OUCH!

Elderly Vets under fire?

Nearly nothing had been nudging my nebulous noodle for nigh on a never-ending story.  Then this popped up.

Christ, please give me a break.  Believe it or not, this is the very benefit I was just awarded.  We are just now getting all our “new” benefits sorted out.  Health care for spouse, dental and vision for me, commissary cards, tax benefits for home, etc., let alone an income we can afford to live here on…and now it’s maybe all going away.  OOF!

I have no words.  Thanks God I’m busy doing homework…FRACK! (Yes, I had to edit that last word five or so many times).  I’m trying.  Actual students may read this stuff now.  YIKES!

I still have no inspiration…none…hoping school reopens the channels.  Not writing sucks and now I’m afraid it will all be black, black, black anyway.

Twitter is fun actually, but micro-blogging just doesn’t suffice.  I can’t properly fricassee a politician in 140 characters.

Damn!  You pissed me off, Donald Trump! #sayitaintso

Burtt-Part Ten, Transitions

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

BeeHive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

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

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On it! Detector Fin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

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

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

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

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

That was apparently enough for the Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

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

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

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

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

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

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

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

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

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

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

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

“Get on with, you boyo!”

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

The end of part eight.

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

 

 

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

Time, as counted in Burtt’s world:

The smallest unit of measure is a tick or click

There are 60 ticks in a span

There are 60 spans in a cycle

There are 24 cycles in a day

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

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

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

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

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

livermoregreen
The Flag pastures

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

10-512319:

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

Friends!  Ha! Wonda wha thas lahk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayb’ shoulda let em all go?”

“Hmmm.  Mayb’ safah, yeah!”

————

Eleventh cycle, In the Greathall in front of everyone:

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

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

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

Killin make ya craz, Ah guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

19th hour, nearing the Flag compound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

3-L12319, Flag visitors quarters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Jonn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qquitia couldn’t move fast enough.

Madre Dios, hurry Jaredd.  I am losing it!

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?  What about your hand?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killin ain’t never good, Burtt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew redoubled their efforts.

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Same time, approaching Green River:

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

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

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

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

What? Was Burtt’s puzzled silent question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

11hour and 30spans, in the Taj Greathall:

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

Burtt was beaming.

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

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

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

Before Kkat could answer, Burtt took charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, fine, it was…”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!  BANG! BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butt’s declaration caught everyone off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More damn questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

The same time at the Hap stead:

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

“Are you sure?  When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

Fourteenth hour, the Taj:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fen sounded the recall.

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

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

————

Lasteat, Lo-day, Taj Greathall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead then” Burtt prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

13-222319, On the Taj Quad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

9-322319, the Haps:

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

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

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

ZZZZZZZZZTTTTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

7+30-552319, outside Harkk’s servhut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess…”

BLEEP!  BLEEP!  BLEEP!

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hanss, get word to the Loks.  Use the unit I comm Ssyndi with.  It’s in Harkk’s hut. She’ll pick right up.  They are to stay under lock and key unless told otherwise.  They are to take orders from only me or the chain of command as I’ve set it.  Ssyndi knows it too.  Tell her I’ll comm personally after its all over.  Then get back here and make sure you don’t lose that unit.”

“Hectorr, set the backup troops in the outer comm trenches, have them ready to replace fallen troops and for trench skirmishes.”

 “Cconnie, take princess down to the underground with the others.  Then get back here.  I need you on the inner comm trench directing those transporting the wounded to the MedCent. Make sure you got plenty of med-kits, litters and bearers, yah?”

The center communications trench running perpendicularly from one fighting trench to the next, was the only straight trench that ran the entire way to the red-zone wire and under it to empty out near the readout and the MedCent.  All other comm trenches were offset from each other to make it hard to take large numbers of Taj-mates under concentrated fire, while providing ample egress points from one fighting trench to the next one back or forward, as called for.  The central trench had had almost complete overhead cover from end to end to the red-zone wire.

“Ccassie, get out to the readout.  Comm Jonn.  Tell him we need mass-safe-transport and we need it now.  He’ll know what you mean.  Then get back here.  I’m going to need you to lead one line of defenders for me.  Bann isn’t here.  I’ll save the last crew for you, but hurry, girl.”

“Josepp, you take six soldiers with rocket training.  Place two each at the weapons caches Jonn left us.  If those transports come down on us, you stop ‘em.  Got it?  You know how.  You’re in command of Taj Rocket Force for today..

“Everyone else split into three even fighting forces and take up position in the forward trenches.  We ain’t gonna die today. Do you all hear me?  We’re going to live.  We’re all going to have to work together to make that happen.  So be ready.  Yah?”

“I will stay with the lead fighting force as we withdraw, commanding our efforts throughout this action.  Robb, you have line one and second hat, if I fall.  Jass, you take over line two.  Ccassie will be here for line three in a few ticks.  She’s third hat.  Any questions?”  There were none.

“All right, Taj!  Let’s be about it!”

Everyone acknowledged Burtt’s commands, went about their business and the wait began.  It wasn’t a long one.

————

Seventh hour plus 30 spans, at the servhuts:

Bbessie and Qquitia waited by the entrance to the tube for the first Cops to show.  Other greasers and some perservs were milling about or toiling by their huts.  Most were out of sight and ready to hit the bolt holes in the Greathall if the stuff hit the fan.  Harkk was ministering to a balky servo mounted on a spindle outside one of his servhuts.  Everything was in readiness, though no one would have predicted the force with which the Cops would hit the Taj, when it came.

The two Mil-AirTrans hovered above, observing the operation, but not yet involved directly.

The first waves of Cops through the tube spread out quickly enveloping the servhut area, while also cutting off Bbessie’s and Harkk’s personal huts from the rest of the Taj.  The girls were pinned to the ground in place with prejudice by the Cops who reached them first.  There was no hesitation.

Two cops kicked in the fencing that had housed the Ken.  Harkk realized that only providence saved the pups.  Cconnie had moved the entire Ken to the other side of the readout against the will of every working slob who kept tripping over the eternally underfoot fur balls.  To domites, Ks were pests like rats.  The troopers would have slaughtered them on sight.

Thank God, she had moved them.  Now they were not only safe but handlers were prepared to take the older, trained hounds into battle if needed to rescue trapped soldiers.  That was the only time the Ks would be risked in this scenario.  Ks against other outer-zone toughs was one thing.  Ks against armed Cops or worse yet, the Army, was a formula for disaster and to be avoided at all costs.  Sweet and her newest pups had already made the trip to Flag.

“ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  ATTENTION!  THIS IS COMMCORP SECURITY FORCES.  ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! ALL PROLES ASSUME A PRONE POSITION IMMEDIATELY! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!  GET DOWN NOW!”

A midlevel Cop bellowed through a crowd control megaphone.  The decibels involved would knock down a horse.

After the envelopment was complete another platoon of Cops came straight into the servhut area and started shoving slow reacting perservs to the ground forcibly.  Harkk, pushed back hard enough to let the two Cops holding him that they had their hands full, if he decided to make it so.  He slowly took a knee.  When he didn’t feel safe pushing is luck any further, he went prone.

Once sure he wouldn’t be shot, he called out, “See here, Detector Fen, this is getting a bit out of hand, with you interrupting us every other day.  What, for the love of Norton, is going on here?  How are we to get our work done?”

“Officer Brat, restrain that prole.  If he speaks or moves again, stun him.”  The officer assumed a position over top of Harkk with one boot in his back and a hateful sneer creasing his face.

“On it! Detector Fin.”

“Anyone else have an opinion I didn’t ask for?  No? Good!  Now, where are the other proles?  Where are the ones you’re hiding?  Where are the ones you’ve already smuggled into the dome?  Quickly!  Where are they?”

Fen was going for broke.   He had no proof of anything.  All he had was Captain Clak riding his ass daily about the continuous bot alerts in sector-22.  The damn things were alarming damn near every day.  But, whenever he sent a troop out to investigate, there was that condescending great Oaf Harkk. There was never, ever any sign of unsponsored proles.

And here it looked like the same thing was going to happen again.  He’d he laughed all the way to Justice Hall himself, strapped to a crimcart.

NO!  NO!  NOT THIS TIME!  He raged internally.  If I’m going down you basta, Harkk, you and your smirking face are coming with me, only you’ll go first my large pain-in-the-ass friend.

With one last longing look around the compound only to still see nothing out of the ordinary, Fen made his officiously slow way over to where Harkk was pinned to the ground.  The Cop keeping him in place enjoyed the look on his boss’s countenance.  It was a death’s head grimace and like all of them, this cop was sick and tired of being ridiculed by their Army counterparts.  He would welcome the opportunity to end this prole.  He just needed his boss to say so.  He was about to suggest such an action when his boss interrupted him.

“Move aside Officer.”  The cop just stared at his boss for a moment too long. “MOVE ASIDE, I SAID!” Came the scream from Senior Detector Larss Fen.

Brat moved like a cat with its tail on fire.  “Sir, yes sir!”

It was almost as if Fen thought someone might be watching.  Someone he wanted to draw out.  Burtt was already moving to the forward step of the trench getting ready to call the troop to firing position.

Fen, slowing even more, circled Harkk, who hadn’t dared to move.  With deliberate motion, Fen removed his stunner from its sheathe.  Anyone in sight of him could see that he was twisting the intensity setting.  They could only guess he was setting it to max, to kill setting. Burtt readied his troop with hand signals.  Using the same signals, word was silently passed back through the comm trenches to the others that action as about to commence.

“You have thwarted me at every turn, Mr. Harkk.  You have made a mockery of justice out here.  Don’t think we don’t know.  The Corp knows all.  You think you can keep your little secrets from me?  Fool!  Fool, I say.  I have spies.  I know what you’re up to. I’ll take the rest of the info I need from these other scums.  Once they see you perish, there will be NO WILL left in them.  Today, is your end Mr. Mighty and oh so connected Harkk.”

With that he stabbed downwards to zap Harkk in the back, but Harkk knew what was coming and he rolled into his attacker’s feet, knocking the Detector down and onto his own charged stunner.  For good measure, Harkk planted a backhander full on the back of the cop’s helmet, slamming his forehead into the plascreet further knocking him senseless.  That was just in time to look up and see Officer Brat stunner zeroing in on him then too.  As Harkk tried to back away, several short Crossbow shafts appeared in the cop’s chest.  They stopped him but none seemed to penetrate his armor enough to stop him completely.  He laughed a sinister, pained sounding laugh and charged in again.  This time a full shaft found its mark and took him in the throat.

“One more crank on the bows, boys” yelled Burtt, telling his crossbowmen to add more strength to their shots so they would fully penetrate the lite Cops armor.

Harkk scrambled to his feet and while the rest of the Cop’s all stood around in shock after seeing their boss manhandled and their second in command murdered, he yelled out the appropriate code word for the situation.

At the top of his lungs so he would be sure Burtt and all heard him, he yelled, “SCATTER! SCATTER! SCATTER!” the code that would let the Taj know that the plan had changed and everyone, perservs included, should get out with the Taj.  Those who chose to stay anyway, were on their own unless they could get to the Loks or somehow signal the Flag.

This prompted a mass exodus through the quad, while the cops tried to regain control of the situation, but by then there were bolts and arrows flying everywhere.  The cops were way to busy staying alive to prevent the perservs from making good their escape, including Harkk who joined Burtt in the front rank and armed up.  In fact, the Cops didn’t pay any attention to the perservs or Harkk and they slipped away without them knowing.

“First Rank, remove!”  Burtt ordered and the first rank fell back through the center comm trench to take up positions one fighting trench removed from the last.  As each line removed backwards to take up a new tail end position, the medcrews vacated to the next section back just ahead of them.

“Second rank, Hold and repel!”

This continued for five spans while the cops regrouped and a new leader took charge.  They had withdrawn five trenches deeper into the Taj and closer to safety.  Burtt observed the man he thought was the new lead looking up towards the transports with a comm unit in his hand.  With obvious prompting from above, the Cops renewed their effort to uproot the Taj fighters and defeat them in detail.

The Cops moved into the recently vacated first line of fighting trenches and made their way back to the fourth.  That’s when Harkk popped up from the far end of the fifth fighting trench and screamed “NOW TAJ, NOW!”  for all he was worth.

Bowmen laid down a withering cover fire that drove all the other Cops above ground to cover and effectively, out of the fight temporarily.

The center trench was quickly secured and blocked to any passage towards the readout.  From an outside trench, more Taj-mates came around and closed off the other side of the center trench preventing retreat in that direction.  Taj-mates poured around the corner of each end of the fourth trench, six deep and well protected from attack, with interlocked shields, in front, up top and behind.  They drove pikes relentlessly into the cops who were now trapped between the four forces and had no way to fight back effectively, or withdraw.  No ready way that is.  Some of them went berserk at the end and landed a few telling blows to Taj-mates who were hustled off the battle field faster than the Cops could finish them off.  Those Cops that fell and didn’t die right away, were finished with blades as the Taj-mates passed over them.  Twelve Cops entered but when the dust cleared, there were no live Cops left in that fourth trench.

That was apparently enough for the Army.

“ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL! ALL COMMCORP PERSONNEL!  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY.  CLEAR SECTOR-22 IMMEDIATLEY!  THIS IS NOT A DRILL. INCOMMING.  I REPEAT INCOMMING!”

“Burtt, under cover now.  Under cover now!”  Harkk yelled across the trench when the Mil-AirTrans PA stopped shrieking at them.  That was the signal they all knew to take cover underground.  Harkk knew the only place that could protect them and that they could all get to in time was the underground hide in Thomass old crèche.  He hoped they could get there, anyway.  The Mil Commander would give the Cops time to evac to the tube where they’d construct a quick barricade to take cover behind.  They had a few spans at least.

The Taj fighters and the support troops all made their way methodically and orderly to Ccassie’s crèche and then through her tunnel to join their mates at the underground hide.  The injured had already been moved there.  Just below ground, Burtt, and 4 other soldiers, donned iso-suits and made ready to evade into the frontier and hopefully lead the Cops and the Army away from the Taj.  They hoped the Corp troops would miss any trace of the Taj-mates passage underground.  The remaining troops, handlers and Ks were assigned to protect everyone down in the hide.  If they did have to lead the Army on a wild goose chase; Burtt could always come back to fight with his hand if he had to.  If it all went bad on them.

Burtt and Harkk came closer to the surface of Ccassie’s crèche for a better look. As the last of the Taj-mates found their places, the entire near-zone in sector-22 blossomed into a massive fireball.  Servhuts, domiciles and the Taj Greathall itself were consumed in a matter of moments.  There was just nothing left but ash and smoke.  Burtt and Harkk were both blown off their protected perch, near the top of Ccassie’s tunnel, as if made of dust.

Burtt was in shock. What could do so much damage so quickly?  He turned an unbelieving eye to Harkk, brushing at clothing that felt ready to burst into flames.

“Now you know why I don’t really cherish the idea of returning to the Wall or anywhere near.  That kind of shit happens every day out there Burtt.  Unless the wildlings have suddenly gone extinct, I’ll wager it’s just the same today, or worse. God forbid.  That thing was affectionately known by the troops as a “Wiper”, because it wipes everything out within a hundred meters of where it hits.  That AirTrans carries eight of them.  If he hits the compound with all eight, I don’t know for sure that we’ll be safe even in the underground Burtt.  I never thought they’d go this far.

Burtt wasted no more time.  He raced out of Cassie’s, stood up to be seen, and signaled with the red flags he carried for just such a need, then dove back into cover.

“Burtt, you nut.  Come on we must move.  They’ve got us pegged for sure now that you exposed our hide.  Hustle, hustle!”  the two ran like crazed rats out of a sinking ship away from the mouth of the tunnel.

With the signal given, his troops on the mounds with the rocket launchers, came out of their hides, took up position and prepared to escalate this thing beyond anything these kids had ever seen.

“Sir?  Sir?  We’re being…my Norton, Sir, we’re being targeted.  They have lock, sir.  We…”

The first rocket was out in a moment and then two more in quick succession.  The latter two were wasted.  The first ran straight and true to its target which dutifully exploded in a cascading flaming horror show of metal and men as its paired wingman evaded radically up and away.  The follow-on missiles ran right through the space that was once a Mil-AirTrans and impacted on the side of the CommCorp dome, making a 30-meter crack in the plascreet.  Atmosphere immediately started leaking from the dome.  The crack got worse and so did the leak and quickly became a hiss loud enough to be heard on the ground.  Alarms sounded from seemingly everywhere.  Two more Wipers, fired by the second in the pair of Mil-AirTrans, hit the near zone in quick succession.  The crack turned into a raging storm of pure air blasting the near zone and all the remaining debris away from the dome.

The rocketeers were blown off their feet.  They were stunned but had enough sense to grab the cases and run to a new hide.  They ran all the way to the backside of the readout and didn’t move again until it was over, though they did keep looking for more AirTrans that might get too snoopy.

Mil-AirTrans were exiting the dome now from several different ports.  Orders came down from above to belay the bombing and find the crims at all costs.  Army troops were exiting the tube at the run. The Army displaced the cops and fanned out into the Taj.  They would eventually make their way all the way out to the readout without recognizing it for what it was. Three young Taj-mates soiled themselves praying that the soldiers they heard chewing the fat no more than ten paces from where the lay cowering would stay where they were.

————.

“Burtt, Burtt!” was the startled call from a terrified young runner.  He seemed startled to find the iso-suited troops but recovered fast.  “Oh, Burtt.  You’re, okay, thank God.  Jizmo, Burtt.  What was that?  We didn’t think nobody could live through that.”

“Never mind that Carll, get back to the cellar, NOW.”  Burtt demanded, outraged that anyone would let a kid up here during all this.

“Wait, wait.  I got this for ya.  Ccassie told me to bring it to you right now.  She gots a busted foot going down the tunnel too fast.  It be Jonn Flag.  He-ah.”  He handed over Jonn’s comm unit then hightailed it back underground.

“Jonn?  Jonn?  You in there?” Burtt called.

“Hold the button down, Burtt. Hold th… Oh, give it to me.” Harkk snatched the unit out of Burtt’s hand and in moments he had the message and the plan in hand.

“Alright, Burtt.  It seems old Jonn still has some surprises in store for us.  He’s here with a rather large transport.  It’s big enough to take us all and it’s an AirTrans.  Right now, it’s laying low just the other side of Green River in a heavy smoke screen.  He can get us all in and we can evade while we remain in the smoke cloud. He also has a plan to get the Corp’s Military off our backs while we load the Taj into the transport.  He is in fact engaging that part of the plan as we speak, thus the lull in firing on us.  Ccassie is already moving the injured and non-combatants up the tunnels to the entrance.  The rest will follow her out.  Once Jonn gives his guys the go, they’ll come out to get us.  We need to make the run out to the transport in one massive dash, so anyone who needs carrying, make sure we have crews ready to do that and backups for each, yah?  And we need cover until everyone is out.”

Burtt nodded thinking for the first time since the cops showed that they had a chance.

————

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!  THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE, I REAPEAT, THIS IS FLAG TRANS ONE.  I AM DECLARING A MIDFLIGHT EMERGENCY I HAVE FLOWN INTO SOME SORT OF FIREFIGHT OVER SECTOR-22 AND AM TAKING EVASIVE ACTION. PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE.  I HAVE CREW SALVAGING METAL ON THE GROUND HERE.  HOLD FIRE! HOLD FIRE!  I HAVE CIVILIAN CREW ON THE GROUND.  DAMN IT!  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING? PLEASE REPLY!”

Jonn hoped his outraged employer ploy worked and didn’t buy him an air-to-air surprise he wouldn’t much like.  He repeated his passionate plea for mercy, and was responded to on his third attempt to contact CommCorp’s Military command.

“Flag Trans One, Flag trans one.  This Is CC MilTrans 55. We read you five by five.  Say your pos. We don’t have you on our screens.  Do you copy, Flag Trans One? Over?”

 “I copy MilTrans 55.  I’m low and slow in the mud.  I was hoping you wouldn’t plaster me before I had a chance to comm you. Over!”  The truth was he was still in the edge of the smoke screen which had some rather special properties the Flags had developed for their more illegal activities.  It was impervious to detection equipment.  Nothing could scan through it.  The problem was, a smart scan operator might notice that big old black hole the cloud created, especially if it was any distance above the ground.  Jonn started sliding the trans out of cover.

“Roger Flag, prepare to send ident.  Ident on Guard, now-now-now.”

Jonn mashed the button down to send his identifying code to the Mil-AirTrans vessel above him on the requisite channel.  This would also give them his position.  The praying started in earnest.  He’d only brought a co-pilot to limit the possible collateral damage.  He was a volunteer.

“Flag Trans One we have your ident.  Show yourself. Over!”

“MilTrans 55, I’m coming up out of the soup now at your 10 o’clock low. Over!”

“Roger, Flag one.  We have you now.  Hold one for the commander.”  A few heartbeats later Jonn heard a familiar voice, one he didn’t care to hear just then, but it could have been worse.  “Jonn Flag, is that you out there causing all this commotion?  I dare say, you’ve a lot to answer for this time, my old friend.  I’ve a Mil-AirTrans down with all hands…even if the commander was an arse, I still have a hell of a mess on my hands.  How do you propose I answer for this?”  being the commander, he dispensed with the formalities of communications protocol.

“Maxx?  Maxx Card is that you, you old codger, and what are you doing with the airdales?  Over!”

Without taking any liberties at all with protocol, Jonn played along. This could go a lot better than he hoped, or worse.  Maxx was a horse trader of renown reputation.  He was also a subordinate of Jonn’s when he was with the Military many years before.  Before Jonn was brought in kicking and screaming to take over the family business from his ailing Uncle Armonn Flag.

Card was in the Army then though.  This was a step up for the soldier.  One that Army pukes rarely got the chance to take.  Then again, Maxx Card was a horse trader of legendary proportions.  He could probably work his way to the top of the Corp if he put his mind to it.  The thing was, as he was constantly reminding Jonn, there’s too much cred bait out here.  To bring him in to the dome, they must have gold plated the offer.

Jonn, though happy to be dealing with a known entity, wondered still just what this was going to cost him.  No matter.  If they got out of this with the Taj intact, the price would be worth it.  He put his game face on because he knew what was coming next.

“What am I doing?  Why, Jonn, I am the commander of course.”

“Of all this Maxx?  Sector command?  Or Quadrant?”

“Oh, Jonn.  You know me better than that.  I am CommCorp-MilSecCinC.  I just happened to come along with this excursion because this sector has been, well, a major pain-in-the-arse, if I do say so myself and I thought I’d come see for myself what all the fuss was about.  After all, when was the last time anyone was worried about proles, for Norton’s sake, eh Jonn?

“Say now! Lets’ get to the reason I comm’d you, shall we. You wouldn’t happen to know of any subversive activity in this sector or, hereabouts would you?  You say you’re scavenging in these parts?”  there was suspicion in Maxx’s tone. Jonn had to be very careful here.

“We’ll I don’t know about subversives, Maxx, but before your people let loose the flames of hell on them, there were some few greasers and perservs in the near zone that we saw, along with a good company of Cops at least.  I think the Cops probably got to cover.  The Mil boys gave the requisite warnings.  As for the proles, well where the hell could they go, Maxx?  If there were any that shouldn’t be there.  What the hell was that man thinking?  They were a handful of perservs for Norton’s sake.  I don’t understand.” He paused, looking every bit puzzled by events.

“Well, those poor souls are gone for good and all, now, so I guess you can just say you got your man, eh?  Or men?  And women.  Jizmo, Maxx.  What a business!  I was on my way back to the Flag, to drop a load of scrap and for more supplies when the sky lit up behind me.  I turned and bee-lined back for my crew.  Norton, if your people didn’t give me apoplexy, Maxx.  Over!”

“Yes Jonn.  What a business indeed and that’s why I hope you’ll not mind, but, prepare for boarding, Jonn.  Meet me at the boarding tube at 1 klik alt, or put down in the soup, I care not, but I’ll see the inside of your ship this day I will, Jonn Flag.  And I’ll meet each one of your scavenger crew too.  Have them muster where I can scan and then question those I choose.  I better not find a crim in the lot, Jonn.  Problems, Jonn?”

“Not a one, Maxx.   I’ll put her down directly below, now.  Say, what do I call you when I see you down here? Over!”

“You’ll call me Commander, Jonn.  What else?”

“Roger that, Maxx, I…”  He was talking to dead air.

“Jizmo!  I hated that guy then.  I doubt I’ll find him to be much more likable now.”  Jonn complained to no one.  They landed away from Cassie’s crèche and he summoned his troops to him, praying Burtt wouldn’t come to him out of some sense of dedication.  Thankfully only his small planned on force came out of the murk, encumbered with whatever salvageable metal refuse they could find as cover, a lot of it rebar.  They came in from the Spring creek side of the Taj leaving the Fountain creek side, and the egress from Ccassie’s crèche out of sight.  That point would soon be under cover of the smoke screen, as the Flag AirTrans made its slow way around the Taj leaving a lingering and dense fog behind.

————

“Drop your burdens people and unwrap.  I need to see who you all are.  Then we’ll scan your papers and prints.  Provided all is in order, you’ll be on your way again before mideat.   I hope it won’t be too late to head across the frontier on foot then.  Ah, but who doesn’t love a good old fashioned campout, eh?  Rather clean here if I do say so myself.  Don’t tell me we have civic minded proles now?”

The army officer was enjoying his moment of power.  Jonn signaled his men to take it in stride.  They’d been down this road before many times, before they’d become completely legitimate.  Smugglers had to have schemes built into their schemes to stay ahead of the Cops and the Army.  The Flags were consummate pros, if a little rusty.

So far, they’d been scanned and debriefed by ground troops only.  Soon, an extremely large Mil-AirTrans put down on what was left of the sector-22 near zone. From it emerged a tall man decked out in the gaudiest dress uniform Jonn had even seen, and he’d seen what he considered the utmost in stupid-peacock, showoff-nightmare costumes some mil-folk dressed themselves out in.  This one took the cake.  This one took the whole bakery.  Plus, he had his minions roll out a plasteel mat for him to strut on.

Surrounding CinC Maxx Card was an equally overdressed company of personal guard. They made a huge display of searching each member of Jonn’s crew, again for the umpteenth time, before the CinC himself, made his grand entrance.  Jonn had to bite his tongue to keep from sniggering at the ridiculous pomposity of this small man made large by a uniform.

“Well, well.  If it isn’t my old, um, commander, hahaha, Jonn Flag.  How are you?  Looking a bit peeked, are we?  Are you not well, Jonn?”

Curse you for noticing.  Curse you for saying it.  You basta.  Go ahead. Enjoy your little game.

Notice he did though and now his crew were looking at Jonn questioningly.

“Oh. I’m fine Commander.  A bit older, as you say, but fit as can be.  How are you, Sir?  You look wonderful, if I do say so myself. Sir!”

“Yes, yes.  Just so, indeed.  This life suits me, Jonn.  I think you were too quick to turn your back to it, eh?”

Still an insufferable prig I see.  I wonder who you bribed to get so far inside the system like this?

“Ah, well, I have the Flag, you know.  A big responsibility itself.  Say, did you know we’re mining for the Meinklops direct now, so I have managed to eliminate the middle man.  That’s good for us, sure.”  Jonn hoped dropping the name would buy him some wiggle room.  Maxx certainly knew everything there was to know about the Flag.  His position made that a necessity.

“Yes. I did hear that.  Good for you Jonn. Good for you.  And business?  Is it good too?  Why, for instance, would you need to scrounge for metal here where the risk is so great of contamination?”

“Have you been out of touch so long Ma-, Commander, that you forget the value of the little things?  You know metal is still a valuable commodity that is not is great supply.  We scavenge what we can to fashion repair parts for our combines out at the compound.  Of course, you know the only source of metal is near the ruins of old cities.  Last time we came through here my boys made note of a good lot of rebar, if we ever wanted to take the trouble to hack it out of the old concrete.  And, as your ground commander noticed, it’s uncharacteristically clean here.  That’s why we’re here today.  See for yourself, Sir.  My Trans’ hold is loaded with a half-ton I was bringing back with me and here the lads have most of another.”  He showed Maxx the evidence of their gatherings.

The CinC, made a bit of a fuss checking over everyone’s prints and papers himself, again and had some fun frisking the females in Jonn’s crew.  More than one male and a normally very fiery female had to bite back their fury.  Soon he was done with his games and seeing a spot of dirt on his boot, tsk’d and nearly ran back to his ship, but not before taking one final shot across Jonn and the Flag’s bow.

“Do be careful out here Jonn.  There’s a new sheriff in town, as they say.  And this one won’t be tolerating prole loving citizens or nomads, regardless of whom they might be contracted to.  I hope I’ve made myself clear?”

