.

“Okay, now you changin’ my mind, man.” He said half smiling hoping the boy would recover soon.   This was uncomfortable. First Rikk and Kkat got all stran, now Estebann.

“Just grateful Burtt, sir, just grateful.”

Burt treated and dressed the minor cuts on Estebann’s neck from the aidkit in his pak.  Infection was a cold bitch out here.

Estebann, bubbling over with gratitude, looked as if he would hug Burtt; so Burtt prevented the embarrassing show with, “Oh. Alright, now, get going then. See you in a while and tomorrow I’ll see Mmarta.”

“Bye”, Estebann said with a smile and more enthusiasm than Burtt had ever heard in his voice.

“Hey, Estebann. What do your frens call you?”

“I don’t have no frens, Burtt.”

“Yes, you do. Now you do. See ya.”

“See ya.”

“Dogg, to me!”

——

“Did everything go okay? While I was gone, I mean. You know, the scrub and, um, all that?” Jesus, what the fuck was wrong with him? He suddenly couldn’t talk to another adult, and oh boy was she ever an adult. The covers they found to replace her tattered ones were small.  Tight, he thought was a better word.

Kkat was smiling. She seemed to be enjoying this. What?

“Everything was wonderful. Thank you. Especially the scrub.” She managed to say that last with so much feeling he started, and with a look that took his breath away. What the hell kind of hoodoo was this?

His discomfort overwhelmed him.

“Okay. Um, Jjes,” he called to one of the older girls, still younger than Kkat or Rikk, but nearby, which was the important thing just then. “I want you to start teaching Rikk and Kkat, here, selfdef right now, okay. Never too soon to learn how to stay alive, right? Great. Great. That’s Gre…good. I’m…I’ll…ah…it’s time for my rouns.” He stammered as he quickly headed out of the crèche claiming a need to check the traps and lines. He hadn’t done that in almost a year. That was a safe job for the little ones now that he controlled the near-zone so fully. Kkat knew this already, too, as she had walked those very traps and lines with all 20 of the littlest earlier that afternoon while Burtt was with Estebann.

“Okay, Burtt. Why me…” she started but Burtt was gone. She was no selfdef exp. These two reds prolly tough her out.

“I think I like you too Mr. Burtt. Yes, I think I do.” Kkat whispered watching him slip away like a rippling liquid dream.

“What?” asked Kett. He was still glued to Kkat.

“Oh, nothing. What say we learn how to fight, eh, Kett? Let’s go then, Jjes, is it? I’m Kkat. I’m ready if you are. Come on Rikk, you too.”

Training was tough but Rikk seemed to be gifted in that respect. At least it looked that way to Kkat and Jjes, who seemed quite taken with Rikk. Rikk was oblivious to both girls as he was enjoying the physical aspect of this training.

They didn’t see Burtt again that night. Rikk got second bar but it went by fast and there were no incidents.

Kkat slept like a baby for the first time in years.

When they woke, Burtt was gone again. They ate and were met by another of the older crèche mates who taught them tackin’; tying knots, packing goods for travel and something Mmarta called phyed. The entire crèche population did these exerts every morning before they did anything else. It was supposed to keep them strong. It made Kkat hurt is what it did.  When they were done with that, it was back to selfdef.

——

“…so, do I tell her that? And how do I get pregnant with her? When do I do that and how? I mean, right away or wait until she says to…and what, um…oh, Jizmo. Do mates always sleep naked? I don’t want to do anything wrong…what if she won’t have me? Do I throw her out then?”

“Oh! OOOOH! Oh, my! Burtt, I…Oh, dear. Burtt, I think you need to talk about these things with another man. I, well, it’s not usually a woman who tells a man about these things. I think I have just the person for the job. If you’ll let me?” Her own face coloring, she hadn’t thought what affect her words might have on Burtt but his bright red face and turned down smile let her know, she tried to smooth things over.

“Burtt, I didn’t mean any harm by that. I know some things are new to you. I know you think you ought to know these things, but Burtt, who would you learn them from? Remember what I said? You are still a young man in my world. It’s very difficult for me to know what’s right and what’s wrong with you but I’m certain that this time, I’m right. Let me arrange for Jaredd to come and have what folks refer to as a man to man talk with you. And may I please suggest you not throw anyone out just yet? Not for that reason anyway.”

Burtt only knew of Jaredd in passing. He thought he was about the same age though and said so with some indignation.

“Hmmm. That’s because we don’t want folks to know just how old Jaredd is. He is working on something far more important than anything CommCorp might have him doing. We keep this all quiet, Burtt. Dougg doesn’t even know about it. Everyone thinks Jaredd is a little slow, even Dougg. We like it like that. Okay? Someday, we’ll talk about it. I must ask you to let it rest for now, though, and please don’t ask Jaredd to explain. Trust me, please. Jaredd is old enough to know these things and it’ll be much easier for him to answer all those questions.”

“Okay, if you say so.”

“Good. Can you come tomorrow? Same time? I’ll have Estebann bring us, and oh, by the way; Dougg has doubled Estebann’s paycreds and his sponsorship should be finished tomorrow. Thank you for having Ssyn let me know. Honestly, that man is such a cretin.” She stated with vehemence. “So, tomorrow then?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here. Um, Estebann said he has no frens. How come? Don’t Dougg have other perservs?”

“Yes, he does, but he keeps them apart. I think he’s afraid they’ll mount a rebellion.” She said, and laughed.

Burtt laughed too but didn’t know why. He hated being so stupid. At least he could be a little surer about Estebann. He’d doubted that no frens thing, ’til now. Since Estebann didn’t have any contact with Dougg’s other proles, he was probably clean or at least didn’t coordinate his spying with the others. He’d keep an eye open, but it looked like he was going to have another new crèche member. Estebann was near an adult too, and connected.

