One day ago
Tom wove his way through the crowds of Eavesdown Docks, ducking under loads, around lifters, over piles, through conversations. If it weren’t for the throngs of spaceship captains and merchants, haulers and wayward passengers, Tom Beartooth would’ve been caught, gutted, and fried up to be served as a side order to Good Dogs
. Tom’s long raven hair bounced and flipped until he rounded a few merchant tents and then he abruptly tucked his head inside a nondescript hat. He reversed his poncho and pulled up his collar, slipping into step with a particular group of shepherds known to make their rounds about this time of day. Two of the thugs were stopping a bike-cab, yanking the passenger out to examine him in the light before tossing him back with a less enlightened vocabulary as a consolation prize.
Tom glanced over at the backside of the thug nearest him and grinned. He whispered a prayer to the spirit of Old Man Coyote and reached out to slide a nice dagger from the thug’s belt. The dagger and its hilt disappeared under Tom’s sleeve, and he gave a self-satisfied chuckle. He took a couple of steps to fall in behind the itinerant monks when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Shit. That didn’t work. Uh…hi, Wil.”
“Yer mine now, Injun,” growled the yellow-toothed giant. He picked Tom up by the collar with one hand and punched him in the face. Tom went flying backwards into a pyramid of woven baskets filled with fish. A moan issued from the pile. The thug lumbered over to grab the boots sticking out from the pile of fish and yanked. But instead of Tom’s legs, he stared only at empty footwear. Enraged, the thug started digging through the stinky fish until his companion finally convinced him to stop.
“Come on, Wilhelm. We’ve got to get back before Badger gets his knickers in a bunch.”
“I’m a-gonna kill me that gorram
Longhair next time I lay eyes,” Wilhelm growled. “Got m’ favorite skinnin’ knife.”
Tom watched from underneath the pile of entrails until Wilhelm and the other goon ambled away. A few spectators were either too busy or simply did not care to do more than shake their heads and hold their noses at him. He walked, barefoot, the rest of the way home.
Two Hours Later
Scowls. Insults. Disapproving glances. For as long as Tom Beartooth could remember, that had been the way of things—even when he wasn’t being chased by hoodlums or swimming in fish guts. He knew the history well because that’s how his People survived the long trip from Earth-That-Was. Tom traced most of his ancestry to a group of Native First Nations that still scraped out a living on that dying rock—specifically Crow, Chippewa, Cree, Blackfoot, and a few others. His grandfather told him that when it came time for that great Exodus across the stars, their ancestors formed a tight group and centered themselves on stories of how their ancestors before them were forced onto reservations in order to change their lives. The Cherokee had the strongest stories, and from those came a call to all the First Peoples for a new Story that would give them an identity among the stars. Just to propose such a thing was a soul-wrenching process for the First People whose core identities relied on the land they felt were made just right for them.
“Four Things,” Tom’s grandfather, George, would tell him. “Four things made up the People. The land. The language. The stories. And the ceremonies. These Four. But the Great Mother Earth became ill because of the poison that the other peoples had fed her. She told her children, ‘I am dying. So, I am sending you to my sisters and brothers across the Black Water of the Sky. For a time, you will no longer have a land where your father’s and mother’s bones rest. So, you will have to take up a new thing so that the Great Balance will be maintained.’”
As a child, Tom would listen as the smoke from his grandfather’s pipe curled about his head. It was a hard time back then, but it was still the best time Tom ever remembered. As hard as it was, it was better than now.
“So, the Fourth Thing became the People themselves,” Grandfather George said. “Clans. Families. Tribes. All of those who the Creator made as the First Human Beings. Our People. That is why the Native First People survived the journey, because we stayed strong among ourselves and did not rely on the others who killed the Great Mother of us all. We kept our languages and our ceremonies strong. We remembered the old stories and told new ones.”
But the isolation of the various groups of First Peoples came with a price. While the other cultures of the world mixed and melted together, the First Peoples came to be seen as paranoid, haughty, purist, and intolerant. And it was true that it was very difficult for people from other cultures to get along with First People groups. Tom himself was a very private person. A few of his cousins were outright racists who refused to even associate with those in other cultural groups. But the suspicion went both ways, and so generations after that Great Journey, Tom and his families were still called ‘Injun.’ If Tom was still surrounded by his family, he’d probably be okay about the insults. But he didn’t need yet another rude gesture aimed at him to tell him that he was not okay. Most definitely not.
A Moment Later
“Phyāṭa mā bēśyā!
You smell! Get out of my shop, Injun.”
