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by Michael E. Johnson

Uncertainty is the only principle.

"Mommy, what's out in the green?" The doe eyes of the preschooler look up from the floor-to-ceiling glass window looking out over lake Michigan. Several kilometers away a thin arc of land tinged with green, and the last remaining monuments to Chicago off to the right.

Mother turns the shade up further to ease the sun pouring into the room, and turns the vid off.

"Nothing, Dear."

Her breath on the glass, squinting, she puts her hands around her eyes to see better through the now-smokey glass at the birds flying down below near the boardwalk around the base of the arcology. "Maybe we can visit."

Her mother chuckles, "Come eat your lunch."


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Chapter 23. [UNEDITED]

Markus sits on the low cot next to Chrys' suit and a compact submachine gun with a grunt, and starts untying his shoes. Chrys looks down at him, and glares sideways at D.T. reading a book on her cot. "Deet, make him stop." D.T. shrugs.

"Child," pulling off a shoe and pointing to the suit with it "I was wearing this suit long before your mom was a gleam in the gleam of my sister's eyes" Tossing the shoe on the floor he lifts his stiff leg up and positions the foot on his knee with some effort. "We're on alert until we get a few more Janitors on hand." He removes his other shoe and points it at her, "and that means everyone pulls their weight."

"Grampie." Chrys folds her arms.

"You're on dawn patrol, I've got this tonight, so you'll need some rest." He plops his foot down and uses his cane to stand, grunting. "We just have to make it a day or two until we get some support."

He begins shrugging off his button-up shirt. "Now go get ready for bed."

"Yes, sir." Crestfallen, Chrys walks past DT to the bathroom, and gives her cot a kick while silently making a strangling gesture at her. "Thanks for the help." she mutters under her breath. DT doesn't look up, but shrugs. "He said I'm on rest until tomorrow."

Shakily removing his pants, DT rolls her eyes, "You need help, Grampie?" He holds his cane and freehand up looking around the bed and floor.

"Hmm?" He raises an eyebrow at her and drops his pants. His thin nearly naked frame in boxers looks like scarred rope, sun darkened around the hand and neck, pale and white everywhere else.

"What are you looking for?" She puts a finger in her book to hold her place and begins reaching for a bookmark.

He smiles, points to the cane in his other hand, "Cane." chuckles, and leans over using the bed for help. Grasping the cane with his free hand, he leans on the cane and steps out of his pants. Surveying the suit on the cot, he grunts again and eases himself back down onto the cot, laying the behind him. Dragging the suit over, he pauses for a few seconds to run his fingers over the cloth, and pulls the leggings onto his bad leg. Like the shed skin of some huge reptile, the suit looks oversized and drooping. He shrugs on the jacket, and pulls the opening together. It knits itself together where he presses. Taking his free hand, he pulls back his hair and slips the mask over his head, a bit tight he winces to get it past his nose.

He looks over at DT, takes his cane and stands again. "Well?"

"You look like a raisin." She smiles.

"What the hell did you kids do to the config in this suit? What a mess!" Markus stares at the wall blankly.

"Grampie, we adapted and improvised. Chrys writes some crazy scripts to automate."

Markus turns to her, reaches up and touches his temple. The suit shifts, tightens to his frame. Tubules in the suit inflate down his legs, augmenting the muscle there. He cracks his neck, and leans forward to pop his back and stretch. Testing each leg, he hops up and down a few times. "Ahh yes." He holds his cane up, "You sir, can take a break." and places it on the bed. He gingerly picks up the gun and runs a hand over it. Opening the bolt, and releasing the magazine, he rolls the first round with his thumb, and tests the spring. He replaces the magazine, and readies his weapon.

He salutes DT, "Madame, I shall return after my shift." and struts out into the dark. The workshop and barrack lights barely light the back end of the ship. Through the dark warehouse, Markus tries several different gaits, a few jumps onto equipment, interspersed with pauses and touches to his forehead, working his way to the kitchen. Shoulders back, he takes a deep breath and steps in.

