Of Talk and Talismans

"Are You a Praying Man?"

Year 2509: The War.

Bettor’s Knob, Beylix

  “Gorram it! Leigh, Callahan, Kim Chon! No, not you. I mean Other Kim Chon! Left flank! ‘Squatch, you an’ M’Duk take Beartooth and Baker up that gulch there.” The lieutenant pointed with such ferocity at the dry cut that Tom felt like he was providing the absent air support with his index finger alone. “First Kim Chon, you take that high point an’ provide cover fire. Don’t let them zhū yòu nǎo Purplebellies so much as blink sideways ‘til we get our angels now, y’hear?”   First Kim Chon gave a curt salute, gripped his longneck rifle and scampered through the brush up the Knob. Tom lugged the heavy pack onto his back and joined Sergeant Devon Baker. Bits of dirty-blonde hair poked from under the man's helmet and tickled at his dusty-blue eyes.   “You ready to do this, buddy?” Devon grinned at Tom.   Tom grinned back. “Yep.”   Devon's smile only widened. “That’s what I like about you, my friend. Man of few words, aimin’ t’ please.” He fingered the metallic cross that seemed to be standard issue out here. “I do believe it's going to be a right beautiful day.”   Tom nodded and hefted the heavy pack again. “Says the man who is carrying just a rifle.” He winked.   Devon's smile evolved into a full on gut laugh. “You win us a metal today, Beartooth, and I swear on my mother's grave I'll lug that thing back for you, dong ma?” He winked.   "Wait, you were just talking to your mother last week."   ‘Squatch nodded at the pair with a spot more sobriety. “If you two lovebirds are through, we gots ourselfs a broke troop transport t’ fix.”   “Lead the way," gestured Devon magnanimously. “Any Purplebellies come, you can jus’ kick in their teeth for us. Kindly. Be quieter that way, come think.”   ‘Squatch stroked the thick pride-and-joy that was his beard, betraying a smile underneath to indicate he, too, thought today was going to be a good one.   Devon then pointed at M'Duk. “Take the rear. An’ watch our backs. Don' wanna git caught unawares none. Them gorram Alliance been snatching Browncoats 'round these parts an' I got me a notion to remain untook, dong ma?”   Devon winked at Tom and gave his silver cross one more tug. “Stick close.”  
*   *   *
   

Two Hours Later

  “There's the transport,” muttered ‘Squatch. He pointed at the portion of the armored vehicle that was smoking. The pings and dings of Alliance bullets could be heard from their end of the gulch. Ricochets buzzed around in the air like frustrated wasps. A few bodies draped in brown were lying motionless around the mechanized troop transport. It was hard to tell if the red was a scarf or something more terminal.   The troop hatch was opened. Devon aimed his scope at the opening and saw the troops huddled inside, cowering at each attempted wasp sting. But none of them looked as bit as those that had tried to provide cover outside.   “We gotta go git 'em 'fore they bring in th’ tanks an’ mortars, Sarge,” ‘Squatch rumbled and he started to launch himself up. It took Devon, Tom and M'Duk's full combined weight to keep the bear of a man down.  Gorram it, ‘Squatch! Hang on!” barked Devon. “You go play hero now, you'll end up just another lump a' brown over there. We gotta think this through all manner of careful, dong ma?”   “Dunno,” M'Duk smirked. “He would make pretty good cover to hide behind. I say we let him charge.”   ‘Squatch growled and stroked his soup-catcher.   “You can make M'Duk scoop his teeth out of the dirt when we get the job done without no one gettin' holes in 'em,” said Devon. He lifted the scope back up and looked about. The cloud deck was still too low for air support, but the wind had cleared the field enough for a view. At first he concentrated on the ridge and held his gaze there for a while. Yep, there they were—purple-armored bastards. He clucked and then swung the scope over to where First Kim Chon was. Presumably. He was a right good camouflage expert, that First Kim Chon. Or was that Other Kim Chon who was the expert? Devon hoped to God whichever one was given sniper duty was still there and had ears and eyes. Faith. Yep. Devon stroked the cross again, half-absently as his mind bubbled. Then he smiled.   “Tom, you got a radio still?”   “Yessir.”   “Talk Navajo, will ya?”   Tom frowned. “One, Alliance gots radios. Two, they know that trick an' have Navajo translations programed in. Cherokee too. They'd know.”   “And three?” smirked Devon.   Tom's eyebrows creased in something fierce. “Three?”   “You, my friend, are neither Navajo nor Cherokee. You are a proud, proud Cree man, dong ma?” He clasped Tom's shoulder with firm regard.   Tom blinked a few times.   “Understand?” Devon repeated in Anglo.   “Everything except dong ma.”   Devon's eyes narrowed in confusion. He hoped the exertion of lugging that huge pack up the gulch hadn't made his best friend in this whole gorram war stupid with exhaustion. Then, both of them fell into a titter of chuckles.   “You bet your pretty floral bonnet I'm a nēhiyaw who is smart enough to know what you know, niciwā. That Alliance never did think it necessary to program any of their gorram translators with nēhiyawēwin.”   Tom's smile lit up the overcast weather as he pulled out his radio from that Sisyphean pack and spoke into it.   A moment later, the crack of a high-powered riffle sent red flying into the wind, and this time, purple-gray uniforms took up permanent sections of the ground. Devon smiled righteous vengence as he peered through the scope. No mistake, the red there was definitely not a uniform bandana. He put the scope away and clasped Tom on the shoulder again. “Good job. Kim Chon got the message.”   “By the way, you ever tell me to talk Navajo again, I'll have ‘Squatch put your teeth in the dirt, Sarge. “dong ma?”   ‘Squatch just scratched his chin. “Which Kim Chon?” M'Duk shrugged back at the question while shaking his head.   “Alright. Ain't got much time.” Devon helped Tom get his pack back on. “We took out their little hive, but no doubt they got out word an' there's reinforcements a-comin'. M'Duk, watch and cover us if need be. Then haul yer pìgu over.”   With nods from all, Devon signaled at the scared faces in the transport using a flashlight. Within moments, the three Browncoats were across the scrubby windblown terrain to the transport. One moment more, and M'Duk's pìgu showed up intact as well.  
*   *   *
   