“Well, of course, Commander.  Is there anything else I can do for you, Sir?”.

Maxx looked back over his shoulder at Jonn.

“Yes, Jonn, there is.  Don’t be here if I must send the troops in again.  Not here.  Not anywhere I have to send the troops.  Clear?” He entered his ship.

Jonn just nodded.  Nothing more was needed.  Maxx was gone.

Burtt saw the man leave and sighed a huge sigh of relief.   He moved further into the transport allowing the load master to close the ramp.  The relief he felt caused him to fall into a seat, he felt so drained.  Aside from Jonn and his crew, they all got out.  Every one of them. The Taj lived.

“Ssyn?  You there, Ssyn?”

“Oh, my God, Burtt, thank God you’re alright.  How did it go.  Oh, God…you just tell me everything.”

“Well, we all got out Ssyn.  Everyone but you and the kids still in the dome.  We had to.  They was bombing us.  The Flags came and took us all off the Taj and now we headed for the Flag.  Ssyn, we gonna have to wait a bit to get you out.  I’m sorry but it would be too risky now.  I have the Comm unit.  We stay in touch.  Yah?”

Ssyndi was sobbing now. “O-Okay, Burtt.  Oh God, Burtt don’t forget me.  Don’t leave me hear.”

There was silence.

“Burtt?  Burtt?”  Oh, Burtt, no, please.”

“Ssyn?  Ssyn?  Hey!  Whas going on with this comm, damnit?”

“Easy, Burtt, Easy. We’re in the soup.  No signal here.  Call later, okay?”  He was informed by a crewmate he never met before.

“JIZMO!”

————

 9-552319, on the banks of Frontier creek:

“Mother of God. Are they gone Jorukk?  The kids?  Did they get out?”

“Gone, everyone Jonn. About a half klik out and in the soup.”

“Tell them to stay there. We’ll make our way to them.  Then you and the boys hit the road.  I’ll follow when I know that basta didn’t tag us or set a tail on us, eh?”

“Alright, boss. Don’t be too long. You know how I worries so.”  He smiled at his boss who cuffed the boy off the back of the head.

“Get on with, you boyo!”

Thank you, dear Lord, above. Now give me just another lunar to set it all straight.

The end of part eight.

Previews of coming attractions in Part nine when my head is no longer spinning

 

 

Burtt – part 8, book 1: The Taj moves out

poor

 

Fourth day, first five-day, Month 2, year 319af

 

After the initial feeding frenzy on fruit and cookies, the leaders of both groups met for hours while the rest played footie until lasteat.  Jonn had also brought something he called caff.  It was brewed in a special pot and they all enjoyed a hot drink that surprised Burtt with its tangy bitter aftertaste.  He liked it.  Later he would decide he’d had too much of it as he wouldn’t be able to sit still for hours, let alone sleep. The festivities lasted long into the night.

 

The Taj challenged the newcomers to a game of football.  The visitors accepted but with their leader in conference and guards posted they didn’t have a full 11 to fill out a team so two Taj-mates volunteered to side with the opposition. The ribbing was friendly but constant.  After two games with that alignment and the visitors winning both games easily, the teams were fully mixed and the results were evener.  It was a fun time for all.  Burtt hadn’t seen or heard the Taj so excited in the year he’d been a leader here.  He found it very difficult to pay attention at the meeting.  Hearing the kids having so much fun, he wanted to be where the fun was.  He was also worried that all the noise would attract the wrong bots and then the wrong people.  There was no way he would be able to quiet things down.  Not yet.  He set a couple of kids near the tube ot keep those tier one bots occupied and hoped that would be enough.

 

Jizmo, don be watchin ya bastasHe thought a silent prayer.

 

Jonn it seemed was just as serious about security as Burtt was and had his top three soldiers on constant patrol around the perimeter of sector-22.  It would soon be time for lasteat so the meeting broke up.  The scents emanating from the cook fires had everyone anticipating a scrumptious culinary delight.  As the council and Jonn left the meeting room and headed out into the quad, two of the guards Jonn had posted came running back to join him.  They were obviously agitated and turned very unfriendly looks at Burtt and Harkk as they reported to Jonn in a whisper.

 

Jonn’s expression changed subtly from one of concern to one of promised threat.  The tension between them was so palpable that Burtt unconsciously reached for his blades.  He stopped himself.  He didn’t want to make enemies of these people.  He wanted desperately to believe they might offer a real alternative to the subjective life of a prole.

 

“What’s the problem, Jonn?”  Harkk beat Burtt to the question.

 

The third Guard Jonn had posted came into the quad then carrying the two pair of footwear the Taj had taken off the dead toughs from Zobbi’s crèche.  Burtt and Harkk both realized, at the same time, that the gear the visitors wore as outer gear looked familiar to them because it was familiar.  It was the same material as the footwear they’d taken from Zobbi’s toughs.

 

The sight of the footwear seemed to cement Jonn’s anger. He rose turning to Burtt and Harkk with the threat of physical harm in his eyes and venom in his voice he demanded, “Is this how you planned to greet us too?  What Happened?  Were there too many of us to attack this time?”

 

When neither answered he prodded again, “Well?  Explain yourselves before I order my men to atone for the deaths of our brothers.”

With tensions rising on either side of the equation Harkk jumped into the fray.

 

“Easy friend.  Whatever you’re thinking right now, back off for a moment and let’s discuss this, okay.  You’re very wrong about us.  We were attacked by the toughs wearing those.  They tried to take some of our kids.   We had to kill them to prevent that.  We had no idea they worked for you.  We were under the impression they worked for another red zone boss.  A bad hombre named Zobbi.  He’s over in Sector-27.  Are you sure these belong to your people?  They didn’t act like you guys at all.  Like I said, they were trying to take some of our kids.  There’s a big market here for sex slaves.  Especially kids, clean ones.  I wouldn’t have taken you folks for slavers.”  Harkk finished with a mild challenge.

 

“I apologize for not mentioning the footwear sooner, we should have made the connection right away.  Please, can’t you write it off to our excitement at your arrival?  You didn’t find any more of the suits than just the boots, right?”  Kkat offered contritely trying to lead Jonn to the conclusion that they’d have the whole suit, not just the boots if the Taj took his mates out.

 

Slavers, you say?  Of course, we aren’t slavers.  Some of us used to be slaves.  Now I need to ask what you’re talking about?  My men do not take slaves.  They definitely do not attack children.  This is ridiculous.  I want answers.”  He seemed to think for a moment then continued, “Sector-27 you say?  Hmmm.  Jorukk, where did we send the team who disappeared two weeks ago?  What other sectors did we see activity in back then?  Do you remember?”

 

“’Twas from 31 to 25 ye sent them Jonn.  We’d seen scavengers in the frontier areas.  Our scouts dinna cum back.” Jorukk responded.

 

“Zobbi, you say?  Is this fella a tall one with blond hair and wears an orange scarf? An older fella?”  Jonn asked.  He had to mime tying a scarf around his neck for Burtt and Bann to understand.  He’d seen a man he thought must be the boss.  He was older, taller, carried himself with authority and most around him were obviously cowering from him.  Zobbi, it turns out, wore the scarf to hide a scar.  Some say it was from when the army tried to hang him but he wouldn’t die.  Burtt knew it was from when Thomass nearly decapitated Zobbi in a turf war.

 

When the Taj-mates agreed with his description of Zobbi, Jonn visibly relaxed, though it was more like a sigh of resignation, as if accepting a loss.  It occurred to Harkk first then to Burtt, that they were looking at a man who just realized he’d lost more of his men.  Burtt was the first to offer his condolences and swore to help bring Zobbi to justice.  After his toughs attacked the Taj, Burtt and Harkk had already decided they were going after Zobbi one way or another.  This might just be the motivation they need to get the job rolling, and now with the gear the visitors brought, it looked like they could actually make the trip safely.  Burtt offered the boots back to Jonn.

 

This acknowledgment from peers seemed to hearten the visitor.  His troops were not quite as convinced of the Taj’s innocence though and had yet to stand down.  The tension was building around them.  Several of the Taj’s older soldiers were edging closer to Burtt and Harkk to add their weight to the equation.

 

“Easy now, boys.  Let’s talk this through, okay.  I don’t think these people had anything to do with Jakk or Robb going missing.  We didn’t send them this way and both of them were accomplished trackers.  They wouldn’t have gotten this far off track.  No way!  Nope!  I think this Zobbi character is the one we want.  We’ll head for home tonight and discuss this with the group.  Tomorrow or next day we’ll deal with this Mr. Zobbi.  Yes, sir, we will.  This is my fault in the end.  I shouldn’t have sent just the two.  I’ll nay do that again, I tell you.”

 

“We have a gripe wi’ that man too.  Ah wants t’ come help. Okay?” Put in Burtt.  As a sop he added.  “Them scouts might not be dead.  Zobbi don’t waste no slaves.  They most like be workin hard, but not dead.”

 

“You’d come help us get our crew back, Burtt?” Asked Jorukk.

 

“Su-ah.” Was Burtt’s simple response.

 

“You don’t for a minute think you’re going out there alone do you?” added an extremely perturbed Kkat interjecting herself between Burtt and the visitors. 

 

Why do you have to be the one?  Always?  Let someone else take a chance on dying damn it! She thought, then she felt immediate guilt for wishing such a thing on anyone.

 

“I bring some soldiers, su-ah, Kkat.” Burtt offered by way of a peace offering.  She wasn’t buying.

 

“Why not send a crew instead of you.  We still need you here to finish fleshing out the Taj’s defenses.  You trained them to do this work.  Let them do it, while you do yours…HERE.”

 

“Kkat, if this works out, we don’t gonna need the Taj.”  He argued.

 

“I can go”, Bann offered

 

Burtt’s foot was down the minute Kkat suggested someone else take a life or death chance, so it was a moot point.  Burtt was going.  It was a matter simply of how many and who went with him.  She accepted that, satisfied that she at least got him to agree to bring backup.

 

“I take a hand with”, meaning five soldiers or a handful.  “That be all.  Jonn sending soldiers too.  Right, Jonn?”  they headed into the great hall for lasteat.

 

“Yes.  We should discuss this further after our meal.  We can decide where and when to meet so we can coordinate our efforts against this Zobbi fellow.  In the meantime, some of my boys will be heading out to recon sector-27 more fully.  No surprises this time and we’ll go in force as you say, Burtt, but I think you should consider a full twelve of your best to accompany you.  We are going to a fight probably and I find that though a hand is a good mobile force to scout with, twelve is a better number to fight with.  One thing is sure though, this Zobbi won’t be killing or slaving after then, I’ll say.”

 

“Das a’r…!  Ahem!  That’ll be good, Jonn.  Very good.”  Burtt corrected himself with a blush.  “If Taj council agrees, I bring twelve soldiers.  If not, I come alone.  We see in the morning.”

 

Quickly changing the subject before the fireworks started; Kkat had that look in her eyes, Harkk interjected, “You brought us a supply of this material you wear for outerwear.  I assume this protects you from the harsh climate out there?  Can you show us how to use it?” 

 

“Of course.  It is a simple matter of science.” Jonn began, “The entire rig is called an iso-suit.  The outer material is one-way impervious and is the most vital layer.  The CorpSci group developed it for the military.  They are having to venture out into the beyond with us to counter the wildlings and are now more exposed to the poisons.  You should know that not all of the frontier or the beyond looks like our pristine little area.  In fact very few areas do, but we’re finding that where fresh water flows, everything downstream of it is cleansed eventually.   In the bad areas, the suits protect us from the environment among other functions.  We manage to trade for a few skeins every time a milpatrol passes our compound.  One skein will make four adult wraps.

 

“Nothing passes through the material from the outside in to you while excess heat and any toxins your body excrete are passed outwards.

 

“The next layer is the distilling wrap which is also one way material; it inflates as it fills.  You step into this suit like a wetsuit.  You know wetsuit?  Yah?  Well, I’ll show you when I suit up.  This layer collects your sweat and, erm, any other liquids your body emits when properly connected.  It filters all that, gets rid of the bad and stores the good.  We’ll show you how to hook that up too.  This wrap is usually fairly loose fitting.  It will get plastered against your skin once the outer wrap covers it and bladders will fill or empty as needed.

 

“We’ve given you enough of these distiller kits for 15 men and outer skin material for ten to a dozen of you to traverse the frontier at a time.  We’ll get you more as time goes on.  Some distiller kits we’ve found might leak.  You’ll know this as you’ll overheat rather quickly.  You’ll need to test each one.  If you stay cool after 10 minutes, it is working.  Just discard the bad suits, there’s no fixing them easily.

 

“Hair is a no-no, shave it off.  We have tools for this if you need them but you must be 100% bald…everywhere, you  see?.”

 

Jonn’s crew were sneering at all there near pubescent males in Burtt’s crew.  There was barely enough body hair among them all to foul a filter.  The only hair they all had was on their heads and that would soon be gone too.  As for Burtt and his crew, the mystery of the all-bald Flags was solved.

 

“You wear only the very briefest of undergarments underneath, as you’ve seen when we unwrapped.  We find we do better with the G-strings you saw us wearing and women wear the very of slightest strapless garments on top.  Too much energy is lost with so much skin covered and the garments tend to bunch up and can interfere with a good fit.  If you don’t have these, do the best you can with what you do have.  The real limiting factor is the plumbing…erm, well, you’ll see later.  With more than a G-string the plumbing gets real complex some times.”  Jonn was turning beet red. Everyone looked at him as if he had two heads.  Except for Kkat, Bbessie, a few other perserv women and Harkk, The Taj didn’t use undergarments.

 

“Never mind that Jonn.  We’ll figure out that part, okay?  Unless the undergarment is imperative?” Put in Kkat.

 

“No, it’s not imperative at all.”  He seemed puzzled for a moment but then continued with the slightest of smiles nipping a the corners of his mouth, when he understood.  “Some find it easier to, erm, hold things together with an undergarment you see?  Fact is though, the less underneath the better.  We can show you other ways to wrap too.” Jonn blushed again, smiling at the thought of teaching kids to wrap naked bodies in a iso-suit so that various parts didn’t go flopping about or poke through the wrap’s layers, but quickly continued.

 

“The Corp provides these iso-suits to anyone working out of the domes along with uni-suits.  We carry the uni-suits in our hip pouch to change into when we strip out of the iso-suits, and vice-versa.  Next visit I’ll bring some of our women and female kits to show your women how to suit up.  The first time, though, should be all men.  Yah?”

 

It was clear the girls present weren’t happy, especially Jjenna Bok.

 

“Gimme one dem suits n’ Ah figger ‘t out.”  The murmur of agreement heard throughout the hall caught Burtt’s attention.

 

“Hahahaha.  We didn’t bring the right gear for women, girl.  You wait.  Your turn will come, Yah?”

 

She wasn’t happy but when Burtt Looked her way sternly, she quieted with a worried look sent Kkat’s way.  Kkat was only looking, not sneering, so Jjenna pushed her luck.

 

“Don nees no girl gear. Ah good as any boy.”

 

“That’s not at question young lady.  The issue is that we don’t have the gear with us to hook you up down there.  We don’t have the right plumbing for a girl.” he said pointing at her midsection.

 

“The distiller wraps I’ve brought with me are strictly for male equipment if you catch my meaning.”

 

 “The trip takes well over 8 hours with needed hydration breaks and spoofing the wall bots.  By the time we get across the expanse you’ll have pissed yourself three or four times and that, my dear girl, will ruin the suit if not collected and processed properly.  Urine breaks down the material.  With the proper iso-suit fit, all that is processed through the built-in filters.  Without the right plumbing, you see, we can’t connect you up.

 

“After all that, you’re left with a near self-sustaining water supply, supplemented with water skins fitted into the upper wrap and filled before we head out. There’s a tube comes out of one of the top wraps on your face, if you wrapped it right, that you can sip from as you go. The toxins are passed out of the filters through separate tubing that runs down to your foot and out the bottom of the boot wraps. Why not just drink from a skin You ask?  Once you’re in the iso-suit, you don’t expose any skin to the outside.  Not until we are in the clear again.  Even the little bit of exposure I got when we first arrived here, to show you I wasn’t a threat, is more than we recommend.

 

“We all fast before a trip and don’t even suit up until we’ve done our solids business.  There’s no way to process poop inside the suit.”

 

Jjenna’s jaw was stuck open as if she had just then considered what he was talking about.  It left her speechless.  A lot of Taj mates snickered.

 

“The material is too hard to come by and we won’t be getting more for another month at least.  You’ll just have to be patient, miss and wait until next trip.  I admire your spunk, though.  Are all your people this inspired, Burtt?

 

“No matter.  Now!  Before we leave we’ll also show you how to fashion the footwear and the upper body wrap.  This is the hardest part to do correctly.  If you don’t get it right, it’ll unravel as you walk and that’ll be game over for you.  You’ll probably lose that bit of material too.  If that sounds a bit callous, well, that material is life out there.  So, in a lot of ways, it’s almost as valuable as life itself.  Keep that in mind before you spend it.  Once the inside of the wrap is exposed to the poisons in the soil and air, we’ve never been able to get them clean enough to wear again.

 

“You can keep the two pair of boots you have here but have the care to find the right feet for them.  The fit is critical.  Too loose and you’ll have blisters like you never had before.  Too tight, you’ll bust right through.  If you can’t find a good fit, you’re better off unraveling the material and starting over with it.  The stuff is tougher than plascreet too so don’t worry too much about wear and tear.  It will wear out eventually but you’ll get a good few years out of a well fitted suit.

 

“We’ll teach you how to weave the boots properly and then how to wrap your upper body.  The material is stretchy/clingy.  It will fit you like a skin.  That’s why we weave the footwear.  You can loosen the boots enough to slide your feet and legs in and out of them without completely unwrapping like you must do with the cloak, or upper wrap.  The boots should come to your groin.  The Cloak to your mid thighs or lower if you can carry the weight.  It is weighty, so make no mistake.  That’s why you have to hydrate.  You will sweat carrying this weight and it doesn’t breath, remember, it collects and processes, which takes time; you wont soon cool off if you do overheat.

He couldn’t help but mime the act of wrapping while taking, “If you start at the top, get that first wrap around the top of your head and as the wrap comes back around front of your face, bite the sip-tube.  Make one more wrap then let go of the tube.  if it stays where you can bite it again easily, your good.  If not; start over.  We’ll show you before we leave.

 

“Now I’ve saved the best news about the iso-suit for last.”  He paused for effect, waiting until everyone there looked about to burst with anticipation before he finally told them, “Once you reach our compound, well, to be true, once you reach that green area you say you can see from atop your mound, you can de-suit and carry it the rest of the way.  The land is clean beyond there for as far as we’ve scouted.  If you more or less remain in sector 22’s extended cone, that is.”

 

He spent a few moments drawing a crude map in the dirt with sector-22’s dividing pie shape lines extended way out beyond the wall.

 

“By some quirk of nature, you have this lovely flow of clean water you call the Green River flowing past your front door, so to speak, and ours, yes?  We have another flow that bubbles up out of the ground a half klik west of our compound and it has formed it’s own path which has converged with your Green River.  We call it the Blessed River.  We called yours the Sacred River until now.  We’ll call it the Green from now though.

 

“When we first scouted in this sector, oh, four maybe four and a half years ago, the entire plain from the wall to the Rockies was flooded. The Rockies are those mountains you can see to the west on really clear days, yah?” Harkk nodded so Jonn continued but none of us had seen anything higher than the mounds surrounding the Taj.  Harkk had seen the mountains from the Wall.

 

“Well, when the waters finished digging out their current paths and the flooding receded to river flows only, what was left was so green it hurt the eyes to look on it.  We started building right away.  In fact there were the beginnings of a compound already in place.  There must have been a ranch on the land prior to the fall, but a lot of the compounds layout was already done, the foundations for several buildings, that is.  We just built on what was there.  There was even a lot of raw material to work with as if they had planned to build something huge just before it all went to hell.  We figure this land was flood plain even before the fall.  The materials were stored in the one structure that was complete.  The structure was built on stilts and contained only building materials.   The foundations were all five meters tall and constructed of carved granite.

 

“Whatever brought about this happy circumstance, their demise benefitted us, so we are grateful to them, who ever they were.  We mention them in our solemns and devotions before lasteat, as we do all our ancestors.

 

“The flooding apparently cleansed the land.  We’ve been testing it and the water since the day we settled there and not once have the tests shown even slight traces of the poisons that near killed us all.  The land is clean from the confluence of the two rivers south and west, all the way to Cheyenne Mountain , in an ever widening cone reaching out from your sector.  If you remember to look while we’re out there tomorrow, you’ll see the remains of the roadway the Meinklops used to migrate from the mountain to the Colorado Springs debris field that is now CommCorp.  It ran right through the center of that flood plain.”

 

The discussion went on for a lot longer than anyone had planned.  The visitors, who called themselves the Flags after the founder, Antonn Flag, stayed to help properly outfit twelve Taj-mates, plus Burtt.  Harkk decided he wasn’t going, so with the savings that provided plus the two extra sets of boots, two littler boys could be fully outfitted.  In general, Taj-mates were smaller than Flags, so the material they brought with them went further than it would with the outsiders.  They still had to shuffle among eighteen of the best trained soldiers to find twelve they could outfit after Burtt’s suit was done.

 

Jonn had to ask Burtt’s hospitality for the night.  Not even he and his twelve strong band of men would chance a night crossing if they didn’t have to.  They would do that if on the attack, so they could get the drop on a sleepy enemy, but that was a rare exception.

 

The Flags laughed at the children’s tales of demons but even they knew there were things somewhat less than human out there and these denizens roamed the frontier and the beyond at night.  The Army was reporting some recent advancements and innovation on the part of the wildlings.  Their war-fighting capacity was becoming fearsome indeed.  Jonn and the Flag’s own efforts towards security had trebled over the last 6 months.  Security lay in numbers which was another reason Jonn was pushing the Taj to join ranks with the Flags.  Having listened to his crew tell of Burtt’s exploits, Jonn also plagued himself with horrifying thoughts of someone as advanced a leader and warrior as Burtt taking up residence in the beyond.

 

By evening’s end, the Taj and the Flags agreed to leave in the morning with Burtt and perhaps the twelve soldiers the council might agree to send with him.  They would head for the Flag’s compound first, spend the rest of Fifth-day there eating, hydrating, resting and gearing up.  Then move on Zobbi’s crèche to be there shortly after the dawn of the off-cycle, on lo-day.

 

Jonn promised to introduce them to Mil-grade projectile weapons, though he didn’t have enough to share with the Taj.  He still wanted the added firepower present when they confronted Zobbi and his crew, so he would be happy with whatever weaponry Burtt and his crew could bring to bear.  He would work out a plan with Burtt that would keep his Taj-mates relatives safe.

 

When space was allocated for the Flags to bed down, Burtt, Kkat, and Harkk finally headed for their own spaces.

————

 

Outside the meeting hall:

“Why you don wanna come wif, Harkk?” asked Burtt with a nod to Kkat acknowledging his dialect slip.

 

“Hmm.  Well, I guess we’re going to have this conversation sooner or later, so we might at well have it now.  Let’s go to my hut, okay?”  Without waiting for a reply, Harkk turned and walked off.  Kkat and Burtt soon followed when Harkk didn’t stop and was soon out of sight.

 

“What the heck?”  Asked Kkat wondering what had gotten into Harkk.

 

“Him pist fer su-ah” Kett offered from his perpetual station somewhere at Kkat’s heels.  He startled her and Burtt both.  Finally, Kkat had to turn Kett away, twice.

 

“Go to bed, Kett”.

 

“Caint sleep now.  I feel like my legs is movin themsefs.”

 

“Kett!  GO TO BED! NOW!”

 

The boy sulked off muttering.

 

Katt turned back and bumped into Burtt.  He was such a wall.  She bounced off him and would have sprawled had he not caught her.

 

“Boyfriend problems, Kkat?” Burtt snickered, once he was sure Kett was out of earshot. “I bet that boy had his fill o that caff.  That stuff got me all fizzy feeling.”

 

Kkat smiled after her little hero, “I’m going to hate breaking his heart Burtt, but my heart is set on another.”

 

The look in Kkat’s eyes melted his heart.

 

“Kkat, Ah don…”

“Shhhhhh”. She kissed him.  He kissed her back.  It seemed like for the first time and it seemed to last forever.

 

“Hey, are you two lovebirds coming or would you rather talk some other time?”

 

They would have expected Harkk’s comment to be a snarky one meant to humor them.  The look on his face told them otherwise.  Harkk looked either angry or was that the look one had when they were afraid?  They hurried up to his hut.

 

Before Burtt had a chance to get comfortable, Harkk was on him.  “I hope you know what you’re about, boyo.  Those frontier folks might not be all we hope they are and they are a lot more suited to that environment than any of us are.  What if they are just slavers too?  Have you thought of that?  As for me, I’ve had my day on the frontier.  I don’t care to return.  I’ll be staying right here.”  He ended by staring at Kkat as if expecting her to take up the cause.

 

“Burtt, please listen to Harkk.  Please.” Katt implored.

 

Burtt was conflicted.

 

“Alright.  In the morning we’ll call a council meeting.  I caint just pass on this.  If we decide that it ain’t a great idea to have a whole crew go, then I’ll go alone.  We need to see if we can do this farming thing.  WE NEED TO!  If we can get these kids out of here, we ain’t got no choice.  Das a’righ!”

 

Kkat and Harkk both knew they would get no further concessions from Burtt.

 

Kkat was quiet on their walk back to the Taj.

 

As they passed Kkat’s sleeping space, Burtt took her in his arms and kissed her hard again.

 

“I got to go Kkat.  We need this.  You know it too.”  He looked deep into her eyes until she nodded her consent.

 

He kissed her again lightly and turned to leave.

 

She reached for him and pulled him back to her.  “Not tonight, Burtt.  Don’t leave me tonight.  Please?”

 

Katt gently urged him into her space and below the covers of her sleep space.

 

————-

 

In the hall broom storage space near where all the sleep spaces were:

Jjenna Bok watched them go from the dark.  Saddened that she would never have that man to lie with unless she killed Kkat.  She didn’t really want that.  Kkat was trying to help her now.  Spending extra time tutoring her.  Volunteering to pair up with her on team events and sports.  She liked Kkat.  She was head over heels in love with Burtt though and the emptiness she felt in his presence hurt her to the core.  She couldn’t do this.  She had to get out.  If she had to follow them tomorrow, she would.  Maybe they needed women at the Flag compound.  She could come back later for Tukk, her son.  The tears in her eyes stung.  She slung them from her face.  She NEVER cried!

Kett watched too, from behind Jjenna.  She had taken his favorite hide, so he moved to his alternate,  farther back in the same space.  The rage he was feeling made him grit his teeth, groan and grimace, like a growl with teeth showing, he thought.  He fought to keep it in check so Jjenna wouldn’t hear.  It hurt so hard he had to bite it back.

 

————

 

Morning, Fifth-day:

Jonn and his crew were ready to go at sun up.  That was the agreed upon time to depart so they’d have enough time to eat and rest on the back end of the trek before they headed back out to sector-27 early next lo-day.  The Taj, however, were not ready.  They were still in council.

 

“Democracy, eh Jonn?” Jorukk joked.

 

“Hmm.  They must have had second thoughts after we parted last night.  I wonder what the problem is?”

 

“Ha!  Have you ever trusted folks you met for the first time with your life?  Or the lives of your people?  I think they ran into some wiser heads is what.”  Romann offered.

 

“Ah!  Now that I hadn’t thought of.  Good point Romie boy, good point.  We’ll give them time to chew on it then, eh?”

 

They settled in for the short haul, removing their outer cloaks to conserve energy and fluids.

 

————

 

Council meeting hall:

 

He’d practiced most of all night for this moment with Kkat’s coaching.  He had to get this right.  He had invited the eleven potential other travelers to the council meet since this involved them.  Bann, who sat on the council, had also been fitted with an iso-suit and made up the last of Burtt’s twelve potential co-travelers.

 

“This is the chance to save the kids I’ve dreamed about.  I admit, I always thought we’d be headed into the dome to do that, but now that we’ve had some of us in there already, well, it’s clear we don’t fit in and maybe we never will.  Even the people who took us in to help us heal couldn’t wait to be rid of us.

 

“Yes, we’ve gone to great ends to defend the Taj and it would seem a great waste to turn away from it now. But, my new biggest fear has been that we get greenies to bring the kids in and then they all turn on them while they’re defenseless.  I sure couldn’t live with that.

 

“Now, while I think you folks and those kids out there are the best folks ever, and you train harder than anyone, I don’t really think we could withstand an all out attack from the dome, not if the army is called in.  We’d hurt ‘em su-ah, but we’d die in the end.

