The first inkling Tilly had that Something Was Up was when Auntie Ruiha and Hemi Two-Two showed up in the schoolhouse doorway and flagged Mr. Timoti for his attention, so that the teacher left off his lecture on how the ancients had navigated the seas by using the stars. The two beckoned Mr. Timoti to come to the back of the room to speak with them, and to Tilly’s shock, he went. Mr. Timoti rarely allowed adults to interrupt his class except for emergencies, so the entire classroom went unnaturally silent as every kid there strained to overhear what was being said in that whispered three-way conference. Auntie and Two-Two both looked like thunderclouds, and whatever they told Mr. Timoti made his eyebrows go straight up -- and then they all looked directly at Tilly for a moment, so that the rest of the kids all swiveled to look at her, too.
Tilly sank down in her seat, feeling that deep lurch in her stomach that always came before a storm… be it the big typhoon last month that had blown down trees in the fruit orchard and pulled shingles off the roof of the Big House… or the storm that had erupted over her life after getting separated from her father at the Shadow docks… or the storm of darkness that came when the factory men knocked on her door to announce her mother’s accident. Something Was Up, it had something to do with her somehow, and not once in her whole life had that ever proven to be a good thing.
Then Mr. Timoti went back to his desk at the front of the classroom and resumed his lecture, while Two-Two and Auntie settled into seats at the back of the class to watch. Tilly sneaked a glance back over her shoulder at them, and saw neither seemed especially interested in old history; they were eying the windows, looking over the schoolhouse like careful workers planning to demolish it. Tilly turned back to the lesson for a few more moments, but then looked back to try and make eye contact with one of the two adults. She was scared, but thankfully in her experience they seemed the type to protect her. But if they understood the fear in her wide-eyed glance, they didn’t acknowledge it… they just turned their gazes elsewhere again. They both had hunting rifles, too. That was strange. Blue Whale Bay wasn't like anywhere on Deadwood, or even the refugee camp on Summersfair after What-Happened-to-Shadow. No one needed a gun here, and no one carried one unless they were gonna go out on a pig hunt, and you only did that at night because that's when the wild pigs came down off the mountain to feed.
Tilly frowned, her ears starting to tune out Mr. Timoti's lecture so that she could think harder. Which was a shame, because she was truly interested in how things had been done before the starships on old Earth-That-Was, and everything this week was related somehow to Matariki-- the Maori New Year. It was fascinating, how the eyes of the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, (or what non-Maori called the Pleiades) could look in a single line and see all of the Verse and straight on back to Earth-that-Was, and that when Greenleaf was first settled, that the Maori of the Alliance Indigenous Heritage Zones colonization project had chosen the island chain in this hemisphere precisely becauseMatariki still rose as she had back on Earth -- only once a year, near mid-winter solstice, just before dawn and low on the horizon in the north-east sky. All week, they had been learning the history and the words to the traditional songs; all weeks, they had been building their traditional kites and decorating them, in order to fly them during the festival. But Tilly’s danger-sense was triggered. As much fun as the preparations for Matariki were, Something Was Up, and she had learned the hard way before that you couldn’t let yourself get caught unawares when Something Was Up. Because if you did, you got Steamrolled. Tilly wasn’t ever going to let herself get Steamrolled. Not again. Not ever.
The girl swiped a clean window onto her slate and began to take notes, making sure to give Mr. Timoti a glance now and then to make it look like she was listening attentively. But of course she wasn’t, and for once, Tilly didn’t care if she got in trouble for it. Some things just felt more important than school.
#1: Mr. Timoti loved history, so his interrupting a lecture for anything was Strange.
#2: Auntie Ruiha and Hemi Two-Two coming to the classroom to talk with Mr. Timoti was Strange.
#3: Auntie Ruija and Two-Two sitting down at the back of the class was Strange.
#4: Them carrying guns into the class, that was extra-Strange.
#5: The adults all looking at her like they had? Strange.
