Just yesterday (for Santi)

I saw you yesterday

You weren’t so far away

Not as far as most

But still, not so very close.

If I could have touched you

The ripples would roll through

To the end of days

And in so many ways

Make our spirits one

Our time would not be done

You wouldn’t be so far away

I saw you, just yesterday. 

 

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

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

Santi.jpg

Burtt-Part Ten, Transitions

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

BeeHive

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

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

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

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

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

Burtt-Part 9, the Taj goes Green

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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

 

 

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen
The Flag pastures

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

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

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On it! Detector Fin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

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

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

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

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

That was apparently enough for the Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

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

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

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

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

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

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

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

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

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

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

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

“Get on with, you boyo!”

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

The end of part eight.

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

 

 

Burtt, Part 5: Welcome to the Taj

taj

Ain’t be one he-ah?  Wha dey tinkin?  I don be figh’? Dem craz ‘f dat d’ way. Dem ain’t sent one kid?

Burtt fumed while waiting for Jaredd to show for his daily lessons.  He hadn’t eaten, yet.  The decision the red-zone bosses made to collectively defy him, scared him.  He couldn’t eat that way.  His food turned to mush inside and came out the same way.

Wha dat mean?  Dem gon fight me?

His dander was way up and he was itching for a confrontation.  He knew this was the worst way to go into any negotiation, but he was raging mad.  He couldn’t stand it any longer and got up to walk.  Sometimes when he was feeling overwhelmed, he would go for a walk.  This would help clear his mind and calm him too.  This time he ran into Harkk on the way to his servhut.

After spilling his guts to a willing ear, Harkk talked him down, so that Burtt agreed to wait before deciding until he was thinking clearly.  This was sound advice and Burtt acknowledged it.

“Tanks Harkk.”

“What is it you always tell the kids, Burtt?  Think first is the first think.  That’s probably the most profound bit of advice I’ve ever heard, so why don’t you take your own advice, then?”  The smile on Harkk face told Burtt he wasn’t insulting him, so he smiled too, and said, “Das a’righ Harkk.  Das a’righ.”

He walked off to meet Jaredd.

———–

“The difference is, Burtt, that a truly free people do not force love on anyone.  Even us elies pay our sex-toys.  Besides, wouldn’t you prefer that Kkat came to you willingly?”

Burtt’s confused look caught Jaredd out again, he still wasn’t in tune with what Burtt knew and didn’t know.

“Ah don b’ forcin’ Kkat t’do nuffin, Jaredd,” Burtt stated forcibly.

“I mean to say, it would be better if Kkat wanted to be with you like you want to be with her, right?” He’d gotten away from apologising for speaking over Burtt’s head, as that seemed to exacerbate the problem.  He simply rephrased and restated.

“Su-ah, das a’righ.  Caint do none o’ dis wron’, Jaredd.  Aw gots to b’ a’righ fum da go. ’S why ah asks.  Gots it?”

“Yes.  I understand, Burtt.  So, then, you’ll approach Kkat delicately like I suggested?  Remember, girls like to be asked nicely about these things, so give it some thought before you talk to her, okay?”

“Del’kit, righ!  Das a gut one Jaredd.  Del’kit, Kkat lahk dat word ya tink, Jaredd?”

“Hmmm!  What I’m trying to say, Burtt is that you should say these things to Kkat, or any girl, for that matter, kindly.  See?  Does that make more sense to you, now?”

He could see the wheels turning.

“Don’ say del’kit, be del’kit?”

“Yes, Burtt.  Be delicate.  Be kind.  It means a lot to the girl you’re talking to.  It tells her that you are sensitive to her feelings…um, that you care for her.”

Del-li-kit, ‘kay.  Ah do dat.  Ah go now.”

“Oh, um, Burtt.  Perhaps you should wait awhile.  Think about what you’re going to say first. You know, so you can talk to her without stumbling for words.  Or at least to be sure you say what you really mean.”  Jaredd nearly laughed at his own nervousness.

Who was going after the girl?  You or Burtt?

“Why ah gots t’ tink?  Ah knows wha Ah sayin’ n how ah feels.  Ah jus b’ del-li-kit, lahk ya says. Das all!” he paused, with that look that told Jarred he had thought of something else, “Wha’ ‘bout lettahs n writin’ n readin’ too?  When Ah do… Ah mean we, we do dat?”

“Aha!” Sometimes Burtt fed him exactly what he needed, “Well then, what about that; shouldn’t we finish our lessons for today before you run off to chat with Kkat?  We still have time for more history, and if you’re going to learn to read, you really should start at the beginning, Burtt.  I admire your determination, remember determination, Burtt?  Yes?”  When Burtt nodded, he continued, “good, but, taking on something as complex as reading, without the basics, would make the task far more difficult in the end, and you’ll only end up having to learn the letters anyway. Truly, you should learn your letters and numbers first.  What do you say?  The best part of that, Burtt, is that Kkat can teach you the basics, and how to read too, with my coaching; so, you’ll be spending, even more, time with her every day.”

He’d struggled to rein in Burtt’s eagerness.  He wanted to know everything and he wanted to know it now.  He didn’t understand why he might not get some things right off, and when he didn’t it was worse than being humiliated, he was mortified.  Jaredd tried hard to rein in Burtt’s eagerness just enough to keep him in check, but not enough to bore him.  It was a delicate line to walk.

Perhaps teaching them about their past isn’t the very best first thing we could’ve done with these lessers.

At least in Burtt’s case, he seemed to think he had an immense amount of catch-up to do and wanted it done yesterday.  If that catch-up was ultimately meant to put the proles on an equal footing with the greenies someday, the fallout from that was going to be cataclysmic.

He’d have to bring that up with the council.  In the meantime, he had to keep Burtt’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism from exploding out of control.  The last thing he needed was a rebellion in the near-zone, right now, with this very capable warrior at its helm (that evaluation supplied by none other than, Harkk, a highly-decorated hero of the Wall himself).

He had a feeling that Burtt’s mind was every bit as sharp as his physique.  Teaching this boy too much too fast could easily have the wrong effect.  He was already showing signs of bold thought and exemplary leadership skills, to include diplomacy, value-based-bargaining, and fair play…for all.

He was becoming a very cagey horse-trader indeed.  Jaredd found it more and more difficult to extract anything from Burtt as far as outer-zone data without first agreeing to some serious bartering, and he was stingy with what he did release.  Fortunately, Burtt had small tastes and as such, nothing he’d asked for was out of reach, so far.  Jaredd’s biggest fear was that Burtt would learn enough to decide to take matters into his own hands. He could readily imagine Burtt challenging CommCorp policies one day.  Holy Norton, would they have the Loks’ asses for that.

“Dat be kay wif me Jaredd.  Mayb’ she lahk me mo’ den.”

He snapped Jaredd back into focus.  His smile was infectious and Jaredd followed suit.

“Yes, Burtt.  That would be another way for you two to get to know each other, an excellent way.  I’ll bring some primer materials, oh goodness, for 50, and a pad.  I’m sure Kkat and Rikk both remember how to use them.  Rikk can help.  He can start the little ones on their letters and numbers now, and get them started on easy reading too.  Later Kkat, Rikk and perhaps you can teach them more advanced subject matter, like mathsci and medsci.”

As an afterthought, he added, “Harkk or Bbessie might teach some of you to use your hands for other skills.”

“Das a’righ Jaredd.  Dat de bes, I tink.  ‘N I wan us alla hab ahr bof names.  Kin ya hep w’dat? Ya knows sum ahr fam’lies, a‘righ?”

“Yes, uh, well, hmmm…  Oh, Burtt, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I wish you would reconsider.  This is the one thing I believe the Corp will take note of if word gets out; and if perservs start referring to each other with family names, well, word of that will get around. I told you how the Corp went out of their way to hide the plight of the proles, and more importantly to the Corp, they hid the prole’s true identities.  Your actions might open old wounds and I’m not sure the Corp will just ignore it.”

“Don’ ca-ah ‘bout de Co-ah, Jaredd.  Dey put mossa us he-ah.  Jus be takin back a lil.  Lil pride’s all.  Ah ‘spect the Co-ah c’n spa-ah some o’ dat a’righ.”

“It’s risky, though, Burtt…”

“Mo-ah den livin’ out he-ah?  No mo-ah argue, Jaredd.  Wants da names.  Alla dem ya hab an alla dem uvas wha wants.”

The determined set of Burtt’s jaw and the way he crossed his arms, told Jaredd the discussion was over.  He’d found that being an advisor to Burtt didn’t carry quite as much weight as he might have expected.  His age meant little to Burtt when It came time to set his jaw.  For some reason, he saw power and equality in having the family name, and he was determined that all his charges would have one.

That young man had more potential as a leader than anyone he’d met in the green-zone, yet.  He was simply the most amazing specimen.  He’d come up from nothing to quasi-king in less time than it took CommCorp to secure its own border.  This prole had a flair for inspiring his followers, finding a consensus, seeing through a bad deal, and not often being taken for granted or made a fool of.  Jaredd just hoped Burtt didn’t attract too much attention to himself too soon.  That would spoil everything.

At times, Jaredd felt he’d created a monster that would eventually get away from him and wreak havoc on the civilised world.

Am I assuming too much credit?  Has this boy been playing me?  Has he always been shrewder than all of us?

Jaredd determined to pay more attention to the subtle hints at superior intelligence this boy’s words, thoughts and actions suggested.  He certainly came from good stock.  The Klops were both leaders in their fields.  Jaredd remembered being amazed at the resiliency Kkhloe showed and he had firsthand knowledge of just how bright Ssyndi was.  That girl was more sponge than teenager the way she sucked up knowledge.

“You’ve made a good point, Burtt.  Okay, I’ll provide you with as many names as I can determine from the records we’ve compiled, but you must give me access to all the children in your crèche if I’m to be thorough.  Just as you allow my mother to have time with them for health reasons, I need time to determine their true identity.  I need blood or saliva samples from each of them, or hair samples barring that.  I already have about twenty confirmed right now, including yours, Kkat, Rikk and of course you already know the MacBride girl’s name.  These were easy to determine as we knew where you came from in the City and were able to recreate your records from archives once thought inaccessible.  Not much is completely hidden from the council, though their access has since been cut off.  All access to archives has been cut off.  Anyway, as to these other children, well, there’s no way for us to know for sure if they don’t remember themselves.  I need to test them, Burtt.  You see, hospital records cannot be purged by decree, in order to track and control infectious disease.  Those records are hardened also, which means they cannot be destroyed or blocked.  So, if I can get a sample, I can compare it against that database and hopefully, find your names for you.  Can you allow me access to them for that, Burtt?”

Kkhloe had told Burtt all about blood samples and how the elies could use it to find out who they were if they wanted.  She thought this might not be a good thing for some of the little ones so they decided to not get stuck.