 

“I think we need this escape, but all I’m asking for now is to scout the place out.  See if Jonn and the Flags are for real.  If there really is room for us to farm and ranch as they say and that’s it’s truly safe too.

 

“Now, I wanna bring a dozen Taj-mates since we’ll be marching on Zobbi too, but if the council says no; I go alone.   We just wait til I return and then we’ll see if the council says we’re good with this exodus plan.  Das a’ri…um, That’s good!

 

“But, just so we all clear, now, I’m goin with Jonn and the Flags, no mattah!”

 

The silence across the table had Burtt worried at first.  Then Bbessie cleared her throat and said,

 

“Well.  Burtt!  I must say, that’s the absolute most I’ve ever heard you say in one sitting.  That’s quite astounding really, and eloquent!  I guess that tells us how sure you are about this endeavor and how certain it is that you will be leaving this morning with the Flags.

 

“I won’t pretend to speak for us all, but I will say that I think it would be a grave mistake for us to allow you to go alone.  In fact, I think our soldiers ought to accompany you.  On that note, and in acknowledgment that you are going and you won’t have it any other way, I second your proposal to join the Flags on this quest and I further propose you be accompanied by the twelve fully trained Taj soldiers whom you’ve already seen fit to gear up for the trip…anyway!”  Bbessie finished with a flourish of her hand, sweeping the motion onto the table for a vote.

 

“Is there a second?” barked Harkk, clearly still upset by Burtt’s choice.

 

“I second the motion,” Offered Bann. “and I volunteer to be among those to accompany Burtt.”

 

The vote ensued and was passed with just one dissenting vote.

 

“Okay.  Let’s have a quick meet with everyone while the Taj is still at firsteat to let them know the plan, then we get ready.  Remember, no-one whose traveling can eat.  Hydrate as much as you can.  Ssarah, go tell Jonn and his crew we gon gear up, then we be ready to go.  Bann, you and the other eleven get weapons for all of us.  No crossbows, okay?  Blades and long bows, arrers and stunners.  Katt and Bbessie, can ya make sure we got what we need to take, food and dry goods, first aid and the like?  Hmmm?  Pack the food deep.  We won’t need it until we get to the Flag compound.”

 

“Okay, Burtt,” Bbessie answered when Katt didn’t.

 

The two women moved off to get started.  Katt seemed to be in la-la-land.

 

“What’s wrong with you girl?  You knew this was coming.  Don’t you go clamming up on him now.  You talk to him before he goes now, you hear me?”  After a moment Katt lifted her head and Bbessie recognized the starry look in Kkat’s eye, Bbessie, sighed. “Oh, dear” was her short report.

 

They moved off to gather supplies for thirteen headed into an environment none of them knew what to expect from.

“Now, I know we don’t have everything here I would prefer them to take along so I’ll need you to run off to the Loks if you will.  Kkat?  Kkat?  Oh, come on girl!  Fine! If you don’t think you can, I’ll send Qquitia to the Haps instead.”

“What?  Oh dear.  Bbessie, I’m sorry.  I haven’t heard a thing you’ve said.  What was that?”

“Never mind.  Come along.  We’ll discuss it as we go.”  Bbessie smiled at the memory of a long ago love…

 

————

 

Just outside the Council’s Door as the meeting breaks up:

 

 “Kett, I caint take ya.  I’m only taking soldiers.  That’s all the council approved, buddy.  You’ll be scout soon enough, Kett.  Don’t be pushin it.  Live some first, Okay?  Sides, I need you to watch out for Kkat while I’m gone.”  Burtt tried hard to soothe the youngster’s fire without dousing it completely.  That didn’t seem to settle the boy’s ardor at all, though.  Maybe he shouldn’t have brought Kkat into the conversation.

 

“I seed you kissin her last night.  I seed it!”  He said accusingly.  Burtt angered but tempered his response.  Kett was a boy still.

 

“Kett, you caint do that.  You caint spy on a girl in her space.  You know that.  What were you thinkin?”

You  was in her space.” He added on to the charges.

 

“I was invited, Kett.  You know that Kkat and I love each other, right?  She’s too old for you anyway Kett.”

 

You says so!” Kett turned and stomped off in angry defiance

 

Well, what do you make of that?  Damn, Kkat.  You got trouble girl.

 

Burtt made a note to mention this to Katt before he left, but he forgot.  It would turn out to be a serious lapse of memory.

 

He made his announcement at firsteat. After that, he impatiently paced until they were ready to go.

 

“Steff, make sure you string those arrows tight.  We caint be losin none in the frontier.  Okay?”  He yelled over to one of the soldiers prepping the weapons loads.  He was just being overly cautious now.  His soldiers knew what they were about.

 

Burtt went to find Jonn and the Flags to invite them to check the Taj’s load out and their first attempts at getting in to iso-suits.


On top of the western rubble mound, overlooking Spring Creek, Green river and beyond:

“I figured I’d find you here.  You can’t go Jjenna.  That’s all there is to it.  You’ll die out there.”

 

Jjenna jumped at the intrusion on her hide at the top of the rubble pile under a huge protrusion of metal.  She was waiting for the men to pass on their way to the Flags compound.  She would follow at a distance.  She had he feet wrapped in extras from Harkk’s plassheet supplies, some goggles and some paper masks to wear during her crossing along with a skin of water.

 

“Don stop me Kkat.  Ah ain’t gots no plac he-ah.  Ah ain’t nuffin he-ah.  Ah gots to get out.  Ah be back for ma boy soons I can.  I jes nees to fin a man.  Den we comes back for Tukk.  You gots to lemme go Kkat.”

 

“Jjenna, please listen.  You wont make it.  You’ll die out there.  What you have on isn’t enough to save you.  Those paper masks barely do anything to help us here in the near zone.  Out there, they wont do a thing to protect you.  Plassheet melts in the creeks, Jjenna.  How can you expect it to protect your feet out there?”

 

Jjenna was crying by then.

 

“I caint stay Kkat, I caint.  I love him too.”  She feel to her knees her sobs violently shaking her.

 

“You can, and you will Jjenna.  We’ll help.  I’ll tell Burtt to send women back just as soon as it can be arranged.  You can wait a few more days surely?  Just until next 5-day.  I promise, okay?” Kkat made the promise hoping that neither Jonn nor Burtt wouldn’t deny them.  She knelt besides the girl and hugged her until the sobbing subsided.  Jjenna agreed to wait but sulked off to her spaces alone.

 

Kkat headed off to see her man one last time before he ventured off into the unknown.  She’d hoped for a few moments of privacy with him but when she arrived at the quad she found the entire Taj was out to bid the travelers farewell.  Everyone but Jjenna Bok, Harkk and Burtt.  While Jjenna was out of sight completely, Kkat could see Harkk standing in the doorway to his servhut talking to someone but she couldn’t see who it was though she was certain it would be Burtt.

 

Is there more about the frontier and beyond that Harkk knows but isn’t telling us?  She worried herself with thoughts of demons and deviltry.  She ran that way to find Burtt before going to the Loks for more supplies.

————

Outside Harkk’s servhut:

He didn’t want their Ks to follow them into the frontier, so Burtt was hustling from Harkk’s across the quad to make sure Dogg and his brood were secured in their ken just beyond the tube entrance when his heart nearly stopped from shock.

“Sneaking off to the wild beyond without saying goodbye big brother?” The mask came off just before she startled him.

 

“JIZMO! Ssyn?  What the hell?”  Burtt was stunned at her sudden appearance in front of him and then at her appearance in general.  “Hoo boy!  Looka you girl.  Damn!  What a look!  Wait!  Whachoo doin he-ah?”  Burtt stumbled through a full circle checking for unwanted eyes but found none.  Then he rushed and picked her up in a bear hug, squeezing until Ssyndi squealed with delight and a little bit of hurt too.

 

“Burtt?  Ouch!  Put me down.  Norton!  You are a brute.  Kkat is right.” She smiled and Burtt couldn’t help but return it.

 

The two looked at each other for a few moments taking each other in, measuring the changes.

 

“You look great…”  they both said simultaneously and then laughed together.

 

“Tell me about this Flag fellow and what the plan is.  I want to know it all and I’m telling you right now, Burtt, don’t even begin to think you’re leaving the Taj without me.”

 

Already imagining a long drawn out confrontation, if what Kkat told him about is sister was any indication, Burtt began to beat back the flames of adventure his sister was obviously fanning within herself.  Her determination was cascading over him and he had to keep his own enthusiasm in check in order to check hers.  She still had to wear that contraption Harkk built her so she could breath outside the dome.  This was not going to go well, he thought.

 

“First off, Flag is just the name of the compound.  It’s named after the founder.  Their leader now is called Jonn.  If he has a second name I don’t know it.  Now, this first trip is really just a recon I think ya call it.  We’re going to check it out.  See if we are a fit.  Yah? Once we get back, we’ll talk about all the options.  This time, just men are going.  It’s all we have gear for, see?”  He hoped he wouldn’t have to get into the “whys” involving male verses female suits.

 

“So.  You’re coming back, then?  Okay.  When?” Ssyndi seemed a bit relaxed now.

 

“Maybe by last eat of lo-day.  No later than mideat on hi-day.  We can have a council meet on first-day of next five-day.  If Jaredd is up to it, you come with.”  Burtt hoped this would be enough to placate her until his return.  The meet would be inside the Taj proper so she would be somewhat protected from the harsh environment.

 

“Okay.  But I WILL be included, Burtt.  I will!  Agreed?” She replied to a relieved brother.  But he knew that this fight would be rekindled one day down the road.  How would he handle that?  He’d have to recruit Kkat, Jaredd, Mmarta, if she was still with them, Bbessie and whomever else they could to convince Ssyndi that she simply couldn’t live outside the dome.  Not for long.

Ah hell, maybe they will get the breather right…

 

“Agreed sis.  I couldn’t just leave you behind anyway.”  He hoped the lie wasn’t too transparent.  He couldn’t look her in the eye saying it.  Ssyn didn’t seem to notice.

 

“By the way, big bad burly street tough brother of mine; you sound right elie to me with them newly ay-quired speechifying skills.  I te’ ya wha!”  The smile on Ssyndi’s face could have split the sun.  Burtt’s heart burst with the sight of it.

“Das a’righ, den.” He playfully replied, planting a big brother kiss on her rosy cheek.  “Now, ya gits that mask back on ya gir”

Ssyndi split from Burtt and headed back to the tube.  She met up with Kkat on the way and after a short discussion to bring Kkat up to date with Ssyndi’s new knowledge, the two quickly headed off to the Lok stead for the first-aid supplies Kkat couldn’t provide from their meager provisions.  Kkat would have to steal a minute with Burtt after she got back.

 

From a hide across the quad:

 

“Kissin two, huh Burtt?  Not f’long o fe-ahless one.  Not f’long, nossuh”, Kett mumbled to himself .  He watched Ssyndi leave Burtt from his hide across the quad.  He kept low to avoid being seen until he was around the other side of the servhuts, then with an evil grin, set off to find his woman and get ready stake his claim once and for all.  He’d missed Katt by a few ticks as she ran around the front of the same huts where she ran into Ssyndi.

 

I set her straight ‘bout ole Burtt.  She come runnin t’me now, su-ah.  I make her crawl some mayb’.

 

He found a place where he could watch for the perfect chance.

 

See how ya likes dis, Burtt?

 

Just After firsteat at the Lok stead:

 

“Now?  Now doctor?  How can I…?  What…?  Oh Norton help me, I can’t do this.  Why now mom, please…”  Jaredd was so distraught, the doctor thought he might need to sedate him too.  Mmarta herself was so devastated, he’d had to put her under for the night already.  When Mmarta took this latest bad turn, Jaredd seemed to lose faith and was showing signs of relapse himself. He seemed to be losing all desire to live and was as much a basket case as Mmarta was.  Marta angst was due to the fact she couldn’t be wither beloved proles.  Jaredd’s was simply self-pity.

 

“Jaredd, we talked about this.  It’s her time.  We need to let her rest and pass on as comfortably as we can make it for her.  I need your help to do that.  I can’t say for certain, but she can’t have more than a month left Jaredd and I can’t be here all day.  We must prepare and we must tell those children.”

 

When Jaredd still didn’t move, or respond to this prompt, Doctor Georgge Greg made up his mind.

 

“Very well, Jaredd.  I’ll deal with this.  You rest for now.  If you decide you would like to participate in the rest of your mother’s life, or your own for that matter, please do let me know.”  The acid in his voice would spur some reaction he hoped.  Anything would be better than this malaise.  Jaredd merely groaned and turned his back, rolling over on his bed.

 

Georgge shook his head in resignation and left the room, closing the door behind him.

 

That damn lout.  Norton!  I’ll have to tell the girls I suppose. This can only lead to more concern for poor Ssyndi regarding her own condition. Oh dear!

 

He suddenly had a thought.  He knew the Loks wouldn’t like it but there was little choice now.  He needed help.  He left the Loks stead with a purpose.  He would bring Dougg Rencon back to care for the Loks on a daily basis until it was over, at least.  He’d deal with Jaredd’s coming fury when that happened.  But if Jaredd wouldn’t get off his ass, then he’ll just have to deal with Dougg for a bit.  Once Mmarta was gone, Jaredd could light a fire under himself or rot.  Mmarta was Georgge’s concern.  He’d never forgiven himself for letting that twit Dougg steal her out from under his nose in mass-ed.  He didn’t much care for Dougg or his offspring.  But he would have to make arrangements for the girl.  Ssyndi wouldn’t thrive under the care and tutelage of Jaredd or Dougg it seemed.

 

Inside the dome at the tube exit five spans later:

 

“…I’m afraid I can’t make it sound any better than it is, girls.  It’s just time.  I am hoping you will help me to prepare the Taj for the sad news.  She is resting quietly and comfortably and I intend to keep it that way, but since Jaredd isn’t responding well to treatment at the moment, I don’t feel we can depend on him to see this through.  We need help.  Adult, and please don’t take offense, but absolutely legal help.  So, I’ve decided to ask Dougg to come back until Mmarta passes at least.  He will be under contract, so he’ll have no claim after she passes but he will collect a stipend and be granted living privileges on the stead.  Mmarta led me to understand the issues you girls have with him so, the randy basta certainly needn’t be in the stead proper.  There are quarters near enough to her spaces for him to reside which are outside the main stead itself.  He’ll have access to Mmarta’s private spaces and his quarters, but no access to any other area.  Perservs can bring his meals to him. When the contract is over, he will move on unless Jaredd decides to retain his services for himself.

 

“Now, if you’re concerned that Dougg might not take proper care of Mmarta, consider that he is at present living in very sub-standard shared spaces without the Lok influence.  I dare say he won’t even consider disrupting the circumstances that bring him back to the cushy life, however briefly, eh?

 

“One final thing I must mention.  Once Mmarta leaves us, I would prefer to never come back here.  I know that you will still need care though, Ssyndi, and the two of you will want to continue your studies certainly, so I am going to refer you to one of my best apprentices.  She is a whiz kid, if you will, a savant and she has an ed-cert.  I’ve not met a more insightful student.  I think you’ll grow to love her as did Mmarta.  Her name is Fflorence, Fflorence Gale.  I’ve saved the best about her for last.  Like Mmarta, she is determined to find a way to help the proles and specializes in breathing ailments/treatments/cures with a minor in toxicology.

 

“Mmarta and I have said nothing to her about our connection to you children, but we will today.  I’m bringing Fflo in to meet with Jaredd.  She will be taking over his care.  May I bring her to meet you two?  Please?  I would be so relieved, and so would Mmarta.  She knows how I feel about staying on after wards, though not why.  At least I don’t think she does.”  The doctor finished with a sad bob of his head, as if accepting his loss once and for all.

 

“She loves you too, Georgge.  If she wont tell you, I will.  You deserve that much at least.  She talks of you like no other man.” Said a mournful Ssyndi.  Doctor Greg smiled as a tear stole free from his eye.

 

“I have never…”  He couldn’t finish.

 

“She knows, doc. Surely she does.”  Kkat added.

 

The three sat and reminisced about the few fun times they’d spent with Mmarta over the last few months of her demise.  Mmarta was ever the trooper, never down and always smiling, making light of their everyday follies.  The only down side to all this for Mmarta was that she couldn’t be in the outer zone with the people she loved most on earth.

 

They made plans to break the news to the Taj.  It would be a terrible day.  Neither girl cherished the chore so they determined to do it together.  They decided to do it the next lo-day, in a week.  That day would also be Ssyndi’s official introduction to the Taj. Ssyndi realized then that she’d never be able to live even a little while with Dougg around.  If Jaredd decided to keep him on, well, that would not be optimal.

 

I have to get out of here, so this might just as well be the catalyst, but what a terrible way to finally come to my people, she thought.

 

“There’s one thing and one thing only I want for me from you and your apprentice, Doc.  I want out.  I want to live with my brother and our people.  Out there.” She pointed towards the Taj.  “So, you get that tech I asked for.  You get it right for me, Doc, cuz this ain’t my life in here.  My life is out there with my brother, my people.  I don’t care if I have to wear the ugliest mechanical contraption ever made.  I don’t care if it weighs me down so much I stoop from it.  I want out Doc and I’m going whether or not you find a safe way for me to do so.”

 

Kkat and Georgge were locked in disbelief.  Neither expected Ssyn to take the news about Mmarta lightly but they also didn’t think she’d be hell bent on leaving the safety of the dome as soon as Mmarta was gone.

 

“Ssyn, really, we need to talk…”

 

“No, Kkat, we don’t.  I’m done here as soon as that tech arrives and I know you’re close because I watched you testing it last week Doc. Was that Fflorence?”

 

“Yes, that was Fflo.  Ssyndi, please lets discuss this.  That rig you saw us testing is not quite a finished product.  We are still checking how well it holds up to normal use.  We haven’t had it outside the dome yet.  Please.  Give it a little more time, okay?  Please?” Georgge was frantic.  That at this late date he might fail his love in the one task she set for him, was beyond his capacity.  It showed.  The material they were using for seals around the edges of the mask and the filter holes were breaking down faster than they could come up with replacements.

 

“Easy, Doc.  I’m not going anywhere while Mmarta lives.  But know this.  I am going.  It’s up to you to find a way for me to be able to do that for more than a few days, if you can.  But, even if you can’t and the breather project is a total failure, I’m going anyway.

 

“There are eight more prole kids here in the dome.  None of them are wanted.  None of them will survive out there without the breather.  So, let’s get a move on, eh?  I am your Guinea pig.  Please, double your efforts.  We need this. And we need it yesterday.”

 

“She’s right Doc, Kkat.  We do need it.  Even I need it.  I think we ought to pull out all the stops now.  Sure, bring Dougg in. He’ll do the things I dread to do and be happy for the opportunity.  But we absolutely need to kick this breather project in the ass and get it rolling.  So, as the de-facto ruling adult of the Lok stead, I declare that from this day forward we will dedicate 40% of the Loks holdings towards the research and development of the Ssyndi-breather.  Further, we’re putting a development drop-dead date on the project or heads will roll…thirty days.  We don’t actually have to do any of that, but saying so will drive people to great ends I think.  At least that’s how dear Granddaddy Natt does things.”

 

The interruption from the doorway to the study caught all three off guard.

 

“Jaredd, I thought you were…sleeping?” Georgge tentatively prodded.

 

“One can only sulk for so long.  Especially when younger females are showing signs of having more balls that I do.”  He replied.  The despair was still evident in the lines on his face but there was something else there now too.  Determination.

 

“I knew you’d come around, Jar.” Ssyndi added with an encouraging smile.

 

Planning began anew and with fresh enthusiasm.

 

————

 

Outside the exit from the tube in the Taj, ten spans later:

 

“He ain’t no gut f’ya miss Kkat.  Him a cheatah.  Him gots girs all ovah.  I seed him kissin on a blont one jes now, I dit.” The look of satisfaction on Kett’s face was more worrying than the fact he was tattling on a crèche leader.  The little man confronted her when she returned to the Taj after leaving the Loks.

 

“Kett, what’s this really about?  Burtt is not that kind of boy.  He barely knows…”
HIMS A CHEAT.
  YOU NEES TO F’GIT HIM.  AHM YOUR MAN.  NOT HIM!”  the raw hatred etched in his outburst terrified Kkat.  She hurriedly backed away from the fired up Taj-mate.  This seemed to enrage him further and he lurched for her.  This was too much for Dogg who’d been watching from his ken. He leapt the fence in one bound as if it didn’t exist and came in a blur to Kkat’s rescue.

 

“HIM AIN’T NO GUT!  YOU HE-AH!  HIM AIN’T” Kett was till screaming and crowding Kkat when Dogg hit him full on the side and bowled him over like a broken twig.  Dogg straddled Kett with a roaring growl, teeth bared and hackles risen.

 

“OUT! OUT! OUT, DOGG! OUT!” Kkat screamed once she caught her breath again. “Heel!”

 

Dogg came to her side and sat, still growling at the boy who was now whimpering and writhing in the dirt, as if Dogg were mauling him.

 

“Wha th’ hell?”  was Burtt’s excited exclamation as he rounded the corner of Harkk’s hut to find the trio unraveling.  Harkk was short on his heels.  “What’s goin’ on he-ah?  Kkat?  Kett?  Well?  Someone say something!”  Burtt was losing his temper.  Kett saw this and after his near life-ending confrontation with Dogg, the boy had no courage left.  He rose and raced off without a word or a look back.

 

“Well, I be damned!  Kkat, what the hell?”

 

“Burtt, let it be.  Please, um, Kett…Kett made a mistake is all.  Oh God, Burtt, he…he was crazy.  He went absolutely bonkers on me…about you.  I was so afraid and then Dogg was there so fast, I thought he was going to…to…Oh, Burtt”  Kkat broke down into his arms.  The heavy sobs wracking her body.

 

“S’okay, Kkat.  S’ovah now.  S’all gut agin.  You’ll see.  Burtt fix it.”  Burtt was fuming inside, though.  Harkk recognized the look in his friends eye and caught his attention.  With a nod in the direction Kett ran and pointing to his own chest, he signaled Burtt that he would address the issue with the errant boy.  That would have to do.  Burtt knew he wouldn’t deal judiciously with the boy right now.  He nodded his thanks to his friend.

 

Harkk didn’t find Kett and the boy didn’t show again until after Burtt and the crew were long gone with the Flags.

 

————

 

In the quad, before the explorers left for the Flag compound one cycle after firsteat:

 

Under the watchful eyes of the Flags, the Taj’s travelers were ceremoniously shaved bald.  When Jonn told Burtt, Bann and those other few boys who might have pubic hair that they had to shave down there too, there was a mass exodus to the treens to accomplish this delicate task out of the eyesight of the rest of the Taj.  More than one adolescent let out a yelp after a nick here and there and then a secondary even more excruciating sounding yelp when they applied the astringent to stop the bleeding.  The job was finally done to the satisfaction of the visitors and they all moved back out to the quad to finish preparations.

When she caught up to him finally she tried not to show the amusement she felt at his fidgeting after shaving.  She was well aware of that sensation.

“So, that’s about all the news Burtt.  I’m sorry it isn’t all good, but we knew this day would come.” Kkat finished updating Burtt on the changes happening at the Loks and with Ssyndi and her care. “The one thing I’m truly concerned about is that cretin Dougg being anywhere near Ssyndi again.”

 

“Hmm! Das wha…, Oh damn!  That’s what I’ve been thinking too.  I have just the cure for that problem in mind.  Ole Dougg, he doesn’t much like ole Bann now that Mmarta told Bann to ignore anything Dougg ordered.  I think we’ll station Bann at the Lok stead until Dougg is gone again.  Tell doc to keep Dougg away until we get back.  Okay?  How’s that sound?”

 

“Perfect, Burtt.  Just perfect.  He is TERRIFIED of Bann.  He’s more terrified of you, so knowing Bann and you are partners will have Dougg on his best behavior I expect.  Excellent!”

 

“Okay, I’ll brief Bann this off-cycle while we are with the Flags.  He’ll be ready to assume his new duties when we return.  In the meantime, why don’t you stay with Ssyndi for a few days.  Might be best for all concerned, eh?”  He didn’t say his name but Kkat knew Burtt was referring to Kett, not just Dougg.  She decided to not say anything just yet about Jjenna Bok.  Burtt had enough on his mind and he was headed into the unknown. He didn’t need any more to think about just then.  It would keep, she thought.

 

“Sure.  That’s a great idea.’ Kkat continued, “Besides, I can keep a better eye on that girl.  She took her mask off when she was here earlier?  Really?  What is wrong with that girl?  I’ll be having a few words with her about that, I will.  Damn!”

 

Burtt just smiled.  He knew the effort it took to control that headstrong girl.

 

“We figure it all out, Kkat.  Yes, we will.  Good things are happening here.  I just know it.  I do!”

 

The brightness of his enthusiasm lent a spark to her own.  She allowed hope to burst through her shield for the first time since her parents passed.  She hoped it wasn’t a mistake. She didn’t think she could take another letdown.

She thought she was free and clear but Burtt wasn’t letting go just yet. 

“What about Jjenna?  That girl be scaring me still, the way she sneaks and spies.  Something wrong there still.”

“Oh.  You’ve noticed that, huh?  She thinks you don’t see her.  She’s mad in love too, Burtt.  With you, and I can understand that.  We had a talk a little while ago.  She was going to sneak after you and try to make it to the Flags where she hopes she can find a man.  I had to promise you’d bring girls next time.  Well, I actually said next five-day.  I know I should have asked, Burtt.  I’m sorry but I didn’t see any other way to keep her here.”

“S’okay.  I figure it out with Jonn.  You done good.  She worries me but I don’t want to see her hurt, or her little boy. Tukk?”

“Yes, the boy’s name is Tukk.  You’re a good man to remember, Burtt.  I think Jjenna’s a good girl, Burtt.  She’s just young and restless and feeling quite a bit of desperation, I would expect, right now.  It’s a girl thing, Burtt.  Trust me.”

“Oh hell yeah!  I ain’t even close to figuring you girls out, so yeah.  You deal with it.  I’m good with that.”

 

“Well now, are you folks about ready to get a move on?  We’re losing daylight my friend.”  Jonn’s interruption was only partly forgiven.  The two star-crossed lovers stared a last needy look at each other then broke apart to prepare for the Taj’s first expedition’s start.

 

“We coming now, Jonn.  You ready?  We been waitin all mornin for ya?”  Burtt smirked to his new travelling companion.

 

“OHO! Tis a joker you are, Burtt.  Well, that’s a fine one…waitin on us all mornin…HAH! Come on let me check your rig Burtt.  That girl of yours is right handy, but these suits are tricky to get right.  Let’s see.  Hmm, erm, well, looka that.  Everything done nice and neat like, and correctly too.  Tis a smart one that girl, Burtt. Don’t be losing her, now.  First time too?  Are ya sure you weren’t practicing all night?”

 

Truth told, when they weren’t canoodling that’s exactly what they were doing most of the night. While practicing Burtt’s speech to the council, they wrapped and re-wrapped his suit to be sure he could do it correctly even in the dark.  They also tested each of the distilling suits for proper function.  All but one tested good.

 

This morning Kkat helped him wrap up and the other travelers found Taj-mates to help them do the same.  Jonn and the Flags watched this with admiration and an even greater respect for these children than they would ever have granted them prior to coming to the Taj.  Upon inspection, they found very few mistakes and those were so minor as to have been negligible.  They only pointed them out to be thorough.  These children just weren’t children, not by any standard the Flags knew.  Children this age back in their compound were pampered much like domed citizens would be still in ed and play-time.

 

Jonn and his crew wondered at the transformation that would take place in these proles and their lives if they did venture out into the frontier.  They all anticipated the kid’s emancipation with great wonder.  Jonn was old enough to have seen it in some of their own, but this would be a whole community of self-sufficient children finding true freedom.  What greatness would evolve from that?  How far could this champion of theirs’, this Burtt, take them?

 

The future suddenly looked enticing again and Jonn was oh so grateful.  The Flag was beginning to fold in on itself.  To become too isolated.  To be honest, there weren’t enough unrelated males and females to go around just now.  This unhappy circumstance was the cause of more than one fall for a gypsy family of rovers like the Flags.  Now that they had settled somewhere, Jonn hated the very thought of their creation falling apart due to a lack of interest in each other. Diversity was needed badly, and soon.  The Taj could be just the ticket.  The Flag adults were all settled and paired off, it was their children who needed to branch out and a lot of the Taj were just the right age to fill that need.

 

With all preparations made, daylight wasting and twenty-six iso-suited travelers sweating in place, the moment had come.

