Next Previous Contents

Chapter 8: Flying Over Lake Shkodër

Cricket is dressed as usual, and it's not clear if I'm chasing her or she's chasing me, but we're in the briar patch, and the dream is definitely sexual but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to embarrass myself again. Mmf. The real Cricket is making noise.

Cricket: Could you move, please, Gerbil, so I can get out the door?

Me: Whaaa... Oh, sorry; can you get by now?

I curl my legs out of the way. Unwrapping and standing up would be inadvisable right at the moment. But if I'm facing the door... I put on my pants but leave off my shirt, to make myself chilled. Shadow's up, and both of us roll our mats. The chill seems to be helping. Katica's up, and quickly dressed, and the adults seem to be throwing off sleep too.

Shadow (using signs that he and Katica worked on yesterday): Katica, come. Take a leak.

Returned from the latrine, we all decide to take our mats outside to stretch on, rather than packing inside the tent with legs going every which way. The only disadvantage is that the bottoms of the mats get dirty. The werewolves and Cricket do the same exercises we do. Katica picks them up quickly and is able to get her nose almost to her knees. I give her a thumb up.

Me: How can Katica do so much better than I can?

Simba (by voice, but Tiger translates): Children are generally more flexible. When she starts growing fast, her muscles will have a hard time to keep up and she'll need to do extra stretches, which you didn't do. If you keep stretching your muscles will get to their proper length. Have you finished your wrists yet? If not, I'm going to be first on the bar.

I'm happy to see that Simba has obtained a second bar for our guests to use. And outside, we can put the bars high enough so we full-size people can hang straight. Cricket has no trouble jumping up for her turn, and she can do more chinups than Angela could if she were here. The higher the better, says Shadow as I lift him. Katica, though, looks at the bars with grave suspicion, so when Shadow is done I interrupt my situps and lower the bar for her. She's still suspicious but gives it a try, and manages four chinups. She also didn't do many pushups, and she doesn't look pleased. But Simba speaks to her in Croatian, or I suppose I should be calling it Bosnian, and she brightens. Then it's my turn on the bar, and with eyes upon me I naturally show off a little.

Tiger: I see you've been working out. Good for you.

Me (trying for thirty five without a rest): Thanks, we... do this... every day. Aah, that's enough.

I'd like to beat Tiger; that's one of my goals when I do more exercises during the day. Of course if I do challenge her she'll take the time to show me, without rubbing it in, how many she really can do. But matching Tiger's routine quota is worthwhile even so.

Tiger: Did everyone have a turn on the bar? Then let's run! Katica, come. Shadow, if she tires stay with her.

Katica won't tire, or won't let herself be left behind; I remember her response to Wallace's fast pace yesterday. While the speed is leisurely for Tiger and me I can see that it's a strain for Katica, but she can manage it. Cricket is just loafing, and I look forward to trying a serious race with her. Between me and Shadow I think we can evoke some respect. Angela can run as fast as I can; she should be in on the race too.

For breakfast we cook our mush one at a time in the microwave oven. As guests, Valeria and Quin are encouraged to go first, but they send Cricket to join the young people since she doesn't have to leave for work. As a good leader I bring up the rear. But...

Tiger: You have to go with Valeria, Gerbil. Get your bowl ready; cook it when mine is done.

After Valeria whispers in her ear, Cricket takes my place as the senior young person. Katica seems happy to get Chang seeds with milk, and having seen numerous examples she has no trouble to work the oven, including pressing the numbered buttons; I made sure she got a good look when I did it, and both Shadow and I carefully watch what she does. Toothbrushing is also done one by one, but the hangup is at the oven and so there are at most two people trying to brush at a time.

Angela: Good morning; may I come in?

Simba: Bright and early today. Come on in. Did you eat yet? I guess you haven't finished your cinnamon roll. Join the line to brush your fangs when you're done.

Angela: I didn't bring my toothbrush.

Simba: You should go back and brush, when you've said goodbye to Gerbil. You could buy a toothbrush and have it here; you should brush your fangs after each meal including lunch.

Me: Hi, Angela! Goodbye, Angela! (Giggle.) Valeria, what should I bring? Will I need my computer?

Valeria: Of course! I never go anywhere without mine. Mind if we put all the food in your pack?

Tiger passes me what's referred to as the food. I shouldn't be so negative; the wrapped bricks might be edible. The apples will be tasty at least. Two large bubble bottles of water seem like an oversupply, particularly since our hosts must have water to drink. With my computer, my bag is now totally stuffed, and heavy; I hope the cloth doesn't rip. Valeria isn't slacking off though; when she moves her bag it looks equally heavy, probably with tools. For the first time since they arrived, the two werewolves put on clothes: soldier's uniforms. Valeria fills hers nicely, like Angela fills her clothes: rounded as she should be, but not cowlike. And I mustn't forget my embroidered shirt, which I hope will help the Albanians in Koplik think I'm one of them. They might equally decide I'm a traitor. I'd better be very careful what comes out of my mouth, and what goes into my back.

Tiger: Let's get moving, people. Hugs all around.

I hug Angela, Shadow and Katica, but I manage to position myself so someone else is always between me and Cricket. Good, she seems to be going along with that arrangement. We adults file out the tent door and Angela waves to me admiringly. Adult! Well, very junior temporary assistant adult. But I feel like the first time, long ago, that my father let me come along and help care for the sheep: it's a start towards when I'll be doing this as the head of my own household, the leader of my own team. With Angela, if we avoid a hundred opportunities to be jackasses. I feel sexual. This is a sexual thing I'm doing. We walk the short distance to the main building, where the trucks and fighters are parked on the grass.

Valeria: Good luck, parents. I hope to see you this evening.

Tiger: So do we. Illyria needs those factories. Do your best.

Quin: Of course. See you.

Tiger and Simba join their platoons, forming up near the trucks. There are quite a lot of trucks, and quite a lot of platoons, but most are commanded by lieutenants, not by a Marshal.

Quin: Valeria, I assume these trucks are ours.

Valeria: Yes, this is the one with my toolbox. I had them load it into the truck yesterday afternoon, rather than dragging it to Tiger's and Simba's tent. See you, and good luck.

Quin: Same to you, and I love you, Valeria.

Valeria: Me too.

While they embrace and kiss, I discreetly sit in the indicated truck and fasten my seat belt. Soon Valeria enters, all business. Reaching inside her shirt, she extracts a small metal object, inserts it in the truck's control panel, and twists. Lights appear.

Me: Is that like logging on?

Valeria: Sort of; a real logon, like for the rifles, would be better. That's what we do on Thor. Hang on while I do the systems check.

I take the hint and shut up. Valeria pokes buttons and makes handsigns on a keyboard. Finally:

Valeria: Union-22732-Echo to base, flight to Koplik, request permission to depart.

Disembodied voice: Clear for takeoff. Have a safe flight. Thunderstorms are expected in the afternoon.

Valeria: Thanks for the warning.

The takeoff is a lot more steady than Wallace's. Nonetheless a firm force presses me into the seat, and we're clearly moving rapidly, northeast, into the rising Sun.

Valeria: I see you watching everything I do. Has Tiger shown you the flight simulator games?

Me: Yes; they're a lot of fun. That metal thing: do you have a pocket like Tiger does?

Valeria, laughing: Very observant you are, but you couldn't see it on my body, could you?

Me: Um, no.

Valeria: The 'uomi design is a compromise, giving us as many as possible of the good features lions have, like pockets and fangs and claws and fur, but concealing them so humans forget that we're not really human. We're the humans on Thor.

Me: How does it feel to be a werewolf, not human?

Valeria: How does it feel to be human, human?

Me: Well, I guess it feels ordinary. I feel like me.

Valeria: I feel like me too. But you should be talking about this with Simba; he's the philosopher. I yelled at Tiger plenty for making me like a human but not human, but I can't say I've contributed much beyond yelling to the deep philosophy of species identity.

Me: Are you the one she offered her life to? Let you put your hands around her neck?

Valeria: Yes! She told you about that? She told us she'd done something similar for you, and you also turned her down.

Me: Right. It would have been adding wrong upon wrong to kill her. She did the least wrong thing she could. Illyria will win against the invaders, and that will be my parents' revenge, and Tiger is so amazing: she wants us to win! She wants me to honor the memory of my parents, in her blood if necessary! My parents wouldn't understand, but I'm not letting that hold me back from doing what's right.

Valeria: Tiger really is amazing. And Simba too, and Willie and Wilma. I wish they could have lived like Novanima do. That's one of our good features that you can't see by looking. Well, returning to the flight simulator games, do you have any questions?

Me: Yes: what are you doing down there with your left hand?

Valeria: That's the vertical thrust control. In the games do you fly helicopters, or antique airplanes?

Me: Airplanes. They have to roll on the ground real fast to take off, not like trucks that just go right up.

Valeria: A modern hover vehicle is closer to a helicopter. Stick left or right makes it roll, but fore and aft controls the forward thrust. The side stick controls lifting more or less, which keeps our altitude stable. You notice the handgrip is free to move on top of the stick? Twist to yaw, that is, to similarly twist the truck. Forward tilt actually makes the truck tilt, and side tilt couples to side force, which you rarely use. Want to try it? Don't tilt; it won't do anything at this speed; just move the stick a little.

She slides her hand down the stick so I can hold it with my left hand; then she takes her hand away. It's hard to keep the truck from tilting sideways, similar to a simulated airplane, but since I have that experience I do a not totally inadequate job. Similarly it seems like the truck is sloshing forward then slowing down, and I work hard to hold a steady, even pressure forward on the stick.

Valeria: Enough? Let me just push your hand off the stick. You did pretty well, for your first time. We did get going a little fast.

Me: Thank you. How fast was it?

Valeria: About a hundred eighty meters per second. I normally fly these crates at one fifty. Two hundred is max.

Me: How do you tell how fast you're going?

Valeria: Lean over; get your head right next to mine. See the numbers projected on the screen? On the left is the speed, on the right is altitude, and heading is at the bottom. The wedge indicates the heading to the target, and see the box? That's drawn around the target: Koplik.

Me: What were the stripes?

Valeria: They represent the numbers in graphical form. When the stripe is longer you're faster or higher. When things happen fast it's quicker to interpret the stripe than reading the digits.

Me: Is this Lake Shkodër? From my village, Nikç, you could just see it from one of the high pastures, at the far end of the valley opposite ours.

Valeria: Yes, it is, and can you see Koplik?

Me: No.

Valeria: Maybe I have the advantage of the targeting box, and maybe I have the advantage of Novanima eyes. Dr. Franck took these off a squid. They work by moving the lens, not bending the cornea.

Me: Um, I'm afraid I haven't gotten that far in my lessons.

