by Michael E. Johnson

Uncertainty is the only principle.

A beautiful woman, sitting at a gazebo in a lovely white summer dress. A man steps forward and kneels,

opening a small box containing a glossy dark brown cube.

"Love is forever - but her heart can only flutter for real Cacao.

Hand polinated in sealed arboretums, fermented and processed by skilled craftsmen.

Remember, two months salary - just a moment on the lips.

She'll treasure the memory forever."

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Chapter 21. [UNEDITED]

Chrys carries two backpacks into the machineshop, where Jesse is standing in front of a lathe, Tony sits on a stool, stooped over at one end of a long workbench containing the disassembled gun, next to what almost looks like the original. The workbench wraps along two walls of the shop with shelves overhead and below, the other two dominated with various machine tools. He's looking through a large magifying glass, holding a small laser in one hand. The laser projects a tiny red spot on a circuit board in front of him, occasionally he taps the button and it fires a blue-purple light, melting the solder. Tony blows at the little puff of smoke. He takes the syringe in his other hand very close to the last solder joint and presses a button, which releases a speck of paste beside the first joint.

She steps over behind Tony and leans in, "You mind if I steal some bench space?"

Tony squints at her, and shouts "What?" She starts talking, he holds up his right hand holding what looks like a syringe needle. With his other hand, he reaches up and pulls out an earplug. "What?"

"You mind if I steal some bench space?" She raises one of the packs and nods her head toward the free space on the bench next to him, "Suit maintenance."

"Sure, you got several meters there, at least." He smiles gesturing with the needle, "You could probably lay a whole suit out."

Chrys steps over and places both packs on the table, pulls some flaps open, and unrolls the first suit. She pulls out a small handheld device, and plugs it into the suit and begins swiping through menus.

Tony looks over and pulls out an earplug. "No entangled display on the diagnostics?"

She smiles, "OpSec, No Net – No Leak".

"We've got some foldout displays here, you could run wired. The equipment around here is probably the same generation as your suits." He leans back and looks up at the shelves above the bench, then around the wall.

"I'm good." She finds what she's looking for and taps the screen. "Analysis 0.01%" sits in the middle of the screen. She sets it down, and pulls out small tools from the pack.

Jesse finishes the piece, shuts the machine down, and brings the shiny aluminum tube back over to the table wrapped in a cloth. He smiles, giving a little wave, "Hey Chrys."

"Hey" She pulls on a pair of goggles fitted with microscope objective lenses, flicks a switch on the side, and a ring of purple lights around one of the eye pieces begin to glow. She leans in within a dozen centimeters or so, a small pick in one hand and tweezers in the other both attached to the scanner. She begins teasing out small sections of the cloth, working her way down the length of the suit, stopping where a tiny tear reflects the purple glow.

Jesse slowly slides the tube into the body of the handle, until it makes a slight *thunk*. "Ho-kay Tony, ready to weigh when you are".

"Almost there." Zap, puff. A whisp of smoke rises up to the side.

"So.." Jesse leans over to look at Chrys' work. "What's that for?"

Chrys doesn't stop sweeping the fabric. "The fibers will knit themselves if you can get the exposed ends to touch and give them a little current." She holds the tweezers up and makes a pinching motion. "Yours?"

Not looking up, Tony solders several more pins. "I decided to go ahead and butcher a QE logger we had, but make it slim enough to

fit in place of the primary board, so a quick glance will look fairly familiar to the tech. But the best part will be when they power it up."

Jesse turns back to Tony, "Why's that?"

Tony keeps soldering but starts to smile "Because it's going to start transmitting a full spectrum sweep, including audio" He points with the syringe to a roll-about terminal parked by the door, " that machine there. And it's not going to shut down until it runs out of power, or they physically cut the power. The switch only turns it on". Zap. Puff. Tony sets the tools down, and plugs in a small box. Several lights turn green in sequence. "And.. we're good." he pulls the rectangular board up and assembles the weapon stock around it, screws in the connectors, and hands it to Jesse. "All yours."

Jesse takes the stock and slips it over the receiver, snapping it in place. He turns to Chrys, "You want to go for a walk?"

"Without armor? Scanner's at 35%."

"How long until we'd be able to go with you're armor on?"