“Oh, and Burtt, dear. Bring your new friends too. I should examine them also, you know, just to be sure. It wouldn’t do to have them bring a disease to the crèche, would it?”

“Shit! I didn’t think of that.” He blurted, as a new wave of worry cast its shadow on his hopes. What if Kkat was sick, or Rikk?

“It’s okay Burtt. We’ll sort it out tomorrow.” She turned and left him watching her. She was like air moving he thought. He wondered if Kkat could move like that too? What?

Cretin and rebellion, he thought about these new words. God, he wished he could go somewhere to look new words up. Maybe there was a book. He’d ask Jaredd that too.

——

“Dogg, watch!” Every pulse in the crèche quickened. It was palpable and Burtt was in his element. He paced for a few tics, then turned on Pokke so abruptly, the man backed and slipped to his ass in a gloriously humiliating display of cowardliness. Burtt didn’t let him rise but straddled him, the tips of his still sheathed blades prodding him threateningly in each shoulder.

Pokke looked sickly if not a little deathlike.

“What’s the matter with you Pokke. You dyin’ on me? You’re s’posed to blurb me fore that.” Burtt tried for a joke but Pokke was terribly upset about something, or he was sick. Now Burtt got worried and quickly pulled on one of the masks Mmarta made him carry for the worst air days as he backed away. He then demanded to know, “What’s wrong with you Pokke?”

Pokke coughed once weakly and then slurred, “…ate something bad boss man. Bad. I be better. You see. Soon I be better. Don’t need no new boss here Burtt, man. No sir. I’m good… I got this.”

Burtt felt bad but money was money…and all that.  He pocketed his mask.

“Did you get word out about the meet, Pokke?”

“Yeah, boss. I ain’t got no plys yet but I know by morrow. You want a runner?”

‘Yes, I do. F’I don hear by turn, I be back.” he left it to sound like a threat, then added. “Oh, Estebann be in my crèche now. And, uh, if I fin’ even one of those other perservs in you pay, we gon have words, Pokke. Bad ones. Got it? Want to tell me something, Pokke?”

“What? No, boss. He was jus s’pose to watch the wire for you boss, I swears it, Rikk was. And he the only spy. I ain’t gots cred for that. You can take Estebann too if you need him boss. Hell, all my mates are yours boss, if you wants.”

“Stop the bee-es before I lose it, Pokke. You pissin’ me off again. Just shut the fuck up. Forget about Kkat, Rikk and Estebann for starts. I’ll let you know who you can keep when I get around to it, puss. Got it? Make the meet happen, on time. You got a 4 day now.”

” Yes sir, boss.” Pokke said to Burtt’s receding back. “Rotten fuck” he mumbled. Dogg turned and growled showing all the terrible contents of his maw.

“Don’t push it Pokke. Dogg fuckin’ hungry.”

Pokke paled visibly, sure now that both K and man were bad juju.

 

——

 

“You want to know, WHAAAT? Oh mother, what have you gotten me into?” Jaredd snidely asked under his breath.

“You don’t HAVE to do anything here. You can leave anytime. You need a scort? I’ll send one of the kids to lead you out.” Burtt replied smugly to what he thought was a slight from this elie shit.

“What? Oh, no, no, I’m sorry. Damn! I didn’t mean that the way it must have sounded to you, Burtt.”, Jaredd apologized. “I just didn’t expect to be answering these particular kinds of man to man questions, as mother vaguely explained. I guess I was thinking it was more like a father-to-son first time sex talk, you know?  Nothing quite so…serious…”

When Burtt didn’t respond, but instead looked even more confused, the reality of this situation finally hit Jaredd with a hammer’s blow to his understanding. Burtt, as much of a man’s role as he was playing to (did she say?) 48 children, didn’t know a damn thing about normal life. Nothing in Burtt’s life was normal by Jaredd’s standards. Perhaps this is what Ssyn was always trying to get across to them…the zones outside the greens were their own reality and nothing green could ever possibly be compared. No one green could ever possibly understand either, without going down there. Jaredd decided just then that he would do just that. After all, it is what the council had hired him for…to expose the truth about CommCorp, about all the mega-corps and the city-states…ABOUT THE ZONES. THE SLAVES. THE BOSSES. ABOUT THE CHLDREN! Why not start today, he thought?

“Burtt, did you say your crèche was nearby? Can we go there and talk? It might be more comfortable than standing out here in the sun and this horrid air, and I can get a feel for the environment.”

Burtt didn’t want to talk about Kkat in front of her, but one thing Kkhloe had taught him was that you never refuse company. He only knew that meant if folks came by, you bring ’em in and feed ’em. That’s all. What the fuck was an enviro…whatev?

“Sure. This way. Dogg, Home.” Stub flying back and forth, Dogg was gone before Burt finished sayin it. Dogg knew he would eat when he got there. The trip was a short one. Rikk and Kkat could find their way too if they had to, but Kett was still glued to Kkat’s leg anyway.

“Great. I’ll meet mother on the way back. She should be finished with your newbies by then, don’t you think?”

Burtt nodded and led on.

Newbies, that was a good one too, He could guess that one okay. Newbies!

 

The end.

