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Chapter 2: Call Me Rat

Devil: Look, kid, I don't have all day. I'm not leaving you up here, and I'm not going into that briar patch to dig you out. Either you come out on your own, or I'll put a couple of shots in there and light it on fire, and judging from where I saw you go between the bushes, I can't guarantee that the fire will leave you a path out. So what's it going to be? You've lost. Don't make the loss worse by being a jackass.

The thing is charcoal black, with blazing eyes, and a diabolical white-tipped tail, and daggers for teeth. Someone's dark blood stains its fur, particularly on its arm. Tied around its neck is a narrow ribbon of green, gray and black squares. My knife is in its left hand and a rifle is in the right.

Me: You want to get started on the Hell stuff before I'm even dead! I think I'll skip that part.

Devil: Come on! Don't you care what's real, rather than what a bunch of jackasses told you? The Hell stuff: you're going to go down to what's left of your village. You're going to agree to keep your own personal population constant, exactly two kids for you and your future wife, and we'll go over the reasons so you understand, not just cram it down your throat. You'll get a shot, that's medicine, not from a gun, to make sure it happens. You can get all the latest vaccinations, you know, disease and bioweapon protection, and you can check with the doctor about whatever else is bothering you. Then comes the real Hell: identify the jackasses who wouldn't listen to us. Help us make grave markers for them and bury them properly. Then you can comfort the survivors. Your village needs you, kid, alive, not crisp. You have a brain; use it!

The Devil would lie, right? But suppose it's not lying? Suppose... Where I crouch a thorn is pressing into the top of my bare foot; I move it, but there are other thorns. Can I kill the thing, without my knife? I'm disgusted with myself for running, cowardly. If I just walk out there without a fight... But if I get myself killed and my family needs me down there...

Devil: Thirty seconds. I'm counting in my head. I count seconds accurately.

I don't want to be a coward. But I don't want to just die for nothing! In my imagination I can see the torn sleeve of my white embroidered shirt igniting, and feel the thick black hair on my arms and chest starting to burn. But it's cowardly to think like that. What should I do? What should I do?

Devil: Time's up. Make your move or I start shooting.

Me: I'm coming out.

Devil: Wise choice. Come on over here and let's go down. They're waiting for us. Move it, kid! Let's have some mutual respect here. I'm not very patient to begin with, and losing your village does wonders for my temper, and there's a piece of metal in my arm that's still there because I came running after you. You definitely don't want me to have to drag you. That's better. You walk in front so I can keep an eye on you. And don't get any ideas about bolting up a side trail; I have quick reactions and can probably trip you, and if not, I can catch you again, and I'll just be more irritated with you. Like I said, let's have some mutual respect.

Me: How do I know if you're lying?

Devil: Lying? Come on! Give me the sheath for your knife.

Me: That's your answer?

Devil: I want to put the stupid knife in its sheath. Is that too much to ask? There, that's safer; thanks. OK, I'll take your question seriously; it's how an Illyrian would think. I don't get anything out of lying. My job is to see that the population of Terra is constant from now on. Specifically, the population of Illyria. Specifically the population of this one bedraggled Illyrian boy. How could lying to you help me in that?

Me: Why don't you just shoot me?

Devil: What did I just tell you my job was? Come on, answer; the question wasn't rhetorical.

Me: To keep my population constant, whatever that means.

Devil: If you don't understand something, speak up, OK? It means, look at you and your future wife. You have two kids and croak, you hope a peaceful natural death. They have two kids and croak. It goes on like that forever, always the same number of people. Of course they change partners but the number stays constant. Now tell me what happens if I shoot villagers like you.

Me: You get another soul to torment in Hell.

Devil: By now I'm immune to being called names. Come on, pay attention to the task: what does it do to my job performance when I shoot Illyrians? How many kids would you have then?

Me: A corpse doesn't have children.

Devil: And about my job?

Me: There are less people. Not the same like you've decided.

Devil: Bingo. My goal is to kill as few clients as possible. Today my skills weren't shown in their best light. Look, kid, I'm sorry. When we get to your village there are going to be friends and maybe family who are dead. Think about how you're going to react. Think about how you're going to help the ones still alive to get through this. Your jackass headman just wouldn't listen, didn't even get as far as you just did in understanding the population issue, and nobody would hold him back; they just all went for their guns and what could we do? What's your name, kid? My name is Tiger. Come on, answer! I know hiding your name isn't an Albanian custom.

A couple of times my father yelled at me for being afraid, and he said he gave me a good Shqip name when he should have named me Rat. My older brother must have overheard. He and some friends tried to get me to help them put a bucket of water over Bashkim's door so he'd get soaked when he opened it, and my brother called me that when I wouldn't go in with them, and after Bashkim caught them and beat them, they came and got me and called me a coward and beat me, and told everyone in the village that I was named Rat because I was a coward.

Me: Call me Rat.

Devil, Tiger: That's no Albanian name. Do people actually call you that?

Me: Sometimes. Why do you care?

Tiger: Why the bad name?

Me: Because I'm a coward, if you must know.

Tiger: Hmm. Evaluate your performance today. Really. I don't know what you saw or why you did what you did.

Me: I heard the shooting and saw smoke. I left the sheep and came running, as quiet as I could when I got near. I tried to work around behind your position. Cowardice number one: I should have run and joined the fighting immediately.

Tiger: One boy with a knife in back of us isn't much of a threat, but a boy with a knife running across the free-fire zone is a grease spot. You chose correctly, in my opinion. You did your best with what was available.

Me: Since when do enemies give compliments? And I wish you wouldn't say ``kid'' and ``boy'' all the time.

Tiger: What do you want, ``young man''? Be glad I'm not calling you ``kitten''. And you may have decided that I'm an enemy, but I haven't decided that you Illyrians are my enemy. And I go by what's real. If you did something right I'll say so, whether you're my enemy or not. It's called honesty, a quality I see too little of in Illyria. Let's not get distracted. Evaluate what you did then. Young man.

Me: When you spotted me and chased me, I should have stood up and fought. Instead I ran, which was cowardly.

Tiger: How long, how many seconds do you think you would last with me if I were trying to kill you? You had to assume that.

Me: That's not the point.

Tiger: We'll cross the stream here. This is about where you ambushed me. Was that the work of a coward? A coward would have kept running.

Me: I missed.

Tiger: I heard you throw, saw the knife and dodged. Again, you did your best. But I was better, in senses, training and equipment. But that's no blame to you. Tell me about your decision to surrender. Try to predict what I'll have to say about it. I already know that a good Illyrian would have made me burn him out and probably died in the fire. No, a good Illyrian would have charged me with his bare hands, and I'd now be frogmarching you down this trail with your arm twisted. And I'd call you a jackass. Your evaluation?

Me: You said my family needed me, in the village. I accepted more cowardice, for them. I hope you didn't lie. I don't know why I believed you.

Tiger: I hope there's family down there to be needing you. And I didn't mention your family; I referred to the survivors in general. It's important to remember which parts I said and which parts you added. In my opinion, anyone who calls your choice cowardly is a jackass. You don't deserve to be called Rat. How about you tell me your proper name.

Me: No. I don't deserve my Shqip name.