She looks at him through the goggles, makes a face and shifts her head back and forth. "Probably an hour or so, I have a lot to fix on this one.. it's been a while since we had time for actual diagnostics."

Jesse scrunches up his face, "I'll see if Jimmy's up for a walk, I don't want to keep this thing around longer that we have to."

"I'll go" Tony stands up and stretches, rubbing his lower back. "I'd, uh," looking at Chrys then back at Jesse, "I'd like to talk to you about me stepping back a bit."

Jesse nods, chews on the thought for a bit, and nods "Yeah, that's probably good. You good with me bringing the revolver?"

Tony stretchs again, rubs his neck, "Sure. That's probably a good idea considering." Jesse picks up the white gun, tests the weight in his hands and hands it to Tony. "Lemme run back to my bunk and grab a dozen rounds, I'll meet you by the side door."

"Sure," Tony looks the wave gun over, looks up and smiles at Chrys still combing over her suit. "Looks pretty good, huh?"

Chrys keeps picking and tapping little threads with the probe. "Tony?"


"Don't walk straight there, no need to just lay out the welcome mat."

He raises an eyebrow, "Yeah, that's probably a good idea. I'll make sure we head out a few dozen blocks before we circle back."

He runs a hand over the barrel of the wave device. "You don't think all the noise might have drawn a great big arrow pointing back here?"

She pauses holding a tiny thread in the tweezers and looks up, "Totally. They've already got a bead on us, but no sense in just giving up just yet." She smiles, and gives a little chuckle, "Hell, this just started getting interesting." She pulls another thread over and touches it to the first, the glow fades and she moves on. "Additionally, I'm not interested in drawing the eye of any locals who might be looking for an easy mark. We need to present a professional facade."

Nodding, "Agreed." Tony walks out of the tool room into the main hanger. He steps slowly over to look at the aft of the CRUFT. A black, sulfurous oil drips from a blown-open rocket tube, little metal petals lining the hole where the emergency landing rockets blew open the seals. Getting closer he takes a sniff and crinkles his nose. He steps back and starts walking back along her length running a hand on the brushed steel, "I'm sorry, baby.. we'll get you up and running soon. Just gotta take care of some ", holding up the mock weapon " stupidity first."

He walks back toward the bunkhouse, where Jesse emerges loading his revolver. Jesse looks up, "You good?" Tony holds up the gun, "Yup." Jesse reaches to his belt and unhooks another small device, shaped like a pistol grip with tongs. "I grabbed you a taser."

Tony looks at it, "No thanks. I'm good."

"Just hold it."

Tony grimaces, "Nah, I'm really just not interested." He sighs, "I'm done with weapons, Jess. I just can't bring myself to carry one."

"Tony. Please, I understand... but this could buy us time if we have more of those goons to worry about. Non lethal. Just carry it. " He holds the grip out again. "Better the have it and not need it."

Tony just stares at the grip.

"Dammit, Tony, if we're out there I want to make sure you can keep me safe." Jesse's cheeks begin to flush and he waves the grip at Tony again. "It's non-fucking-lethal. I got it for you specifically because of your stupid, " he waves away the term with his hands and takes a deep breath, " sorry... your concerns about guns. Now put the damn thing on your belt, and let's go."

"Go to hell," Tony takes the grip of the taser and holds it in his hand while still cradling the decoy device. He pulls the trigger and watches it crackle for a few seconds, little arcs of electricity jump between the metal posts. He releases the trigger, and slides the device's clip onto his belt and turns for the door. Quietly, tension visible in his clenched jaw, he begins walking away from Jesse. Sharply turning the corner out the door, he disappears from view.

Jesse watches him for a second, "Tony, c'mon." He shuffles to catch up, and run outside. The bright light of day makes him squint a little, he shields his eyes, and looks for Tony who is making a considerable pace up the alley. "Tony! Wait up." Jesse jogs along, and already is a little out of breath by the time he catches. His legs having to step pretty quickly to keep up with Tony's longer stride. "Tony, I'm sorry."

Tony just keeps walking.

"I chose my words ... huff ... poorly." Jesse already showing fatigue.

"You did." Tony staring straight ahead, not breaking his stride. His eyes narrow, "You really think it's stupid.", he glances sideways at Jesse, "Deep down."