 

Next: Jaredd sex-eds Burt ’til his eyes bug out. Kkat is adopted…by everyone in the crèche, and Burtt has numerous challengers for her attentions. Rikk becomes only the second scort. He is tested immediately with near fatal results. This leads Burtt to advance their training schedule and soon Estebann (Bann) and Kkat are made scorts also. Jaredd, due to his insane knows, becomes the crèche elder, with Burtt, Kkat, Rikk and Bann as full parts, leading the crèche with equal sway. Dogg find love too. Rikk gets schooled by Katt about the birds and the bees, and that Jjes, who is thinking about pollination herself, is a bit older than anyone seems to think she is.  The bossmeet happens with Burtt and his new parts dictating the new rules for both zones. These rules, which primarily ban the running of slaves of any sort, are met with fierce resistance. The first zone war begins with a cost too great for Burtt to bear…his vengeance will be terrible.

 

Burt finds his niche

poor1

Chukk was a very big lad, even if he was older than most in the near-zone.  18 was ancient for all but the bosses in the red-zone.  Wasn’t much better here.  There was something not right about him, though.   Khloe had said, “mom would have called him slow“.  That was a nice way to put it, Burtt thought to himself while watching from the entry to his shack.  Chukk’s sister took care of his needs as well as a 13-year-old could.  She was a domestic, so she got some decent food for her and her brother to eat.  Good thing, as big as that boy was.  Chukk was having fun chasing the little ones who were calling him names and staying just out of his reach.  He didn’t know any better, so, no harm, no foul.  “No harm, no foul”, he liked that phrasing a lot, it, made sense to him easy enough.  At that moment, he decided to accept that tidbit of truth as a “rule“, something to live by.

Chukk looked about to drop.  Burtt half expected Chukk’s sister, Ssandra, to intervene eventually, but it was one of the other younger kids from the neighborhood.  Like Burtt, she saw Chukk’s face getting redder and redder until he looked like he was going to keel over, when she called for a timeout, acting so much like a stern Khloe with her hands on her hips, the kids stopped on a dime.  Burtt almost giggled, but didn’t want to undermine the girl’s authority so he turned away. “Stopped on a dime”.  He knew that one.  Kkhloe explained it when she was reading to them one night.

Burtt laughed to himself about that other word, “timeout”.   It was one word he figured out on his own watching that same little girl being marched out back of her hovel to be placed on “timeout” by her big brother. Burtt stayed nearby and watched to see what it was but she did nothing, just sat there, wasting time.   Boom, it hit him like a stunner; “timeout” means you can’t do anything until your punishment is done.  Excellent.  He’d written it down in his notebook, scratching it out in his pidgin.   Kkhloe had tried to teach Burtt to read and write before she got sick.   He knew enough to get by in a little kid’s book, but not much better.  He could print his name but it was a crude effort.  He’d settled for a neater “B” with crossed blades over it that looked kind of like the “t’s” at the end of his name, his mark.   Mmarta promised to help him do better but that might not ever happen.  He kept his notebook just the same, and hoped Mmarta would come through someday.

He didn’t expect anything more from Mmarta or Dougg.  They already gave him better materials to reinforce his shack.  They gave him enough plastin to roof his shack with, so he didn’t ever get leaked on again in the rain.  Plus, they sent him a full box of foodstuffs and other supplies Mmarta thought would be useful, every week.   He was grateful that Ssyndi was safe, cared for and got her meds, the real deal, though, not Zobbi’s bootleg poison.  He was especially grateful that he didn’t have to run that rat race anymore.  That was enough since they didn’t honestly owe him anything.   So, if Mmarta never came to see Burtt ever again, well, that was okay.  He sure did miss Ssyn though.  He always wondered about her.  Silly, it had only been three months since they’d gone off, Mmarta and his Ssyn.  It felt like years.  They couldn’t visit, not yet.  Not even when he got his food delivery.   That came from another prole delivery boy in Dougg’s service, Estebann.

It wasn’t all grins and giggles though.  Zobbi had a fucking fit when Burtt told him he wouldn’t need his meds anymore.  1200 creds a four-week down the crapper.  He was fit to be tied, ole Zobbi was.  He threatened to come after Burtt forever if he just walked away.  Burtt stared him down and asked who h

e thought he was going to send after him?  Zobbi glared at all his boys.  They all looked away.

“I didn’t think so”, said Burtt as he left a raging, foaming at the mouth, zone boss, screaming obscenities at any one close.

Zobbi’s rage generated enough worry among his troops that they did make a run at Burtt.  It was a huge mistake.  Always expecting treachery, Burtt was always alert and so, he was waiting for them.  Even though they came in the wee hours of the morning, he decimated Zobbi’s army to the point his rivals had the upper hand.  They chased Zobbi out of the area.

That kind of trouble didn’t just go away in the zone, though.  It increased after a while when the new bosses thought they could recruit the one real badass left lurking in this part of the zones.  They tried bribing him, coercing him, then physical assault.  Nothing worked.  Nothing even phased Burtt.  The only result of their efforts was to enhance his reputation.  He became the de-facto big boss in both the red-zone and near-zone, without ever applying for or accepting the position, merely by defeating all comers, and handily so.

At 17, almost 18 now, Burtt was the guy everyone came to with their grievances.  The only ones older were some of the bosses but they were all afraid of Burtt.   He thought Zobbi was in his twenties and marveled at his longevity.  He wondered if that longevity had taken a hit with Burtt’s exit.  He saw the benefit in the arbitrator’s role and took fees or pledges to help settle those grievances, even from the elies trying to protect their investments in the near-zone.  No one ever argued his findings and he was always just, at times even punishing the ones who brought the grievance to his attention.  He was just…and the other bosses hated him for it.  Burtt soon had a following in the red zone that rivaled all the gangs hired hands put together, and that “getting together” never happened.   They hated each other too.  Burtt had no comp at all in the near-zone.