 

Tears and cheers assaulted the ears of the heroes.  Burtt sought out and held the eyes of Kkat while he proudly led his troop of soldiers into the frontier for the first time.  He caught sight of movement to his right and up.  He couldn’t find the source at first but eventually he saw Jjenna Bok’s flaming red trusses poking out from behind her I-beam hide.  He looked back to Kkat who had watched him track Jjenna’s spot and shook her head at him, letting him know it was okay.

 

Burtt saw Harkk last.  He and Kett were atop the rubble mound at Green River and the site of the new greenhouse.  Harkk had his hand on Kett’s shoulder.  Kett just stared directly at Burtt then he flung Harkk’s hand off, ran down the backside of the mound and out of sight.

 

There was no time for that.  They were out of the Taj and on their way to adventure.

————-

 

 

So ends book one of part eight in the adventures of Burtt Klop and his crèche.  Be sure to read part two for the exciting conclusion to their first adventure outside the Taj.  Will Jonn and the Flags be everything Burtt hopes they are?  Will Zobbi meet justice, finally?  Will Jjenna and Kett find peace?  How long will Mmarta last and will Jaredd rebound?  Are the girls safe from Dougg?  Really?  Is CommCorp not aware of what’s going on in secotr-22?  What of the Haps?

 

Ah, how the thick plottens, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

Burtt – part 7, New Horizons

poor3

Two months have passed since Mmarta pressed the council with her demands.

  • The last of the needy children have all been taken in by elie families and are thriving. Eight of them are due to return to the Taj in a month on the outside.  Ten of the remaining still in care would never survive back in the outer zones due to the damage already done to their lungs.  Plans were in progress to continue their care in the green zone.  The operation to smuggle them into the dome had worked perfectly as Harkk had claimed it would.  No one ever questions or inspects his carts.  When Harkk headed into the green zone on a Corp project he was given whatever liberties he required.  Officious dolts who deterred him from his appointed rounds suddenly found themselves escorting prisoners to the mines.  That job was far more dangerous than any other a Corp cop might be assigned in the city-state, so Harkk was rarely bothered and that usually to ask a favor.  So far, CommCorp seemed none the wiser about the proles inside the dome.
  • Dougg is gone. He might not be gone forever, though, if he could help it.  He knew enough to cause problems too.  He would rather just be a hanger on and live the good life on the Lok stead.
  • Knutte was never released by the Corp cops and it is expected he joined the soon to be dead masses in the mines. Qquitia was still spying for the Haps but when Knutte never returned Hhannah had decided to lay low.  She still felt her day would come so she kept Qquitia on a short leash, just in case, though she did allow her to go back to the Taj.  Hannah was quite certain the girl would keep her mouth shut if she knew what was good for her.  She would wait for something real juicy before she struck again.  This time it would be fatal for the Loks.  Qquitia, however, told all to Bessie the moment she first stepped back into the Taj.  The council put a plan in place to deal with the Hap woman.
  • Construction in sector-22’s outer zones was nearly complete and the Corp was none the wiser. Harkk was still running utilities and there always seemed to be some small project that needed doing right now, but it was near done and everything seemed to be rolling along nicely.  Harkk wasn’t quite as harried as he had been for the last few months, but there was still work to be done. The final readout had taken on far more importance and consequently, far more effort to complete.  It was a formidable obstruction now that blocked off almost the entire back end of the sector from creek bank to creek bank.  It was so well disguised on the side facing the green zone that it merely looked like another pile of rubble.  A force coming in from the frontier would have a different view, however, though it was still a massive earthworks to confront either way.
  • The general consensus was that they should consider themselves lucky that there were so few accidents that had resulted from all this work. Two workers had broken a leg or an arm falling into trenches they didn’t see and hadn’t thought to look for out in the middle of the crèche grounds right after they’d been dug.  Another had been partially buried in a tunnel cave-in.  All in all, that was an excellent accident ratio.
  • The education effort was paying off in dividends. The kids were all participating now, even the older members of Ccassie’s crew.  Cassie, who herself could read, scribe, and cipher proficiently with the best of them, had taken on the chore of teaching her own crew herself.    Burtt had a hard time keeping up with conversations now, even with the younger members of the Taj, their vocabulary having expanded so dramatically in the last 5 months.  Better yet, these kids were learning to be able to stand and converse with citizens, like citizens.  That was, after all, Burtt’s and the council’s ultimate goal; to have these children accepted as citizens and removed from this blight of an existence.  Burtt himself, rarely seemed to have the time to learn.  He picked up what he could from Kkat in his sparse spare time.
  • Kkat and Ssyndi were proving to be excellent medsci students but it was evident they would not be able to learn enough to become the immediate and ultimate medical answer to the children’s needs when Mmarta was gone, and Mmarta had mere weeks left if that. The four members of the council who’d been banished and now resided at the Taj, were Godsends.
  • Medsci had made a breakthrough in the study of lung disease. Ssyndi was fully involved in the treatment and research to advance these studies and it was reaping huge benefits for her health.  For the first time in her life, she could take in and hold a full deep breath without hacking.  She was up to five laps around the Loks compound before she was out of breath.  This progress was awesome and it simply added to her determination to get out of the dome and see Burtt.
  • Jenna Bok made herself a thorn in Kkat’s side. That didn’t work out well for one of them.  Burtt stayed clear of the cat fight.

————

1st day, first five-day, month 2 of year 319af

He’d been coming here early the last couple of mornings.  He’d had to spell Burtt two days before when he took ill.  The day before, while he was checking the trap lines he also decided to check the water lines from Green River.  Several times already they’d had to splice in new sections where the rodents chewed through.

He found a couple more leaks, though these were not chewed completely through yet.  He noticed that around the leaks, a very light moss was growing.

Life growing on this blighted earth?  Huh!  Well, there has been a few days of sun now and all this fresh water has purged the soil, maybe?  Say, I wonder if we should start growing out here?  There’s a lot more room out here and our crèche garden barely supports a third of the Taj, truth be told.  This slope faces southwest so we could get enough sun to grow stuff right on this slope, provided the sun doesn’t go on vacation for a year or two again.

Harkk was thinking about the best way to do what he had in mind and suddenly realized that what the Taj needed was another greenhouse.  He was so excited he started to rough out plans in his head and mark the boundaries with large rocks after stepping off a sizable area he thought suitable to their needs.

Finished with his project and anxious to share his idea with Burtt, he worked his way up the slope and cleared the top of the rubble pile again.  He took a short break to look back at his work and his surroundings and noticed a smudge of something on the horizon.

The horizon was never too far off.  There always seemed to be a haze over everything outside the domes.  Lately, there had been a steady breeze blowing south and visibility was stretched a bit and the sun seemed brighter than he could remember it being in quite some time.  He thought he’d seen enough smoke to recognize it when he saw it at a distance but he just wasn’t sure, so he planned to bring something to help next time and this was that next time.

There was no doubt now. Using his MilScope, he could distinguish structures in the distance with smoke coming from one, perhaps a chimney.  The scope listed distances too.  He could also see something else that puzzled and intrigued him.  In the near distance between him and the structures, there was what looked like a green expanse and then a blue one (water?) ahead of that, the blue being closest to him.

This can’t be?  That’s beyond the south wall for sure, maybe 20 kliks.  How can that be?  And why isn’t CommCorp doing anything about it?  If it’s what I think it is?  Hell, maybe CommCorp is doing something?  Maybe it IS CommCorp.  Holy God, there are people out there?  Well into the frontier.  What the hell?  There are no mines there. That whole area is supposed to be a no-go zone.

Harkk was still trying to decide if he believed what he was seeing when Burtt stepped up beside him and scared the devil out of him.

“Hey, Harkk.”

“JIZMO, Burtt?  Were you trying to kill me?  God, you scared me to death, damn it!”

“Sorry, Harkk.  Saw ya up he-ah.  Figured to join ya ‘s all.  Wha ‘s that?  ‘N wha ya point it at?” He asked pointing to the scope.

“Ah.  This is called a MilScope, Burtt.  It helps to see things far away and that’s what I was pointing it at.” He said pointing at the smoke smudge.

Burtt could see that well enough without the scope and was on the defensive immediately.

“Wha dat, Harkk?  Dat Fi-ah? Be comin he-ah?”  Burtt’s diction reverted to the street as soon as he felt stress.  He was constantly trying to correct himself, but in times of severe worry, he just didn’t think about it.  It was a neverending source of angst for his tutors.

Right then he was and looked desperate.  He remembered wildfires raging just outside the red zone where he and his family hid years before.  The terror was suddenly fresh in his memory.

Harkk sensed Burtt’s fear and allayed them as best he could.

“Well, it looks like smoke from a cook fire Burtt, or just from a chimney.  It’s certainly not wild and it isn’t moving towards us.  Here, look through the scope and you’ll see soon enough.”

He showed Burtt how to hold it and how to focus.

At first, Burtt was not sure what the blurry mess was all about and why Harkk had him wasting his time when the view finally came into focus.  Burtt froze.  He just stared for a moment.  Then without removing the scope from his eye, a huge grin spread across his face.  You could see him opening and closing the eye not looking through the scope, checking the difference, and marveling at it.

“Dis be gut Harkk.  Ver gut.  Yessuh!”  He played the scope around him taking in the view near and far, then he settled back in on the structures again.

“Wha dat in front o the shacks Harkk.?” He caught himself sliding further back into street and made a half-hearted effort to correct himself. That be green?  Ya see that?  S’ that the end o Green Rivah we-ah all da blue is?  That green be growin stuff ya tink?  Damn!  Thas gut, if.”

Then he thought of something else and asked, “Why we c’n see so fah Harkk? Why it so cle-ah? That be da Wahl the-ah? That dark ting? If that the Wahl, how fah them shacks be?”

Burtt was indeed referring to the wall.  The southern wall, much of it was un-manned.  From Sector-31, which was northwest of them around the dome, to sector-16 just east of them, there were only bot patrols on the wall and the occasional flybots over top and a maintenance crew who visited weekly for their service schedule. The land beyond was considered too bleak for any life so, scarce resources weren’t wasted there.  In fact, half the ground bots were second tiers, just like those here in the red zone.

This blotch of green, with the blue expanse fronting it and some sort of structures behind, was located almost exactly in the middle of those sectors if you extended them out beyond the wall.  The wall was almost exactly five kliks from the dome all the way round.  There were connector tubes for high-speed maglev trams between city-states, and tubes from the dome to the wall but none in that direction.

“Yes Burtt, that’s the wall alright.  There won’t be anyone there, though, just bots.  Not in that area.  Remember I told you about that area?”  Burtt nodded so Harkk continued. “I think we can see so far lately because of the wind.  That might be water closest to us and it sure looks like that would be where the Green River flows to, though I don’t know how it would get past the wall.  And, yes, I think that is growing stuff.  Grass or hay maybe.  Though I can’t see why they’d grow grass?  Could it be corn? I wonder if they know they can be seen now?  According to the scope, those structures are a little less than 20 kliks out Burt”

“They caint be hidin now.  Mayb’ they don wanna be seen, but the win blow f’ them too.”

“Yeah, that could be it, Burtt, or they could work for the Corp.”

“Oh.  Hmm.”

It was evident Burtt hadn’t considered that.  He looked disappointed.

“Cheer up Burtt.  We’re going to have to find out who they are now, don’t you think?”

Burtt cheered visibly with the prospect of exploring now firmly planted in his head.

Both men took turns looking through the scope again then set off for the crèche.

“Mayb’ we go look, Harkk.  See what is it.”

“Oh, I don’t know Burtt.  That’s a long way off bud.  I was thinking of signaling them to see if they signaled back.”

“Hmm.  Thas gut.  How we gon do that? Caint jes wave at em.”

Chuckling, Harkk replied, “No, we can’t just wave at them, but we can signal them with light tonight. If they signal us back, we go from there.  Deal?”

“Su-ah but we nees to ask around first.  Ah mean, what if it is the Corp ‘n they sees ahr light?”

“Ah.  Good point.  Let’s take it up with the council then.  Okay?  If we decide to go for it and it looks like our neighbors are from the Corp, we just put our light out and disappear until they stop looking for the source.”

“Su-ah.  Das gut!”

Zobbi’s crèche somewhere in the frontier:

“I ain’t ca-ah bout no wi-ah, ya puss.  I wanna kno whas goin on in dat crèche, das wha.  Now, who gon do dat f’ Zobbi?  Who?  Ain’t no gut soljer he-ah?”

“Ah go Zobbi man.  I caint stays he-ah no way.  I be det ‘fore long.  Ah go n sen back one ya scorts.  Kay?  I don’t be comin back he-ah.  Ahm be dyin he-ah.”

“Ya Go Pokke?  I surprise ya eben tink bout.  S’ gut.  Ruppe, ya goes wif Pokke and ya comes back wif his blurb.  Gots it?  Ya takes Rogg wif.”

Zobbi commanded two of his best and strongest soldiers to go with Pokke.  Pokke wasn’t happy with the choice.  He’d asked for a scort so he could yield some authority.  With the two soldiers Zobbi assigned him, he’d be lucky to take a rest without them prodding him onwards.  He surely wouldn’t be ordering these two around, though.

As the three set off for sector-22, Zobbi signaled Rogg to come back to him.  Pokke saw but couldn’t do much about it as Ruppe guided him out of Zobbi’s frontier crèche with authority.

“When ya gets da blurb, ya kills Pokke.  Gots it?  I ain’t want dat puss tellin ole Burtt bout Zobbi.  If him lives, you dies.  Gots it?  N’ I fin out if him do.  Ya kill Pokke, das a’righ.”

“Ah gots ‘t boss.  I gots ‘t.”

Pokke saw the exchange but could only guess at the subject matter.  It was enough.  He knew Zobbi well.  Zobbi wasn’t about to let Pokke off the hook now.  He wasn’t going to be able to just send a scort back to report, he was going to have to fend off two soldiers.  He knew that probably meant a fight.  He wasn’t sure he was up to it but he checked the blades and stunner he had hidden in his cloaks.

Ah fight ya den boys.  Hopes ya ain’t spectin dat from ole sick Pokke.  Das A’righ.  Burtt, ya basta, hab some spies waiting f’ ole Pokke.  Maybe dem sca-ah off dese toughs. JIZMO! Ah gots t’ gets fruit.

The Loks study:

“She’s trouble Kkat.  That’s all she is and all she’ll ever be.  I told you, we need to out that cretin ourselves before she ruins it for everyone.  If you don’t want to do it, I will.  She’s a danger to us all.  And while we’re at it, we can at least out the flirt so Burtt sees her for what she is.  I can’t believe the idiot isn’t aware.  Boys!”

The determined set of her jaw told Kkat she wasn’t going to easily talk this female version of the headstrong Klop kids.  Burtt was bad enough, but Ssyndi could argue the tail of a dragon lizard, and she had the vocabulary to make it an interesting event to observe.  Kkat had to do some serious shuffling to deter this latest spat of vitriol Ssyndi spent on the Hap woman.

“Ssyn, you know we have to tread softly here.  One wrong step and the Corp will be sniffing at our heels, not hers.  Mmarta hardly needs that grief right now, don’t you think?  Jjenna Bok is NOT a priority of any sort.  She’s just a wart.  I’ll freeze that pestilence off soon enough.”

Kkat hated guilting Ssyndi into compliance but some days it was all she could do to reign that enthusiasm in.  If she had to throw Mmarta’s condition in her face to hold her back from the chasm, she would.

I may just have to give in and take you to see Burtt.  Perhaps I could get him to come to the tube so she doesn’t have to be all the way out in the air.  Oh, Ssyn.  Why are you so impulsive?  Kkat almost choked on her own laughter, why do you think, silly?  Is she a Klop or what?

“Again?  Again, you hit me with the guilt trip?  Come on Kkat.  You know I’m right.  At least let me talk to Qquitia again.  I’ll find out exactly what that Hap bitch is up to now.  Then we can tell Jaredd.  The Council will want to decide what to do with Hhannah at least.  I’m telling you, Kkat, if we don’t squash this bug now, she’ll turn the whole crèche inside out just to get at Mmarta.  You heard what Qquitia said.  Hap will stoop to any level to get out from under.  She’ll trade her partner and her son for a better perch.”

“We can’t be sure Hhannah has enough clout to cause that much trouble Ssyn.  She’s proba…’

“Probably?  Probably?  Kkat!  Listen to yourself.  We are talking about exposing the Taj to the Corp.  Complete exposure, to include any from out here who might be involved.  That’s not just us Kkat.  Heads will roll and that Hap bitch will ride the flow of blood to the nearest tower suite.  I won’t sit idly by while that happens regardless of what you decide to do, Kkat.  I won’t!”

She couldn’t deny the truth in what Ssyn was saying so she tried another tack.

“Will you at least let me ask Burtt first?  Please?”

“Can I come with you?”

Damn this girl!

After a full minute of staring, Kkat nodded, but before Ssyn could jump out of her skin, Kkat said, “To the tube, Ssyn. To the tube only, with the mask on, and if Burtt won’t come to the tube, too bad.  And not a word to Mmarta or Jaredd.  NOT ONE WORD!  If those terms don’t suit you, then there’s no deal.”

Ssyn little dance of the happy feet was all Kkat needed to be sure she had Ssyn compliance.

“I need you to dress up like you did last time you snuck into the zone to make it hard for the bots and cops to recognize you.”

She thought about that and followed with, “Oh, dear.  I mean the time when you snuck in after the war Ssyn, not any other time that you might have…”  Kkat stopped herself wondering if this wild young girl hadn’t snuck out more than just the one time she knew of.

“Ha, ha!  I only tried it the once.  I heard all those conversations you had with Mmarta about me.  I don’t want to die Kkat.  I just really want to see my brother.  I’m sure YOU can understand that, can’t you Kkat?  Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t see Burtt for 6 months?  Hmmm?”

With a sigh and deep concern for her friend, Kkat resigned herself to allowing Ssyndi to branch out and see her old world again, and her brother.

What would I do If I couldn’t see him…for a week, let alone a month or six?  Oh, Burtt!

The Quad in front of the kennel:

“Ya has ta make ya K behave in the Taj.  Caint be crazy in there.  So we trains them all to be gut. There be at least three handlers for every pup, so ya all take turns with them.  When ur K don do what ya tells it, ya makes it.  Don hit.  Ya hit ur K, I be hittin ya back.  Ya jes push the butt down if it don sit.  Ya works in teams to train them to stay.  One says the stay and walks off, t’othah holds the K til handler says the come.  We works lahk that til alla the Ks be gut and don need no lead ‘t hold ‘em.  When them all gut, we teach yas t’be guards.  Dogg n me don never be sneacked up on.  So y’all need to be the same. Then nobody sneaks on us evah mayb.”

“What about naming Burtt?  When can we name the pups?”  Asked Jjermaine. He, like all the young handlers, was anxious to make a contribution to the Taj.  To them, a naming day for their Ks would be a symbolic turning point.  With names, they would be a real team, not just Jjack, and his K, for instance.

This was big and Burtt knew it.  He understood that it was his own fault so much worth had been placed on names and now he faced another test of his ability to quench this insatiable thirst the kids had to be part of the savage world Burtt lived in. So far he had been able to reign in that urge to expose themselves to danger, in part by convincing them that they had to be fully trained not just in self-defense but in every aspect of soldiering.  In part by periodically working on hot days without a tunic on, so all could see the results of living his kind of life and hopefully decide that a different way was better.  The scars evident on his upper body would terrify a prize fighter.

By designating all the youngest Taj-mates as handlers, he’d added another layer of learning to the process and delayed that fateful day by more months still.  Burtt had no trouble recalling the abattoir that had become sector-22 after the prole war.  The very thought of even one more child’s body lying in tatters at his feet could bring him to his knees in abject terror.

Never again! He swore, knowing the truth even as he swore to deny it..

The kids, however, didn’t seem to be phased at all by memories.

This mus be why they can sleep so gut, he thought.

“Member I said, ya all is a team?  Member?”  he asked and they all nodded assent.

“Well, some of ya are doin gut and some not so gut.  Ya all hafta hep each uthah.  When ya all can do the basic tells and ya K’s is doing them off-lead for all three handlers, then we c’n have a namin day.  Afta that, we move on to guard trainin. That gut?”

The disappointment on some of the older and better handlers was evident but they were soon resigned to their fate, once again joking with each other and Burtt and playing with their Ks.

There was one pup who took a liking to Burtt and kept breaking away from his handlers to run up front with Burtt and Dogg.

At first, the kids would run after him disrupting the rest of the class. Bedlam would ensue.  After much laughter, yelling, tripping over leads and each other, order would be restored only to have the little miscreant try again in a few moments.

The last attempt at mischief ended with Dogg escorting the felonious pup back to his handlers. Turning with a not-very-serious growl several times to the keep the pup in place as he attempted to return to Burtt, Dogg ended up chasing the little beast back several more times much to the delight of child and adult alike.  The end result was an attached lead that rarely came off.  This pup was a runner and would grow to continue that trend.  He escaped from the Taj more than once but always came back.  His handlers would name him Roamerr.  This tendency to run had Burtt thinking about how he dealt with Dogg’s enthusiasm when first they met.  At one point he decided he had to let Dogg know that play time was over.

Burtt fashioned a harness with pouches on the side to carry small items of need on the trail and to attached a lead to.  It was just a matter of time before Dogg caught on and he knew it was work time whenever Burtt put the harness on him.  The shenanigans ended immediately.

Roamer also turned out to be the best scout the creche ever had, better even than Dogg, whom it was thought could sniff a roach out of a pile of offal.  Dogg liked roaches.  He seemed to take great delight in the crunching sound they made when he bit down on them.  At times he wouldn’t even eat them.  He just picked up one after another and crunch, crunch, crunch.  Burtt was continuously pushing Dogg away after any such sessions.  He couldn’t imagine Dogg licking him after he had that stuff all over him.  YECK!

They finished the day’s training session on a positive note with all teams able to walk with their Ks at their sides, completely around the obstacle/exercise course and off lead, excepting Roamerr.

Harkk told Burtt this was called “heeling”.  The term confused him.  It didn’t sound like anything that made sense to Burtt until Harkk explained what a heel was and that if he thought about it, the Ks were being trained to just barely follow behind their handlers, at their heels, so to speak.  Burtt acknowledged the logic then and in place of his accustomed “walk”, “heel” was adopted as the command for that behavior.  Come, Sit, Stay, and Down were the other basics that all Ks had to learn and do without fail for each of their handlers.

The idea of rewarding the Ks when they did good was introduced.  Instead of punishment for failure, they were simply made to do the behavior again until they got it right after a light “no” for an admonishment.  Harkk told Burtt that in general, it was best to keep things simple with Ks or any animal since they really didn’t “understand” what people were saying to them.  He explained that once they are trained, they just relate the unique sound of a word to a certain behavior.  The important thing to keep in mind was that everyone had to use the same commands and try to say them the same way as everyone else in order to not confuse the Ks.  This too was practiced daily.  Thus the concept of repetition, praise, and reward, was adopted in the Taj.  Simple, one syllable commands, were established as the standard; thus “To me” was replaced with “come”.  Within months they would have the most secure creche on the outskirts of CommCorp city-state and over time this would cause them both troubles and bring them great wealth, as measured by a prole.

Eleven pups and 39 handlers preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.

For Burtt, it was a source of great pride and great concern.  Soon he would not be able to curb the enthusiasm of these young wannabe warriors.  He would have to start assigning them more and more dangerous duties if he was to be fair to everyone else.  That they would have a K to protect them was some comfort and probably the only reason Burtt didn’t just flat out put his foot down and refuse to let the kids out of the Taj at all.  None of these youngsters would work without a K, so that limited their active force somewhat.  In an emergency, there would be plenty of other jobs to be done.

Bein the leader ain’t so much fun, huh Burtt?

————

Dusk atop the rubble mound:

They made their way to the top of the rubble mound just as the last of the light faded into the western horizon.  Burtt didn’t want to worry the Taj so they had waited until Burtt would normally leave on his own with Dogg to do his rounds.  All the other mates were in the creche as a rule by then anyway.  The pups weren’t allowed free run anymore,  They were too disruptive and they ate anything that wasn’t secured.  Their handlers took turns caring for their Ks overnight and kept them on lead or secured in their new kennels, one of the last projects taken on in the Taj proper.  As they became more disciplined with age, they would be granted the same free run of the creche as Dogg and Ssweet had, though you rarely ever saw Ssweet.  She never seemed to accept people the way Dogg did.

“Ya tink them answer us Harkk?”  He was excited again.

‘Well, it depends, Burtt.  It depends on a lot of things.  Is it the Corp?  Are they wild people, not aligned with the Corp?  Is it a new mining op?  Whoever it is, are they friendly?  Do they have a light?  Will they be afraid to contact us? There’s a lot of ifs, Burtt.  All we can do is try.”

Burtt suddenly seemed nervous.

“What is it, Burtt?  Are you having second thoughts about contacting our new neighbors?  We don’t have to if you don’t want.  We can revisit this in the morning with the council again.”

“Ye-ah, Ahm afraid.  Wha if them – erm – What if they are savi, sava…mean?”

“I think the word you wanted was “savage”, and yes that would surely be a problem.  That’s why we built the Taj up so much these last few months buddy.  To fend off attacks from both directions.  Frankly, I’d rather face a foe from out there, than Corp troopers.  At least until I find out they’re the more savage of the two.”

He paused a moment to give Burtt time to respond. When he didn’t he continued.

“So, what’ll it be Burtt?  Flash ‘em or not?  I’ll stand by your decision”

Burtt stood motionless staring off into the distance as if trying to see the target again.  Even with the scope, it would be impossible unless the strangers had an open fire, but Burtt knew where to look.  They’d set some rocks in a rough arrow pointing to what they thought was the center of the distant compound.

As if snapping out of a reverie, Burtt shook himself and turned to Harkk.

“Les do it, Harkk.  Lahk ya says, we c’n always hide.”

Harkk lit his torch. He’d been charging the cell all day so the beam was bright enough to be seen from a lot farther away than the settlement.  He flashed them a code he had learned in the Army for H-E-L-L-O twice, then shut off the torch and waited.  He repeated the process four more times waiting for 5 spans between each.

The two had about given up hope for the night. Harkk had packed and collected his bag and was turned away from the frontier when Burtt’s anxious cry caught him in mid-stride.

“The-ah!  The-ah, Harkk.  I sees the light. Right the-ah. See it?”

Burtt excitement was palpable.  Harkk could feel the tension in his body when he placed a hand on Burtt’s shoulder.

“Well, I’ll be.  And they know the code.  Damn!  ‘W–H-O  Y-O-U’  Damn Burtt, they want to know who we are.”

“Wha we say?  GRRRRR! What do we tell them?”

“Hahaha, atta boy, Burtt.  Well, I think we tell them something about us that separates us from the Corp like the council decided, right?”

“Ye-ah das, oh damn, that’s right.  We do wha the council says.  Okay!”  Thinking for a moment, he turned to Harkk and said, “Tell them this is the Taj, callin.”

“Oh Burtt, I like it.”

————

Later that night at Council HQ, back in Taj Proper:

“We signaled back that we would meet them at our boundary readout at mideat 3rd day.  That gives us plenty of time to prep for their arrival and to practice evac if it comes to that.  The outer wire will be energized.  Our soldiers will be stationed at the readout.  The rest of the creche will be waiting for the signal at either Ccassie’s annex or at the Taj proper, ready to hit the hideout entrances.  Before our visitors arrive, Burtt and I will be perched on the mound with the scope.  We’ll be able to tell very easily if they are from the Corp or present some other danger from a long way off.  If things look bad, we all head for the hideout.  If there’s no apparent threat, then Burtt and I de-energize the outer wire and lower the ramps for them to enter sector-22.  Everyone stays out of sight until we say otherwise, though.  Any questions?”

“Have you given any thought about what happens if we don’t successfully evade their detection?  Assuming they are the Corp, I mean?” Asked Kkat.

“Ah don assume they the Corp, Kkat.  Les not look f’ trouble.  Les see first.  Kay? We have enough time to get to groun before they get he-ah.  That’s why we built the readout like we did so ya caint see whats going on the othah side.” Prompted Burtt, trying to keep a positive spin on events, but Kkat was not to be deterred.

“You can’t be certain of anything Burtt and I think we need to discuss all the “what ifs”.  If it is the Corp out there and they call out the bots and the Army?  You know what happens to these kids when there’s some excitement.  We would stand a very good chance of being seen before we can all get to ground, or worse yet, as we enter the hideout, thus entrapping ourselves there.”  The stern look on her face caused Burtt to reconsider and what he remembered was the holocaust that was the last prole war.

