Twitter me this!

Attention friends and family!

As you may know, I am in school.  A requirement for one of my courses (Mass-Comm 31: Issues in Media) is a Twitter account.  You may also know, I don’t tweet.  Well, now I do; but, and you knew that was coming, this is for school only, please.  If you see me out there in the Twitter-verse; please, please, please don’t follow me or invite me, or whatever is appropriate there.  I spend too much time on FB, already.  (Who me?) Perhaps, when this is over, I’ll do as the instructor suggests and ‘remain connected’; then I’ll hunt you down and bombard you with 140 character artistic masterpieces. ;~)  BTW, how the heck does ANYONE express themselves in 140 characters?  This will have consequences!

I am quite excited about all this education stuff.  I was thinking (for a nonce, :-0) that it would wear off after my first assignments were due.  Ha, not even close!  This is great.  I have something to fill the gaps.  Unfortunately, though it isn’t Facebook, I still spend as much time on my butt, reading and keyboarding course related material.  This I think will wear off as I get used to the routine.  One thing I found quite amusing, yesterday as I was reading the text, my phone kept dancing across the table next to me as one after another notification from Facebook came rolling in, all about the most inane things one could imagine.  None of it was meaningful, really, and there I was reading about how social media had completely enveloped our lifestyles.  I had to put the book down and inform the Facebook world of my revelation before it sunk in that I had just demonstrated the point exactly.

It’s not all fun and games.  I find that reading text is just as tedious as it was in the 70s.  Back then, if I ran into a course that required lots of non-technical reading, I would have given up after a few paragraphs and winged it until I was failing the course, then stop going.  The difference this time, I guess, is that I’m really interested in the subject matter. Not only that, I’ve lived through most of its history, from “Do-Wop” radio to this near “tricorder” universe we live in now, so I’ve “seen it all”.  This is a perspective I think a lot of my classmates will not have, and as such, I’ll present a very different viewpoint for social dialog in the class…probably.  In the interest of learning and experiencing the discourse, I slog through.  Besides, class ensues in my lounge chair whenever I feel like it.

One drawback to having all this available time right now is that I am way ahead of the curve, as far as getting the work done is concerned.  I have nothing better to do with my time right now, so I spend a lot of it reading the text book and doing as much of the assignments as I can, then I go back and read the book some more, while I wait for the class to catch up…lol.  I imagine a bunch of kids who just finished Spring Semester and who are not quite ready to rock.  They aren’t as speedily zipping through the assignments.  This class is about Social Media, so we all must be connected.  I’m ready.  They aren’t.  None of them!

BTW: I don’t fear calling them kids because they are going to call me Mr. at least once…every stinking one of them. 🙂

Now, you know me!  Two hours after no one else had registered their Twitter names on the class discussion board so I can search for and follow them (this is an assignment), I’m sure I’ve done something wrong.  Not only will it be wrong, it will be ridiculously wrong.  Wrong enough that I will need to hang my head in abject humiliation (cybernetically, of course, since this is an online course).  Everyone will know who the Twitter rube is.

Searching frenetically through my new Twitter profile for the inevitable stupid mistake that has thwarted my most earnest efforts to “get connected”, I finally find and feverishly fix it.  I used a ‘#’ instead of an ‘@’.  “Fool!  FOOL”, says I.  But, no matter, I found it and I fixed it.

That was yesterday!  Still no one has posted their Twitter call-sign.  Nothing!  No catchy twists of their real names, no basic newbie-don’t-take-any-chances-on-being-too-cute names like mine, no Nom de guerre.  Sigh!

So, I wait!

Of course, I should mention that I am 80% through the week’s assignments already and they aren’t due until 11:59pm Tuesday next, but that would completely denude the anxiety, and I’ve already queried the instructor twice as to why this was going so slow. Do you think that was a bit aboveboard?  Harrumph!

To be sure, I start real school next week where I’ll be attending class at the College.  I’ll be far more taxed, time-wise.  I’m trying to get as much of this Mass Comm online course under my belt as possible before then.  This summer will be a good warm up for fall when I have a bit more of a commitment to make.  If I find the Summer schedule is too demanding physically, I still have time to draw back on the Fall schedule a bit.  Am I worried?  A bit, yes, but aside from family, I still have little better to do with my time; so, there is no excuse.  My back should be fine.  I am getting shots soon and the classes are mostly held in a lab environment so I can stand up as much as I need to for a break.

I know I can do this.  Every course I will take is one I selected and want to take.  The subject matter is what I’ve dreamt about doing for a lifetime.  When I finish here, what I create will be net/magazine-worthy and I will publish my work…unless it sucks, of course.  Still, I know this won’t be easy.  It is just what I want.  That’s usually enough.

When I’m inspired to write, I often have seen something that triggered the thought.  It has frustrated me in the past that I have no avenue to express the entire inspiration to you.  Frankly, other than some musical talent, I suck at what I call the “physical arts”, dancing and drawing, for instance.  Professional level camera skills and refined writing skills will fulfill that expressive desire for me.  This newer genre of written art, Haiku, seems to be tailor made for the Twitterverse.  I have experimented a little already.  Now I want to learn enough about Photoshop to make the edits I want and then add the thoughts that come to mind when I’m finished repainting my pictures…

You might ask, “You’ve waited all this time, why are you in such a hurry now?”

“Aha” I say, “I have until Nov 2018 to use the Voc Rehab money the Workers Comp Insurance provided after my injury”.

It’s a fair amount and coupled with what the state has pitched in, it could cover the entire path to the degree I aspire to, if I could squeeze all that course load into a year and a half that is.  I probably won’t, but I’ll get close and that’s good enough for us to finish on our own dime.  I’ll have all (well, most of) the Photo/Video gear I need by then, thanks to the Insurance Company’s Voc Rehab grant and the State’s grant.  We’ll find a way to finish the few credits I might have left, if any.  Aside from online studies, another way to crunch a little is to take night courses as well as having a daytime schedule.  I’m trying this out this summer and fall.  We’ll see!

So, zoom, zoom…  There is one issue I do have to address about being in a  rush, at least in the online studies world.  Back in the day, I found that the longer I dwelled on a question, the more likely I was to think of several different answers to it and then the doubt would creep in.  So, I got in the habit of blazing through tests as fast as I could go.  When I was done, I’d go back and review, but most times I found my first answer was the one.  I can’t go back now, at least I don’t think we can, so I must do it right first time.  No matter!  It’s just a different way to do the same thing.  It did cost me a point though on my second quiz.  I bet this will be another short learning curve issue.  GRRRRRRR!  Live and learn.

Thanks in advance for letting me be, Twitter-wise…just for now.

CaliHurd.

PS: One of the remaining assignments for this week is to write an essay on our experience with Twitter.  I see that I can simply cut and paste from here and I’ll have most of that finished. ;~) Let’s call it 85% done then. 😉

Signs of America healing:

GOP in a TKO

Republican Greg Gianforte wins Montana’s U.S. House special election after being charged with assaulting reporter.

TKO-GregG

Today, its possible to punch a jerk-off reporter in the face and still be elected to the House.  At least you can when the media owned purveyor of bovine fecal matter falls out of his safe-space tree into your hood.

This is good.  My face is hurting from the smile.  Now we just need a few ANTIFA girlie-men to show up in Montana.  BOOM!  Thousands of wannabe gangstahs will suddenly unmask and reveal themselves to be Google, Amazon and Facebook software engineers on paid vacation, yelling “no mas, no mas”.

There are two problems I see with this development in Montana, though.  First, Gianforte is going to face some legal penalty, possibly jail time.  That sucks because he was provoked, repeatedly, by these media thugs.  (Does anyone know a good lawyer…hey, OJ?)  The second (probably because of # 1) is that Gianforte found it necessary to apologize to the offensive reporter.  At least he waited until after the election results were in.

The heck with that, Greg.  You were right.  Apologizing will yield nothing.  This kind of “in-your-face-abusive-reporting” is all the lefty media do.  In fact, they will not report unless it feeds their agenda and, since reality doesn’t, they regularly create one that does fit, then blitz it down our throats.  Anything that doesn’t fit that narrow view is labeled “alt-truth” and as such, may be ignored and/or mocked.  Millions of previously self-thinking Americans have been swallowing this crap for decades now.  Goebbels is dancing in the flames of hell.

Well, if it takes them getting their butts kicked, let’s do that.  Let’s kick butt until this bullcrap stops, once and for all.  If that’s what it takes, then let’s keep kicking butt until we reach the offices of the a-holes-in-chief of these media outlets, and kick their butts too…figuratively speaking, of course.

The real plus to this development is that Montana’s “we the people” spoke their minds, despite the piled-on last-minute media blitz to destroy Gianforte’s chances at the polls.  The voters didn’t care one whit for that reporter, and, God bless them, they told the lefty media to piss off and elected Greg Gianforte to the US Congress.  This is so heartening.  This is GRAND!  Real people, in real, unadulterated, heartland America, ignored the bullcrap vomitus of the left and voted for Liberty.

Excuse my repeated vulgarity, but this is one event that just calls for it:

HELL YEAH!

Ahem!

So, you ask, ‘how do we “kick butt” without getting ourselves thrown in jail’?  Certainly, we wont get away with physically popping reporters in the chops.  As much as we might want to…need to…pray for the opportunity to, we really shouldn’t go postal.  We everyday Joes do not have the kind of pull needed to avoid/survive the ramifications (and I’m only assuming that Gianforte will survive himself).

What we can do is refuse to participate in this farce.  We can refuse to use outlets that refuse to report the truth.  There are alternatives.  There are even brand-new News Media outlets on-line that report real news, minus the obligatory drivel the left calls news and the myriad sales pitches you get with the main-screamers.  There are TV show streaming services too.  Yes, these new players have sponsors but there’s not a 50/50 split of news/shows and ads, and like I said, it’s real news.  FOX News is not the answer, though many of their local affiliates are parsecs better than the other alphabet media outlets.  Beware when you’re searching for relief online, though.  Outlets like Brietbart and The Daily Caller only show their side and mock the other, though I will say that Brietbart only reports truth.  the Daily Caller is one step up from the Enquirer and in some circles, that would be an insult to the Enquirer folks.

This poisonous atmosphere has permeated all levels of the media.  I don’t listen to the radio at all except for music and I switch channels the second the drones start talking (except Brian Thomas of KAT Country 103).  I stopped my daily print delivery.  As much as I want to support a dying industry, I wont support a bullcrap machine that is also 50% or more advertisement.  I get my news from local FOX affiliates, online, my dogs…and Fakebook!!!  When FOX goes to commercial, I switch channels for 3 minutes.  I get a feed from Brietbart and some few others for fact checking purposes.  I get The Caller on my fakebook feed for laughs.

BTW:  Isn’t it funny how the biggies (Mega News Outlets) are so full of themselves? They preach to us about how “for the people” they are, yet 50% of their output is profit earning commercials.  Are “you the people” getting anything from those profits?  How many of you spend hours every day glued to the tube?  Do you think this has NO EFFECT on what they feed you?  Do you think the biggies don’t know you’re sitting there and purposely feed you as much crap as they think they can get away with?  Of course, they do.  I’m not referring to any conspiracy theories about them spying on us through our connections to them.  No, they can physically monitor the load on the live feed and then do the math that gives them an accurate estimate of viewership at any given time.  Now, think about this.  What if they knew you weren’t sitting there?

“How can I not watch TV?, you ask.”  Well, that’s easy.  Even for you diehard series addicts, series you can only get from the biggies, I have three letters for you: DVR.  Record your shows, then watch them later…zooming right through their ads and propaganda regurgitations.  Get your news, as much as possible, rom reliable sources NOT coming over your TV feed.  They WILL see the drop in load during the news hours and since you are also no longer spending hours on end watching live TV shows, they will have to assume you are probably recording your favorite shows too.

Three things to keep in mind when your doing this: One, they understand that if you recorded your shows, you are definitely fast-forwarding through the ads; two, they certainly know how many are watching “live”; and three, this “live audience” is what pays their bills.  Without live viewership, that is, a majority of viewers who DEFINITELY stay with the network through the ads; they change or they fail.  You really don’t need to do the math.  The very same method works with politicians.  Don’t vote for them.  Watch them change.

Of course, we are a weak species.  We will need to be weaned, but, thanks to Montana, we have a start.   This is still a great day in an ever more Great America.

Shout out to the WH too…Thank you Mr. President!

 

 

Burtt-Part Ten, Transitions

It’s easy to tell when I don’t want to write.  I’ll post politics or gripes about the VA or such.  I might write something really black that I want to throw away immediately after, but bottom line, I don’t want to be there.  I’m forcing myself to keep my hand in and maintain some connection.  That’s where I’ve been for a few weeks now, but this past weekend I was really bored with my honey away watching Liam.  I picked up my laptop and started going over my notes.  Before I knew it, was writing.  So, here you are.  Part ten-MikeH