“Peshwar. Please. Look, I got you some parts you’ve had your eye on. Here…” Tom emptied the hidden pockets of his poncho and his pants, laying them on a nearby work table. The shop was littered with dozens of like shelves.
Peshwar’s bulging eyes rolled over the various small electronics and engine parts like a lizard inspecting ripe dung beetles. He even flicked his tongue out of his mouth a couple of times. “Garbage. It’s all ruined. I can smell it from here. Go away. No business with you today.”
Tom stared at the Bengali. “Where’s Gobi?”
“He took the GANESH
out to fix a stalled Firefly transport in orbit. And I, for one, am glad he is not here. He buys too many parts off of you, just because you are both the same age, I think. I don’t want him to end up street trash like you.” Siddhartha Peshwar waddled back behind his counter, but his eyes kept darting to Tom’s trinkets.
“These are good parts,” Tom persisted. “Look…” He picked up a converter and opened it up. He maintained an aloof expression when he heard Peshwar gasp, but Tom continued to remove the fasteners until he got to the heart. He held up a pristine ceramic piece and pointed at the logo. “Recognize this? Higgins. Not a single crack. You could pass this off as brand new.”
Peshwar waddled over and greedily snatched the ceramic part from Tom’s fingers. “How did you know this?”
“I listen.” Tom folded his arms, still staring at the little man.
Peshwar put the piece up to his ear and shook it. Of course it made no sound. He wrinkled his nose skeptically at Tom.
“I listen to the part…to the people… I watch their eyes. I know a few things. Come on, we need to eat. She’s been three days without a decent meal.”
Peshwar frowned. His eyes traveled up and down Tom, and this time his nose wrinkled out of defense. “Uhg!” He made sweeping gestures with his arms. “Get out. Get out! I’ll give you fifty for them.”
Tom moved around the table. “For the whole lot?”
“Sixty. Coin. No credits. Alliance can’t trace coin like they monitor bank transactions.”
Peshwar groaned. “Coin is too much. Fifty-five. And that’s only because you need the extra five for a bath, you filth.” Peshwar slapped fifty-five silver on the table and gave a final dismissive wave. “But next time I’m taking more out to cover fumigation costs.”
Tom nodded his acceptance, scooped up the coins and slipped them into some hidden pocket. “Good doing business. Give my regards to Gobi, will you?”
Peshwar grunted, coddling the ceramic piece in one hand like it was gold.
Three Hours Later
Tom lurched exhausted into the alleyway. He rubbed his face and stripped off his poncho, which gave off an even deeper stench by that time. He counted the trash bins lining the side of the brick wall in the dark night. One. Two. Three. Four. He threw the poncho beside the fourth one—labeled “Plastics Only” in English and Mandarin. He took off his shirt, and plunged his hands into the bitter cold water of the broken basin he’d set up there. A sliver of soap he’d salvaged from a hotel dumpster before the drone took it away foamed in his hands. After a good half-hour, he made the soap disappear and invoked the spirit of Old Man Coyote that the fish smell had likewise disappeared. He then whispered another to Raccoon, just in case. He stood and knocked on the fourth trash bin. One-two-three. Four.
A knocking from inside answered back : one-two, three-four.
“Jessa,” called Tom softly.
“I’m here.” The little voice barely drifted out of the metallic container.
Immediately, the glum tone that Tom sensed stoked his attention. He spoke as gently as he could, given his exhaustion. “You okay, nizhoni
? You wanna come out or have me come in?”
“I can still smell the fish from here. I’ll come out.” The container’s lid opened and the head of an eleven-year-old girl appeared from its depths. Her long braided hair and dark eyes shimmered in the reflected light of a hundred ships, moons, distant sun-stars, and countless other neon signs whose lights bounced over walls and roofs.
Tom’s gasp escaped before he could help himself. He put his hands around her shoulders and stared into the black-and-blueness. “Jessa! Your eye! What happened?”
Jessa frowned. The hundred lights wavered wetly until she buried her head into his chest. “I’m s-sorry. I was selling flowers down by the docks when they jumped me.”
He hugged her tight. “Oh… nizhoni
… mei mei
. Are you hurt? They didn’t…did they?”
“No,” she replied through sniffles. “But I gave the wasi’chu
two black eyes for the trouble of my one. He said his daddy’s gonna find me and throw me in jail.”
Tom rocked her in his arms, relieved that it was just a scuffle this time. “Now, now. There, there, Little wāpos
. Nobody’s going to throw you in jail. They’ll have to come through me first.”
She sniffed a few times and he could feel her reach up to rub her nose. “Well, if you keep smelling like that, then I guess I’ll be just fine.”