“Hmm. Das a’ri…, um, That’s a good point Kkat.  So tomorrow after firsteat, we drill.  When we can evac in 15 spans, we call it gut.  Okay?”

Kkat was still obviously anxious but nodded her edgy agreement with what was the best they could hope for.  The rest of the council seemed to sigh in unison.

“Good.  If there’s no more questions or concerns about item one; let’s move on to item Two.  I believe I’ve come up with a way to add to our veggie and fruit supply.  When I was last inspecting our water lines, I noticed some moss growing under a line where it was leaking.  Now, I don’t think the soil is totally purged of poisons yet, but I do think that with some work and the right structure, we can triple our production levels from the grow we have in the creche proper greenhouse.  If we build another greenhouse on the southwest face of the rubble, over on the banks of Green River, a much bigger one, we should be able to grow darn near anything in that sterile environment provided the sunlight remains constant.  I can’t get more of the grow lights we use in the Taj greenhouse, at least not anywhere near enough of them to light the size facility I’m thinking of.  So we will absolutely need the sun in order for this to be successful.  I think it’s worth the effort to try.  Even a little extra food is a help, right?

“I have equipment we can use to sterilize the soil we use inside the greenhouse.  We’ll have to get Jaredd to supply us with the nutrients we’ll need to add back into the soil, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.  The Lok stead has one of the larger private gardens in the dome, so they’ll have ample supplies.  We can begin to make better use of our compost heap now too.  Eventually, once we get the crop rotation down, we’ll have a self-sustaining garden that we keep in nutrients with minimal contributions from the dome.

“There will be a significant amount of work to be done here.  We’ll have to dig into the hillside and make a level surface to build on.  We have to acquire more clear plassheet from somewhere.  I have enough left over from the other greenhouse to cover one side and the roof of the new structure I have in mind.  I also have enough dark sheeting to cover the back and side walls where the dirt will be covering them anyway, the rest will need to be clear.  I have plenty of plasphalt left to make a contiguous floor we can seal to the side panels.  I’ve already taken as much of the clear as I can from Corp supplies, at least for a while.  We’ll have to see what Jaredd can come up with.  The rest of what we need we can scavenge from around sector-22.  Whenever we need some material, we need to check in the spares pile in case we already have what we need or can fashion what we need from something else we already have.  The less we have to smuggle in from outside the better.

“So that’s all I have at the moment unless there are questions?”  Harkk finally finished and looked around for what he hoped would be excited faces.  There were plenty.  The council meetings had morphed into a town-hall kind of atmosphere where everyone had a say if they wanted and at times a vote was called for to settle particularly sticky issues.

There were no questions and the meeting broke up into many smaller groups animatedly discussing the day’s topics.  The Taj was becoming more like a mini city-state every day.

Burtt and Harkk both wondered if that was a good thing.

————

Morning, day two outside sector-22’s servhuts:

The younger girl fought like a cornered street rat. Kkat had to use all her training, her wits and in the end, her nasty side and her weight advantage to gain the upper hand.  Even then Jjenna wouldn’t quit trying to break free.

“Stop! Stop you, evil little witch.  If you don’t, I’ll really hurt you.”  Kkat wasn’t sure what else she could do, but the ruse seemed to work.  Jjenna stopped fighting at least, even if she remained stiff and ready to go again at a moment’s notice.

Jjenna was weighing the benefits of continuing the fight if Kkat could bring it to another even worse level of pain and humiliation.

Da bitch prolly hab m’ thowed out.

“A’righ! A’righ!  Le Go.  I don be affa Burtt no mo.  Kay?  Le go. Jizmo!” The sex-hungry girl subsisted.

“You better be sure, Jjenna.  No more!  Not ever.  I plan to be part of Burtt’s life forever. Understand?  That will never change.  Stay away.  I mean it, Jjenna.  Stay away! For good!  He doesn’t want you Jjenna.  He’s too kind to hurt you himself, so he sent me.  Understand?”  There didn’t seem to be any give in Kkat’s resolve.  Jjenna feared for her future.  It must have shown because Kkat took pity.  Jjenna seemed to melt under the revelation that Kkat was Burtt’s messenger, not just a jealous suitor.

“I won’t make this an issue with Burtt if you keep up your end of the bargain.  Is that clear?  Is that a deal?”

“S’ a’righ.  I gots it.  Deal!  C’n Ah gets up now?”  the tone was just slightly less snarky but there was a difference.  Kkat conceded the point and got up.

“Remember I’m watching Jjenna and remember that, no matter what our relationship, Burtt listens to me.  Always!”

She hoped the added threat bored home to roost in this miscreant’s mind.  Burtt was right, she was a great spy.  She did report snooping at the wire and they found the body there the next morning.  She saw them coming from her post and fired up the wire that fried the leader.  She was even smart enough to NOT investigate on her own.  Burtt would have locked her up or tossed her out, one or the other for that.  He was crazy about the kids now and any danger they might have to face sent him into a dither.

Still, Kkat was determined to be Burtt’s mate, even if Burtt didn’t know it yet, the buffoon.

This little tart is NOT spoiling that.  No way!

Jjenna left with her head down, either properly humbled or improperly spiteful.  That one bore watching but Kkat admired the girl’s spunk.  She managed to keep her baby healthy in the red zone before Burtt made that a safe space.  As to her flirtatious aspirations, well, Kkat couldn’t really blame her.  Burtt was the most attractive fish in their little secotr-22 sea, and as of that moment, he wasn’t technically committed to anyone.

We’ll see about that.  Oh yes, we will, Mr. Burtt.  We’ll see about that.

————

The same time, inside Harkk’s servhut:

“And that my friend is why you always, always, stay out of cat fights.  They are vicious and anyone in the vicinity can get hurt.  Badly!”

Harkk tried poorly to look serious when he turned to see Burtt’s reaction.  The two burst into muffled laughter.  Neither daring to be caught as Kkat was still within easy hearing distance of Harkk’s hut.

Kkat had caught up to and confronted Jjenna when the girl was sneaking out of Ccarol’s servhut.  Jjenna aside from being Burtt hungry was also a thief.  The confrontation started out as a challenge to the girl’s presence where she most likely shouldn’t have been with Ccarol in the dome.  It quickly morphed from accusations of petty theft to mate-stealing with all the pent up rage Kkat had been storing afer each additional advance the girl made towards Burtt.

The final straw came just a cycle before when Kett came running to tell her that, “Burtt and Jjenna were drownin’ in green rivah.”

When Kkat arrived at the top of the mound herself, she found Burtt desperately trying to fend off an equally naked Jjenna whom, it turned out, had followed Burtt to his morning bath and caught him unawares.

Kkat, so angry she thought she might hurt them both, returned to the Taj and waited instead.  Burtt was on her heels in seconds, he must have run the whole way.

“Kkat, ya gots ta do sumpin bout dat lil flart, flort…ah JIZMO!  THAT FLIRT!  Please!  Taday!  Ahm beggin ya.  She don caught me in ma skin agin.  Ahm afraid ta be hittin her”

Kkat turned to find her nemesis and stalked off in the direction of the wire, where the girl spent most of her time.  When she wasn’t flirting with Burtt that is.

Burtt heard Harkk call to him quietly from his servhut.  Harkk pointed over Burtt’s shoulder.  Burtt looked and saw Jjenna sneaking into Ccarol’s servhut.  As Burtt headed towards Harkk, he passed Kett going the other way, Kett whistled to catch Kkat’s attention.  Both men saw Kkat turn with Kett’s whistle.  She saw Jjenna too and forgetting about Kett, made her determined way towards the servhuts and Jjenna.  Burtt realized that Kett was unknowingly headed straight towards danger and he grabbed the young man bringing him along to Harkk’s.  Harkk pulled Burtt and Kett in out of the battlefield.  The three watched in fascination as the events unfolded before them.  All three were equally instilled with renewed respect for the lady of the Taj.  Kkat was one formidable opponent.  More importantly, she was a fierce ally too.

“You need to have that talk, Burtt.  She wouldn’t have been that physical if she didn’t want to be with you.  You need to have that talk and the sooner the better, my friend.”

“Jizmo! Das A’righ.”  Said Burtt reverting to street again.

“What talk?” asked Kett with a suspicious look on his young face.

————

The same time on the perimeter:

Dogg would only ever leave the Taj proper with Burtt or Chukk.  If Burtt was hanging out with Kkat and ignoring him, Dogg would tag along with Chukk who walked all over the sector now that it was open.  After watching him for almost a year, Burtt and Kkat realized that wherever the kids could go, he would go there too.  It was as if he had to check it out for himself and he had to do it sometimes daily.

He took Burtt’s place this morning walking the perimeter with Dogg.  When Burtt came flying into the Taj half dressed and soaking wet, Chukk thought Burtt would be busy and took it on himself to run the morning rounds.  Burtt would follow him later, without Chukk knowing, but he let the two go.  He was too intent on seeing Kkat just then.

“You keep an eye open Chukk.  Don let ole Dogg eat no kids now.”

Chukk got a huge kick out of Burtt’s joke and laughed his hee-haw laugh until Burtt couldn’t hear him anymore.

As Chukk neared the passage to the outer Taj, the old sector-22 red zone, three young spy trainees asked if they could come.  Chukk was stumped.  He didn’t know how to tell these kids no, so he grumbled but turned back to his appointed rounds.  Dogg growled his disapproval.

The troop made their way towards Spring Creek.  The very same split second that Dogg whirled on them, the kids also noticed the strangers trying to navigate their way up the slick bank of the creek.  The older of the trio, who looked vaguely familiar to the kids, was hung up in the new wire, struggling to free himself and whispering his impassioned plea for help to the two toughs who wouldn’t approach him.  They were instead chuckling.  One of them, the bigger of the two finally approached the trapped man and put his foot on his shoulder forcing him down harder on the barbed wire.  The older man screamed then.  The two toughs shushed him looking around to see if they were discovered.

Dogg attacked, Chukk yelled a war cry, the kids screamed and the fight was on.  It was short but brutal.  Dogg was in among the toughs in a heartbeat snapping and ripping at them.  He got a firm hold on Pokke first and latched on.  The scream from Pokke’s lips had to be heard all the way to the wall, Evann thought.  He was the oldest of the trainees there with Chukk and was determined to be brave.

They’ll come to help.  We’ll be okay.  Keep moving.  Stay together.  Fight only if we have to.

Evann Rose was repeating the litany in his head for the emergency evade and escape procedure they’d trained for in case of being outgunned, as Harkk described it.  The only problem Evann was having as he herded the younger kids ahead of him and away from danger was that Chukk was going to be alone and that was the one thing Burtt said he would never forgive.  We never leave anyone behind.  It was gospel according to the Taj and here Evann was leading two kids away from the only fighter left facing three enemy soldiers.  Evann was afraid and started crying, Jjulie Mitt took his hand and soothed him while Kenn Barb started blowing his whistle as loud as he could.  They kept moving along the creek towards the Taj proper, but not nearly fast enough.

Chukk was conflicted.  He wanted to stay with the kids but he wanted to protect Dogg too.  He was frozen for a moment until he saw Evann moving the kids away from the creek, so Chukk opted to help Dogg.  He managed to leap the underwater wire and waded into the creek with his monster stunner in hand and ready for use.  Pokke saw it and screamed again, this startled Chukk and he backed off.  Dogg continued to tear Pokke’s leg to shreds.  Chukk turned away and saw the danger to the other kids and his clouded mind was suddenly crystal clear with purpose.  He tore off after the toughs who were then chasing his kids

Since the K was taking care of Pokke the other two toughs saw a chance to score some clean sex slaves for Zobbi and lit out after the three trainees. Ruppe made a running leap over the wire and sprawled on the slimy pathway but managed to grab Jjulie’s ankle.  The girl fell to his front and he clamped his fist around her arm.  The moment he did that Chukk caught up to him and laid him out cold with a blast from the stunner.  Jjulie looked up smiling gratefully at Chukk, then the smile on her face froze with the scream in her throat.  Chukk only had time to turn part way round before the Rogg ran him through with an ugly rusted blade as long as his arm.  Chukk’s expression slowly changed from surprised to lights out.  Dogg and Evann both hit the second tough at the same time.  Jjulie and Kenn joined in and there wasn’t much left.

Kenn’s whistling had brought the entire creche out.  Dogg had managed to tear Pokke’s throat out before he joined the dismantling of the last tough.

Before he died, Rogg told Burtt that Zobbi was after him. Burtt dredged Zobbi’s location from him.  He was in the red zone at sector 27, west of the Taj.  That was supposed to be no-go zone over there.

They pushed Pokke and the toughs bodies into the creek.  Harkk noted something of interest with the footwear the toughs wore.  They were thigh high and made of what seemed to be an impervious material.  He’d often wondered how folks managed to traverse the no-go zones.  These boots were probably the answer and he wanted to see if he could duplicate them, especially in light of their potential new neighbors.  He wondered how these no-go zone cretins could have come up with something this complex.

Burtt needed help carrying Chukk’s body to the burial mound.  There were more vu=olunteers than he could count.  Everyone came to see Chukk off.  Kkat said a prayer.  Burtt started humming Amazing Grace and the whole creche joined in.  Katt had been teaching that song to the little ones in school.  The congregation broke up into small somber groups of scared children.

Life had to go on and Burtt had learned to not let the Taj dwell on the bad stuff.  They had work to do before the big meet the next day, so he got everyone back into their routines, in spite of the definite lack of desire.  The Taj kept on.  Training took on a more serious flavor that day and when lasteat rolled around, total evac was down to 11 minutes flat.

Later that night, Dogg laid out on top of the burial mound all night alternately howling and then whining.  Burtt was worried about his partner and so he joined him.

That night, there were a full moon and a sky full of stars for a change.  The weather really was changing for the better. The night was beautiful and terrible all at once.  Burtt flicked away the tear forming in his eye.

Ahm sorry, Chukk.  Ah loved ya ole boy. Ah should a been the-ah. Jizmo, will I evah stop killin them?

He remembered something just then.  It was from his past.  Way back when his parents passed. Kkhloe and he had dragged their bodies to the creek and pushed them in.  The creeks ran hard back then too.  It was terrible water to look at and it stunk something awful, but it ran hard and steady.  Everyone in the outer zones used the creeks to dispose of the dead and any other refuse they needed to be rid of.  The flow dragged everything inexorably away from the dome.  Bodies were usually too heavy for kids to pick up and carry away to bury, so whatever method of disposal was the easiest for the kids was usually adopted as a normal practice.  Dragging bodies to the creek was the norm back then.

Remembering that day Burtt recalled how after the bodies were long gone, Kkhloe drove a “T” into the ground on the edge of the creek.  Kkhloe had told her siblings that it was a way they could remember their parents.  Any time they wanted to, they could come to the creek, see the cross, she called it, and remember mom and dad.  He went back to the creek on a whim to look about but the cross was nowhere to be seen.

Fiahwood b’ now su-ah.

Burtt made his way back to the Taj and found some flat strips of wood in the spares pile and some twine.  It took him a few failing efforts before he finally tied the two pieces securely together to make a cross.  He then climbed back to the burial grounds.  Using a blade to put a point on the long end of the cross he planted it at the very top of the burial mound, right atop Chukk’s body in the freshly turned dirt.  Burtt hummed Amazing Grace again.  He determined that the cross would be replanted on the new top each time a Taj mate passed while praying he would be that next one and not another kid.  Burtt then turned to finish his rounds before he joined his creche mates.

————

Morning, Day 3, prepping to meet the neighbors beyond the readout:

“I know this has been a terrible day to wake up to.  I know none of us wants to continue.  The circumstances prevent that.  The Taj has a date with the beyond and we can’t cancel the appointment.  So, let’s pick our sad selves up and get down to the business of being Taj mates again.  We all will miss Chukk, but even he knew how important this day is.  He was up early yesterday checking our perimeter for threats and thank God he was.  We have to keep on kids.  We have to.  In memory of Chukk, we have to.”

Kkat implored, trying to pick up the spirits of a demoralized creche.  This malaise was worse, she thought than during the aftermath of the prole war.  She had taken up the lead when it seemed that neither Burtt nor Harkk could find the words.

After the burial, Kkat checked the three trainees who were with Chukk for injuries.  There were only superficial physical ones but all three were scarred psychologically having watched Chukk and the others die so horribly.

Mmarta had touched lightly on maladies of the head with the girls but they certainly were not prepared for this level of mental anguish.
When morning rolled around and it was apparent that not just the three kids involved in the fracas were still in a funk, but damn near the entire Creche was lost and foundering in unspent grief, Kkat was seriously concerned.  She didn’t know what to do.  Fortunately, Katt’s angst was visible and Bbessie came to the rescue.  She had the three involved in other activities as soon as she could get them going.  This seemed to do the trick as all three responded positively to having something constructive to do.  More of the youngsters who were slowly coming to grips with what had happened joined in.  Soon Bbessie had more than 30 little ones involved in crafts and settled in front of the Taj’s access hatches to the hideout.

————

“Everyone has a place.  Let’s be sure we are all there when this goes down. Right?  Everyone knows where their place is, right?  We’re all good?”

Harkk was acting like a platoon leader on his first mission in a combat zone.  Nothing was perfect and he had no idea how to make it better.

Jizmo, what have I gotten myself into?

“We as gut as we gon be Harkk.  S’late and we need to get up top soon.  Let it be.  Ever one is in place and ready, so les do this. Kay?  Come on.”

Burtt recognized the nerves evident in Harkk’s behavior and was relieved to know he wasn’t the only one to suffer pre-action flutters.  His smile seemed to bolster his older friend.  Harkk’s soldier side kicked in then and he was all business again.  This too Burtt appreciated and he deferred to Harkk’s expertise.

Bbessie still had her flock ready at the Taj proper to evac at the sound of the alarm.  The rest of the non-combatants, mostly older trainees held in reserve if things went real badly, were ready to disappear at Ccassie’s.  All were out of sight of the readout except for a small crew of advanced spy trainees.  These Burtt had watching for flanking attacks or attacks from behind.  There were several more trainees set at different locations where an EEC was located, ready to send the creche to ground if the signal was given.  All the spies and of course Burtt, Bann and Harkk had whistles to use for the signal, if it was needed.  Everyone was praying against all odds that they wouldn’t need them.  That these people coming to visit were good people, like the Taj people.  Everyone but Burtt and Harkk, who were still atop the mound, were close enough to get to an access point to the hideout if the siganl was given.  Bann ran things at the readout in Burtt’s absense.

Aside from Hark and Burtt who were atop the rubble mound, there were 30 soldiers, armed and armored, after a fashion, manning the frontier facing fighting step inside the readout.  The readout, like the trenches, was well sandbagged, to the front and on the roof.  There were fighting slots left open from which archers and spearmen could repel an invading force.

Months prior to the day of the historic meeting with the outsiders, Burtt, Harkk and the council had puzzled long hours over the problem they had with firing a bow from confined spaces.  The town hall atmosphere of their council meetings paid off in dividends this time.

Josephh, a bodybar for Jaredd, remembered reading something about an alternative weapon for just such an environment as theirs.  He asked the Loks for and was granted the temporary use of an ages old book with printed illustrations.  It was a collector’s item, a family heirloom and precious.  Josephh protected it with a plassheet bag.

The illustration he had in mind showed a device called a crossbow.  There were detailed drawings of its makeup.  After several attempts, Harkk was able to fashion one with spares from their pile.  Though it took a fairly large piece of wood to fashion one crossbow, Harkk learned to do so leaving pieces of scrap large enough to make the both the crosspiece and bolts from.  With shorter bolts, they could make more from the same amount of stock.  Hardening these bolts was even easier.  At close range, with the incredible power generated by the bow, these bolts could penetrate a cop’s armor.  They had very short legs though compared to a standard bow.  This was still a major martial breakthrough for the Taj who would just as likely be involved in a close range battle as one from afar.

There were at present, 8 crossbows distributed throughout the readout.  Each bow had 10 bolts.  The rest of the warriors all had standard bows and were standing a bit farther back from their firing slots in order to accommodate the larger weapon.  This limited their visibility and so they were not as effective a fighting force as their brethren with the crossbows.  They did, however, have a much larger stockpile of arrows at their disposal and could start engaging invaders from quite a bit farther off.

Still, this wasn’t the ideal usage of the standard bowmen, Burtt and Harkk had come up with an alternative approach to fall back on if it began to look like they needed to bring more effective firepower to bear on their attackers.

There was a step built into both walls of the readout.  With removable roof panels, standard bowmen could mount the back step and fire over their crossbowmen fellows to add accurate, distance spanning fire to their repertoire.  These bowmen still had ample protection and could indeed duck back down under oppressive counter fire.

Prior to this day’s arrival, Burtt had decided that the Ks would be kept in their kennels.  At least until there was evidence they were needed to defend the Taj.  Dogg, and especially Roamer were not happy about this arrangement and made their feelings known with constant snapping and yapping and whining.

Everything and everyone were in place.  It was approaching time for mideat.  Their neighbors were due anytime now.  Burtt prayed that this would turn out to be a nice peaceful getting-to-know-you kind of repast, not the other kind.  For the first time, he wondered if their meager fare would satisfy their guests.

Too late to worry now, Burtt.

They settled in behind the scope, taking turns searching for this new wonder to appear.  As clear as things had been these last days, this one, of all days, seemed to have a ground fog interfering with their view of the approaching territory.   This had them even more on edge as the waiting became unbearable.  When they finally did see them, the sudden shock of their arrival, well inside the wall and in fact, just a few hundred meters from Spring Creek left both men with open-mouthed stares.

The people, if that’s what they were all wrapped up in those cloaks, seemed to ooze out of a mist.  Except for the four out front, the rest were hauling sleds that seemed to float over the ground.  These were laden with something but covered so that nothing underneath could be seen.  No faces could be seen either.  At first, Burtt thought they must have some kind of sickness and kept themselves covered so it wouldn’t show.  He tried to penetrate the coverings with the scope.  But as if on cue, the leader started removing a rather complex weave of fabrics and plassheet, revealing the rather striking features and emerald green eyes of a tall, muscular but lean man.  He had a mask on underneath the cloak and headscarf. He waved at Harkk and Burtt who snatched the scope away from his eye as if stung by it.

The other travelers who had been out front had some sort of mechanism in their hands.  It became apparent that these machines had created the mist that hid the visitor’s approach.  Wisps of the ether still leaked from the nozzles.

As amazing as this tech was, It had both Burtt and Harkk on edge immediately.  They knew they had been seen so secrecy was no longer a concern.  Now it was all about getting to the readout before the visitors did with whatever other magic tech they might have to spring on an unsuspecting creche.

The visitors seemed to recognize the tension of the moment and waited until Burtt and Harkk were met by Barr out front of the readout.  There they waited to greet the wild ones.

Burtt waved and invited them forward.  The three Taj-mates were still trying to decide if there was a threat or not when the leader deftly leaped the bank, removed the rest of his garb and with a plassheet bag he’d retrieved from a slit in the fabric covering one of the sleds, introduced himself.

“Greetings”, he stated in strangely accented standard.  “I am Jonn.  We come in peace.  I hope you are hungry, yes?  We bring lots of food and it doesn’t look like there are so many of you here.  Why does the city-state not… Ach!  I apologize.  There is so much to talk about.  I forget my place sometimes.  We are your guests, so please, how would you like to proceed?”

Burtt and Harkk were speechless.

They brought food? Burtt thought.

Harkk was stuck on much the same thought when Bann stepped in and saved the moment.

“Hello, Jonn.  I’m Estebann Rull.  We’d like to welcome you to the Taj.  You’ll understand if we’re a little wary.  We don’t get visitors from out this way.  Most would be too sick to let in any way.  We have many questions too.  Why don’t we start with getting your people on dry land and comfortable?  Is there something we can help with?  Oh, I do hope you’ll forgive us, but we’ll need to see that there are no hidden weapons anywhere, if that’s okay.  We can’t be too careful today.”

“ Oh, that’s no problem at all. We would demand the same, I assure you.  Can we come ashore first?”

Bann looked to Burtt for direction.  He nodded and Bann signaled the switchman to cut power to the wire.  Jonn absorbed all this and paled with the sudden realization that had he slipped coming over the wire, he might well be barbecued meat right now.  Several more soldiers came running from the readout then to lower the ramps and Jonn’s crew came ashore.  More Taj soldiers came to help haul the sleds up the ramps.

Once defrocked it was evident that they all were armed as any smart man would be out here.  Nothing was hidden though and all the sleds were indeed loaded with food or dry goods.

They brought veggies and fruit of every sort.  They brought rice and loaves of bread.  They had smoked meat and fish on racks.  The sheer amount of food made Burtt’s mouth water. There were skeens of the material that their cloakes were made of and it looked very much like the footwear they’d removed from Zobbi’s toughs.

When Jonn reached into the bag and pulled out the brightest, reddest apple any of them had ever seen, there were fifty kids all over the visitors in moments, coming from every direction at once.

Soon the entire Taj were feasting on more fruit than they’d seen in months and something else they’d never had before.  It was a sweet confection of sorts that Jonn called cookies.  There were two dark wafers sandwiching a creamy substance that made Burtt’s teeth hurt.

“Ah. The white stuff is excellent, eh?” asked Jonn.  “It took us years to perfect.”

Burtt didn’t answer.  He stuffed another in his mouth.

————

Hours later, with fat bellies and completely sweetened out, the kids took to playing outside and the adults sat around talking.

“We should talk about the future and CommCorp, whatever.  Before we return to our home.  Yah?”   Jonn asked.

With Burtt’s mouth full of food, Harkk said, “Yes, we should.  This is going to be a problem I’m sure.”

“What, with the Corp?  Not so much, Maybe.  CommCorp knows us.  We run mining operations in the no-go zones.  There is a lot of wealth there that we can recover.  We have adapted and learned how to protect ourselves from the environment.  We are not the only group operating like this.  We are a loose coalition of lone wolf operations, independent from the city-states, but doing business with them.  We can only extract the minerals they need.  They must refine and make use of them.

“How can you stand against the Corp? That’s crazy.”  Declared and incredulous Bann.

“Most of us, like this man here from the Wall Warriors,” he said pointing at Harkk and stealing a quick glance at Harkk’s tattoo, “are ex-military. We don’t scare so easily and some of us just happened to hold onto a few of our most favorite toys.  Like the kind that can shoot down TroopTrans.  We’ve had a few confrontations with various city-states, but the results are never in their favor, so we’ve come to an uneasy truce.  A working agreement, so to speak.

“We go where no one else will.  Occasionally we get lucky and find these gems for settlement locations.  The place we settled south of here is one such.  Like all the other places we’ve been able to inhabit, the clean water that is flowing from the dome has cleansed the area south of here.  Once the soil isn’t poison, the air cleans up too.  Hectares and hectares of good growing land exist that no one is using.  They won’t come out of their domes.  So, we do and when we find these gems, we build there and find mines that will sustain us.

“Now, we’ve been watching you for a while really.  For once we’ve been impressed with, well, how do I say it, your civilized behavior.  This is non-existent in the outer zones in our experience.   Still, it is evident that you suffer the abuses of the elites, though, and we’d like to help if you’ll let us.

“You see, as I was saying, there are hectares of unused farm and pasture land going to waste…fallow, do you know fallow?”  Harkk nodded, Burtt and Bann looked duly ignorant.  Jonn continued anyway.

“Anyway, we talked about it after you signalled us and decided to approach you with an offer to share the land and the mining workload too.  We’ve located a massive coal seam southeast of Cheyenne Mountain in a grade b hot zone.  That’s not a concern with our gear but still, it’ll take years for us to extract it all alone.  We could really use the help.  And, you get to move your people the hell out of here.”

The sudden and frank offer left the three stunned.

“Of course, we’re interested, Jonn. Tell us more.”  Kkat offered.

“Ye-ah!  Das a’righ, su-ah!  Oh crap!” Blurted Burtt and the group had a comfortable laugh at the break in all this stunning news.

————-

“They’ve been seen. Whatever they’re doing, Jaredd, they are caught.  My friend at CorpSec intercepted bot-comms from 22 again. This time, he didn’t get all of them. Some got through to the Corp’s Datvault.  It’ll be on the net soon and folks will want answers. What then?”

Natt Lok was very agitated.  He almost never comm’d his daughter.  He came in person.  Jaredd wondered if there was more bad news than just more rumored mischief in sector-22.

“I’m sure it’s just some extra perserv activity Grandfather.  Nothing to worry about.”

“You don’t seem to be too worried Jaredd.  What’s the problem?  Is the shine wearing off on your little crusade?” Natt Lok sneered at his grandson.  He’d never agreed with their obsession with bettering the lives of proles.  It could only bring them down.  Whatever was going on in the outer zone now might just be that last straw too.