BeeHive

Just after firsteat, 424319, at the apiary:
Jonn and Harkk were tag-teaming Burtt trying to keep him from running off to rescue Ssyndi before the optimum moment with the optimum circumstances.  It was Jonn’s turn.  Harkk was in the Flag’s comms hut, talking with Jaredd while Burtt was occupied.  They got daily updates from the dome this way and depending on the info delivered, would plan their attack on Burtt accordingly.
Jonn’s comms-tech kept the frequency shifting randomly, that and an encryption package that made it impossible to interpret any message coming through this link usually made it a fruitless endeavor at best. Though if the Corp could lock on long enough to get a direction, that would be a problem.  It wasn’t that the Corp didn’t know the Flag was here.  They did.  They were major trading partners.  That wasn’t to say that the Flag didn’t have secrets it would rather the Corp knew nothing about, above and beyond the Taj.
So far it was proving very difficult to tag and track the signals to their comm-units, but Harkk was still concerned.  He’d seen some of the new tech the Cops were using for detection and the Army simply had to have better.  He and Jonn were constantly trying to find a better way.  Harkk had added some monitoring equipment he brought with him.  He piggybacked it on top of the transmitter/receiver in the hut and it could tell when they were being ‘sampled’.  If the sampling lasted for longer than a few nanoseconds, the unit would be shut down.  Comms would start up again an hour later after extensive, secure, systemwide re-syncing.
————
Jonn dragged Burtt to a distant small out-building.  Beyond it were a dozen white boxes laying on the ground.  On closer inspection, Burtt could see very small birds flying around the boxes.
“Quiet now, Burtt. This is our secret weapon.  Well, it will be when we get them fully operational”, whispered Jonn conspiratorially, hiding his little joke effectively behind a serious look.  Jonn and Burtt approached the busy little structures.  He’d had Burtt put a screen-hat over his head, though Jonn didn’t wear one, himself.  Burtt was equal parts perplexed, intrigued and apprehensive.
“Whoa!  Are these bugs?  I thought they were tiny birds.  They fly? Hey! Hey! Get off me.”  Burtt felt crawly all over and was trying for all the world to keep from being landed on while back peddling for safer zones.
“Ha!  Burtt, do you realize how silly you look dancing away from these little critters?  You should be happy they aren’t the type with stingers.  Now, that would have been a sight, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t never seen such and they trying to land on me. They sound funny too.  Like the wire does sometimes, you know.  ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, like that!  Annaways, what are they, and what do we need them for?  What’s stingers?”
“They are called Bees, Burtt.  Some had stingers for protection.  A stinger was a sharp appendage at the bottom of their abdomen they could stick an enemy with.  There was a minor toxin introduced into the wound that would cause the wound to sting.  Other bugs and small creatures would be more severely impacted than humans would be.
“Our bees have been altered to go without, since they have no predators. They perform a very important farming function and they do it while they are doing their own normal business.  They do it far more efficiently than we can ever do it.  They cross-pollinate our plantings, Burtt.  You know about pollination, yah?  We went over that in ‘prepping for plantday’ training. Yah?  It’s just as important to growing as water and fertilizer.”  Burtt nodded so Jonn continued, “You have also seen our people in the fields with gloves on and syringes in hand, right? Well, that’s because we are doing the pollination now, by hand.  It’s a slow tedious process and we don’t always get it right.
“On the other hand, Bees always get it right.  That’s what they did before the fall.  For millions of years they did. Once, the entire world was blessed with enough of these little fellas to take care of all the world’s growing things.  With the Fall, we lost all of that.  It was only with great effort from the founding families and their scientists that we can grow anything at all now.  They also were forward thinking enough to plan for the re-introduction of the various species as things became more suited to supporting life again, if ever.
“Well, The City States aren’t the only ones with a scientific community.  In fact, I’d stack Flag’s scientists up against any in the world, though I won’t tell the Corp that.  You’ve seen what our Techs are capable of, Burtt.”  Again, he nodded.  “Well, they found a CommCorp lab in the mountain that had several samples of helpful creature’s DNA in cryostasis.  We now have Barn owls to control the damn rats; Bees to pollinate our crops; cattle, sheep, and horses too.  Hmm! Come to think of it, how’d the canine species survive in the wild when so many others didn’t, I wonder?  Anyway, back to the lab; it was a virtual Noah’s Ark, in there.”
The confused look on Burtt’s face told Jonn he’d lost his young charge.
“Ha, Burtt.  Sometimes I forget.  I’ll tell the story of Noah someday.  Right now, you only need to know that these little babies, these Bees, are going to make us rich.  You know how much cred we earn from our F-F-Foods line of products, right?  Well, once we get our bees operational, our output will easily double and the most difficult produce to grow will be the bigger sellers, and as such, will demand ever higher prices.  We’ll be able to produce twice what we do now simply because the pollination process will be in the expert’s hands, or appendages, I should say…and if we keep that info from our partners and customers, we can still sell it like it was rare…ha, ha, ha.”
Jonn let several bees land on his hand.  Burtt’s skin was crawling again.
“See here?  All these legs?  See the little hairs on the legs? Well, when they land on a flower, the hairs collect pollen.  It sticks to the hairs, you see.  Then they fly to another flower and in the process of getting more pollen from that plant, the cross pollination of the two happens as a natural byproduct of the bees collecting food for their hive. Bingo!  Fruit happens. Then they carry the stuff stuck on their legs back to their hive for processing in their little nature’s factory.  This is what God planned, Burtt.
“We build these boxes for them to live in.  If we didn’t, they’d build their own hives, but this way, we get to easily move them to where we need them.  We also get to harvest another product that is probably the most exotic of all and only bees can make it.  Honey.  Here, try some.”
Jonn handed Burtt a wooden ladle he dipped into a Jar full of a gooey golden liquid. Burtt took a small taste and started handing the ladle back, assuming this tasting wouldn’t go over too well.  His eyes lit up and he snatched the ladle back to finish it all.
The twinkle in Jonn’s eye said that he knew that taste well.
“When it’s time to pollenate, we set the hives out in the fields near where we need them.  They do the rest without any more help from us.  They don’t seem to ever tire; the perfect industrial engine they are.  They cross-pollenate the crops, fill the hive up, we empty them and they fill them up again.
“The best part?  Honey will sell like sex in the city.  There is nothing that comes close to its sweetness.  Our Medicos tell me its healthful properties will make it an even greater sell.  Yes sir, Burtt, I can’t wait until we get this in production.  The scientists say by next plantday, we can start using the bees to pollenate about 100 hectares.  We have several younglings learning the art of bee-keeping.  You should pick a couple too and have them team up with our crew.  In two, maybe three seasons, we’ll be able to split off some new queens and hives for the Taj.  Yah?”
“Yeah, Jonn.  We can do that.  These little guys are alright, I guess.” After a short pause Burtt asked, “Why you don’t have a hat on, Jonn?”
“Well, you honestly don’t need one.  It just helps the uninitiated to be calmer with the bees first time out.  They were a necessity when bees had stingers though.  Now folks only need them because bees don’t really care what part of you they land on…on in.  Had one in my mouth yesterday.  Damndest thing.  It followed me into the Greathall and flew into my mouth when I was yelling at Konn to open the flue before the whole hall filled with smoke.  I couldn’t get it to come out again.  I don’t know if it was stuck or what, but I damn near choked trying to NOT swallow or chomp on the poor thing.  I finally coughed it out.  It landed across the room.  Rolled about ten feet, sort of shook itself off and flew back home to the hive.  I felt that fluttering in my throat for a cycle afterwards.
“Do you know, they are not supposed to be able to fly?  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s what they used to call, a wives’ tale, just a story, but there are references in some old books that indicate it’s supposed to be physically impossible for those little flimsy wings to lift the weight.  No matter.  They can.  You see it as well as I do.  They damn sure can fly, the fat little buggers, eh?”
“Why caint we make this honey stuff?  Your people seem to have figured out ways to make most anything?” Burtt asked.
“Oh, we can make all kinds of confections, sweet things.  But there’s nothing that compares to the real deal, eh?  We’re going to try to grow some cane this coming summer.  Sugar cane I mean.  Sweets sell like crazy in the dome.  Our partners are begging for them all the time, so we are trying to source some natural sweeteners.  Cane likes the heat though.  So, we may not have any luck at all with it, in which case we’ll move some of our operations out to the desert south of here, and grow more Agave.  That produces another fine sweet substance.  Nature always makes the very best if we let her.  You’d do well to remember that Burtt.  If there’s a natural way to do something, that’s probably the best way.
‘I’ve seen few exceptions.  Childbirth being one of them.  I know from my uncle that the Flag lost so many of our young women back when we first settled here, simply because we were too pig-headed to see the light.  Our Medicos were telling us to let them help when it got too hard, but our Mid-wives refused.  To save the mother, the babe would be spent.  ‘Twas a savage way to do things and it was taking way too long to populate the Flag.
“When the Leadman role fell to me, I decided to challenge the law.  Enough elders had lost loved ones themselves to birthing, that I won out and the role of the Mid-wife became subservient to medicine, in fact most are registered as Nursemaids now.  We’ve not lost a single mom or babe since, though damn near every one of those elders is gone now.  After about a year of grumbling, everyone came to see that having a Medico, or at least a trained Nursemaid, present during child birth was a good thing.  It helped that a Mid-wife nearly lost her own child except for the intervention of Doc Stoanne Hans.  She became the first of the Nursemaids.  That was Rrebca Torg.
“So, the best way is always the natural way, my friend.  Always!  Hmm…Well, we humans are doing birthing that way.  Before we have crazy numbers of Ks running loose around here, twenty-seven is quite enough, thank you very much, we should really do something about that population, eh?”  Jonn nodded towards the Ken.
“Yeah.  Well, Jaredd was going to get someone in the dome to help with that.  I ain’t sure what kind of help, but it’s off the table now.”  Burtt still imagined the strangest things when thinking how anyone would keep a K from rutting.  Most of those thoughts led to laughter or complete disbelief.
“Ah!  No worries, Burtt. We have animal doctors here, too.  They used to be called Veterinarians.  We just call them Med-Techs.  They care for our livestock. They can perform a minor procedure called neutering on your kens that’ll keep them from producing.  It doesn’t hurt them and it takes no time at all.  Now, you’ll want to choose from the lot, those you do want to be able to produce in the future, so we won’t neuter them.  Pick the cream of the crop, if you know what I mean, yah?  And pick more than one in case that one is impotent.”
Burtt nodded his understanding.  Survival of the fittest in every way.
“So, of the ones we don’t neuter, when it’s time for a bitch to go into season, we’ll keep her isolated, or we’ll let the studs have at her, whatever you want at the time.  Yah?  If you don’t want any surprise puppy parties, you should assign someone to keep tabs on that sort of thing, so we know in advance and can get the girl K away from the studs before the deed is done.  They go into cycle every few months like clockwork and the males will know the second she does and will be right after her.”
Burtt was smiling.  The thought of twenty some randy hounds going at each other unchecked until the entire green zone was covered in Ks, seemed immensely comical to him.  Better still, he imagined letting them loose in the dome right after some greasy leavings found a way into their bellies.
He also knew immediately the best candidate for keeping tabs on the female Ks’ seasons.  Little Cconnie already knew more about each K in the Taj, including Dogg, than anyone else.  Harkk and Jonn agreed that the diminutive female was a whisperer.  Burtt only wondered at that until he saw her control all 27 Ks at one time without one of them even flinching for a second, and without ever opening her mouth.
Kett had close to that relationship with his Hiss, but only with her.
Burtt and Dogg were a different thing all together.  They were one creature.  Burtt hardly acknowledged the rest of them and Sweet was still leery around him.  But put Burtt and Dogg together and they moved as one.  When they hunted, Dogg was between Burtt’s legs, the two moving like mixed liquids, until Burtt set him off to fetch the kill.
He jerked back to the present.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Jonn.  That last set was a surprise and a half.  We were just coming to grips with the first throw of twelve when Sweet popped out thirteen more.  Damn.  Imagine if humans did that?  I mean twelve, thirteen at a time?  Jizmo!”
“Whew!  I cannot imagine it, no!  Thirteen Kett Monts?  Twelve Jjenna Boks?  Hmmm!  Norton, save us!”
The two shared a laugh and headed back to the Greathall.  Burtt was edgy but understood the effort being made to hold him back until the best possible opportunity arose to rescue his sister and the rest.  Word was that there was another family of exiles joining them too.  These new souls were living with the kids now, waiting for their chance to flee.  How uncomfortable were they hiding out underground all day and night?  How anxious?
I’m coming, Ssyn.  I swear I am.
————
Same time, under the Lok stead:
These are the little bastas that got Larss sent to the wall?  These foul little beasts are the reason I am hiding in this hole like a rat?  I’ll be damned if I’ll let this stand.  Screw Larss and screw my uncle.  I’ve had it.  Norton!  They even have my children talking like them. This ends today.  Tomorrow at the latest.  The next time Jaredd brings food, I’ll lay that scrawny twit out and make good our escape.  I’ll trade this location for our continued good standing with CommCorp.  Larss can rot on his damn wall for all I care.  I’ll crucify him myself for subjecting me to this smell…for days!

