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chapter twelve
Part Four

They call me Maquis, these "whites" of Cooganís Bluff, and for them its a nickname harkening back to some earlier conflict. I wish they had connections to the outside world for I suspect there is something sinister about the nickname.

I have taken a new approach to my mission, I canít tell you when in the mission I made this change because I have completely lost track of time. I know it must be summer by now, the heat even in the night has replaced the chill of the early spring when I arrived... what was it now? A hundred? Two hundred days ago?

The new track came about after a successful trade with a large tribe just north of White Creek. Theyíve been nervous for a while, the stories of other conflicts between Backlanders and Indies, between Network forces and Settlers, have taken on their own life.

To the natives of this area recent events have put their entire livelihood in jeopardy and when their scouts heard a gunrunner was in the area they began sending out regular contacts seeking me out.

Thatís a little unnerving because I only recently arrived this far south. It has me wondering if there are other gunrunners in the area. Actually Iím sure there are, the question is are they independents or have my superiors seeded the region with multiple agents.

I suspect the later is the case, it would make sense, itís just unnerving. I am a senior agent with many years of service and had thought myself trusted enough that I wouldíve been made aware of other operatives, particularly those operating in my theatre.

Of course, it would be bad tradecraft to have told me, a cell that doesnít know of the rest of the body cannot betray confidence, but my pride is wounded none-the-less.

As I negotiated with the White Creek natives I mined their people for information about surrounding populations, potential next customers. It was here that learned about the "whites" of Cooganís Bluff.

Until I heard of them I had thought everyone Buffalo Commons fit into one of four categories:

Settlers are people whose descendants first usurped this land, long before the Eco-Crisis, sometimes as far back as the 1800ís.

Backlanders are the new arrivals. The people who have, in good faith they thought, bought deeds for lands long believed returned to nature and abandoned.

Then there are the Natives, First Nations, or as theyíre more commonly known, though rather inaccurately called, Indians or Indies.

The final group are the Network Forces, in-ground only because of the tensions caused by the arrival of Backlanders to the territory. In typical Network fashion their solution to a fire is to add flammables.

This we counted on when we set up this mission. Nothing encourages fear more than heavily armed strangers wandering around your once quiet territory. And fear feeds paranoia, helplessness and desperation. Who doesnít want to protect themselves?

And who doesnít fear large hordes of military whose first duty is to protect the invaders who have come to claim your birthright.

So with that knowledge I approached the residents of Cooganís Bluff only to learn there was a fifth category of people. Offlanders, those who came here during the crisis, to get away from society, to create their own cultures or protect dying ways of life.

Iíve come to Cooganís Bluff and discovered backward intellectuals. People descended from learned academians and political drop-outs who retreated to the wilderness for the comfort of a life in balance with nature.

Just like the Indies, theyíre concerned about the invaders, but theyíre also concerned about their neighbours.

So I have sold them the very same weapons.

And when their scout reported a Network team had arrived I beat a hasty retreat while the rest were pre-occupied and found a perch from which to watch the story unfold.

The Network took a loss and although my belief is to cherise all life, I found myself restraining a cheer as my enemy suffered.

But instead of reacting as I was led to believe they would this Network team defused the situation without further bloodshed, and itís leader, a strong but restrained Commander befriended those of Cooganís Bluff in half the time it took me to sell them the weapons they had demanded.

Where are the Neanderthals I was taught to expect? Where is the heavy handed over-reaction? If the Network is flooding Buffalo Commons with educated negotiators then surely this mission has already ended. Surely each of the tribes and contacts Iíve made have already been defused.

That cannot be allowed to happen.

* * *

Three sleepless nights later I am at the rendezvous point and for the first time ahead of the shipment.

As I lay in my caravan, attempting to remain cool, gathering my thoughts, I find the more I think about my recent observations the less sure I am of the mission.

I followed the Network team as they made their way towards the natives of White Creek who true to form had been vigilant in tracking their approaching opponent.

The numbers at White Creek were greater than I expected but unlike those at Cooganís Bluff they didnít fire first when the Network team arrived.