Kkhloe also taught him something he always held dear and thought of as the most profound advice his sister had ever imparted to him, trust but make sure anyway.  She’d said it was a favourite saying of a great leader from before the fall, Abramm Raygun, or sum lahk. he thought.

“Dems wha say ‘kay, su-ah.  ’F dey don’ wanna, I caint be makin dem, a’righ?  Dat ain’t demo-demercr, JIZMO, de-mo-cra-tic.  Das wha, a’righ?”

Jaredd sighed.  It was the same every time.  Burtt simply would not give in completely to letting the elies know how big his crèche was or who all its members were, let alone the red-zone denizens

Damn stubborn SOB!  Oh, he is just trying to maintain the democratic flavour of his creche. You should admire him for it, except that it flies in the face of you true goals, doesn’t it?  You’re a damned unpredictable bastard, you are Mister Burtt.

“Alright then Burtt.  I’ll do what I can.  You’ll let me know which ones I can test?”

“Ah do dat. Ah takes wha ya gots.  Da uvas wanna las name too, mayb’.  Den I gets ya mo t’ tes, kay?”

Once again Burtt stunned Jaredd with his ability to reason.  He’s smart enough to know that using incentive is better than using force, even if his first impulse is to drive things home with his might.  It was hard to believe this boy had been here for ten years, was healthy in mind and body, and providing for 50 at eighteen years old.  Most folks stuck out here that long were sick beyond saving, if not crazy as a loon too. Not Burtt, no sir, Burtt was Mister Fantastic.  He could do and survive anything.  And, he only seemed to go postal when things didn’t go his way.

“That’s a very good plan, Burtt.  I should have thought of that.  Now, who’s teaching whom?” he asked with a smirk.

“Dat be me, Jaredd?  I ain’t no dum.  Kkhloe larn me.  She ver smar, Jaredd.  You knows.  You seein Ssyn ever day.  She dum?  Kkhloe schoo’in her too.”  Burtt answered the challenge.

“No, no Ssyndi is not dumb at all Burtt.  She’s very smart. Smart like you and Kkhloe.”

“Ha! Kkhloe and Ssyn be mo smar den Burtt su-ah.”

“There are different kinds of smart Burtt.  There’s book smart and there’s life smart.  You have more life smarts than most of the elies I know, Burtt, and I think that is the more precious gift.”

“Pressus?  Don knows dat one Jaredd?  Lahf-smar be gut.  Lahks dat, lahf-smar, yessuh.”

“Precious, Burtt.  It means that it’s very important to us.  For example: with your life-smarts, and in a life or death situation, I would choose to be with you every time over anyone I know in the green-zone, and that’s the truth.  You are by far, the superior survivor and having a quality like that is a precious thing.  They used to call it street-smarts, in the cities before the fall.

“Das a’righ, den. Presshus!  Gut one.” As an afterthought, he added, ” Who caw ‘t stree-smar, Jaredd?”  without a trace of hubris at the compliment.

Around a chuckle, Jaredd replied, “Yes!  Who indeed?  It’s just a saying…er, oh, never mind, Burtt.  It isn’t important.”

The studied look on Burtt’s face told Jaredd Burtt wasn’t through with it yet.

“Hmmm. Lahk ya says b’fore, a conse, consus…da sensus ting?  Lahk dat?”

“Ha!  Consensus!  Yes, Burtt, like that.  Very good!  When someone starts a sentence with the words, “they say”, what they mean is that the consensus is such and such.  Hmm?  Oh dear.  It means most people think that way.  Does that make sense?”

“Ye-ah, ah gots.”

This conversation gave more credence to the idea that Burtt was far more perceptive than one from Jaredd’s background would normally be willing to credit a prole with.  Burtt was referring to a conversation they’d had weeks before about having a consensus on the council.

Is it time to put on the brakes?  Will he sense it if we do?  What then?

Regardless, he wasn’t ready to put the brakes on yet.  He kept digging.

“Well now, have you thought about what the others will think?  The ones we don’t have second names for?  Aren’t they likely to feel jealous?  Do you know jealous Burtt?”

“Das a’righ, Jaredd, Ah knows it.  Wha’ we do ‘bout dat?”

“Well, there are a few options…um…choices.  We can test them, of course.” he looked imploringly at Burtt.  When no response was forthcoming, he sighed and continued, “You could adopt the ones who don’t have last names yet and name them all Klops, or you could come up with a name on your own?  A crèche name, so to speak. Eh?  To adopt means to take as your own, like they were your own children.  Others could do that too.”

Jaredd hoped this would never come to a legal issue.  Letting them have last names seemed insane but harmless if it didn’t go too far, he hoped.  Adoption might be pushing it!

“A crèche name?  Ah lahk dat, Jaredd.  Crèche name be bettah den Burtt name mayb’.  Hey!  Ah call dem all Taj, dat a’righ?  Taj be dey crèche n second name bof, ‘f dem don’ gots one.”

“That’s a great idea, Burtt. Excellent!”  Said Jaredd, silently cursing Burtt’s ingenuity. Mentally relinquishing the field of battle to Burtt, he moved on.

“Now, about your own schooling.  I think I should spend as much time with you as possible along with the time you spend with Katt.  We should accelerate your learning pace.  As a leader, you should be on the same knowledge level with your parts.  Right now, you are far behind them in basic skills, such as reading, scribing and computing.  So is Bann, so we should include him too.  I can help accelerate your learning curve in those areas with some heavy immersion learning techniques.  If you both agree, of course.”

Their conversation and his lessons continued for another hour before Burtt said he’d had enough for the day.  The two then headed outside and called all the crèche out for a meet.

———-

“Alla us gon hab arh two names lahk d’ elies.  Jaredd say dis sca-ah dem mayb’, but jus fa us.  Dem gots no wors fum us.   Gon’ hab namin days too.  F’ alla us.”

The little one’s eyes sparkled at that news.  Naming day, even in the outer-zones was special, though seldom celebrated by anyone other than a boss.  Here, they would all get fruit at least and what would pass for a cake and party.  The flatbread Kkat made was incredible.  Put a  little sweet on it and you’ve got one heck of a great treat, for a prole, anyway.

He looked around his audience to see if any were opposed.  It didn’t seem so, but there were a lot of confused looks on the faces around him, many of them too young to understand the ramifications of having their true and full identities out here in the outer zones.

“What happens if the elies object, Burtt?”  asked Harkk.  He knew the risks.

“Aw-jet?  Wha dat, Harkk?  Don’ knows dat.”
“It means to be opposed…um…to say NO.  Understand?”

“So, ‘f elies don’ wan’, dey c’n stop ‘t?”

“Well, maybe, Burtt.  I don’t know that.  I’m just asking, what if?”

“Den we do ‘t, ‘n don tell em. Be ahr hide.”

“Okay, but we’ll need to get all the perservs to agree to keep it quiet if that’s the case.”

“Ah tells dem, dem shuts up ‘bout it.”

“Um, I thought we agreed to ask these things first and not tell.  This being a Democracy and all, right?’

Burtt’s embarrassed smirk lightened up the moment.

“Hmmm.  Das a’righ Harkk.  Cud use ya tinks on de council Harkk, ya and Bbessie, t’ keep da vote a’righ.  Odd nummah, Jaredd says.  Ya hab gut tinks, Harkk.  Dem be ‘portan like jes now or ah mayb’ sen kids unnah the dirt.”

“Okay.  We all make mistakes Burtt.  It’s good that you want more help making important decisions.  The hard ones get a lot easier when there are more people making the choices, okay? This is good, Burtt!  I’m all for it…yes, that means yes.  And I’ll join your council if Bbessie does too, to preserve the tie-breaker vote.” said Harkk.

He was getting more involved in the near-zone happenings every day anyway and Burtt really appreciated it.  He looked up to Harkk in more ways than one, and yet Harkk never challenged Burtt for the leadership role.  This confused Burtt; Harkk was a huge man, and the biggest guy nearly always took over, but that didn’t seem to be in Harkk’s nature.  This allowed Burtt some comfort.  He didn’t feel a need to be looking over his shoulder in the direction of Harkk, not right now anyway.

Continuing to address the crèche, “’Sides dat, alla us gon learn our lettahs and nummahs.  Ah ‘spects us aw be readin b’ plantday.  Jaredd say dere fiffy-ayt chapers t’ read ‘n de preschoo book.  Plantday, we readin a chaper, alla us.  Kkat and Rikk knows how sos dey be ahr teach.  Jaredd hep. Das wha’, a’righ?”

Everyone had a different look on their faces now, Burtt noticed, and at first, it puzzled him.  Then he remembered something Mmarta had said about little ones and hope.

“…the sky could be falling all around them, but with a goal to shoot for, a pat on the head or a reassuring hug, a little one’s hope knows no bounds.”

Dis b’ hope, mayb’?

“Jaredd say we nees t’ do spo-aht.  Nees egersize alla us f’ stron bods.  He show us wha aw.  Kay? Alla us be he-ah after mideat. He show us footbaw n alla us c’n do ‘t.  He say be gut fun. Gots it?  Das a’righ..”

He received a loud joyous response and the smiles on their faces caused the grin on his to feel like his face would split.  The kids dispersed in smaller groups, energised by the news.

Jaredd and Kkat were standing off to the side and speaking quietly.  Burtt noticed them with their heads bent together and felt a queasy feeling in his gut, then he felt his face heating and getting red but not from embarrassment this time.  He was, angry.

Wha dis?  Who he mad at?

He thought and then realised he was mad at both and made his way through the throng of excited children to where Jaredd and Kkat were still bent in fervent conversation.

“I can’t teach all these children Jaredd.  What have you done?  This is too mu…”

“Nonsense, Katt.  These kids adore you and teaching an eager adoring mind is easier than getting up on your first kidsled.  Rikk can take over with the real little ones so you can work with the older ones.  You’ll have no problems Kkat, really, you won’t, and I’ll always be nearby to help if needed.  And, you get to spend more time with Burtt, too.”

Burtt let his breath out and had to retreat so his fading anger didn’t show.

Wha’ alla dat ‘bout? he wondered.  Girls!  He be dyin ‘fore he know’d wha’ all ‘bout dem.

———-

Kkat saw Burtt just before he was out of sight.  He looked mad at something.

I’d better go see.  He does stew on things so.

“Burtt.  Burtt, hold up for a minute.”  He stopped, turned to see her and she saw his face was beet red.

What is this about?

“Burtt, what’s wrong?”

“Ah don’ know, a‘righ?  Nees talk wif Jaredd.  Ah, embars, embar-as.  Ya know.  Ah ‘shame.”

“Oh, Burtt.  You don’t have to feel like that with me, ever.  You can tell me whate…”

CAINT!” He yelled and Kkat retreated.  His shame now grown unbearable due to his outburst.