Ellsbeth Fen was a walking, talking madwoman.  Even her children were afraid of her and keeping their distance.  The Taj-mates kept close watch on her, expecting some sort of crazy behavior to happen at any time and prepared to prevent her from hurting herself or others.  They insulated the Fen children as best they could, with Hamm Klop running interference as much as possible.  The kids, Kurtt and Bbekka Fen, made the best of a bad situation.  They hung with the Taj when they could and ran obediently to their mom when she got most adamant about them staying close to her.
Once when Ellsbeth was off her guard again, Hamm asked Bbekka, “Your dam, she’s a bit off the edge, ain’t she?”  They were of an age and they’d struck up a friendship as the two oldest in the group other than Ellsbeth.
“She’s just very worried about what’s going on with my father.  We’ve never been without him you know.  And then Uncle Samm sends us underground with total strangers…proles, no less…Oh dear, I’m sorry Hamm.  I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“Hmm?  By what?  Why ain’t you say what you mean?  Did you mean it when you said you liked me?”
Bbekka Fen, blushed.  This boy was so direct.  They all were, these kids.  Like none of her friends at school, these kids told the truth right out, all the time, and then they’d tell you there “ain’t no wrong in true”.
“Yes, Hamm, of course I meant it.  I may be an elie snit, but I don’t lie.  I like you…a lot.”
Now Hamm was blushing.
“You two gonna smooch now?”
Kurtt’s sudden intrusion caught both off guard.  The smirk on his kisser bought him a crack off the back of the head from an irate sister.
“DO NOT SNEAK UP ON ME, KURTT!  JIZMO!”
“Ouch, Bbekka.  Dang!” Kurtt whined.
“Yeah.  I guess I’m okay with being an only child”. Offered Hamm with a snicker, ruffling the younger boy’s hair, as if an old timer himself, then caught one off the back of his head too.
Kurtt made great sport of that for hours.  Hamm took it in good humor, as he took everything.
Ellsbeth Fen planned her escape and waited.
————
Ten cycles, 424319, on the Wall:
“You do realize that I know you’ve sent your family into hiding, don’t you, Fen? Trying to sway me with this pile of feces you call intel is hardly the way to assure their safety.  Or, do you think I couldn’t find them if I determined they needed to be found?  I’ve left it be for now only because I thought I might still have use of you.”
“Of course, sir.  And, no sir, I assume nothing about your capacities, certainly not, Commander Card.  I don’t doubt you at all, sir.  I would like to assure you that what I’m telling you, though still in the realm of supposition, is credible.  The boys here have been monitoring suspicious activity for some time now.  When it got to be too much for them to write off to random noise, they brought it to my attention and now I’m bringing it to yours.  I reprimanded them for hesitating at all.”
Fen paused a moment to let the implications set.  He now had confirmation that Card was on to his familial plans.  He simply must win this pompous ass over.  He pressed on.
“You might see how something like this could be a feather in our caps, don’t you, sir?  If we were to bring to light a major smuggling ring, AND this Burkk fellow too?”  Fen was desperately trying to keep the pleading out of his voice.  Card just stared, so Fen continued his pitch.
“Now, I can’t guarantee it’s him, and sure, we all hope the basta is already dead, but someone out here was in comms with someone in the dome and we both know this Burkk had sympathizers within.  That’s certain, sir.  We’ve found repeaters built into the dome itself.  They were coded to accept pre-programmed randomly switching frequencies.  The comm times were so short it took us a month to track the repeaters to their precise locations, though we never found the comm-units themselves.  That took tech savvy no prole has, I’ll wager.  That greaser Harkk was a capable sort, now.  He could have done all that.  Those comms have stopped completely for the past month plus some.  We are picking up new ghost signals now, more frequently than the others, but far more sophisticated and, so far, untraceable.
“As to all those proles, I ask you, sir, where did they all go?  Do you believe we killed them all?  With no trace left?  No trace at all?”  He didn’t give Card time to interfere, “I don’t believe that for a moment, sir.  At the very least, the perservs were right there in the assembly area in front of the tube entrance; there should have been traces of their presence.  There was nothing!  At first I hoped they were all just obliterated, but once it was made clear that we’d found nothing of these proles or perservs, I knew something else was afoot.
I started to think they might have gotten away.  To do that, I knew they had to have help and it had to come from outside the dome as well as inside.  Then we found the tunnels.  And that cursed fog?  What was that?  Where did it come from and why couldn’t our sensors see through it?
“We can be certain the Loks were the inside threat.  That one will thankfully be closed forever with Mmarta gone and Jaredd on his deathbed.  Dougg is a buffoon who’ll probably end up in the zones too. House arrest is a light sentence for Jaredd, yes, but he is dying and he’s going nowhere with the Guard on his stead.  The brat girl will be ingested by the system. The Army is always looking for recruits, or the mines.
“It’s the outside link we need to identify, fix and destroy…together.  We also need to nail this Burkk to an X, you and me; if he still breathes.  I believe the one will lead to the other and I don’t for a minute believe they all died in that fool Clak’s conflagration.
“We’re not only getting random unintelligible comm hits, sir, but we are also picking up transient hits on our wall proximity sensors that would indicate the approach and subsequent breeching of our defensive perimeter.  We just can’t fix them long enough to even define what we are seeing, though we do have a rough geographical area of interest…every bot in three consecutive gradients are so alarmed that half of them end up shutting down due to sensory overload.  It’s never the same three grads though. We could assume the passage is occurring in the middle of that noise and send troops, but what if that’s what they want us to assume and it’s all just noise, while they pass somewhere else we aren’t looking.  To be honest, that is exactly what’s happened whenever we did react.
“This is very high tech, I’m told…or our sensor equipment is completely FUBAR, sir.  However, after exhaustive checks and diagnostics, we can’t find anything wrong on our end.  One could make enough valid suppositions to indicate that this stealthy tech might just originate in that Flag compound out to the southwest there.” Fen pointed out the viewport to the green hazy plain in the distance.  Then referring to a map on a nearby chart table, “You’ll notice, sir, that following the line of what we think is the path being used; it could very well lead from the Flag, over the wall and terminate in Sector-22.”
He was stretching his case to the breaking point he knew, but he would literally do anything to get off this foul, man-made hell.  He was banking on Card’s own demise to spur him onto Fen’s plan for restoration.  Card was a greedy SOB and he wanted his status back far more so than Fen did.  Fen just wanted to be safe again.  Card was showing signs of interest.  The sneer he saved for all his underlings was replaced with something resembling, well, a less severe sneer.  Fen interpreted this as an indication he should carry on before he lost his momentum.
“That all brings us to you, sir, and the reason I bring this to your attention.  We don’t have the resources here to tackle this mission ourselves effectively, sir.  The Corp cut funds and manpower here, ironically enough, when the Flags built their compound out beyond the Wall and effectively knocked the wildling population out there down to near extinction levels.  The Corp sent the excess to more needy areas around the perimeter. As a result, we need your help to carry this through, sir.  Well, we need you to bring your resources to bear on the problem.”
When Card didn’t respond right away, he tried to continue. “If you could assign, say, a few AirT…”
“I know what an operation like this entails Fen.  Shush while I decide the best way forward.  You say, this Flag may be involved?  That would be Jonn Flag now, as I understand the hierarchy out there.  Jonn took over for his uncle before him.  Tis why he left the Wall, and tis the why of my rise to power.”
His memory of those bad old days was foggy, at best and he liked it that way.  Jonn NearKlop, as he was known back then, the son of a scion of the Corp, and nephew to a crazed one living with the nomads out in the wild, sacrificed everything to defend the dome from the hordes of wildlings storming the Wall.  He was legendary and rose through the Mil-ranks like a storm through the southern plains.
He outperformed everyone in his class at the academy and any for five cycles before and any since.  He so far outclassed Maxx Card as to cause Maxx to be the laughingstock of Class VXII, and laughable he had been.  Griping at every test score that Jonn aced and every fete of strength he eased through, Card looked and filled the role of the spoiled elie who couldn’t match up.  Jonn was destined to instant greatness and rank, while Maxx Card would be lucky to get out with the rank of constable in charge of mucking out the stalls of the senior officer’s horses.  How fitting would it be for him to bring the almighty Jonn Flag, to his knees.
Card had had to resort to some very shady dealings to get ahead at all while Jonn was the Army’s Champion of the Day.   He was the first to make contact with the wildlings.  It wasn’t by choice.  Not by a long shot.  He and his troop were sent out to scout what was now that green swath of life out to the southwest, by none other than Commander Jonn NearKlop himself.  He was the only one to return.
Though it wasn’t the story he told Command when he straggled back onto the Wall, what happened was grizzly enough to break the hardest of veterans or the cruelest of minds.  Maxx Card was neither, not yet.
The wildlings had tricked them.  They sent a scouting party ahead ot draw Card’s troop into a trap.  Card complied much to the chagrin of his senior non-coms.  When the wildlings finally let loose in the perfect killing field, it was a slaughter.  That’s when Card found out they weren’t as wild as everyone believed they were.  He wondered if that wasn’t by design.  These crazed, determined warriors had language and were smart enough to use tactics.
Despite his predicament, he’d led a determined retreat so that he held the high ground with superior fire power.  He had the one repeating pulse weapon on the battlefield and he was wielding it with reckless abandon, taking out his own men with the wild ones when they clustered near his position.
In the end, the chieftain called for a Parley. Card traded the pulse weapon, all his remaining men and their equipment for his life.  The humiliation stayed with him for years and turned him into the soulless creature he was today.  To just have a chance at pay-back to the man who had brought so much pain into his life was delicious.  He couldn’t NOT go for this.
“Before I commit to anything, Fen, I’ll have an insurance policy.  I won’t have you humiliate me as you did in Sector-22.  I’ll know the location of your family’s hide.  Is that understood, Fen?  Better still, I’ll have them as guests on my stead until the mission’s successful conclusion.”  His cold stare told Fen there would be no further negotiation on that point.
“Yes, sir.  I see, sir.”  He was trapped.  “Begging your pardon, sir, but I’ll need something in exchange.  Not for myself, but for my family, sir.  I’ll need your assurance, your Officer’s Oath, that they won’t suffer if the plan fails.  They shouldn’t be held responsible for my transgressions, sir.  Please, sir!”  He pleaded.  He knew his and his family’s lives were in the wind.
“Do I have your parole that you will not conspire against me, Fen?  Can I trust you?”
“Of course, sir.  You’ll hold all that is dear to me in sway.”
“Very well, Fen.  You have my Officer’s Oath.  Your family is in my charge and insulated from rebuke.  I will dispatch my chief of AirOps to begin gaming this with you.  I’ll expect to hear from your Spouse by the morrow.”
“It may take longer to …”
“Tomorrow, Fen.  Say, ‘yes sir’.” He scolded, turning away.
“Yes sir!”  Fen scalded Card’s back with a boiling rage pouring from his very soul.
BASTA!  Now what?  Norton, Ellsbeth will panic for sure.
Neither man knew the Corp had other plans in store for the Cards and the Fens.  It wouldn’t matter how wonderful and heroic their deeds might be now.  CommCorp had already declared them persona non-grata. They were done, all of them.  The Corp was waiting to have all their ducks in a row first; they still hadn’t located the Fen brood after escaping the woman’s uncle’s lair.  The uncle and his family had already been dispatched.  If the two errant enforcers happened to do some good for the Corp in the meantime, so be it.
————
Ten cycles+15, 244319, in the Flag Greathall:
“…you see, then, Burtt, why I was hesitant to bring this all to your attention right off?  You do, don’t you?”
Jonn’s pleading voice struck Burtt to his core.  Burtt knew a new level of sincerity and dedication. He was both inspired and appalled.
How far would Jonn go for the Flag?  How far would you go for the Taj, Burtt, you great oaf?
“I have to think about all this Jonn.  Harkk tried explaining this version of democracy.  It’s a bit hard to swallow though, when one person is still making the decisions most of the time.  You say, that you only make crisis decisions on behalf of the Flag, but I see you in every decision made, every day.  Maybe your people just like it that way, I don’t know.  This is a lot.  Ya make my head hurt.  Jizmo!”
He shook his head and as Jonn was about to interrupt, he cut back in as if he’d just thought of something else.
“Jonn, I appreciate this talk.  I do.  And I understand why you’re having it with me and the Taj council.  We all must agree to, how’d you say it, in…corpo…incorporate the two clans.  I get that. We get that. And we get the whole idea of having one person authorized to make the important-can’t wait for a council-every day decisions.  We do!  And I really think your people just got used to you doing the heavy thinking for them is all, Jonn.  No offense meant, now.”  He directed this at the Flag council in session with them.
“The Taj leans on me and Harkk a lot too and we’re still a democracy.  What I don’t get, and I think I speak for everyone here, is why talk about a change right now?  Why is this so important, when we have so much to do and, at least in my opinion, the last thing we need is a new leader?  Why now, Jonn?  You’re doing a great job as far as I’m concerned.  We have years of learning to do.  Learning I plan to get from you, Jonn.”
“Ah. Well. That’s the rub, isn’t it?” He hesitated, unsure of how to proceed, but then decided to just jump in.  He gave a signal and all the oldest males and females of both houses, who’d been waiting in the wings, joined the procedures up by the dais. The rest of the houses filed into the open spaces in the hall and settled into a nervous wait.  Both houses were buzzing with questions, suppositions, rumors and flat out speculation.
He had a clapper he used to get everyone’s attention. Once he was sure he had it, Jonn began.
“By now, you all have some inkling that this might not be the best of messages I’m about to impart, and you’d be right to think so.  You see, members of the Taj, and mine own people here, I have the spots.  I’m expecting no more than another three lunars active, then I’ll progressively fade away.  I’ve no more than six lunars at most.” He used the slang describing his brand of incurable lung disease.  The suddenness and cataclysmic nature of his announcement caught the Greathall in its grasp and bedlam broke loose.
The Flags broke into the outraged declarations of naysayers and deniers.  Burtt and the Taj, quite familiar with the grief of death and destruction, were also keening, waiting for the rest of the blow to land.  Death was never the only harbinger of bad times to come.
“Quiet down now.  Quiet down.  Come on, come now, Flag and Taj.  Will you not hear me?  There is business that must be resolved before I become too feeble to lead.  And that brings us to the Selection.”  His voice rose to crescendo on the last word.
The Flag knew of what Jonn spoke and were immediately silenced, as if the truth of the moment was suddenly upon them.  The Taj didn’t understand and continued to bemoan the folly of coming to a strange land only to lose their one trusted connection to the society they were thrust into.  Now more tragedy would be heaped on a population of children who’d never known anything but.
“HUSH NOW, TAJ!  WE’RE THE GUESTS HERE!  HUSH!” This from Harkk.  The hall fell to an uneasy silence again, though the kens could be heard howling in the distance.  Every Taj felt what any Taj felt.
Jonn collected himself.  This was to be the most important speech of his recent life.
“Hear me, please.  We are two houses that need desperately to be one someday.  Some of you may not feel that way, now.  In time, you’ll see the rightness of it.  I stand before you, today, and ask you all for that time.  I ask you all to let that time start now.
“You Flags.  You know what it takes to be Leader. It’s in our learnings from when we are wee ones.  Our guests do not.  I will honor that ignorance with time.  If we are ever to be one house, our Leader must come from the best of both houses, so both houses MUST be equally ready to answer the call.
“With fairness in mind, then, I declare the Selection open on the first Hi Day of Sixth Lunar.  Nominations are due by Lo-day next.  You can nominate yourself but you’ll be paired with a top seed right off if you do.  That leaves us a bit more than a lunar to prepare.
“You Flags!  You will show our guests the way of the Selection Process.  You will honor it by teaching our guests the true meaning of the Selection and what qualities our Leader MUST possess.  You will show them how we train to showcase these qualities.  You will relate to them the connection from Leader to every single Clan member.  You will explain our Leader’s subservience to the Clan…even the lowliest among us.  Our Leader serves for life, with his life, and will give his life for any in the Clan without a moment’s hesitation; for to hesitate once you’ve accepted the mantle of leadership would be to condemn yourself to the Din for eternity.

“You Flags will work with our new mates and help prepare them for the trials as well as you prepare yourselves.  You will have to compete with our guests for this great honor.  Will you have them compete at any level other than their best?  Would you feel complacent having beaten someone you purposely left unprepared?  I think not.