Jesse, "I'm dealing with it. That's why I got you the taser." He jestures at Tony's belt, and does a little skip to get ahead of Tony. "I want you to be safe, and I want you do do what you love – but right now..."

"Right now, I need to be armed because someone is trying to kill us." Tony stops abruptly.

Jesse, now walking a little backward also stops, "Yes!" His arms wide, he almost looks like he could hug Tony, a great big smile on his face he gulps at the air. "Just for a little while."

"And next week? Next month? If we keep at this thing, someone will always be trying to kill us." He brushes past Jesse and begins walking again.

Jesse scurries to catch up. "Ok, I understand. But look, I took your concern into account." Pointing at the taser again. "I got something non lethal. Something that could buy you time to get away from a nasty situation. "

Tony keeps his stride, and takes a deep breath. "I still just don't want to live that life any more. I've always been uncomfortable with guns, and not a very good shot anyway, but the idea of killing someone is.. just.. " He purses his lips, still stepping quickly, looks up and away to the left

"Wrong?" Jesse puffs out.

Tony looks at him, not slowing. "Yes. Wrong. I just don't want to kill anyone."

Jesse scurries along, "I don't want to kill anyone either."

Tony stops dead and scowls at Jesse. "Then why the hell would you start a janitorial company?"

Jesse leans over and puts his hands on his knees, panting and gulping for air. He raises a hand to Tony, and takes several dozen breaths before looking up at him from his panting. "Because.." His hand back on his knee, he pants more. One good deep breath, he stands up, his cheeks speckled red. He reaches out to put one hand on Tony. "Because sometimes you gotta protect the little people. And sometimes that means you gotta fight dirty."

"What do you mean?" Tony steps back, a puzzled look on his face.

"You weren't down with us rats. You don't know what it's like." Jesse shakes his head.

Tony stiffens. "We didn't exactly have it easy."

Jesse holds his hands up in supplication, "Relax, I'm not saying you did." One hand on his chest, he takes a few more deep breaths and sighs. "I made my way fixing things, or building things, or helping someone squeeze the last few joules from a 'dead' cell. My first proud moment was when I was able to make a scrap LED light up the shack we built for mom. It... " He smiles and looks off to the side " It was a tiny spark of joy in her last few days of life. I was able to piece together enough scrap metal and salt to keep it lit through the night. We'd kept on the move before that, but once the tumor started growing, she couldn't walk anymore, and we had to settle where we landed."

"I'm sorry about your mom Jess, but that doesn't change my mind." Tony starts walking again, but this time at a more comfortable pace. Jesse strolls beside him.

"It's not supposed to." Jesse puts his hands in his pockets and looks down. "Where we landed was hell. But once we buried mom, dad couldn't stand to leave – he just gave up. So we stayed, in the mud streets and piss and shit, and we scrapped for every little thing. Picking through mountains of garbage for anything useful. We even burned plastics to warm the shack... And then they would come." They walk on for a while in silence. Tony glancesover, but says nothing.

Jesse stopped this time, "They took my sister, Tony." He looks up at Tony, with tears in his eyes. "The just ripped the door off, stuck a gun in Dad's face, and took her. He just kneeled, begging them around the barrel in his mouth, and cried. I couldn't move, I think I was 12 or so. It took me a long time to even realize that they would have killed me had I even twitched, but I still feel like I should have done something."

Jesse wipes his eyes, and they keep walking. "They, " he chokes a little and wipes his eyes again, "They threw her in the cesspit when they were done with her, Dad tried to climb down – but the neighbors wouldn't let him because of the gas. They fished her out with ropes, and buried her with mom in the makeshift graveyard."

Another deep breath, "Dad hung himself with the ropes." Just footsteps on the cracked gravel and pavement. "I walked away and never looked back."

"So," a deep breath, a big sniff, and using his sleeve to clean his eyes. "We're gonna help those who don't have Janitors. We're gonna be the Handymen for the little guys. " He grits his teeth and looks at Tony, "We're gonna make safe places for kids to sleep at night."

Tony wipes his eyes as well, and smiles. "Damn straight." swapping the decoy to his other hand, and patting Jesse on the shoulder. "I think I understand now."


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c. 2012 Michael E. Johnson
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