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. 

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Last Days (Written on the 18th)

Most of you know I struggle with remembering “those bad days“.  Today I had another revelation.  It so happens that this is the anniversary of my injury date.  As has happened the last three years on or around this date, memories jump out at me.  Sometimes they come at me in droves.  Sometimes just one.  This year, so far, just the one today, but it’s a big one…and it’s early.

45 years ago, today (about right now, I think.  I was either injured on the 18th at 0300 and transported to Saigon later that morning, or I was injured at 0300 on the 17th and managed to suffer through an additional day in Saigon before shipping out.  I think that last is unlikely.

3rdFieldHospital

Welcome to U S Army 3rd Field Hospital. I read the sign sideways and realized I wasn’t on Bien Hoa anymore.  I’m on a gurney entering 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.  I didn’t know it was Saigon at the time. I was still trying to sort out the ringing in my ears.  I’ve been in and out of it since cracking my head on the Tarmac at the 11th Cav’s Heliport on Bien Hoa earlier this morning, so I don’t remember a lot, but I remember rolling past that sign.

I’m lying on my right side, holding my damaged left one.  There’s a group of young Vietnamese women (girls, maybe) sitting under a large tree, in the shade, sipping tea no doubt.  It seemed like they were inside the Hospital compound.  I smiled when one caught my eye.  She smiled back, drawing her hand across her throat, the smile turning into a death’s head grimace.  I laugh and flip her off.  She feigns disgust and turns away.  An NCO is in my face screaming at me for messing with the locals.  I laugh and flip him off too.  Fuck it, I feel gooo-oood!

I think I spent at least two days here, though I can’t be sure.  It could have been one overnight and then across the street to Tan Son Nhut and home.  I just don’t know and there’s no fekkin records, of course.  I lost the Army when I left the 34th in Bien Hoa and they didn’t find me again, it seemed, until they discharged me 2 months later.  Things were so messed up, they paid me twice for my last 4 months, then took it all back before they discharged me…all that in about 45 minutes while processing out at Fort Devens, MA.

I do remember snippets at the hospital.  I remember looking out my window, I think it was my window or a window near my bunk in the hospital, though I don’t think I was able to get up then.  I was on the second floor.  The view was of the roof of a portico that stuck out from the hospital below me.  There was a sandbagged fighting position there.  I was suddenly thrust back into reality and fear gripped me.  I had neither Prince, nor any of my weapons.

I remember moaning.  Mine perhaps until I wake, but often, it comes from the fellow next to me who has no feet.  They must change the bandages every few hours.  He’s out cold and he screams through the entire process anyway.  I catch myself screaming with him more than once.  He doesn’t realize it, he just reaches out.  I reach out and grab his hand.  It’s a mistake.  He crushes my hand and there’s no getting it back until he finally gasps one last gasp and surrenders to what counts for his respite…an unconscious, raging, nightmare that never ends…and never will.

I look up from my bunk and someone is turning away from me, saying something about “sleepy heads”.  I feel a weight on my chest.  This man says something and my next-door neighbor moans, loudly.

“Hey! Can’t you keep this guy calm? I can’t hear myself think. Come on, now!”

“Yes, sir. He’s just very uncomfortable, sir. We keep him sedated but the pain still leaks through and his nightmares are horrendous, sir. He’s struggling.”

“I see, yes…”

My neighbor screams as his bunk is bumped with all the traffic.  There’s people all around.  WTF, over?

“Oh, hell.  That’s it.  I’m done with this.  Let’s go.”  The man turns from my neighbor to walk away.

“Sir?”

“I said, I’M DONE!  LET’S GO!”

I grab what’s on my chest and pitch it at the back of the jerk.  It connects.  The gent freezes.  Starts to turn, then freezes again.  He continues out of the ward with his entourage in tow.  Questions flying.  I’m disappointed the ass didn’t confront me.  I’m still feeling great.

Someone’s in my face in a minute.

“You better hope we can get you out of here, NOW, you idiot?  Do you know who that was?”

I’m not having any of it.  This was fun.  I laughed.  Whoever it was turned and walked away muttering.

I turn on my right side.  My neighbor is looking at me through drug crazed eyes.

“Fuck it, man. It don’t mean nuthin!” He was warning me.  I didn’t hear him.

————

My next memory is of sometime after that incident in the hospital ward. It could have been hours and it could have been days.  I’m back on a gurney being wheeled somewhere outside.  It’s blistering hot and sunny, I can smell diesel and Jet fuel.  I think I was headed for my Freedom Bird, a Medivac flight on Tan Son Nhut AFB.