“Sor, Kkat.  Ah caint. Be worser den.” He hung his head a moment.  Then turned and ran so fast, Kkat didn’t get out a word before he was out of sight over the top of the rubble mound.

“Oh, that boy.”  Kkat stamped her foot so hard it hurt.  “OUCH!  JIZMO!”

Kett was beside her instantly with his blade in hand, looking everywhere for the threat.

Kkat, tutted, then thanked the lad for being there to protect her.

“What would I do without you, Kett?  My Knight in shining armour.”

“Whas ahmer is, Miss Kkat?”

“Oh, not now Kett.  I’ll save that story for bedtime some night, okay?”

“Su-ah, dat be a’righ.”  Kett’s smile was infectious.  Katt rubbed his head and returned the compliment.

“Can you help me find Jaredd, Kett?  Before he goes home?”

“Su-ah ah c’n.  B’ righ’ back.” And he was off to make sure Jaredd didn’t leave before his charge met with him.

———-

He knew he should calm down first; that his temper would cloud his judgment, and right now he needed good judgement when meeting the red-zoners.  Nerves would be on edge. Tempers would be ready to flair at the drop of a hat.  Trust would be in short supply for sure.  But he made the deal to meet at mid-day; so, he had to show or lose face with these terrible folks.

Ah caint let dat hap.  Dem nees t’ fe-ah alla us, if’n Ah gets unna da dirt.

He thought about who would follow him.

Ah nees Harkk t’ soljer.

He came early to scout the area.  It wasn’t beyond these people to set a trap for him but he saw that it looked as though life was continuing calmly here in Pokke’s crèche even with the excessive amount of people milling about here.  There were way more than Pokke’s crew here and way more than those called to the parley.

It looked as though the entire tough aged red-zone population had come with their bosses, maybe one-hundred total.  He decided he would give them a chance to talk before he went on the offensive for not adhering to his demands.  None had brought even one slave to the wire yet, and he didn’t see any here either, just toughs and bosses.

Well, das not gon hol.  We gon hab words.  Bat ones.

He started down the mountain of rubble into Pokke’s zone, checking the draw on his blades to be sure there were no obstructions.  He’d dinged the edge of one so badly a while back that it got caught on the sheath when he tried to draw it out.  That little bit of delay had nearly cost him his life.  As it was, he had a scar running from his right armpit to a spot just above his trousers and left hip, where his right-hand blade should have been.  The only thing that saved him was having Dogg attach himself to the blade wielder’s sword arm, preventing him from fully extending his cut.

Dogg was still healing now, though, and overly protective of his little girlfriend the kids had come to call Sweet.  Burtt left him tied near their little corner of the rubble.  He would surely have followed Burtt into the red-zone and Burtt didn’t think Dogg was ready for another confrontation.  He’d nearly lost Dogg.  He didn’t realise how much he depended on that K for so much more than just barring the crèche until he almost lost him.  He would forever be afraid to commit Dogg to danger again.  He would do it.  He had to.  But right now, he didn’t need to and he let Dogg relax.  The fight was surely out of the red-zoners after what happened to Thomass and the others.

As he approached, Burtt saw that things might not be as secure for him as he first thought. There were armed toughs in large numbers awaiting his arrival.  He wondered if he shouldn’t just back off for now but then thought again about the consequences of giving in to these people and their threats, implied or otherwise.  No, he had to do this.  Besides, he was sure they didn’t come to fight.  They must all be here to hear the deal. He moved to meet his fate head on.

———-

“Dogg be bark forev n’ he don stop. Sos, ah go t’ fin Burtt ‘n ah fin im a’righ.  He ovah da wire by hissef and dey be hunnerts of ret-zoners aw ‘roun im.  He be goin unna the dirt su-ah.”

Kett blurted out all at once.  When he came flying into the crèche’s main hall he looked as though he’d had a fight with the wire and lost.  He had, and did; the wire near tore his pants all the way off.  He was holding them together with one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other.

“Slow down, Kett.  Where is Burtt?”  asked Kkat with as much calm as she could muster while her heart was pounding away in her chest.  The bass drum beat of it pounding in her ears, making it difficult to hear the boy’s ravings.

“Him ovah da wire. OVAH DEAH!” He screamed pointing towards the pass to Pokke’s zone.

The bots, already alerted by Kett’s wild passage from the wire back to the crèche without the usual spoof in play, were pacing back and forth across space in front of the crèche apparently trying to decide what to do next.  Kett had been too fast for them to apprehend, so far.  There was an ever-growing crowd of excited crèche-mates milling about the excited Kett and Kkat, filling the entrance-way to the creche.  The bots were unsure how to proceed so they had gone into that little back and forth dance mode they go into while waiting for their 2nd tier processor to decide what to do next.  More than likely that would translate to returning to normal patrol duties over the red-zone passage once the noise died down.  Kett was doing his utmost to see to it that that never happened, though.  He was still screaming at Kkat.

WE GOTS T’ HEP, KKAT.  WE GOTS T’ GO NOW!

He turned and made to run for the wire.

Kkat grabbed his shoulder and scolded, “Not yet, Kett.  We need to organise and we need our soldiers.  Now, go get Harkk from his servhut and Bann and Bbessie, tell them what ‘s happened and to come right away.”  Then added when Kett didn’t move right away, “NOW KETT!  NOW!  GO!  And change your pants!”

Kett ran off as if his pants were afire, yelling the names of his targets.

Katt continued to get things rolling. “Jjes, take Rikk and the other trained archers, get the weapons, all of them, even the new ones and come back here.”

Jjes turned and made to run, Kkat called after her,  “And ask Jaredd to come see me.  Quick, now!”

“Chukk.  Bring Dogg.  On his chain, Chukk.  Keep Dogg on the chain, Okay?”  She was hoping Dogg’s fierce appearance would act as another deterrent.  Chukk ran off.  She found out very shortly that Chukk either didn’t understand the part about the chain or Dogg would have no part of it.  He went sailing past the crew in a blur of teeth, drool, growls and whelps as if every step still hurt.

Dogg, nooooooo!”

Oh, God, please keep them both safe.

She prayed, then headed off to help gather weapons and warriors.

———-

Surprised that Bbessie even answered her door, Kett gathered the elders and sent them, fully armed or supplied for first aide duty, to meet up with Kkat.

Kett still wasn’t finished spreading the alarm, though.  He and eighteen of the mid-aged kids were in pre-scort, scort or spy training and had even been working with the new combat formations Harkk introduced them to.  Thinking this had prepared them for this very moment, and since Kkat and the elders were busy preparing their response; Kett went about the crèche gathering his training mates and a baffled, teary Chukk on the way.  They gathered weapons and shields, then formed up to march on the red-zone and save Burtt.

“Foller me”, Kett yelled.  They stunned the two bots on patrol and advanced straight to the wire and were under it in no time while their older crèche mates were still making plans in the great hall.  It took them a few moments to reform the shield wall and to reacquire their nerve.

———-

“The best plan right now, Kkat, is to get to high ground and cover Burtt as best we can with Bows and Arrows.  He said he was meeting them right in front of Pokke’s crèche. That’s about 100 meters from the wire.  A tough shot for a good archer, but, from up top that distance is nearly halved because of the height advantage.  We can do the best from up high. Trust me!” Harkk was herding the team along against Kkat’s urgent desire to charge straight into the fray.

There were only five accomplished archers among the crèche’s occupants.  Burtt was still learning himself and was only so-so.  But Harkk, Bann, Hamm, Kkat and Jjes were excellent.  Half a dozen other younger crèche mates seemed to have a knack for it too.  Rikk was only slightly better than Burtt, so far.   There was a total of ten Bows and nearly two hundred various arrows in their armoury and all were being hauled to the rubble mound west of the crèche.

“Just hurry, Harkk.  I have a terrible feeling about this.  Hurry before we’re too late to do anything, and he’s gone.  Oh God…” she sobbed in a final plea.

With ten bows and twelve archers, she had second thoughts and sent the extras back to check on the little ones.

“Take Roff with you back to the crèche.  Find Kett and the others.  Tell them I said to stay put until we return.  Understand, Rikk?  Stay put!  Be ready to help Bbessie or guard the passage.” Kkat told the disappointed young scort.

“Yes, Kkat.  I’ll do it.”  He wouldn’t look her in the eye.

She doesn’t trust me.  I’ll show her.

———-

“Wha dis Pokke?  Ya trap me?  My crew gon’ put alla ya unna da dirt fa dis. Ya gon craz?”

Dozens of toughs, aged from 12 to 17, started spreading out around Burtt.  He didn’t even flinch.  He knew it might be his last day anytime he set out for the red-zone.  He was ready.  He told himself he wasn’t going down without a fight.  He told himself that people would remember this day, forever.  He hadn’t even pulled his blades yet.

He stood facing Pokke, Hamill and Farukk, while their collective crews completed the envelopment.  He was about to address the bosses again when there was a commotion among those trying to get around behind him.  Refusing to take his eyes of the bosses, he still saw in his peripheral vision that bodies were flying around, though it looked as though they were doing so of their own volition, not being thrown this way and that.  Then before his brain registered the roaring of his faithful companion, Burtt saw the furry reason and felt a moment of great pride and then deep down concern for his best friend.

“Wha ya doin he-ah, Dogg.  How ya gets out?” he whispered to his partner as Dogg took a defiant, snarling stance beside his master.

Dis dam K fin his way offa da chain?

Suddenly the advance on Burtt slowed to a crawl.  With the mess that was Pokke’s arm, fresh in everyone’s memory, and visible to any who cared to look, no one was willing to be the first one greeted by Burtt’s war dog.  This bought him some valuable time to think and gather his wits.  He hadn’t thought the red-zoners would ever consider rejecting his plan, let alone band together to stand against him.

He did a slow turn to take in every one of his antagonists finishing with a glare at the bosses.

“So, dis it?  Dis wha ya wan?  Wan fight Burtt?  Ah c’n do dat su-ah.  Ya mayb’ win, but lotta ya b’ unna da dirt wif me.  Das wha ya wan?  Come on den.  Les go.”

The only sound to be heard over Dogg’s soft growl was the singing of two long blades sliding out of their sheaths, and then their blindingly fast passage cutting the air in front of Burtt’s face.

Burtt decided not to wait.  Waiting was what losers did.  So, he attacked, straight at the bosses.

Pokke ran.  No hesitation, no looking back; he was just gone and not toward his crèche, he headed for the creek and the frontier.

One down, Burtt thought.

Hamill and Farukk stood their ground, however, and the fight was on. Ccassie appeared content to watch from the sidelines, for the time being, even signalling her crew to step back away from the brink and into Pokke’s crèche proper.

Dem ain’ aw frens, a’righ? Burtt thought.

