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chapter twelve
Part One

They call me MaQ. It's a contraction of my full name, an ancient and historic one which means popular, which is odd because I have few friends, by intent, and know almost none of my co-workers, although I have thousands of them.

My journey began months ago, back in early spring when my employer sent me to the largest center in Masr, what outsiders call Egypt, to arrange transit on my most demanding mission yet.

As I stood in the Radial Hub facility on the edge of Cairo and waited for my “partner”, a seedy gentleman with startling connections, I was once again overwhelmed by the aromas.

As a child I would not have believed such a place could exist inside the League. This part of Cairo is a den of inequity, a narrow band of illegal trading, and my only path to the outside world. It is allowed to exist only for the convenience of people like myself.

My contact has led me to the very edge of power. Were I law enforcement this would be my goal because beyond the nearby doors I could see the massive hulk of one of the region's most powerful underworld figures, El Bazaar. His minions have aided me before, in the process I've earned their trust, it's the only reason I'm allowed this close to the center of their universe now.

Kaleb, an El Bazaar supernumerary who looks like a westerner, stepped forward with the details pack. He tells me which bay to be in and when. It will be El Bazaar's own personal craft that takes me the next day, which means I shall ride in excessive comfort.

That was a concern because El Bazaar's generosity is well known, as is his resentment when gifts offered are refused. The idea that I could be put in the position of breaking most of the tenants of my faith en route to this mission doesn't please me, but the higher good must prevail.

I explain to Kaleb that there may be, from time to time, containers arrive for transport after me. I explain to the logistics man that this will get more difficult as time progresses, which makes him nervous.

He cannot know that soon the world will turn its attention on my destination. And that once it does the Network will be forced to mobilize in the area I'm going to and most likely they will close down the region, particularly for air travel. He cannot know because he doesn't need to.

So before he can protest further I tell him each follow up will come with two kilobars of Gold, one for their efforts, the other for the pilot. A kilobar is a very generous payment for a pilot and a ridiculously large commission for a cargo broker. The generosity raises concerns.

“My employer, like your own, requires discretion.” It's the truth, more applicable than this minion could ever imagine.

“The crates are to travel without questions being asked by you or them, just sent to coordinates that will be included. How you work that out is up to you but if a shipment fails to reach me then my employers will know and the next shipment will travel by other means.”

And with that I was off. Three crates and an ancient wooden wagon, two mounts and enough supply to get me started. The craft lifted off on time, made good time to Buffalo Commons, and set me down in the north, very near the WestCan border. Exactly as requested.

The rest, was up to me.

* * *

The first few nights were miserable. I'd camped out before, but never so far north, never so well exposed to the chill of wet and weather. I could not have brought anything modern, nothing that on inspection would indicate I wasn't a native of this land for generations, therefore I was forced to rely of ratty hypertextiles that had long lost their effectiveness and aging natural fibres that broke at the slightest touch.

The effort was no comfort. It had cost a fortune to get me outfitted properly, nearly as much again to get me here, and now I was going to catch cold and die in this foreign land.

The animals, thankfully were heartier. They seemed to revel in the taste of the wild grasses. And on occasion we came across their free roaming brethren, which was a surprise because it had been pretty much accepted such beast had died out in this part. It was funny to me that so many Arabians could be in this land.

The truly spectacular thing came on the fifth day, as I crested a hill and saw something my wildest imagination could not believe. It was an open plain of short grass covered by masses of large hairy beasts which looked like cattle but in these parts were referred to as Bison, or more commonly Buffalo.

It was like counting the stars on a clear night, there were thousands if not millions of them wandering across the landscape. I was forced to wait almost two days for the herd, an inadequate word if there ever was one, to pass before I could continue.

During this time I sat and took in the splendor that a sea of wild creatures created as their mass undulated across the horizon as one.

* * *

By the tenth day I'd arrived at my first target. A small tribe of locals.

I am one of the unfortunate few in my nation who has seen the world. It is a dizzying dismal place. The chasm between wealth and poverty outside our borders is sickening and it has frequently been my job to go where things are teetering between subsistence and sustainable and when possible nudge the populations into disruptive behaviour.

It's not a difficult job most of the time, its long hours of walking about, hanging about and listening. Usually, in order to fit in I must imbibe. Something against my cultural edict. I tipple my alcoholic beverages, mostly to remain in control of myself while others around me lose theirs, but also because of my faith. Alcohol is one of many risks I must take that my Superiors at EL AOYOON do not wish to know about.

It was different with these people however. They welcomed me as a distant cousin. Fed me and shared their things with me. In many respects they treated me exactly as we would've treated them back home.

That was the first night I wondered about this mission.

* * *