I remember croaking something and trying to sit up.  Someone plants me back down and says, “Easy PFC, easy.  Don’t want another knock on the noggin, do you?”

“Where…” was all I could manage.

“Home, you lucky bastard, home that’s where.  Now, sit still and let me…”

I seemed to fade out for a while again then.  My next continuous spell of consciousness (lasting more than a few hours) occurred five days after I was injured, possibly 2 or 3 days after the incident in the hospital ward.  I was on a C5A Galaxy headed for Guam.  I had supposedly already been to Japan for a refuel and spent 2 days on Clark AFB in the Philippines.  I don’t remember anything but snippets of those times, if anything, but when I woke on that jet to Guam and had no Prince and no weapons, again, I went nuts.  I remember that because when the guy approached me with the needle to knock me out again, I begged.  He did anyway.

This is a bit of a breakthrough for me.  I hadn’t remembered much about the hospital until now. Tomorrow is the day I will have left Vietnam in 1972.  On this day, back then, I am trying to help my neighbor whose name and fate, I never will know while condemning myself to a difficult path out.  I wonder who that officer was and if he had awarded me some commendation????  No matter, I…ahem…promptly gave it back to him.  Lol!  The memory is worth twenty.  He was a shit!

Burt, man and master

poor4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rikk thought he’d never figure girls out.

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

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

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

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

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

“Burtt feeds all of you?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Hhesther MacBride! Two words. Not one.”

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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what, boss?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well? Did you?”

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

“You was what, Estebann?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My sister? Ssyn? But how…?”

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

“What are Loks?” Burtt asked.

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

Estebann continued, “You want to try it?”

“Yes. How…”

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

“Hello?”

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

“Ssyn? Is that really you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just grateful Burtt, sir, just grateful.”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have no frens, Burtt.”

“Yes, you do. Now you do. See ya.”

“See ya.”

“Dogg, to me!”

——

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

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

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

His discomfort overwhelmed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, if you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

Pokke looked sickly if not a little deathlike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

——

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burtt nodded and led on.

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

 

The end.

 

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

 

Burt finds his niche

poor1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“DOOGGGOOODD!  DOOOOGOOOD!  DOOOOOGGGOOD!” Chukk shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—–

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”, said Dougg.

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

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

“Later what?”  asked Doug.

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

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

—–

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

“Do you know where you are, puss?”

“Near-zone”, the sniveler sobbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burt was stunned.  Pokke?  Why?

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

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

Now it was Burtt’s turn to be stunned.

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

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

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

What’s your name, kid?”

“Rikk”

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

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

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

“Dogg.  To me.  Walk.”

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

 

The end

 

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

 

First time

Over the years I have slowly been able to bring back at least most of what my brain stowed away in denialville. Still, there are instances of either memory or imagining that flash into my mind’s eye for brief moments that leave me stunned, lost, unsure and unfulfilled.  Lately there have been various events, sights, voices or noises that bring these things into clearer focus so I can, the hope is, resolve these flashes into either reality or fantasy. I have yet to discard any of these flashes to the fantasy pile. I don’t know for sure why I remembered some and no other events, but most of those I’d buried had death all over them.

I had always thought the experience I had with the old peasant man was my first trip outside the wire but I had forgotten the real first trip which triggered us going outside the wire much more often after that.  I had an “epiphany” this morning as I woke and several lingering unresolved flashes of memory morphed into one event and I remembered it all in a rush.

Link to the earlier article describing what I thought was my first trip outside the wire: https://mikeisasking.com/page/4/

I’m sure I will re-remember this several more times and will add detail as time tick-ticks. This is what I recall as of now. This will be a new chapter in my memoirs.

Tears still stung at the corner of my eyes.  Humidity like a warm soggy second skin clung to my arms.  It was a habit I had to check all the time or I’d miss something.  That would be bad.  I have to watch Prince all the time like he was my eyes, but I often found myself sighting down my arm, the leash and then to the back of Prince’s head. If I saw anything on my arm, it might cause me to delay and I could miss that flicker of an alert my partner might throw with the mild scent, sight or sound of something new, different or maybe a threat. I had to work on that. Even when we are just walking on base camp I practice looking directly at his ears, skipping the long arduous path of arm, leash to detector extraordinaire. I don’t need to look anywhere else. That’s his job. As Prince slept I reflected on the last 30 minutes. Bouncing along in the back of that truck I wiped away the last vestiges of the salty tracks of the tears shed six men’s lifetimes ago.