Tiger: Well, if you're going to insist on a rodent name, I'm going to call you Gerbil. Do you know what a gerbil is? No? It's kind of a mouse thingy that jumps. We had to build the ecology of my world from bare rock, and we needed a tough survivor that could adapt to a lot of conditions and that could cover a lot of territory to keep itself alive and thriving. We picked Terran gerbils. Your choice is between your right name and Gerbil. I won't call you Rat.

Me: Call me what you want.

Tiger: Mind the steep spot, Gerbil. You think I'm a devil, don't you?

Me: Aren't you?

Tiger: No. I'm a lion person. You've never heard of us, I suppose. I was created by humans. I'm thankful to you people for the life you gave me, I mean humans as a species, not you specifically, and I'm returning life to you. I don't imagine you'll understand that when you see the bodies down there, but I don't need your forgiveness. I'm doing my best, I don't always win, and when I lose I have to pick myself up and try again with the next village. Tell me, Gerbil, who do you think won this fight?

Me: You did, of course.

Tiger: Did I make a stunning contribution to my job today?

Me: Corpses don't have children.

Tiger: Courage and honesty: ``No, Tiger, you botched your job today, because corpses don't have children.'' And we're just about down. Go over by the trucks. Gerbil! You're a prisoner. Don't run off without permission. Stop, now!

Cowardly, I obey.

Me: I want to see if my parents and brother and sister are OK.

Tiger: I should be firm, but I don't have the heart to tell you no. Hold up just a second; I have to check in with my people.

Rather than yelling, the thing waves its arms around ridiculously. Someone in the group of soldiers does the same.

Tiger: Look, Gerbil, I'm sorry. I doubt they're OK. He says they've found few survivors, if any. Lead the way, but walk, don't run.

Bashkim's big house and the one opposite it are totally trashed, just piles of bricks. I hope the destruction wasn't caused by the antique missile exploding when launched, for my brother was proudly on the missile team. I can't even tell who that is who's dead, because his face is burned so bad; the soldiers are carrying him somewhere on a cloth between two poles. I turn down our alley. My God, where's our house? The front wall is collapsed into the alley, a big piece of the back wall is down, and one charred beam is all that's left of the roof.

Tiger: Jeez, was that your family? Is this your house?

Me: Yes! What happened here?

Tiger: I came past the zigzag and this woman standing in the door screamed at me and threw something at me. I blasted her, and the man was trying to get his rifle pointed the right way and I blew a hole in him too, then jumped behind the zigzag. It was a baby, not a grenade! I couldn't get turned around in time to catch the baby, and neither of the two soldiers with me were close enough. I heard its neck snap. The plasma bolts lit something on fire inside the house. I checked inside but I didn't see anyone else.

Me: No! Oh, no! You killed my parents! You're lying! My mother would have protected my little sister! Yaah!

I leap on the devil trying to get my hands around its black-furred throat. But it twists away and my right arm ends up trapped. I'm unable to move, and the thing is doing some kind of spell on me so I can't even curse it!

Devil: I'm sorry about your family, Gerbil. I don't expect your forgiveness. But put yourself in my place; would you have done anything different coming around that corner into an attack? I don't think so. Now you have to decide what to do next, beside killing me, which I'm not going to allow. I'd like you to help me make some grave markers for your parents, and we'll find your sister and make one for her, and also your brother. If I let go of your hand, will you do that, and not waste both our time in futile tries to kill me?

Me: I curse you to the lake of boiling sulfur, you devil!

Devil: Like I said, I don't expect your forgiveness, but that didn't answer my question. Grave markers?

What should I do? This thing killed my parents! But I'd last about two seconds in a fight with it, if I could even lay hands on it. Am I going to be a coward yet again?

Me: OK, devil, what are we going to make the markers from?

Devil: We have them premade.

It calls in its own language to a soldier who brings over two short metal poles with a metal square at the top of each. The thing, I could have guessed, extends a claw from one finger.

Devil: What were their names?

Me: My father is, was Enver. My mother was Ingrid.

It writes by indenting the metal with its claw. Since I can't read, I have to assume it's getting the names right.

Devil: This one is for your father. I think he's right about there, no, move it a little to the left. Pile bricks around the stem. Your mother was about a meter to the right, just outside the door. That's enough bricks. Say goodbye to them, and then we'll leave.

Me: Just like that? Just say goodbye?

Devil: Well, do you have some kind of elaborate death ceremony planned? The baby needs this done too, and your brother if he's not hidden in a collapsed building, and a lot of other villagers.

I am not going to cry! I do as the devil says, a silent goodbye. My father may have beaten me, and my mother may have hugged me in front of my friends, but they were my parents! God, help me. God help them too.

Me: Let's go.

The bodies are laid out in a row, and some kind of machine is digging a long trench for a group grave. Friends, an uncle, my baby sister, an old lady who had been nice to me: I tell names to the soldiers and the devil, and they use a metal stick, or a claw, to make up the grave markers which are left beside each corpse. Nobody else is alive to tell the names. I point out families that should be buried together. I don't know why they're taking the trouble; why don't they just let us rot where we fell? One by one they start putting the people into the trench, and the machine comes round to push the dirt back in. It feels like a black-furred hand is crushing my heart. I imagine having that dirt as a blanket. Holding my head in my hands I sit on the fin of a wrecked flying machine, the one I saw destroyed as I ran back to the village. I hope my brother was the one who fired the ancient missile.

Devil: I'm sorry, Gerbil. You're the only survivor from your village. Now I'd like to talk to you a little about your future.

Me: Just leave me alone. I want to die.

Devil: Listen to me, OK? You can pay attention to what's real; you're not a jackass like so many Illyrians. You're a tough survivor, and smart. I want you to promise me something: you'll make yourself into the best person you can be, and you'll help Illyria drag itself into the real world. I don't want you wasted.

Me: Wasting a coward is no big deal. Do you still have my knife? I'll do it over by the grave; you won't even have to carry me. You just have to make a grave marker.

The devil waves its arms again, and the machine filling up the grave stops. Then it uses its magic to make my sheathed knife appear in its hand.

Devil: Look, Gerbil, it's not my place to hold you in life when you've decided to check out. Here's your knife back. But what can I say to make you change your mind? You have a duty to your nation, to your parents and to yourself to grow, not die, and to do your part. But if you won't listen to that, I'll give you another reason to live. As a good Illyrian jackass, what's your prime duty right now?

Me: My prime duty is revenge. Vendetta. What a joke!

Devil: I agree, what a joke. But it's something you probably believe in. I'm going to make you a promise. If certain rather restrictive conditions are met, I'll kneel down in front of you and allow you to kill me.

Me: More lies!

Devil: That was as much a lie as anything else I've told you. Listen. A long time ago I made a daughter. I made her in a particular form to do a particular job. I don't know what you think of that, but by my standards, and by hers, what I did was wrong, and she called me on it. So I knelt down and told her to put her hands around my neck, and then I told her that she could do anything she wanted. She has claws like I do, by the way. You'll get a similar opportunity, when the conditions are met.

Me: So how come you're still here?

Devil: She dragged me to my feet and insisted that I continue teaching her to do the job I'd built her for. I have to be honest with you, Gerbil; I'm not profligate with my life and I'm betting that you'll have a similar reaction when you understand all the issues. But you'll get to put your hands around my neck, or something equivalent with a knife.

Me: I'll take that bet. What are these conditions?