Valeria: Look forward to them! I love my body; I love how it works so well! Dr. Franck and the Lion Foundation team gave us the basic material, and Simba modified it for each species. Humans just can't see that we 'uomi are fake. I like that. It's my job to be human, and I like doing my job.

Me: Yes, um, it's easy to forget about the claws. And the mouth daggers. We're still not across the lake. It's big.

Valeria: Right. But we'll arrive soon. I wonder what made this lake. It can't be glacial; too far south; so it must have been a landslide, a big one. I miss Wilma. I learned geology from her.

Me: What's geology?

Valeria: The study of the Earth: landforms, the flow of water and molten rock, and the crystalline materials inside.

Me: And, um, could you tell me a little about Wilma and Willie?

Valeria: Certainly. There were four people on SS Franck: Tiger, who was the captain, Simba, Willie and Wilma. They were human. It was like we had four parents when we were kittens. Willie was totally brilliant as a mechanical engineer, and I spent several hours every day helping him and learning from him. And I learned to be a female from Wilma. Among humans it would be the male who forges the red-hot iron, because your programming gives you, not the females, the muscles to do that. We Novanima have a lot less difference between the sexes, and you've probably noticed during the exercises that I'm a bit stronger than you. My ``male side'' extends to keeping my mouth shut and brooding when I'm unhappy. Wilma helped me pick up what comes naturally to most human females: building a team, communicating with teammates, and helping the other people to feel good about themselves and their place in the team.

Me: Those came pretty naturally to me, once Tiger and Simba pointed out to me that it was going to be important to make myself a place in our family, thinking of it as a team.

Valeria: What would other Albanians think of that admission?

Me: Hmm. My brother would have called me queer. When I'm with Angela I know I'm a man. Young, but a man.

Valeria: When I smell cinnamon I know I'm female. I don't get this queer business. There are a couple of ``and'' gates in my brain and when I smell the right combination I know I could mate with that one. I guess that because humans lack recognition scents you need some complicated pattern recognition that can get messed up so it recognizes nothing, or the wrong sex. In any case, there are skills everyone needs, and it's stupid to say you aren't a proper male because you're naturally good at what's natural for females. Or conversely, that someone with a little meat on her arms and shoulders is defective as a female. Like Cricket and Angela. Strength is important.

Me: Right; Albanian men know that. A lot of the First Division young ladies are so skinny! And too many are just plump. And boobs that belong under a cow. Angela is just right.

Valeria: It's none of my business to be making judgments about Angela, but I have a feeling I'm going to get to know her in the coming few days. See there, dead ahead: Koplik. I'm going to do as much of the talking as I can, but if I sign to you, translate it for them, and vice versa, translate what they say if I look at you. I noticed last night that you were pretty agile dealing with that little set-to between Cricket and Angela. If I'm stepping on Albanian toes, discreetly warn me off in signs, or if absolutely necessary, in Shqip, but let's keep that to a minimum. Got it?

Me: Yes, ma'am. One toe you've already trod on: women don't boss men around.

Valeria: I'm aware of the issue. I've communicated with these people before by mail and NetBoard; we gave them a computer and several of them worked in the factory before the collapse and they know how to use the thing. In the first minute or two I plan to make it real clear that I'm a werewolf, not a human woman. I think that will knock them off the woman boss track. What do you think?

Me: Probably that would help. Is that the factory?

Valeria: Right. I'm going to buzz the place, try to impress them. Good, they're coming out to see the truck. I'll have them carry the tools and supplies inside. OK, applying the golden ratio, the right place to land the truck is... right here. You go out and open the cargo door, but don't carry anything.

I do as instructed.

Albanian (from the other side of the truck, speaking Shqip): Good morning, and welcome to the Koplik Ceramic Works. I'm Spartak Solis.

Valeria (of course in Shqip --- adequate Shqip): Aah. It's good to meet you at last in person. I'm Valeria U1012-2423. Being a werewolf I'm not that expert with human languages, so I've brought an assistant to help me with that.

Mr. Solis: I see. This is Arben, my assistant manager.

Valeria: Happy to meet you, Arben. I have some tools and supplies in the back of the truck. Could they be brought into the factory near where we're going to be working, the mixing machinery and the kiln?

Mr. Solis: Certainly. Paskal and Luan, see to it.

Arben: Allow me to take your hand.

Valeria: Certainly we can follow Albanian custom, but mind the claws. We do have work to do, and if you have to bandage your hand you'll miss out.

Jackass! He wisely aborts his rendition of Albanian ``custom''. This is what Valeria meant about reminding people that she's a werewolf; she's never even shown me her claws. In her place I would have reacted very differently. But I think I should learn from her success with Arben: if you attack you lose; if he attacks... He was wise enough to back away from losing, but Valeria made it easy for him to pick the winning move.

I stick close to Valeria rather than getting tangled with the beasts of burden. Arben can't keep his eyes off her. Her deep brown skin, the claws uncharacteristically visible on her fingertips, the mouth daggers which she's lifting her lips to expose: Arben looks from one to the next, as well as at her feminine form. I wonder what he thinks of her clothes, since he would have never before seen any woman dressed as a soldier. Except perhaps when the First Division came through his village. Valeria chats with Mr. Solis and Arben about the repairs and redesign. Besides the toolbox there was a fat bag of something, and once I see both of them disappear into the factory I return and close the truck's rear door. Valeria was also watching for this cue and is on her way into the factory. I walk quickly to catch up, not playing the floppy puppy dog but not wanting to be left behind either.

The factory is dim, lighted inadequately from broken windows in the roof. The floor is smooth stone, too smooth to be natural. The place smells like a cave: dank and disused. There are dead leaves and trash in some of the corners, but the floor has been swept in the central area.

Mr. Solis: Well, here she is, the main kiln. She came through the chaos in fairly good shape, compared to other factories in Koplik.

Valeria: You're right; it's not too bad. We may not have to replace the entire lining. Later let's get a feel for that, but I think we're all going to work easier if we restart the power nexus first. That's in the northeast corner, if I remember right. You'll be on the First Division net, and you'll transfer to the Illyrian net when there is an Illyrian net.

Mr. Solis: You have plans for the building?

Valeria: Satellite photos combined with notes from your old power company. Here, right? I have a nexus bridge in my pack. Gerbil, would you move that table next to the nexus equipment rack? Have you had any experience wiring stuff up? I guess not. Well, then, just watch.

The bridge, an anonymous box, comes out of Valeria's bag, plus her computer. Three fat snakes, also from the pack, connect the bridge to the nexus, and a fourth cable plugs into the computer: the first time I've seen a physical connection from a computer to anything else. Valeria logs in, clicks a bunch of screen buttons, and rolls her ball a couple of times. Something's different now: a humming sound, barely audible. She starts unplugging cables. That's it? I keep my mouth shut.

Mr. Solis: Well, that was simple.

Valeria: Occasionally something goes right. The nexus bridge includes complete diagnostic software. The nexus was undamaged; I didn't have to strip it and replace boards. And I had its MAC address and partner preassigned; I just had to hit a few buttons and the nexus bridge loaded them into the processor and programmed the power transfer chips. Now we have to realign all your equipment to your nexus. Do you have your records of what was connected to which partner?

Mr. Solis: Fortunately there was a printed list. It's in my office.

We proceed there, followed by Arben. Valeria uses another device from her bag to let the computer read what's on Mr. Solis' paper. We return to the kiln area.

Valeria (still speaking Shqip): I'd like you to help on this, Gerbil. Put your computer on the cart; no, the end near the controls. Just sit on the cart. Log on; NetBoard to my machine. I'll give you an invitation icon; see it? Click on it and you'll be connected. Now drag this file out of NetBoard and onto your desktop. Double click; does it start?

Me: Yes, but it says it isn't connected. This is the nexus bridge program!

Valeria: Right, and here's the small bridge and its cables. We're going to re-bond a bunch of stuff to the factory's nexus, starting with the cart. Let me show you what to look for. The small cable goes from this jack on your computer to this one on the bridge; go ahead; plug it in.

I've never ``plugged in'' anything before! Ask, or give it a try? But the words: she must be inventing them as she goes along; I'll bet no Albanian ever called anything ``net'' ``board'' for example. Valeria pushed the connector in straightly...

Valeria: It's upside down. Look on the computer; the wider side of the connector goes on top.

With that hint I get the cable connected, both ends; for some reason the wide side goes on the bottom on the nexus bridge. Not being contradicted by Valeria, I also attach the larger cable to the bridge, and start looking on the cart control box for a thing that matches the other end. Found it!

Valeria: Good, Gerbil. Now here's the hard part: identify the cart on the list. Here's the file on NetBoard; copy it out like you did the program, and run an editor on it. Look for the cart. I assume there's only one.

Me: I wish it were in Tiger signs. I'm somewhat faster with those than with letters, and I'm not used to reading Shqip.

Valeria: Let's see what I can do. This will just take a moment. Drag this file over; how's that? I put in an extra column with the Tiger signs for the object name.

Me: Thanks. I can read that better, but you'll have to be patient because I'm not all that fast. Is this it? ``Floater cart'' in Shqip, right?

Valeria: Yes, that looks to be it, but now you have to find the MAC address on the cart's label and compare it to the data. That's the key: getting the right MAC address for both the equipment and its partner chip in the power nexus. You'll also notice that the cart has a data port which also has to be checked and matched up.

Me: We're talking about the letters and numbers, right? Well, let me look. Here are two bunches of letters and numbers... Shit, they don't match! Now what?

Valeria: Keep looking until you find the right cart. On the work lamps and the power tools there will be plenty of duplicates to hunt through. I sorted by type, then MAC address, so you can just compare the first few digits when hunting. But compare every digit to confirm the match because some of them probably differ only in the last digit, if they were bought as a group. Mr. Solis, were there supposed to be more than one cart?

Mr. Solis: Yes, we have three. One is in the warehouse and the other is on the other side of the factory, but it may have been damaged.

Valeria: We'll check it out. You found it, Gerbil? Checked all the digits? Now select the equipment MAC address and fill it in this box, the one labelled ``equipment''. Middle click to copy it. And the corresponding nexus address, copy it to ``nexus'', and do the same on the lower row for the data port. When the equipment has no data port, leave those blank. Got it? Now go through the buttons left to right: initial test, yes, click on it. Bond. Final test. And now put ``OK'' in this column. If the program reports a failure, call me and I'll show you what to do. Unplug the bridge from the cart, then move it over to the mixing machine.

Me: Move the bridge?

Valeria: No, the cart. Do you know how to work one of these? Hit the ``up'' button, then pull on these two handles. Stand away from the cart so it doesn't hit your feet, which hurts, and be very careful that your toes aren't under it when you press ``down''. I should have gotten you boots like mine, with a steel cover on the toes.