“You and your mother should reject these dregs, Jaredd. Get on with your lives. What can you expect to gain from this other than more heartbreak?  Hasn’t she had enough?  Haven’t you?”

“Enough? What’s enough, Natt?” Asked Jaredd with a little more acid in his voice than he would normally address Natt Lok with.

“Be careful, boy.  You aren’t in charge of anything yet.” Demanded the Lok patriarch.

Jaredd laughed.

“Oh, I’m sorry grandfather, I forget myself sometimes.  Concepts of enough and time intrude on my thoughts and I tend to let the truth about that unhappy match poison my attitude.”

He was surely and desperately depressed and that was decidedly not a trait common to the Loks. They were always upbeat even in the worst of times.

“What is it Jaredd?  What?”

“Oh grandfather…”  Jaredd broke down in unchecked sobs.  Natt Lok was suddenly and completely terrified.

Has her health taken a turn for the worse?

Ten minutes and a lifetime’s tears later, Natt Lok knew that he was not only losing his daughter, and very soon, he was also likely to lose his only other heir, Jaredd.  The test results were in. They had them done yearly because the Loks had a history.  This year’s test showed a positive result for Jaredd.  Two retests showed the same result.  Jaredd was dying of lung disease too.  He would begin treatment immediately and aggressively.  He was only slightly older than Ssyndi.  Maybe…

Jaredd interrupted Natt’s thoughts.

“I have to inform the Taj.  They need to be prepared in case the Corp does take notice and acts. Norton, what will they do after, after…?  Can Ssyn handle things do you think Grandfather?  Will you help?”

Natt Lok, once again realized, he was still running second fiddle to those damn brats in the outer zones.

My own children gone.  A red zone freeloader living in the stead, and me helping them.  There isn’t enough Boulder Brandy to get me through this night.

The end

Coming in part 8, The Taj moves out.  Farming and ranching happen.  Zobbi attacks an empty sector-22 but triggers Corp alarms.  Bots and the Army respond.  Mmarta illness progresses unchecked.  Jaredd and Ssyn continue to get better with treatment, though Jaredd lags.  The Haps see daylight with the deteriorating Loks health, but Qquitia had grown and is no longer afraid.  Naming days for kids and Ks.  Graduation from trainee status for most.  Nuptials for some.  A couple of old hands stay home.  New alliances are made with other free mining clans.  Trade agreements are made and caravans are introduced to facilitate that trade.  For those who are not in tune with the sedentary farmer’s life, these caravan’s are a welcome break from the tedium of compound life.  New enemies are encountered.  Some two-legged and others with four and more, or no legs at all.  One Taj mate is torn.  His mate won’t leave the Taj.

Save

Burtt, Part 5: Welcome to the Taj

taj

Ain’t be one he-ah?  Wha dey tinkin?  I don be figh’? Dem craz ‘f dat d’ way. Dem ain’t sent one kid?

Burtt fumed while waiting for Jaredd to show for his daily lessons.  He hadn’t eaten, yet.  The decision the red-zone bosses made to collectively defy him, scared him.  He couldn’t eat that way.  His food turned to mush inside and came out the same way.

Wha dat mean?  Dem gon fight me?

His dander was way up and he was itching for a confrontation.  He knew this was the worst way to go into any negotiation, but he was raging mad.  He couldn’t stand it any longer and got up to walk.  Sometimes when he was feeling overwhelmed, he would go for a walk.  This would help clear his mind and calm him too.  This time he ran into Harkk on the way to his servhut.

After spilling his guts to a willing ear, Harkk talked him down, so that Burtt agreed to wait before deciding until he was thinking clearly.  This was sound advice and Burtt acknowledged it.

“Tanks Harkk.”

“What is it you always tell the kids, Burtt?  Think first is the first think.  That’s probably the most profound bit of advice I’ve ever heard, so why don’t you take your own advice, then?”  The smile on Harkk face told Burtt he wasn’t insulting him, so he smiled too, and said, “Das a’righ Harkk.  Das a’righ.”

He walked off to meet Jaredd.

———–

“The difference is, Burtt, that a truly free people do not force love on anyone.  Even us elies pay our sex-toys.  Besides, wouldn’t you prefer that Kkat came to you willingly?”

Burtt’s confused look caught Jaredd out again, he still wasn’t in tune with what Burtt knew and didn’t know.

“Ah don b’ forcin’ Kkat t’do nuffin, Jaredd,” Burtt stated forcibly.

“I mean to say, it would be better if Kkat wanted to be with you like you want to be with her, right?” He’d gotten away from apologising for speaking over Burtt’s head, as that seemed to exacerbate the problem.  He simply rephrased and restated.

“Su-ah, das a’righ.  Caint do none o’ dis wron’, Jaredd.  Aw gots to b’ a’righ fum da go. ’S why ah asks.  Gots it?”

“Yes.  I understand, Burtt.  So, then, you’ll approach Kkat delicately like I suggested?  Remember, girls like to be asked nicely about these things, so give it some thought before you talk to her, okay?”

“Del’kit, righ!  Das a gut one Jaredd.  Del’kit, Kkat lahk dat word ya tink, Jaredd?”

“Hmmm!  What I’m trying to say, Burtt is that you should say these things to Kkat, or any girl, for that matter, kindly.  See?  Does that make more sense to you, now?”

He could see the wheels turning.

“Don’ say del’kit, be del’kit?”

“Yes, Burtt.  Be delicate.  Be kind.  It means a lot to the girl you’re talking to.  It tells her that you are sensitive to her feelings…um, that you care for her.”

Del-li-kit, ‘kay.  Ah do dat.  Ah go now.”

“Oh, um, Burtt.  Perhaps you should wait awhile.  Think about what you’re going to say first. You know, so you can talk to her without stumbling for words.  Or at least to be sure you say what you really mean.”  Jaredd nearly laughed at his own nervousness.

Who was going after the girl?  You or Burtt?

“Why ah gots t’ tink?  Ah knows wha Ah sayin’ n how ah feels.  Ah jus b’ del-li-kit, lahk ya says. Das all!” he paused, with that look that told Jarred he had thought of something else, “Wha’ ‘bout lettahs n writin’ n readin’ too?  When Ah do… Ah mean we, we do dat?”

“Aha!” Sometimes Burtt fed him exactly what he needed, “Well then, what about that; shouldn’t we finish our lessons for today before you run off to chat with Kkat?  We still have time for more history, and if you’re going to learn to read, you really should start at the beginning, Burtt.  I admire your determination, remember determination, Burtt?  Yes?”  When Burtt nodded, he continued, “good, but, taking on something as complex as reading, without the basics, would make the task far more difficult in the end, and you’ll only end up having to learn the letters anyway. Truly, you should learn your letters and numbers first.  What do you say?  The best part of that, Burtt, is that Kkat can teach you the basics, and how to read too, with my coaching; so, you’ll be spending, even more, time with her every day.”

He’d struggled to rein in Burtt’s eagerness.  He wanted to know everything and he wanted to know it now.  He didn’t understand why he might not get some things right off, and when he didn’t it was worse than being humiliated, he was mortified.  Jaredd tried hard to rein in Burtt’s eagerness just enough to keep him in check, but not enough to bore him.  It was a delicate line to walk.

Perhaps teaching them about their past isn’t the very best first thing we could’ve done with these lessers.

At least in Burtt’s case, he seemed to think he had an immense amount of catch-up to do and wanted it done yesterday.  If that catch-up was ultimately meant to put the proles on an equal footing with the greenies someday, the fallout from that was going to be cataclysmic.

He’d have to bring that up with the council.  In the meantime, he had to keep Burtt’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism from exploding out of control.  The last thing he needed was a rebellion in the near-zone, right now, with this very capable warrior at its helm (that evaluation supplied by none other than, Harkk, a highly-decorated hero of the Wall himself).

He had a feeling that Burtt’s mind was every bit as sharp as his physique.  Teaching this boy too much too fast could easily have the wrong effect.  He was already showing signs of bold thought and exemplary leadership skills, to include diplomacy, value-based-bargaining, and fair play…for all.

He was becoming a very cagey horse-trader indeed.  Jaredd found it more and more difficult to extract anything from Burtt as far as outer-zone data without first agreeing to some serious bartering, and he was stingy with what he did release.  Fortunately, Burtt had small tastes and as such, nothing he’d asked for was out of reach, so far.  Jaredd’s biggest fear was that Burtt would learn enough to decide to take matters into his own hands. He could readily imagine Burtt challenging CommCorp policies one day.  Holy Norton, would they have the Loks’ asses for that.

“Dat be kay wif me Jaredd.  Mayb’ she lahk me mo’ den.”

He snapped Jaredd back into focus.  His smile was infectious and Jaredd followed suit.

“Yes, Burtt.  That would be another way for you two to get to know each other, an excellent way.  I’ll bring some primer materials, oh goodness, for 50, and a pad.  I’m sure Kkat and Rikk both remember how to use them.  Rikk can help.  He can start the little ones on their letters and numbers now, and get them started on easy reading too.  Later Kkat, Rikk and perhaps you can teach them more advanced subject matter, like mathsci and medsci.”

As an afterthought, he added, “Harkk or Bbessie might teach some of you to use your hands for other skills.”

“Das a’righ Jaredd.  Dat de bes, I tink.  ‘N I wan us alla hab ahr bof names.  Kin ya hep w’dat? Ya knows sum ahr fam’lies, a‘righ?”

“Yes, uh, well, hmmm…  Oh, Burtt, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I wish you would reconsider.  This is the one thing I believe the Corp will take note of if word gets out; and if perservs start referring to each other with family names, well, word of that will get around. I told you how the Corp went out of their way to hide the plight of the proles, and more importantly to the Corp, they hid the prole’s true identities.  Your actions might open old wounds and I’m not sure the Corp will just ignore it.”

“Don’ ca-ah ‘bout de Co-ah, Jaredd.  Dey put mossa us he-ah.  Jus be takin back a lil.  Lil pride’s all.  Ah ‘spect the Co-ah c’n spa-ah some o’ dat a’righ.”

“It’s risky, though, Burtt…”

“Mo-ah den livin’ out he-ah?  No mo-ah argue, Jaredd.  Wants da names.  Alla dem ya hab an alla dem uvas wha wants.”

The determined set of Burtt’s jaw and the way he crossed his arms, told Jaredd the discussion was over.  He’d found that being an advisor to Burtt didn’t carry quite as much weight as he might have expected.  His age meant little to Burtt when It came time to set his jaw.  For some reason, he saw power and equality in having the family name, and he was determined that all his charges would have one.

That young man had more potential as a leader than anyone he’d met in the green-zone, yet.  He was simply the most amazing specimen.  He’d come up from nothing to quasi-king in less time than it took CommCorp to secure its own border.  This prole had a flair for inspiring his followers, finding a consensus, seeing through a bad deal, and not often being taken for granted or made a fool of.  Jaredd just hoped Burtt didn’t attract too much attention to himself too soon.  That would spoil everything.

At times, Jaredd felt he’d created a monster that would eventually get away from him and wreak havoc on the civilised world.

Am I assuming too much credit?  Has this boy been playing me?  Has he always been shrewder than all of us?

Jaredd determined to pay more attention to the subtle hints at superior intelligence this boy’s words, thoughts and actions suggested.  He certainly came from good stock.  The Klops were both leaders in their fields.  Jaredd remembered being amazed at the resiliency Kkhloe showed and he had firsthand knowledge of just how bright Ssyndi was.  That girl was more sponge than teenager the way she sucked up knowledge.

“You’ve made a good point, Burtt.  Okay, I’ll provide you with as many names as I can determine from the records we’ve compiled, but you must give me access to all the children in your crèche if I’m to be thorough.  Just as you allow my mother to have time with them for health reasons, I need time to determine their true identity.  I need blood or saliva samples from each of them, or hair samples barring that.  I already have about twenty confirmed right now, including yours, Kkat, Rikk and of course you already know the MacBride girl’s name.  These were easy to determine as we knew where you came from in the City and were able to recreate your records from archives once thought inaccessible.  Not much is completely hidden from the council, though their access has since been cut off.  All access to archives has been cut off.  Anyway, as to these other children, well, there’s no way for us to know for sure if they don’t remember themselves.  I need to test them, Burtt.  You see, hospital records cannot be purged by decree, in order to track and control infectious disease.  Those records are hardened also, which means they cannot be destroyed or blocked.  So, if I can get a sample, I can compare it against that database and hopefully, find your names for you.  Can you allow me access to them for that, Burtt?”

Kkhloe had told Burtt all about blood samples and how the elies could use it to find out who they were if they wanted.  She thought this might not be a good thing for some of the little ones so they decided to not get stuck.

Kkhloe also taught him something he always held dear and thought of as the most profound advice his sister had ever imparted to him, trust but make sure anyway.  She’d said it was a favourite saying of a great leader from before the fall, Abramm Raygun, or sum lahk. he thought.

“Dems wha say ‘kay, su-ah.  ’F dey don’ wanna, I caint be makin dem, a’righ?  Dat ain’t demo-demercr, JIZMO, de-mo-cra-tic.  Das wha, a’righ?”

Jaredd sighed.  It was the same every time.  Burtt simply would not give in completely to letting the elies know how big his crèche was or who all its members were, let alone the red-zone denizens

Damn stubborn SOB!  Oh, he is just trying to maintain the democratic flavour of his creche. You should admire him for it, except that it flies in the face of you true goals, doesn’t it?  You’re a damned unpredictable bastard, you are Mister Burtt.

“Alright then Burtt.  I’ll do what I can.  You’ll let me know which ones I can test?”

“Ah do dat. Ah takes wha ya gots.  Da uvas wanna las name too, mayb’.  Den I gets ya mo t’ tes, kay?”

Once again Burtt stunned Jaredd with his ability to reason.  He’s smart enough to know that using incentive is better than using force, even if his first impulse is to drive things home with his might.  It was hard to believe this boy had been here for ten years, was healthy in mind and body, and providing for 50 at eighteen years old.  Most folks stuck out here that long were sick beyond saving, if not crazy as a loon too. Not Burtt, no sir, Burtt was Mister Fantastic.  He could do and survive anything.  And, he only seemed to go postal when things didn’t go his way.

“That’s a very good plan, Burtt.  I should have thought of that.  Now, who’s teaching whom?” he asked with a smirk.

“Dat be me, Jaredd?  I ain’t no dum.  Kkhloe larn me.  She ver smar, Jaredd.  You knows.  You seein Ssyn ever day.  She dum?  Kkhloe schoo’in her too.”  Burtt answered the challenge.

“No, no Ssyndi is not dumb at all Burtt.  She’s very smart. Smart like you and Kkhloe.”

“Ha! Kkhloe and Ssyn be mo smar den Burtt su-ah.”

“There are different kinds of smart Burtt.  There’s book smart and there’s life smart.  You have more life smarts than most of the elies I know, Burtt, and I think that is the more precious gift.”

“Pressus?  Don knows dat one Jaredd?  Lahf-smar be gut.  Lahks dat, lahf-smar, yessuh.”

“Precious, Burtt.  It means that it’s very important to us.  For example: with your life-smarts, and in a life or death situation, I would choose to be with you every time over anyone I know in the green-zone, and that’s the truth.  You are by far, the superior survivor and having a quality like that is a precious thing.  They used to call it street-smarts, in the cities before the fall.

“Das a’righ, den. Presshus!  Gut one.” As an afterthought, he added, ” Who caw ‘t stree-smar, Jaredd?”  without a trace of hubris at the compliment.

Around a chuckle, Jaredd replied, “Yes!  Who indeed?  It’s just a saying…er, oh, never mind, Burtt.  It isn’t important.”

The studied look on Burtt’s face told Jaredd Burtt wasn’t through with it yet.

“Hmmm. Lahk ya says b’fore, a conse, consus…da sensus ting?  Lahk dat?”

“Ha!  Consensus!  Yes, Burtt, like that.  Very good!  When someone starts a sentence with the words, “they say”, what they mean is that the consensus is such and such.  Hmm?  Oh dear.  It means most people think that way.  Does that make sense?”

“Ye-ah, ah gots.”

This conversation gave more credence to the idea that Burtt was far more perceptive than one from Jaredd’s background would normally be willing to credit a prole with.  Burtt was referring to a conversation they’d had weeks before about having a consensus on the council.

Is it time to put on the brakes?  Will he sense it if we do?  What then?

Regardless, he wasn’t ready to put the brakes on yet.  He kept digging.

“Well now, have you thought about what the others will think?  The ones we don’t have second names for?  Aren’t they likely to feel jealous?  Do you know jealous Burtt?”

“Das a’righ, Jaredd, Ah knows it.  Wha’ we do ‘bout dat?”

“Well, there are a few options…um…choices.  We can test them, of course.” he looked imploringly at Burtt.  When no response was forthcoming, he sighed and continued, “You could adopt the ones who don’t have last names yet and name them all Klops, or you could come up with a name on your own?  A crèche name, so to speak. Eh?  To adopt means to take as your own, like they were your own children.  Others could do that too.”

Jaredd hoped this would never come to a legal issue.  Letting them have last names seemed insane but harmless if it didn’t go too far, he hoped.  Adoption might be pushing it!

“A crèche name?  Ah lahk dat, Jaredd.  Crèche name be bettah den Burtt name mayb’.  Hey!  Ah call dem all Taj, dat a’righ?  Taj be dey crèche n second name bof, ‘f dem don’ gots one.”

“That’s a great idea, Burtt. Excellent!”  Said Jaredd, silently cursing Burtt’s ingenuity. Mentally relinquishing the field of battle to Burtt, he moved on.

“Now, about your own schooling.  I think I should spend as much time with you as possible along with the time you spend with Katt.  We should accelerate your learning pace.  As a leader, you should be on the same knowledge level with your parts.  Right now, you are far behind them in basic skills, such as reading, scribing and computing.  So is Bann, so we should include him too.  I can help accelerate your learning curve in those areas with some heavy immersion learning techniques.  If you both agree, of course.”

Their conversation and his lessons continued for another hour before Burtt said he’d had enough for the day.  The two then headed outside and called all the crèche out for a meet.

———-

“Alla us gon hab arh two names lahk d’ elies.  Jaredd say dis sca-ah dem mayb’, but jus fa us.  Dem gots no wors fum us.   Gon’ hab namin days too.  F’ alla us.”

The little one’s eyes sparkled at that news.  Naming day, even in the outer-zones was special, though seldom celebrated by anyone other than a boss.  Here, they would all get fruit at least and what would pass for a cake and party.  The flatbread Kkat made was incredible.  Put a  little sweet on it and you’ve got one heck of a great treat, for a prole, anyway.

He looked around his audience to see if any were opposed.  It didn’t seem so, but there were a lot of confused looks on the faces around him, many of them too young to understand the ramifications of having their true and full identities out here in the outer zones.

“What happens if the elies object, Burtt?”  asked Harkk.  He knew the risks.

“Aw-jet?  Wha dat, Harkk?  Don’ knows dat.”
“It means to be opposed…um…to say NO.  Understand?”

“So, ‘f elies don’ wan’, dey c’n stop ‘t?”

“Well, maybe, Burtt.  I don’t know that.  I’m just asking, what if?”

“Den we do ‘t, ‘n don tell em. Be ahr hide.”

“Okay, but we’ll need to get all the perservs to agree to keep it quiet if that’s the case.”

“Ah tells dem, dem shuts up ‘bout it.”

“Um, I thought we agreed to ask these things first and not tell.  This being a Democracy and all, right?’

Burtt’s embarrassed smirk lightened up the moment.

“Hmmm.  Das a’righ Harkk.  Cud use ya tinks on de council Harkk, ya and Bbessie, t’ keep da vote a’righ.  Odd nummah, Jaredd says.  Ya hab gut tinks, Harkk.  Dem be ‘portan like jes now or ah mayb’ sen kids unnah the dirt.”

“Okay.  We all make mistakes Burtt.  It’s good that you want more help making important decisions.  The hard ones get a lot easier when there are more people making the choices, okay? This is good, Burtt!  I’m all for it…yes, that means yes.  And I’ll join your council if Bbessie does too, to preserve the tie-breaker vote.” said Harkk.

He was getting more involved in the near-zone happenings every day anyway and Burtt really appreciated it.  He looked up to Harkk in more ways than one, and yet Harkk never challenged Burtt for the leadership role.  This confused Burtt; Harkk was a huge man, and the biggest guy nearly always took over, but that didn’t seem to be in Harkk’s nature.  This allowed Burtt some comfort.  He didn’t feel a need to be looking over his shoulder in the direction of Harkk, not right now anyway.

Continuing to address the crèche, “’Sides dat, alla us gon learn our lettahs and nummahs.  Ah ‘spects us aw be readin b’ plantday.  Jaredd say dere fiffy-ayt chapers t’ read ‘n de preschoo book.  Plantday, we readin a chaper, alla us.  Kkat and Rikk knows how sos dey be ahr teach.  Jaredd hep. Das wha’, a’righ?”

Everyone had a different look on their faces now, Burtt noticed, and at first, it puzzled him.  Then he remembered something Mmarta had said about little ones and hope.

“…the sky could be falling all around them, but with a goal to shoot for, a pat on the head or a reassuring hug, a little one’s hope knows no bounds.”

Dis b’ hope, mayb’?

“Jaredd say we nees t’ do spo-aht.  Nees egersize alla us f’ stron bods.  He show us wha aw.  Kay? Alla us be he-ah after mideat. He show us footbaw n alla us c’n do ‘t.  He say be gut fun. Gots it?  Das a’righ..”

He received a loud joyous response and the smiles on their faces caused the grin on his to feel like his face would split.  The kids dispersed in smaller groups, energised by the news.

Jaredd and Kkat were standing off to the side and speaking quietly.  Burtt noticed them with their heads bent together and felt a queasy feeling in his gut, then he felt his face heating and getting red but not from embarrassment this time.  He was, angry.

Wha dis?  Who he mad at?

He thought and then realised he was mad at both and made his way through the throng of excited children to where Jaredd and Kkat were still bent in fervent conversation.

“I can’t teach all these children Jaredd.  What have you done?  This is too mu…”

“Nonsense, Katt.  These kids adore you and teaching an eager adoring mind is easier than getting up on your first kidsled.  Rikk can take over with the real little ones so you can work with the older ones.  You’ll have no problems Kkat, really, you won’t, and I’ll always be nearby to help if needed.  And, you get to spend more time with Burtt, too.”

Burtt let his breath out and had to retreat so his fading anger didn’t show.

Wha’ alla dat ‘bout? he wondered.  Girls!  He be dyin ‘fore he know’d wha’ all ‘bout dem.

———-

Kkat saw Burtt just before he was out of sight.  He looked mad at something.

I’d better go see.  He does stew on things so.

“Burtt.  Burtt, hold up for a minute.”  He stopped, turned to see her and she saw his face was beet red.

What is this about?

“Burtt, what’s wrong?”

“Ah don’ know, a‘righ?  Nees talk wif Jaredd.  Ah, embars, embar-as.  Ya know.  Ah ‘shame.”

“Oh, Burtt.  You don’t have to feel like that with me, ever.  You can tell me whate…”

CAINT!” He yelled and Kkat retreated.  His shame now grown unbearable due to his outburst.

“Sor, Kkat.  Ah caint. Be worser den.” He hung his head a moment.  Then turned and ran so fast, Kkat didn’t get out a word before he was out of sight over the top of the rubble mound.

“Oh, that boy.”  Kkat stamped her foot so hard it hurt.  “OUCH!  JIZMO!”

Kett was beside her instantly with his blade in hand, looking everywhere for the threat.

Kkat, tutted, then thanked the lad for being there to protect her.

“What would I do without you, Kett?  My Knight in shining armour.”

“Whas ahmer is, Miss Kkat?”

“Oh, not now Kett.  I’ll save that story for bedtime some night, okay?”

“Su-ah, dat be a’righ.”  Kett’s smile was infectious.  Katt rubbed his head and returned the compliment.

“Can you help me find Jaredd, Kett?  Before he goes home?”

“Su-ah ah c’n.  B’ righ’ back.” And he was off to make sure Jaredd didn’t leave before his charge met with him.

———-

He knew he should calm down first; that his temper would cloud his judgment, and right now he needed good judgement when meeting the red-zoners.  Nerves would be on edge. Tempers would be ready to flair at the drop of a hat.  Trust would be in short supply for sure.  But he made the deal to meet at mid-day; so, he had to show or lose face with these terrible folks.

Ah caint let dat hap.  Dem nees t’ fe-ah alla us, if’n Ah gets unna da dirt.

He thought about who would follow him.

Ah nees Harkk t’ soljer.

He came early to scout the area.  It wasn’t beyond these people to set a trap for him but he saw that it looked as though life was continuing calmly here in Pokke’s crèche even with the excessive amount of people milling about here.  There were way more than Pokke’s crew here and way more than those called to the parley.

It looked as though the entire tough aged red-zone population had come with their bosses, maybe one-hundred total.  He decided he would give them a chance to talk before he went on the offensive for not adhering to his demands.  None had brought even one slave to the wire yet, and he didn’t see any here either, just toughs and bosses.

Well, das not gon hol.  We gon hab words.  Bat ones.

He started down the mountain of rubble into Pokke’s zone, checking the draw on his blades to be sure there were no obstructions.  He’d dinged the edge of one so badly a while back that it got caught on the sheath when he tried to draw it out.  That little bit of delay had nearly cost him his life.  As it was, he had a scar running from his right armpit to a spot just above his trousers and left hip, where his right-hand blade should have been.  The only thing that saved him was having Dogg attach himself to the blade wielder’s sword arm, preventing him from fully extending his cut.

Dogg was still healing now, though, and overly protective of his little girlfriend the kids had come to call Sweet.  Burtt left him tied near their little corner of the rubble.  He would surely have followed Burtt into the red-zone and Burtt didn’t think Dogg was ready for another confrontation.  He’d nearly lost Dogg.  He didn’t realise how much he depended on that K for so much more than just barring the crèche until he almost lost him.  He would forever be afraid to commit Dogg to danger again.  He would do it.  He had to.  But right now, he didn’t need to and he let Dogg relax.  The fight was surely out of the red-zoners after what happened to Thomass and the others.

As he approached, Burtt saw that things might not be as secure for him as he first thought. There were armed toughs in large numbers awaiting his arrival.  He wondered if he shouldn’t just back off for now but then thought again about the consequences of giving in to these people and their threats, implied or otherwise.  No, he had to do this.  Besides, he was sure they didn’t come to fight.  They must all be here to hear the deal. He moved to meet his fate head on.

———-

“Dogg be bark forev n’ he don stop. Sos, ah go t’ fin Burtt ‘n ah fin im a’righ.  He ovah da wire by hissef and dey be hunnerts of ret-zoners aw ‘roun im.  He be goin unna the dirt su-ah.”

Kett blurted out all at once.  When he came flying into the crèche’s main hall he looked as though he’d had a fight with the wire and lost.  He had, and did; the wire near tore his pants all the way off.  He was holding them together with one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other.

“Slow down, Kett.  Where is Burtt?”  asked Kkat with as much calm as she could muster while her heart was pounding away in her chest.  The bass drum beat of it pounding in her ears, making it difficult to hear the boy’s ravings.

“Him ovah da wire. OVAH DEAH!” He screamed pointing towards the pass to Pokke’s zone.

The bots, already alerted by Kett’s wild passage from the wire back to the crèche without the usual spoof in play, were pacing back and forth across space in front of the crèche apparently trying to decide what to do next.  Kett had been too fast for them to apprehend, so far.  There was an ever-growing crowd of excited crèche-mates milling about the excited Kett and Kkat, filling the entrance-way to the creche.  The bots were unsure how to proceed so they had gone into that little back and forth dance mode they go into while waiting for their 2nd tier processor to decide what to do next.  More than likely that would translate to returning to normal patrol duties over the red-zone passage once the noise died down.  Kett was doing his utmost to see to it that that never happened, though.  He was still screaming at Kkat.

WE GOTS T’ HEP, KKAT.  WE GOTS T’ GO NOW!

He turned and made to run for the wire.

Kkat grabbed his shoulder and scolded, “Not yet, Kett.  We need to organise and we need our soldiers.  Now, go get Harkk from his servhut and Bann and Bbessie, tell them what ‘s happened and to come right away.”  Then added when Kett didn’t move right away, “NOW KETT!  NOW!  GO!  And change your pants!”

Kett ran off as if his pants were afire, yelling the names of his targets.

Katt continued to get things rolling. “Jjes, take Rikk and the other trained archers, get the weapons, all of them, even the new ones and come back here.”

Jjes turned and made to run, Kkat called after her,  “And ask Jaredd to come see me.  Quick, now!”