At the end of the class, right before the kids were all dismissed for the afternoon, Auntie Ruiha came up to the front of the classroom to speak to them all. That was another Strange. Tilly had always liked the stout woman, even if she yelled a lot and stopped the Mousetree twins whenever they got caught trying to invite Tilly to do something really, really fun. Auntie Ruiha had been on a ship that had been blown up during the War and lost her hearing in one ear, but since she had fought for the Alliance she had a really neat robotic leg to replace the one she had lost. She limped sometimes, and that made Tilly think of Captain Cooper. Today, Auntie Ruiha wasn’t yelling, but she was stern. She looked very squarely at each of the kids in turn as she talked, making sure they each were listening and understood her.
"This is very important, so I want each of you to remember this. Ko te tino nui tenei. If you hear the storm claxon ring out, then you need to run for the Hurricane Cave. Run for the bottom level entrance of the shelter. You can all climb the stairs to the top once you've gotten inside. This is very important. It won't matter whether or not you see storm clouds or what the weather is doing. You hear the claxon, you run for the storm shelter, as fast as you can. E mahino koe?" she said, looking fierce and grim as she said it.
"There will be prizes for the children who get there the fastest!" rumbled Hemi Two-Two, smiling cheerfully. That put smiles on many small faces -- every kid everywhere loved prizes. Even Tilly smiled at that… but suddenly she got the feeling that Two-Two was trying to make the younger kids happy and distract them from the Strange instructions.
#6. Storm claxon ringing for anything other than a storm? Strange.
#7. Kids being told to run for shelter if they hear the claxon, even if it was sunny and nice outside? Scary-strange.
#8. Why only the bottom level of the storm shelter, the old mining office? Strange.
#9. The look on Auntie Ruiha's face when Two-Two promised us prizes for the fastest kids. She didn’t expect that -- maybe she doesn’t expect any of this to be cheerful. Which means whatever’s happening is Bad, too.
Tilly re-read her work, considered it, then scribbled an extra note at the end of #9.
Or maybe she was just surprised Two-Two could be so smart about something. Bad and Strange!
The classroom was dismissed and everyone spilled out to race down to the beach to play. Tilly was extra-slow about putting away her tablet, dawdling so that she was the last. She watched the adults from the corner of her eye, and was certain they were waiting for her. But when she went out and on down to the beach, none of the adults called her aside to say anything, and both Auntie Ruiha and Hemi Two-Two hung around the top of the beach like they were standing guard. Tilly knew what that looked like -- she had seen lots of Standing Guard back on Deadwood. Neither of the adults had any interest in watching the kids splash around in the sea, neither. They just stuck close to one another and sometimes traded a few words. Sometimes one or another of them would look up anxiously at the sky, but mostly they were watching the sea farther out in the bay, like they were waiting for the fishing ships to come back in.
Tilly made mental notes, reaching Strange Thing #15. She didn't plunge into the water to go swimming with Riomata and Emere like she usually did. Her stomach was churning too badly and her mind was working too hard. Instead, she sat high on the beach where she had a good view out across the pretty blue-green water, and watching the waves was always hypnotic. She had to go back to her schoolbag after a bit, anyway, and spread fresh sunscreen on her face before she got sunburned. Very few residents of Blue Whale Bay were fair-skinned like Tilly, and she was always burning and then peeling like one of the little lizards that scuttled up and down the school walls. But then she went back to gazing glumly at the horizon. She felt like she was staring at a puzzle piece that had to be the right one, but she kept having to turn it to find out which side of it was the right fit.
Even if this was all nothing -- or at least, nothing Dangerous that concerned her -- she still didn’t like it and hated the fact that the adults weren’t daring to trust her with the Truth. She had always been good at handling the Truth with maturity whenever people gave it to her… but it was as if they thought keeping secrets would keep her happy. Instead, she felt just the opposite of happy. Without some new problem to focus on, all she could do was relive the awful memories of Da’ and her brother and sisters, being torn away from her and Ma’ by the rioting crowd at Shadow's spaceport... those miserable nights in the Summerfair camp when the blankets weren’t warm enough... Ma’ shuffling off to the factory with nothing but her usual quick kiss on the head and a croaked “Love you,” in her scratchy morning voice…
Without realizing it, Tilly choked and quickly buried her face in her shirt to wipe away the tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes. Her chest heaved and she tried to force the spasms to stop, but that only made them more violent as the sobs came, one after another, even though her mind was screaming, Stop! Stop! I shouldn’t be crying, I got over all this months ago! I’m used to it! It’s normal! Ma is dead and Da and Beth and Josephine and Harrison probably, too, but I’ve got a new family now, so why should I be crying!? Her shirt started to soak through and she had to twist it for a piece of dry fabric as her nose started to run and her cheeks grew red from the rubbing.