Devil: First, like all Terrans you have to accept population control. I wish you could accept it because it's the right thing to do. Do you want to talk about that now?

Me: If it's one of the conditions, we'd better talk.

Devil: OK. We had you and your future wife and your two children, always two per family. Now look at your headman Bashkim, and suppose he has four kids. We're assuming they all survive. In the generation after that, how many kids would there be, each pair making four?

Me: Um... Sixteen.

Devil: I get eight. How did you get sixteen?

Me: Each of his four sons has four children: sixteen.

Devil: On average, half the offspring are female, so two pairs with four children each: eight. In reality different families would be mixed, but the answer comes out the same if you skip that. Now how about the next generation?

Me: Well... Counting the women, it would be sixteen then. It would double every time.

Devil: Good, Gerbil. Double some more. Keep doing it as many times as you can.

Me: Thirty two, sixty four, um, a hundred and twenty eight, let's see, two hundred and fifty six, that's a lot! More? Five hundred and twelve? That's as much as I can do. The next one is something and twenty four, but I don't know the number; we don't have that many sheep.

Devil: Wonderful, Gerbil! All the numbers are right. So how many are in Gerbil's family?

Me: I thought we were talking about two.

Devil: And what does the gigantic family without population control do to Gerbil's family?

Me: We could be raided, or pushed aside.

Devil: And that's why we're insisting that everyone has to control their population. The Earth boiled over with people, just like your numbers, doubling over and over, and when the food ran out they ate each other. I don't want that to happen again. Understand?

Me: So you kill anyone who won't go along. Like my family.

Devil: Right. Now you know why. Your future family won't be allowed to push others aside, and one of the conditions of the vendetta is that you have to be alive to carry it out. I hope you'll accept population control because it's right. If that's not possible, I know you'll accept it because it's your duty.

Me: Why do you care what I think?

Devil: Remember, mutual respect? I have some more requirements. First, you have to grow and thrive. You do your lessons and exercises. You get smart and strong enough to serve your people effectively, and to carry out the vendetta when the time comes, or to step back from it if you've decided that's right. You don't goof off or sink into depression. That's one of the conditions. And how am I going to enforce that? You're going to join my family.

Me: What?!

Devil: You heard me. I'm offering you a place in my family. How else can you keep track of where I am? How else can Simba and I make sure you're growing properly? Look, evidently you're an Albanian shepherd boy. In the modern world there isn't much call for your skills, and you're not going to make it if you just go through the refugee camps with no family, no education and not much chance of getting any. You deserve more than that. You may not think much of your performance, but I was impressed, and I think you can deal with Simba's and my teaching style. How about it?

Me: Are there more conditions?

Devil: One more. I have duties here. I'll try my best to avoid dying until they're done. When I'm satisfied that I've done my job, then you'll get your chance, not before. Look, do you need a little time to think it over? My duties are still with me. Unless you have more questions, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to check with my people. You have the knife. If you decide to take me up on my offer, see that person over there by the trucks with the brown hair sticking out below her helmet? She's a doctor, and she speaks Shqip. Tell her you're accepting population control. Get the shots; get a physical exam; do what she tells you. Then report back to me. Got that?

Me: Um, got it.

Devil: Then, goodbye, and I hope I'll see you again.

The black thing walks off, its white-tipped tail confidently upward like a cat's, without a backward glance. ``I hope I'll see you again'': what a thing to say! It's daring me to stick the knife in my heart. It's twisting my Albanian honor to make me do what it wants. In its family? That's disgusting! But can I kill myself and give up the vendetta just to spite it, to keep control of my own life? I had no idea that staying alive would be harder than choosing to die! The two soldiers next to the idle digging machine are watching me. Waiting for me to die, so they can finish. I walk over to them.

Me: Do either of you speak Shqip? If you were waiting for me, I'm not going to be in that grave.

Soldier, with a heavy accent: Good choice, kid. Look, I'm sorry about your village. It doesn't usually come out this bad. Your next step would be to go over by those trucks and get processed.

Me: Um, OK.

I walk over to the trucks, watched by soldiers behind and ahead, and approach the woman soldier, or doctor, or whatever.

Me: I was told to tell you that I'm accepting population control.

Doctor: Oh! Did Tiger explain the reasons, and how it works?

Me: My family would not push others aside, or be pushed aside by others. Anyone who tries to grow a bigger family is killed. I have an agreement with the black thing, and to do my part I have to stay alive.

Doctor: I'm happy you've chosen life and peace. I'm sorry about your family here.

Me: Shall we start the ordeal?

Doctor: I see you've been scratched by thorns recently. It's no more painful than that. Don't worry. Come on inside the truck. Sit here and put your hand on the glass. I'm Dr. Susan Schalke. What's your name?

Me: Gerbil. (Mysterious green and red light spills over my hand. I feel nothing.)

Doctor: Is that a nickname? I'll put that in the file, but we're supposed to have your real name for the primary key. Put your other hand on the glass now.

Me: The black thing gave me that name, and that's what my name will be from now on.

Doctor: OK, Gerbil it is. Now look at the red light on the wall. Try to smile; think of a happier time, not today.

Me, as a light explodes: Yike!

Doctor: That'll do. Now sit up here on the table and take your shirt off. My, you're furry, even for an Albanian. Do you get teased about it?

Me: Sometimes.

Doctor: This is the population control shot. It takes three weeks to have its full effect, and it has to be done over once a year. You'll come back in a year to get another shot, won't you?

Me: Yes. Ouch.

Doctor: You won't feel any effect from the shot; the only way you'll know it's working is that your girlfriend won't get pregnant. When you're ready to have children, both of you would stop taking the shots. That's the only one that's required, but I have a complete set of shots to protect you from diseases. Have you had any shots before?

Me: No. I think I should get those. I wouldn't want to die of disease before my duty is done.

Doctor: I'm glad to hear you make that choice. This one protects you from tetanus. If you step on a sharp object the wound can get infected and you have terrible cramps that in bad cases can kill you. Gunshot wounds also get infected with tetanus.

Me: We call it twisting disease. One of my friends died of that. It was pretty bad.

There's quite a long sequence of shots, with lurid descriptions, some of which I recognize. How did I ever survive childhood? There's another one where blood is sucked out of my body into a little glass bottle. When that's done she has me breathe while she uses a cold metal disc to listen to my chest. Satisfied, she has me lay down, and she kneads my insides like bread dough. That's uncomfortable but not actually painful. She says my liver is enlarged and cautions me against drinking. I'm embarrassed when she tells me to lower my pants and starts fiddling with my balls and dick. She says that when bathing I need to pull on the outer skin so water goes up inside and carries the junk out. What strange things these foreigners do! She has me piss in a bottle, and gives it to another soldier. Next I bend over and she sticks her finger up my arse! Yuck! But that's quickly over. As I tie the rope that holds up my torn white pants she's looking at a kind of fat picture on her desk.