“You, Taj!  You are tough and knowledgeable beyond your years.  I would have no hesitance following your best into the never-ending battle for life.  Learn from us.  Study hard, for it is not just a great beast who will win us over, but a wise one too.  This is not just a test of means my friends.  No! this is as much a test of wits and wills.
“The most important thing of all, to us all, is that we, the peoples of the Taj and the Flag, are our leader’s heart and soul.  Our leader is our eye on life, our ear to the wind, our voice in the rift.  Our leader touches the universe and we thrive through that connection.  Our leader dies for us every day until there’s nothing left.  Then we select the next strongest among us to take us ever forward, ever higher, ever longer, ever freer. This is our way.”
He’d said it all with such reverence the Greathall sustained an echo of his statement for several breaths before he continued, sure he had their rapt attention still.
“Choose well among your champions my friends.  Choose the ones you would follow anywhere.  Not because they are your friend, but because you feel the best chance of success lies with following that person.  Because you KNOW that person will be selfless in all matters, even at the expense of their own life, but who will never waste that life; for a leader is not to be wasted.
“Those of you who are chosen for the trials, honor that confidence your peers placed in you with your best effort always, even to your last breath after these Trials are long over.  Surrender only to the superior candidate and then only after you have exhausted every effort to better them.  There is no disgrace in bowing to a champion among champions. There is a life of disgrace in failing to accept your fate, though.  Instead, vow your allegiance forever to the one who prevails.  This person will have earned it via the same trial by fire that tested you. Give them your faith until they revoke it.
“Finally, your allegiance to the Selected One is the key to our future.  As we do on the first Hi-day of each Solar, after the Selection of a new leader, each one of us renews our vows of fealty to the clan and obedience to the Leader in an elaborate Ceremony of Faith.  This symbolic show of subservience to the clan and the leader, not the individual who holds the position, but the position itself, regardless of who holds it, is our connection to one another.  It is what we all have in common.  Our leader is the collective the heart and soul of the clan that we so freely gave to him or her.
“As new members of the clan, you Taj will also be expected to swear allegiance to the Clan and its Leader.  This does not make you slaves in any way.  This simply streamlines the chain of command in crisis situations.  You’ll see that everything else still comes down to a vote by the entire clan.  We have no Kings here.  No bosses.  No Gods on earth.  We may have become a little complacent and rely more on me than we should, yes, but that little problem is about to sort itself out. No?  You, whoever you are to be, Master or Mistress, Leader of the Clan, can make that your legacy.  Find a more efficient way for democracy to not fall to one person.”
“These are the rules for the choosing.  They may not all apply, but they must all be stated.
·       Anyone, female or male, of years advanced enough to have tried before and failed, may not try again.  These, if any survive still, will be called upon to be judges.
·       Judges will otherwise be drawn from a pool of elders, ineligible for the trials, twenty-one full solars or older.
·       Anyone, female or male, between the age of eighteen and twenty-one solars, but not older than their twenty-first nameday or younger than their eighteenth, may be nominated.
·       A contestant found to be in violation of any rule of the Trials will be declared lost, and forever banished from the clan, for to blemish so sacred a trust is unforgivable.
·       Parents/relatives/guardians may not intervene in the nomination process except to nominate.
·       Of twenty possible categories, a total of ten will be chosen for the Trials.  Five of a physical nature and five of a more cerebral one.
·       All candidates will train for all twenty disciplines as the ten choices won’t be selected until game day.
·       In tests of mean strength pitting one contestant against another, the dominant opponent must offer mercy if called for; injuries prove nothing but recklessness in this case.  One can win by sheer beauty of performance in fetes of strength, as well as by brute force.  Neither necessarily holds sway in the judge’s eye, but both can.
·       In tests of will and wits, the same lack of stubbornness when losing must be exercised.
·       No form of external aide may be incorporated into the competition.  No form of help my be provided to a contestant.  No tool, nor weapon, nor any form of supplies, not provided for by the rules of the Trials, shall be had.  No contestant will leave the competition’s boundaries until removed by the judges.  No contestant will leave an injured contestant without succor.  No contestant will ridicule, period!
·       Except in the case of injury, a candidate may not drop out of the competition, nor may they skip a Trial, but must finish every category of the Trials.
·       In case of a tie in any category, the winner will be the one who scored higher in the next higher discipline in importance.
·       If, at the end of the regular Trials, there is still a tie at the top.  The competition will continue until a winner can be declared.  The judges will pick from the remaining ten Trials, three at a time, until there is a winner.”
·       If all Trials are exhausted without a clear winner, the judges will pick from a select group of ever more difficult backup Trials, until there is a winner.
·       No one quits.
·       The Trials will not break for twenty-four hours after they start.  A four-hour break for nutrition, hydration and rest will follow. Then the Trials will resume for another twenty-four hours. Repeat until a winner is declared.
·       There can be only one.
Jonn deflated.  The steam had run out, and it showed.
“That’s all I have folks.  If there are any questions…”
The hall lit up with them and the conversation continued well into the night.  Meals were served there in the Greathall along with a new brew Jonn introduced as mead.  The children were not allowed to have any, but were given a taste of honey instead.  Not much more was resolved after Jonn’s speech.  There was more denial, tearful remembrances, drunken story telling along with the requisite hilarity and then a sudden return to reality when one or another of the clanmates would remember what they’d just listened to.
The Clan, as they were beginning to think of themselves, ran themselves out of energy eventually and went home in the wee hours of the morning, well after newday.  Burtt was smart enough to lay off the Meade when his head started to spin.  Kkhloe had told him about Zobbi’s home brew and how it distorted your abilities.
————
Two cycles+15, 344319, following the Taj back to their compound:
“A penny for your thoughts?” Katt whispered as she and Burtt made their way home at the end of the Taj procession.
‘I guess I’m afraid again, Katt.  I don’t know what to think.  Is this a good thing?  Harkk says, empires are built on the strong arms of young men, not the older ones, so, I guess this will be okay in the end.  I just caint bring myself to the idea of taking orders from someone other than Jonn.  Even then I was hesitant to give over to him completely, or Harkk, for that matter.”
Kkat was smiling, barely able to hold it in.
‘What? What? Come on.  I know that smile.  What I do now?”
“Oh, Burtt.  You’re so cute, thinking there’s another within a hundred kliks of here on a par with you…or that Jonn doesn’t already know that too.  Um, um!  Yessuh!  You one kina craze, you is, Burtt, master bossman.”
“What?  What are you talking about now and why are you talking like that?  I don’t understand you sometimes, K…OUCH!  Jizmo!”
She’d smacked him off the back of the head again.
“Let’s go to bed, dopey.  You need your beauty sleep. Boy, do you ever!”
————
Eight cycles+20, in front of the Taj’ Temporary Greathall:
“What’s this?  Jenna?  Kett?”
The two had cornered Burtt after firsteat and refused to let him pass.
“We decided we caint foller no Flagger but Jonn, so you gots to win.  We he-ah to hep ya train.  We caint try ahsefs, so we heps you.  We tough, you knows, and we faster than you, so we c’n hep wi’dat.  Ahm bettah with a bow and Kett he the boss with a pike. Yessuh!”
“Ha!  You train me, eh?  Well.  Hmm!  You are faster, the both of you, and I could surely use some help with all the weapons other than these blades, that’s sure.  What do you have in mind.”  Burtt was fascinated.  After all the trouble the two had been, they were his staunchest allies now.  They backed him in every endeavor and volunteered for anything they thought would benefit the Taj.  This could prove interesting.
“Well, first, is this…”  the two took off like lightning bolts towards the pastures to the south.  Looking over his shoulder Kett yelled, “Come on, old man, catch us if ya can.”
In stunned silence Burtt stood there watching the distance grow.  A crew of Taj and Flag mates had gathered by then and were watching the challenge go unanswered.  Soon, some good-natured hooting started up with the Taj’ headman as its target.
“Burtt is a turtle.  Burtt is a turtle.  Burtt is a turtle.”  The chant soon grew to twenty, then thirty voices strong.  He couldn’t avoid the challenge then.
“Oh, Jizmo, I’m gonna pound you when I catch you two.”  Burtt jokingly howled after the quickly shrinking silhouettes ahead.
“No, you won’t…” was the fading response.
“Cconnie, hold these.”  He stripped his belts and harnesses, leaving only his leggings and a light top shirt.  He kicked off the sandals they’d been given since moving to the Green, as they had come to call their new home.  Then peeled off after the much speedier younger clanmates.
It took the better part of 40 spans of non-stop all out running, but he caught the two eventually. As it turned out, the kids slowed to let him catch up.  He looked to them as though he was about to drop, and they knew their leader would never quit.  It wouldn’t do to have ot carry him back to the compound.
“After a minute of gasping and feeling almost normal again, Burtt looked up at his captives and sighed.
“Damn.  You two ain’t even winded. I am sooooo, screwed!”
“No you ain’t.  Das why we he-ah.”  This from Jjenna.  “If ya trains wif us ever day, in thirty plus, you be pleny fas enuf.  Nobod gon beat you straight up, so we just gots to get you runnin fasser an longer, an gets you shootin straight.”
Then Kett chimed in, “We know ya gots other things ya gots to do.  We knows ya gonna go get the rest of the Taj too.  Ya still gots t’ train.  One cycle at least, ever day, we do that.  We train you up hard too.  After you goes to get Ssyn and them, we double up the training time. Yessuh!  D’as a’righ!”  He said with a grin, mimicking Burtt’s own earlier favorite phrase.
“You had this all planned out, did you?”  Burtt was still surprised at the turn around these kids had made is so short a time.  This was a glorious world.
“When Jonn told the rules and we seed we couldn’t compete, we decided.  Yeah!  Then we planned.  Then we come to you.  We gots a whole plan laid out.  The onliest othah ones we’d foller is Qquitia or Kkat.  They trying, but They ain’t gonna win.  Nossuh!  Jorukk n’ sum uthas gon beat them su-ah.”  Kett offered.
“Well!  Thank you.  I, I don’t know what to say.  You surprise me, you two.  You’ve grown so much and you’ve done so much.  We are all so grateful to you, already.  And now this?  Phew!”
Burtt really was stunned.  The kids seemed to grasp that and smiled.  Both reached out to shake Burtt’s hand in the Taj way, gripping the others wrist, but Burtt had a surprise for them.  He hugged them both to him and planted a kiss on each forehead.
While both kids stared in openmouthed shock, Burtt whispered, “If you tell anyone I did that I’ll pound you both for a week…if I can catch you.”
The three broke into uproarious laughter that cascaded for minutes afterwards, dying down for a moment then rising back up in full hilarity just to die down again, and then repeat.
Jjenna Bok was crying.  She turned away wiping her eyes, hoping the men thought it was from the laughter.
I don know wha dis is, what I feel, but I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.  Please, Got.  If you dere, don let dis be a lie too.  Please!
She turned back to find the two boys still rough-housing with each other.  Oblivious!
Men! Why them don feel crazy stuff too?
————
Same time, at the Flag infirmary:
“I can’t believe how good I felt last week and now I feel like crap again.  What’s going on Doc?  Really?”  Ccassie was concerned.  After about a week of breathing clean air, and some treatments from the Medicos at the Flag, she’d started hacking up some god-awful looking stuff from her lungs.  At first, she felt horrible and congested beyond anything she’d experienced in sector-22, but eventually the congestion cleared.
After that short period of extreme discomfort, life changed.  She didn’t feel tired after short periods of exertion.  She could taste food.  She could take a deep, deep breath and not explode into a coughing fit.  These were all new phenomena for Ccassie.  She’d never breathed right before now.  So, what happened to make her feel so terrible now?
“Well, Ccassie, my dear, unlike your worst nightmares, this has nothing to do with your lungs.  Well, it does, but it’s not lung disease that’s got you down now.  You’ve got a cold.  It’s a common malady out here.  What’s odd, Ccassie, is that back there, in your sector-22, the cold bug is dead.  Out here, it’s alive and well.  A real pain in the ass it is, but it’s a nuisance only.  You’ll feel crappy for a day or two then spring right back.  Do not worry.  Take one of these every day to ease your breathing and sleep.  You’ll bounce back I promise.  Hmm!  I still marvel that this common little bug has survived years of medical advances beyond your wildest imaginings.  In order to kill it, we literally had to kill ourselves too.”
“Oh, thank Norton!  I was terrified, I don’t mind telling you Mmarg.  I debated telling you at all in case you made me go back.  Ha!  How childish!”
“Oh, Ccassie, dear, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but it is no more. Do you hear me, Girl?  It is no more.”
Ccassie’s tears, the sobbing heaves and her head on Mmarg’s shoulder were answer enough.
————
Eleven cycles+45-525319, prior to mideat at the Loks hideout:
“OOF!”  was the exclamation heard from Ellsbeth Fen when her attempt to ambush the much shorter Jaredd Lok with her self-fashioned weapon, fell short on the much taller Doctor Georgge.  She bounced off and fell back into the hide.
Hamm was on her in a moment, just before Jaredd, coming into the shelter behind the Doctor, lashed out with his stunner. Hamm had her wrapped in a bear hug causing her to drop her club.  Her children were screaming at her, then at Hamm, then at Jaredd. The doctor fell to his knees, nursing a bruised shoulder.  Then he stood up.
ENOUGH!”  He screamed at the top of his lungs. “STOP THIS, YOU FOOLS!” He continued with only slightly less volume and acid in his voice.
“You, stupid woman.  Do you think for a minute the Corp will reward you for tossing this sanctuary over to them?  Do you?  Fool!  Fool, woman.”  The vehemence in his voice caused her and everyone within hearing distance to wince and to back away.
“The Corp has a warrant out for your arrest, you and your brats.  Your Uncle and his family are already forfeit.  The moment the Corp finds this place; you, your family AND your husband are finished.  Caput!  Do you understand now, Ellsbeth Fen?

These proles are your only chance at life.  WAKE THE HELL UP, WOMAN! For God’s sake, wake up.  If not for your own sake, then for your children.”
Incapable of grasping her new reality, Ellsbeth Fen fell back to the confines of what darkness she could find, to the farthest corner of their hide, away from those unclean scum, away from the Loks and their cursed doctor, away from her own treacherous children.  Just …away…
“Come children, it’s time for your shots and checkup.  Come, come, who’s first this week?  I have candy…”
————
End Chapter Ten, Burtt’s Story.

Can Cali ever go RED again?

Ronald

There is a fairly new FB group called, “Make California Red Again”.  I am of course, a member in good standing.  I always hitch my ride to flaming stars that have about as much chance at being causal as Trump does wining over the ANTIFA clowns.

I mean no disrespect to the MCRA group if any fellow members read this.  So far, I’ve seen no evidence of STUPID in this group, anywhere.  So, I assume you have to see, as well as I do, that Cali is a ship well lost and foundering amidst the flotsam and jetsam of progressive idiocy.  As much as you and I hope and pray for a conservative savior to step up and reverse this malaise we are in; what are the chances?  Right!  So, moving on…

The issue of the day is, Why are Cali’s schools not following their own codes about funding illegal students.  It’s been reported that up to thirteen percent of all California students are illegals themselves, not born here.  Perhaps forty three percent of California’s students have at least one illegal parent.  I think I’m more surprised that we are still surprised at what’s happening here in Cali.

We are witnessing the loss of a sovereign state to socialist progressives, anarchists, antipathy, the political apoplexy of the Republican Party in California, the complacency of conservative voters until it was too late to stop the gerrymandering, and the re-Hispanicization of the southern Pacific Coast.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How many Californian Politicians are either liberal or Hispanic?
  • How many of those last ones came from illegal immigrant families?
  • In order to maintain power, are they not ALL in cahoots with each other?

So, they support each other’s causes, absolutely.  The tide has turned.  We conservatives are already outnumbered or they wouldn’t be kicking our asses at the polls every year.  They own the schools, the news, the hospitals, most of the money and 80% of the political field or more.  They have effectively beheaded us at every turn.

No, the best possible solution left is a sad one, I fear.  We should cede the coastline from San Francisco south to the Mexican border, and all the way east to but not including the central valley.  In that way, we can allow CALEXIT to happen…PLEASE, let it happen!  We then surround Sacramento and keep it under siege until they surrender.  We arrest Newsome and Moonbeam and keep them in chains, better still, in stocks, on the commons out in front of the State Building, until they return what they wasted on water tunnels, hi-speed railroads to nowhere, fake infrastructure funding and illegals.  We then foist the two morons back on the newly formed Calexico, and watch it fold in on itself since there won’t be any producers left in their insolated society and we’ll have all the food and water, anyway…the dumb fucks.

Only by taking these drastic steps will we ever save California, and we have to do it while there’s still enough old school Californians left.  They’re leaving by the droves, driven out by the foreign nature of what has become the Golden State.

BTW, we keep Silicon Valley.  We invented it.  It’s ours.  Piss off!  You can have Berzerkeley instead. We’ll mail it to in pieces.

Have a nice day, Moonbeam!

Baseball was a great game…then…

Don Baylor

Wow!  Just-WOW!  Hour after hour of blather about the Red Sox v Orioles confrontation.  Confrontation?  The guy didn’t even get hit.  What confrontation?  Now they want to crucify the pitcher?  What?????

I understand all the concerns about concussions and ending multi-million dollar careers with a single errant throw, whether intentional or not.  I understand that today,  players are way more protected, but how far is too far?  When will Football players start wearing those plastic bubble suits?  When will NBA players be penalized for pretending to touch an opponent?  Does the NHL convert to Nerf pucks in this newly minted world of sports fairies?

I hanker back to days of old, sitting along the baseline watching Don Baylor dare pitchers to hit him.  If they did, he took his base smirking all the way.  If they didn’t, he took them downtown.  I’m sure he doesn’t know what to think of his game today.

I’m beginning to think we need some good old fashioned ballers to come show these kids how to “Cowboy Up” as was once in vogue with America’s favorite pastime.

Hell, If Randy Johnson were to whack that bird with a fastball today, they’d have him locked up before the last feather landed; definitely before the batter could get to his safe space.

Dear Mr. President Trump, can you make baseball great again too?  Because…

THIS AINT BASEBALL!  Remember?  There ain’t no crying in baseball, damnit!

Burtt-Part 9, the Taj goes Green

cropped-cxd-135.jpg

10+30-552319, on the banks of Green river:

 

The dual blasts blew him 30 feet down the backside of Green River Mound.  He’d fought to stay conscious but failed.  When he woke, there was only the sound of the Army souring the area for survivors, remains, evidence…whatever they could find, he guessed.  His crew was gone, hopefully they made it out okay. Before he’d passed out, he saw the boys make it down the mound with the launchers and remaining rocket rounds.

 

They were good boys.  Shot the hell out of that Trans they did.

 

They had taken cover after the shootdown.  Josepp had remained standing fascinated by the fiery crash he’d ordered done.

 

Now he was desperate to stay hidden until the cops and the army were surely gone.  Then he’d figure out what to do next.  Like a sniper, he crawled inch by inch across the debris field on the back side of the Green River Mound to the remnants of the greenhouse.  A few broken panels from Burtt’s encounter with the wall was all that was left, but it was enough for Josepp to crawl under, nurse his wounds and stay quiet.  He was covered in dirt so he figured he blended in well with his surroundings and that was why the overhead Mil-AirTrans hadn’t spotted him yet.

 

There was no sign of the Taj or the Flag anywhere, just a dissipating fog bank, receding into the frontier.   The fact was, the spillover effects of the fog bank were still screwing with the Air ship’s scopes.

 

That’s where they are.  Good!  Bettah off out thay-ah than he-ah, for su-ah.

 

Now he just had to lay low for a while

.

They comin back for me. Won’t they?

 

Josepp dug down deeper and fell into a trouble sleep.

————

Eleven cycles, at the Lok Stead:

 

“Where do you suppose all your perservs went, Mr. Lok?  What about the two Hap perservs?  Where is this Burkk fellow?”  A perturbed Senior Detector Fen had been grilling Jaredd for hours now.  Jaredd played innocent and ill.  Doctor Georgge pled his case.  Fen persisted.

 

Finally, the CommCorp-MilSecCinC, Maxx Card, from the Army, made an appearance.  With apologies to all, this Card hauled Fen out of the house and proceeded to dress him down ferociously.  Fen was a simpering, cowering dolt by the time Card finished with him.  Truth be told, the both were in hot water with the Corp.  There’d been far too much damage incurred and nothing but speculation to show for it.

 

When Maxx Card stormed off, it appeared at first that Fen would return to the Lok stead for more fireworks when his comm unit chimed at his belt.  He looked at the display and all the strength seemed to flow out of him.  Jaredd wondered who that might be, discreetly watching from the window of his sleep quarters.

 

Fen, looking as though he’d been shot, sulked away to his transport yelling orders as he went.

 

“Sepp, to Justice Hall, on the quick, now, boy.  I’ve to meet with a Justifier.  Norton, this is going to get ugly.  Alright.  No sense, laying down now.  Once you drop me there, Sepp, I need you to go to my wife and children.  Trans them to somewhere near her Uncle’s stead in North-City.  Understand?  Don’t take no for an answer and if my son, that great oaf, gives you any trouble, stun him.  You have my permission.