Burtt didn’t get complacent though.  He knew better.  Those other lesser bosses were plotting all the time, and there was no telling when a pissed-off Zobbi might show up again.  Burtt couldn’t relax for a minute.  The neighborhood kids in their safer near-zone kept watch over him the little bit of time he slept.  Never so that those kids were endangered.  They watched from a distance and threw rocks at his plastin roof for an alarm.   It worked!

Thinking about these problems while watching Chukk’s wild goose chase, he began to think about building his own crew.  He was so preoccupied with this line of thought he somehow missed the red-zone toughs who’d crashed the wire somewhere and were right then trying to snatch as many little ones as they could before high-tailing it back into the red zone and a big pay day for the contraband.  Sex slavers paid big $ for kids.  The younger the better, if they weren’t still shitting and pissing themselves.  This happened a lot to families in the red zone but rarely out here.  Families of kids could hardly protect themselves from a group of toughs working for a zone boss.  That shit never on Burtt’s turf.  These ones must be new idiots.

It took him a heartbeat but he was moving in seconds at lightning speed, blades finding their way into his waiting hands.  He heard a blood curdling scream that should have stopped a beast but the blood rage was already boiling over in Burtt.  When he got to the first of his intended victims, this tough was already bleeding out and hitting the ground, his throat a tattered mess.  The other two followed in a heap very soon thereafter.  It was over before Burtt blooded his knives.

He was almost pissed off, but before him, sitting on the ground with all the nearly taken kids huddled on our around him and enwrapped in his huge arms, was Chukk.  Pacing fiercely around this group, snarls, growls and spittle escaping his suddenly, terrifying maw, was the neighborhood cur.  It was perhaps the ugliest specimen of K, Burtt had ever seen; bobbed tail, scars and bald patches, torn lips and ears, and one broken fang.   Burtt had chased this very same K away, maybe a hundred times.  He finally gave up.   The kids played with it and someone must have been feeding it; it wasn’t dead.  Seeing that the tough the K got was white as a sheet and staring emptily at the wind, he made sure the other two toughs were done for, then hauled their carcasses to the dumpster.  He’d bring them to the river later.  The only justice in these parts was Burtt’s.  In cases like this, it was final and deadly.

As Burtt had time to recall what had happened, he saw in his mind’s eye that the K had launched itself at the toughs when Chukk screamed.  The K got the first one.  The other two froze;  so Chukk grabbed and rang their heads together.  It was sweet!  Burtt whooped!  Then so did Chukk.  The cur growled at Burtt, but changed its mind and pulled closer to Chukk.  Burtt could have that effect on any living creature when he turned those cold, coal black eyes on it.

“You done good, Chukk. Good” Burtt told Chukk, while patting him on the shoulder.  He was never sure what Chukk understood, if anything.  Mostly he murmured gibberish (if that was the right word), but mumbo-jumbo anyway.

“Does the K do what you tell him?”  Burtt asked looking from Chukk to the K.

Through a near toothless, ear-to-ear grin Chukk slurred, “D-D-Doggggood! Doggggood!”

Burtt thought for a second.  “Dog?  Did you say “Dog”?  is that the K’s name?  Dog?”  Who named a K, he wondered with amazement?

“DOOGGGOOODD!  DOOOOGOOOD!  DOOOOOGGGOOD!” Chukk shrieked.

Burtt guessed that was a yes.  “Dog, huh?  Well, alright then.  Dog it is.  I guess I won’t be shooing you off no more after that bit of hero work, huh?  No, sir.  Come here you homely looking ole thing.  Dog, you have a name, so that’s what I’ll call you from now on.  Come here, Dog!”  Something gnawed at Burtt’s memory.  Something didn’t jive.  What was it?

Burtt took a closer look between Dog’s legs and found that Dog was a Dogg.  “Baptism done”. Burtt declared.  Why they didn’t call it “Naming” he couldn’t tell.  No matter!

Dogg started in with the growling and snapping again when Burtt stooped down to eye level and stared at the K’s golden eyes.  He’d never noticed before.  They were beautiful and a tear came to his own eye thinking about how cruel he’d been in the past.  Burtt was like that.  Injustice simply infuriated him.  When he was the source, well, he didn’t handle that too well.

“Hmmm.  So, you don’t like that do ya?  Okay.  I don’t like no one starin’ me down neither.” Slowly standing back up, he backed away.

He thought a moment, then ran to his shack.  He came back with something Shasparr called jerky.  Shasparr was one of Pokke’s runners.  Pokke was the red-zone boss from just outside the near-zone where Burtt lived.  Burtt and Pokke got along as well as, if not better than anyone else did with anyone else.  This made for an uneasy truce between them that benefited both.  Burtt traded some elie goods for Pokke acting like a buffer-zone between them and the rest of the red-zone.  No one had meat though.  Burtt himself only got one piece of what (he figured) Dougg was about to throw out anyway, and he gobbled that down as soon as he got it. The lack of protein in these kids diet was a major reason they were so sickly.  Shasparr claimed this jerky stuff was dried meat.

Burtt took it in trade for some canned fruit.  Shasparr looked like he needed about a case of fruit just then.  Burtt never ate the jerky.  He wasn’t sure what kind of meat it was.  Right now, though he figured ole Dogg would just love it no matter what the fuck it was.  And maybe that would pay off in dividends.  Burt had the beginnings of a plan for his crew going on in his head.

Oh boy, was he ever right about that jerky.  In 5 minutes Dogg was crawling up to Burtt begging for more. They were best friends, seemed like maybe forever, if you asked Dogg.

Better yet, Chukk didn’t seem to care at all.  He walked off with the kids and began another round of chasing his tail.