Noticing the sheen on my arms right then was a distracting annoyance more than a mistake. We were in a transport headed back to the 34th Patrol Dogs company area and a much-needed rest and I needed to stop thinking about everything…desperately. In fact Prince was zoned out already. We were the first team retrieved out of six and we are spread out all over the compound, inside and outside of the wire. It takes most of an hour to collect the six teams coming home. With the night Prince had I knew he was exhausted and he was gone the second the truck started moving. He would eat a little when we got back and hydrate while I cleaned my weapons and gear. Then when he “knew” I was okay and going to bed myself, he would traipse off to his kennel, curl up in his hooch and crash. He never played with another dog nor for that matter did he pay any attention to his kennel-mates. He never went anywhere else, just to his kennel. I know because I very “discretely” followed him a couple of times. Satisfied that he was indeed going to his kennel only, I would then head back to my hooch where Prince would once again be waiting for me to drop off to sleep. He was always there when I woke too.

I don’t think it was always terribly restful sleep for him. We’d lived through some minor horrors together and he’d been here for four years before I arrived.  I have no doubt my partner was already in the throes of PTSD and it showed.  Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would pace a bit but always ended up leaning against his hooch, watching him sleep. I thought I dreamed too much but his seemed to last all night and he was in distress most of the time. Maybe I should have woken him but one of us needed to sleep. When it was time to go to work, that hero of mine never flinched no matter his “mental” condition.

Earlier this night we had started out walking the perimeter of the Air Force’s huge ammo dump. Donnie Lassiter and his partner, Bodie, were working in tandem with Prince and I sweeping north to the fence in an effort to thwart the aspirations of our friendly neighborhood sappers. We chased them all the way to the fence without seeing them but found the hole they came through. There was nearly 200 meters of open space beyond the fence, if you consider three rows of concertina wire and minefields open. There was no sign of the combat engineers we were looking for though both hounds were chomping at the bit to have us let them go. That sure wasn’t happening.  Semi defeated we reported in and headed back to continue walking our posts assuming the MPs would prosecute this contact then, or the air cavalry would.

Along the way back we found that this group of sappers nearly made it to their goal. We found three satchels of explosives behind the last bunker before the first row of bomb pallets. They caught us with our pants down during shift change. If it wasn’t for Donnie’s insistence we do a “clearance to the fence” first, that night would have ended way differently. Talk about in the nick of time, eh?  Firing warning shots when Prince and Bodie both alerted on personnel, probably caused the sappers to drop what they were doing and didimao their butts on out of there with us hot on thier trail. Only providence (or Donnie’s natural country boy awareness) put us there in time to prevent them from arming the charges or remotely detonating them.  Only the pitch black of that night prevented us from seeing them because as far as the hounds were concerned we were right on top of the bastards.  If we weren’t so close to the fence line we might have let them go too.

Thinking we were going to return to the routine of a normal guard mount, we were surprised to find some brass waiting for us at the dump. After a short debrief the OD pointed at me and said, “PFC, you and your partner are to head for the east gate on the army side to join an ARVN unit in pursuit of our recent visitors. They have to be gone to ground nearby. We need you to find them. There’s transport at the dump gate to bring you there.”

“With all due respect sir, isn’t this a job for a tracker team, sir?” I hated the idea of going alone to work with ARVN.

“I gave you an order son in case you didn’t recognize it.”

“Yes sir. On my way,  sir.”  I signaled to Donnie with my hand miming a phone to my ear.  He knew I meant for him to notify our boss. Our boss met me at the gate with a full load of ammo, a couple of pair of GI socks in case I need to cover Prince’s paws and more water.

This is my first trip outside the wire since setting foot on Bien Hoa Base Camp.  In spite of the encouragement of our company Sergeant, I am terrified the second I pass under the gate’s archway. A cold bead of sweat traced is way slowly down my spine. I felt as though the dark settling in around me was measuring me. My first glimpse of the men I would be working with was fraught with trepidation. With everything else I should have been thinking about, I was stuck on wondering if this crew was one of the bad ones that often disappear unsuspecting GIs.

Sergeant Ďung Lam introduced himself in near perfect English and my fears melted away with a warm, strong handshake and a penetrating look. It was evident that Lam was a veteran right away. His squad responded to his directives with the dedication of worshipers. My comfort level grew with each moment as I listened to him clearly and concisely describe what we would be doing for the next few hours, then he conveyed the same spiel to his charges in Vietnamese. Shortly, we were off on a quest to sniff out and prosecute our worst nightmare of the last few months, the highly trained, incredibly ingenious, pain in the ass sapper, or “combat engineer” in friendly parlance.