 

“Here’s the most important instruction I have for you, Sepp.  It is imperative you get it right.  Understand?”

 

Sepp nodded, his concern growing with every word from his longtime master.

 

“Tell Jjoan, “Missing”.  That’s it, Sepp, “MISSING”.  Nothing more, okay? And don’t ask any damn questions.  Pick them up. Transport them to North-City wherever Jjoan tells you to, then forget you ever saw them today and get back here to me.  Repeat your instructions, Sepp.”

 

When Fen was confident that his driver would do his bidding, they set off on what Fen knew was a new destiny, and probably one quite a bit bleaker than that which he enjoyed today.  Failing for so many times to quell the “uprising” in sector-22 would have its consequences and they weren’t good.  That’s why he was having his family go “missing”.  The Corp didn’t just punish her failures, she punished anyone associated with the failure.  Fen didn’t feel his family deserved to suffer for his transgressions.  He sent them off hoping they would be safe.  Her uncle was a prole sympathizer, though he kept it on the Q T.  He would keep them out of sight if he could.  He had a cellar no one knew of where they could hide in a pinch.

 

Damn that prole boy.  If I don’t hang today, then one day I’ll get you Mr. Burkk. One day, I will! And when I find out who supplied you with Rockets, I don’t care who it is, they WILL hang.

————

 

Same time, in the Flag Greathall:

 

“Easy now boyo, there’s naught we can do about it.  CommCorp owns the communications business, remember?  They own the lines, the towers, the repeater stations, everything. They built that unit in your hand.  If they don’t want comms outside the dome, there won’t be any.  Along with the usual civilian and business wavelengths, there are several Military and cop channels they keep open all the time.  But, in crisis mode, they shut down all but those official lines of communication.

 

“You lost your signal originally in the soup, Burtt, as everyone does.  Something about all the radioactive metal still lying about.  Once we got clear of that, comms should have come back. Since they didn’t, we must assume the Corp shut it down for the duration of the present crisis.

 

“Believe me, it’s a crisis in there right now.  They have a Mil-AirTrans down, taken out by proles with SAM rockets.  They have a massive dome breech to repair.  Then there’s the exodus of Norton knows how many Proles from a conclave established right under their noses, with the aid of several perservs who’ve gone missing, and possibly several citizens too, some of whom have also gone missing.  They must see all that by now.

 

“The debris left in the Taj will indicate more than just a wasteland.  That one Army officer even alluded to its cleanliness.   By now the underground will have been discovered.  You and the Taj are well and truly blown my friend.  And, they’ll also surely be wondering by now, where the hell all the sector-22 perservs are.  There should have been some remains, if just bits and pieces.”

 

Burtt, staring longingly across the flat, towards what was once home and his sister, wondered if he’d ever see her again.

 

“When we get comms back ya think, Jonn?  I have to let Ssyn know I ain’t aband…abnand…oh hell, leaving her there.”  He was so angry at himself, he could hardly speak a handful of coherent words at a time.  “No mattah. We don’t get comms by mideat, I’m going back.  I’ll keep trying to get her until I do.”

 

“Burtt, this is reckless.  We just must wait.  Not long, they need comms too, but we need to wait. We gain nothing if you get captured.”  This from Harkk.

 

“Besides, it would be better if you waited until we could get one of our comm units to her.  So far, the Corp can’t tag our units to jam them or locate us.  They can pick up that little unit of yours, though, without breaking a sweat.”  Jonn offered.

 

“I ain’t get captured, Harkk.  They ain’t a Corp Cop who could.  And I got to call her on this first time, anyway.”

 

“Perhaps you won’t be captured, Burtt.  How about Captain Clak, though.  You know the Army Captain who leveled the entire Taj on a whim?  Remember him and his partner?  They have hundreds, just like them waiting for the opportunity to prove themselves to the Corp and better their lot in life.  Capturing or killing the notorious outlaw, Burkk the Blade, would just about do the trick. Every gun in the Corp is out looking for you right now Burtt.  Even if they don’t know your true name, they are gunning for you, son, and you can bet they know what you look like, roughly. There aren’t a whole lot of healthy, threatening 19-year-olds anywhere outside the dome. Don’t give them what they want.  Please.”

 

Burtt was surprised at Harkk’s use of the word “son”.  He fought to temper his anger for Harkk’s sake.  Those around him could see the fire raging within.  Burtt simply turned without saying a word and left the Flag Greathall.

 

Son? Not parts now, Harkk?  Am I now your lesser too?  Damn!

 

“Norton, that boy is an explosion waiting to engulf something.” Jonn stated with concern.

 

“Yep, that’s Burtt.  One trigger pull away from cataclysm…every day, all day,” Harkk responded. “I have spent countless hours reining that energy back in or channeling it to another direction.  He can learn damn near anything you teach him.  So, if you want to prevent catastrophe from following him around, keep him busy.  Norton, knows I try to.  And every time I do try to redirect his energy, I feel him slip a little further away. He is one independent son of a blister that boy is.

 

“Do you know, Katt taught him algebra in three months?  Not on a low-school track, after two weeks of blowing through the basics like he was learning to eat, she hit him with a full on MastersEd track and he aced it.  Sure, he had some initial difficulties with the concept of formulas and using them for problem solving; but one day the light came on and it was all downhill from there.  He helped me lay out the plans for the greenhouse.  In fact, he did it all himself with very minor coaching on my part, and that was more about style and conformity of labeling than the actual layout itself or the dimensions of it.  Kkat was asking Jaredd for more advanced materials when the stuff hit the fan.

 

“Yes, Our Burtt has a head on his shoulders.  It appears he’s every bit the Brainerd his dad was.  I knew him, I did.  He came out to the Wall often.  He was a decent sort who liked to do kindnesses for both us poor slobs on Wall, and the poor slobs on the frontier too.  That and Jjosie’s propensity to be more outspoken than her infamous Great Uncle Henrry Meinklop, is what got them in such trouble with the Corp in the first place.”

 

“Perhaps we both are trying too hard, eh?  With Burtt, I mean.  Maybe we should let him feel his way through this stuff and only offer guidance if he asks for it or when he is obviously headed in a wrong direction.  Like I said before, Harkk, that BOY is no boy, and we ought to start thinking that way.  Did you see how he looked at you when you called him “son”? It wasn’t an amused smile, Harkk.  It was that one he uses when he’s about to tell you nicely to, go fish”.

 

Jonn was also looking for answers regarding Burtt’s behavioral patterns. He needed to be able to approach Burtt without fear of reprisal for saying the wrong thing.  He just didn’t know yet what it was that constituted wrong in Burtt’s book.  It seemed like Harkk had the same problem.  Burtt’s temper was the one thing about him that was still rooted in his childhood.  It would take him down eventually, Jonn knew.  He’d seen it before.  Jonn’s predecessor passed because of his lack of control.  The last thing both crews needed was for another wild man to take the reins.

 

Harkk was worried about his young friend for much the same reasons as Jonn.  The fear he felt for Burtt went beyond any fear he’d ever felt for himself.  The boy could turn from calm to critical mass before Harkk could blink.

 

Boy! Ha! There you go again. Burtt the MAN, Harkk old son, Burtt the man.

 

He knew this headstrong boy was going after his sister somehow.  It was just a matter of how long he and Jonn could keep him tied down on the farm, so to speak. What a sin it would be to lose him now.  Like Jonn, Harkk believed Burtt was the key to every one’s survival.

 

If anyone can spur these crews on to new heights, it’s that lad, not me.  Not Jonn.  It’s Burtt!

————

 

Eleven+30 cycles, outside on the Flag Compound:

 

There was certainly a lot to do and the doing was well under way.  Work crews were organized by Harkk and Bann.  For the most part, Burtt was too preoccupied for anything more than walking the perimeter staring at the Wall and beyond to the Dome.

 

Sometimes, Burtt thought he could still see atmosphere venting form the place Josepp’s rockets had impacted the Dome.  He knew it was just more smaze at the wall playing tricks on his eyes.  He wanted so much to be there.  He’d gotten the Taj to safety, he should have turned right around and gone back to get Ssyndi and the rest.

 

Now he also knew that he didn’t get all the fighting Taj-mates out that day.  Josepp’s three rocketeers were the last to make it to Jonn’s AirTrans.  They came in without Josepp.  Burtt didn’t notice he’d gone missing until they had left the red-zone.  All the rocketeers could tell Burtt was that when they looked behind them after the blasts; Josepp was nowhere to be seen.

 

He felt so guilty it tore at him all day long.  He had to go back.  The longer he waited the less chance those kids had to get out.  But every time he allowed himself to travel down that line of thought, he ended up at the same place.

 

If you go now; you die!

 

His frustration level grew.

 

When he couldn’t stand the idleness any longer, he filled his time with the back-breaking labor of moving huge slabs of granite into place around the new Taj compound or digging the trenches the slabs would sit in.  He might be brooding out by the fence and hear a crew grunting and straining at their work.  He would then hustle over to lend his brawn to the effort.

 

Thus, he would pass his next several days impatiently waiting for the Comm channels to clear, and, subsequently, the day he could rescue his sister and the rest of the Taj.  It couldn’t come soon enough.

————

 

Same time, Flag compound and southern perimeter grazing fence:

 

The two had become more than fast friends.  They spent every waking and sleeping moment together.  You couldn’t separate them come hell or high water.  Katt was perplexed.  She couldn’t continue Jjenna’s lessons when Kett was around.  The older girl was still uncomfortable in Kett’s presence, though he hardly paid her any attention now.  Still, she tried to pass the ball to Bbessie but the old girl was having no part of it.

 

“That girl is your problem, Kkat.  I got my hands full with Cconnie and her troop of women warriors, for lands sake.  Their a bunch ten and twelve-year-old children.  Warriors my fat behind!  No!  I’ll not be taking on another problem child for a while yet, thank you very much.”

 

(Sigh) “Well, then it’s up to me.  Jizmo, though, if that boy even squeaks ugly, I’ll rap him so hard he won’t know what day it is.” Katt accepted her fate.

 

“I swear.  If Burtt doesn’t snap out of this funk soon…”  She left the thought unsaid.

What could she do?  What could he do?  Burtt was struggling too.

 

“It’ll all work itself out, Katt.  Have you been watching those two?  Jjenna and Kett?  Have you?”

 

“Watching them what, Bbess?”  Katt was thinking that Bbessie’s age and the wild was finally getting to her.  Why on earth would she be watching the demon boy from hell?

 

See what?  I don’t want to see him, hear him…whatever. She thought.

 

“Honestly, Kkat.  You and Burtt have the same malady.  Can’t see past your own grief-itis.” Bbessie audibly clucked her disapproval and continued, “Those two have been stuck to each other since we left the Taj.  Like glue they have.  They are even sharing sleeping space.  Has he said a word to you, Katt?  Has he been snooping around?  Is he at your heels anymore?”

 

Katt had to think but then admitted, “No.  Come to think of it, no, he hasn’t.  Not once, in fact, since we’ve been out here.  The only time I see him, he’s with Jjenna when I wasn’t to spend time on her lessons. Hmm!  Can it be?  This is wonderful news, Bbessie.  Wonderful.”  Then Katt stopped in mid gloat.  For the briefest of moments, she felt a pang of jealousy.

 

Oh, girl, you are such a…Kkat thought.

 

With a sudden intake of breath, “Oh, dear.  Bbessie, have I been an insufferable twit?”

 

“Yes dear, but all teenage girls are, so don’t fret.”  Bbessie’s smirk kept Katt from a snarky retort.  Instead she ran to her best female friend outside the dome and hugged her tight.

 

Bbessie hid the tear in her eye with Kkat’s head buried in her matronly bosom.  How long had she wanted this?  How long had she prayed to whatever being was in charge, if any, to grant her the blessing of children.  How long had she pined away the hours with regret, ministering to the most hateful bitch the Corp could boast having as a resident.  How long had she suffered that witch’s mean spirited treatment of Qquit in silence, when her baroness left her an empty, lonesome, nearly uncaring shell?  Now, she had a hundred of the little darlings and there wasn’t enough time in the day to deal with half their needs, not for one person.

 

“No, my dear Kkat, don’t worry about being a human child.  You’re supposed to have these trials.  It’s all a rite of passage kind of thing.  You’re just fine.

 

“More than that though, young lady, I need you to be a functional senior Taj-mate.  I need Burtt to do the same but I’m working on you.  Burtt is for Harkk and Jonn to master, and good luck to them with that, eh?” Bbessie whispered this last to lighten the moment.  It worked.  Kkat couldn’t help but smile at the effort it would take to even begin to temper Burtt’s ardor.

 

“How long have they been out there?”  Katt asked pointing to the two-black sheep, barely visible at the outer grazing wire.  They not only took to the farm animals, they were the first Taj-mates to volunteer for perimeter watch.  Burtt didn’t volunteer, he just went there and assumed the duty.

 

“Harkk tells me they were up at the crack of dawn, fed the chickens, mucked the stalls and led the cattle and sheep to pasture.  They took Kett’s K, Hiss, with them and now Kett is using her to help control the herds.  He’s using the whistling, clicking and hand signals Burtt taught them to make the K go straight ahead or left or right.  He found that he could move the herds in the general direction he chose running the K back and forth behind them.

 

“He told Harkk that he just watched the way Hiss interacted with the animals.  How they would move away from her if she approached.  From there it was just a matter of experimenting.  It took some practice, but in the brief time they’ve been out there this morning, Kett has taught Hiss, to guide the herds with little chance of the livestock getting away although it probably took an hour longer than normal and I’m quite sure they scared the heck out of some of those cows, so there may be a bit of sour milk tomorrow.  He had much more trouble with the cattle than the sheep. With patience, he even got some of the herds to pass through the gates to the pastures they were using.  All the sheep did, but they had to work together to get the some of the cattle in the normal way, shooing the great beasts along ahead of them.”

 

The two were camped at the wire now, watching for intruders.  They would stay there until mideat when a relief crew would come to spell them.  That crew was not well versed in the art of K-handling, and would be Flags anyway, so they moved the cattle the old-fashioned way, on horseback.  No Taj-mates had yet to cowboy up, as Jonn called it.  They’d never seen anything so big before and were slowly coming to grips with the fact there were bigger living things in this world than humans.

 

Kkat saw them lean towards each other and tough foreheads.  Her mouth fell open a bit.  Silhouetted like that, they looked so natural, so connected…so unlike either one of them.

 

Can it be? Please, lord, please.

 

“There’s more than a little friendship going on there, Katt.  Your worries in that regard are over, I’m sure.  That boy is gone head over heels for someone else now, girl.  You had your chance and you blew it, I’m afraid.”  Bbessie couldn’t help herself and laughed uproariously at her little joke.

 

Katt simply blushed, pleased as pink.

————-

24-113319, at the Lok stead:

 

A static hiss interrupted the silence of the night.  She kept the unit on and charging all the time, just in case.

 

ZZZZZZZZZT, “24, that’s 24. Not down but up a half. Mumble. Out!” No response but two clicks was needed. Ssyn sent the two clicks depressing the push-to-talk button twice.

 

His voice.  That was what she’d been waiting for.  That was the answer to her every waking moment’s prayer. Jaredd had contracted Harkk long before, to construct an iso-chamber in the Lok stead for allowing discreet comms into and out of the dome.  Receivers and transmitters finely tuned to an exact frequency and signal amplitude could penetrate the shell of the iso chamber electronically and the dome itself through tiny repeaters the greaser also installed discreetly while servicing other technical needs of the dome itself.  It was effective for up to thirty ticks.  Burtt never stayed on for more than five.

 

He comm’d me. He comm’d me.  Oh, thank God, Burtt, I love you. You are the absolute best brother. Let’s see! “24-up-a-half-mumble” means, tomorrow at mideat, he’d be there to rescue me.