The cart rises magically just high enough to pinch my toes between its skirt and the hard stone floor. The Albanian staff are barefoot like me; I hope they remember Valeria's admonition. Following instructions, I pull on the handles, and the cart slides easily, as if it were made of feathers and not thick iron.

Valeria: It's on this side.

I position the cart so the nexus bridge can be connected to the mixer's box. There's a cover, under a covering of dusty clay; Valeria has me clean the dust off with a brush provided by Arben, and then she shows me how to unscrew two knobs to get at the connectors and address label. It takes me a little while to find the mixing machine on the list, but after that the procedure goes smoothly. Arben smiles broadly when the machine's guts start rotating grossly at the push of a button.

Valeria: Good, Gerbil. You'll take the cart around to the major equipment, and the workers will bring small pieces like hand mixers and abrasive wheels to you for rebonding. Do that part here near the kiln so you can hear me, in case I need your help on a language point. But I can see five pains in the butt up on the ceiling: the lamps. Mr. Solis, how would you get up there to repair them?

Mr. Solis: We called in a service. We don't have the equipment for that.

Valeria: Just great. Well, I guess I'm the service. Gerbil, take the cart around to the light switches and get them bonded, while I bring down the lamp holders.

Luan shows me where the switches are. Looking back from the first one, I'm astonished, and so is Luan, to see Valeria standing serenely in midair, floating up to the roof where one of the lamps is. Flying werewolves? But she seems to be standing, not flying. She fiddles with the lamp using a tool she's brought, and it comes off the roof, seeming to push her aside, but she has excellent balance (reminding me of Shadow's flying leap) and she remains standing on whatever she's standing on. Down she comes, carrying the lamp, and I'd better do what I was told so I can get back and do my part with it.

There were three switch panels, but fortunately only one bonding was needed for each. I'm back at the kiln, and the neat row of four lamps, just as Valeria takes off to retrieve the fifth, standing on a small flat magical board. She has a wide belt around her middle with straps through her crotch, and a rope is tied to the back like a tail, fastening her to a hole through the back of the board. In case she falls, clearly. She has also taken off her boots and is gripping the board with her dusky toes, which I would have trouble to do since my toes have only human flexibility. I get right to work bonding the first lamp, for obviously she won't want to wait around; she'll want to put it back up right away.

Which she proceeds to do. It's so much easier to read the numbers on the equipment with the magic lamps on! It's kind of bumpkin stuff to call it magic when I was just now using the nexus bridge to rebond the lamps and their controlling switches, but let's face it: considering how much I understand, I could just have easily been saying incantations and making passes to summon a daemon or an elemental. Let's hope the pentagram holds.

The morning goes on like that: I take the cart over to one machine or another that Valeria wants to work on; then I return to the kiln and the workers bring smaller equipment to me for reactivation. Five or ten items fail one or the other test, or won't start. Most are hand tools, but one is the fan on the drier. Apparently this is a major setback, and Valeria and Mr. Solis get into an argument over how to deal with it: Valeria wants to scrap it while Mr. Solis wants Valeria to fix it. He convinces her to ``just take a look''.

Valeria: You may be in luck, Mr. Solis. Try it now.

The fan starts whirring.

Mr. Solis: See, I knew you could do it!

Valeria: Shut it off. Your luck is only slightly better than bad. All the wiring in this thing is rotten. I'm going to put some tape where this wire went around a corner, and that will fix today's problem, but it's just going to happen again, and you need a reliable drier. The fan has to be rewired, and I'm not going to do it for you, and if the wiring is this bad I wonder what kind of bearings they put in. I don't really want to look; I want you to bite the bullet and junk this sucker, and the quicker you do it the less probability that the drier will fail and ruin a lot of pieces.

Mr. Solis: We'll use the first profits to buy a new fan.

Valeria: That's a lot closer to what I want to hear. Would you turn it on again? It sounds out of balance. Shut it off. Is it dirt on the blades, or a bad bearing like I said, or is the rotor just badly balanced? Move, please; may I get my head in there...

And there's another load of hand equipment to do. Valeria is directing Luan, Paskal and another worker in removing cracked firebricks. They stick the replacement bricks in place with a mud made from the stuff in the heavy sack we brought, and Valeria wants a very gentle heat to dry it out promptly but evenly. So she tells me to rebond the kiln's eight heating circuits, and when that's done she turns them just barely on. Then it's back to the hand tools, so hard to find on the list; how could they have so many? I'm hungry and thirsty, and I wish lunch would come soon. Adults are so focused when they work! We kids would have taken at least two major breaks so far plus wiggle breaks in between. If I'm going to really become an adult I'd better practice the discipline of concentration. Like, I'm not going to crane my neck to see what the people are doing at the back of the factory... throwing things?

Me: Grenade!

Raiders: We will never be gelded! Die, foreign traitor fiends!

A grenade is coming right at me! White bone. It bounces off the hard floor and I leap to catch it. Smooth and fluid! But not dawdling, not with that thing in my hand. I throw it back as hard but accurately as I can. But there were two others, so I drop and roll into the dubious cover provided by the open sack of mortar. Valeria's down; a trowel rolls out from under her bare foot! Blam! It's like all my brother's friends kicked me at once, and twenty vengeful wasps bite me all along my left leg and left arm, and at least one gets me in the side of the head just above my eye. The sack at least protected my midsection. Blam, blam! I hope I threw mine accurately. Valeria's down and unprotected! But if there was one group of raiders there should be at least one more.

Me: Luan! Paskal! We'll check the front door.

I hope they can hear me; I think they replied but I couldn't hear them, my ears are ringing so bad. But they're coming with me. I dive and roll through the open door, staying on my right side, but the coward is running to our right, not shooting. We take off after him, but he's fast, running up the low slope beside the factory. I stop and pluck a projecting rock out of the muddy soil, and hurl it at him. Inspiration!

Me: Grenade!

The raider looks back in terror, then rolls along the slope, hugging the ground, trying to find cover in its curvature. Paskal and Luan looked back when I stopped and saw it was a rock, and they keep moving now at top speed. The symbolic grenade hits where the raider had been and is stopped by the soft soil, then rolls, pursuing him as he scrambles. Paskal is on him, knee in his kidney and hands around his throat, and Luan will have the next turn. Blam! Did I turn the rock into a grenade by werewolf magic? No, my rock has resumed rolling and comes to rest against the bodies. Luan staggers in a daze. I catch up. I can't tell any more which is Paskal and which is the raider, but I check both their throats like my father taught me (on a sheep as it bled to death before butchery), and both men are dead.

Me: Come on, Luan. We're needed inside.

I run, not looking back. Either Valeria is dead or she isn't. Illyria needs this factory. I'm not to drift into depression or despair; I'm to do my job like a proper First Division person. I'll take a moment to find out who survived, then use my computer to call for help. But to who? Lt. Stevens; I know her mail address. She'll forward the message to the right people. In the door.

Me (to the milling workers in general): No more raiders in front or on the west side. How about the back and east?

Worker (Makbule, I think his name is): A grenade got them, in back.

Me: And outside?

Makbule: Nobody outside. I checked.

Me: Who's dead? What about Valeria?

Jackass! Don't ask, touch! All the buttons are ripped off her shirt and her black-tipped tit is just laying there staring at us. I have no interest in sex at the moment. Her belly looks like a lamb dish my mother used to make. But she has a pulse, weak and slow, but present. For the moment. I move around to the other side of the kiln. Mr. Solis is bleeding from his leg and none of these idiots knows what to do about that! There's an advantage to growing up in the meanest raiding village in Northern Albania. I pull off his belt. Useless. I pull off my own belt and wrap it around his thigh and draw it up as tight as I can, and the bleeding stops right away. The webbing goes through the brass buckle which can grab it anywhere, not just at precut holes. Now with my pants hanging dangerously low on my hips I check out Arben. Ouch! The cloth is catching on a piece of metal, and I reach in and pull it out of the flesh of my butt. Arben looks bad, as does the worker next to him: bits of metal all over, and oozing blood from mashed flesh. But the blood is still oozing, and both have a pulse. There's another one who was working on the drier who isn't doing much better. A lot of workers are bloody, some as bad as me and Luan, who's finally caught up, but those five are the only ones down, and we're lucky: none have died. Yet.

Me: I'm going to call for help.

I step around to my cart and... The force of the blast blew my computer and the nexus bridge off the cart. There's a jagged piece of metal right through the center of the screen, which is dark as death. What now? Valeria's machine! It too is on the floor, but miraculously is still running; the cursor moves. I close up the building plan, the to-do list, the mud recipe... and only the clock and the background remain. Where are the icons? Where is the mail program? The little werewolf that you tickle to log off; I'm joking about it being a werewolf, but it isn't there; I can't even kick Valeria off and try, maybe not successfully, to log on as myself. Now what?

Nobody is going to wonder where we are until dinnertime, by which time the chopped meat will be fully ripe. I'm getting very strong jackass twinges. If you don't have the knowledge and skill to help, at least have the wisdom to keep your fucking nose out of where it doesn't belong. But Illyria needs this factory badly enough for Valeria herself to put in five days on it, and I'm not dumb: the people, Mr. Solis, Arben and Valeria herself, are what make things happen, not a drier with rotten wiring and a kiln with a cracked lining. I can't dither around all day. I'm going to do my best to take us home, and if I fly the truck into the lake, I won't have died for nothing; I'll have died doing my best, when it could have succeeded if I had been just a little bit better.

The key. Eyes widen as I reach under Valeria's belt and feel around. It's there,but where's the opening? Here, the skin seems to lift. Got it.

Makbule: What are you doing?

So how do you say ``key'' in Shqip? I'm sure there's a word but this bumpkin never heard it.

Me: This amulet is for controlling the truck. I couldn't call for help; the computers are broken. So I'm going to fly back myself. There are doctors at the camp. Carry these five people out to the truck and load them in the cargo bay.

I pick up Valeria myself. She weighs a ton! Now both dark tits are exposed and one is practically in my chin. I've messed around with Angela (with our clothes off) but she's not a werewolf who claims to be a bit stronger than I am. Every piece of metal in my left side bites harder under the strain. Like when shooting the rifle, I think only of the goal, the open rear door of the truck, and a magic hand seems to help me carry Valeria. Aah, I deposit her, as gently as possible given the weight, next to Mr. Solis and one of the chopped meat workers, and I slide her back to make room for Arben, who's next in line.

Now what? Simba calls it paranoia, like when you just feel that someone's about to play a practical joke on you. With a grenade. Luan has come out, and I don't like the way he looks. He doesn't seem worse injured than I am. In his body. Could that last grenade have had some kind of poison symbol in it that knocked him into this vacant-eyed state?

Me: Luan, come here. Sit in the truck, this side. You're going with Mr. Solis.