Moments Later

  Tom knocked on the transport's cab door. He couldn't see the figure through the window very clearly. It was a thick window, now further obfuscated by smoke and dust and apparently a lot of heavy breathing. Like on those carefree nights that seemed too long ago on Hera when he and some local town girl had taken his grandfather's pickup out somewhere very dark and secluded and private. Only this was the fog of war, not love, and those carefree days were gone.   Tom unlatched the door and carefully opened it. The figure in the window was sitting in his seat, staring straight forward. He was just a kid. A scrawny kid who probably had to get his parents' permission to join up. Or had run away and forged the papers. In any case, this kid should have been on his own planet with his own girl making their own kind of fog.   “Hey there. I'm Tom. I'll be your mechanic today.” He smiled kindly.   The kid didn't acknowledge. That wasn't a good sign. He was just rocking back and forth, holding his riffle like it was a life preserver.   “Where's your driver?” Tom asked gingerly and stowed the banter. He glanced over at the driver's side of the cab and wished he hadn't. No wonder the kid was near catatonic. Tom walked around the cab to the driver's door and carefully opened it. He took the body and laid it on the ground with the rest of the fallen Browncoats. It was slow and quiet and reverent. But the burying would have to come later.   Tom returned to the cab and felt under the steering column. Finally, he found the release and pulled hard. “Just going to have a little look under the hood okay?” He motioned for the boy to follow him. Like some remote, the boy did, still clutching his rifle like a doll. Tom lifted the hood. "Say, what's your name?”   The kid shivered. “God… God has abandoned us… Must be angry… fer our sins… Fer out lack of faith…” He was rubbing a silver cross that hung around his neck with such ferocity, Tom was certain the silver was going to rub off in the poor soldier’s fingers.   “Hey. Hey, now. Listen, little warrior…mahihkan. It’s all going to be alright. We’re gonna fix this transport up an’ get your pretty God-lovin’ face back home now, y’hear?”   “You… you a prayin’ man?”   “Huh?”   “Do you pray? You know, to God? Cuz God don’t hear the prayers a’sinners. Say so right in the Bible. John 9.” The boy pointed at Tom’s neck.   Tom took his eyes off of the mess pretending to be machinery and looked into the boy’s eyes. He could see how the fear was paralyzing him so hard that it froze his mind and muscle into a mass of useless. Tom was seeing this more and more as the War was dragging on, and it was really starting to concern him. He put his tool down and reached into his shirt.   “Yeah. I s'pose I do sometimes. You see my pouch here, huh? This pouch right here. See?” Tom held up a tiny leather bag small enough to fit inside a man’s palm. “It’s from the traditional ways of my Grandparents, like it has been for longer than Earth-That-Was. Now, reckon we got our own prayers an’ they keep me plenty safe. Ain’t been hit by a bullet. Not once. Way I see it, you respect the Great kihci-manitow, an’ that’s aplenty. So you just keep on praying and your God will save you. Dong ma?  The kid wasn’t looking too convinced. But after a while, he nodded and gripped his silver cross again, launching into an “Our Father who art in heaven…” He looked skyward as the prayer tapered into feeble mumbling and returned to the cab.   Tom shook his head and turned his attention back to the machinery. “Come on, askihkokan. Talk to me. Tell me where it hurts now.” His eyes danced over the dirty oil-slicked engine and he spotted a splash of green ooze.  
*   *   *
   