Farukk had a stunner that looked big enough to drop two Chukk sized folks with one charge.  Hamill held a two-handed blade that was longer than he was tall. Dogg darted in and out from every direction keeping the two bosses and their charges, off balance, while Burtt looked for the opening he needed, all the while watching out so that one kid in the crews around him didn’t suddenly grow a pair and get lucky.

In a coordinated attack, the two bosses separated and came at Burtt from two sides.  Hamill whistled, and as one the entire mob moved in towards Burtt but not so close as to get chomped on by Dogg or slashed by Burtt’s singing blades.  The effort was to limit Burtt’s mobility and he knew it.  A moment of panic crept under his normally stoic mien.

Jizmo, Ah made a mess.

For the first time in his short life, Burtt felt doubt.  As he set himself for his final stand, his last thoughts before he went into that cold, blood rage were the little ones, Kkat and finally of Ssyndi.

Thump, thump, thump…wha dat? He thought, trying to process the now familiar sound. As the realisation dawned on him, he saw the first of the red feathered shafts protruding from a younger girl of about 13, then another and another.  He didn’t have time to feel the remorse that would set in later over the deaths of so many little ones that occurred there that day.  He was too relieved that he was not alone.

He was sure he would see Harkk, Bann, Kkat and Rikk on top of the pile, firing down on his attackers.  Then he realised there were far too many arrows raining down on the mob for just four shooters.  While his antagonists were also shocked into frozen inaction for just a moment, Burtt dared a quick peek continuing his charge towards the bosses and saw a line of at least ten shooters atop the mound and it was evident a lot of them were kids, neither scorts, spies nor soldiers, but pre-scorts.  He had no time…

Dem grab alla bows and arrers we gots f’ dis fight, but dem kids bes not b’ hurt. Das a’righ.  Jizmo, ah be luck dey don gets me.

Dogg snagged Hamill’s foot and hung on, distracting him.  Instead of striking at Dogg with that greatsword, he screamed as if he were being torn limb from limb.  Dogg’s rep preceded him.

Burtt pressed Farukk, thinking to disarm him and hope the slouch would run like Pokke did, then he could concentrate on the real threat, Hamill.  Farukk surprised him though and charged instead.  Burtt barely fended off this desperate display and then watched in utter shock as Farukk then went down in a pile to slashing blades and zapping stunners in the hands of high-pitched, screaming, shielded little warriors.

Burtt’s troops had arrived, driving past and around him.  They drove a wedge between Hamill and the rest of his toughs, pushing all back and away from Burtt.  Burtt looked down at the tattered remains of Farukk. As he reached down to retrieve the stunner, he recalled the carnage these children had reaped and imagined a pack of rats attacking a sick creature relentlessly until there was nothing left.  There was little left of Farukk.

Wha Ah do?  Alla dem jes kids, he thought in horror.

There all around him now, were nearly 20 of his kids-in-training led by Kett.  They had chanced death and smashed their way through the encirclement to aid one of their own.  They were in the formation Harkk had suggested he train them to use and wheeling together, with the massive Chukk loose at its centre acting as a pivot, to face the enemy ahead of and all around Burtt.  It was called a shield wall and it worked nearly to perfection, even to the point that they maintained the containment of the shield wall on all four sides to effectively create a phalanx., minus the roof.

Everyone in the line had a shield made of spare wood from the crèche walls.  Harkk had fastened straps on the inside of the shields for them to hold onto.  They also each held either a short fighting blade or stunner they used to stab over, and under the shields that were overlapped, limiting their exposure to the enemies’ weapons.  Everyone had a weapon but Chukk.  Burtt handed the stunner to chuck and showed him how to use it.  Chukk’s toothless grin scared Burtt, but he knew Chukk would defy heaven and hell to protect those kids.  The stunner was in good hands.

The toughs from the red-zone had never seen such a thing as a shield wall.  Most who got close enough to have any chance at hurting Burtt’s crew were snatched off their feet by Chukk and cast away like a pile of rags or stunned into delirium and writhing on the ground to be struck down and trampled by the passing phalanx.  Hamill kept his distance, willing to let the others probe this new threat, unsure of what he was seeing or how to react to it.  Some got lucky and scored a hit on a Taj-mate, one fatally, but after the first two ranks of them went down in a heap while few of Burtt’s crew were injured, the red-zoners broke and ran.

Their lieutenants regained control of the mob before they got too far away to recall, and turned them back towards the fight.  The momentarily jubilant Taj skirmishers, reset their feet, shields and their resolve to meet the next clash.  Their bravery and discipline and the accuracy of his archers made Burtt’s chest swell with pride.  Other younger crèche mates, who’d been secretly waiting just inside the wire, scooted forward and pulled the injured back.  Other teams of litter carriers were waiting to transport them to the crèche.  The word was out to the Loks by then that war was on, and that the Taj would need medical help.

While grateful for their arrival and his salvation, Burtt was also terrified at this development.  All he could imagine were piles of dead kids at his feet.  But this did leave Burtt to deal with Hamill without having to worry about the other side’s crews, so, he got down to business and charged ahead through the shield wall, isolating Hamill in the process before he could rejoin his crew.  Dogg busied himself with any who tried to get in on Burtt’s flanks or from behind.  The skirmishers continued their pursuit of the rest of the red-zone toughs with the archers providing over watch.  By then, it looked as though at least 75 bodies lie dead or bleeding out on the field of battle, half with red feathered arrows sprouting from their still forms.  The rain of death continued relentlessly from above, shifting expertly from one hot spot to another as Harkk identified build ups of enemy troops concentrations.  In this manner, the red-zones crews were never able to concentrate their might and were defeated in detail.

Hamill was no pushover, though.  He took Burtt to the limits of his abilities with the incredible reach of that wicked great sword.  In fact, Burtt was struggling and Hamill knew it.  He pressed his advantage.  Backing up, Burtt slipped in the gore left from Farukk’s evisceration and went down hard losing one of his blades in the process.  Hamill made to take advantage while Burtt was down and pressed in even tighter, while Burtt scooted across the ground on his back trying to keep some distance until he could regain his feet.  His skirmishers couldn’t save him this time.  They were too far off and totally engaged in their own fight for life.  The archers were providing cover for them and not an eye was on Burtt.  He struggled to present even the slightest of deflection with his remaining blade.  Hamill was having none of that and was at the point where he was sure to end it all when he was taken under attack from behind.

With a battle cry that would assail the ears of the gods, Rikk leapt at Burtt’s attacker.  He hit the brute in full stride knocking Hamill to one knee.  Roff was right on his heels and just like he was trained, he split to one side, dividing Hamill’s attention.  Burtt saw Kkat over Rikk’s shoulder on top of the rubble.  She had a horrified look on her face, she was charging down and screaming something Burtt couldn’t hear.  He thought he saw Jjes too. He turned his attention back to the fight and tried again to regain his footing in what seemed a river of blood.

Dogg was down with half a dozen toughs hacking at him.  His yowling tore at Burtt’s heart but he was seeing the near future in his mind’s eye, and it was a nightmare.  He put Dogg’s fate aside.  He slid forward watching Rikk, Roff and Hamill, trying to make his body respond before it was too late.
Rikk stood over the boss ready to continue his attack but holding back.  Burtt yelled to warn him but Rikk was still not prepared when Hamill feinted towards Burtt and instead spun on one foot, swinging that mighty blade in a 360-degree arc to severe Rikk’s head from his shoulders with a sickening wet, slap of blade on flesh.

Burtt was too late still to save a shocked Roff from the same fate on Hamill’s back swing or to stop Jjes from piling in herself and being impaled on that terrible blade.  She had charged down the rubble, passing Kkat, to save her Rikk, only to fall beside him.

Kkat saw it all in slow motion.  She was powerless to stop it.  As the sword made its sweep towards her brother, the light went out of her vision and she fell to the ground, half way down the rubble mound.  She didn’t move again until it was all over.

The world went red in Burtt’s eyes and the blood rage swelled in him and overflowed onto whatever was left of the attacking crews.  Hamill seemed to disappear in a ruby shower of meat, blood and bone.  His great sword forgotten for the moment, Hamill’s eyes grew large but, he never got the scream out that was forming on his lips when he saw the rage crazy animal that was Burtt-the-blade descending on him.

His rage not spent after ending Hamill, Burtt turned on the rest.  His renewed attack chased those toughs still left away from the skirmishers; themselves near spent and just starting to reel from the horror surrounding them.  They turned their attention to saving Dogg from his pursuers and their own wounded.

There seemed no place for the red-zoners to run as Burtt shepherded them towards Spring Creek.  In the end, it took the combined efforts of Harkk and Ccassie to bring him down from his lust for revenge.  The later begging for a truce, yelling “Parley, Parley” for everyone to hear.

His blade inches from the latest intruder on his space, Burtt caught himself a bare hair’s width from slicing Harkk’s throat before he fell to his knees in exhaustion and despair, tears streaming from his eyes.  Disbelief running wetly through every earned line on his etched young face.

He tore off back to where his crew had fallen as if he just then realised what had transpired.  The sight was worse than he remembered.  He lost his breath and his lunch at the same time.  When he recovered from sudden nausea, he still couldn’t rise.

Spread out from where he sat on his haunches, in ever bloodier piles, were the groups of the dead who fell where Burtt or the skirmishers caught them. Some lay where his archers impaled them from above, as if in a sparse forest of very straight trees with red tops.  So, too were his own crew scattered among the dead.  Lying next to Hamill’s desecrated corpse were Rikk and Jjes’ torn bodies and the small desecrated bodies of Roff and so much more.  Katt sat with her back to Burtt, looking down as if holding something.  Burtt’s eyes were too filled with tears to count all the forever unmoving bodies, let alone look at the injured, moaning and screaming ones.  His rage spent, feeling emptiness, and deep down inside a terrible fear that Kkat would never forgive him, Burtt collapsed further into himself, a defeated, lost soul.

WHY, WHY dis hap?  Who gets dese kids he-ah?  Who?” He pleaded, knowing it was in vain.  They came to save him.  It was no one’s fault but his own.

In tear-filled horror and renewed rage at the numbers of young dead and injured, Burtt tore off again to the River in pursuit of Pokke and any other survivors from the attacking crews.  Kkat was still sitting where Rikk and Jess had fallen.  She cradled Rikk’s head in her lap and wouldn’t let anyone near him.

After sending perserv runners to alert their sponsors and beg for more help, Harkk organised litter bearers to carry the injured to Burtt’s zone and the healing capacity of whomever Mmarta and Jaredd could muster.  He recruited Ccassie and her crew to help in spoofing and to zap whatever bots showed and carrying kids to the healers.