Burtt worked with Dogg for weeks.  Teaching the K, and he found, as time went on, teaching himself about the K (maybe he was learning from the K too?)

At first, they worked on just simple things like “to me”, short for “come to me, Dogg”.  He found when he said whole sentences, Dogg just turned his head sideways.  It seemed like that might be his way of saying, “What?”

So, Burtt learned to keep it simple for the K, and Dogg responded like he was made for the job.  Before long, Dogg had a 20-word vocabulary, or at least Burtt could say the words and, most of the time, Dogg did what Burtt had taught him to do when he said that word.  Certain ones were easy, like sit and stay, walk and lay.  Others took more time and patience.  Guard, find (associated with a smell-like, here, sniff this hat, go find the kid that belongs to it), get (pick stuff up Burtt pointed at and bring it to Burtt), bite, off, leave and like that, got to be a lot harder and took time and repeats forever.  He had time and besides when Burtt put his mind to something it got done.

The more Burtt worked with Dogg the more something was bothering him, though.  But he still couldn’t put a finger on what it was.  One day when Dogg seemed to not be in the mood for working, and Burtt was getting frustrated, he yelled “DOGG”!  That’s when he remembered what he’d been trying to remember these past several weeks.

Kkhloe read to them when she could. One of the two books they had, still had, was about a K and its name was Dogg too.  No, no, that wasn’t right, he thought.  That K had a different name.  So, they did used to name Ks, he thought as he and Dogg raced to the shack and dug into his treasure-box looking for the books.

Unwrapping them from the cloth Kkhloe made him promise to keep them in always, there it was, on top.  Lassie!  Lassie was that K’s name.  But what was it about “Dogg” that bugged him so?

He opened the book and carefully turned the pages looking at the words, saying the ones he knew, sounding what he thought the others might sound like until he came to the word he was looking for.  Dog!  He found it ten more times in 5 pages.  Then he read a sentence he could get all the way through.

“Lassie”, the boy said, “my dog’s name is Lassie.”

Burtt stared open mouthed at the book for several heartbeats before he started laughing like a fool.  He couldn’t stop for a full minute.

When his merriment wound down, he looked seriously at Dogg, and said, “Well, it ain’t right really, but I don’t figure anyone is gonna know.  I been callin’ ya Dogg for too long to change now anyway.  I’m sorry, Dogg.  It’s wrong, but it’ll have to do. Okay?”

Dogg wagged his stub and licked Burtt’s hand.  Burtt took that as a yes.  He didn’t much like the liking thing, but there was no stopping Dogg once that stub started going.  It was like they were connected.  If the stub was going, so was the tongue, and switch ways too.  Well, to be honest, the stub was going when Dogg ate too.

Dogg went everywhere with Burtt and folks on both sides of the wire got to know and fear that K as much as they did Burtt.  You couldn’t even approach Burtt without that K’s fangs showing and he was getting bigger by the day it seemed with a steady diet of Jerky and the scraps Burtt gave him from his daily catch.  Burtt gave him fruit and veggies too, but Dogg wanted the meat more than anything.  He would do almost anything for the jerky too and the kids made great sport of having Dogg do “tricks” for it.  I thought it was just good training for Dogg.  The whole time they patrolled the zones together, Dogg never once went after a kid.  That almost got Burtt killed one time, but that’s another story.

He wondered how old Dogg was.  Was he a baby K, a kid or an adult.  The way he was growing, it seemed he must be young still and Burtt thought that was good.  The one thing Burtt hated about Dogg was that he pooped everywhere.  He went to a dumpster to whiz against, but if  he had to shit; once he was outside the shack he’d squat in your lap if you didn’t get out of his way.  Burtt traded some fruit with the local kids to clean up, after about a week of doing the smelly work himself.  Yuck!  Dogg, well, he didn’t give a “shit” who cleaned up, and that was a pun, Burtt thought.  He snickered because he knew what a pun was, then thought, “thanks Kkhloe.”

“Come on, Dogg. Let’s check the traps and go fishin’ for a bit.”

They set off for the river, meandering through an area he knew small critters and birds frequented, checking the traps he always had set.  Then, with that catch cleaned and wrapped in some plassheet Mmarta sent him, then stowed in his pack; they made their way to the river, Burtt whistling a strange but melodic tune, like fishing and the day went together, and Dogg, stub going a mile a minute.  A man and his K, gone fishin’.  Seemed perfect.

 

—–

 

“I’m 13. I’m healthy, and I want to see him.”  Ssyn challenged for the umpteenth time.

“You are not out of the woods yet young lady and in this world, 13 is a school age child.  So, like every other school aged child during a normal five-day cycle, you will go to school.  Now, finish getting ready. This conversation is over.”

Ever determined to get in the last word, Ssyn tried another tack, ” Very well then.  If I can’t see him then at least let Estebann bring this to him with this week’s supplies so we can comm each other.”  She held out one of two unique PersPortComm modules for which she had the only other linked unit.  This was taking a huge chance and Ssyn knew it.  For her, for Mmarta and the rest of her immediate family and for the Loks in general.  Ssyn had met Natt Lok, the patriarch and MainChair at the CommCorp table.  He once came to lunch at their Condex to discuss her going to school with the real elites, and acted as though Ssyn didn’t exist until Ssyn asked, “Pardon sir, but what should I call you?”

Natt Lot stood, focused an angry look on his daughter before turning to Ssyn, answering with, “You will call me Mr. Lok, Mr. MainChair, or not at all, young lady.  I do not favor this arrangement.  Should you bring harm down on this house, you will find in me a formidable opponent.  Good day!”  At that he rose and stormed out before finishing lunch.  Yes, Ssyn had met Natt Lok and was praying that this time, Mmarta wouldn’t take the matter to him even though he did, in the end, cave into the machinations of his daughter and sponsored Ssyndi to the best school in the green-zone.