“Chukk.  Bring Dogg.  On his chain, Chukk.  Keep Dogg on the chain, Okay?”  She was hoping Dogg’s fierce appearance would act as another deterrent.  Chukk ran off.  She found out very shortly that Chukk either didn’t understand the part about the chain or Dogg would have no part of it.  He went sailing past the crew in a blur of teeth, drool, growls and whelps as if every step still hurt.

Dogg, nooooooo!”

Oh, God, please keep them both safe.

She prayed, then headed off to help gather weapons and warriors.

———-

Surprised that Bbessie even answered her door, Kett gathered the elders and sent them, fully armed or supplied for first aide duty, to meet up with Kkat.

Kett still wasn’t finished spreading the alarm, though.  He and eighteen of the mid-aged kids were in pre-scort, scort or spy training and had even been working with the new combat formations Harkk introduced them to.  Thinking this had prepared them for this very moment, and since Kkat and the elders were busy preparing their response; Kett went about the crèche gathering his training mates and a baffled, teary Chukk on the way.  They gathered weapons and shields, then formed up to march on the red-zone and save Burtt.

“Foller me”, Kett yelled.  They stunned the two bots on patrol and advanced straight to the wire and were under it in no time while their older crèche mates were still making plans in the great hall.  It took them a few moments to reform the shield wall and to reacquire their nerve.

———-

“The best plan right now, Kkat, is to get to high ground and cover Burtt as best we can with Bows and Arrows.  He said he was meeting them right in front of Pokke’s crèche. That’s about 100 meters from the wire.  A tough shot for a good archer, but, from up top that distance is nearly halved because of the height advantage.  We can do the best from up high. Trust me!” Harkk was herding the team along against Kkat’s urgent desire to charge straight into the fray.

There were only five accomplished archers among the crèche’s occupants.  Burtt was still learning himself and was only so-so.  But Harkk, Bann, Hamm, Kkat and Jjes were excellent.  Half a dozen other younger crèche mates seemed to have a knack for it too.  Rikk was only slightly better than Burtt, so far.   There was a total of ten Bows and nearly two hundred various arrows in their armoury and all were being hauled to the rubble mound west of the crèche.

“Just hurry, Harkk.  I have a terrible feeling about this.  Hurry before we’re too late to do anything, and he’s gone.  Oh God…” she sobbed in a final plea.

With ten bows and twelve archers, she had second thoughts and sent the extras back to check on the little ones.

“Take Roff with you back to the crèche.  Find Kett and the others.  Tell them I said to stay put until we return.  Understand, Rikk?  Stay put!  Be ready to help Bbessie or guard the passage.” Kkat told the disappointed young scort.

“Yes, Kkat.  I’ll do it.”  He wouldn’t look her in the eye.

She doesn’t trust me.  I’ll show her.

———-

“Wha dis Pokke?  Ya trap me?  My crew gon’ put alla ya unna da dirt fa dis. Ya gon craz?”

Dozens of toughs, aged from 12 to 17, started spreading out around Burtt.  He didn’t even flinch.  He knew it might be his last day anytime he set out for the red-zone.  He was ready.  He told himself he wasn’t going down without a fight.  He told himself that people would remember this day, forever.  He hadn’t even pulled his blades yet.

He stood facing Pokke, Hamill and Farukk, while their collective crews completed the envelopment.  He was about to address the bosses again when there was a commotion among those trying to get around behind him.  Refusing to take his eyes of the bosses, he still saw in his peripheral vision that bodies were flying around, though it looked as though they were doing so of their own volition, not being thrown this way and that.  Then before his brain registered the roaring of his faithful companion, Burtt saw the furry reason and felt a moment of great pride and then deep down concern for his best friend.

“Wha ya doin he-ah, Dogg.  How ya gets out?” he whispered to his partner as Dogg took a defiant, snarling stance beside his master.

Dis dam K fin his way offa da chain?

Suddenly the advance on Burtt slowed to a crawl.  With the mess that was Pokke’s arm, fresh in everyone’s memory, and visible to any who cared to look, no one was willing to be the first one greeted by Burtt’s war dog.  This bought him some valuable time to think and gather his wits.  He hadn’t thought the red-zoners would ever consider rejecting his plan, let alone band together to stand against him.

He did a slow turn to take in every one of his antagonists finishing with a glare at the bosses.

“So, dis it?  Dis wha ya wan?  Wan fight Burtt?  Ah c’n do dat su-ah.  Ya mayb’ win, but lotta ya b’ unna da dirt wif me.  Das wha ya wan?  Come on den.  Les go.”

The only sound to be heard over Dogg’s soft growl was the singing of two long blades sliding out of their sheaths, and then their blindingly fast passage cutting the air in front of Burtt’s face.

Burtt decided not to wait.  Waiting was what losers did.  So, he attacked, straight at the bosses.

Pokke ran.  No hesitation, no looking back; he was just gone and not toward his crèche, he headed for the creek and the frontier.

One down, Burtt thought.

Hamill and Farukk stood their ground, however, and the fight was on. Ccassie appeared content to watch from the sidelines, for the time being, even signalling her crew to step back away from the brink and into Pokke’s crèche proper.

Dem ain’ aw frens, a’righ? Burtt thought.

Farukk had a stunner that looked big enough to drop two Chukk sized folks with one charge.  Hamill held a two-handed blade that was longer than he was tall. Dogg darted in and out from every direction keeping the two bosses and their charges, off balance, while Burtt looked for the opening he needed, all the while watching out so that one kid in the crews around him didn’t suddenly grow a pair and get lucky.

In a coordinated attack, the two bosses separated and came at Burtt from two sides.  Hamill whistled, and as one the entire mob moved in towards Burtt but not so close as to get chomped on by Dogg or slashed by Burtt’s singing blades.  The effort was to limit Burtt’s mobility and he knew it.  A moment of panic crept under his normally stoic mien.

Jizmo, Ah made a mess.

For the first time in his short life, Burtt felt doubt.  As he set himself for his final stand, his last thoughts before he went into that cold, blood rage were the little ones, Kkat and finally of Ssyndi.

Thump, thump, thump…wha dat? He thought, trying to process the now familiar sound. As the realisation dawned on him, he saw the first of the red feathered shafts protruding from a younger girl of about 13, then another and another.  He didn’t have time to feel the remorse that would set in later over the deaths of so many little ones that occurred there that day.  He was too relieved that he was not alone.

He was sure he would see Harkk, Bann, Kkat and Rikk on top of the pile, firing down on his attackers.  Then he realised there were far too many arrows raining down on the mob for just four shooters.  While his antagonists were also shocked into frozen inaction for just a moment, Burtt dared a quick peek continuing his charge towards the bosses and saw a line of at least ten shooters atop the mound and it was evident a lot of them were kids, neither scorts, spies nor soldiers, but pre-scorts.  He had no time…

Dem grab alla bows and arrers we gots f’ dis fight, but dem kids bes not b’ hurt. Das a’righ.  Jizmo, ah be luck dey don gets me.

Dogg snagged Hamill’s foot and hung on, distracting him.  Instead of striking at Dogg with that greatsword, he screamed as if he were being torn limb from limb.  Dogg’s rep preceded him.

Burtt pressed Farukk, thinking to disarm him and hope the slouch would run like Pokke did, then he could concentrate on the real threat, Hamill.  Farukk surprised him though and charged instead.  Burtt barely fended off this desperate display and then watched in utter shock as Farukk then went down in a pile to slashing blades and zapping stunners in the hands of high-pitched, screaming, shielded little warriors.

Burtt’s troops had arrived, driving past and around him.  They drove a wedge between Hamill and the rest of his toughs, pushing all back and away from Burtt.  Burtt looked down at the tattered remains of Farukk. As he reached down to retrieve the stunner, he recalled the carnage these children had reaped and imagined a pack of rats attacking a sick creature relentlessly until there was nothing left.  There was little left of Farukk.

Wha Ah do?  Alla dem jes kids, he thought in horror.

There all around him now, were nearly 20 of his kids-in-training led by Kett.  They had chanced death and smashed their way through the encirclement to aid one of their own.  They were in the formation Harkk had suggested he train them to use and wheeling together, with the massive Chukk loose at its centre acting as a pivot, to face the enemy ahead of and all around Burtt.  It was called a shield wall and it worked nearly to perfection, even to the point that they maintained the containment of the shield wall on all four sides to effectively create a phalanx., minus the roof.

Everyone in the line had a shield made of spare wood from the crèche walls.  Harkk had fastened straps on the inside of the shields for them to hold onto.  They also each held either a short fighting blade or stunner they used to stab over, and under the shields that were overlapped, limiting their exposure to the enemies’ weapons.  Everyone had a weapon but Chukk.  Burtt handed the stunner to chuck and showed him how to use it.  Chukk’s toothless grin scared Burtt, but he knew Chukk would defy heaven and hell to protect those kids.  The stunner was in good hands.

The toughs from the red-zone had never seen such a thing as a shield wall.  Most who got close enough to have any chance at hurting Burtt’s crew were snatched off their feet by Chukk and cast away like a pile of rags or stunned into delirium and writhing on the ground to be struck down and trampled by the passing phalanx.  Hamill kept his distance, willing to let the others probe this new threat, unsure of what he was seeing or how to react to it.  Some got lucky and scored a hit on a Taj-mate, one fatally, but after the first two ranks of them went down in a heap while few of Burtt’s crew were injured, the red-zoners broke and ran.

Their lieutenants regained control of the mob before they got too far away to recall, and turned them back towards the fight.  The momentarily jubilant Taj skirmishers, reset their feet, shields and their resolve to meet the next clash.  Their bravery and discipline and the accuracy of his archers made Burtt’s chest swell with pride.  Other younger crèche mates, who’d been secretly waiting just inside the wire, scooted forward and pulled the injured back.  Other teams of litter carriers were waiting to transport them to the crèche.  The word was out to the Loks by then that war was on, and that the Taj would need medical help.

While grateful for their arrival and his salvation, Burtt was also terrified at this development.  All he could imagine were piles of dead kids at his feet.  But this did leave Burtt to deal with Hamill without having to worry about the other side’s crews, so, he got down to business and charged ahead through the shield wall, isolating Hamill in the process before he could rejoin his crew.  Dogg busied himself with any who tried to get in on Burtt’s flanks or from behind.  The skirmishers continued their pursuit of the rest of the red-zone toughs with the archers providing over watch.  By then, it looked as though at least 75 bodies lie dead or bleeding out on the field of battle, half with red feathered arrows sprouting from their still forms.  The rain of death continued relentlessly from above, shifting expertly from one hot spot to another as Harkk identified build ups of enemy troops concentrations.  In this manner, the red-zones crews were never able to concentrate their might and were defeated in detail.

Hamill was no pushover, though.  He took Burtt to the limits of his abilities with the incredible reach of that wicked great sword.  In fact, Burtt was struggling and Hamill knew it.  He pressed his advantage.  Backing up, Burtt slipped in the gore left from Farukk’s evisceration and went down hard losing one of his blades in the process.  Hamill made to take advantage while Burtt was down and pressed in even tighter, while Burtt scooted across the ground on his back trying to keep some distance until he could regain his feet.  His skirmishers couldn’t save him this time.  They were too far off and totally engaged in their own fight for life.  The archers were providing cover for them and not an eye was on Burtt.  He struggled to present even the slightest of deflection with his remaining blade.  Hamill was having none of that and was at the point where he was sure to end it all when he was taken under attack from behind.

With a battle cry that would assail the ears of the gods, Rikk leapt at Burtt’s attacker.  He hit the brute in full stride knocking Hamill to one knee.  Roff was right on his heels and just like he was trained, he split to one side, dividing Hamill’s attention.  Burtt saw Kkat over Rikk’s shoulder on top of the rubble.  She had a horrified look on her face, she was charging down and screaming something Burtt couldn’t hear.  He thought he saw Jjes too. He turned his attention back to the fight and tried again to regain his footing in what seemed a river of blood.

Dogg was down with half a dozen toughs hacking at him.  His yowling tore at Burtt’s heart but he was seeing the near future in his mind’s eye, and it was a nightmare.  He put Dogg’s fate aside.  He slid forward watching Rikk, Roff and Hamill, trying to make his body respond before it was too late.
Rikk stood over the boss ready to continue his attack but holding back.  Burtt yelled to warn him but Rikk was still not prepared when Hamill feinted towards Burtt and instead spun on one foot, swinging that mighty blade in a 360-degree arc to severe Rikk’s head from his shoulders with a sickening wet, slap of blade on flesh.

Burtt was too late still to save a shocked Roff from the same fate on Hamill’s back swing or to stop Jjes from piling in herself and being impaled on that terrible blade.  She had charged down the rubble, passing Kkat, to save her Rikk, only to fall beside him.

Kkat saw it all in slow motion.  She was powerless to stop it.  As the sword made its sweep towards her brother, the light went out of her vision and she fell to the ground, half way down the rubble mound.  She didn’t move again until it was all over.

The world went red in Burtt’s eyes and the blood rage swelled in him and overflowed onto whatever was left of the attacking crews.  Hamill seemed to disappear in a ruby shower of meat, blood and bone.  His great sword forgotten for the moment, Hamill’s eyes grew large but, he never got the scream out that was forming on his lips when he saw the rage crazy animal that was Burtt-the-blade descending on him.

His rage not spent after ending Hamill, Burtt turned on the rest.  His renewed attack chased those toughs still left away from the skirmishers; themselves near spent and just starting to reel from the horror surrounding them.  They turned their attention to saving Dogg from his pursuers and their own wounded.

There seemed no place for the red-zoners to run as Burtt shepherded them towards Spring Creek.  In the end, it took the combined efforts of Harkk and Ccassie to bring him down from his lust for revenge.  The later begging for a truce, yelling “Parley, Parley” for everyone to hear.

His blade inches from the latest intruder on his space, Burtt caught himself a bare hair’s width from slicing Harkk’s throat before he fell to his knees in exhaustion and despair, tears streaming from his eyes.  Disbelief running wetly through every earned line on his etched young face.

He tore off back to where his crew had fallen as if he just then realised what had transpired.  The sight was worse than he remembered.  He lost his breath and his lunch at the same time.  When he recovered from sudden nausea, he still couldn’t rise.

Spread out from where he sat on his haunches, in ever bloodier piles, were the groups of the dead who fell where Burtt or the skirmishers caught them. Some lay where his archers impaled them from above, as if in a sparse forest of very straight trees with red tops.  So, too were his own crew scattered among the dead.  Lying next to Hamill’s desecrated corpse were Rikk and Jjes’ torn bodies and the small desecrated bodies of Roff and so much more.  Katt sat with her back to Burtt, looking down as if holding something.  Burtt’s eyes were too filled with tears to count all the forever unmoving bodies, let alone look at the injured, moaning and screaming ones.  His rage spent, feeling emptiness, and deep down inside a terrible fear that Kkat would never forgive him, Burtt collapsed further into himself, a defeated, lost soul.

WHY, WHY dis hap?  Who gets dese kids he-ah?  Who?” He pleaded, knowing it was in vain.  They came to save him.  It was no one’s fault but his own.

In tear-filled horror and renewed rage at the numbers of young dead and injured, Burtt tore off again to the River in pursuit of Pokke and any other survivors from the attacking crews.  Kkat was still sitting where Rikk and Jess had fallen.  She cradled Rikk’s head in her lap and wouldn’t let anyone near him.

After sending perserv runners to alert their sponsors and beg for more help, Harkk organised litter bearers to carry the injured to Burtt’s zone and the healing capacity of whomever Mmarta and Jaredd could muster.  He recruited Ccassie and her crew to help in spoofing and to zap whatever bots showed and carrying kids to the healers.

As the wailing of the worst injured died down with their passage to the near-zone, those still standing could take in the immensity of what had just happened; slowly at first, but with more intensity and volume as momentum built, a new keening began.  At that point every child in proximity to that abattoir wanted someone to hold onto, someone to make it all better, to make it all go away.  This banshee-like wailing tore at everyone’s heart.

Back at the crèche, for the first time, anyone in the crèche could remember, Bbessie came out of her hut and was hustling around triage, helping Mmarta tend to the worst of the injured, or calming the less seriously injured little ones when there was nothing else for her to do.

Mmarta was too busy saving lives in the surgery tent to say anything, and so emotionally distraught she probably couldn’t have said anything coherent anyway.

Jaredd was in shock, himself, attempting to keep his mother and Bbessie in medical supplies while they tended to the most horrific wounds he’d ever seen.  This damage had been done to children, by children, fighting to the death for survival, while his CommCorp peers troubled themselves with lofty decisions, such as, what to have for lunch.

“Was this in your plans greenie?”  Accused Harkk, carrying another limp and lifeless body from the tent they’d turned into the surgery suite.  Jaredd choked back his sobs.  Mmarta merely turned to the next torn little body Bbessie handed her.

Aside from the occasionally leaked whimper of pain, the little warriors now stoically awaited their turn for treatment.  But Norton, there were a lot of them.  Too many.

———-s

He couldn’t stay here forever.  This was the coward’s way, Kkhloe would’ve said.

“Face the dark, don’t ever turn from it”, she was forever telling Burtt and Ssyndi.

“If you run today, how far will you have to run tomorrow?”

Kkhloe, Kkhloe, ah don know wha ‘t do.  Ah put so many kids unna de dirt, Kkhloe.  God be payin me now a’righ.

Burtt wiped his swollen eyes and headed away from the clean flowing river he’d come to call Green river.  He’d made his way here when the steam ran out of his rage and he wanted the only solace he thought he could find.  While he cleaned most the gore from himself and his weapons, he realised that his place was with his crew, not out here feeling sorry for himself.  He headed back.

He’d found a few scared and injured kids hiding and terrified of him along the way.  In an epiphany, he found his salvation for the horrors of the day – some salvation, at least.

Slowly and in as non-threatening a manner as he could muster, he called them out of hiding.

“Com’ on out.  Ah don b’ hurt ya.  Let’s get alla ya ca-ah’d fo-ah. Don b’ sca-ah’d.”

One by one they came out of hiding,  some holding cut, bruised and sometimes broken limbs or cracked heads.  Some, too hurt to move, or holding onto unconscious siblings or friends, had to wait for help, but Burtt recruited any who were well enough to do so, sending them back to the wire as he could.

He scoured the sector’s entire red-zone for survivors.  As he gathered more to him, others in hiding became more willing to come out themselves.  In truth, the younger ones flocked to him once they got over their fear of him.  It was the older ones, the toughs-soldiers, escorts and spies-that used to work for the now dead or missing red-zone bosses, that Burtt was most concerned about and to whom he addressed his most impassioned invitations to join him, at least for the parley Ccassie called for.  Her crew was with her, helping with the injured and collecting the dead.

With the mention of the last remaining Red zone boss, even the most stubborn toughs finally came along but would only agree to come as far as the wire.  Their help getting the wounded to the healers was critical.  It probably saved several of the worst cases and Burtt made sure they knew it.  It was a good start.

Once he’d gathered as many of the red-zoners as he thought were ever going to come out, he headed for the wire with the last of the stragglers.  Burtt prepared to face his biggest fear.  In sight of the battleground, he started shaking all over when he thought about facing Kkat again.  He prepared himself for the worst he could imagine.

After the last of the injured were passed through the wire to litter teams who would carry them to the healing arms of Bbessie and Mmarta, and the toughs who refused to go further were settled in to wait for the parley, he approached his hell.

He had purposely avoided the scene of the slaughter and approached the wire from a different direction, as much for his own peace of mind as it was to spare the little ones from being reminded of what had nearly been their fate. Now he had no choice.

Kett was on guard at the wire and in charge of spoofing the bots with several teams of pre-scorts at his command while all the traffic, back and forth, continued.  His eyes swollen and tear streaks staining his cheeks, he choked out the story and told Burtt that Kkat was still with her brother’s body and wouldn’t let anyone near. “Not ev’n me!”, he sobbed.

Burtt tried to calm Kett with a pat on the head, but the boy pulled away, angrily pushing at his hand.

“Aint no babe he-ah, Burtt. Don treat lahk!”

Another boy man.  Him be unna the dirt fa me mayb’?

“’Kay Kett.  Ah don kno hows bes ta hep.  Tryin‘s aw.  Ya do gut taday, Kett.  Ya’s a gut scort, taday.  Ya save Burtt’s lahf.  We talk mo ‘bout dis latah.”

Aint nevah doin dat agin kid. Nevah! Not fa Burtt.

He turned towards the battleground feeling his fate flying uncontrollably away from him in the coppery tainted breeze.  For the first time, he noted the chill of fall in the air.

Gon nee clof for the lil ones.  Col comin.  Nees jak’its, yessuh.  Wunna ‘f Ah c’n do like Kkhloe dun. His thoughts of sewing jackets for the little ones incongruously intruded on his passage.

Alla dem kids be he-ah in m’ crèche, now. ‘S wha ah wan, but wif alla dem uvas unna de dirt?  Rikk and Jjes, Roff, Jeff, Rogg, Jjane, Ellsie, Rrebca, Mikk and Makk, Rolly, Gginger, Rrose ‘n alla dem…God b’ takin m’ su-ah.  Wha ‘bout alla da kilt ones on ‘t uva crews?  I caint stan ‘t.

By the time he got to the scene, Burtt was ready to accept beheading as his just and deserved punishment.  There could be no forgiveness for what he had wrought.  Kkat would surely be his executioner.

The last two of the fallen were being collected as Burtt approached.  Ccassie was covering Jjes’s tiny form in cloth.  Harkk was doing the same for Rikk under Kkat’s trancelike supervision.  Going about his grizzly task, Harkk was calmly trying to sooth Kkat with his voice.  Kkat seemed not to notice anyone or anything around her.  She stared at Rikk’s body, even after it was wrapped in blood-stained cloth, and kept humming a tune she remembered from a better past.

Burtt was frozen in place and time.  Nothing stirred in him or around him.  There was himself and that moment of abject desolation and despair seeing the empty defeated look on Kkat’s face, knowing that their relationship could never be the same, ever again.  She was lost to him.

Suddenly, there was no reason for any of it.  Life, love, hope, giving, justice, freedom – it was all a lie.  One he created in his own mind thinking he, a nobody from the zone, could make a difference.  Well, he’d made a difference alright.  His dream killed over 100 people.  His blind ambitions drove him to save his world and everyone in it and instead, he’d brought about its doom.  Certainly, this fiasco would bring about the end of any life he might have had.  There was no way the Elies let more than a hundred zoners reside in the near-zone, and they’d want the head of the prole who brought them in.

Da mines‘s b’ gut fah ya, Burtt. Ya killah.

Caught up in his own grief and self-pity, Burtt didn’t notice Kkat staring at him.  When he did, the shame he felt instantly hurt so bad he started crying again.  He wanted to say something, anything, but before he could open his mouth Kkat coldly told him that they didn’t need his help.  Burtt gritted his teeth, bit back his tears, nodded, and left.

He forced himself to help transport and guide any remaining injured or just lost children into the near-zone and his crèche.

“Where is Kkat, Burtt?  I need her now, damn it!” Mmarta screamed from the tent flap, the moment she first saw him.

“I-I, she comin.” Was all he could manage.  “Wha Ah do t’hep?”

“Go to Bbessie’s hut.  Get more bandages, more alcohol and cat-gut, you know, for sewing wounds closed like I’ve done for you.  Hurry.”

Burtt didn’t answer.  He was gone before Mmarta looked up to yell at him again.  There were so many squirming, injured bodies lying everywhere that Burtt had to dodge them as he passed them by.  There was more blood than he wanted to ever see again.  His creche’s blood.

Bbessie served as a personal holistic nurse to the Loks neighbours, the Haps.  The practice of such hoodoo as it was referred to, was nearly as taboo for a greenie as getting caught with a red-zone whore.  So, Bbessie lived in a sort of protected status but outside the green zone and was sponsored as a domestic to the Haps.  Anyway, she was well supplied.  Her hut was wide open this day and quite well appointed Burtt noticed.  He was happy for her.

He returned with as much as he could carry and then sensing he was just in the way, he left to help bury the dead.  Harkk caught him on the way out and held him by the arm until Burtt looked him in the eye.

“You give her time boy.  She needs time.  You, the both of you, need each other.  And this crèche needs the two of you.  So be patient.  Give her time.  Stay clear for now.  She’ll come around.  Understand me?”

Burtt, eyes hollow sockets of regret and grief, simply stared at Harkk, not believing a word of it.

“’S ovah, Harkk.  She put me unna the dirt she could. Mayb’ dat be bes f’ alla us.”  Burtt pulled his arm away and resumed his grizzly task.

Harkk watched the retreating back of his young friend, thinking, Damn it, kid.  Don’t give up!  First time in ten years I feel alive and now you’re going to quit on us?  God-damn it, I refuse to let this happen. JIZMO!

He stomped into the triage area with a purpose.  This mess needed saving, now.  The elies were going to help, or else.  I bet they’d shit themselves if they had to spend even one day without freshers.

———–

Kkat didn’t mean to eavesdrop.  It was an accident but she’d heard it all.  She saw the genuine pain in Burtt’s eyes and she felt for him.  She was conflicted now.  She was angry at everyone, not just Burtt.  His pain was palpable, though.  She could feel it looking at the horror etched on his beautiful face.  She couldn’t hate him.  She couldn’t comfort him.  At once she knew for certain, she loved him.

Oh God, why now?  Why throw this at me now?

The tears flowed again, but she headed for the scrub to clean up and help with these children.

———-

“What do you mean it’s too soon for exposure?  They are children.  They are OUR children, by Norton, and they are dying!”  Jaredd demanded.

As soon as he’d done everything he could to help back at the crèche and realised that much more needed to be done, he took the time to listen to Harkk’s impassioned plea.  Together they headed for an emergency session of the secret Full Exposure Council.  He called for the session as he was running to it.  At this level in the council, though, he was pushing his luck.  He knew it, but right now at least, he didn’t care.  He wanted to shove this crisis down their collective throats because he knew that was the only way this snail envious body of elites would ever do something about it under any one’s time constraints but their own.  Starting at the top was the only way to get what they needed when they needed it…which was now.

They could also, of course, decide the other way and simply shut Jaredd, and Harkk, up.  Exposure as collaborators with an opposition city-state, even via an anonymous tip, was grounds for a trumped up investigation leading to fake charges and exile or revocation of sponsorship.  Mmarta and Dougg would join them, end of the problem, no one the wiser.  CommCorp absorbs another stead.

Still, Jaredd thought, there was no simple way to approach this crisis.  There were far too many proles in the so-called “little-used” near-zone right now; many with critical injuries needing constant professional care, and they were all, at the very minimum, malnourished.  If the elies didn’t help, many of them would die.

He and Harkk had both decided, safe jobs and lives be damned, they would push this all the way to the vids if they had to.  Harkk would threaten to shut down all the utilities in the sector.  Mmarta, looked startled for a moment, then merely shrugged and nodded her assent when Harkk promised to keep the water and power flowing into the surgery suite at least.  Enough was enough!

“We cannot sit idly by with so many children in such dire need.  Please!  I beg you!”

Jaredd continued his impassioned pleadings.  He’d been arguing his case in front of these seemingly hearing impaired automatons for over an hour and been met with the same tired response from their chosen spokesperson, Carminn Dobs, a self-important mid-level functionary in the Services branch of CommCorp.

“We cannot possibly expose ourselves in the manner you describe.  To do so would be to admit we knew about your efforts for some time.  The newsvids would transfix us to an X, and once CommCorp found out, we might find ourselves wishing for the real thing. I’m sure we all are heartbroken about this prole tragedy, but I’m afraid we must insist you clean this up on your own.  Do so quickly and quietly before the perservs in the area start talking.  By Norton’s shade, Jaredd. How you could allow it to go this far is beyond me.  Do Mmarta or Dougg know?”

“Do they know?  Of course, they know.  The children told Estebann, who called me from his servhut.  I recruited them to help in triage once I saw the carnage.” He hoped the lie held for Mmarta’s sake.

“There are simply too many children, our children, in dire need of life-saving procedures for just one pseudo-surgeon and a nurse to handle.  We need your help.  By Norton, Carminn, how can YOU deny them your succour?”

He hoped that referring to the children as their own might in some way appeal to his baser, more human self.  He was wrong.

“Now Jaredd, let me…”
“Stop, Carminn!  Enough!  Can’t you for once feel something akin to grief?  Those are children.  Who cares, at this point, whose children they might be?”

This from the head of the council herself, Miss Jjenna Sims, who was also 3rd in line for the head chair of the Science wing of CommCorp.

Turning her scolding stare away from the council’s spokesman, she asked, “What can we do, Jaredd?”

With a visible sigh of relief, Jared nearly sagged to the floor but caught himself and stood tall, collecting his thoughts.