Tilly sniffled and took a deep breath of ocean air: that seemed to stop the sobs. She had never understood crying, even when she was in the middle of it; when other children cried, it was as if they suddenly forgot how to use words. When Tilly wept, she did so rarely because even though her mind would keep thinking just fine, it was as if her mouth would stop working whenever she tried to explain her feelings. Crying made her feel helpless and weak: something she did not want to appear to be in front of the adults. Not if she wanted to be trusted with the Truth. She had been through so much, and she wanted to prove that she could handle it--
“Don’t tell me that Timoti’s homework is that hard, aroha?”
Tilly’s head shot up and her tongue lodged in her throat, more than well-aware that her eyes were likely red and splotchy and her shirt a mottled wet mess. She blanched even further to see that it was Grandmama Mahaika. The tiny woman held no official position within the village, but nothing happened on Raikirua Island without her having her say on the matter. Tilly blinked in shock at the elder, then scrubbed her face furiously with her sleeve, trying to destroy any evidence of her tears.
The old woman lowered herself carefully to sit beside Tilly in the sand, waving off Auntie Ruiha’s offered assistance. She used a cane to get around, like Doctor Cooper had, only Grandmama Mahaika’s cane was more of a multi-purpose device -- Tilly had seen the old woman use it to brain fish and smack wayward teenagers on the behinds; it regularly punctuated her announcements and tapped out warnings of growing annoyance.
“Tell me what is wrong, child,” Grandmama Mahaika said. Her voice could be gentle, but Tilly wasn’t about to be lulled into forgetting it was the Grandmama of the island she was speaking with. There were several grandmothers, but only one Grandmama.
“A-Auntie Ruiha and Two-Two brought rifles to class today,” Tilly stammered without looking at the old lady directly. She was too afraid that she might see nothing but mirth in the woman’s twinkling eyes… as adults often had when they didn’t take her concerns seriously. “They said the claxon might ring even if there’s no storm.”
Tilly swallowed hard and turned, feeling guilty for not speaking face-to-face with the old lady who had obviously strained up the dune to reach her. “I just… it reminded me of all the other times when grown-ups have been keeping secrets from me, Grandmama,” she finally blurted out. “And I’m scared that Something’s going to happen and I’ll lose all of you just like I lost my real family!”
Saying the words aloud caused fresh tears to course down her cheeks, and her surrogate grandmother barely had to start raising a hand before the miserable girl dove into her embrace as if looking for a place to hide. Only seconds later did she wonder whether Grandmama had only meant to pat her shoulder, and her stomach churned even more at the idea that she had overstepped… but by then she was too busy wailing to even pull away and apologize. However, that additional knot of worry in her stomach slowly untwisted as she felt the aged matriarch bring one arm to rest around her shoulders, as if the child’s wordless whimpers had to be shielded before they were somehow overheard.
Tilly let her sobs peter away and shivered as the elder stroked her hair gently. She had missed that feeling; her mother had always held her tight to protect her when she was frightened, and though Mama Awina had taken over in full foster-mother fashion and doled out all of the hugs that Tilly could desire… it just wasn’t the same. Neither was this, but it felt closer somehow; perhaps because this embrace came in the midst of looming danger, as her mother’s hugs had come to do. Yet there were no words that came in Grandmama Mahaika’s warm, gravelly voice; nothing comforting or reprimanding.
After a few more calm breaths, Tilly loosened her grip and she straightened up, separating from Grandmama to look her in the eye and manage a tiny smile of gratitude. She wasn’t even ashamed that her face was more red and raw than ever. “So,” she started carefully, vowing to stay calm this time. “Is it something like that?”