 

She almost started crying again but then caught herself.  She had to get the kids here from all over the damn dome.

 

No, wait, the message only said “Mumble”. That means talk only, not escape. That message would have included the phrase “stroll the park”. Sigh!  Okay. We’re not going home today.  But he’s coming just the same.  The kids will all be excited so, I should be too, I guess.

 

She gave herself permission to cry and did so, profusely.  Jaredd came running to her door in a state.

 

“Ssyn?  Ssyn?  Oh, my Norton, girl, what’s the matter now?”

 

The tears flowing from her eyes contradicted the ear to ear smile so profoundly, that Jaredd, for perhaps the first time in his life, was left speechless, but for just a moment.

 

“You heard from Burtt?”  When Ssyndi nodded, “Oh, thank the stars.”  He smiled with her and hugged his trembling charge tightly.

 

“Do you suppose there’ll be room for me Ssyn?  Do you?” He asked.

 

“I’ll make room, Jar.”

————

Same time, just inside the Wall within sector-22’s extended area:

 

“You sure they got it, Burtt?  If so, close it down. Remember what I said about being live for too long on these open perscomm units.  You might be screened inside the dome, but out here, the Army owns the airwaves.”  Jonn senior tracker was more than a bit nervous about this mission.

 

“Yeah, she got it.  She clicked twice like I taught her. Then shut down.  It’s all okay.  I’m in there tomorrow. I’m glad we came half way today, Jorukk.  That was a clever idea you had. Makes tomorrow’s run in a piece of cake.  Be easy brother Jor.”

 

“Yeah. Just so long as you run in, give her the new comm unit and run the hell right out again, then I’ll be easy.  I still don’t like you going in alone.”

 

“Looka this fog, Jor.  A horse could get in unseen in this stuff.  And Baff said it be like this until Hi-day, at least.  We good, brother.”  Baff was the Flag weather-man.

 

“You say so.”  Was Jorukk’s unconvincing reply.

 

“Ha!  Worry- wart!”  Burtt smiled at his newest best friend and companion.

————

11+30-213319, on the downslope of Green River Mound:

 

He saw someone on the far bank of Frontier Creek.

 

Damn, they still lookin?  Bastas!

 

Josepp was getting weaker now.  He couldn’t find anything else to eat.  Whatever was left in the underground, the Army had confiscated. Even the rats ran away.  He was living on the Green River water he crawled to after dark.  Today the overcast was so heavy he was going down to the water in daylight.  His stomach was screaming at him as were his bowels. Apparently, an all water diet wasn’t the best thing.

 

Now he’d have to scramble back to his hide before whoever that was got too much closer.  He was so weak though.  He slowly turned and started crawling back to the greenhouse.  He only made it halfway and fell asleep.  He’d been doing that a lot these past two days.

————

 

What was that over by the Greenhouse? Burtt wondered.  There was something over there.  It was barely moving but it was hard to see in this smaze still.

 

Maybe someone was sneaking around over there?

 

He made his way slowly, staying directly behind his target until he could see it was a man.  He had been crawling slowly, then he stopped.  He was just lying there now.  Burtt approached slowly with blades drawn

 

Now that he was about to pounce, he saw the tuck.  Scouts, soldiers, rocketeers all carried a tuck with personal effects like a shoulder bag but crossed over their necks and tucked into their leggings at the small of their backs.  They were all made of the same material.  Bbessie had sewn them each one.  Only a Taj-mate would have one.  He’d found Josepp.

 

God, let him be okay. Please.  I don’t ask for nuthin else this week.  Please!  Burtt pleaded with his deity.

 

Josepp groaned when Burtt eased him over. “Oh, my stomach.  Kill me please!”

 

“Ha! Not today I won’t, Josepp.  We are going home.  Yessuh!”

 

Josepp’s eyes opened fully and when realization that he’d been rescued set in he tried to whoop, but barely managed a squeak.

 

“F-f-f-food.  Food, please, Burtt.”

 

“Easy, friend.  Let’s get you out of here first, okay?”

————

 

Using the secure comm unit Jorukk had given him for personal use, he comm’d his friend,

 

“F2, F2, this is T1, over?”

 

“Go ahead, T1”

 

“Trans-blaster1 found.  Need MedTrans asap. Trooper in distress, over.”

 

“Roger. F2 inbound.  P-U at GRM base, over.”

 

“Roger, GRM base, out.  Copy we need an IV for this guy.”

 

“Copy, Starting and IV.”

 

“Let’s go Josepp.  Time for you to ride the FasTrans.  You ain’t gonna believe this thing, Josepp. Jonn has more surprises than a first-tier bot. We got to strap you in so you don’t fly off it.  I ain’t kidding either. This thing flies.”

 

Josepp didn’t answer.  He was out again.  Burtt picked him up and headed over to the base of Green River Mound.

 

Damn! Hurry Jorukk, hurry!

 

The import of Jaredd’s foresight in getting the four exiled citizens to agree to accompany the Taj to their new home was never more apparent to Burtt than it was then.  There wasn’t anyone in the Taj aside from those four from the MedSci ranks of CommCorp City who would know how to deal with Josepp’s condition well enough for Burtt’s satisfaction. It didn’t matter that they really had no other alternative.  Had they stayed in the Taj, they’d have died in the blasts.

 

Burtt began the tedious task of unwrapping.  He would overheat in sudden fashion if the suit wasn’t processing.  That was another key to wearing the iso-suit.  If you weren’t working it, that is, making it process your bodily wastes and absorb or distribute energy, the suit would work against you.  So, when you stopped exertion or didn’t need the filters, you stripped and put on the unisuit instead.

 

They were constantly learning new things from the Flags. The suit was only one source of mystery every Taj-mate wanted answers to.  Burtt had puzzled over the concept of there being living creatures in this material; another bit of info the Flag had delayed the telling of.  That bit of news was kind of creepy, so maybe it was good to take these new things on, one at a time.

 

Harkk had known there was no “magic” involved like every Taj mate believed there was.  He pushed Jonn until Jonn gave up the secret.  Harkk hadn’t found any tech in the suit, other than the material itself, so that led him to the obvious query, “What’s up with this stuff, Jonn?  Really?”

 

The answer was long and very high-tech.  Harkk was puzzled himself by a fair amount of the science involved.  It took three of the Flags’ best to explain it all in layman’s terms.  The material was the home of tiny creatures (nannies, the Flags called them) who thrived on human liquid impurities, pollutants and poisons, and whose excrement was suitable for human use, up to and including hydration. These nannies also absorbed radioactive materials and reprocessed them into benign waste that were passed out the bottom tube back into the soils it came from, though without the 10,000-year half-life issues.

 

Yes, this was some amazing stuff.  One could live for three days without replenishment if the suit remained intact.  They were still working on ways to process poop.  The common thread of thought in their science community was that if they could figure that one out, they might extend that replenishment window to a full 7-day.

 

The Taj conceded, unanimously.  It was all MAGIC!

————

12 cycles, at the Lok Stead:

 

ZZZZZZZZT-zzzzzzzzzzzzt… “in 5” was the short cryptic message.

 

Her excitement nearly sent her head over heels downstairs and out the door.

 

“Remember what we said about looking suspicious, Ssyn?”

 

“Oh Jar, I’m so excited I can’t help it.”

 

“I know.  Let’s just take a walk and meander on over to the tube. Then if anyone asks we’ll say we decided to look at the devastation.  It will be the first time we’ve dared to venture outside since that terrible day with those terrible proles mucking about out there.”

 

“Oh, you are ever so devious, Jar.  I love it!  Shall we?”

 

“Yes, let’s.”  Jaredd escorted Ssyndi to their first meet with a prole since the day of the exodus. To Ssyndi, it seemed months had passed.

————

12+5, at the tube exit into the sector-22 near-zone:

 

“I don’t see him, Jaredd.  Where is he?”  Ssyn was frantic.  They’d been here 5 spans without seeing a hint of Burtt.  It was past the 5 spans Burtt had stated in his comm.  There wasn’t anything here to see so they couldn’t stay much longer without drawing unwanted attention.  As it was, the guard on the other side of the tube was mightily suspicious and asked way more questions than they’d anticipated. Jaredd finally had to assert himself and gain access via his family’s name.

 

“He’ll be here, Ssyn.  He’s watching from somewhere, making sure it’s clear. Hmm!  Perhaps we…”  he paused a moment, then, “There! There he is.  See?  Just behind the debris pile the robodozers left where the Taj hall was located.  Aha!  I bet that’s where the tunnel to the underground began.  Let’s wander over that way, shall we?”

 

They strolled, seemingly without purpose towards the pile looking every bit the curious citizens just taking in the sights.

 

Ssyndi was the first to hear it.  It started as a barely heard tinkle, then became clearer as they got closer. Someone was whistling Kkhloe’s song. Ssyn joined in with the lyrics. “When you’re down, and troubled, and you need a helping hand,”

 

“You always were a bettah singer, sis.  Probably why I whistle so much.”  Burtt whispered from beyond view of the tube and the dome. “I wish I could hug you.  Ain’t no time though.  Not he-ah.  I got you a new comm unit.  This one the Corp caint listen to. We plan your escape using this unit.  Jonn says we should try to be patient.  Give the Corp time to settle down again and stop being so vigilant.  It would be no good to try a rescue just to get caught, right?”

 

“Yes, Burtt.  That makes sense, though I hate it.  Humph!”  Ssyndi had expected this but it still rankled.

 

“Come on, Ssyn.  It ain’t gonna be for long.  Now that the dome is repaired, the level of Mil-AirTrans traffic has gone back to almost normal.  I figure a week…two at the most.”  Burtt lied.

 

Harkk and Jonn both insisted that they wait a full lunar still.  Burtt hoped that if he was in comms with Ssyn, the headstrong girl would be able to hold on, barely.

 

“How are things progressing out there, Burtt?” Jaredd interjected, nodding towards the beyond and deftly deflecting Ssyn’s growing pique.

 

“Slow, Jaredd but it’s coming.  We got so much work to do it’s crazy and still the Taj is rising to the challenge.”  He paused as if thinking what was worth the telling in the short window of time available.  He decided there was one piece of info that Ssyn would love to hear.

 

“Kett Mont and Jjenna Bok are a thing.  Can ya believe that?  Hah!  Kkat’s like in heaven without that boy in her space all the time.  They’re like, how’d Bbessie say it?  Oh yeah.  Two peas in a pod.  I ain’t sure what that is but it sounds about right, don’t it?  We’re going to have peas with a meal soon, so I guess I’ll find out, eh?”  Burtt finished with a huge grin.  Ssyndi was ecstatic.  Towards the end of the Taj’s stay in Sector-22, there wasn’t a day that Kkat let go by without complaining about that boy.

 

“Oh, Burtt, that’s wonderful. Tell her I said, “yay”, okay?  She’ll know!”  She was positively beaming and Burtt figured he should make his break now on a positive note.  They needed to get Josepp out of there, too.

 

“Alright, sis.  It’s time for me to go.  Let me show you how to work the comm unit.”  He did so but couldn’t help noticing his sister’s face grow long and the few tears she allowed to fall from her eyes.

 

“It’ll go quick Ssyn.  I promise it will.  You’ll see!”  He started to reach for her, but Jaredd shifted in time to block any view of that errant limb from the tube.  Burtt snatched his hand back quickly with a hollow feeling building in his chest.  He placed the unit at the edge of the tunnel.

 

JIZMO!  You a dope or what, Burtt?

 

“Go on, Burtt.  We’ll be waiting.  I know how to use the comm unit.  What call sign will you answer to?”  This from Jaredd as Ssyndi was too choked up to speak.  She blew a kiss to her hero then turned and ran weeping toward the tube.

 

“I’m T1.  Jonn is F1 and Jorukk is F2.  Why don’t we make your call sign D1, for dome, eh?”  He looked over towards his sister’s parting back and whispered a final promise. “Soon Ssyn…soon.”

 

“Jaredd, you be ready to go, too.  Ain’t no place for you he-ah either.”

 

Unable to express his gratitude without an emotional outburst of his own, Jaredd merely nodded his ascent and smiled.  He stooped low, picking up dirt, debris and rocks, allowing it to slowly sift through his fingers; he discreetly pocketed the new comm unit, rose and turned towards the tube.

 

Oh, dear Norton, thank you, Burtt. Thank you!

 

“Ssyndi?  Ssyndi…wait.  You can’t be distraught in the presence of those tube bots.  Wait please! Damn, that girl.”  Jaredd picked up the pace.

 

As he made his way slowly back into the smaze, Burtt was on his comm.

 

“F2 this is T1. FC at CC in 5.” Was Burtt’s quick missive to Jorukk telling him to meet at Fountain Creek outside Ccassie’s old Creche.

 

“T1, roger. Double quick. Trooper failing. Break!”  Was Jorukk’s strained response.  Burtt lit out with renewed determination.

————
Same time, in the soup just beyond the red-zone in sector-22:

“Repeat that last Medic.  I say again, repeat that last.”  Jorukk was trying to fly, hold Josepp’s hand, and talk with the medics back at Flag Compound.

 

“You have to stick the IV needle in his vein.  Do you hear me?  Hello?  HELLO?”  Samm Spayd, the medic on the line was yelling by the time he finished.  To the tech next to him, he asked, “Can he hear me okay do you think?”

 

“Hmm!  I’ll tell you what sir, if you yell in his ear again I think he’s going to pop you in the nose when he gets back here.  Just talk to him.  Yelling won’t help.  When you finish saying something, and want him to confirm, say over, remove your finger from the PTT, and wait for him to reply.  When you’re done talking to him, say out.  Okay?  Calm, now.”

 

“Stop yelling, damnit!” came the angry response, then, “Oh crap.  F2 to base. Copy your last. I’m flying now.  Will get back to you in 5 spans, stand by, out.”

 

When he seemed about to reply, CommTech Redd Fox grabbed the hand unit from Spayd and said, “No response needed after you hear, out.  Just wait.”

————

12+30, on the Wall:

 

“Are you sure?  Certain sure?  I won’t have it said that I am now seeing the sky fall at every turn.”

 

Junior Detector Larss Fen was gun shy.  He’d had his fill of reacting, underreacting and overreacting to that demon ghost from Sector-22.  He wondered now if there ever was such a creature. Life on the Wall will give one pause.

 

Burkk! Hah! There must be such a one. That basta cost me a star he did.  Bah! Why complain, Larss.  You’re not in the mines, are you?  You go home every night to your empty quarters and sleep in peace.  Better than these poor buggers stuck out here all the time.  Norton, who would opt for the military over the cops?  And how did I manage to stay out of real punishment? It’s nice to have a benefactor, but it would be nicer to know who it was.

 

“Yes, sir.  We checked across several sensor banks.  There’s been passages across the wall in both directions over the past lunar sir.  The traces are mere ghosts though, sir. That’s why we haven’t reported them until now.  We’ve have nothing solid to point to. Then, when the sensors lit off again this morning, First Rank Pors decided that this alert was one too many, sir.  We both decided to bring it to your attention.  Begging your pardon, sir.”

 

“That’s quite alright, Second Rank Tok.  That’s why I am here purportedly. If the two of you are sure, let’s have a look at the data, eh?”

 

A command position at the Wall wasn’t normally the place for a Cop, but Fen’s embarrassing failure at Sector-22 brought his commander under fire.  It was all the Chief of Cops could do to keep his most senior detector salvageable, and he’d had to call in some owed favors to keep Fen from the mines.  This assignment and the demotion, which represented a severe cut in pay, was meant to teach Fen a lesson.

 

Quadrant III Chief of CommCorp-Police, Jaxx Bik, didn’t want to teach Fen a lesson. He wanted Fen to keep doing his job, so that Bik didn’t have to, nor did he want to spend the time finding a new Senior Detector so capable. CommCorp didn’t exactly promote the idea of independent thinking even with its higher-ranking officers.  So, Fen would spend a few lunars living like a common soldier, then get his old job back.  Bik would fill in himself in the meantime, delegating what he could to several semi-literate second-tier Detectors.