“Get on with it now, Ssyn. We are late.”  Mmarta prodded without answering the query about the com unit…how could she allow it?  How far was she prepared to go to repay her perceived debt to her best friend. Jjosie?  This would have to wait for now.

When it didn’t look like Ssyn would move again without an answer, she said, “We’ll talk about it later Ssyn.  Get ready, now!”

Ssyn stamped her foot, then turned with a mumbled, ” Fine”.  She finished dressing.

Mmarta tutted as she turned away, stifling a smile as she caught glimpses of her dearest friend, Jjosie, in her headstrong and crazy, proud daughter.  The way they carried themselves made the Klops the fierce competitors they were.  They’d think of something and do it on a dare.  They went so far as to rekindle an old tradition known as marriage.  Theirs wasn’t just a pact anyway.  They really loved each other and professed it officially, in front of a priest for Norton’s sake.  They had to bring her in from the nearest red-zone mission.  Ha, had the Founder ever known that, they’d have all been cast out way back then, so many years ago, it seemed.  For Norton’s sake, indeed.  She made the cleansing prompt over herself as if to remove the stain of thinking such things.

“Forgive me if you’re watching, Oh Most Holy Norton”, she intoned under her breath.

Well, if the proles could get on their knees, she could too.  She didn’t know if there was an afterlife.  She generally didn’t bother thinking about such things.  There was too much else to do.  But, if there was an afterlife and Jasparr Norton still watched over his flock, well, it wouldn’t hurt then to show a little respect, would it?

“Is she ready yet?”  Dougg’s hurtled question caught Mmarta unawares and she startled.

“Did you have to yell?  I’m only just right here in front of you.” She replied with a bit more sharpness than she intended.

Dougg, face reddening, said, “Well, I’ve only been waiting a whole news cycle and I’m late.  She’s late!  So, is she ready?  I don’t have unending leeway to make my own daily prodterms you know.  What happens if I am replaced?  What then?”

“I guess I’ll have to go back to father and have him reopen my position on the corps’ chair.  Ssyn is much better and in a good routine for her.  Jaredd can take care of her other needs if I’m engaged late at CommCorp.  I don’t see and issue.  You’ll become a house hermit; you know, like you were before father put you in mangeneering.  You enjoyed that, didn’t you?  Of course, back then you did have other pretty things to play with, hmmm?”  Mmarta never let an opportunity to remind Dougg of his improprieties slip past unused.

He fumed under his breath, but couldn’t do anything more than that.  Mmarta did hold all the cards in their family pact.  It was her family that had all the ties to CommCorp’s chair, and therefore the only reason they had the lofty positions they held in society.  He lived large due to their largesse.  At one time, he may have gotten away with turning her in and still maintain his perch.  He could have claimed he knew nothing about the plot with the Klop’s third child and was just as duped by Mmarta as the rest were.  DNA tests would prove that Ssyn was not his or Mmarta’s child but belonged to the renegade Klop’s.  He could then have claimed that since he had no knowledge, he was innocent and thereby maintain his status and employment.  Now, well, after nearly a six-month with the brat living in his house and him not reporting her true identify, he’d be equally culpable at Justice Hall.  Besides, the little bitch was so remarkably like Kkhloe he got an erection if he watched her ass for too long.  In a weird way, he didn’t want her to go.  He wanted her to be more friendly.  Holy Norton, if he got caught, even looking, what would Mmarta do?  Hell, what would that insane Burtt do?  JIZMO, he thought!

“Speaking of Jaredd, when is he going to become a productive part of society?  He’s been in school for, what, 10 years now?  I’m only asking because the finding is next month.  If he’s going to try to enter a field this coming anno-cycle, he needs to get going soon with his preps and vids”.

Mmarta knew what Dougg was really saying.  This was just another of the many and continuing digs he spent on Jaredd’s behalf.  Mmarta knew she had to tread softly here.  Dougg had a valid point, regardless his insensitive propensity to get a dig in any time he could with Mmarta, Jaredd and now of course with Ssyn too.  No wonder Mmarta was so willing to return the favor.  The man was never happy.

The truth was, Jaredd should have been out in society as a junior neer in some specialty by now.  He should have been done with his finding no less than a year ago.  There was almost no excuse for someone going this long without a position, unless the ed-process had done some cerebral damage.  Everything was set up in the person’s favor.  After the initial two year, general education process, completed at home by most, a 12-year-old was then introduced to electronic, direct-stimuli learning disciplines.  A child could be so fully immersed in a subject matter as to become doctors in their chosen field in a single anno-cycle.  Young agile minds responded to this method with astounding results, mostly.  No more countless years of waiting for them to become productive.  Typically, they continued this process until the child had mastered four of the most needed disciplines of that time.  By the age of 16 they were usually fully productive ‘neers ensconced somewhere in the City-state’s seven main core plants, Hydro, Agro, Matco, Power, Finance, Municipal or Defense.

An additional bonus came with this system.  The kids got to enjoy their youth, all 10 years, without the burden of daily commuting to some drafty institution where learning involved some archaic system like wrote learning or endless writing on a wall or in a notepad…manually.

Of course, there was the problem no one wanted to talk about, too.  This, system, killed 11% of the children subjected to it.  Another 8% had permanent brain damage at differing levels, but, CommCorp and its sister mega corporations couldn’t wait for its cogs, human or otherwise.  A few lost kids were nothing to stop the process over.  Onwards and upwards, money was money, debt was debt, yada, yada, yada.