Doctor: OK, Gerbil, you're in generally good health, with two exceptions. First, you have head lice. If you're going through the refugee camps there's not a lot you can do about lice, but when you get to your final village, if they have an anti-lice campaign you certainly should participate. Second, you have a bad worm infection. See this, and this? They're the eggs of two different kinds of worms, and I've seen a total of five species, including worms in your liver. That's why it's enlarged. There's also blood in your urine, and likely worm eggs, from a bladder worm. I'm giving you a course of ivermectin. Take one of these pills with your morning, noon and evening meal, until all the pills are gone. The medicine will mix with your food, the worms will eat it, and they'll die. It also passes through your bloodstream to get the liver flukes and the bladder worm. Now this is very important: you must always wash your hands before touching food that you're going to eat, and particularly before touching food that someone else is going to eat. You should always do that, but particularly now, when you know you're infected. The worm eggs are in the dirt, or spread on your skin. They get on your hands, then into the food, then into you or your family. You don't want that, so wash your hands. OK?

Me: OK, I'll remember. What happens next?

Doctor: You're done here. You were very cooperative for the physical exam and shots. Here's your registration card, with your photo and serial number and fingerprint code. Don't lose it. The next step would be refugee processing. Caleb! Would you please tell Gerbil here about his options as a refugee?

Me: Um, I was told to report back to the black thing when I was done with the shots. Um, thank you for the worm medicine.

Doctor: You're welcome, Gerbil.

Soldier: Tiger is around by the other truck; come this way. Ma'am? Gerbil is finished with medical.

Black Thing: Thanks, Caleb; just a second.

The blood smeared on the black fur of its arm has been replaced by a white bandage. It finishes talking with another soldier, then starts giving orders. Groups of soldiers form up and start placing weapons and supplies in the backs of the trucks.

Black Thing: So, Gerbil, are you accepting my offer of a place in my family?

Me: Yes.

Black Thing: Then let's get in the truck, these two seats. You can see out the window when we start flying. Have you ever flown before? I thought not. Put the belt across your shoulder and around your middle; here, let me help you with the buckle. Well now, where should we begin? I don't know what you've been calling me in your mind, but by voice I'd like to be called ``Tiger''. Please answer, saying my name.

Me: Yes, Tiger.

Tiger: Good, Gerbil. Now in our family we use handsigns a lot. Give me your hand; let me move the fingers into position. This is my name. See, this finger is straight, bend this one at the knuckle, this one in the middle, there, you've got it. Try to remember it; go left to right on the joints. Make the sign again. No, it's the middle finger that's straight. Good. Now your name has three signs in it, but let's just use ``jumper'' for today. See my hand; make your thumb more straight. Good; make it again. Again. That's enough. We'll practice these signs repeatedly. I'd like you to learn and to use both voice and handsigns at the same time. Hmmm. I've been taking the initiative here quite a lot. I want you to take responsibility for your situation, for making it work. Agreed?

Me: Um, yes, Tiger. (I struggle to make the handsign and Tiger fixes a finger position. What does it want?)

Tiger: So what do you need to know to make your new family work?

Me: Well, um, um, how many children are there? And what will you make me do?

Tiger: Hmm. We have one lion kitten named Shadow. He's ten lion years old; you'd consider him to be nine. He's an orphan like you. And I've mentioned my mate Simba to you. Now here's a point. We had a pair of human orphans before. Out of respect to their parents we had them call us Tiger and Simba, not Mother and Father. I assume you'll want to do the same, and you won't want to call Shadow ``brother''. But I'd like you to think ahead to what the relation will be between you and Shadow. Are you brothers?

Me: Of course not, a little something like you? Umm... You wouldn't ask that unless you wanted me to think it was my brother. But come on! That's disgusting.

Tiger: I'm sorry we disgust you. But what are you and Shadow going to be doing all day when Simba and I are out dealing with Illyrian villages?

Me: Well, I suppose, you know, messing around. Is that what you mean, that real brothers would mess around together?

Tiger: Right. You and Shadow are going to be doing together what real brothers do together. Given that your real brother is dead now, I'm not going to expect you to say Shadow is your brother, but I do expect you to act like brothers. Got that? Next I'd like you to think about some details of your relation. Who between you is physically dominant? Biggest and strongest?

Me: I doubt it's Shadow.

Tiger: What's going to happen if you push him around? Physically force him to do things, or bait him verbally? I assume Illyrian older brothers do that.

The thing assumes right, and the chance to be the older, for a change, brings me brief joy, until I remember why I have that chance. Tiger asked a question. I've seen its claws and teeth, and I have to assume Shadow has smaller versions.

Me: It would cut me with its claws, or bite me.

Tiger: I hope Shadow is a little more responsible than that, but if I come home and find you with slashes on your arms you'll get criticism from me, not sympathy, whether or not I also punish Shadow. If you fight, you lose. Not just with Shadow, with anyone. Learn that. Don't you attack, but if attacked make sure you lose less. We'll have combat training later, and I'll expect you to make that lesson part of you. Next question: compare how much Shadow knows and how much you know.

Me: About what?

Bad question. I don't even know what I'm supposed to know, that Shadow already knows more than I ever will. Tiger is waiting for me to say more, but what am I supposed to do, say I'm stupid? Well, Tiger criticized itself, and said I should have the courage to criticize it, but obviously to criticize myself too, if I deserve it.

Me: I guess... there's a lot about you people that I don't know. And Shadow does.

Tiger: Good. I want you to ask Shadow when you don't know something, which will be often. Now, how do you think Shadow is going to feel when you come sailing through our tent door?

Me: Well, um, I guess if I hadn't had an older brother, and now I did, and the brother was kind of dumb, I wouldn't like it.

Tiger: Lesson: ignorance and stupidity are different. I have a lot of confidence in your ignorance. You asked what I'd ``make'' you do. A lot of your time will be spent learning, and I hope you'll do it because you know you need it, and because you enjoy thriving and growing strong in mind and body, not just because I ``make'' you do it. But you're already smart and quick in your reactions and tough under pressure. You aren't stupid, and you aren't one of those jackasses I have to deal with every day who refuse to look at what's real. Have confidence in yourself. Please. Think about that for a few minutes, and watch the takeoff.

While we were talking soldiers were piling into the vacant seats and doors were being slammed shut. Now there's a kind of humming sound under the voices, and the seat lurches. We're going up! We're going to fall! It's tilting, going to dump us out! I grab the seat bottom for dear life. I hold myself back from crying out, since the others are sitting serenely and chatting quietly in their own language. I calm my breathing and look out the window again. I've never seen the tops of trees from, you know, the top. There aren't many trees, are there? There's a village, with ant-like people looking up at us. I wonder if they're Albanian. Well, if I don't want to get clawed I'd better think some more about Shadow, my so-called younger brother. This is going to be hard.

Me: If I can't act like an older brother to Shadow, I don't want to be the younger brother either.

Tiger: Treat him with mutual respect. Remember up on that hilltop I demanded respect from you, but I treated you with respect too, though you might have been too upset to recognize it. You do the same, and you won't have any trouble from Shadow. I'll give this same speech to him, by the way. How about you think up some more questions and watch the scenery for a few minutes while I write up my report. Oh, yes. You read and write, I assume.

Me: No, I don't.

Tiger: You did powers of two up to a thousand and twenty four. How did you learn that without reading or writing?

Me: I counted our sheep. It gets boring up in the hills all day. I counted them different ways.

Tiger: You did well. But you'll be excluded from a lot of lessons until you can read them. How does that make you feel?