Grandmama Mahaika’s steady expression soured a little and she placed her hands carefully on Tilly’s shoulders, demanding her full attention. “We’ve received a message from the Jin Dui. They’re fine,” she added quickly just as the first yelp of worried questions was about to leave Tilly’s lips. “They’re all fine.” Tilly’s muscles relaxed and she let out a shuddering breath of relief. “But they’ve found out,” Grandmama Mahaika continued carefully. “...that the man who tried to enslave you… is still looking for you.”
“Oh.” Tilly blinked for a moment and glanced around, seeing her surrogate cousins and foster siblings crashing into the surf without a care in the world. “I wondered if he might be.”
Grandmama Mahaika placed a finger under her chin and drew her focus back to the conversation: it was not a stern action, but it was one that sent Tilly’s stomach flopping all over again. “He knows you’re here on Greenleaf,” the old woman announced in a low, measured voice. She knew it was a weighty message, and she stared at Tilly to ensure that it was received with all the gravity and maturity it required.
Tilly felt her limbs run cold as she stared back at Grandmama; at last, she knew What Was Up. This was the Truth that she had suspected the adults were keeping secret… and it was also exactly the sort of Truth she had learned to dread above all others.
Tilly’s eyes were wide with fear and questions: she stared into Grandmama’s, which were narrow with a special resolve: the type that Doc Cooper’s eyes had. That meant that even though this was awful and dangerous and serious, there was also a Plan. Tilly set her jaw and dug her toes into the sand and centered herself into that feeling, trying to mirror Grandmama’s serene, ready-to-do-whatever-it-takes exterior. She was being treated like a grown-up and had been trusted with dangerous information, so she was going to handle it calmly. Already, the mere act of mimicking Grandmama’s composure was making her feel more secure.
Tilly exhaled carefully through her nose and never once let her gaze stray from Grandmama Mahaika's. Their eyes were locked. “Very well,” she accepted grimly, adopting a phrase that she knew the elder herself used often; saying those words instantly made her feel inches taller. “So what do we do?”
“The Jin Dui is on its way here now, as we speak. My grandson and Captain Cooper sent us as wave as soon as the ship was in reach of the Zhŭ Què comm relay. Captain Cooper wishes to take you away with the ship. She believes that may be safest for you. I disagree. We can protect you here at Blue Whale Bay. This family protects its own, my child, and you are one of us now. You are our tamaiti whāngai -- no matter what you choose, you are one of us, by Pāhekā law, and in the hearts of your matua whāngai.”
Tilly waited in anticipation for a moment. She reckoned that Grandmama Mahaika would tell her exactly which of the two fates they had decided for her, at which point she would likely sulk at either forced option. Deep down, she wasn’t really sure which home would be worse or better. She loved the island and the family that she had gained on it, but the idea of flying with Doc and Hoss and exploring the planets… why, if her life had not been in danger, she might have cheered! But then she noticed that the old woman before her had long fallen silent and was eyeing her as if expecting an answer. Suddenly it dawned on Tilly what Grandmama Mahaika truly meant.
“I have to choose?” Tilly murmured, seizing on that word and its implications. All this time she had wanted to be treated like an adult and make her own decisions… but suddenly the future was sitting entirely in her own hands, and she was frightened by the great weight of it.
Grandmama Mahaika chuckled in rich amusement, apparently pleased by Tilly’s sharpness. “You can choose your own way, my wise child. We, your family, wish for you to stay here, at Blue Whale Bay. But Captain Cooper and my grandson Hoss wish for you to leave with them, aboard the Jin Dui. You are not baggage, to be sent here and there as others will it. You can choose. But you should not choose quickly. You must think on this. You must consider it, long and hard. Because the shape you make of your life will come from choices like this one.” The frail old woman gave her a slow, warm hug, and then Tilly knew her audience was over. She felt Grandmama Mahaika press a kiss against her forehead, and knowing herself dismissed, the girl gathered herself to her feet respectfully.