Jimmy, sipping coffee at the table with Jesse, smiles. "Very distinguished." Markus sidesteps, and enables the camo. "Is it working from your perspective?" Jesse turns, "Looks a little off." Markus turns to face him, and melts into the background. "It's sightline targeted." Jesse nods and raises his cup, "Beautiful." He looks to Jimmy, "Frightening, but beautiful." Jimmy chuckles. "Have a seat. I'll make you a cup." Markus shakes his head, "On duty until dawn. I'll pop in and make some later."

"You sure?" Jimmy starts standing.

"Yeah, get some sleep. I'm gonna stretch my legs for a while outside, check on the party favors the girls left out." Markus hops up and down a little.

Jimmy chuckles. "You're liking the mobility aren't you?"

"Once we get a few more suits, I may just wear these legs all the time." He salutes them, bows the tiniest fraction, and slips out the door into the black warehouse.

Slow measured steps in the dark, Markus sweeps on the far side of the CRUFT, scanning the ridge of the lifter and taking general looks behind boxes and crates stacked in the corner. Back behind the tail, he steps into the light in the workshop where Tony is sitting on a low stool, back panel off the old refrigerator, leaning in poking a printed circuit board with a small probe, a folded plastic sheet of schematics over his leg. A pair of magnifying glasses perch down his nose, his eyebrows up and head tilted back slightly to read the probe.

"Working late?" Markus interrupts.

Tony doesn't shift, but moves the probe over a few tracings. He glances down at the sheet. "Yeah. I think the board's good. Maybe it's just out of refrigerant."

"You gonna be up a while?"

"Hmm. Yeah, probably." He turns and looks at Markus over his glasses, putting down the probe. "Suit looks good. Everything working properly?"

Markus hold up a hand and turns it. "Working great. Like a second skin."

Tony pushes the glasses back up on his face and turns back to the circuit board. "Your girls have kept good care of those suits. Well.. " he shrugs, " considering the circumstances. We might want to augment their training with a little handyman work."

"I can see some value in cross-training them."

"Great." Tony snaps a plastic case over the board, and begins removing case screws to a larger cover through which the radiator tubes can be seen. "Jesse's brought it up more than a few times. We figured DT could start learning some appliance coding. She can help me with this bad boy, and get a foundation in just about all the general automation code that's out there."

"If you think it will help."

Tony turns to him again, "The code in here is fairly simple, measurements and fail-safes. It's reverse compilable to just about any language she might encounter, so it's probably the best sandbox she could play in." Turning his attention back to the cover, he gives it a good yank and it pops off. He brushes a finger over one of the tabs that seems to have snapped off. "Damn."

Markus nods. "Looks like she's gonna have a busy couple of weeks. She's a quick learner, so I don't think she'll have a problem."

"I think she'll enjoy it. Plus, if she knows how we work, she'll have a better handle on how to protect us." He makes a grimace tasting the words in his mouth. "How to protect the handymen."

Markus shifts a little, "Have a good night, Tony. I may pop in again if you're up."

"Sure thing, Markus." Tony waves, turns back to the tubes running up and down the back of the fridge, and adjusts his glasses again.

Markus steps back into the dark, and heads out through the loading bay.

He switches vision to lowlight, and activates locate for the traps the girls prepared. Two on the roof, and one on the roof opposite. He messages Chrys, ".TST.QE."

"RGR.RCV.ACK." floats into his field of view.

He pauses and tries to make the response by thinking. He presses his fingers to his temple and tries again. "Dammit." He takes a breath and touches his throat, sub-vocalizing. "Ack, Over." "ACK,OVR" appears in the feed.

"WATCH OUT FOR THE TOYS."

"WILCO, LOCATED." Barely a thought this time and the response is sent.

Pausing again, touching his throat. "CHRYS, We really need to talk about the QEEG interface."

"IT'S BROKE. CAN ONLY DO PICTURES."

"You think maybe we could ask Tony and Jess to take a look in the morning?"