I really thought this job was better suited to a combat tracker team, (maybe just because i was scared, though) but they too were in high demand and like most k9 ops in 1972 except Sentry and Patrol, the field units were all slowly standing down and going home. There we’re no tracker teams available that night.  Thus it was decided that one of the two Patrol Dog teams who first found the sappers would continue the pursuit outside the wire.  Enter Shorty and Prince 16×5.

Lam had as good a plan as I could hope for.  His experience must have included the use of k9s. He had us quartering the field the sappers escaped into or through from the other side of the minefield and rows of wire.  The wind direction was optimal as it was blowing straight into Prince’s face. If we found nothing,  we’d go two hundred meters farther out and begin searching again.   We actually picked up their scent on the second pass. They had indeed gone to ground while still inside the wire. With all the effort to locate and fix them going on they must have felt staying put in the deep scrub brush at the end of the runway was the best plan for the moment. As Lam was calling it in, the group of six or so sappers we are after rose about one hundred meters away and started firing as they tried to withdraw further west and perhaps escape through the fence down the line. I froze. Prince barked at me and I snapped back to life. We covered with me stooping and Prince tucked tight between my legs and then I started to fire down range. I hesitated because I knew I was firing into an American compound, but only for a second as I soon realised that those pretty little sparkly lights I could see pointing at me from the sappers position were rounds being fired at me. I don’t know if I hit anyone. it’s too dark to be sure, but I know I had center of mass twice when I squeezed…

At some point I looked down at the last full magazine I had left and the pile of 5 empties at my feet and thought, “WTF, over. Fire discipline much?” I couldn’t recall changing mags once let alone five times and I know I only clearly saw two targets that whole time, which may have been as long as ten seconds or ten minutes. I had no idea and my crotch was wet.

The cacophony of small arms fire was drowned out violently and suddenly by the staccato roar of the approaching helo. Then the night lit up with a stream of hellfire from the nose of that Cobra.  The noise stopped my heart while I prayed a quick thank you that we were not on the receiving end of that gale from hell. Lam had done his job well calling in the alert which resulted in the dance of the Cobra quickly ending the fight. His call also kept the Americans on the other side of the wire from firing at us while we pinned the Cobra’s prey.  Good thing someone knew what they were doing,  eh?

The realization that six or more lives had just ended horribly came to me in pieces.  Exhilaration, remorse, joy, fear, guilt, nausea and escape all fought for my attention until I shut down.  When a brisk non-com’s stentorian shout shocked me out of my fugue, I found Prince holding off and protecting me from an entire company of MPs. One MP was leveling his weapon at Prince yelling, “I got this sarge”.  Then my .45 was in my hand and I was yelling, “no you fucking don’t”.

Lam stepped in front of Prince and me and said, “It’s over Shorty. Let’s go home.”

“Oh please, yes.  Home, please God.” Then the tears came and I didn’t care.

 

Santiago Herrera Escobar, my hero.

Santiago, or Santi as we knew him, was my best friend in life. He was instrumental in my passing Scout Dog Handler School as well as in becoming a man. I was with him only for a while in Nam. He fell one month after I was sent home. I can never have him back until I go too. I take comfort in knowing that old soldiers don’t die, they just go to hell and regroup. See you then brother.  Keep guiding me please…

(the following is excerpted from my memoirs)

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Santiago Herrera Escobar, SP4, US ARMY, SCOUT/PATROL Dog Handler and American Hero.

Fell on 19 May 1972 in the south of Bien Hoa Province, RVN in service to his country.

RIP brother

“We’ll walk through it together, Shorty. No sweat huh? This is what we were made for, man. I did it. You can do it. Let’s go before it gets any worse.”

It was almost too noisy from the downpour to even hear Santi, let alone see what I was doing, but we both whispered because we knew the cadre were spread out in the woods to catch noisy teams and fail them for this stage. That meant a do-over and the more times you had to do it over the harder they made the next run to pass. The next thing you knew it was dawn and you’d been at it for over 8 hours…and you still hadn’t caught the sapper.

“I guess.” I sulked, “Still, they could have picked a better night, you know? One with a moon or something? This shit is worse than dark. I can’t even see her ears man. How am I gonna call her alerts if I can’t even see her?”

At this point I was just bitching. You might think Georgia would be a nice place in the summer. That depends on how moist you like to keep your clothes when wearing them and your sheets when sleeping on them. I thought the humidity was bad in Boston. WHOA! My skin also attained this rich clay colored tint from the grime that was ground into your every exposed pore day in and day out. My partner’s drool always added to the sweet elixir of bodily fluids and nature’s detritus I collected while crawling through the underbrush.