As the wailing of the worst injured died down with their passage to the near-zone, those still standing could take in the immensity of what had just happened; slowly at first, but with more intensity and volume as momentum built, a new keening began.  At that point every child in proximity to that abattoir wanted someone to hold onto, someone to make it all better, to make it all go away.  This banshee-like wailing tore at everyone’s heart.

Back at the crèche, for the first time, anyone in the crèche could remember, Bbessie came out of her hut and was hustling around triage, helping Mmarta tend to the worst of the injured, or calming the less seriously injured little ones when there was nothing else for her to do.

Mmarta was too busy saving lives in the surgery tent to say anything, and so emotionally distraught she probably couldn’t have said anything coherent anyway.

Jaredd was in shock, himself, attempting to keep his mother and Bbessie in medical supplies while they tended to the most horrific wounds he’d ever seen.  This damage had been done to children, by children, fighting to the death for survival, while his CommCorp peers troubled themselves with lofty decisions, such as, what to have for lunch.

“Was this in your plans greenie?”  Accused Harkk, carrying another limp and lifeless body from the tent they’d turned into the surgery suite.  Jaredd choked back his sobs.  Mmarta merely turned to the next torn little body Bbessie handed her.

Aside from the occasionally leaked whimper of pain, the little warriors now stoically awaited their turn for treatment.  But Norton, there were a lot of them.  Too many.

———-s

He couldn’t stay here forever.  This was the coward’s way, Kkhloe would’ve said.

“Face the dark, don’t ever turn from it”, she was forever telling Burtt and Ssyndi.

“If you run today, how far will you have to run tomorrow?”

Kkhloe, Kkhloe, ah don know wha ‘t do.  Ah put so many kids unna de dirt, Kkhloe.  God be payin me now a’righ.

Burtt wiped his swollen eyes and headed away from the clean flowing river he’d come to call Green river.  He’d made his way here when the steam ran out of his rage and he wanted the only solace he thought he could find.  While he cleaned most the gore from himself and his weapons, he realised that his place was with his crew, not out here feeling sorry for himself.  He headed back.

He’d found a few scared and injured kids hiding and terrified of him along the way.  In an epiphany, he found his salvation for the horrors of the day – some salvation, at least.

Slowly and in as non-threatening a manner as he could muster, he called them out of hiding.

“Com’ on out.  Ah don b’ hurt ya.  Let’s get alla ya ca-ah’d fo-ah. Don b’ sca-ah’d.”

One by one they came out of hiding,  some holding cut, bruised and sometimes broken limbs or cracked heads.  Some, too hurt to move, or holding onto unconscious siblings or friends, had to wait for help, but Burtt recruited any who were well enough to do so, sending them back to the wire as he could.

He scoured the sector’s entire red-zone for survivors.  As he gathered more to him, others in hiding became more willing to come out themselves.  In truth, the younger ones flocked to him once they got over their fear of him.  It was the older ones, the toughs-soldiers, escorts and spies-that used to work for the now dead or missing red-zone bosses, that Burtt was most concerned about and to whom he addressed his most impassioned invitations to join him, at least for the parley Ccassie called for.  Her crew was with her, helping with the injured and collecting the dead.

With the mention of the last remaining Red zone boss, even the most stubborn toughs finally came along but would only agree to come as far as the wire.  Their help getting the wounded to the healers was critical.  It probably saved several of the worst cases and Burtt made sure they knew it.  It was a good start.

Once he’d gathered as many of the red-zoners as he thought were ever going to come out, he headed for the wire with the last of the stragglers.  Burtt prepared to face his biggest fear.  In sight of the battleground, he started shaking all over when he thought about facing Kkat again.  He prepared himself for the worst he could imagine.

After the last of the injured were passed through the wire to litter teams who would carry them to the healing arms of Bbessie and Mmarta, and the toughs who refused to go further were settled in to wait for the parley, he approached his hell.

He had purposely avoided the scene of the slaughter and approached the wire from a different direction, as much for his own peace of mind as it was to spare the little ones from being reminded of what had nearly been their fate. Now he had no choice.

Kett was on guard at the wire and in charge of spoofing the bots with several teams of pre-scorts at his command while all the traffic, back and forth, continued.  His eyes swollen and tear streaks staining his cheeks, he choked out the story and told Burtt that Kkat was still with her brother’s body and wouldn’t let anyone near. “Not ev’n me!”, he sobbed.

Burtt tried to calm Kett with a pat on the head, but the boy pulled away, angrily pushing at his hand.

“Aint no babe he-ah, Burtt. Don treat lahk!”

Another boy man.  Him be unna the dirt fa me mayb’?

“’Kay Kett.  Ah don kno hows bes ta hep.  Tryin‘s aw.  Ya do gut taday, Kett.  Ya’s a gut scort, taday.  Ya save Burtt’s lahf.  We talk mo ‘bout dis latah.”

Aint nevah doin dat agin kid. Nevah! Not fa Burtt.

He turned towards the battleground feeling his fate flying uncontrollably away from him in the coppery tainted breeze.  For the first time, he noted the chill of fall in the air.

Gon nee clof for the lil ones.  Col comin.  Nees jak’its, yessuh.  Wunna ‘f Ah c’n do like Kkhloe dun. His thoughts of sewing jackets for the little ones incongruously intruded on his passage.

Alla dem kids be he-ah in m’ crèche, now. ‘S wha ah wan, but wif alla dem uvas unna de dirt?  Rikk and Jjes, Roff, Jeff, Rogg, Jjane, Ellsie, Rrebca, Mikk and Makk, Rolly, Gginger, Rrose ‘n alla dem…God b’ takin m’ su-ah.  Wha ‘bout alla da kilt ones on ‘t uva crews?  I caint stan ‘t.

By the time he got to the scene, Burtt was ready to accept beheading as his just and deserved punishment.  There could be no forgiveness for what he had wrought.  Kkat would surely be his executioner.

The last two of the fallen were being collected as Burtt approached.  Ccassie was covering Jjes’s tiny form in cloth.  Harkk was doing the same for Rikk under Kkat’s trancelike supervision.  Going about his grizzly task, Harkk was calmly trying to sooth Kkat with his voice.  Kkat seemed not to notice anyone or anything around her.  She stared at Rikk’s body, even after it was wrapped in blood-stained cloth, and kept humming a tune she remembered from a better past.

Burtt was frozen in place and time.  Nothing stirred in him or around him.  There was himself and that moment of abject desolation and despair seeing the empty defeated look on Kkat’s face, knowing that their relationship could never be the same, ever again.  She was lost to him.

Suddenly, there was no reason for any of it.  Life, love, hope, giving, justice, freedom – it was all a lie.  One he created in his own mind thinking he, a nobody from the zone, could make a difference.  Well, he’d made a difference alright.  His dream killed over 100 people.  His blind ambitions drove him to save his world and everyone in it and instead, he’d brought about its doom.  Certainly, this fiasco would bring about the end of any life he might have had.  There was no way the Elies let more than a hundred zoners reside in the near-zone, and they’d want the head of the prole who brought them in.

Da mines‘s b’ gut fah ya, Burtt. Ya killah.

Caught up in his own grief and self-pity, Burtt didn’t notice Kkat staring at him.  When he did, the shame he felt instantly hurt so bad he started crying again.  He wanted to say something, anything, but before he could open his mouth Kkat coldly told him that they didn’t need his help.  Burtt gritted his teeth, bit back his tears, nodded, and left.

He forced himself to help transport and guide any remaining injured or just lost children into the near-zone and his crèche.

“Where is Kkat, Burtt?  I need her now, damn it!” Mmarta screamed from the tent flap, the moment she first saw him.

“I-I, she comin.” Was all he could manage.  “Wha Ah do t’hep?”

“Go to Bbessie’s hut.  Get more bandages, more alcohol and cat-gut, you know, for sewing wounds closed like I’ve done for you.  Hurry.”

Burtt didn’t answer.  He was gone before Mmarta looked up to yell at him again.  There were so many squirming, injured bodies lying everywhere that Burtt had to dodge them as he passed them by.  There was more blood than he wanted to ever see again.  His creche’s blood.

Bbessie served as a personal holistic nurse to the Loks neighbours, the Haps.  The practice of such hoodoo as it was referred to, was nearly as taboo for a greenie as getting caught with a red-zone whore.  So, Bbessie lived in a sort of protected status but outside the green zone and was sponsored as a domestic to the Haps.  Anyway, she was well supplied.  Her hut was wide open this day and quite well appointed Burtt noticed.  He was happy for her.

He returned with as much as he could carry and then sensing he was just in the way, he left to help bury the dead.  Harkk caught him on the way out and held him by the arm until Burtt looked him in the eye.

“You give her time boy.  She needs time.  You, the both of you, need each other.  And this crèche needs the two of you.  So be patient.  Give her time.  Stay clear for now.  She’ll come around.  Understand me?”

Burtt, eyes hollow sockets of regret and grief, simply stared at Harkk, not believing a word of it.

“’S ovah, Harkk.  She put me unna the dirt she could. Mayb’ dat be bes f’ alla us.”  Burtt pulled his arm away and resumed his grizzly task.

Harkk watched the retreating back of his young friend, thinking, Damn it, kid.  Don’t give up!  First time in ten years I feel alive and now you’re going to quit on us?  God-damn it, I refuse to let this happen. JIZMO!

He stomped into the triage area with a purpose.  This mess needed saving, now.  The elies were going to help, or else.  I bet they’d shit themselves if they had to spend even one day without freshers.

———–

Kkat didn’t mean to eavesdrop.  It was an accident but she’d heard it all.  She saw the genuine pain in Burtt’s eyes and she felt for him.  She was conflicted now.  She was angry at everyone, not just Burtt.  His pain was palpable, though.  She could feel it looking at the horror etched on his beautiful face.  She couldn’t hate him.  She couldn’t comfort him.  At once she knew for certain, she loved him.

Oh God, why now?  Why throw this at me now?

The tears flowed again, but she headed for the scrub to clean up and help with these children.

———-

“What do you mean it’s too soon for exposure?  They are children.  They are OUR children, by Norton, and they are dying!”  Jaredd demanded.

As soon as he’d done everything he could to help back at the crèche and realised that much more needed to be done, he took the time to listen to Harkk’s impassioned plea.  Together they headed for an emergency session of the secret Full Exposure Council.  He called for the session as he was running to it.  At this level in the council, though, he was pushing his luck.  He knew it, but right now at least, he didn’t care.  He wanted to shove this crisis down their collective throats because he knew that was the only way this snail envious body of elites would ever do something about it under any one’s time constraints but their own.  Starting at the top was the only way to get what they needed when they needed it…which was now.

They could also, of course, decide the other way and simply shut Jaredd, and Harkk, up.  Exposure as collaborators with an opposition city-state, even via an anonymous tip, was grounds for a trumped up investigation leading to fake charges and exile or revocation of sponsorship.  Mmarta and Dougg would join them, end of the problem, no one the wiser.  CommCorp absorbs another stead.