Use the connection to his headman. But I'm still paranoid. As the last badly injured worker is loaded aboard, I check around and under the truck, starting in front. I had to pull the rock I threw out of the soil; in the vicinity of the lake the rocks tend to be at least partially buried. So what are those two doing... The one that's a rock has a string around it, as does the one that isn't; that one is tied to the truck's front foot. I untie the knot. There's another pair on the diagonally opposite landing skid at the rear.

Me: Someone take care of these grenades when I've taken off. Be careful. We're leaving now.

That last sentence was pure bravado. First I fasten Luan's seatbelt. He's passive --- out of it. Next I insert the ``amulet of control'' in its slot. It won't go in. I remember an earlier lesson: the opposite orientation is more productive. Lights appear. Holding the main stick, loose and fluid, but firmly, I raise the side stick... I hope this isn't the end of our ride, for it won't move. I tug. Don't panic; don't sink into despair; stay steady; use your brain. And eyes. This looks like a kind of hook encircling the stick. If I push it aside... It keeps the stick from moving, but the stick keeps it from moving. Aha: push the stick down, not up, and the hook can be slid back. Now very gingerly up. If the truck flips over and crushes me underneath it, I'm going to feel so stupid as I die. No, it's staying steady and I've managed to get above the booby traps without jiggling them. It would have been a lot safer, I guess, to untie all the strings and take the grenades positively away, but my mind wasn't as focused as Valeria or Simba or Tiger might have been. Make up for that now. I twist the stick gently and the truck rotates. What heading? Fifty three degrees coming across the lake, I saw projected on the sloping window, and I've learned in the flight simulator how to get back to my airfield: add or subtract a hundred eighty degrees, depending on the size of the outbound number. Joining flocks in my head: two hundred thirty three degrees. I swing around, then push the stick forward. And I make us go more up using the side stick.

OK, I'm at cruising altitude, which my memory tells me was two thousand five hundred meters. It goes up so quick; now I'm at two thousand seven hundred, not that the view of the lake outside tells me anything different. Better go down. Stop, stop! I resign myself to the swoops and sloshes typical of my flight simulator performance. Yaah, going down I picked up speed almost to two hundred meters per second! And by pulling back hard on the stick I've almost stopped. This won't do. Loose and fluid! At least the truck is staying more or less level, and modest banking brings it back to the right direction when it drifts off. I try to quiet my pounding heart and aim the truck like I do the rifle, but I'm not aiming at a place, I'm aiming at a speed and altitude, aiming at a place in a land of symbols that I can only see via the numbers and stripes projected on the window. With dragons that will chomp me if I stray too far from it.

A silent flash of lightning recalls me from symbol land. I wished that Wallace would keep his eyes on what was in front of us, and now I wish I'd done the same thing: one thunderstorm is getting an early start. Or considering how hungry I was (not hungry now), it's starting right on time. It flashes again, right in front of me. The storm looks like a mountain in shades of gray. I'm going to fly through that? But if I turn aside and go around, I have no idea how to work the map on this truck. There's a wedge showing the heading to the target, but the target was Koplik, not the tent city. I'll be lost, flying forever, searching for a white dot in the forest.

Once when I was ten or eleven a thunderstorm caught me and my flock on a high pasture, and it looked like a wall of monsters rolling down to crush me. I actually pissed in my pants! But I stood up to it, backed my sheep into a corner against the bushes and kept them together, except two that ran. When the cloud hit it wasn't solid like I expected; it was damp and cold and windy and rainy, but not solid. When the thunder moved elsewhere I left my dog to guard the sheep, which had decided to lay down and be miserable, and hunted for the missing ones, which fortunately hadn't gone too far. On the way back I ``accidentally'' tripped in the stream through the pasture (in case someone was watching), rinsing out any urine that the rain hadn't removed. I decided to just tell my parents and brother that I'd been soaked but nothing else happened, because otherwise I'd be told I was cowardly to be afraid. Anyway, the point is that the storm may look scary but I should be able to fly through it.

And now we're going to find out. Luan moans with his own fear. The wind blows me to the left and I bank to regain level flight. Then the same to the right. There's a metal fragment that my seat belt presses on, that hurts like hell. Ulp, the truck drops like a stone and I yank up the side stick. No, jerking is as bad in a flyer as on a rifle. I moderate the upward force and descend sedately from three thousand meters. I push down more; I'm a hundred meters higher, not lower. The front window is covered with water as if one of the latrine water machines were spraying in my eyes. I drop six hundred meters in an instant and I'm still going down despite maximum up stick, and the rightward wind comes again bringing a roar of impacts! It must be frozen raindrops, which we get occasionally. The little ones are funny (if you're inside); the big ones are downright dangerous. I smell vomit: not mine, Luan's. We're through that; now we're going up again. I don't have time to think; the wind blows me in all directions and I just do my best to go back to two thousand five hundred meters, a hundred and fifty meters per second, and two hundred thirty three degrees.

Yike! I roll to the right and haul up the side stick. It's the black mountain that gives Montenegro its name, and it's pure luck that a less dense patch in the clouds let me see it. But now I'm off course. Aah, the clouds end as suddenly as they began. I can't return to the planned course because the mountain is in the way, but at least it's something I can see from camp: among the hills across the valley I'm about to enter. Somewhere.

Oh, shit! Six fighters, and as a team with Shadow, Tiger and Simba I've used that exact pincers movement to engage bombers. Did I get so far just to be incinerated by plasma rifles? I'm going to act nonthreatening. So how do I do that, paint a happy face on the fins? All I can do is ignore them and continue my search for the camp. But they came from the general direction of that patch of bare white rock. Would they have come straight from the camp? Or circled around so a raider couldn't backtrack them? What the hell; the white rock is as good a starting place as any. And I should probably be lower, the better to see, and to land. A thousand meters, maybe? But gradually.

One First Division flyer is alongside me and close. My back can feel the others' weapons. The pilot is making some kind of handsigns, but I can't take my eyes off the instruments and the approaching trees for long enough to understand them. Shit, he's firing his weapon, not at me but ahead, as a threat. What can I do but ignore it? Luan is moaning again; I don't know if he understands what's happening, or is wrestling inside with the poison. I have to get turned along the valley but without crashing into the defender, and one of my trademark swoops takes me temporarily above his level. I start my turn. More threatening burning symbols. Is that... I shouldn't get my hopes up, but it's a white dot. I'll descend, and I'd better not imitate Wallace: I'll slow down. But gradually so my escort doesn't come through the cargo door. If it's the wrong white dot I can climb and speed up to continue the search.

It is the camp! Now what? An airplane is landed by flying at almost full speed a meter above the ground, and given my skill level the ``ignore crashes'' setting is essential. On the other hand, despite Wallace's alarming style, his basic pattern, as well as Valeria's this morning, was to approximately stop in the air, then descend. Gently, in Valeria's case. Obviously I should land as close as possible to the clinic. But these warriors probably think I'm a deranged Illyrian who's stolen a truck, stuffed it with explosives and somehow (impossibly) flown it here, and who intends to blow the camp off our Albanian land. Or more accurately, Montenegrin. Also my control of the truck is sketchy at best. I'd better land at a generous distance from the building and from any other trucks parked on the grass. I've picked my spot, kind of in the middle, and it's approaching fast. I haul back on the stick. No, not that much; I'm still hundreds of meters away. With my usual skillful control of velocity I approach the target; at least my vertical control is somewhat better now that I can eyeball my height. Well, this isn't exactly where I planned to be, but the quicker I get on the ground the quicker Valeria is going to get into the clinic. Down sedately, slowly, like a feather. Slam! That bone-jarring landing was three times harder than Wallace's worst, and couldn't have been good for the wounded people in back. I twist and pull out the key; I jump out and run around to the cargo bay, and open it.

The soldier has his rifle practically in my face, and another is ready to blow away whatever zombies I'm releasing. But glimpsing my mangled cargo they both shift out of attack mode.

Soldier: Key!

I give. He slams the cargo door, hops in the truck and takes off. The other one runs back to his flyer as the rest buzz toward the clinic entrance like a flight of bees. I'm left alone, hurting, in the middle of the field. I sit on the grass. It's starting to rain.

And since when did being alone or hurting or wet ever slow Gerbil down? I almost used my Shqip name, but I'm a First Division man now (very junior) and I do my job and I keep doing it until it's done, just as I took care of my sheep until they were home in the fold, no matter how cold or hungry I was, or that I missed dinner and got chewed out for it.

But I needed a moment of rest, a moment to get the terrifying battle and more terrifying flight out of my whirling mind. I get up, my beltless pants riding low. I can just imagine what the clinic is like, and I should go there so my sheep doctoring might relieve someone else who might make a difference with Valeria. One of the first tasks I hope will be to get the grenade fragments out of Gerbil. But I can start that as I walk. I run my right hand up my left arm. Ouch, there's one. Ouch ouch, I pull out the jagged fragment and put it in my pocket, so someone walking barefoot in the grass won't be cut by it. In my village I wouldn't have thought of that. Now the next one. And the next.

Shit, the clinic is worse than I expected: six Albanians including Luan, five Bosnians, three Croats, four Serbs, and a couple of others; I think one is Macedonian. One of the Albanians is arguing with Lt. Stevens, since either he or a friend probably got booted out of a procedure room.

Me (in Shqip, practically in his ear): You're healthy enough to complain; the ones we just brought in are going to die if they don't get immediate medical attention. So shut up and sit down!

Albanian: Who in hell are... What happened to you?

Me: Grenade raid. Lt. Stevens, is Valeria still alive?

Lt. Stevens: Just barely. (The Albanian follows my kind suggestion to have a seat and she drops back to Tiger signs:) One of them was DOA. Valeria and another one are in surgery. I pulled one nurse out to deal with the other two; I think I'm going to have to triage out one of them to give the other a chance. A slim chance. Were you with that group too?

Me: Yes, ma'am. Which one is going to be triaged out?

Lt. Stevens: They didn't exactly hand over their identity cards. You'll have to wait for treatment. You understand, don't you?

Me: May I go back there and... and point out the one to be triaged out?

Lt. Stevens: Why?

Me: Albania needs this factory, and the people who know how to make it run. We mustn't lose the factory manager.

Lt. Stevens: Go.

In room one I catch sight of dark skin: Valeria. Room two: can't tell. Room three has a worker, and the lone nurse is doing something involving needles; and room four holds Arben. The other worker is on the floor in the hall. Here's Shadow. He smiles to see me alive and waves, but he goes immediately into room one.

Me, in room three: Lt. Stevens wants to triage out one of these two men. Could you save the other one, if this one were left on his own? Can I make a difference?

Nurse: I don't have enough hands! I can't train you in the middle of an emergency.