For two days there was nothing but a stand-off. No violence. Each side waiting for the other to proceed, to cross an undefined line, to throw down a challenge.

Finally, on the third day Keora, the medicine woman elder of the White Creekís stepped out and crossed the distance between their well staffed barricade and the Network Transport.

The Netties didnít fire on her, in fact before she was half way the Commander removed himself from the protection of his vehicle and moved to join her.

There they stood, for the better part of an hour, talking. I donít know what was said, cursed be the decision not to bring the right equipment, but when the elder reached out and touched the Nettieís arm I was ready to fire on both of them and start it myself.

Weeks of work, defused in an hour. The barricade removed, the Network soldiers welcomed as visitors, an evening of talk and companionship. Where did we go wrong?

I immediately left. No point in hanging about for the Network to find, and with my packed caravan I headed further south, first to this spot, my replenishment site, and then beyond, into the wilds of a region that once was known as Oklahoma.

Except my replenishment hasnít arrived. Without that shipment I have no way to report my progress and warn of the methods the Network is using to defeat us. Without that shipment I cannot seed the region and will not know where the next cache of weapons are to sell.

Without this shipment I am adrift in a sea of infidels, on a backward land so unlike the one of my birth that it may as well be another planet.

* * *

My slumber is fitful in the heat of the mid-day afternoon, I have visions of my homeland, greatly changed during my prolonged absence. Only in my dream my mission hasnít kept me away for months but decades.

In these dreams Cairo has been bled back to the days of horror in the Eco-crisis when the streets were littered with the bodies of my brothers and sisters because the desert has won after the beloved Nile dried up.

The images of these dreams will linger with me for weeks. I awake with tears in my eyes and deep longing for home but those thoughts are quickly put aside because my slumber was finally broken by the hum of two approaching air craft.

The larger one is another one of those abundant Starbusí built by the devil themselves, and constantly seen of late flitting around any area with population. The second is less impressive and looks like the sort of vehicle one would hire if they planning to rob someone who didnít have any wealth.

The smaller, boxy craft remains airborne as the Starbus lands, and it then I see why. The Starbus has recently been in battle. I tense up, wondering if the Network has found me out and I am about to face some sort of reconning.

Yet when the side hatches of the Starbus open only a small woman is seen. She guides out of her hold my two containers and then approaches me, saying, "Sorry about the delay. Itís along story."

Both containers are dirty and weather beaten, not something I normally see until after Iíve been using them a week or so. One of them has obviously been tampered with, I challenge her on this.

With a weariness that goes far beyond her years she explains the last few days to me. She tells me of the Christian Missionaries who turn out to be Soviet agents and hijacked her craft only to abandon her and the containers in the brushland. I try not to react at this, the idea that New Soviet agents are also in play makes my job more precarious, and at first I worry that a reaction will tip her off. Then I realize no reaction would be unheard of were I indigenous so I simply allow my face to reflect her energy and emotions. It isn't hard.

She tells me how she needed one of the containers, to use as a makeshift vehicle, to find a way to call for help. And she tells me of the final confrontation after sheíd regained her craft between her and the leader of the foreign squad, in a battle that badly damaged her prized Starbus and ultimately destroyed her opponent in a fiery conflagration.

She is nearly in tears as she talks about her craft, its enough to make me feel for her despite the fact she has put so much passion into an inanimate thing that will ultimately fail her but I am weak with desire for the inanimate things of my normal life so I empathize with her.

"The ďrocks" as she calls them, "are all there." A sure sign she hasnít a clue to their true nature. She tells me to have El Bazzar contact her for a refund if heís unhappy, itíll pain her to return payment but "What can you do when events conspire so."

And with that she turns and wearily returns to her Starbus which sputters and hesitates as it regains the air and limps off, its little companion in tow.

I know just how it feels.

Then, by will power alone, I rise to the containers and begin laying out the contents. It will take a minimum of sixty in just the right arrangement for me to regain contact with my superiors.

As I lay out the rocks I compose my report in my head. No more than sixty characters, each one with a meaning and message. Hopefully the response will mean Iím am soon to see my beloved home.

* * *