"WILCO"

He clears the feed and slips across the alley, diagonal five or six meters from the warehouse, to the corner furthest from the main drive. Slinging his weapon on his back, Markus jumps up to grasp the edge of the metal roof, 3 meters off the ground. He hangs for a few seconds, and sighs. Reaching a hand quickly to his temple, the tubes in his back and upper arms stiffen, and he pulls himself up. Finally on the roof he shakes his head and begins moving in a slow crouch toward the locate beacon flashing "Cry Baby". Touching his thumb and forefinger together, a menu appears before the device. Scrolling down his finger with his thumb, he sees a list of green checkmarks, checks the perimeter distance, and battery life. Seeing the next target back across the alley, he scurries the few meters to the edge to measure the distance to the warehouse. Rubbing his legs, he shakes his head again, slips over the edge and drops down to the ground. A few good bounds and a good jump and he pulls himself up to a vent window, and then again up to the roof edge.

"CHRYS, NEED NOISEMAKERS IN VENT WINDOWS"

"WILCO"

From this side, he's able to check both traps without needing to get within their perimeters. So, he lays down near the apex to scan the surrounding buildings through his weapon sight. He skims through his feed, and makes a call.

Some muffled audio and grumbling, and an older feminine voice swims into speak "... someone better damn well be bleeding."

"Agnes."

"What in the hell time do you think it is? How is this?"

"You old tart, it's time to gear up and get your ass down here and help hold the line." Markus chuckles.

"I don't know what you're smokin' buddy.."

"Agnes, it's Markus."

A longer pause. "Markus? What the hell have you been up to? Are you in some kind of trouble?"

"No. I'm right as rain. Taking up shop with Jimmy out in the southwest suburbs. Bill said," Markus scans the horizon lights of town, and even sweeps south toward the vast blackness outside the rust belt.

"Bill. That bastard's been on me about me getting all domesticated in my old age. hmm. Well, I'm tired. Get to the point."

"I want you to get your suit on, and get down here. We're building a security firm, got some janitors, and a few handymen. No military though, just us."

"And people are trying to kill you again, aren't they?"

Even through the mask, the dimples of his smile show through. "Always."

"Sounds fun. If it still sounds fun in the morning, then I'll see you in a few days. Just have to find someone to watch the cat."

"Bring it"

"Him", her voice a bit offended.

"God, woman, you got a male cat? What were you thinking?"

"He just kinda showed up. Kinda like everything else in my life. Is Bill coming?"

"Bring the cat, we're in a big warehouse, and I'm sure he'll find no end of small creatures to eat. No, sorry, no Bill. He said he wouldn't be able to make it for a few weeks, his great granddaughter has some event or other."

"Typical. He'll probably waltz in an steal my shot again."

"Good talking with you Agnes. I've got overwatch tonight, we've had an interesting couple of days."

"G'night Strom. If I feel like dropping everything I've got going on to come play janitor with you, you'll know tomorrow."

"Tea and Soaps isn't a lot going on." Markus looks at the nearest dozen or so warehouses, mostly identical lining the main road. Even in thermal, there isn't anything moving. Back west again, he can see the heat signatures of small methane heater plumes in the chimneys of villas among the ruined parts of the area. Easily a hundred homes within the nearest kilometer or so.

"Bill is an ass. Good night, Strom."

"I'm uniquely aware. But a useful ass. Good night, Agnes." Markus closes the connection. "That's one." he whispers.

Occasionally he crawls to a new position, scans around with his sights, and cycles through various wavelengths. Eventually he tunes in to radio chatter from the lines of fliers drawing their red and white trails across the northern sky.

Eventually, the sun rises. Markus slides down off the side, lands a little rough, and hobbles back into the kitchen. Pulling his mask up to eat and drink a little coffee, Jimmy comes shuffling in.

Through a yawn, Jimmy manages to ask "How was your night?"

Markus smiles. "Wonderful."



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c. 2012 Michael E. Johnson
Email me: father @ bigattichouse d0t c0m
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CRUFT by Michael E. Johnson is licensed under a
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Based on a work at cruft-private-janitorial.com.