Tom’s chest trembled a chuckle he could not control and was relieved when he heard a similar delicate laugh coming from within his arms. “Well, at least you’ve still got your sense of humor.” He pulled her back and examined her face. Jessa shied, but he still examined her for more damage until he was satisfied that there wasn’t any. Jessa was really good at looking out for herself—in fact, there were many times she took care of him just as much, if not more. But Tom felt that just fussing over her was a way for him to show his affection.
“Hey, you hungry?”
She nodded with more eagerness than his heart could bear. It wasn’t fair looking into the eyes of a hungry child, but he smiled anyway.
“Well, I have some coin. What do you say we see if we can get us some dim sum or maybe fish-and-chips? I’ll even buy you a tomato.”
Jessa’s eyes watered again and she flung herself at him for another embrace. Before he could return the gesture, she zipped from his arms and disappeared into the bin’s darkness. A white blur blinded Tom and he reeled for a moment before discovering it was a t-shirt in his face.
“Put that on. It’s clean and doesn’t smell like cat puke.”
Tom obeyed with a smirk. “And where did you happen to get this from? …unless your flowers were made out of pure platinum.”
“Um…it sort of fell off of some wasi’chu
’s suitcase. Nice Core cotton shirt. It feels really soft.”
Tom slipped it on. Its ridiculously high thread count made it feel better than silk. He conveniently chose not to inquire further. “Say, throw me my Browncoat.”
The silence that followed hung around just to the edge of uncomfortable, then took a big step over that line. “You sure?”
Tom nodded. The coat came out with a more gentle reverence. There was even still a patch on it that looked only half torn off. The extra stitching on the patch displayed a technician symbol.
“You don’t have to, you know,” said Jessa just above a whisper. “One black eye per Cousin is enough.”
Tom shook his head and slipped on a replacement pair of badly worn boots. “It’s cold, and I think I’m going to have to burn that poncho. Besides, nizhoni
, you know it ain’t the coat that risks a black eye.”
The meager bamboo basket that had once held three greasy battered carp and a handful of salty genetically engineered potato sticks was still in Tom’s hand as he and Jessa walked the neon night around Eavesdown Docks. Persephone always seemed to be in motion to him—even on Redbird Reservation, one of the Confederated Tribes holdings on the planet. There was always the energy of a million busy human beings at every moment, night or day. Perhaps the nature or location changed, but not the energy. During daylight hours when ships could dock with better visibility, the port was all business and cargo. But at night, the bars and clubs, shops and bazaars teamed with drunken pilots, shopping addicts, gamblers, and exotic dancers. Vendors and barkers vied for credits. Armed security threw brawlers into hovercraft bound for some nearby facility with a drunk tank.
Jessa popped another ruby-red cherry tomato into her mouth and rolled her eyes in ecstasy. She somehow had the discipline to eat them slow and draw out the enjoyment rather than gobble them all down at once. “We should fix up that coat of yours,” she mumbled through the juices. “Make you more presentable so someone can give you work.”
Tom shook his head. “I already wired most of the money to grandfather George. Just five left.” He waved his hand at her offer of a tomato and smiled at her. “Besides, I’ve got a source of income.”
She poked her finger at a small cut on his high cheekbone. “Along with a few job hazards. Why don’t you try to get us on a ship or something? Hire on as crew or maybe an assistant mechanic? Lump cargo? You always look so dreamily at those ships. I see you, you know.”
He chuckled and tussled her hair. She scowled at him and squirmed to get away. “How’d you become so wise, Little wāpos
Jessa just shrugged and put another tomato in her mouth.
“Oh. Nearly forgot…” Tom shifted and took a sheathed knife from behind his back. “For you.” He handed the knife to Jessa. The black leather sheath laid in silent absence amidst the cacophony of light surrounding them.
Jessa examined it carefully and closely like it was a secret code. She turned it over in her hands a couple of times, flipping the strap and slowly pulling it out. It was a good ten inches or so in length, a couple inches wide, and the hilt had a compartment that could hold matches or a small tool. “Oooo…this is a good utility one.” She put the last cherry tomato in her mouth, sadly looking at the empty bottom of her little cup before sliding the knife back into its sheath. She then turned her bright eyes back to Tom and frowned at him. “I thought you said you wired the money to your grandpa already. I don’t need a knife that bad.”
Tom chuckled again and shook his head. “That, Little wāpos
, was a bonus—a little something to keep you from getting so many black eyes.”
“I know! We…we could pawn it! We could get that coat mended and get you a nice shirt and pair of pants. Make you look all kinds of presentable.”
“Or ya kin give it back to its rightful owner.”