"Go. Play with your cousins," the old woman said, her smile serene. She flicked the fingers of one hand, then sat with both hands on her cane to watch the children sporting in the waves below them.
Tilly nodded. She took another long look at Auntie Ruiha and Hemi Two-Two, standing watch at the edge of the beach grass nearby, then turned and walked slowly down to join her friends and foster-sibs in the water. She suddenly found herself feeling painfully older than any of them. She wandered some distance away, up the white sandy beach, and then waded in to feel the gentle lap of waves against her feet.
Tilly remembered the terrible riot that had swallowed up her father and her brother and her two sisters. She remembered the refugee camp on Summerfair, and how the light of hope had slowly and bitterly died from her mother's eyes as they waited for a reunion which never came. There hadn't been many ships at the spaceport on Shadow that day; after the riot had started, some ships had simply fled without taking on passengers; other ships trapped by the riot never made it offworld at all. Tilly remembered the hungry passage she and Ma’ and her new stepfather had later made to Deadwood, and the cramped one-room they had shared there, in the tenement the factory had provided for its workers. After her mother's death, she remembered the trip with her stepfather to the New Hope mining camp, and how it had looked nothing like its name. She remembered how the ladies -- everyone had called them doves -- of Van Hooven’s saloon ‘The Lonesome Dove’ had fussed over her and coddled her, and how careful Doc Cooper had been to never let Tilly out of her line of sight in that busy establishment. She remembered the ride by grav-rail to Yankton, and how Doc had promised she'd be safe with Captain Nell of the Mustang Sal, but how the Sal's crew had mostly locked Tilly up in her quarters for the whole trip with a few boring books. Raikirua Island had been her oasis from all of that.
Tilly turned and looked back up the beach. If Darius sent his men here to take her back, she had no doubt that Auntie Ruiha and Hemi Two-Two and all of the rest of the adults of Blue Whale Bay would fight them. They would try and keep her safe. But she had seen things at the New Hope mining camp… Despite how much the adults had tried to shield her, she still remembered seeing things like fistfights, which would erupt here and there on the street every few days. Or the wounds inflicted by a whip on a man who was caught stealing from Van Hooven… and Van Hooven was the good guy. Well, perhaps not good, but still better than Darius. Darius was the bad guy. Real bad.
The idea of being tracked down by someone even worse than Darius made Tilly shiver, though the warmth of the sun had no problem countering the breeze and cool waves lapping at her ankles. She had a tiny inkling about the violent, heartless type of men Darius would hire for his dirty work. If she stayed here, then people here would get hurt. Hurt bad. Dead, even.
It wasn't a storm the warning claxon would ring for, Tilly realized suddenly. No. If the warning bells rang, it would be to tell all the kids to run and hide in the high-ground storm shelter, where they would hopefully be out of the line of fire from any incoming ship full of bad guys -- at least, at first. But if the bad guys landed, probably no one and no where on the island would be safe.
Tilly frowned and watched her erstwhile playmates swim and splash and dive in the sea. She thought about the upcoming Matariki festival, the songs the children would perform, and the manu tukutuku she had carefully built from toetoe and reeds, then decorated with paint and feathers. A traditional Maori kite was a delicate thing, and the children had been warned their pākau might not survive the Matakiri festivities. Certainly no pākau could survive storm winds, not without celestial interference.
Tilly thought about all of that some more, and remembered the dark things she did not really want to think about. Up until now, all of the grown-ups in her life had done their best to shield and protect her no matter the cost to themselves. Ma’ in New Hope, working such a hard job to pay for what yīkuài bù dà of an education that rock could offer… Doc Cooper, climbing out a window and stealing a horse and paying so many people to hide her from the slavers… and now the wonderful inhabitants of Blue Whale Bay, arming themselves and preparing for war. All for Tilly.
So many people, had taken risks and even put themselves into harm’s way to protect her.
Because it was the right thing to do.
Because they loved her.
Tilly swallowed and looked over the glittering ocean with new eyes. All of the Maori children seemed so young now… so carefree. She didn’t want them to lose that. She loved them too much.
Now she knew what her choice would have to be.
---to be continued---