 

Fen was grateful beyond words at this happy ending but hadn’t yet decided to bring his family back into the light, so to speak.  Something kept niggling at his consciousness, telling him that he wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet. He left his wife and sons in Limbo on the other side of CommCorp City.  He never considered it might be the Chief who saved his bacon.  The chief hated him.  The feeling was mutual.

 

The bastas are probably waiting for me to bring my family home before they drop the hammer.

 

The drumming of the soldier’s fingers on his pad shook Fen form his reverie.

 

“Hmm!  This looks like noise to me Tok. What do you base your analysis on?”

 

“Well, sir; It’s just that we don’t normally see the same patterns repeatedly.  Noise is noticeably random, sir.  The signals we’re picking up are the same every time.  First Rank Pons decided to start recording the hits last 5-day. Take another look, sir. That can’t be noise, sir.  Can’t!”

 

“Show me the other scans, again.”  He waited while they were brought up one by one on the soldier’s pad. The similarity from one to the next was too remarkable to be random.

 

“Well, I’ll be damned.” He looked about him getting oriented, then, asked, “Isn’t that the Flag compound out that way?” pointing through the viewport towards the Green Slash of open pastureland well beyond the Wall.

 

“Out there some where’s, yes sir.”  The soldier replied.

 

“I wonder what that old codger, Flag, is up to?  Isn’t he the one they caught flying into that melee on sector-22?”

 

“Yes sir, it was him.  We were listening in on the whole op, sir.  Quite a mess, eh?  Who’d thought a bunch of pro…”  He caught himself when he turned to see the red flush rising in Fen’s complexion. “Sorry, sir!”

 

“Ahem!  No need!  No need!  It wasn’t your fault, was it?  That damn Burkk.  By Norton, I’ll…”

 

“Who’s that, Sir?”  the soldier was having a great deal of difficulty keeping the smirk off his face.  Word had spread like wildfire about the Cop and that great smelly turd, Maxx Card, being handed their arses by a prole with a rocket launcher.  It was a source of great entertainment to the troops who’d suffered long and hard under that basta Card before he moved to the dome.  Any time a Cop took heat was a good day too. They worked half as hard as the Army and lived high off the hog in the dome.

 

“You know damn well who, Tok.  Don’t play coy with me.  I know you boys are having a swell time laughing behind my back.  You’d do well to remember that one day, I’ll go back to the dome.  One day, I’ll have direct access to your bosses again.  Hmm?”

 

The smirk slowly slid off the soldier’s mug.  No doubt this officious basta would do what he threatened.

 

“Yes, sir!”  Was the only expected and acceptable response.

 

“How far from us is the crossing occurring, Tok?”

 

“It’s hard to say for certain, sir.  The soup is a cold beast when you need it to be warm and vice versa, signals wise, sir.  It’s really a crapshoot trying to guess distances or even vectors sometimes, but First Rank Pors thinks the signal is coming from the part of the Wall that is usually most engulfed in smaze that rises from that swampy area just inside the Wall.  Just so happens, that section of the Wall is directly in line with the Flag compound from Sector-22’s near zone.  Close in to the Wall, we’ve cleared the debris for a killing zone, just in case the crazies do get in behind us some day.  Anyway, that clear zone lets us see into that area a little better with our sensors. Pors thinks that why we got any hit at all but the smaze in that area makes it all a bit iffy.  It looks like some real high tech counter detection equipment is involved, sir.”

 

“Is it, now?  Is it?  Hmm!  Just what are you up to Mr. Flag?”  For the first time, Fen began to wonder if this Burkk wasn’t really a new phenomenon to hit the wilds.  What if he wasn’t some new someone else altogether?  What if Jonn Flag was this Burkk fellow, too?

 

Bah!  To what end?  The Flags have everything including freedom from the damn Meinklops.  What could he possibly need in sector-22?  Nothing, that’s what.  Damn!

 

He wanted so badly to make someone pay, but he had no target.  He wondered if he’d ever win his way back into the Corp’s good graces.

 

Better not bet on that, Larss.  Better not!

 

“Very well, Tok. Keep monitoring.  Intensify the signal strength.  Get me something substantial I can take to the Corp.  Understand?”

 

“Yes sir, but if we intensify the signal, it’s gonna burn through our screens too. Then whoever it is will know we are watching, especially if it’s the Flags, if you catch my meaning, sir.  Those guys got some serious tech, sir. If we up the ante, they might call our bluff, so to speak, and make it even more difficult to track them.”

 

“Yes.  I do know what you mean, Tok, and who said anything about a bluff? Do it!”  the Flags were technically advanced enough to be able to detect the increased signal strength and might shut down whatever they were doing or configure some new tech trick to spoof the scanners.  Fen thought it was worth taking the chance.

 

I’ll do anything to get off this damn Wall.

 

‘Yes, sir!”

 

“Then get Pors to connect me with CinC Card. On the quick now, Tok, on the quick.”

 

A plan was forming in Fen’s mind.  He and Card both were in the dog house with CommCorp for their failure to protect the dome and her citizens against the unwashed proles.  If the two could coordinate their efforts and bring this notorious Burkk/Flag to Justice Hall together, that would go a long way towards correcting their career paths, and bring Fen back into the dome.  Card had been placed on administrative detention until his disposition could be determined.  The Corp was quite disappointed in their newest CinC.  He would be more than willing to go out on a limb with Fen, if it bought them some respite.

————

Fourteen+15, just south of the Wall, ten kliks shy of the Flag Compound:

 

“Shhhh, Burtt, shhhh.  Listen.”  Jorukk impatiently shushed his friend so they could both listen to the static white noise on the Trans’ receiver.  Jorukk had been tweaking the dials for the last few minutes seemingly searching for something.

 

“Damn!  I know I heard it.  It’s here somewh…THERE!  Did you hear it?  Did you?”

 

“Jizmo, Jor.  I ain’t hearing nothing but static.  Are you okay?”

 

“Oh, Burtt.  I got to teach you how to listen.  It’s so clear.  They’re watching us Burtt.  They’re watching us from the Wall.”

 

Burtt was pulling his blades, staring around the cabin of the Trans as if to find their enemies within.

 

“Oh, Jizmo, Burtt, put them away.  THEY ARE OUT THERE!  They are still out there in the Wall but watching us with their scanners.  I should say they are trying to watch us.  They sure as hell ain’t getting no good signal.  Not in this shit and not with Jonn’s tech running, they ain’t.”

 

Jorukk puzzled the idea in his head for a minute then added.

 

“They are getting hits though, or I wouldn’t hear them at all.  Just feint, but hits just the same.  I’ll have to let Jonn know.  Maybe he can do some more magic on these birds so we’re not spotted again, even if just so-so.”

 

“So, it is Magic!”  Burtt exclaimed.

 

“Huh, no mattah. Do you think we should, um, what did Jonn call it?  Evade?  Is that it?  Evade?”

 

“Yeah, evade, and yes I do think we should. And NO, it isn’t magic at all, Burtt. We’ll zig further west and north a bit then come down on the Flag from the Mountain side of the valley.  It’ll take longer, but it’ll be better.  Your man Josepp is stable now once I got the damn IV in his arm.  Whoever thought sticking a vein could be such a bitch, huh?  Damn thing kept moving away from the needle as soon as I started to stick him.  I ain’t never seen the like, Burtt, I swear.

 

“Anyway, if whoever it is that’s watching us does get another fix, even a feint one, it’ll be while we’re heading away from the Flag, not towards it.  Once we get beyond and start heading back, nothing we do will ever reach the Wall or the Dome.  Jonn’s tech base at the Flag Compound blocks everything except what Jonn doesn’t want blocked.”

 

“Okay Jor.  Let’s do it.  I miss my Taj.”

 

Jorukk knew that Burtt was still unsure of his pristine environment and didn’t like being away from his crew for long.  Having some of them still stuck in the dome was making him a bit crazy, too.

 

“Hey! Don’t you worry about your people, Burtt. We’re going to get them out.  Jonn don’t make promises he can’t keep.”

 

“Ain’t Jonn’s promise I have to worry about.”  Burtt was just being persnickety now.  The frustration of not having all his charges with him was wearing him thin.

————

Same time, at the Flag Compound:

 

“…so, that’s what’s driving his fears now, Jonn.  He doesn’t know what to think of you and your form of government.  He’s had all he’ll ever take of bosses and kings.  He’ll fight you, even me, I think, to keep his kids from that life again.  To the death, he will, Jonn, make no mistake.”

 

Harkk was opening the door to further discourse that would hopefully bring Jonn and Burtt closer together.  He at least hoped this would get all their secrets on the table.  He knew there was no building a trusting relationship from hidden agendas and untold facts.  He knew Burtt’s fears.  He was hoping to expose Jonn’s. It worked.

 

“Damnit, Harkk.  I don’t care for secrets.  I know what you’re about, man. This is not my first rodeo either.  I haven’t been fully up front with Burtt because I just don’t know what to think about him or the Taj yet.  Not fully!  I know he’s leery of me.  I can tell he is. But I’m leery of him too.  If he doesn’t pan out to be the man I think he is, this could easily turn into the worst thing I could have done to the Flag; bringing you all out here, I mean.

 

“Oh, Damn!  Here it is, Harkk. All of it.  We don’t just need numbers and new blood.  We need a leader.  One leader for both houses.  I don’t know about the Taj. You folk are young as far as clan lives are tallied.  Flags have been around since the year 101af.  We are a democracy, in as much as we decide critical long term matters by vote.  But, and this is a big but, we are led, on a day to day basis, by one man and one man only.

 

“You see, we’ve been down the road where a committee rules in every matter all the time and we’ve nearly been wiped out because of it any time we did.  Committees take too damn long in a pinch.  One confident, able leader can easily do in a moment of quick decisive decision making, what it might take a committee forever and a lifetime, literally, to do.  So, we select a “leader for life”, who is the go to guy in those desperate situations when calling a committee meeting and taking a vote is NOT appropriate.  It’s usually an elder of the clan and can be a man or woman.

 

“You may have noticed that I said we select our leaders, we don’t elect them.  We elect the council and we nominate candidates for the Lead posting.  The leader selection process involves trials of strength, skill, wits, cunning and will.  Yes, you guessed it.  It’s a trial by fire process.  Only the most qualified in ALL five categories can prevail.  I won over my rivals by sheer will and strength of arms, and those included my wife of 5 years.  All my rivals, by the way, perished in subsequent action against the wildlings or the Army or because of the poisons.  That was a while back, before we made our peace with the Army and started wearing them Iso-suits.  Now, they pretty much keep the wildlings at bay for us, but some still leak through.

 

Jonn seemed to runout of steam.

 

“Okay, Jonn, I get that much, but why are you worried about a leader now?  You…, oh shit!”

 

“Hush, now Harkk.  Not even my own people know this.  I have somewhere between three lunars and maybe six on the outside to settle my house’s business.  I have a tumor the size of a small nut in my head.  It’s going to get big enough to shut me down completely first.  Then I’ll go rather quickly after that.  I need a leader here, Harkk.  I’ve some wonderful lads and lasses here, but not one of them is leader quality.  Not one.  Still kids, are what they are.  Now, your Burtt; that boy, well, he is no boy, whether by quirk of fate or not that boy is a man.  He’s more man than most of my rivals were back when I fought for my role.  He’s the Real McCoy, we used to say.

 

“I need him, Harkk and I need you to help me groom him for the job.  My boys will fall in line.  The trials will determine that, I’m sure.  Once all your people are safely here, I intend to announce and then stage the trials.”

 

“Norton, Jonn.  I-I…”

 

“Ah!  There’s naught to say, Harkk.  I’m a goner and that’s all.  I’ve had a good life. I’m only sorry the damn poisons took my wife first and before we could have our own brats.”

 

“I’ll do what I can to help, Jonn.  You have my word.”  He thought a moment, then added with trepidation, “I don’t mean to intrude where I’m not wanted, but, if it gets that bad in the end, and you want…”

 

“Ah, thank you, Harkk.  A soldier’s man you are.  Never let a brother suffer.  I’ll keep the offer in mind.”

 

Harkk’s offer to end Jonn’s pain if it got too bad was a precious gift.  He wouldn’t spend it unless everything else was taken care of first, but if he could and if it turned out that he needed to, it would be a comfort to know the option was there.  He couldn’t knowingly do it himself, not even by poison.

————

 

Eight cycles, H24319, on the Flag quad:

 

Burtt was headed over to confront Jonn when they ran into each other outside the Flag Greathall.

 

“It’s taking too damn long, Jonn.  I caint wait anymore.  I was just talking to her for the tenth time in two days and Ssyndi threatened to walk if I didn’t come this 5-day. Jizmo, why I couldn’t be an only child?”

 

Jonn’ smirk got Burtt to laughing at himself.

 

“I was coming to talk about that very thing, Burtt.  You see, we discussed it, the Flag council, and since it appears the Corp isn’t going to settle back into its old comfortable routine of NOT actively patrolling the near-zones anytime soon, we may just have to go in as is, to finish the job, and finish it we will, or my name isn’t Jonn the Flag.

 

“So, I was coming to call you and your council in for a confab with our council.  This will surely take some in-depth planning to get it right, my friend, and we need to start now or your sister is going to be peeling our skins when she sees us next, eh?”

 

“Phew!  Jonn. I thought I was in for another fight.  Thank God.  I’ll round up the Taj council and we’ll meet you in the Greathall, yah?  Those Ssyndi-masks are tested and ready now too.  This is perfect.”  His enthusiasm was infectious.

 

“That’ll be fine Burtt. We’ll plan on having mideat while the meeting is in progress so we don’t interrupt the planning process. I have maps of course but why don’t you bring yours too. I can mark it up on that plassheet overlay like before.”
“Through Mideat, Jonn?  It’s only eight now.  How long you gonna talk?”  Burtt was only partially joking.  How long did Jonn plan to talk about a simple run in to the dome?  How much was there to talk about?

 

“Ha!  Well, my friend, these things take detailed planning.  I don’t go into the dome often and then only to pick up supplies I can’t get from the military or from the other clans out here.  When we go in for some clandestine operation, we plan well ahead of time and we plan with a mind towards overkill.  This is more than just a simple raid for raw materials though.  We are going to illicitly interact with the citizens of the dome.  That act alone is enough to end the career of the most influential of nomad clansmen, let alone extricating some dozen or so of those very citizens.

 

“No sir, Burtt. We’ll do this right or not at all.  What we need is a major distraction.  One that will occupy the Army, and the Cops, while you get those kids out of the dome.

 

“Now!  Here’s what I have in mind…”

 

The meeting went on for hours as Jonn predicted and still, after mideat was done and gone, they were still planning the details.  Burtt had fallen asleep several times only to be jerked awake by Jonn’s stentorian rebukes.  Finally, when they’d covered everything possible, twice, Jonn conceded the point and let everyone break from the tedium and get about prepping and packing for the trip.

————

Fifteen cycles, on the quad:

 

It was fifteen cycles and Burtt was staring off towards the dome as was his want lately.  Jjenna surprised him, “If you lookin for volunteers, we ready.”  She said this with Kett at her side.  He met Burtt’s glare steadily.  Burt, for the first time in a while, realized that Kett was “over it”.  He and Kkat could relax now and, he prayed, depend on these two to live up to their potential.

 

“That’s a great idea.  Then I don’t have to disrupt any of the construction work crews.  I’ll use only a hand in the old Taj and let Jonn and his team handle the rest.  Thanks, you two.  This is going to be an immense help.” His gratitude was genuine and it showed.  The two smiled and left to prepare their gear.  Burtt wondered at their changeover.  It was so dramatic.  Human nature was a wonder, for sure, he thought.