Still, Jaredd thought, there was no simple way to approach this crisis.  There were far too many proles in the so-called “little-used” near-zone right now; many with critical injuries needing constant professional care, and they were all, at the very minimum, malnourished.  If the elies didn’t help, many of them would die.

He and Harkk had both decided, safe jobs and lives be damned, they would push this all the way to the vids if they had to.  Harkk would threaten to shut down all the utilities in the sector.  Mmarta, looked startled for a moment, then merely shrugged and nodded her assent when Harkk promised to keep the water and power flowing into the surgery suite at least.  Enough was enough!

“We cannot sit idly by with so many children in such dire need.  Please!  I beg you!”

Jaredd continued his impassioned pleadings.  He’d been arguing his case in front of these seemingly hearing impaired automatons for over an hour and been met with the same tired response from their chosen spokesperson, Carminn Dobs, a self-important mid-level functionary in the Services branch of CommCorp.

“We cannot possibly expose ourselves in the manner you describe.  To do so would be to admit we knew about your efforts for some time.  The newsvids would transfix us to an X, and once CommCorp found out, we might find ourselves wishing for the real thing. I’m sure we all are heartbroken about this prole tragedy, but I’m afraid we must insist you clean this up on your own.  Do so quickly and quietly before the perservs in the area start talking.  By Norton’s shade, Jaredd. How you could allow it to go this far is beyond me.  Do Mmarta or Dougg know?”

“Do they know?  Of course, they know.  The children told Estebann, who called me from his servhut.  I recruited them to help in triage once I saw the carnage.” He hoped the lie held for Mmarta’s sake.

“There are simply too many children, our children, in dire need of life-saving procedures for just one pseudo-surgeon and a nurse to handle.  We need your help.  By Norton, Carminn, how can YOU deny them your succour?”

He hoped that referring to the children as their own might in some way appeal to his baser, more human self.  He was wrong.

“Now Jaredd, let me…”
“Stop, Carminn!  Enough!  Can’t you for once feel something akin to grief?  Those are children.  Who cares, at this point, whose children they might be?”

This from the head of the council herself, Miss Jjenna Sims, who was also 3rd in line for the head chair of the Science wing of CommCorp.

Turning her scolding stare away from the council’s spokesman, she asked, “What can we do, Jaredd?”

With a visible sigh of relief, Jared nearly sagged to the floor but caught himself and stood tall, collecting his thoughts.

Harkk took up the chore before Jaredd could fully recover.

“Madam Sims, we need medicine, bandages, IVs of plasma and saline, doctors and nurses, food-lots of it- and people who give a damn.  And we need it two hours ago…and I need milclass power line to get enough juice to that surgery suite for it to be fully effective.  Oh, and turn off the damn wire and bots in our sector.  We don’t need it anymore and it’s causing us delays we can’t afford.”

———-

The parade of supplies and professional elies who came to the near-zone was astounding.  The council had more tentacles in the city than the Loks previously thought.  Using an untraceable netchat, they called for help from any who could and/or would.  They came in droves from as far away as the other side of the dome.  Three hours after the end of hostilities there were 30 professionals saving prole lives in sector-22’s near-zone, and more were on the way.

———-

“We still have to keep the number of passages down to a minimum.  It’s going to be hard enough explaining the excessive number of passages we are bound to make or have made already, mother.  That’s why I’m having any newcomers met at the stead and held there until the next crew is coming out or there are at least five of them.”  Said Jaredd as he prevented Mmarta from entering the tube for what had to be the tenth time in two hours.

“I don’t know how much wool we can pull over the same two cops eyes, mother.” He mumbled worriedly.

There seemed to be a constant need for supplies and equipment someone hadn’t already thought to bring out with them, even though it seemed an entire MedCent now existed outside the front entrance to the crèche.

But who could ever imagine such need?

The Loks and Haps and the local rep for the Corp’s stead provided ample passage for what was being touted by the Loks and a few well-placed council members as a medical crisis running rampant through the sector-22 perserv ranks.  So, the tube bots were turned passive and would remain that way except in extreme security or medical emergencies.  Two CommCorp cops kept watch on the green zone side of the tube, just in case.  The wire and all the near-zone bots were shut down for sector-22.

Still, too much tube traffic could surely invite curiosity no one wanted, so, Jaredd made himself useful by regulating the passages as best he could.  Letting folks in and out at the same time in large numbers, rather than in dribs and drabs.  And he didn’t even want to think what the Corp or the Haps would think if they saw what was really going on here and who was participating.

“What do you need?  I’ll have this crew bring it back.”

“What?  Not just what, Jaredd dear, but, I do need more plasma, and surgery kits and bandages and medicines and etc, etc…I have a whole shopping list here.”

She held out an actual hand written list. Jaredd stared at it as if he didn’t know she could write and he was just as surprised that he could read it.

“I also want to drag that lazy curd I’m married to down here, so he can witness some real misery and stop bitching at me about his sex life.” Mmarta chewed through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jaredd.  I’ve never seen such…  I can’t…  Oh, Jaredd!”

She leant hard on him, her head heavy on his shoulder.

“This cannot go on.  We must expose.  Now!  These are children!”

“I agree, mum.  Right now, though, we need to save these damn kids.  I used to think it was about me taking over the council one day.  Now, I want to debunk it and start again.   Do it right this time, and I’m not even sure what that means.  Look, just look what we’ve done to them?  Norton, do we even deserve the chance to make it right?”

By the time his perscomm’s ringer went off signalling the arrival on the other side of another crew of volunteers, and more supplies, a small crew of others were prepared to go back the other way on quests for more difficult things to acquire.

“Baronn!  Baronn, isn’t it?  Hello?” Mmarta called to a young man she recognised as a friend of Jaredd’s headed back into the dome.  “Would you please deliver a message to my husband for me?  I hate to leave the children.”  She inquired with her most pleading voice.

“Would be my pleasure Miss Mmarta.”  The boy answered with adoring eyes. Mmarta was renowned among young council members for her brash demeanour and willingness to stand up to the council elders.  Ill or not, she was still a looker, too.  Many a young man on the council spent dreamy nights with visions of her in their sleepy eyes.

She had what she’d really come for.  Jaredd’s concerns were sound ones and she could send her request for supplies along with her appeal to Dougg.  She scribed off a scathing missive to her errant husband using the most recent additions to her med kit, a stylus and parchment.

The gloves are coming off, Dougg.  Come help or go away.  I need your support, if not your love.  If neither are available, then you are neither wanted nor needed here.  Be gone before I return. – Mmarta Lok

Using her last name to remind him of who still held the purse strings, he couldn’t possibly misconstrue her meaning.  Handing the note to Baronn, she also gave him the list and told him who to see to have that list filled, instructing him to return just as soon as he could, or have someone else bring out the supplies if he couldn’t. They couldn’t wait. Mmarta returned to surgery.

———-

They were buried.  Harkk had shown him a good way to make the job easier a month earlier when one of the younger kids got sick and died, Jamme.  This stuff happened.  It didn’t bother him as much as combat deaths did, though.  Harkk had seen Burtt headed to the river with his bundle and stopped him suggesting it might not be the best place to dispose of the bodies.  He tried to explain how the whole decaying cycle worked but gave up with the dazed look in Burtt’s eyes.  He convinced Burtt it was better to bury them.

Together they hiked to an area not far away that Harkk knew of a place over the rubble where a huge pile of loose dirt was mounded next to the lower section of dome wall but not right next to it.  This area was in the opposite direction from where Burtt had found the clean waterway but was just as isolated by the rubble and dirt mound.  He thought the greenies had started to clean it out for another near-zone but gave up for some reason.  Harkk showed him how to lay the body at the base of the dirt mound and then shovel dirt from the mound right over top of the body.  If you kept at it for a while you could pile the dirt up as tall as Burtt stood without too much work.  He told Burtt it was the way folks did it before the fall, and that it was the safest way.

The space between the dirt mound and the dome was about as wide as he was tall, so they could lay several little bodies, toes to nose, next to each other.  Still, the new pile of moved dirt was thirty paces long and twice as deep as Burtt stood, this time.

He was devastated.  He sent his helpers back home but remained on top of the dirt mound looking down at once on the fresh dirt pile of the dead and then on the eerily subdued world that was his crèche.  He hummed the only other tune he could remember Kkhloe singing.  Something about a Ggrace and being Amazing, and she sang it when they put their parents in the river.

How dem sees me now, Kkhloe?  Wha dem tink o’ ole Burtt now, huh? Ah caint look dem in de eye, Kkhloe.  Ah caint.  She won’ nevah…and he caught himself.

He was feeling sorry for himself.  Kkhloe called it being a crybaby.

Das a’righ Burtt. Now stop dis. You wor’in f’ da kids or f’ Burtt?

He absently searched the area below for her.  He caught himself sniffing the air trying to find her scent.  He’d told himself it was his imagination but still thought he could smell her whenever she came near.  In his mind, she smelled like the breeze when he was high above it all and the stench from below was left behind.  He could only smell the cold, empty stench of death, just then, though.

He caught sight of her finally as she scampered about the triage area running errands here, talking to little ones there, holding a terrified hand, calming and shushing a whimpering voice.  Being Kkat.  And she had cleaned up too.

Leas she be a’righ. Tank Got.

“Burtt!  Burtt?  Come on down.  We need to talk.  I need your help.”  Jaredd called to him and caught Burtt by surprise.  He wanted to refuse, to make an excuse.  Being close and having her still not even look at him would be unbearable.  He couldn’t run anymore, though.  He had to go down sometime.

“Yeah, ah comin Jaredd.”  He worked his way down the mound, glaring straight ahead, avoiding the triage area.

He noticed the greenie with blond hair tied back and a scarf covering most of her face who, along with several others, had just come through the tube with an arm full of life-saving supplies.  There was a tug at his 6th sense but he couldn’t place it.  He looked around for the source of this intrusion on his temporary calm.  He couldn’t see it and continued down to Jaredd.

Ssyndi said nothing, even turned her head away when Burtt’s glance touched her.  If anyone found out they’d send her back so fast her head would spin.  She’d had to see for herself, though.  Mmarta was like a stone wall and wouldn’t answer any of her comms.  Neither would Jaredd and Dougg, well, he was Dougg.  He couldn’t keep his hands to himself and he couldn’t take a hint.  Regardless, she had to see for herself that Burtt was okay.  He was, she could see, at least physically, but there was something new in his eyes. A rejected, defeated look she’d never seen in her indestructible super-hero brother.  He looked empty.

If this is that witch, Kkat’s fault, she going to wish she was shot, not just exiled.  I’ll kill you, lady.  Just wait.