Me: Which one can you save? The other one is important.

Nurse: Buzz off. We don't operate that way, Gerbil.

Me: Illyria is depending on the factory which Arben knows how to operate and this guy doesn't.

She transfers to room four. I'm sorry, guy; I don't even know your name. I've never killed anyone before; on the raids I went on I didn't get a rifle. I remember the music Tiger played, and I'll ask her to play it again this evening. If possible.

What next? Let's think clearly. That collection of ethnic hostility out there needs to be sheep doctored and moved out. I need to take a leak, and to drink some water. The sheep doctor will be accepted a lot easier if not looking like he was just fished out of the garbage. My fine shirt is now blotched with blood (and no time to wash it) and full of holes. I'll look neater without it. The blood is less obvious on my also perforated brown pants... Better to just borrow green nurse's clothing from the pile on the shelf. I strip, leaving my clothes on the floor, and get to work pulling metal out of my leg and butt. Ouch! Now here's a problem: cuts like these need Band-Aids, and the tape won't stick to my thick fur. But I'm not the only hairy Illyrian, and we have a solution which I'm not going to like: a hair cutting machine. I wash the blood off, and comb out the clots, and gently blot dry. Then I set the cutter buzzing, and start making myself ugly. Angela is going to laugh at how I look.

Which comes first: sheep doctoring, or a report? First I finish with the Band-Aids, and put on the green clinic clothes. Then, there's a computer in the hallway for the nurses to use, and I'm not sure if I'm allowed, but I use it anyway. The familiar mail icon is here. I make a simple report to Tiger, Simba, Shadow (for courtesy) and Angela: we were attacked with grenades. Valeria and the two factory managers are badly hurt, and several workers died (not listing the details). I ask Angela to tell Cricket and to forward a copy to Quin, since I don't know either of their mail addresses, but Cricket should be able to tell her Quin's. I also remind Angela, using my most tactful language, that there are about twenty ill-tempered Illyrians in the waiting room, and life would be a lot simpler if she could wait until they're gone before counting my shaved spots in person.

OK, ready for the next battle. I report for duty.

Lt. Stevens: You look a lot better than when you came in here, but you missed the one on your face. Go back and put a dressing on it.

I do as I'm told; I check the mirror in the latrine. Shit, it bled all over my cheek fuzz and into my chin fuzz and down my neck. I feel like an ass for not checking. I wash and comb off the blood, gently blot dry, and put on a Band-Aid. Then back out again, with the mostly empty box plus a full one in my pockets, and a roll of gauze, and tape, and a scissor.

Lt. Stevens: Now you've got it. Are you sure you feel up to helping out here?

Me: Yes, ma'am. The people in this room scare me. I feel less up to putting Valeria at risk if a fight breaks out.

Lt. Stevens: Thanks, Gerbil. What's wrong with the one over there from your group, the spaced-out one?

Me: Luan was pretty close when a grenade went off. It killed his best friend, or, well, they always worked together. I think there was something in the grenade, some kind of poison symbol, that made him like that. Or maybe real poison on the metal fragments.

Lt. Stevens: OK, I'll try to dig up a psychologist who speaks Shqip. Until then he can sit there.

Me: A suggestion? Selen is wise and kind, and speaks Shqip.

Lt. Stevens: Who's he? Are you talking about the otter person? He isn't here.

Me: He counseled me using NetBoard with voice.

Lt. Stevens: Hmm. When we have someone free who can work the computer and speak Shqip, like you, we'll get Selen on the case. I'll send him mail to warn him. Do you know his address?

Me: Um, no; my computer was wrecked.

Lt. Stevens: I'll find it. Now I don't want you messing with third degree burns, understand? Are you sure you can distinguish the burn types?

Me: Yes, ma'am. Which group of patients was first?

Lt. Stevens: The Serbs, then the Bosnians, then the Macedonian, then the Albanians, and we'll see how we're doing after that. One of the Serbs is third degree.

Me: I can't talk to them. I'm going to examine them from the front of the room to the back, and let them see I'm checking with you, and you tell me again to leave the first one alone, and maybe explain why, using their language.

It works out. The lead Serb is in pain, and it's obvious why, and he isn't happy about being passed over, but accepts Lt. Stevens' explanation about sheep doctoring (I suppose). I think one of the Serbs even says ``thank you'' when I finish. I wonder how he would have reacted if I'd been wearing my Albanian-patterned shirt. The Bosnians are harder to handle than the Serbs, not the way it usually goes. Maybe ``sheep doctor'' in their language variant sounds less complimentary (I'm making that up). Anyway, the first one refuses my treatment. The second one is less of a jackass, and when he leaves the first one starts making noises. Under Lt. Stevens' watchful eye I converse with him in pantomime, and he'd better be grateful I've put away my Albanian personality today. I gently wash, dry and cover his second degree burns, and I give him a printed sheet of instructions that include a picture of an infected blister. I doubt he can read, but there's a picture story.

It's a long, tense afternoon. I'm hungry and my cuts don't feel good. Finally when I'm working on the last Albanian, Shadow comes out, and the lone blackened Serb is called in. Shadow is wobbly. The Albanian shies away from him.

Me: How's Valeria?

Shadow: Bad, but she's going to make it.

Me: Good! (To the Albanian, in Shqip:) My brother was helping with the injured werewolf. She's going to be all right. Don't worry about him; he's nice.

Albanian: Werewolf? Brother? What's going on here? Are you a werewolf?

Me: No, just an Albanian shepherd trying to do my best for Illyria. Hold still while I dry your burn. (Back in spoken Tiger signs:) Did Mr. Solis make it? And what about Arben? Mr. Solis is the one they were doing surgery on.

Shadow: The old guy lost a lot of blood but it's under control now. Somebody put a tourniquet on him, and that saved him. The other one is iffy, but they worked on him when they got the old man's leg back together. There were two that died.

Me: I'm sorry.

Shadow: I'm sorry too when they die on us. I donated blood! All Novanima are compatible, but I'm the only lion here. Half a liter is nothing for someone your size, but I'm a lot smaller, and I feel kind of tired. I'll be fine tomorrow. See where the needle went in?

Me: Scary! Would my blood help?

Shadow: For Valeria? Only Novanima blood will work.

Me: How about for Mr. Solis or Arben?

Shadow: They had enough human blood in storage, but later you could talk to the blood bank person. They can always use more.

Me (to my patient, in Shqip): There, that's done. Don't touch the blisters, and if one pops by itself watch it carefully for infection. Here's a sheet of instructions with pictures showing what to look for. You're done; go to refugee processing and they'll take you back to your village, if it's still there. Turn left in the hall; the soldier will direct you.

Shadow: I'll get a kit and work on these guys.

Me: You'll put a blanket on the floor and rest! You're too wobbly to work any more.

Shadow: Am not! And you don't look that good yourself.

Me: Look, if you want to really be useful, help Luan here. Get your computer and call Selen and let him talk to Luan. You probably won't have to actually do anything after that.

Lt. Stevens: I think, Shadow, that you're supposed to be drinking half a liter of fruit juice. And when you go over to the mess hall to get it, would you please ask them why our food is taking so long?

Shadow: Yes, ma'am.

Me: Is some of that food for me? Our lunch is still back in Koplik.

Lt. Stevens: Tell them to add one to the order. (When Shadow is out the door:) Gerbil, who makes decisions about medical treatment around here?

Me: Um, you do, ma'am.

Lt. Stevens: Medical staff do, and I'm the medical person in charge out here. Your proper procedure would have been to suggest to me that Shadow could handle the computer interaction. When he comes back and has finished his juice, I'll tell him to proceed. It was a good idea, but mind the lines of authority, OK?

Me: Yes, ma'am. I was a jackass.

Lt. Stevens: An interesting way to say it. It takes time to learn instinctively how to work in an organization, but see that you do learn. Ask Tiger or Simba to go over the issues with you, or you can talk to me on a quiet day, not that that will ever happen.

Me: Yes, ma'am. Shall I work on the other people's burns? And who's going to dig the metal out of Luan's skin?

Lt. Stevens: A nurse. Did you pull out your own fragments?

Me: Yes, ma'am. Not medical personnel.

Lt. Stevens: We should check that you got everything out, and squirt in antibiotic, and see if any of the wounds need staples. But they're still too busy. The Slovene would be next, then the two Hercegovinans, but the one on the right may have a wound that's beyond your ability. He seemed to be hiding something from me and I was too busy to dig out of him what it was. I think he should be seen, by someone who speaks Serbo-Croatian.

The Slovene has the kind of second degree burn that's common among people able to walk into the clinic and sit down. We don't see many Slovenes this far south. The first Hercegovinan just needs a few Band-Aids, but he's obviously there to keep his friend company. His brother? They look similar. I refrain from chasing him out. The other one doesn't want to take off his shirt. I take mine off, showing off my manly chest fur, belly fur and back fur, marred by the hair cutter. He dithers, then at last imitates. There's some kind of scar on his left side, a bad one, that he makes obvious by still trying to hide it. I turn around and point out some old stripes on my back, much less numerous than Katica's but useful as an example. My patient seems to settle down a little, and I deal with his second degree burn.

Me: Lt. Stevens, I don't think there's anything else wrong with this guy. It's just a scar that he's shy about. Can we send these two home?

The person is summoned in Croat jabber, presumably Hercegovina style, and he reluctantly shows Lt. Stevens the big scar, and he's reassured and shown the door.

Lt. Stevens: Aah, quiet at last. Gerbil, thank you so much for helping out here. It really takes the pressure off the staff to have the less serious cases disposed of... And what's that I hear in the hall?

Me: Shadow with our food?

Lt. Stevens: You wish.

Someone really objected to population control this afternoon. Their clothes are badly burned but I think it's Serbs, and they trapped and shot up several First Division people. The woman soldier is badly in shock with a very gray face, and I think she's going to get triaged out, and two of the Serbs also appear well done. I can see that nobody's wounds are in my skill range.

Lt. Stevens: Gerbil! Go inside and tell them to get Valeria and your Albanians out of the rooms, and do what's needed for them. And if Shadow shows up insist that he finish his juice before helping with this group. I don't want him to drop on the floor when he's needed.

They cut short their work pulling metal fragments out of Arben's skin, and we gently but swiftly transfer him to ``observation'', where only I will be looking at him, relieving a real nurse. Valeria and Mr. Solis are already there. I'm tempted to finish the defragmenting, but refrain, remembering several lessons in how to be a jackass.

Valeria: Is that Gerbil? It smells like you.

Me: I'm here. Just lay there. You need to rest.

Valeria: Sure. How bad was the damage?

Me: I don't know. My computer was wrecked. Yours still works.

Valeria: Practice your observing skills. There's a lesson on that. Who's dead?