————

 

Twenty Cycles, in their sleep space:

 

“Can it work, Burtt?  Are you sure?  There’s so much riding on this one escapade.  What if they are ready for you somehow?  What if the cops or the army can listen to your comms and we just don’t know it?  Oh, my god, Burtt, So, much can go wrong.”  Kkat was frantic with worry,

 

“So much can always go wrong, Kkat.  Tomorrow only a little more so.  We got to go, Kkat.  You know that and the longer we wait the harder things could get for Ssyn and the kids in the dome.  We got to go.”

 

“Oh, I know.  I just wish…”

 

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!  The percussion of projectile weapons invaded on their intimacy.  Burtt was out the door and armed in seconds headed for the wire but unsure where the threat lie.  He looked about frantically for guidance.

 

Kkat ran for the kids’ spaces, organizing their protection as she ran.

 

Jorukk yelled at him from across the quad, “From the south! Wildlings!  Look to your own people.  Longbows to the roofs.  Go, brother, go.  Jonn and Harkk have the wire with our ready force.  To the roofs.”  He disappeared, headed to the aid of his commander.

 

The Taj was rousted now.  Burtt found his next in command.

 

“Bann, long bows there and there, ten to each building. Be prepared to support Jonn and the Flag if they are driven from the wire.” He pointed to the two tallest structures in the compound.

 

“Kett, Jjenna, form two skirmish lines.  On the quick. Let’s go!”

 

Everyone jumped to his commands.  His pride shone through with a whoop, when his two team leaders had their charges formed up and heading towards the fight.  He joined the second line with Kett at its pivot point.  Jjenna Bok filled the same role in the other.

 

————

At the south wire:

 

“Jorukk, well met, lad.  To the western front.  Hustle now, hustle.  Hold them while I roll this crew up.  We’ll come in on your opponents from their eastern flank. Yah?”

 

He didn’t wait for an answer.  It was understood that his troopers would do as they were told.  Jorukk was on the job in seconds.  Jonn headed to the eastern flank to shore up those defenses, form a counterstrike and then overwhelm the mob on his eastern flank.  They would then wheel onto the flank of the attackers hitting the center of the defensive emplacements.

 

BA-BOOM-BOOM!

 

The explosion caught them not only off guard but completely unprotected and the far eastern position of the Flag defenses were obliterated in a flash of light, sound and gore.  Not just the fighters, but the wire and trench itself disappeared in the conflagration.

 

Jonn couldn’t hear and was in shock himself, just feet from suffering the same fate as his crewmates.  When the wave of wildlings came pouring through the gap left open by the explosion, Harkk barely pulled the Flag boss out of harm’s way.

 

They had runout of luck, though. He couldn’t carry his friend and backpedal fast enough to evade the crazed invaders. He was preparing to do the best he could to turn and defend himself and his friend when the wildlings started to scream and drop behind him. The Taj archers had found the mark and were driving the wild men back.  Hark made it to the next group of defenders and first aid for the Flag leader.  Jonn was hustled away to the MedTent.

 

Harkk returned to the fight. The breach was still open. Sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm even the archers’ efforts.  The wildlings came with every available warrior for this fight.  They were as desperate for survival as anyone in this insane world.  The Flag represented a richness in resources the wildlings would never see at one sitting unless they stole it.  That they’d managed somehow to procure explosives, raised the stakes significantly.

 

The Wildlings hesitated only long enough to gather their might before renewing their attack on the Flag.  The very moment their leader decided was the right moment to attack, was the same moment Burtt reached the fight with his two shield walls.

 

The wildlings hesitated again at seeing this new challenge, but only long enough to catch their breath, begin screaming again and renew their attack.

 

The Shield walls split wider apart, side-stepping in perfect unison to Jjenna and Kett’s clear, concise orders, never exposing a single human link. The wildlings then attacked simultaneously in two different directions, effectively splitting the op-force in two and drawing them away from the Flag forces still reeling from the breach.  Jonn’s troops rallied then with Harkk at their head and hit the wildlings from behind. their projectile weapons now fitted with stabbing tools on the ends. With the Taj slashing and stabbing at them, Burtt racing around and attacking from every direction at once it seemed, and the Flag’s rally, it became a rout at that point.  Less than twenty of the invaders made it back into the wilderness before the fight was over, harassed all the way by archers.

 

In total, the Flag suffered, eight dead, almost all in the explosion, and twelve injured.  The Taj came through it in much better shape with three injured, one critically. He was hit with a projectile from behind.  The Taj learned its first terrible lesson about friendly fire.  The man who fired the round was being run through by a wildling at the time.

 

The wildlings suffered thirty-nine dead, over twenty critically injured, most not expected to survive, and another 12 slightly injured, who chose not to run away but instead sat down in place and mimed their hunger and thirst. These people had no language at all, but grunts and hand signals. The Taj and the Flag watched in stunned silence as these Neanderthals would change from grateful, childlike angels, to demonic creatures from the dark in seconds, when they didn’t get their way, immediately.  The injured had to be strapped down to treat their injuries; while scratching, snapping and biting at everyone the entire time.  The Medicos finally gave up and sedated them.

 

The Wildlings were insanely afraid of the Ks though and would immediately go dormant in their presence. That was the only way to describe it, they would literally lay down, close their eyes and wouldn’t move.  Harkk and Bbessie thought it was a learned behavior, used to protect themselves from predators, but no one could imagine that working somehow.

 

Burtt had them corralled in an isolated pen, surrounded by Ks and handlers. They were anything but a threat at that point and that’s how Burtt wanted them until he got back from rescuing his sister.  He had to see if the plan was still a go, though.  He couldn’t blame the Flags if they needed time to mourn their dead, but holy Jizmo, how would he tell Ssyn?

————

 

24+30-124319, at the Med Tent:

 

There was something wrong.  Burtt had been refused entry when he came to check on the Flag’s and Taj’s injured troops. The posted guard wasn’t exactly unkind, but he sure wasn’t welcoming either.

 

“No one enters, you.  Stay back!”  The guard, Rapp, demanded.

 

“Hold on, son, we have troops in there too. We…”  Harkk tried.

 

“I said stay back.”  The guard had his stunner in Harkk’s midriff.  The tension around the MedTent was palpable.  Burtt was stunned at the guard’s reaction.

 

“Easy, friend.  We’re on your side. Remember? What’s this about, now”?  Burtt calmly prodded.  The soldier was clearly intent on doing Harkk harm if provoked at that moment.  Kett had moved slowly around to the side and was setting himself to attack.

 

“Jonn be okay in thay-ah?  Jjenna, broke the tension.  She was a look and at that moment she looked all sweet and poufy. The guard flinched for just a moment before he resumed his staunch guard’s position in front of the tent flap, though retracting his stunner to a more neutral position.  The tension was broken.  Kett eased up and returned to Jjenna’s side.

 

“Jorukk said to keep everyone out, so I’m doing just that. Okay?  Now back off! Alla ya. Okay?  I don’t know if Jonn’s okay. They don’t tell me yet.  Just said to guard the flap ‘n keep everyone out.”

 

A sudden stirring at the tent flap caused the guard to start and everyone else to duck.  Jorukk bowed through the exit.

 

“S’okay Rapp. Jonn’s okay.  He’ll be laid up for a few days though.  He caught a fair piece of that blast and it tore up his leg some.  He needs to rest and stay off it for a few days.  Good thing your docs were here.”  Jorukk said to Burtt, as he exited the tent. There was more sadness in his eyes and in that statement than Burtt could fathom just yet.

 

Then Jorukk continued, “The wound was a bad one.  He lost a lot of blood.  Not only did your MedCrew from the dome stabilize and save him, one of them happened to have his blood type.  It’s rare and we only had two pints of it in stores.  I don’t think our crew would have been so lucky…or should I say skilled?  Here’s more we owe the Taj anyway, and thanks for that too.  We still have our Jonn.”

 

The crowd that had gathered outside cheered, Taj and Flag alike, hugging and holding hands in shared joy and hope. Burtt and Kkat saw this and staring into each other’s eyes, rejoiced. This was going to work, they both thought.  The Taj and Flag fought together and prevailed.  Now in the aftermath, they also shared grief and joy. This is community. This is Family.  Burtt squeezed Kkat’s hand so hard she winced and cried out.

 

“Jizmo! Sorry Kkat.  I feel funny though.”

 

“It’s okay, Burtt, I understand.  I feel it too, just not quite so vehemently, hmmm?  That feeling you feel, Burtt?  It’s called hope, and when we feel it we should cherish it and never let it go.  Okay?  Can we just do that?  Please?”  Katt smiled at Burtt rubbing her damaged hand. “And let go, before you do that again. Okay?  Jizmo, Burtt!  I still can’t feel my fingers.”

 

Burtt’s smile was an embarrassed slash across his face.

 

“Das A’righ.  Yessuh!”  Kkat punched his shoulder…and immediately regretted it.

 

“Ouch! Damn it! Burtt!”

 

Shaking his head at his girl, he noticed his friend, Jorukk, alone and lost in thought. He couldn’t help but notice the pain and concern etched in Jorukk’s expression.

————

“Is there something I can do, Jor?” Burtt gently probed.

“Did you know?  Did he tell you?”  the question sounded as much accusatory as inquisitive.

 

“Did I know what, Jor?  You’re worrying me.  What’s this about?  You ain’t been right since you come out of that tent.  I thought you’d be happy he’s still alive. I know you took a lot of losses, Jor.  Is that it?”

 

“So, you don’t know about Jonn’s…condition?”

 

“Condition?  What are you talking…”, a sudden intake of breath indicated that Burtt was beginning to understand.  Kkhloe had a “condition”.

 

“Oh God, Jor.  I swear, I didn’t know it.  We didn’t know…”.

 

“Well, now, wait.  I did.  I knew.  He told me a while back and asked me to honor his confidence.  I couldn’t do any less, so I kept my mouth shut.  I just now found out that the medicos spilled the beans and came straight here.  I knew this would be a touch, irksome. I’m sorry, Jor.  A man’s word…”  Harkk came from behind them and tried to intercede before Burtt took too much heat.

 

The steam seemed to flow put of Jorukk’s anger. “I know what you mean Harkk and all is forgiven.  It’s some harsh knowledge to gain though I don’t mind saying.”

 

There wasn’t much to be said then.  They huddled with the mix of Taj and Flag outside the MedTent, listening to the hubbub around the Flag. The mood could swing on a pin with one bad piece of news.  If word of Jonn’s condition were to burst onto the Flag’s scene right then, only god knew the result.

 

Harkk had heard how surprised everyone was that the casualties hadn’t been greater. They’d been hit with much smaller wildling forces before and paid a much greater price for it than they did this time, in numbers injured, notwithstanding the bomb, and they’d certainly never lost so many dead in one go.  That bomb was new and it was why they’d suffered so many fatalities this time.

 

Still, the combined Flag/Taj forces prevailed and with far less casualties than the Flag expected. This laid bare the finer differences between the Taj and the Flag.  The Flag was used to giving up a lot to keep what they wanted. If the Taj army had suffered so many casualties, Burtt would go catatonic.

 

Knowing there was a lot more to be said on an occasion such as this, and reeling from the possibility of an out-of-control Flag due to the certain loss of their leader, Harkk stepped in.

 

“We fought together and won today.  We also lost today.  We lost some dear family and friends. We can carry that knowledge as a weight to drag us down together, or we can carry that knowledge as a beacon.  Our victory today can be the shining light we follow to the future.  A better future for us all. One that we create for ourselves, freely, in the fashion we wish it to evolve.  We lost some of our own today but we did NOT buckle.

 

“Today proves that we are right for each other, Taj and Flag.  Today proves that in the tradition of the old world, the world before the City States, family ties are far stronger than corporate loyalty will ever be. Crews that love each other like brothers and sisters, like family, will never fall to the automatons of the City States, certainly not to a bunch of savages. Together we faced down a far stronger force and turned the tide when it looked most desperate. Why?  Because we didn’t give up.  The wildlings did that and we routed them. You Flaggers have prevailed against Wildling and Army alike.  That doesn’t come from luck, friends.  That comes from love and dedication to duty. We don’t fight to take what’s before us, we fight to protect those behind us.  If we stay whole; learn from this day’s tragedies and build to prevent them in the future, no one will beat us.  We will prevail.”

 

The cheer that followed Harkk’s speech was more a testimony to the truth of Harkk’s words than a celebration.  There were brothers and sisters to bury.  No one was ready to forget the cost they paid for their freedom.  This was the price the Flag and other clans paid to be free of the domes.  That freedom didn’t come cheap and it is only slightly less expensive now than it was when the Flag first ventured out into the wild.

————

8-124319, at the hide Harkk built under the Lok stead:

 

“Be quiet, lady, You’ll sca-ah the rats.”

 

The tittering surrounding her raised the hairs on the backs of her arms.

 

“Who’s there?”  Who are you?  Children, stay close to me. Don’t let them touch you. You there, stay away.  Do you hear?  I said, STAY AWAY!”

 

Jjoane Fen, was backtracking as fast as she could away from these wretches. What did her uncle get her into?  He told her this was the only safe place left for them.  Word was out that they were seeking high and low for the Fen family. Once they had them, they could once and for all deliver justice to the citizens of CommCorp City for the sector-22 debacle.

 

Card was another matter.  The Corp was certain he had supplied the proles with the rockets. They would sweat him for as long as it took to get the confession the Corp desired.

 

“Take it easy lady.  The kids are just funnin ya.  Nobody gonna hurt you he-ah.  We all jest hidin out he-uh ‘til we can join the E-K-S-O-D-U-S.” Harr Klop took the lead as spokesman for the crew, though he was just 12 solars himself. “He-ah. Have some water.  Ya gots t’ hydrate down he-ah.  It gets mighty dry.”

 

“Oh, Larss, what did you do?” she mumbled to no one at all.  Her children were easily taken in by the others and soon they settled down to their daily routine of learning.  The Fen children were far advanced and turned out to be a major source of additional learning for the Taj refugees as the days wore on.

“We have to get word to Burtt or Jon.  Somehow they need to get word to Fen before the poor bastard hangs himself.” Jjoane’s uncle told Jaredd.

 

“I’ll work it out, Benn.  Go before you’re found out too.  Go!”

————

 

8+30-124319, on Boot Hill:

 

With the aid of some heavy equipment the Flag kept for moving lots of earth, the bodies of the dead wildlings were quickly dealt with and buried beyond the refuse heaps the Flag was using to dispose of solid wastes, well away from the living compounds.

 

The Flag had a burial ground too, much like the Taj did, and their ceremony was no less formal. They gathered in the quad at dawn of the next morning. In a great procession, they wound their way through the Flag compound, so that all might see their passing brethren one last time.  The procession ended on a hill they call Boot hill where there is a great pyre ready for the job.

 

The bodies of the fallen Flag-mates were then placed atop the pyre and some fuel was lit below it that fully engulfed the platform, quickly turning their mates to dust. Jonn gathered the dust solemnly into small containers called urns, and then very reverently carried it to a line of Flag-mates who passed the urn from hand to hand, to its final resting place in the dirt of Boot Hill.  The Flag then joined in a solemn hymn of travels and travails that reminded all, it seemed, of too much sadness and not enough joy.

 

When the Flag seemed to be done with their traditions, Harkk began to blow Amazing Grace on his windbag.  The Taj chimed in in perfect multi-part harmony. The Ks joined from their Ken.  Tears were spent to ease the dead’s passage from the temporal place they held in their friends and loved one’s hearts. The dead went home.  The Taj and the Flag turned their efforts to building effective defenses against explosives and to finish plans for a new compound and an escape.

 

Thus ends Book 9 of Burtt’s Story, The Taj Goes Green.

 

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

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

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On it! Detector Fin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

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

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

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

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

That was apparently enough for the Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

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

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

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

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

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

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

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

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

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

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

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

“Get on with, you boyo!”

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

The end of part eight.

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