“You needn’t bother yourself with Jaredd, Dougg. He is my concern and my father’s.  When it’s time we’ll place Jaredd where he best fits”.  Mmarta hoped that was the end of this for today.  She too feared that Jaredd’s “problem” was more than just shyness.  Did the damn machines fuck him up too?

“Ah, so then, no.  Jaredd won’t become a functional part of society yet, even at 20 years old?  Well, honey, that’s just great.  Another day of listening to Carll drone on about his oh-so-wonderful brat-bitch Hheidi.  Norton, what I wouldn’t give to stun his drunk ass one night.  Fucker goes to more company parties than I’ve even been invited to and I know the owners.”

“Hmmm, Dougg dear, perhaps you should try to be less of a stiff prick, then?  You stuck it just about everywhere you could already and no one appears to be looking for more, so why not ease up a bit.” That ended the conversation.  Dougg, sighed and turned back to the news vid but didn’t have to wait long.  Moments later, Ssyn was ready to go finally and standing by the door with an imploring look on her face.

“What?”, said Dougg.

Ssyn looked at him without really looking, then scanned right on past until she made eye contact with Mmarta, then repeated the “look”.

“I said LATER, Ssyndi.  I meant later!”

“Later what?”  asked Doug.

Glares from both women told Dougg another case of butt-out had just occurred.

Oh boy, Dougg thought, another silent-treatment ride to school.  Thank Norton I can tune the little bitch out and watch some vids…well, I can tune her out if she ain’t wearing that fucking cock-tease scent of hers.  Jizmo!

—–

“Dogg hold!”  Once he told Dogg to do something, Dogg did it until Burtt told him to do something else, so he held.  The tough was whimpering now instead of outright screaming.  After Burtt told him to grow a pair (God, that one was a good one, grow a pair, HA!), Dogg wasn’t even biting hard, the tough seemed to try to do just that.  He was losing the effort mostly.  Burtt was getting tired of idiots.  What the fuck was wrong with these people?

“Do you know where you are, puss?”

“Near-zone”, the sniveler sobbed.

“WRONG!”  Burtt yelled, slapping the boy upside the head and shoulders again.

“You’re in MY zone, shit-for-brains.  Mine!  What the fuck rock did you crawl out from under that you didn’t know death followed any who entered here uninvited?  And, oh by the way, I’m death.  Maybe you’ve heard of me?  I’m sometimes known as Burtt the Hurt, Burtt Blades, or Bloody Burtt, Satan’s Bastard Spawn.  Mom just called me Burtt though.”

Burtt was pissing himself laughing, now. Sometimes he just killed himself.  The boy wasn’t finding it quite so amusing and had reverted to outright crying.

He called Dogg “off”.  “Oh, stop it boy.  I ain’t gonna hurt you.  Who sent you?  I do have a message for them.”

“If I tell, he’ll kill me”, said the boy falling back into a crying jag.

“No, he won’t.  How old are you?  Do you know?”

“I’m eight, or nine, not sure.  Sniff, sniff.”

This pitiful display was getting to Burtt.  He dropped his badass act, sheathed and covered his blades and the stunner, and try to calm the boy.

“Nobody’s going to kill you unless you kill yourself with stupid.  Now, are you done with stupid?  For today at least?”

“Yes” he sniffed once more and seemed to gather his wits.  “What will you do with me now?” Tears started to form again, but he sniffed them back and tried to stand taller.

Burtt, assessed the youngster, looking him over as he would livestock.

After bringing Dogg into his crew, he hadn’t really tried too hard to find more recruits.  The reputation he and Dogg had established was enough for now.  Eventually though, he was going to need more bodies, even if just to run messages, get supplies, or run his trap lines for him.  He used some of the neighborhood’s kids for those functions now, but he was getting worried that too many red-zoners were taking notice of the little ones running for Burtt.  He needed some kids with substance and age.  He wondered…

“How about this?  You tell me who sent you here, and I’ll keep you here working for me in the near-zone, safe from whoever that was.  And believe me kid, that person will never try to retaliate.  Not if they want to make it to their next birthday.  But, they do need to be taught a lesson and I do that in person.  So, tell me who it was, and I’ll teach you what I know about survival in the zones and maybe make you one of my lieutenants, if you pass muster, that is.  What do you say, kid?  Money is money. Debt is debt and I got to get going.  What’s it going to be, kid?”

The boy was struggling, Burtt could tell.  His brow was knotted into a lump in the middle of his face and Burtt thought the poor kid was going to burst his brain.  He was about to ask again with a little less pressure when the kid blurted, “Pokke.  Pokke sent me!”

Burt was stunned.  Pokke?  Why?

“Are you sure about this?  You’re not trying to cover for someone else, are you?” he prodded.

“No. It was Pokke. He has my sister.  He said he would put her on the block If I didn’t bring him info on your connection to the elies.  He wants fruit.  I think he’s sick and we can’t get fruit anywhere now.  He don’t want to deal through you no more.  He wants a direct line to the elies.  I think, he’s, he’s d-d-dying.” he finally blurted.

Now it was Burtt’s turn to be stunned.

“Say kid, tell me, how’s Shasparr doing.  I traded fruit with him for a while but I haven’t seen him in weeks.  Did you know him?  Didn’t he share?  I gave him enough.”

“Shasparr died of scurv.  Pokke was taking the fruit.  Nobody gets any of that but him and now he can’t get it cuz Shasparr’s dead and Pokke is looking like Shasparr did just before he died.”