Forty Minutes Later

  Devon pointed after the rumbling vehicle. “See that? Right as rain, Injun. You an’ me. When we win this gorram war, they gonna pin shiny silver metals on us. Call us ‘heroes’, reckon?”   Tom nodded and gave him a subdued smile. “Reckon they are.”   “Hundred soldiers on that boat,” Devon smiled. “They'll get back to base now that you worked your voodoo. What was it? Broken flex-shaft?“   Tom shook his head. “Busted coolant hose. Took out a couple a' belts. Wouldn't a' seen it normally, but that transport was right talkative. Made it easier.“   Devon’s head cocked to one side. “Aw, speakin' a talk, you hear me hearin’ that? The air support's here. The angels gonna send rest a’them Purplebellies to th’ hot place now.”   Tom laughed. “Was a good day, if one can be had in a war like this.”   The image of the boy's face finally relaxing hovered in Tom's mind. Machines break. That's the way of it and Tom did his job. People break too, he thought. And to see that boy's face a mite patched until he could get himself more proper care...well... maybe that wasn't in Tom's job description, but it was what made the day good to him. He didn't need no shiny silver talisman as either reward or reminder. Maybe that was the Fourth Thing his grandfather always talked about.   Devon smirked, gave his silver cross a quick kiss, and flipped his hand out to Tom’s shoulder in a playful nudge. He shouldered his rifle and started to pack up his trowel. A number of earthen mounds and makeshift markers stood where there had once been brown coats; the bodies were sealed in bags until the hostilities ceased long enough for a proper extraction.   “Ready to head out in five,” came ‘Squatch’s rumbling voice.   Tom nodded but kept staring after the vehicle, now starting to pick up just enough momentum to get beyond the rough terrain. When the transport transformed into a ball of yellow-white flame, it felt like Judgment’s eternity had frozen him in place.  Kěpà de cuòwù! Tom, git down!”   Tom found a weight slam into his side and he went down into the dust before the Independent ASREV thundered like a fiery seraphim sword over their position. ‘Squatch’s roar sounded behind them both, but the shock and the scream of the gunship's engines drowned out even the voice of Sasquatch.  Gorram it! Gorram it! They got their targets wrong! Ó, tiān nǎ; wǒ de tiān a! They…oh, God Almighty. They hit the transport!”   Tom managed to get up from under Devon. Thick black smoke bellowed like the mouth of hell had opened up and swallowed the transport whole. Up the hill, ‘Squatch bellowed over the radio to check the target and call off the air support. If they heard, Tom didn’t know. He just kept staring at the black pillar of fire and smoke raising up to the heaven of an angry God.  

Year 2514: Now.