It makes me feel like a country bumpkin. It makes me feel like a loser. It makes me feel like I'll never make it in Tiger's family. It makes me feel like I should have killed myself back by my baby sister's grave. But if I say any of that, Tiger won't give me any sympathy; it will just tell me I promised to do my best, so shut up and do it. But I can't lie to it; I can feel its blazing eyes reading my mind. What do I do?

Me: I'll learn to read your language first, then read the lessons. I'll get help from you and Shadow, as much as I can.

Tiger: Good.

I'm surprised that one word from this black thing that killed my family actually makes me feel I hadn't told it a total lie.

I look out the window and try not to think about this morning, while it clitter-clatters with its fingers on an openable thing sitting on its lap, similar to what the doctor had: evidently ``writing its report''. After a fairly long time there are some subtle lurches from underneath, and I hold myself back from a bumpkin's grab for the seat bottom. We seem to be going down gradually, and Tiger closes up its device and slips it into a bag. Without too much banging around we settle on the grass in front of what looks like a great city of tents. One of the soldiers in front of us presses a red-painted part of the belt buckle and it comes off him, and when Tiger reaches to do the same I copy. Score one for... for Gerbil. My name is Gerbil now. We exit the truck.

Tiger: This way, Gerbil. We have to get you set up. You have lice, right?

Me: Yes. (You don't just ask a person like that!)

Tiger: Then we need louse poison. And a metal comb. A sleeping mat and a blanket and a sheet. A drinking cup and a toothbrush. A computer. And some decent clothes. In here, Gerbil.

A large man with a bizarre flat face, who doesn't speak Shqip, brings out the requested items; I assume the white cloth is the sheet. As he's getting them, Tiger points out clothes hanging on the wall, some of them obviously for soldiers.

Tiger: Which of these would you like, Gerbil? We should get you two shirts and two pants. They don't have to, probably shouldn't be similar. When winter comes you'll need shoes, but that can wait.

Me: Well, um, I want to wear these clothes.

Tiger: Those? Let me guess: your mother made them specially for you from your own sheep's wool.

Me: Yes.

Tiger: Look, Gerbil, the briar patch wasn't kind to your shirt; turn around; nor to your pants in the butt area and the knees. And I suspect your outfit wasn't totally intact even before that. If you're going to insist on keeping the clothes as a memorial to your parents, I want them presentable. That means washed, like, immediately: they reek. You reek. You and they both reek. Then, today and tomorrow you mend all the rips. I don't want my son dressed in rags.

My heart drops into my stomach. The thing is going to shame its ``son'' by making him do woman's work.

Tiger: Say it, Gerbil.

Me: I'll do it.

Tiger: But you won't like it. Tell me what you don't like and why.

Me: Sewing and washing are what women do, not men!

Tiger: Tell me, Gerbil. Do I wear clothes? Who in our family wears clothes?

Me: Nobody.

Tiger: You missed a person. List the family members and what they wear.

Me: You: no clothes. Shadow: no clothes, I guess. Simba: no clothes. Well, I guess I left myself out. Wearing clothes.

Tiger: Right. Now is it fair for me to wash and repair your clothes for you, since you're the only one who wears them?

Me: I guess not.

Tiger: Then let's buy a needle and a spool of white wool thread, and get out of here. Are you saying that because I obviously believe it's right, or because you know it's right? You carry the sleeping stuff; I'll carry the rest.

The mat and blanket and sheet are bulky, but I arrange them so I can get my arms around them. Now on Tiger's question, my brother made me do things for him...

Me: I know what it feels like, to have to do things for other people. But what about being a man? Wouldn't Simba do the women's work, cooking and things like that?

Tiger: In our family we don't say this or that job is women's or man's work. Were you feeling angry at being asked to do what Albanians restrict to women?

Me: Yes.

Tiger: But we're not Albanians. So what are you going to do about work assignments?

Me: I'll do as I'm told.

Tiger: Hmm, that's not quite good enough. Will the Albanian feel shamed by the non-Albanian work arrangements?

Me: Yes.

Tiger: Good that you're honest, but I'd be interested to hear how you evaluate your performance.

Me: I'm an Illyrian jackass.

Tiger: Good that you're honest. You're learning that lesson well, and that will help you a lot in adjusting to us, and in learning and thriving. Here's our tent. Put your stuff down in the corner on the right, and then greet Shadow. Empty your pockets; you're going to wash your clothes.

I do as I'm told; the little thing holds back the tent flap for me and Tiger. Its color is odd: white, but with a dark shadow over the fur. Probably that's where it got its name. Tiger talks to it fairly extensively. It's hard to judge face expressions on a cat, but as Tiger warned me to expect, I don't get much of an impression of welcome. Finally it comes over to me. What am I supposed to do?

Me (in Shqip): Hi, Shadow.

Shadow: Hi, Gerbil. (I have to assume the first word means ``hi''.)

Me: Tiger, is its name Shadow in your language? Maybe I should have learned its handsign.

Tiger nods, but instead of replying it makes some handsigns at Shadow. Which then pokes its hand at me with a sign and says ``Shtino''. I repeat the name and essay the handsign. It moves my fingers into a more correct position. I force myself not to flinch from its touch. It feels like my dog's pads. Did Tiger feel the same? I can't remember. Imitating what Tiger had me do, I repeat the sign several times, saying the name ``Shtino'' in my mind. I hope I don't forget.

Tiger: Gerbil, bath time. Bring the lice soap and the comb.

Evidently Shadow is going to tag along. My brother got annoyed when I did that, and now, too late, I'm starting to understand why. It's carrying a box of something, and Tiger has a brush, not too different from what my mother uses to wash dishes. Used to use. We end up in a neighboring tent with a raised floor into which odd equipment is sunk. Tiger makes a handsign comment to Shadow and it laughs, a very human-sounding laugh, which I'm sure is at my expense.

Tiger: Now you get to see something shocking. Somehow you got the idea that I was male and Simba was female, right? Well, that's backward. Now as I'm sure you know, a human female's piss comes out the bottom all over her fur. My designers felt that could and should be improved. I have a small dick to piss through, not wetting my fur. Watch.

And it squats astride a kind of white bowl, and sure enough, a little boy's dick appears and it pisses. God, what a wierd creature! Shadow giggles, then imitates Tiger. I'm not being ordered to, but I think it would be a good idea not to piss in my pants, so I join the party. An Albanian jackass would do it standing up. Shadow comes round before I get my pants up and appraisingly inspects my equipment; I hide my annoyance and ignore it.

So my family was killed by a woman! I'm sure Tiger would say, we animals don't give jobs to men and women; anyone can kill. Including an Albanian young man.

Tiger: Are you done? Then peel. Toss your clothes in that washtub; you'll wash them after your shower.

So again I'm displaying my dick for little Shadow's entertainment. A rain machine on the wall starts up, but wonder of wonders, the water is like soup rather than real rain: warm, though not burning hot. Tiger warns me not to open my eyes for anything, or the lice poison will do to them what's supposed to happen to the lice. Someone comes in, and I'm thankful I've learned to avoid my father's or brother's slaps by thinking before acting: in this case I hold myself back from opening my eyes. I don't like being touched by other people, particularly not the one who killed my family, and particularly when it's rooting through my hair with the metal comb, occasionally saying ``yuck'' and cutting stuck spots with its claws. Finally it desists with the comb and lets the water wash the poison out of my hair.