Me: You, Mr. Solis and Arben are going to make it. Paskal and two other workers died. There's something wrong with Luan and I don't know what. He's here; they'll treat him.

Valeria: What about you? Let me get my eyes focused. Shit, I'm too weak. You look terrible. You should wipe the blood off your face.

Me: Oh, did it ooze? Is it off now?

Valeria: Mostly. Wipe down toward your cheek. OK, here's what I want you to do. Go back out to the factory and find out who's in charge. I'll bet it's Makbule, but if it's someone else, keep it to yourself. Don't make it harder for the new manager. I'll give you a list of stuff they should be working on, the same list I gave to Mr. Solis. I wish I had my computer but I don't think I can sit up.

Me: You'd better not! You shouldn't be working; you need to rest. And I'm assigned here, to observe the patients in observation.

Valeria: Shit! I know: get Cricket, or Angela, and Katica, over here.

Me: I'll check with Lt. Stevens.

Valeria: Come on, just do it.

Me: I'll be back in a moment.

Jackass! But I shouldn't be disrespectful like that. She's probably not thinking straight, because of her wounds. I approach Lt. Stevens' desk.

Me: Ma'am, Valeria is awake and she wants me to do a job back at the factory. I told her to rest but she's pretty forceful and she's going to get insistent. They assigned me to watch the people in observation, and she suggests getting another family member over here to relieve me. OK, here's my own suggestion: we'll get Angela over here to handle the computer link for Luan, since she speaks Shqip, and Cricket and Katica can sit with Valeria and the others in observation.

Lt. Stevens: Damn! High-ranking patients are the worst; they think they can give orders to anyone they please. The idea about Angela is good, and I'll send her mail. The times she's been in here to meet you... I suppose she'd be on her best behavior in public. Now tell me why I should go along with Valeria ignoring the very good medical advice that you gave her.

Me: It's the people, ma'am. Everyone says the factories are important. The people are going to lose momentum. Valeria wants to get them pointed in the right direction. Also there's a bunch of equipment that I left over there, like Valeria's computer; I was thinking about the people and forgot to grab what I could carry. The more I think about it, the more I think she's right that someone should go out there and tell them what's happening and what to do.

Lt. Stevens: And who's going to take care of the people here?

Me: I can't do third degree burns. None of this new batch can get by with sheep doctoring.

Lt. Stevens: I don't know Cricket and I don't like the idea of mixing Katica and Serbs.

Me: I don't know Cricket well either, but she's Valeria's orphan; Valeria knows her. Katica will stand up to anything, and Cricket will pretend to be a werewolf if needed. Come on, the Serbs will be too unconscious to see her.

Lt. Stevens: Maybe I'm worrying about the Serbs. Shit, I can see this mess unfolding all over my area. OK, Valeria wins. What are their serial numbers, for the mail addresses?

Me: I only know Angela's, but she'll tell the other two.

Lt. Stevens: Wait a sec... I sent her a message. You may go when, or if, you're relieved.

Me: Thank you, ma'am.

Returning, I find that Valeria is asleep again. Good. Very, very quietly I check on Mr. Solis and Arben. There are readouts, and there's an alarm that will signal when any of the values are unsafe, and the nurse when she rushed out gave me a summary of what they mean. I wonder if I should ask Valeria to repeat the lesson when she wakes, if she knows, or try to get her to go back to sleep. Low is bad, and while the numbers go up and down I don't see an overall downward trend. Good.

Valeria: Oh, there you are, Cricket. Would you please lend your computer to Gerbil? And your pack, to put it in.

I surpress a startle response. Cricket and Katica appeared so silently! Valeria must have better ears than me, or have relied on smell.

Cricket: Why?

Valeria: Come on, don't bug me, not now! His computer was destroyed in the attack, and I need him to take notes because he's never going to remember it verbally.

Cricket: OK, I guess. Here, Gerbil. Are you going to be all right?

Valeria: It seems so. Gerbil, what are my injuries?

Me: I don't know; I wasn't told. You had a lot of metal in your belly area.

Valeria: I feel like I lost a lot of blood. And there's got to be bowel involvement. Shit, I'm going to feel worse than I do now!

Me: Shadow gave half a liter of blood for you.

Valeria: Half! I didn't know there was that much in that little lion. Whoever sees him first, thank him for me, would you? Look, let me close my eyes for a minute. Get him logged on, or just use your identity, and start an editor.

Cricket gets me started, and I prepare a file to receive Valeria's instructions. But...

Me: What am I supposed to do with the file when I get to Koplik?

Valeria: Give it to Makbule! Oh. Print it here and give the hardcopy to Makbule. I hope he can read.

Me: This is going to be in Shqip. This is going to be awfully slow.

Valeria: Shit. When you need something, that's when it turns up missing. Type it in Tiger signs and then translate it. Ready? First item: finish repairing the lining of the kiln. Second: balance the rotor on the drier fan. Got that? Tell me when you finish each line. Third...

There are twelve items, a long list, plenty to keep them working until Mr. Solis and Arben return. I'm sweating; I'm sure Valeria can smell me more clearly. Loose and fluid, I make the signs at a steady, even pace, clearly not fast enough for Valeria, but she keeps her mouth shut about that. Then, from memory with her eyes closed, she guides me through the translation procedure. Spot checks indicate that it worked, but Valeria has drifted off to sleep again. Good. I bother Lt. Stevens again to get it printed, which involves mailing the list to her, since Cricket (and I) lack permission to use the clinic's printer. And I also talk her into a requisition for soldier's clothes, since I don't think these baggy green things are in style in Koplik. And I'm off.

Quartermaster: A uniform again? What's with all the Band-Aids?

Me: A grenade attack, and my regular clothes are covered with blood and there's no time to wash them and mend them. Do you need to measure my size?

Quartermaster: No, I got it from your computer.

Me: You did? But it's in Koplik with a piece of metal through its screen.

Quartermaster: Maybe so, but it's still on the net. Maybe you'll just have to replace the display. Our group has two people who repair computers. Here are the trousers and shirt. Will you need boots?

Me: Um, I think not, this time. I'll probably need to keep this stuff for a day or two, but I'll bring it back as soon as my own clothes are wearable. That's good news about the computer.

I change clothes quickly. The bending sets off twinges in my wounds, and I suspect I left a piece of metal in one of them. Now what's the best way to get to Koplik? Wallace? Or refugee processing? The morgue is closer.

Lt. Ortiz: Hey, Wallace, you still here? You got another body going to Koplik.

Wallace: Shit, I just got them loaded and I don't think there's room for more.

Lt. Ortiz: It's the Albanian kid from yesterday. Alive. Lucky to be alive, I'd say.

Wallace: And the girl? Oh, there you are. You must like morgue work.

Lt. Ortiz: Not the girl this time. Drop him in Koplik, then pick up him and his equipment on your way back. Oh, oh. Kid, you're in trouble. The old man wants to see you pronto. Do you know what this is about? Wallace has to get going.

Me: Who's the old man?

Lt. Ortiz: Col. Hakansson, the commanding officer.

Me: Oh, great. I stole a truck. Look, if he's going to spend half an hour telling me I'm a jackass, I'll ask him to send you mail and I'll find another way to Koplik when he's done with me.

Lt. Ortiz: You get around, don't you? OK, we'll give you ten minutes. Go down the hall toward the clinic, but turn right at the intersection. There's a sign on his door.

I walk very quickly. I only need to ask directions once. The colonel's assistant tells me to go right in.

Col. Hakansson: You're a mobile gerbil, aren't you? Clinic, quartermaster, morgue; where to next?

Me: Koplik, sir, if I can get back to the morgue in about seven minutes. I've been assigned to get back the equipment I left there, when I flew here with the wounded people.

Col. Hakansson: OK, I'll keep this brief. Why didn't you call in and tell us what was going on?

Me: My computer was damaged by the grenades, sir, and I couldn't get Valeria's machine to send mail.

Col. Hakansson: Did you see the air defense people? Why didn't you respond when they tried to communicate?

Me: I know there's a horn in the truck, but I don't know how to work it. I think one of the pilots was trying to do Tiger signs to me, but I had to watch the stripes and the ground, which was coming up fast.

Col. Hakansson: Horn?

Me: Yesterday they got someone on the horn to talk to Katica, the refugee whose mother we were burying.

Col. Hakansson: We would usually call it a ``radio''. As for keeping your eyes glued to what's in front of you, a common, and often fatal, mistake by beginning pilots is losing situational awareness. You have to be skillful enough to fly the plane while staying aware of your surroundings plus doing whatever job brings you into the air.

Me: Yes, sir. My skill is poor, not enough to work as a pilot.

Col. Hakansson: And what ever possessed you, if your skills are so limited, to fly through that damned thunderstorm? You noticed that our people didn't go in it? They waited to see if you'd come out, before coming up to engage you.

Me: I know how to return to my base: add a hundred eighty degrees to the outgoing heading. If I went around the thunderstorm I'd be completely lost. I don't know how to work the map, either in the truck or the simulator, and I don't know how to get the little wedge to point to the camp rather than Koplik.

Col. Hakansson: WIth so many things you don't know, I'm surprised you even touched the truck. But kids never think of that, do they?

Me: Sir, I had a choice. I could wait for someone to come looking for us this evening, by which time all the people would have been dead. Or I could do my best to save them. I know about keeping my nose out of things I haven't been trained for, and this was definitely one of them. But it wasn't totally jackass behavior to try: Valeria showed me how to fly the truck on the way over. Just the basics.

Col. Hakansson: You move the stick this way or that, to steer.

Me: She also told me about the side stick.

Col. Hakansson: Sure; she must have told you about that, mustn't she? Run now, off to Koplik, and try to keep out of trouble, and your hands off the sticks. I'll be sending you mail, don't doubt it.

Me: Thank you, sir.

I move fast, though not seeming to run, not attracting attention to myself, a useful skill for an Albanian younger brother. Back to the morgue's loading door.

Lt. Ortiz: Hurry it up. They almost left without you. How bad was it?

Me (squeezing past Sam and fastening the belt): He let me go, but he isn't finished with me, I think.

Lt. Ortiz waves, and Wallace hauls up on the side stick. We're off.

Wallace: You said you stole a truck? What got into your head?

Me: It was that or let a bunch of people die. Yesterday I learned how to put bodies into a truck, but this time they were still alive. Three made it.

Wallace: Let me guess: a grenade. I've seen enough bodies with wounds like yours.

Me: Right, but I was lucky enough to get partly behind something.

I'd rather not relive the experience, but both Wallace and Sam insist. They're impressed that I had the presence of mind to throw a grenade back to the raiders, and they're particularly fascinated by the mysterious effect the grenade had on Luan. Finally we're approaching Koplik, lit from the west this time.