Harkk took up the chore before Jaredd could fully recover.

“Madam Sims, we need medicine, bandages, IVs of plasma and saline, doctors and nurses, food-lots of it- and people who give a damn.  And we need it two hours ago…and I need milclass power line to get enough juice to that surgery suite for it to be fully effective.  Oh, and turn off the damn wire and bots in our sector.  We don’t need it anymore and it’s causing us delays we can’t afford.”

———-

The parade of supplies and professional elies who came to the near-zone was astounding.  The council had more tentacles in the city than the Loks previously thought.  Using an untraceable netchat, they called for help from any who could and/or would.  They came in droves from as far away as the other side of the dome.  Three hours after the end of hostilities there were 30 professionals saving prole lives in sector-22’s near-zone, and more were on the way.

———-

“We still have to keep the number of passages down to a minimum.  It’s going to be hard enough explaining the excessive number of passages we are bound to make or have made already, mother.  That’s why I’m having any newcomers met at the stead and held there until the next crew is coming out or there are at least five of them.”  Said Jaredd as he prevented Mmarta from entering the tube for what had to be the tenth time in two hours.

“I don’t know how much wool we can pull over the same two cops eyes, mother.” He mumbled worriedly.

There seemed to be a constant need for supplies and equipment someone hadn’t already thought to bring out with them, even though it seemed an entire MedCent now existed outside the front entrance to the crèche.

But who could ever imagine such need?

The Loks and Haps and the local rep for the Corp’s stead provided ample passage for what was being touted by the Loks and a few well-placed council members as a medical crisis running rampant through the sector-22 perserv ranks.  So, the tube bots were turned passive and would remain that way except in extreme security or medical emergencies.  Two CommCorp cops kept watch on the green zone side of the tube, just in case.  The wire and all the near-zone bots were shut down for sector-22.

Still, too much tube traffic could surely invite curiosity no one wanted, so, Jaredd made himself useful by regulating the passages as best he could.  Letting folks in and out at the same time in large numbers, rather than in dribs and drabs.  And he didn’t even want to think what the Corp or the Haps would think if they saw what was really going on here and who was participating.

“What do you need?  I’ll have this crew bring it back.”

“What?  Not just what, Jaredd dear, but, I do need more plasma, and surgery kits and bandages and medicines and etc, etc…I have a whole shopping list here.”

She held out an actual hand written list. Jaredd stared at it as if he didn’t know she could write and he was just as surprised that he could read it.

“I also want to drag that lazy curd I’m married to down here, so he can witness some real misery and stop bitching at me about his sex life.” Mmarta chewed through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jaredd.  I’ve never seen such…  I can’t…  Oh, Jaredd!”

She leant hard on him, her head heavy on his shoulder.

“This cannot go on.  We must expose.  Now!  These are children!”

“I agree, mum.  Right now, though, we need to save these damn kids.  I used to think it was about me taking over the council one day.  Now, I want to debunk it and start again.   Do it right this time, and I’m not even sure what that means.  Look, just look what we’ve done to them?  Norton, do we even deserve the chance to make it right?”

By the time his perscomm’s ringer went off signalling the arrival on the other side of another crew of volunteers, and more supplies, a small crew of others were prepared to go back the other way on quests for more difficult things to acquire.

“Baronn!  Baronn, isn’t it?  Hello?” Mmarta called to a young man she recognised as a friend of Jaredd’s headed back into the dome.  “Would you please deliver a message to my husband for me?  I hate to leave the children.”  She inquired with her most pleading voice.

“Would be my pleasure Miss Mmarta.”  The boy answered with adoring eyes. Mmarta was renowned among young council members for her brash demeanour and willingness to stand up to the council elders.  Ill or not, she was still a looker, too.  Many a young man on the council spent dreamy nights with visions of her in their sleepy eyes.

She had what she’d really come for.  Jaredd’s concerns were sound ones and she could send her request for supplies along with her appeal to Dougg.  She scribed off a scathing missive to her errant husband using the most recent additions to her med kit, a stylus and parchment.

The gloves are coming off, Dougg.  Come help or go away.  I need your support, if not your love.  If neither are available, then you are neither wanted nor needed here.  Be gone before I return. – Mmarta Lok

Using her last name to remind him of who still held the purse strings, he couldn’t possibly misconstrue her meaning.  Handing the note to Baronn, she also gave him the list and told him who to see to have that list filled, instructing him to return just as soon as he could, or have someone else bring out the supplies if he couldn’t. They couldn’t wait. Mmarta returned to surgery.

———-

They were buried.  Harkk had shown him a good way to make the job easier a month earlier when one of the younger kids got sick and died, Jamme.  This stuff happened.  It didn’t bother him as much as combat deaths did, though.  Harkk had seen Burtt headed to the river with his bundle and stopped him suggesting it might not be the best place to dispose of the bodies.  He tried to explain how the whole decaying cycle worked but gave up with the dazed look in Burtt’s eyes.  He convinced Burtt it was better to bury them.

Together they hiked to an area not far away that Harkk knew of a place over the rubble where a huge pile of loose dirt was mounded next to the lower section of dome wall but not right next to it.  This area was in the opposite direction from where Burtt had found the clean waterway but was just as isolated by the rubble and dirt mound.  He thought the greenies had started to clean it out for another near-zone but gave up for some reason.  Harkk showed him how to lay the body at the base of the dirt mound and then shovel dirt from the mound right over top of the body.  If you kept at it for a while you could pile the dirt up as tall as Burtt stood without too much work.  He told Burtt it was the way folks did it before the fall, and that it was the safest way.

The space between the dirt mound and the dome was about as wide as he was tall, so they could lay several little bodies, toes to nose, next to each other.  Still, the new pile of moved dirt was thirty paces long and twice as deep as Burtt stood, this time.

He was devastated.  He sent his helpers back home but remained on top of the dirt mound looking down at once on the fresh dirt pile of the dead and then on the eerily subdued world that was his crèche.  He hummed the only other tune he could remember Kkhloe singing.  Something about a Ggrace and being Amazing, and she sang it when they put their parents in the river.

How dem sees me now, Kkhloe?  Wha dem tink o’ ole Burtt now, huh? Ah caint look dem in de eye, Kkhloe.  Ah caint.  She won’ nevah…and he caught himself.

He was feeling sorry for himself.  Kkhloe called it being a crybaby.

Das a’righ Burtt. Now stop dis. You wor’in f’ da kids or f’ Burtt?

He absently searched the area below for her.  He caught himself sniffing the air trying to find her scent.  He’d told himself it was his imagination but still thought he could smell her whenever she came near.  In his mind, she smelled like the breeze when he was high above it all and the stench from below was left behind.  He could only smell the cold, empty stench of death, just then, though.

He caught sight of her finally as she scampered about the triage area running errands here, talking to little ones there, holding a terrified hand, calming and shushing a whimpering voice.  Being Kkat.  And she had cleaned up too.

Leas she be a’righ. Tank Got.

“Burtt!  Burtt?  Come on down.  We need to talk.  I need your help.”  Jaredd called to him and caught Burtt by surprise.  He wanted to refuse, to make an excuse.  Being close and having her still not even look at him would be unbearable.  He couldn’t run anymore, though.  He had to go down sometime.

“Yeah, ah comin Jaredd.”  He worked his way down the mound, glaring straight ahead, avoiding the triage area.

He noticed the greenie with blond hair tied back and a scarf covering most of her face who, along with several others, had just come through the tube with an arm full of life-saving supplies.  There was a tug at his 6th sense but he couldn’t place it.  He looked around for the source of this intrusion on his temporary calm.  He couldn’t see it and continued down to Jaredd.

Ssyndi said nothing, even turned her head away when Burtt’s glance touched her.  If anyone found out they’d send her back so fast her head would spin.  She’d had to see for herself, though.  Mmarta was like a stone wall and wouldn’t answer any of her comms.  Neither would Jaredd and Dougg, well, he was Dougg.  He couldn’t keep his hands to himself and he couldn’t take a hint.  Regardless, she had to see for herself that Burtt was okay.  He was, she could see, at least physically, but there was something new in his eyes. A rejected, defeated look she’d never seen in her indestructible super-hero brother.  He looked empty.

If this is that witch, Kkat’s fault, she going to wish she was shot, not just exiled.  I’ll kill you, lady.  Just wait.

Ssyndi dropped her cache of supplies at the surgery suite’s flap and quietly moved back into and through the tube to the green-zone.

“Wha ya nees?”  Burt asked Jaredd defensively.

“It’s not what I need, Burtt.  It’s what these kids need.  They need you.  They need to see you and to know that you are still their champion.  The last thing they remember about you is your back as you ran after Pokke.  Show them your face, Burtt.  Show them your proud leader’s face.  Let them know how magnificently they performed for you today.  Give them hope, because frankly, Burtt, for some of them, hope is all they have.  Do you see, Burtt?  Some are very badly injured and may not make it.  If they are to have any chance at all they need to see that there is still hope. That there is still a Burtt there for them. Without you, there is no hope.  Not for them, there isn’t”

Burtt’s face was paling.  He could feel it along with the queasiness in his gut.

Ah caint look in dems eyes.  Ah caint!

“Burtt, please!” Jaredd pleaded again.

“AH CAINT! JIZMO! GOT AMIGHT! AH CAINT!” he screamed so that anyone near backed away from him.

He was stunned.  He couldn’t move.  He couldn’t talk.  He was having trouble breathing.  Got, Ah ready fa ya. Come on, den.

He was stunned further when he felt her soft touch on his arm and then heard her softer voice.

“It’s okay, Burtt.  We can do it together.”

Kkat took his arm and led him towards the triage centre and the crèche.  He was aware only of moving again until he could see the flap to the tent in front of him.  He froze up and resisted again, but Kkat was there, holding his face in her hands, soothing the beast until he could bring his own fears under control.  Together they entered the land of the near dead, the surgery tent.  Only the worst cases were still here, eight hours after the last of the injured were brought under the wire.

Some of the council elies still here were occupied with saving the children still under the knife in the surgical tent.  Others were providing the intensive care needed to maintain the ones recently recovering from surgery out in the open post op area, or maintaining and prepping the next ones in.  All these elies showed signs of exhaustion.  It was a cinch none of them had ever had the need to be so severely impressed into lifesaving service for so many cases or for so many consecutive hours.  The last City-state level war was over long ago and injuries incurred at the Wall were treated at the wall.

Jaredd had started a rotation. Sending a handful of volunteers at a time to a separate tent for a few hours R & R, keeping just enough bodies on the floor to keep everyone alive.

The first child Burtt and Kkat came upon was so badly cut, Burtt couldn’t imagine how she could still be alive or how she could possibly last through the night.  Her ravaged chest more cat gut than skin and her complexion paler than some of the dead he’d seen, he wondered at how she could still be breathing?  He looked the question at Mmarta, who only closed her eyes and as imperceptibly as possible shrugged her uncertainty about the child’s chances.

The tugging on his sleeve was not as unnerving as the perfect salute this near-dead young warrior presented her field commander, once he turned his attention to her.

Burtt’s heart filled with pride. Suddenly, he understood what Jared had meant and he believed it.  If he could just give them hope enough to hang on.  Hope enough to help them want to recover.  With this understanding, he found hope, himself.

Burtt formally returned the salute. Then smiled and took the little girls hand in his.

“Easy time, sojer!  Ya res now.  Ya’s gut taday, Ccarol, real gut.  I membah dat.  Yessuh.  Now, ya gets bettah, gots it?  He-ah b’ Kkat.”

They moved together through the pre and post-op areas, then to recovery, just inside the crèche entrance, and further on into the crèche main room where the rest of those with minor, treated injuries and the uninjured were huddled in small groups, quietly seeking solace in the company of those nearby.  The older kids handing out fruit and water.

“Ah took gut ca-ah o’ Rikk and Jjes, Kkat.  I cover dem gut, so’s da rats ain’t gits ‘em, kay?  Ah-Ah so-sor, Kkat.  I try.  I dit, real try, Kkat. I dit.’

Tears formed in his eyes and ran freely from them.  He didn’t try to hide or wipe them away.  Kkhloe said you don’t hide tears for the dead.

Kkat, choking back her own tears, said, “I know Burtt.  I saw.”  She couldn’t say more, yet. She headed back to help in surgery.

Burtt then remembered Dogg with a start.  He started to whistle then thought better of it in case Dogg was injured again.

Craz K b’ run annaway.

Kett, Chukk!  Whe-ah Dogg be?”  He called out.

“Hm b’ ova his hol, Burtt man”, said little Cconnie, a shy blond with one blue eye and one green. “Mmarta lady fit him up and gets me t’ take him t’ da creche but him pult me ova de-ah.”

“‘Kay, Cconnie.  Tanks.” He turned to go find his friend.

“Dogg b’ kay Burtt man?  Mmarta say.”  The tear forming in her eye was more than Burtt could stand.  He walked back, snatched her up in his arms and hugged her tight.

“S’kay lil one.  Burtt nos Dogg b’ gut. Him gots ya t’ca-ah fo-ah. Das a’righ.”

His smile seemed to allay her fears and she smiled back.  It made Burtt feel strange, kind of warm.

Burtt made for the hidey hole in the base of the rubble wall where Dogg liked to make his home.  Dogg struggled a bit to do so, but he came out to greet Burtt.  It almost seemed to Burtt that Dogg was trying to keep him away from little Sweet again.  He was taped and scewed together just like Burtt often needed after a fight, but he didn’t look too bad.  Not hardly as bad as Burtt expected, though he was limping.  He was relieved and decided not to push the issue about getting close to Sweet again until later.  He had more important things to do anyway.  He said goodnight to Dogg, threw him a scrap to eat and turned to go about his rounds.  He was too far away to hear the tiny squeals of many new and hungry mouths Dogg and Sweet would be responsible for now.

———-

Girls and boys from different crews found themselves drawn to each other out of need. As the night went on and the waiting for news about the last ones still in surgery grew to nerve-wracking communal angst, these small groups morphed into bigger ones that led to bigger ones still until the entire crèche was as one.  Eighty-eight souls in the crèche proper swore fidelity, not to a boss, but to each other.  They swore to protect each other and the Taj from all comers, and to do so together and forever.  They did all this without Burtt or Kkat or Harkk or Bbessie or Ccassie’s input.  There were no zones there that day.  There were no crèches, plural.  There was only the one and it was the Taj and everyone belonged who wanted to.

There were 56 severely injured still in post-op or varying stages of recovery.  Some went back in and out of surgery every day or every other one.  118 total had died as a direct result of the two days of war, so far.

Ccassie confessed after things settled down finally that she would never be comfortable under the eyes of the Corp, and so would stay in the red-zone and be the de facto leader of those few toughs still out there, if they’d have her.  She agreed to keep an open dialogue between the Taj and the outer zone so that wars like this last one never happened again.  She took it one step further and suggested her crèche be an annexe to the Taj, but with the condition that she be a sitting member of the Taj’s council.  Once Burtt understood what that meant, he was all for it.  They would have to find another to join with her to keep the tie-breaker option open. With Rikk and Jjes gone, two replacements were needed anyway.  One of the power slaves, Gregg, from Thomass’s creche who’d joined Ccassie after Thomass fell, swore to destroy whatever remained of the former slave creches in the red-zone, and everyone in sector-22 was all for that.  Gregg might just be that second council member they were looking for.  Burtt declared a burning night for the destruction so all could watch.  He also promised to run power and clean water to her creche and to share the supplements they got from the greenies.  Negotiations continued…

———-

“How long, doctor, and no bullshit this time.”

“Mmarta, I have always tried to be honest while upbeat.  You know this.  Don’t be angry with me now.  Norton, knows, I’d do anything to be able to tell you differently, but I can’t.  Not now, anyway.  Six months is a strong estimate, perhaps overly optimistic, but with proper diet, medications and rest, and if you stay away from that damn zone over there, six months is very doable. Yes.”

“Oh dear.  I can’t possibly finish what I’ve set out to do in six months.  We simply have to do better than that doctor, or I’m going to need a new physician.”  Mmarta prattled, desperately trying to sound more positive than she felt.  The despair that gripped her insides, though, was impossible to hide.

“Save the brave act for someone who doesn’t see right through it, Mmarta. If that means you’re going to ignore my advice and charge on into the fray with these proles, then, yes, I suggest you do get a new doctor.  I won’t stand by and watch you voluntarily kill yourself.”

“Oh Georgge, don’t be so melodramatic.  Six months, eight months, four months, a year, not a whole lot of difference is there Georgge? It’s getting a bit late in the game for hysterics don’t you think?”

“No!  I don’t think!  Continued exposure to that air will only kill you sooner, Mmarta.  I’ve told you that time and again.  Yet, there you go, every day, and without a mask most of the damn time I might add.”

“STOP IT, GEORGGE!  STOP! I insist, right now, stop” Mmarta blurted.

Silence gripped them both for agonising moments while both composed themselves.

“There is nothing to be done about it, Georgge.  I’m dying.  I will not, I repeat, NOT, stop living just to wait for that unhappy moment to arrive in some artificial comfort.  My dying ambition (excuse the pun), is to see to it that those kids over there are acknowledged and accepted by the damned evil city-state who spawned them.  Now, that’s all there is to that, Georgge.  Agreed?  And I’m surely going to need your help even after I’m gone.  That girl is a wiz, but even with all she’s been through, she is just a child still.  I’m going to sponsor her as my domestic and begin her training.  You’re going to find a way to continue her highed when I’m gone.  Is that clear?  You’ll, of course, be well compensated.”.  She ended the comm and burst into tearful sobs.  She was too distraught right now.  She’d send Dougg.  The bastard never did come to help and he damn sure hadn’t left either.  He could do this much at least, then she’d deal with him too.

———-

Kkat was reeling.

How could the creche stand now?

“…So, under the circumstances, Mmarta sent me to ask you to accept her sponsorship into the medical intern program.  I know she told you to take your time thinking about it, but time is not something you or she has now.  Mmarta is sick.  She doesn’t have much time.  You need to get going on this.”

The gravely concerned look on his face seemed off to Katt.  She couldn’t tell why.  This all somehow just felt, wrong.

“I can help you along too, I have lots of contacts in the health field and in highed.  I can smooth things along for you, you know?  Make it easier for you to get by with all the spoiled elie brats that’ll be giving you a hard time.  Especially since they’ll know your background.”

Kkat imagined a creek rat slithering along the banks, hunting smaller ones, maybe even its own.

“I’m sure you’d love to help me.  Exactly what would that cost me?  Tell me also Dougg, how would anyone around here know my past?  I’m not from a sector anywhere near here.  No thanks, Mr Lok, I’ll take my chances with Mmarta’s guidance alone.  Does she want me to come to her?  Now?”

“Yes. Now would be best”, he was too quick and spoke with an angry sneer in his voice.  Something in his eyes told her to deflect him, too.

“Please tell her I’m sorry, but I promised Burtt I’d help him with something today.  I’ll see her tomorrow when she comes for her visit with the injured. Surely, it can wait until then. If that’s all, then, I’ll be going now.”

She turned to walk away but Dougg grabbed her arm and forcefully pulled her to him.  She was so close she could smell his stinking breath.  Now she knew what had been bothering her about Dougg.  He was a pig.  She could tell just from the way he looked at her and the other girls in the crèche.  She wondered how Burtt’s sister could stand it.

Well, I don’t have to!

“Don’t you turn away from me you, prole bitch.  I’ll tell you when I’m done with you.”

Dougg had no idea how much trouble he was in.  Kkat was one of the best hand-to-hand students Harkk had ever taught, and since their war, she had excelled at every discipline he showed her. This would prove to be Dougg’s final and complete undoing and it started with a bang.

After she drove his testicles up to his throat with her right knee, Kkat spun around behind him and put him in a chokehold until he passed out.  She then had two of the older boys carry him to the tube and deposit him there after splashing a healthy dose of red-zone hootch all over him. Even in passive mode, the tube bots would eventually identify and then arrange transport for him.  By then the hootch will have eaten through at least some of the fabric of his tunic, and the stench would be horrendous.

She had Bann bring Mmarta her message and asked him to request a way to get by the tube bots and guards without needing Dougg, and to explain about Dougg too.  Bann left with a huge smile on his face.  This was something he’d wanted to do for so long.

Oh, boy it would be great to see him laid out in the tube.  Oh boy, would it ever.

Bann thought his face might split.

Kkat hoped this would be the end of Dougg.  Being picked up in such a condition by tube bots was decidedly not a good thing for one’s reputation with the Corp. One was supposed to be more discreet in regards their dealings in the outer zones.  With Dougg’s already blemished rep, he was surely done for.

Mmarta deserved much better anyway, especially now.

She thought of what the news about Mmarta meant, to her and to the crèche.  So many depended on Mmarta for care and her motherly attributes.  What would they do now?  Surely Mmarta didn’t think Kkat would be able to fill in for all that?  She would accept the internship for the sake of the crèche but she wondered just how much responsibility they would try to saddle her with and how much could she stand?

Finally, she thought, dear God, Mmarta is dying and I’m worried about my workload.  JIZMO!

———-

“Alla us wha gots las names from Jaredd, das gut.  Alla res gonna hab “Taj” for las name ‘til we finds ya real one.  ‘R mayb’ sumun adops ya n ya hab dat name.  Das a’righ.”

After sorting out the logistics, the kids all tried on their new names for size, many laughing at the first-time sounds.  The most fun ones were Klipp Klop, who wanted to be adopted by Burtt along with 12 others.  Then there was Rajj Taj, Festerr Chester, Rrosie Posey, Ssandi Butte. And Mortt Mort, one of Kkat’s 18 adoptions, all under 10 and even three infants.

Most of the outer zoners decided to stay with the Taj. Some when they healed, others chose right away after the fight, though a lot of the oldest ones insisted on going out to be with Ccassie, especially her original crew.  They all swore allegiance to the Taj and were all offered naming too.

Ccassie happened to remember her last name, it was Meinklop.  She was the disgraced, long mysteriously gone missing daughter of the head of CommCorp himself.  She didn’t believe throwing that bit of history at the Corp would buy them any favours, so she kept it to herself and her crew all settled for Taj.

Every one of the little ones, aged 14 and under, stayed with Burtt and Kkat in the near-zone.  Everyone agreed this was best for them.

Eight girls who had been sex-slaves stole away into the red-zone as soon as they could get away and came back with infants they’d been hiding from their bosses.  Two of them were dead, the other six weren’t in much better condition but they at least had a chance, now.  All these babies were in the med-tent and in incubation chambers Harkk fashioned with Bbessie’s coaching.  Burtt took the two grieving mothers to the burial ground and helped them put their babies to rest.

Three more girls from Ccassie’s crew came over the wire with their infants, too.  They were in comparatively good condition as Ccassie was still mostly human.  Mmarta and Kkat would enlist these girls to help to build and to supply a nursery over the next few days.  They needed to get these babies out of the surgery suite.

———-

Education became the next most important aspect of life in the crèche after nutrition and health.  Courses were even set up for Ccassie’s crew.  No one was forced to learn but everyone had to contribute to the crèche in some way.  A lot of the older kids decided to learn a skill from Harkk or Bbessie or one of the other domestics or perservs, instead of more formal schooling.

Romance blossomed, and faded, often. There were even some feuds arising from jealous mates or jilted aspirers. The Taj council worked on ideas to help educate everyone about the follies of lovelorn foibles and adjudicate the worst cases of love driven violence.  They also worked on keeping the real young ones single.

When petty jealousies over small possessions started to break out across the creche, the council, under Jaredd and Harkk’s guidance,  finally concluded that their newly conjoined outer zones needed some form of regulation if they were truly going to attempt to be a civilised society.  The bots were basically useless in this regard as anyone can spoof them.  So, the council conferred and came up with the beginnings of an idea to self-police the zone.  A design for the police force was laid out with great emphasis on fairness to all.  The wire between outer zones remained dead in sector-22.  Even after the greenies recharged it, Harkk had built in a bypass.  The passage between the zones was eased.

Jaredd lived up to his word and he provided footballs and flags to mark out a field of play. Everyone learned to play footie over the next little while.  In time, teams were set and competitions scheduled, with awards for best teams and players.  It was great fun for all. Even Burtt and Kkat played.  Everyone learned the value of fair play and how to win or lose gracefully.  Everyone learned that some could, and some couldn’t and that most fell somewhere in between.

The Taj slowly recovered and indeed, thrived.

So, it went through the next few days, nights, weeks and months after the war.  A new nation was born for all intents and purposes.  One that would in time, challenge a giant.  the children, Like Ssyndi, were magnets for knowledge.  The more time moved forward the more this whole concept of exposure took form.

———-

Burtt had avoided this place since that terrible day.  So, it seemed, had everyone else.  A new path into the red zone had been worn into the soil that avoided the battleground itself.  Today Burtt decided it was time to clean up all signs of that carnage.  With Hamill’s huge blade in his hands, he knelt and prayed as he had never done before.  The crew that came with him left him alone.  They’d never seen him like this before and it spooked them.  They headed for the Taj or to Ccassie’s crèche without him.

“Lor’ Got, ya gots t’ take ole Burtt ‘fore he put no mor kids unna da dirt.  I knows times b’ nees to dah, but don’ lets me kilt da wron ones agin.  No mo lil ones, Lor’, no mo.  I caint stans ‘t.”

Burtt checked his work.  Happy that there were no more signs of the battle, he headed back to the Taj, determined to never again allow his rage to cloud his judgement.  NO more would he charge into battle willy-nilly.  He knew the consequences now.  He knew his creche-mates would never let him go it alone, regardless of their capabilities.   No more!

He only wondered now what to do with this great sword.  It had proved its worth in battle against Burtt, so he didn’t want to just throw it away.  But, it was covered in hardened blood and gore left from the battle, and Burtt couldn’t imagine the time it would take to clean it, remembering that savagery again.

He looked up to the heavens. Kkhloe had taught him to never throw a good tool away, or weapon.

Kkhloe whs a’righ?

His eye caught a glint of light sparkling off something shiny at the top of the rubble mound where the archers fought from, where Kkat was.  He clawed his way to the top and found what he was looking for.  He remembered it hanging around Jjes’s neck.  It was gold, she said.  Her mum’s cross, she called it.

Burtt used a large chunk of concrete to pound the blade half way into the mound.  The top of pommel was still up to Burtt’s chest.  He hung Jjes’ necklace from the hilt and hummed Amazing Grace again.

———-

“Well, well!  Looky wha da tide drug in.  “’F aint my ole fren, Pokke.  Wha brin ya way out he-ah, fren?”

Pokke recognised the predatory look in Zobbi’s eyes and Zobbi looked real sick now.  He was gone way over the edge and Pokke wet himself anew.  This had been a terrible week for him already.  He couldn’t imagine how in the hell he managed to run into this crazy bastard on top of all that, way the hell out here?

Why ain’t dis basta det?

“Zobbi, my man.  Ah so hap t’ see ya.  Oh my, Burtt gon craz and b’ killin’ ever’one.  Ah bare gets out a’righ, and he gots a ho pack o demon Ks runnin wit.” He whined.

“S’okay, ole Pokke.  Ya safe he-ah.  Ya in Zobbi’s crew now.  Ya tell awwww ’bout ole Burtt.  Ever’tin you know.  Gots it?  We gon take ca-ah him, gut.  Yessuh!”

The death’s head grin plastered on Zobbi’s face emptied the rest of Pokke’s bladder.

“JIZMO, Pokke.  Grow sum.  Get dis clown out o he-ah and get da stink out ‘fore you brin back. Gots it?  G’on!” he yelled at two grovelling toughs.

They pushed a whimpering Pokke ahead of them towards a sickening looking water hole they called clean.  When he wouldn’t go in himself, they pushed him in.  He thrashed about and screamed that he couldn’t swim.  His captors only laughed until he finally realised he was in waste deep water and could stand up.

Harkk drew up a rudimentary map of sector-22 so Burtt didn’t have to expose his good one to the harsh elements of the outer zones.

img001_li

The end

Part 6 –The most seriously injured in the war need more care than could be given in the near-zone.  The Taj council decides to push the issue.  Mmarta, Jaredd and some in the greenies secret Full Exposure Council agree.  A movement is begun to bring the neediest children into the green zone.  Under the guise of the immense threat these outer-zoners presented with their unclean existence, the Corp reacts. They send troops and Bots to clean up the rabble in near-zone sector 22.  Burtt stands in defiance.  Some in the city do too but at great cost and some must go underground.  The children have a whole passel of new wiggly, slurpy, messy, hungry pals to play with…and learn to care for.  Ssyndi spies on Kkat.  Zobbi sends spies to find holes in the Taj’s defences and intel on these new mysterious weapons Pokke was so terrified of. His day will come…