On command I open my eyes... and am greeted by a young man's dream. So curved, so round, so... feminine! Her hair is blonde. My mother's hair was blonde, just this morning. God help me. Tiger pokes me in the spine and I instinctively stand up straighter. She smiles. What do I do now to keep from looking like a total idiot? My dick, at least, isn't embarrassing me, with Tiger and its claws right in back of me. And it's a relief that Shadow has gotten bored and left. Maybe she speaks Shqip.

Me: Hi, my name is Gerbil.

She answers, probably with her name, and Tiger replies briefly. She smiles at me again, then turns back to let the water rinse the soap off her voluptuous form. Following Tiger's cues and imitating the young woman I rub myself all over with soap, then rinse, while she proceeds to a noisy machine which seems to get her dry. I join her (she giggles) but the fat tube I unhook from the wall doesn't seem to do anything. She pokes a red square near the hook, and hot wind starts spewing out. I thank her graciously and hope the tone comes across; from her smile I think it does. Tiger dries itself too. I need more drying than the young woman did because of all my hair. She's now washing her clothing, soiled with what looks (and smells) like farm residue, and I watch the procedure carefully as I finish with the hot air. Tiger observes closely but doesn't intervene. I join the young woman at the adjacent washtub where I left my clothes, which I fill from the water machine (this water is hot, but cools quickly). I glance at her without staring, and I can tell that she's doing the same. I wish it could go further than just glances, but the chill in my heart fights with the warmth from her naked body --- and wins. She's done; the air dryer works on clothes just as well as on bodies. Am I done? When you don't understand something, speak up. I rehearse wording so the tone will come across as suave and assured. Maybe. It helps that the young woman doesn't know Shqip.

Me: Tiger, do you think these are clean yet?

Tiger: I'm no expert. Probably. Rinse them thoroughly; you don't want the soap all over your skin. Then squeeze out the water and dry them.

The young woman dresses, waves saucily to me, and leaves. I put a smile on my face for her, while continuing to dry my clothes. But the black-furred hand still clutches my heart.

Tiger: Evaluate your performance.

Me: What?!

Tiger: To thrive with us you need to know what you're feeling and why you're feeling it, and what you're doing and why. Also, you've learned some things about our ways, that probably differ from what you're used to. I'd like to know your feelings about that.

If it were my father he'd be setting me up for a stinging rebuke. My brother would have a different slant on my deficiencies, compared to him. I can't just... Tiger is honest, and demands honesty, and will keep demanding it until it's coughed up. I can at least keep my pride.

Me: I kept my eyes closed when she came in. I tried to talk to her, didn't hide or get tongue-tied. When that didn't work I used the tone of my voice to show I was friendly and interested in her. With your help I kept my dick down like I was used to this situation. It wouldn't happen in an Albanian village. I watched what she did and mostly got the machines to work and the clothes washed.

Tiger: Did you feel shame that you, the male, were washing clothes?

Trap question. Don't help it make me look like an ass. Don't give excuses.

Me: No.

Tiger: Good. What happened to the woman's work issue?

Me: Good?

Tiger: Right. What I saw, and what Sally saw, was well done. Woman's work?

Me: I guess I was distracted.

Tiger: The way I interpret that lesson is, it's less important just who does which job, than getting the job done and keeping your friends together. Dinner comes soon; I don't know if you noticed that we missed lunch. Will you feel shame about your part in the food preparation?

Me: If I want to eat I'd better answer no.

Tiger: Wrong. If you want to eat you'd better help cook it. If you feel shame you'd better answer yes. But do try to get yourself distracted: filling your hunger, or teamwork with Shadow, perhaps. OK? Now, why did, I'm sorry to have to be crude on this, but I want you to understand the question and answer it without beating around the bush. Why did your dick stay down?

Me: Tiger, could we please not talk about that while I'm standing here naked trying to get my clothes dry? My father wouldn't even have done that to me.

Tiger: We could delay until we go back to the tent. Where Shadow is.

Me: You wouldn't feel it; you're naked like a sheep. Right?

Tiger: Right, though I'd prefer if you use a cat as the analog.

Me: OK. You killed my family. You'd jab me with one of those claws if I stepped one bit out of line. For sure, you'd do vendetta on my dick if it stood up at you.

Tiger: Right, I'd feel that as a challenge, although I'd try to be forgiving here away from my territory, I'm talking about my tent, and with two meat bombs popping up by chance, not as a challenge engineered by you. Look, loosen up a little. I'm not going to shred you if you screw up. I insist that you do your best, and if you don't you'll feel the sharp side of my tongue, but I'm getting a feel for what I can expect from you and I won't jump all over you unfairly. Isn't that thing dry yet? We have stuff to do at home before we get tangled up with dinner issues.

I dress silently. What is it doing to me? I'm being torn apart by horror! A beautiful young woman; my dead mother. The thing's firm strength like my dead uncle's hand on my shoulder. The cat woman thing's firm strength. The good Albanian hate I feel for it is slipping, like when the truck rose and seemed like to tilt me off. And here's the thing's tent, its very own personal territory, where I can expect the next phase of the ordeal.

Tiger: Here, Gerbil, have a cookie; they're kept in this can. Oh, wash your hands first. Use the brush to get dirt off your claws. Dip some water from the vat into the small bowl. Dump it in the bucket below.

After I just finished using my hands to wash all over my body and then to wash my clothes? I silently improvise a procedure. Tiger, apparently satisfied, washes its hands next, using the brush on its numerous claws, and Shadow goes last. Such fear of dirt I guess is to be expected in a woman creature. I have to be honest: the hard sweet cake actually tastes quite good, and has a non-feminine crunchiness.

Tiger: Well, that goes partway to filling the hole in my belly. Ready for the next lesson, Gerbil?

Me: Um, yes.

Tiger: Take your computer and sit on your mat.

Me: This? The openable thing? (It's the only thing Tiger got for me that doesn't have an obvious function.)

Tiger: Right. Press the buttons at the two corners to open it. No, press both at the same time. Leave space for me on one side and Shadow on the other. Sit so you don't block Shadow's view of my hands; what I say for you I'll say to him also in Tiger signs. The same as you're supposed to do, when you know a few more signs. Hmm, I'm thinking ahead to tomorrow. Will Simba or I be here when you have computer problems?

Me: It'll be Shadow. But maybe that's not so important, because I don't know how to use one of these things.

Tiger: I know. That's what you're going to learn this afternoon. You'll get most of your lessons from the computer.

Me: I have a feeling I'd better learn some handsigns about this computer really fast.

Tiger: We'll have to decide which ones to teach you; you have time for only a few, tonight. But then Shadow has to fix the problem. I propose giving him root privilege on your machine. (Shadow grins and puffs up with air like a frog trying to impress the ladies.)

Me: OK.

Tiger: Just like that, OK? Well, you couldn't very well understand. Remember, if you don't understand something, speak up. I don't know you like I know Shadow, and I could easily forget how little you know about us. Root privilege lets Shadow know anything about you, do anything he likes in your data. It's a big responsibility, to act rightly, to not make technical mistakes, and particularly to not abuse your trust. How would you feel about letting Shadow slip his hand down your pants and just kind of hold your balls in his fingers? His clawed fingers?