Me: The factory is at the north edge of the village; can you go that way? There, see, about ten degrees right; yes, the one with the broken windows in the roof. I have an idea: maybe you could dig the grave, but since I'll be here, we can wait for the families to be called and we'll finish the burial then. You could just leave when the grave is dug.

Wallace: OK, if you say so, kid. But you'll have to find out their names. and write them on the grave markers. They were unidentified.

Me: I can do that. I didn't ask: how many bodies are from here?

Wallace: Two. Remember, I'll be coming back and I'll expect to see a good job.

Me: Don't worry; the workers here have ropes and shovels.

Wallace: I see a grave.

Me: Let's let their manager pick the spot. That may be a dead raider.

Slam! Wallace lands better than I did. We all get out. The commotion was heard inside, and as expected I'm greeted by Makbule.

Makbule: What's the news?

Me: Mr. Solis, Arben and Valeria are going to live. Luan is sick of some magic from the grenade, but he's being treated. Two people died; I don't know their names. We brought their bodies back for burial. I'm supposed to collect Valeria's equipment and bring it to her; Wallace will come back to get me when he's delivered the rest of today's bodies.

Makbule: I'm happy to hear the news. (I don't like the degree of sincerity in his voice.) We'll bury Lufter and Mustafa next to Paskal, here. Their wives are at home; I'll go and bring them.


Me: As the junior person I'd do that job, but I don't know where their homes are. You need to supervise digging the graves.

Makbule: Shit. Ilir, go and get their wives and children.

The burial goes as well as could be expected. I can tell that Wallace (seeming to be a werewolf) and Sam make Makbule nervous, whereas subsequently being left alone in this situation definitely makes me nervous. Makbule and I manage to cooperate in lowering the bodies, though Lufter flops alarmingly and for a moment I'm afraid we're going to drop him. Making the grave markers I have to think what Shqip letters to use, and how to draw some of them, and though Makbule watches me closely I get the distinct impression that if I made any errors he wouldn't call me on them. Is that good? I think I'd rather have Tiger or Simba watching me closely. Several workers help me toss the dirt back in the graves. Makbule has some words for the weeping families, though I don't see a whole lot of comfort being given. Yesterday other headmen gave a better performance.

Makbule: Well, that's done. Lufter and Mustafa were good workers. Bring out your stuff so there won't be any foorah when the foreigners come back for you. How come you're with them anyway?

Me: I got captured. (Come on, Makbule, talk about something different! Not a chance. We walk into the factory.)

Makbule: You don't seem captured right now.

Me: I see a way to avenge someone's death. We're going to win over the foreigners, and this factory has a big part to play in that. I work with Valeria rebuilding the factory. I help their doctors, you know, cleaning wounds, and making sure Albanians understand what to do. I do things that help us win, whatever I can, even if it isn't a lot.

Makbule: How long until they figure out what you're doing?

Me: They're impatient for it to happen! That's why Valeria was taking time with you. There's a place on the other side of the world where they're supposed to be bringing population control, and they want Illyria to function again without them around. This factory is going to export toilets to all of Eastern Europe, and the money from that is going to end up bringing in fertilizer and ant perfume, so we don't have to kill each other off, fighting over dwindling supplies.

Makbule: Ant perfume, eh?

He doesn't look impressed. Jackass. And here at the work site his attention turns to his workers, for which I'm thankful. They're working again on the kiln lining: number one on Valeria's list. Good. It looks like someone else was a jackass too: the magic board floats magically in the air just out of reach. I smile and try to catch a glimpse of a lump on someone's head. I close up Valeria's computer and work it into her bag behind the large nexus bridge, its cables, and some other stuff. I also retrieve the small bridge from where it fell.

Having taken out Valeria's bag, mine, and my computer (which I can't close because of the metal shard), I now have to deal with the big toolbox. Unfortunately I don't know what was in it to begin with, beyond the magic board, and I'm going to have to just ignore the likelihood that tools have been stolen. As for the board: Looking from below I spy buttons where an agile toe could press them, and they're labelled, though not in Shqip, and like on the exercise bar one says ``off''. I jump and hang on the board like for a chinup, and hit the button with my thumb. It jerks but nothing else happens. Maybe I misread. I let go and drop --- and the board floats gracefully into my outstretched hands. Gerbil the magician! I put the board away and I notice a number of people, Makbule among them, watching with a range of expressions.

Me, to a nearby worker: Excuse me; could you help me carry this toolbox outside?

He was sufficiently impressed to comply, and out of the corner of my eye I see that Makbule is even less pleased. Was I a jackass again, borrowing a worker that he's in charge of? Or is he just jealous? I'd ask Lt. Stevens, but I won't ask Makbule. Instead I'll be giving him yet another excuse to dislike me, by delivering Valeria's list. I'm sure he'll be thrilled. Like Tiger says, we gain nothing by delay, so I take out the paper and go back in to talk to Makbule.

Me: Excuse me, Makbule; could I see you a moment?

Makbule: What about? (I warned him, and he chose to be told in front of the other workers.)

Me: Mr. Solis and Valeria have a list of jobs that need to be done, and Mr. Solis thought it might have been lost in the raid, so he had me print another copy so you could have it. (Half of that is a total lie, and I'm pretty sure Valeria should have been listed first, but I've said it in the least... )

Makbule: And why should I take orders from a fuzz-bearded boy who runs around with foreigners?

Me: Because it's important to repair the factory!

He snatches the list out of my hand.

Makbule: Step over here and I'll show you what I'm going to do with your list, and then what I'm going to do with you.

He slowly tears the paper in half, then the halves into quarters, then eighths, and tosses them over his shoulder. Someone giggles.

Makbule: You won't need that bag. Not taking it off? It's up to you.

And he lashes out, as I knew he would, with a vicious fist to my face. I do my defense move and he staggers past me; I think it prudent not to put him on the ground. The pack does slow me down, but I don't want Cricket's machine stolen while I'm fighting with Makbule, and then I'd have to chase down the person who had it, a common kid's game transformed into something nasty among adults. Whose business I've stuck my nose into. The fist comes back quickly and I defend again. And again. Simba told me the purpose of this defense move is to wear the attacker down, and I change position repeatedly so Makbule has to work to engage me. He's cussing, not out of control but as accompaniment, and he's starting to breathe hard. Workers are making comments, some of which refer to how many punches I've thrown. When I do fifty of these with Shadow I usually get hit at least once (he doesn't)... and I should pay attention to what I'm doing, for that one came awfully close.

Makbule: Why don't you stand and fight, you coward?

Me: Because when you attack, you lose. This isn't getting the factory repaired.

Makbule: You're the one who's going to need repairs.

And he has at it again. But I think he's slowing down and the punches are not as accurate. I wish they were accurate because I can be sure to be elsewhere than the intended target. I'm thankful for all those exhausting practice sessions with Shadow and Tiger and Simba (when they have rest days). I can do this for a long time, but what's Makbule going to do when he gets thoroughly tired? Which shouldn't be too long now.

Makbule: Damn it, what foreign magic are you using on me, vanishing like that? You're not Albanian, you're a damn foreign witch!

Me: I'm an Albanian shepherd, who's had a few lessons in dodging from some people with claws.

Makbule: Werewolves!

Me: Lions, actually. The werewolves are our guests until the factory is repaired.

Makbule: And tell me again that crap about why you aren't fighting like you should.

Me: First, you're the manager here, and fighting with the manager is jackass behavior. Second, I've had my brother's fist in my gut enough times to know what happens when I try to handle an attack the Albanian way.

Makbule (missing the reference to ``brother'', which I shouldn't have said): Come outside and we'll have a little chat.

Which is what he should have done in the first place. Bashkim never held disagreements in public. Valeria told me not to make things hard for the new manager, but he's doing a bang-up job for himself. So now that we're out in front, what's he going to say that he hasn't already?

Makbule: Listen, kid, you come in here so high and mighty with your list, and who so you think is boss here?

Me: You are, until Mr. Solis or Arben recover.

Makbule: Solis and his damned computer; he thinks he's so great because he can ``talk'' to werewolves with it. I'm tempted for him to come back and find it accidentally fell off the table, or under something.

I'd rather risk grenades. Sooner or later he's going to remember that I talk to people too. Hurry back, Wallace!

Me: I've found the computer to be very useful. They have me doing lessons, learning their language and how they do things. Has Mr. Solis been showing other people how to use it?

Makbule: Don't joke with me!

Me: The First Division people share their skills. Mr. Solis could be reminded of that. By Valeria. Not mentioning names.

Makbule: Oh, how highfalutin! Read this. Write that. Look up the other on the computer, and talk to the werewolf.

Could that be what's setting off Makbule?

Me: Two weeks ago I was an Albanian shepherd and I never even thought about reading. The lion that captured me, the first thing she did when she got me to her home was to sit me down with a computer on my lap and start me doing their lessons learning to read and speak and write their language. It takes a lot of work, and I'm far from finished, but you saw this morning how I was able to use the written list to get the tools bonded to the power nexus. Suppose I got someone to set you up on Mr. Solis' computer, and I showed you how to do the lessons?

Makbule: Like a baby? Come on.

Me: I'm doing lessons that my little brother finished years ago. They respect me for doing the lessons without complaint.

Makbule: They respect you, sure they do. So do you respect yourself, foreigner?

Me: Yes, I do. Not everyone has the guts to come into a totally wierd situation like that, a family of lions and a completely new language and way of doing things, and to make it work and not go all screwy in the head, and to figure out a way to avenge some deaths that's going to actually accomplish something.

Makbule: I'm sick and tired of your high and mighty sniping!

And he emphasizes what he said with his fist.

Me (dodging): We've been through the fist thing already, Makbule. (Dodging again:) And I didn't say a word, then, about you. Whatever you heard, you were saying it to yourself. (Dodging again:) One of my first lessons was to go by what's real, not mind games other people play on me.

Makbule (swinging again): Mind games! That's what you're doing!

Me: Look, this isn't getting the factory repaired. I've had more than enough combat practice today, and if we don't get to something useful I'm calling my transportation and leaving.

Makbule: That sounds like a really wonderful idea. Talk to a werewolf on your computer.

Now what? As soon as I take the machine out of the bag he's going to start attacking again, knowing that I'll have trouble to defend myself with my hands full. But I can't just stand here. The worker and I set the large toolbox some distance from the wall. I get behind it, then take my bag off and open up Cricket's machine, which I hope will survive this. Makbule seems to have decided to accept this way of getting rid of me. Quick as I can I make a report: the acting manager Makbule is trying to beat me up and both of us want me to leave, and would someone please get transportation out here, like Wallace, promptly? But who do I send it to? How about everyone I know the address for? OK, it's sent. Computer back in the bag and that on my shoulders.

Makbule: So how long is this going to take?