Ssyndi dropped her cache of supplies at the surgery suite’s flap and quietly moved back into and through the tube to the green-zone.

“Wha ya nees?”  Burt asked Jaredd defensively.

“It’s not what I need, Burtt.  It’s what these kids need.  They need you.  They need to see you and to know that you are still their champion.  The last thing they remember about you is your back as you ran after Pokke.  Show them your face, Burtt.  Show them your proud leader’s face.  Let them know how magnificently they performed for you today.  Give them hope, because frankly, Burtt, for some of them, hope is all they have.  Do you see, Burtt?  Some are very badly injured and may not make it.  If they are to have any chance at all they need to see that there is still hope. That there is still a Burtt there for them. Without you, there is no hope.  Not for them, there isn’t”

Burtt’s face was paling.  He could feel it along with the queasiness in his gut.

Ah caint look in dems eyes.  Ah caint!

“Burtt, please!” Jaredd pleaded again.

“AH CAINT! JIZMO! GOT AMIGHT! AH CAINT!” he screamed so that anyone near backed away from him.

He was stunned.  He couldn’t move.  He couldn’t talk.  He was having trouble breathing.  Got, Ah ready fa ya. Come on, den.

He was stunned further when he felt her soft touch on his arm and then heard her softer voice.

“It’s okay, Burtt.  We can do it together.”

Kkat took his arm and led him towards the triage centre and the crèche.  He was aware only of moving again until he could see the flap to the tent in front of him.  He froze up and resisted again, but Kkat was there, holding his face in her hands, soothing the beast until he could bring his own fears under control.  Together they entered the land of the near dead, the surgery tent.  Only the worst cases were still here, eight hours after the last of the injured were brought under the wire.

Some of the council elies still here were occupied with saving the children still under the knife in the surgical tent.  Others were providing the intensive care needed to maintain the ones recently recovering from surgery out in the open post op area, or maintaining and prepping the next ones in.  All these elies showed signs of exhaustion.  It was a cinch none of them had ever had the need to be so severely impressed into lifesaving service for so many cases or for so many consecutive hours.  The last City-state level war was over long ago and injuries incurred at the Wall were treated at the wall.

Jaredd had started a rotation. Sending a handful of volunteers at a time to a separate tent for a few hours R & R, keeping just enough bodies on the floor to keep everyone alive.

The first child Burtt and Kkat came upon was so badly cut, Burtt couldn’t imagine how she could still be alive or how she could possibly last through the night.  Her ravaged chest more cat gut than skin and her complexion paler than some of the dead he’d seen, he wondered at how she could still be breathing?  He looked the question at Mmarta, who only closed her eyes and as imperceptibly as possible shrugged her uncertainty about the child’s chances.

The tugging on his sleeve was not as unnerving as the perfect salute this near-dead young warrior presented her field commander, once he turned his attention to her.

Burtt’s heart filled with pride. Suddenly, he understood what Jared had meant and he believed it.  If he could just give them hope enough to hang on.  Hope enough to help them want to recover.  With this understanding, he found hope, himself.

Burtt formally returned the salute. Then smiled and took the little girls hand in his.

“Easy time, sojer!  Ya res now.  Ya’s gut taday, Ccarol, real gut.  I membah dat.  Yessuh.  Now, ya gets bettah, gots it?  He-ah b’ Kkat.”

They moved together through the pre and post-op areas, then to recovery, just inside the crèche entrance, and further on into the crèche main room where the rest of those with minor, treated injuries and the uninjured were huddled in small groups, quietly seeking solace in the company of those nearby.  The older kids handing out fruit and water.

“Ah took gut ca-ah o’ Rikk and Jjes, Kkat.  I cover dem gut, so’s da rats ain’t gits ‘em, kay?  Ah-Ah so-sor, Kkat.  I try.  I dit, real try, Kkat. I dit.’

Tears formed in his eyes and ran freely from them.  He didn’t try to hide or wipe them away.  Kkhloe said you don’t hide tears for the dead.

Kkat, choking back her own tears, said, “I know Burtt.  I saw.”  She couldn’t say more, yet. She headed back to help in surgery.

Burtt then remembered Dogg with a start.  He started to whistle then thought better of it in case Dogg was injured again.

Craz K b’ run annaway.

Kett, Chukk!  Whe-ah Dogg be?”  He called out.

“Hm b’ ova his hol, Burtt man”, said little Cconnie, a shy blond with one blue eye and one green. “Mmarta lady fit him up and gets me t’ take him t’ da creche but him pult me ova de-ah.”

“‘Kay, Cconnie.  Tanks.” He turned to go find his friend.

“Dogg b’ kay Burtt man?  Mmarta say.”  The tear forming in her eye was more than Burtt could stand.  He walked back, snatched her up in his arms and hugged her tight.

“S’kay lil one.  Burtt nos Dogg b’ gut. Him gots ya t’ca-ah fo-ah. Das a’righ.”

His smile seemed to allay her fears and she smiled back.  It made Burtt feel strange, kind of warm.

Burtt made for the hidey hole in the base of the rubble wall where Dogg liked to make his home.  Dogg struggled a bit to do so, but he came out to greet Burtt.  It almost seemed to Burtt that Dogg was trying to keep him away from little Sweet again.  He was taped and scewed together just like Burtt often needed after a fight, but he didn’t look too bad.  Not hardly as bad as Burtt expected, though he was limping.  He was relieved and decided not to push the issue about getting close to Sweet again until later.  He had more important things to do anyway.  He said goodnight to Dogg, threw him a scrap to eat and turned to go about his rounds.  He was too far away to hear the tiny squeals of many new and hungry mouths Dogg and Sweet would be responsible for now.

———-

Girls and boys from different crews found themselves drawn to each other out of need. As the night went on and the waiting for news about the last ones still in surgery grew to nerve-wracking communal angst, these small groups morphed into bigger ones that led to bigger ones still until the entire crèche was as one.  Eighty-eight souls in the crèche proper swore fidelity, not to a boss, but to each other.  They swore to protect each other and the Taj from all comers, and to do so together and forever.  They did all this without Burtt or Kkat or Harkk or Bbessie or Ccassie’s input.  There were no zones there that day.  There were no crèches, plural.  There was only the one and it was the Taj and everyone belonged who wanted to.

There were 56 severely injured still in post-op or varying stages of recovery.  Some went back in and out of surgery every day or every other one.  118 total had died as a direct result of the two days of war, so far.

Ccassie confessed after things settled down finally that she would never be comfortable under the eyes of the Corp, and so would stay in the red-zone and be the de facto leader of those few toughs still out there, if they’d have her.  She agreed to keep an open dialogue between the Taj and the outer zone so that wars like this last one never happened again.  She took it one step further and suggested her crèche be an annexe to the Taj, but with the condition that she be a sitting member of the Taj’s council.  Once Burtt understood what that meant, he was all for it.  They would have to find another to join with her to keep the tie-breaker option open. With Rikk and Jjes gone, two replacements were needed anyway.  One of the power slaves, Gregg, from Thomass’s creche who’d joined Ccassie after Thomass fell, swore to destroy whatever remained of the former slave creches in the red-zone, and everyone in sector-22 was all for that.  Gregg might just be that second council member they were looking for.  Burtt declared a burning night for the destruction so all could watch.  He also promised to run power and clean water to her creche and to share the supplements they got from the greenies.  Negotiations continued…

———-

“How long, doctor, and no bullshit this time.”

“Mmarta, I have always tried to be honest while upbeat.  You know this.  Don’t be angry with me now.  Norton, knows, I’d do anything to be able to tell you differently, but I can’t.  Not now, anyway.  Six months is a strong estimate, perhaps overly optimistic, but with proper diet, medications and rest, and if you stay away from that damn zone over there, six months is very doable. Yes.”

“Oh dear.  I can’t possibly finish what I’ve set out to do in six months.  We simply have to do better than that doctor, or I’m going to need a new physician.”  Mmarta prattled, desperately trying to sound more positive than she felt.  The despair that gripped her insides, though, was impossible to hide.

“Save the brave act for someone who doesn’t see right through it, Mmarta. If that means you’re going to ignore my advice and charge on into the fray with these proles, then, yes, I suggest you do get a new doctor.  I won’t stand by and watch you voluntarily kill yourself.”

“Oh Georgge, don’t be so melodramatic.  Six months, eight months, four months, a year, not a whole lot of difference is there Georgge? It’s getting a bit late in the game for hysterics don’t you think?”

“No!  I don’t think!  Continued exposure to that air will only kill you sooner, Mmarta.  I’ve told you that time and again.  Yet, there you go, every day, and without a mask most of the damn time I might add.”

“STOP IT, GEORGGE!  STOP! I insist, right now, stop” Mmarta blurted.

Silence gripped them both for agonising moments while both composed themselves.

“There is nothing to be done about it, Georgge.  I’m dying.  I will not, I repeat, NOT, stop living just to wait for that unhappy moment to arrive in some artificial comfort.  My dying ambition (excuse the pun), is to see to it that those kids over there are acknowledged and accepted by the damned evil city-state who spawned them.  Now, that’s all there is to that, Georgge.  Agreed?  And I’m surely going to need your help even after I’m gone.  That girl is a wiz, but even with all she’s been through, she is just a child still.  I’m going to sponsor her as my domestic and begin her training.  You’re going to find a way to continue her highed when I’m gone.  Is that clear?  You’ll, of course, be well compensated.”.  She ended the comm and burst into tearful sobs.  She was too distraught right now.  She’d send Dougg.  The bastard never did come to help and he damn sure hadn’t left either.  He could do this much at least, then she’d deal with him too.

———-

Kkat was reeling.

How could the creche stand now?

“…So, under the circumstances, Mmarta sent me to ask you to accept her sponsorship into the medical intern program.  I know she told you to take your time thinking about it, but time is not something you or she has now.  Mmarta is sick.  She doesn’t have much time.  You need to get going on this.”

The gravely concerned look on his face seemed off to Katt.  She couldn’t tell why.  This all somehow just felt, wrong.

“I can help you along too, I have lots of contacts in the health field and in highed.  I can smooth things along for you, you know?  Make it easier for you to get by with all the spoiled elie brats that’ll be giving you a hard time.  Especially since they’ll know your background.”

Kkat imagined a creek rat slithering along the banks, hunting smaller ones, maybe even its own.

“I’m sure you’d love to help me.  Exactly what would that cost me?  Tell me also Dougg, how would anyone around here know my past?  I’m not from a sector anywhere near here.  No thanks, Mr Lok, I’ll take my chances with Mmarta’s guidance alone.  Does she want me to come to her?  Now?”

“Yes. Now would be best”, he was too quick and spoke with an angry sneer in his voice.  Something in his eyes told her to deflect him, too.