Me: Well, um, um, um, I guess I still have to say OK, because if I'm going to get the lessons from it and it breaks, I have to get Shadow's help to fix it.

Tiger: That's brave, Gerbil, that's brave. It's done, and I've asked Shadow to set up your machine. He set that one up recently, so he knows the procedure. This will take just a minute.

Shadow isn't self-inflated any more; it's concentrating over its own computer, and its black-tipped tail twitches. Whatever it's doing, and there seems to be quite a lot of it, I can see no effect in my lap. Finally it speaks to me, giggles realizing that it wasn't understood, and points at one of the bumps on the lower half of the computer. It pulls my finger over, and presses it down on the bump. There's a sequence of six more bumps to press, the last one twice, after which the picture vanishes and is replaced by another, equally incomprehensible.

Tiger: OK! You've just written your name, identifying yourself to the computer. Am I right that this is the first time you've written your name? It's something to be proud of.

Me: I think I'd better save the pride for when I understand a little more what I did. (Silently: and when I'm not shaking like a leaf with fear of not being able to do this stuff.)

Tiger: Gerbil, seriously, loosen up. I know you must feel awful about your family, and really apprehensive about this new situation you're in, but... You have whatever passes for Albanian combat training, don't you? When you're in a fight, which gets the best result, loose and fluid, or wound up tight? Like you are now.

Me: The Illyrian jackass says, tight wins fights. Lazing around in battle is the way to let down your side, and also to get yourself killed.

Tiger: Shit. Good that you read my attitude there, but let's put it this way. Tomorrow I'd like you and Shadow to practice falling without getting hurt, and I want your legs strong enough that you can fall and get up a hundred times and come back for more, because that's what it's going to take for you to unlearn your Albanian lesson. Now on today's issue... You want to talk about combat training?

Me: I don't like being shamed, particularly in front of Shadow.

Tiger: I'm sorry. That wasn't my intent. But which did you feel? That I'm right and rubbing it in, or that I shouldn't be disrespectful of your training?

Me: You shouldn't always badmouth Albanian stuff. Like calling me a jackass.

Tiger: You're right; I'll show a little more restraint in that. But I won't turn away from what's real, and I suggest the same for you. How about we do this: we'll drop the subject until you actually start combat training, you can count for yourself how many times you're on your butt, and I won't say a word. OK?

Me: OK. Now, could you please tell me, rather than just move my fingers, what I'm supposed to do next?

Tiger: Right. It wants you to choose a new password. Pick a sequence of eight letters with shapes that you can remember. Pick some from the top row too, which are numbers. Normally you don't tell your password to anyone, and the computer will protect it against any but the most intense attack. If I want a password cracked I can get the resources to do it, but few can. In your case, though, I worry that you'll forget it, and it's going to be a pain for you to have to memorize a new one. Since Shadow has root privilege anyway, I'd like you to let him copy down your password, so he can tell you what it is if you forget. Is that OK?

Shame at being expected to botch something important. Shame at having my pet little ``brother'' appointed to hold my hand.

Me: I'd kind of prefer not to do that.

Tiger: Hmm. OK, type your password and memorize it as you go. After eight letters I'll show you what to do. Only use the light-colored keys.

The first bump to catch my eye has like how a child draws a mouse in the dirt. Two tits. A corner, part of my name. At each choice I repeat what went before. This is hard! After eight, I have a harder task: type it again error free. My shirt is wet under my arms. I press the final key and the rectangle vanishes. Did I blow it?

Tiger: Good, Gerbil. Good, steady performance. Now log out and identify yourself again. From now on, nobody can use your name without also having your password. Roll the little ball until the arrow points in this icon.

I wish the jagged shape wouldn't move in jagged swoops. The target is a picture of a man sitting. Finally the arrow goes in.

Me: Tiger, he's looking at me!

Tiger: It's just a picture. It has natural behavior because people think it's fun, but it's only a toy. Computers aren't alive, even if we sometimes joke about them as if they were. Press button one, this one.

The little man stands up near a door, and when I target the door and press the button, he waves and the screen goes blank. A new rectangle appears --- no, not new; it looks like when I started. OK, type my name. Except, I didn't memorize the keys like I did for my password. Shame. I blush. I mustn't whine or add to their thoughts of how stupid I am.

Me: Tiger, would you have Shadow show me again the keys for my name? Slowly?

Tiger: Right.

If I thought my shirt was wet before, it's soaked now. But I get on. This has to be practiced, so I log out again. Now the six keys of my name. Can I remember my password? Will I remember it tomorrow? I poke Shadow and it looks at me. I point at the mouse drawing and slowly, very visibly press it. Then the two tits. It does something quickly on its own computer, then copies my subsequent letters as I type them.

Tiger: He's encrypted the file containing your password with his own.

Me: What's that?

Tiger: His password will defend yours from attack.

Me: If there are raids on computers, am I going to get attacked?

Tiger: Very smart question. The simple answer is, you're pretty safe. You have a Gondor standard kernel image and utility package, and Simba and I certify personally to you that they're clean. A random attack won't succeed against them. Nobody cares about you; probably nobody knows you're even alive; so nobody is going to make the effort of a targeted attack against you. Even so, it's good to keep your defenses up, in case that changes unexpectedly. It's probably unnecessary that your password be in an encrypted file, but Shadow did rightly to put defenses around it.

Me: What's a computer attack like? I'm thinking of, you know, jumping up and biting, but I guess that's ignorant.

Tiger: It's all very silent. But deadly. You'd look at your log files. Let me at your keyboard; this file should show nothing. Well, well, well, what have we here? I'm going to run a virus check on my machine, and Simba's if he's online, and Shadow, would you start it on Gerbil's and then do your own? And then send that log file to Eridanus Corporation security. Let me review the message before you send it out.

Me: What happened? Was I attacked?

Tiger: Yes. According to the log file the attack was repelled. A successful exploit would normally erase its traces in the log, but a particularly clever one might just simulate its own death. I'm thinking of two possibilities. First it might have targeted the machine because it was new. Second, because it was in our family. Both are worrisome. Yes, Shadow? He says your machine and his are clean... and there, mine's finished, clean, and there goes Simba's, and none of our machines' log files showed an attack attempt. Gerbil, you look like I've put you into some kind of conflict. We've done all we can on this attack, I think; there's just one log message and no evidence beyond that to work on. So let's address your issues.

Me: I'd, well, rather not talk about this particular issue right now.

Tiger: Leaving me to guess what it is. Should I insist? Computer security is pretty important to me. Convince me to drop the topic.

Me: I've never heard of anyone treating a prisoner like this! You're tricking me to betray my parents! This morning I was Enver and Ingrid's second son. Now I'm not, because of you!

Tiger: We have an agreement what you can do about that. I haven't told Shadow yet, by the way, but Simba knows.

Me: I mean right now! If you're an enemy it's all lies. You demand honesty and you aren't going to let go until I tell you, so stick this up your arse, Tiger: I am not going to dishonor the memory of my parents.

Tiger: It's not going up my arse, but I encourage your attitude. I might not, however, concur with what you think dishonors your parents.

Me: You encourage?! You have no idea how to behave. You are totally insane.

Tiger: If Shadow had been captured by Albanians, am I correct that they would try to get him to dishonor his parents? Sit there and tell me with a straight face that that's the right thing to do.

Me: That's not the point!