Burtt liked Shasparr.  He was a descent sort.  He and Burtt made good fair trades.  Burtt had wondered why Shasparr didn’t never look any better.  Fruit cured him and Ssyn when they were young.  Why not Shasparr?  Now he knew.  The blood lust rose unchecked.

What’s your name, kid?”

“Rikk”

“And your sister?  What do you call her?  Something she’ll know comes from you.”

“When she can’t sleep at night, I sing a song I remember from when I was younger.  It’s called Bingo, I think.  That’s what I call her when we’re funnin’.  Bingo!  Her real name Is Kkat.  It was longer but neither one of us remembers what else.”

“You stay here until I get back, Rikk.  I’ll have your sister with me.  We’ll start both of you to training, if you’re up to it.  No, no questions now.  I’ll be back.  We’ll talk more then.”

“Dogg.  To me.  Walk.”

The manner of his mien terrified the boy, Rikk.  He found himself crying again and praying a thank you to God that it wasn’t him Burtt was going to visit.  He wondered if Pokke would walk the zone ever again.   Would Burtt really bring his sister out of there and both would live out here?  He found he didn’t care about Pokke and cried openly out of sheer joy.

 

The end

 

Next: Pokke finds God. Rikk and Kkat start school, Burtt style. Jaredd meets Burtt. Burtt talks to Ssyn. A boss’s conference is called where Burtt makes law.  Burtt feels a sudden urging new to him stirring deep in his loins, when near Katt.  It makes him uncomfortable until he reads what he can from the other book he owns, “The Human anatomy and its functions”.   He asks Dougg’s errand boy to request a meet with Mmarta.  He didn’t know who else to ask.  How young is too young to take a mate?  And what were the laws about it concerning proles?  How do you get pregnant and what do you do then?  Boy, if she came she better have a whole day.  He had questions…

 

If elected,  I will. ..

I’be been plagued with an empty head for weeks. I’ve actually tried several times to force something out of my keyboard to no avail. We are all so fed up with this “selection”.  We are, all of us, selecting rather than enthusiastically “electing”, the lesser of two evils based our own barometers of evil. So,  none of us are too thrilled and I’m no exception.  I need inspiration to write anything and it is painfully gone missing lately.

With this in mind, I began today with a blank slate and asked myself,  “What if it were me?  What if I was Joe Candidate?  How would I be different?”

In about 20 minutes I had what I thought was a great platform that went on forever covering everything from truth in advertising to lobbying to term limits ad nauseum.  I picked what I thought was most pertinent to today’s needs, IMO, the following bit of fantasy was the result. ..enjoy. 

——————

       

​This is it,  I think to myself,  now is the time.  If I am to lead, and do so with the commitment to transparency I’ve made to everyone,  then now is when I must disclose this truth for a final time before the big day.  We’ve come all the way through this process.  It’s time to be candid and reinforce the platform I rode in on. 

I look up from the podium and begin with,  “America, my land, my country, my people, I stand before you humbly and ask that you hear my commitment to you.”

Looking down and referrng to my notes, I continue,  “I am a simple man.  I speak plainly.  This I say to you all; I will be beholding to America only if this transpires in our favor and I am elected. If you chose to support me,  with your funds or your influence or your time, you understood that those efforts were for America, not me. That those efforts would afford you no special favor with me.  That I will not broker your wants from my office.”

“Understand also that I will strive with the utmost persistence to right the wrongs of the past few decades and return this once great land to it’s rightful prominence.  Along the way, we will gather to our bosom those we’ve lost in the process of becoming what we were never meant to be.  There will be no unfettered corporate success while there are still homeless and hungry Americans on our streets or Veterans without care.  There will be no sacrificing of one segment of society for the good of the nation or for profits.  We can do without.”

“From the day I take office I will strive to remake politics a service, not a career.  The road to individual success might start in politics for some,  but it is only a start.  Politics will once again be an honorable temporary service to the American people. I will seek term limits for all and I will leave it to the American people to decide. I will abide by whatever America decides is the best path in regards to term limits for my office as well, without question.”

“I will make it my business to ensure America that her elected officials cannot use their experience in politics to influence the future via the lobbying route.  In fact,  I will push to eliminate lobbying all together. An issue should win on its merits only, and such merit should be readily apparent making the need for a lobbyist unnecessary.”

“By definition, corporations exist to make a profit.  That can and does put them in direct conflict with the best interests of America and her people.  I see no logical reason to believe that a corporation will decide in anyone’s favor but their own under any circumstance.  A corporation could, by policy, as allowed now by law,  pay to influence politicians or parties, via contribution, without any real concern for the greater good. Said politicians and parties would certainly feel beholding to said contributors.  Thus I will strive to eliminate the “corporate contribution” in politics all together not just during the election cycle. Our leaders should be beholding to no one but America’s people as a whole, not one individual or a few. I will also try to include unions in the same legislation for the same reasons.  PACs are no better controlled than the former and should also be at least better regulated if not abandoned.  Individuals may contribute from their own pockets with reasonable limits for the same “undue influence” concerns as are apparent regarding corporate/union/PAC contributions .  Our officials were meant to be ejected by the people with each individual having the same influence as the next; not their employers,  unions or some paid-for lobbyist. Remember “We the people” anyone?”

At this point in my speech,  I paused to look up at what appeared to be a completely captivated and silent audience.  To my dismay,  what was at first a thousands strong packed auditorium now had just 3 worn looking men in various tattered military atire, obviously veterans, and a raggedy looking woman pushing a carriage full of her life’s possessions.

Thinking my speech was over, the four souls remaining afforded me a standing ovation during which I awoke to TV noise and someone ranting about this one’s taxes and that one’s emails.

I turned it off and started reading a new book.  7 more days. ..God save me.