“Please tell her I’m sorry, but I promised Burtt I’d help him with something today.  I’ll see her tomorrow when she comes for her visit with the injured. Surely, it can wait until then. If that’s all, then, I’ll be going now.”

She turned to walk away but Dougg grabbed her arm and forcefully pulled her to him.  She was so close she could smell his stinking breath.  Now she knew what had been bothering her about Dougg.  He was a pig.  She could tell just from the way he looked at her and the other girls in the crèche.  She wondered how Burtt’s sister could stand it.

Well, I don’t have to!

“Don’t you turn away from me you, prole bitch.  I’ll tell you when I’m done with you.”

Dougg had no idea how much trouble he was in.  Kkat was one of the best hand-to-hand students Harkk had ever taught, and since their war, she had excelled at every discipline he showed her. This would prove to be Dougg’s final and complete undoing and it started with a bang.

After she drove his testicles up to his throat with her right knee, Kkat spun around behind him and put him in a chokehold until he passed out.  She then had two of the older boys carry him to the tube and deposit him there after splashing a healthy dose of red-zone hootch all over him. Even in passive mode, the tube bots would eventually identify and then arrange transport for him.  By then the hootch will have eaten through at least some of the fabric of his tunic, and the stench would be horrendous.

She had Bann bring Mmarta her message and asked him to request a way to get by the tube bots and guards without needing Dougg, and to explain about Dougg too.  Bann left with a huge smile on his face.  This was something he’d wanted to do for so long.

Oh, boy it would be great to see him laid out in the tube.  Oh boy, would it ever.

Bann thought his face might split.

Kkat hoped this would be the end of Dougg.  Being picked up in such a condition by tube bots was decidedly not a good thing for one’s reputation with the Corp. One was supposed to be more discreet in regards their dealings in the outer zones.  With Dougg’s already blemished rep, he was surely done for.

Mmarta deserved much better anyway, especially now.

She thought of what the news about Mmarta meant, to her and to the crèche.  So many depended on Mmarta for care and her motherly attributes.  What would they do now?  Surely Mmarta didn’t think Kkat would be able to fill in for all that?  She would accept the internship for the sake of the crèche but she wondered just how much responsibility they would try to saddle her with and how much could she stand?

Finally, she thought, dear God, Mmarta is dying and I’m worried about my workload.  JIZMO!

———-

“Alla us wha gots las names from Jaredd, das gut.  Alla res gonna hab “Taj” for las name ‘til we finds ya real one.  ‘R mayb’ sumun adops ya n ya hab dat name.  Das a’righ.”

After sorting out the logistics, the kids all tried on their new names for size, many laughing at the first-time sounds.  The most fun ones were Klipp Klop, who wanted to be adopted by Burtt along with 12 others.  Then there was Rajj Taj, Festerr Chester, Rrosie Posey, Ssandi Butte. And Mortt Mort, one of Kkat’s 18 adoptions, all under 10 and even three infants.

Most of the outer zoners decided to stay with the Taj. Some when they healed, others chose right away after the fight, though a lot of the oldest ones insisted on going out to be with Ccassie, especially her original crew.  They all swore allegiance to the Taj and were all offered naming too.

Ccassie happened to remember her last name, it was Meinklop.  She was the disgraced, long mysteriously gone missing daughter of the head of CommCorp himself.  She didn’t believe throwing that bit of history at the Corp would buy them any favours, so she kept it to herself and her crew all settled for Taj.

Every one of the little ones, aged 14 and under, stayed with Burtt and Kkat in the near-zone.  Everyone agreed this was best for them.

Eight girls who had been sex-slaves stole away into the red-zone as soon as they could get away and came back with infants they’d been hiding from their bosses.  Two of them were dead, the other six weren’t in much better condition but they at least had a chance, now.  All these babies were in the med-tent and in incubation chambers Harkk fashioned with Bbessie’s coaching.  Burtt took the two grieving mothers to the burial ground and helped them put their babies to rest.

Three more girls from Ccassie’s crew came over the wire with their infants, too.  They were in comparatively good condition as Ccassie was still mostly human.  Mmarta and Kkat would enlist these girls to help to build and to supply a nursery over the next few days.  They needed to get these babies out of the surgery suite.

———-

Education became the next most important aspect of life in the crèche after nutrition and health.  Courses were even set up for Ccassie’s crew.  No one was forced to learn but everyone had to contribute to the crèche in some way.  A lot of the older kids decided to learn a skill from Harkk or Bbessie or one of the other domestics or perservs, instead of more formal schooling.

Romance blossomed, and faded, often. There were even some feuds arising from jealous mates or jilted aspirers. The Taj council worked on ideas to help educate everyone about the follies of lovelorn foibles and adjudicate the worst cases of love driven violence.  They also worked on keeping the real young ones single.

When petty jealousies over small possessions started to break out across the creche, the council, under Jaredd and Harkk’s guidance,  finally concluded that their newly conjoined outer zones needed some form of regulation if they were truly going to attempt to be a civilised society.  The bots were basically useless in this regard as anyone can spoof them.  So, the council conferred and came up with the beginnings of an idea to self-police the zone.  A design for the police force was laid out with great emphasis on fairness to all.  The wire between outer zones remained dead in sector-22.  Even after the greenies recharged it, Harkk had built in a bypass.  The passage between the zones was eased.

Jaredd lived up to his word and he provided footballs and flags to mark out a field of play. Everyone learned to play footie over the next little while.  In time, teams were set and competitions scheduled, with awards for best teams and players.  It was great fun for all. Even Burtt and Kkat played.  Everyone learned the value of fair play and how to win or lose gracefully.  Everyone learned that some could, and some couldn’t and that most fell somewhere in between.

The Taj slowly recovered and indeed, thrived.

So, it went through the next few days, nights, weeks and months after the war.  A new nation was born for all intents and purposes.  One that would in time, challenge a giant.  the children, Like Ssyndi, were magnets for knowledge.  The more time moved forward the more this whole concept of exposure took form.

———-

Burtt had avoided this place since that terrible day.  So, it seemed, had everyone else.  A new path into the red zone had been worn into the soil that avoided the battleground itself.  Today Burtt decided it was time to clean up all signs of that carnage.  With Hamill’s huge blade in his hands, he knelt and prayed as he had never done before.  The crew that came with him left him alone.  They’d never seen him like this before and it spooked them.  They headed for the Taj or to Ccassie’s crèche without him.

“Lor’ Got, ya gots t’ take ole Burtt ‘fore he put no mor kids unna da dirt.  I knows times b’ nees to dah, but don’ lets me kilt da wron ones agin.  No mo lil ones, Lor’, no mo.  I caint stans ‘t.”

Burtt checked his work.  Happy that there were no more signs of the battle, he headed back to the Taj, determined to never again allow his rage to cloud his judgement.  NO more would he charge into battle willy-nilly.  He knew the consequences now.  He knew his creche-mates would never let him go it alone, regardless of their capabilities.   No more!

He only wondered now what to do with this great sword.  It had proved its worth in battle against Burtt, so he didn’t want to just throw it away.  But, it was covered in hardened blood and gore left from the battle, and Burtt couldn’t imagine the time it would take to clean it, remembering that savagery again.

He looked up to the heavens. Kkhloe had taught him to never throw a good tool away, or weapon.

Kkhloe whs a’righ?

His eye caught a glint of light sparkling off something shiny at the top of the rubble mound where the archers fought from, where Kkat was.  He clawed his way to the top and found what he was looking for.  He remembered it hanging around Jjes’s neck.  It was gold, she said.  Her mum’s cross, she called it.

Burtt used a large chunk of concrete to pound the blade half way into the mound.  The top of pommel was still up to Burtt’s chest.  He hung Jjes’ necklace from the hilt and hummed Amazing Grace again.

———-

“Well, well!  Looky wha da tide drug in.  “’F aint my ole fren, Pokke.  Wha brin ya way out he-ah, fren?”

Pokke recognised the predatory look in Zobbi’s eyes and Zobbi looked real sick now.  He was gone way over the edge and Pokke wet himself anew.  This had been a terrible week for him already.  He couldn’t imagine how in the hell he managed to run into this crazy bastard on top of all that, way the hell out here?

Why ain’t dis basta det?

“Zobbi, my man.  Ah so hap t’ see ya.  Oh my, Burtt gon craz and b’ killin’ ever’one.  Ah bare gets out a’righ, and he gots a ho pack o demon Ks runnin wit.” He whined.

“S’okay, ole Pokke.  Ya safe he-ah.  Ya in Zobbi’s crew now.  Ya tell awwww ’bout ole Burtt.  Ever’tin you know.  Gots it?  We gon take ca-ah him, gut.  Yessuh!”

The death’s head grin plastered on Zobbi’s face emptied the rest of Pokke’s bladder.

“JIZMO, Pokke.  Grow sum.  Get dis clown out o he-ah and get da stink out ‘fore you brin back. Gots it?  G’on!” he yelled at two grovelling toughs.

They pushed a whimpering Pokke ahead of them towards a sickening looking water hole they called clean.  When he wouldn’t go in himself, they pushed him in.  He thrashed about and screamed that he couldn’t swim.  His captors only laughed until he finally realised he was in waste deep water and could stand up.

Harkk drew up a rudimentary map of sector-22 so Burtt didn’t have to expose his good one to the harsh elements of the outer zones.

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The end

Part 6 –The most seriously injured in the war need more care than could be given in the near-zone.  The Taj council decides to push the issue.  Mmarta, Jaredd and some in the greenies secret Full Exposure Council agree.  A movement is begun to bring the neediest children into the green zone.  Under the guise of the immense threat these outer-zoners presented with their unclean existence, the Corp reacts. They send troops and Bots to clean up the rabble in near-zone sector 22.  Burtt stands in defiance.  Some in the city do too but at great cost and some must go underground.  The children have a whole passel of new wiggly, slurpy, messy, hungry pals to play with…and learn to care for.  Ssyndi spies on Kkat.  Zobbi sends spies to find holes in the Taj’s defences and intel on these new mysterious weapons Pokke was so terrified of. His day will come…

 

Part 4: Burtt’s influence grows

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

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

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

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

poor6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Burt, I…” she tried to soothe him.

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

“Yeah Burtt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kkat nodded and headed in to her space.

Rikk came strolling by and looked bored.

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

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

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

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

“Where I gets unis, Rikk?”

“Oh, um…”

“’Nite, Rikk”.

“’Nite.” Rikk slunk off to his space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of his family history Burtt knew.

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that worked okay until Burtt got involved.

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rikk!” Burtt yelled.

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

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

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

“Yes Burtt.  Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WE GOTS TO GO NOW. PICK HIM UP!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess. But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. See you tomorrow then Burtt.”

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone slunk away home.

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

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

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

“KKAT!”

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He unconsciously reached out to pet the little K.

“Grrrrrrr”

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

The end

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