Tiger: Then tell me what is.

With one thrust of the knife it has my balls off. Or my father's balls off. I am not going to cry! What can I say? What is the real point?

Me: If you won't act like an enemy I can't hate you like I should.

Tiger: Let's see if I understand that. If the hate fades, you're dishonoring the memory of your parents. Perhaps it will help me understand if you tell me how the hack attack brought this on.

Me: I was glad the attack failed. That was wrong. I should be disappointed that the enemy fought off an attack.

Tiger: Can you hold in your mind the feeling you later rejected, and analyse it for me? That's going to take guts, to feel what you later decided was wrong, and to risk having me convince you otherwise. I'm going to dismiss Shadow; I don't want him distracting you. It's time for him to bathe anyway.

Me: What do you mean, analyse?

Tiger: Did you feel like it was an attack on your own village?

Me: I felt it, for a moment.

Tiger: OK, I think I see what's going on. I'm going to try to get you to accept the short form, and later when we're all a little more calm, then thoroughly thrash out the issues. Suppose your parents could give you some advice right now; what would they say? I'm not interested in killing me, or hating me; I mean what should happen to Gerbil and how should Gerbil see that it does happen.

Me: I don't know. What do parents ever want? They want me not to be a wimp. They want me to make them proud.

Tiger: Leaving me out of the picture, what could you do to make them proud?

Me: I had trouble to figure that out.

Tiger: What could you do to make yourself proud?

Me: Get married, have four sons and two hundred sheep. What a joke.

Tiger: Would they be proud if you accomplished that?

Me: I guess.

Tiger: Now supposing you were still in your village; if you worked toward getting your wife and the kids and the sheep, would you be honoring the memory of your parents?

Me: Yes.

Tiger: And if you did things that pushed the girls away, or let your sheep die, what then?

Me: It would be like the stuff you're trying to get me to not do here.

Tiger: Work with me, Gerbil! I need you to accept some behavior because it's right, not because I tell you to. I'm setting you loose here and I don't want you to screw yourself up because of some... Albanian training that's wrong.

Me: You say it's wrong. When I hear it I'm sure my father will have told me it's right.

Tiger: And what will the truth be?

Me: Come on, you haven't even told me what you want me to do.

Tiger: I'm glad you accepted my position. You could have said, everything my father said is right, without even hearing what the issue is.

Me: Damn you! If I go against my father and for you I'm doing wrong.

Tiger: We stepped in this squishy hole before: you have to do something that's wrong, something wrong that your parents told you to do, to honor their memory.

Me: Damn you! You haven't even told me what it is!

Tiger: But the point is, you have to judge each issue yourself, not just do as you're told. That's why you have to hear what the issue is, so you can make an independent judgement whether you should do it. Right?

Me: Let's talk about dishonoring my father.

Tiger: OK, let's. Do you and I respect each other?

Now that's a hard question. I'm not used to this respect business. Obviously the answer is yes, but Tiger has jerked me around just one time too much. But I'm not going to say no to spite it like a little brat. If Tiger weren't an enemy, weren't a cat monster...

Me: Yes, we respect each other.

Tiger: Evaluate your performance and mine. Have either of us been free of errors? Free even of serious errors?

Me: I made mistakes. You say you did too.

Tiger: The point is that you can respect someone who isn't perfect, even someone who has made serious mistakes.

Me: I'm not sure I like what you're trying to get me to say.

Tiger: Try it on for size. I go by what's right and I hope you'll do the same.

Me: I treated you as my people, not as an enemy. You're going to tell me why that's not wrong. If I believe you, if I decide you're right, it's my father's mistake. But I can still respect him and honor his memory, so you say.

Tiger: What do you say? Is your father error-free?

When the thunderstorm hit and the sheep panicked, I told him where a group had gone and he wouldn't listen. Twenty sheep froze to death that night on the mountain, right where I said they were. I didn't rub it in, but I got beaten anyway.

Me: No. Why is it a mistake to treat you as an enemy? It's insane to ask that question. If you're an enemy I can't trust your answer.

Tiger: Welcome to the asylum. In my opinion all of Illyria is one gigantic nuthouse. But let's not get distracted. I'd like to turn your sentence right way round: you treated us as your people, and why is that correct? I'm showing considerable forbearance, by the way: you already accepted a place in my family, which means that we really are your people. But let's just leave your promise as a sword of Damocles over your head, and concentrate on the connection with honoring your parents.

Me: Who's Damocles?

Tiger: Sooner or later the sword is going to drop if you don't get your neck back where it belongs. But that's going to happen after we talk about your parents. OK? Now, it's given that you have to be here to meet certain obligations. While you're here are you going to thrive and make you and your parents proud, like we discussed? Or something else?

Me: I thought I was only going to have two children.

Tiger: The four sons are out; you're right that you get just two children, and you'd better train them strong and fierce even if they're the same sex I am. Also, like I said, the two hundred sheep aren't very likely, but I hope you have the agility to recognize that there are things we do that are just as valuable to us as raising two hundred sheep would be to an Albanian peasant. The proposal is that you're going to thrive in our context and by our standards, not specifically in terms of the number of sheep.

Me: If my parents were alive they wouldn't be happy I was giving up Albanian ways. But that's not going to put my house back together. Or my parents. I'll be strong and skillful enough to claim my reward at the end of this.

Tiger: Good. Do you think you can do that by holding yourself separate from your family? Think of a single sheep which won't join its flock. Or of a clump of grass that's been pulled out by the roots and set up on top of the ground. That's you. Your instinct was right, to take it seriously that you had joined my family.

Me: How do I know you're not lying? Not tricking me? It's crazy for you to help me kill you.

Tiger: No, it's not. I want you alive and capable and well-trained. What did it take to assure that? You in a good family, not rotting in the refugee camps, and motivated to succeed. And to get that, I had to dangle in front of you something that you believe in today, which is vendetta. And remember, I think you're going to change your mind about killing me, later when you've had some experience and studied some lessons. I'm definitely not crazy, at least not in that way, and I have lots of experience at using my life to get what I want. Does it bother you to want the same thing I do: for you to thrive?

Me: Your lone sheep bothers me. Not fighting the enemy bothers me. Having you slip out from under my hate bothers me.

Tiger: Life is tough, isn't it? So how about it? Are you rejoining the family?

Me: Yes. Tiger. Do I have to do anything more about that attack?

Tiger: No. Security already acknowledged Shadow's message; of course he told them it was for me; and they're trying to find something in the data nexus or the quartermaster's system. How about you try to login a few more times, and then it's definitely time to start making dinner. To fill our bellies.

I log out by tickling the little guy --- I'm getting better at controlling the arrow --- and then type my name carefully. Now my password. The first three letters. In this family when you screw up you speak up, not dither around.

Me: Tiger, I've forgotten my password.

It reaches a hairy arm over and points to the next letter. It observed and it can memorize without being seen to. But I remember something that happened to me as the younger brother.

Me: Tiger, it's Shadow's job to help me with my password. Out of respect for it, could we call it over?

The black monster smiles at me, then makes a handsign to Shadow who's been keeping an eye on us while doing other computer work. It scoots over, types some stuff, then points to the keys. There, I only missed those two. I'm logged on. Tiger waits for me to repeat the cycle once more, then tells me to close up and start work on the dinner.

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