Westgate District, Eavesdown, Persephone

  “Are you a praying man, Mr. Beartooth?”   Tom and the man named Geller sat in the back of a squad car as it wound its way across the Westgate District. He looked at the shiny silver badge displayed with prominence on his lapel. The wear showed it had been frequently polished beyond just normal maintenance, at just the right angle and even with a spritz of nano-polish to catch the light of all the ‘Verse’s floating suns in some manner or another. He noticed the serial number.   “I said, ‘are you a praying man?’” Geller’s handlebar mustache twitched in a rather unpleasant manner. The steel in his eye wasn’t exactly the warm type.   “Not anymore,” Tom muttered. He nodded at the man’s chest. “A bit out of your jurisdiction, ain’t ya?”   The handlebars twitched again. “And you’re off the reservation, which is why I ask if you are a praying man.”   Tom glowered at him. His lips were pressed firm against the flood of words that wanted to come out.   “You know what other criminals do to pedophiles, don’t you, Mr. Beartooth? Funny how even among the scum of the 'Verse, there’s still this odd kind of moral code. And you're about to find yourself on the bottom rung. Even lower than rehabilitated Independent soldiers off of Redbird Reservation.”   Tom continued his glower, but remained silent. He felt sick just thinking about those that would do the kinds of things he was being accused of. It was his worst fear that Jessa would run into someone like that one day, which is why he gave her that gorram long blade in the first place. He looked out the window instead, trying not to vomit. All of his aches and pains from being pummeled by Wil added their throbbing to his head.   “Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” grinned Sergent Handlbars. “I don't have evidence, and even a good judge who would like to see the streets cleaned of fèiwù like you might still have a very difficult time convicting you. And you’d be right. But, you see, that's where I just let your street buddies do the justice for us. ‘Oops. Sorry.’” He leaned back in the seat. It creaked objection under his weight. “Or, you could just tell me where she is, and God will listen to your repentant heart.”  mikoskatisiw,” Tom muttered. "Listen. One, the arbitrary anger of your fickle wasi'chu 'God' is your people's problem, not mine. Two, I already told your buddies in Northgate District, I don't know where she is. I have no idea where you're getting this fèihuà from about me being a—"   Tom broke off abruptly. His stomach gave a heave, but he managed to keep it down by concentrating intensely on the scene outside.   "Oh, please. If you have to vomit, don't do it in here."   "Wait. Hang on. Do you hear that? Where are we?" Tom's eyes widened as he scanned the shapes outside. A lot of dark shapes. Too many of them, clothed in black robes with red cordage holding silver talismans.   "Sir, there seems to be some debris in the road," the driver interrupted with a grumble. "Idiots burned out a hover-mule. Let me just try to maneuver around the crowd here. Shall I radio Headmistress Yako—"  Kěpà de cuòwù! Get down!” Tom tried to stuff himself as close to the floor as possible, which was no easy task since his arms were still tightly bound behind him.   Sergent Geller didn't even have time to voice his annoyance or his surprise when the blast hit the car with such force that it left the ground, somersaulted once, then landed against a wall of concrete and steel. The windows shattered, and anything not held down now found itself in a new location. Tom's own head swam in yet another thick haze. He willed himself to find up again and somehow managed to be successful at it. Geller's own head wobbled, and his eyes found it nearly impossible to stay still. Blood marked the driver and most of the front seat, but Tom couldn't tell if it was a sign of fatality.   Tom's mouth opened to speak, but before the energy of his breath came out, the door on Geller's side lurched open. A rifle pointed right at the lawman's chest, and the blast from it bounced all up and down his body. Geller slumped. The echos of the supposedly nonlethal concussion weapon sloshed about the car, bumping Tom in the face before sloshing out the opened door.   Tom's legs scrambled backwards in vain as his door was pinned to the steel and concrete wall. The blurry, dark form grabbed the lawman and dumped him on the ground before leaning back into car. Tom raised his hands defensively. This was going to hurt. Again. He wasn't sure how many more times he could withstand a blow to the head without suffering permanent brain damage. He squeezed his eyes tight.   "Tanisi, cousin!"   Tom gasped in surprise and opened one eye. The dark blur turned into a light blur which then turned into a man. Tom blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes. The man remained. This wasn't a memory. He managed to squeak out the man's name—a man he used to hunt rabbits with when they were both boys.   "J... James?"


Translations:

*Warning: May contain strong language.   askihkokan [Cree]
“engine”
  dohn ma or dong ma or dohn la ma [Chinese]
“understand” or “are we clear here?”
  fèihuà [Chinese]
“bullshit”, “nonsense”
  fèiwù [Chinese]
“junk”, lit. “abandoned thing”
  gorram [Fireflyese]
probably evolved from “goddamn” — approved by Fox Network censors for your entertainment pleasure
  Kěpà de cuòwù! [Chinese]
“Horrible blunder!”
  mahihkan [Cree]
“wolf”
  mikoskatisiw [Cree]
“He is annoying and troublesome.”
  nēhiyaw [Cree]
“a Cree person”
  nēhiyawēwin [Cree]
“the Cree Language”
  niciwā [Cree]
“Friend!” or “Brother!” or “Male parallel cousin!”
  tanisi [Cree]
“hello” or “how are you?”
  Ó, tiān nǎ, wǒ de tiān a [Chinese]
“Oh my God; Dear God in Heaven!”
  pìgu [Chinese]
“butt”
  zhū yòu nǎo [Chinese]
“pig-brained”


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