This exercise was a critical stage in our training. Basically this was man-hunting. The scenario: Your Partner alerts on personnel…usually a scent alert. You then prosecute the alert to the successful termination or capture of the threat. For the initial runs through this type of exercise the cadre set the trails up intentionally working with Mother Nature. Good weather, stiff breeze blowing more or less in the team face, fairly simple terrain to cover. Once you got through that, they got serious. Truth is, in real life scenarios, the enemy isn’t stupid and isn’t going to put himself in a position that would make it easy for us to find him.

We are now well past the easy training. And I am on my third pass. Lady and I have died both previous times. Santi and his Partner Rebel, made it through in one.

“Hahaha. Shorty, you’re a trip man. What, you want to paint orange stripes on Lady’s ears? Come on, man. Tighten up on the leash a bit. When she finds something you’ll feel it, right? No slack…feel her doing her job and then do yours. Come on now. I’m cold, I’m wet and I need to crap in the worst way. Let’s get this shit over with. Roget that?”

“Roger that!”

Santi is playing Shotgun/RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) for me. When I give him the go he signals, “Team two to tower, we are Oscar Mike, over”.

“Team two, Tower, copy. Acknowledge you are on your third, I repeat, third run, over.”

“Fuckers!”

“Shut up, Shorty”

“Team two, Tower. Roger that. Third time’s a charm. Out.”

Then Santi repeated “Fuckers. Let’s show these dick’s what you’re made of man. Come on.”

I made it through on the next pass using Santi’s simple suggestion to maintain a better “connection” with my partner no matter the environment. A lesson learned that served me well over the next several months because all I did was work at night. This wasn’t the only time Santi’s guidance brought me through.

We finished Scout Dog Handler School together in December 1971. We all made our way to Vietnam separately or perhaps in very small groups. Donnie Lassiter and I made the trip together from Fort Dix, NJ. Others came from the west coast at different times and dates.

About half of our graduating class made it to Bien Hoa and the other half went north to Da Nang. Santi was in the latter group but we’d heard they were all doing well through the grapevine.  Santi was slowly making his way south towards us at Bien Hoa and in fact just a few weeks before I left Vietnam, Santi and the rest of our graduating Scout Dog School class, made their way to our unit, the 34th Patrol Dog Platoon, 3rd Bde, 1st Cav.

On April 19th during a rocket attack on Bien Hoa (no rockets landed near me), I got tangled up with Prince when we were trying to get to cover and ended up with my third concussion in two weeks and a second AC separation of my left shoulder in the same time frame. Though I didn’t find out about it for a few days when I woke on a medivac jet headed to Guam, the Army decided I’d had enough, at least for a while, and sent me back to the world.

I wish they’d sent me to rehab and that I’d made it made it back to see my brothers again because I’ve never seen any of them since, as happens a lot with solders. Can there ever be anything more unfair than what happens to soldiers when their “trade” is no longer needed? You spend the prime of your life living, bleeding and slowly dying in spirit with men you never met before but would readily give your life for in an instant without hesitation. Then you are ripped apart suddenly and you never see them again.

I had great aspirations of meeting them all again one day. I especially looked forward to meeting Santi and Don, Jeff and Joe my hootch-mates, and oh hell all of them…Ron, Jimbo, Jack, Charles, Duel, James and Henry too. But just a few months after I got home I got a MARS call from Jimbo telling me that Santi had passed away in-country. The call got cut off and I couldn’t get it back.

Santi got pneumonia on duty and he got so sick that he died from complications. I can’t help but think those complications were heavily seeped in Agent Orange poisoning. More than one of our guys came back from that duty with sores all over their bodies and breathing difficulties because of inhaling that poison for a whole shift several times a month.  Even our K9 partners suffered with blisters on their feet until we refused to brings our dogs with us. The storage complex for that defoliant was, unfortunately, one of our Patrol posts. Don and I lucked out and got the AMMO Dump instead of the defoliant yard. Santiago Herrera Escobar, my brother aspirated in Vietnam on 19 MAY 1972.

After that call from Jimbo everything seemed to deflate for me. I didn’t make an effort to “meet them” again until the VDHA (Vietnam Dog Handlers Association) put me in touch with Donnie last year.

God rest your soul my brother. I’ll see you on the other side. Give Prince a hug and tell him I’ll meet him over the bridge. I will always love you and remember you brother.

RIP

Shorty