Tom stiffened and cursed at himself for seeing the shadow too late. He positioned himself between the approaching figure of Wilhelm and Jessa. Wilhelm hulked forward, flanked by a couple of equally large goons. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see more shapes. Either by instinct or experience, the crowd moved to the periphery, depriving Tom and Jessa of cover.
“Um…hey, there, Wil. I…was just about to come find you. It seems you dropped this by accident, and I was going to—“
, Longhair,” Wilhelm snapped. The thug looked Tom up and down. His eye narrowed when he saw the green and black patch. He gestured contemptuously with his beefy hands. “Where’d ya git that brown coat? You steal that too, Injun?”
Tom felt his fists clench. He could take the racist insults—they came so often every day they had become little more than noise to him. But he could feel his face grow hot at Wilhelm’s implication. “It’s mine. Has been since the day I signed up to stand against wihcēkihtin
like you. And I knew good and well I’d die in it one day.”
Tom was surprised when Wilhelm laughed. He didn’t quite expect that.
“Well don’t that jus’ beat all. I fought fer th’ Independents too.”
“R-really?” Tom relaxed a little and unclenched his fists. He couldn’t believe his luck. “Well…then… We’re good, right?”
Wilhelm’s laughter dissipated quicker than an Ice Planet on a Sihnon summer. He shook his head and bared his teeth in that way Tom remembered he didn’t like. “Don’t think so, Injun.”
“Hey. Come on. We were both on the same side in the war.”
“War’s over. All just folk now. Which means I don’t owe you nothin’. But seein’ as yer one a’ them who still wears despite getting’ spit, I promise not to kill yer daughter—outta respect an’ all.”
“She’s not m—” Wilhelm took a mighty step forward and landed his fist against Tom’s jaw. Tom went skidding across the ground, the blur of those hundred lights now turning into sharp daggers pinching his scalp. Another blow to his side came from Wilhelm’s boot, and more pain exploded inside of him. Tom tried to roll away. He tried to shield himself, but every movement only exposed another place for Wilhelm to land a blow.
Tom could feel the world spin when he felt himself lifted up. “Maybe I’ve died and my spirit is flying Home to my ancestors now,” he thought. But the cold steel of a gun’s barrel against his face told him, not yet. Soon, though. “At least I got to spend one last time with…”
“Time ta die, Injun.” The hammer of the gun cocked back.
Tom held his breath and tried to look as defiantly at Wilhelm through his swelling eyes. It seemed like an eternity. There was a shout, then Wil’s eyes went wide, and Tom felt himself descend. “Yeah,” was Tom’s last thought. “I should’ve known. I’m heading to the other place, ain’t I? Where all wasi’chu
Tom Beartooth was genuinely surprised when he opened his eyes again and felt the waves of pain. He was staring up at a crowd of gawking wasi’chu
. He wanted to ask them if they paid to see the freak show and remember to tip their waitress, but his mouth was so swollen he could only manage a weak moan.
“Just take it easy, citizen,” said the blur holding him. “You don’t appear to need an ambulance, but we’ve still got a paramedic on the way.”
Tom adjusted his eyesight and saw the uniform. “W… wāpos?
The officer grimaced. He looked up another similarly colored blur. “Is…is that Portuguese? We’d better get out the translator.”
“I think it might be the name of the girl suspect reported,” replied the other blur.
Tom’s eyes became a little wild and he nodded as best he could, fighting off the thrashing pain and another urge to pass out. “Wh—where?”
“Ah, good. You speak English. Can you tell me where your daughter went, sir? If you give me an address, I can send a car.”
Tom shook his head. “Mmm. Not my…” A wave of nausea made him turn his head. After he vomited, his eyes focused on the larger black mass beside him, still sticky and steaming. Protruding from it was an object a good ten inches or so in length and a couple inches wide. He groaned deeply.
Warning: May contain strong language
mei mei [Chinese]
Phyāṭa mā bēśyā [Bengali]
qián kǒu [Chinese]
when said, to show pity or concern
wāpos [Cree] – pronounced like “whah-büs” (yeah, like Elmer Fudd might say…)
“shut up”; lit. “pliers mouth”
wihcēkihtin [Cree] – pronounced like “whih'-chay-ghih'-din”
“non-Native,” [Sioux] lit. “White Chief” but took on derogatory connotation post-Contact; akin to Yiddish “goy”. In the Firefly ‘Verse, it has become the common slang among indigenous origin people to refer to whites, but also to those of Chinese culture, particularly Core culture.
said of a moocher that’s been around too long...lit. “a moose hide that is left to spoil and is starting to stink”