Me: I don't know. It could be all afternoon. How about I wait out here, and you don't have to wait with me.

Makbule: You wish.

Jackass! A headman belongs inside leading the workers. I wait patiently; a shepherd can do that. Makbule, though, I think is hearing voices in his head that he's attributing to me. From the corner of my eye I can see someone eyeing me; can Makbule see too? He should chase that person back to work, and shouldn't be staging this spectacle anyway. The afternoon is going to be long and tense. As a boy I learned steadiness, to wait for sheep, storms, brothers to happen in their own time, and the lesson serves me well now. I hope Makbule learned it too. Some dots are moving over the lake, probably a platoon flying home from their afternoon village, it being about the time. No, they're getting larger. They're coming here to give me a ride! I'll give them a big ``thank you'' for getting me out of this. Makbule turns, unfortunately (for him) unarmed (or maybe fortunately for him), to confront the three trucks and a fighter now landing. And it's not just any platoon, it's Tiger!

Tiger: Put your stuff in that truck. OK, Makbule, how are the repairs coming? Show me what you've accomplished. Let's go over the list.

At Tiger's handsign a second soldier has come out to help me carry the large toolbox, which goes into the medical truck on the floor. Wilting moment by moment, Makbule follows Tiger inside. Tiger acts like she owns the place, like it isn't filled with hostile Albanians. But probably from her perspective they're not very hostile, since they aren't shooting at her. How did she know what Makbule did to my list? I take a vacant seat in the second truck. I can't tell if Tiger's angry with me for botching my assignment, or if she just knows she can count on me to get myself and the tools into the truck while she can't count on Makbule. We wait patiently.

Betimes, grim-faced Tiger emerges preceeded by Makbule and another worker, who is carrying a piece of paper. She handsigns to me to join her.

Tiger: Someone will come out tomorrow, Anastas, to check on your progress and to consult about supplies and tools. Measure the mortar this time. Make sure all the bricks put in with spoiled mortar are identified, removed, cleaned, and reset. Go by the color. Got that? The mortar can't take the heat unless it has the right components in the right quantity, and is thoroughly dry-mixed before the water is added, then thoroughly mixed again.

Anastas: Yes, ma'am.

Tiger: And you jackasses back there listening: Anastas knows what to do. You know what to do. So do it; don't act like a bunch of children making mud pies! Illyria is depending on this factory, and is depending on you to make this factory work! Got that? Come on, Makbule, in the truck. Would you guys find other seats, please; one of you can take mine. Gerbil, sit by the window, then Makbule, then me on this side.

I fasten my shoulder belt as does Tiger. It rubs on one wound on my left side, but I keep my mouth shut. Tiger passes Makbule's belt to me and I plug it in; he barely avoids having his hand belted.

Tiger: OK, Gerbil, give your report. Just this afternoon's action; we'll hear the rest later and I'm sure there will be a lot of it.

Me: Valeria assigned me to recover the equipment that I left behind when I stole the truck, and had me print the list of work to do, with Lt. Stevens' help. Cricket lent me her computer since mine is damaged but people say it's still running. Wallace the gravedigger took me out here. We buried the workers who had died: Lufter and, um, Mustafa I think his name was, the one who got triaged out. I turned off the magic board and put it away, and brought the stuff out in front, with the help of one of the factory workers for the big box. I should have asked Makbule's permission for that but I didn't. Then I gave Makbule the list. He wasn't happy about that. We negotiated that I would call for transportation and leave. That's it.

Tiger: So, Makbule, you had the list from the beginning. So why did you deny it?

Makbule: Liar! You said Mr. Solis sent the list, not the werewolf!

Me: Yes, I lied to you. I thought you would accept orders from Mr. Solis easier than from Valeria. Also I claimed that the list was already here but might have been destroyed in the raid, so Mr. Solis sent another copy. I'm pretty sure Mr. Solis has the file on his computer, but I don't have the skill to break into it. Shit, after the raid I should have checked Mr. Solis' computer to see if I could send mail with it. I only tried mine and Valeria's; I forgot his.

Tiger: I usually don't encourage lying, but in this case I think you judged correctly. OK, Makbule, I'm still waiting for your answer.

Makbule: Damn it, you shame me in front of my people...

Tiger: I go by what's real, and I haven't heard it yet, and I'm not going to let go until I do.

Me: Would you like me to say it, Makbule?

Makbule: You and your foreign animal perversions. Go ahead, make me look dumb.

Me: He can't read. I told him what I had done to learn.

Tiger: So, Makbule, you've accepted an offer you can't refuse, for unspecified training. It looks to me that the training will be the same as Gerbil had. What's your attitude about that?

Makbule: You bastards are treating me like a boy.

Tiger: Talk to him, Gerbil.

Me: I get the impression that the lessons I'm doing were made for very small children. The pictures and situations are childlike. The boys already know these lessons. To survive the way the world is going to be, I have to learn this stuff. It would be stupid to not do it because it was made for babies.

Makbule: Are you calling me stupid?

Me: If you don't do the lessons, then I'll call you stupid. You haven't refused yet.

Makbule: I'll wipe the floor with your face!

Tiger: Actually, that ties in with something else I wanted to ask about. Gerbil, describe Makbule's leadership style for me, please.

Me: He seems to use his fists a lot.

Tiger: Compare with mine.

Me: You make sure everyone knows what they're supposed to do, and what the goals are, and they do it, and if something comes up I can figure out what to do about it. When I screw up you let me know.

Tiger: Makbule, suppose I gave you a list of lessons to work on, and then when you had finished I sent you back to the factory. Honestly, what would you do then?

Makbule: Honestly, I'd teach that twerp Anastas a few of the things I'd learned.

Tiger: Thank you for your honesty; I'm also sure that's what you'd do. We have a factory to rebuild. I don't want the team over there disrupted with constant personnel changes and fighting and inadequate mutual respect. So, Makbule, you're fired. You go into the refugee camp and work on the reading lessons. There are counselors there who will help you get started, and who will suggest how to proceed when you get some fluency. What you do after that is your choice, with one exception: don't come back to Koplik. Got that?

Me: Um, Tiger, um, what about Makbule's family?

Tiger: Isn't Gerbil nice and considerate, Makbule? Tell him.

Makbule: What frigging family?

Tiger: I thought of the issue, Makbule, and while flying over here I got a United Nations authorization and had your security broken, and found out that there was no family. I would have handled it differently if you had a wife and kids. I and a number of people put some work into protecting your hypothetical family.

Makbule: Thanks a lot.

We land at the camp, a gentle landing, up to Tiger's standards.

Tiger: OK, it's been a long day for all of us. Thank you, all. You're dismissed. Except, Caleb, would you please take Makbule here to Refugee Processing? Thanks. Gerbil, I have a stack of paperwork to do before dinner. What are you going to do now?

Me: Well, report to Valeria. If she's awake. Return Cricket's computer. Try to get into the clinic, you know, as a patient, and have my wounds gone over. Take a shower and keep them dry. Help cook dinner. I should write a report on what happened today, probably this evening. Except I'll have to borrow Cricket's computer again. Get my computer repaired; probably I'll need your help on that, what to tell the quartermaster.

Tiger: Clinic first. While you're waiting, report to Valeria if awake. Don't worry about helping with dinner; there are plenty of people able to cook. On the computer, let's do that right after dinner. You say it's damaged but running? What does it look like?

Me: Let's get it and you can see. All the stuff is in the third truck. See, a piece from the grenade is stuck right through the screen.

Tiger: Nasty! That one needs a new display. We'll get a loaner and Shadow can just dump all your stuff, and then reload it on the loaner. Let's see about hands: you take your pack and machine back to the tent, and I'll take charge of Valeria's pack, and I'll send someone to get the toolbox. What's with the extra pack?

Me: That one's mine; the one on my back is Cricket's.

Tiger: I'll thank her, and you thank her too. On your written report, ask Shadow how to make a record file for a NetBoard session, and you can tell your tale to everyone and record it at the same time. How's that?

Me: I type slow. It may be boring. And Valeria can't sit up to use the computer. How about I say the report first, and then learn how to do the NetBoard thing afterward.

Tiger: That may be better. Now, who's being left out of your plans?

Me: Well, um, Angela is eating with us tonight, isn't she? She's so jealous of Cricket; she made a deal with her parents. She won't be left out.

Tiger: I think you should make time for being alone with her. Teamwork takes work. It isn't just fun between the legs, but you omit it when the schedule gets tight. You may have noticed that Simba and I always make time for each other, many activities, including sexual. Follow our lead, discreetly.

Me: I hadn't thought about it like that. And I've never heard of any parent talking about it like that.

Tiger: There are lessons in how and what to teach children. Watch for them and finish them, before you need to use them. And please don't get bent out of shape at the word ``child''. Just like Makbule did, you have to start at the beginning if nobody has talked to you about it.

Me: Yes, I understand that. Um, Tiger, are you mad at me, messing up my assignment and needing to be rescued?

Tiger: Saying hardly a word to you, and almost no praise. No, I'm not mad at you. Remember, I don't ask you to do more than you're able. I think Makbule was too adult, too male and too Albanian for you to handle. You actually accomplished the complete assignment: recovering all the equipment and delivering the list. It's Makbule's responsibility for deliberately losing it. You're not to make it hard for him to accept it, and you did well in your lies, but he should have done his part too, and he didn't. That was a big part of my reason for firing him. In your message you mentioned ``trying to beat you up''. What did that mean?

Me: About thirty or forty punches inside when I gave him the list, and the same number outside.

Tiger: Inside with everyone watching? How many times did he connect?

Me: I was able to stay away from him, the way we practiced, and I stepped through so he had to work to come after me, but I decided I should just keep from getting hit, not make him lose his balance. For him to fight me was jackass stuff, but for me to fight with him, as manager, would really make me a jackass. I learned something in Nikç.

Tiger: Yes, that lesson was good. Now, I had a stack of mail about you when your important message came in. And thank you for remembering what I told you about class of service: both messages today were important, and weren't urgent, and they got read in the correct order with my other responsibilities because you put the correct tags on them: important. It looks like I'm previewing your report. What was your justification for flying the truck?

Me: Valeria showed me enough to control its speed, height and direction, and I knew which way to go. I was sure that Valeria, Mr. Solis, Arben and the other two would die if not treated until evening, which is when people might come looking for us. I knew it was risky to fly, with unknown dangers, of which I hit two, make that three, or four, but, well, I know you don't like to judge things by cowardice, but I would really have been a coward if I hadn't tried.

Tiger: I want to give praise without encouragement. First, thank you, very much, for rescuing the people. I love Valeria very much, and the factory managers are important players in my plan for getting Illyria back on its feet. Losing any of them would have been very bad news. So thank you. Now on the cowardice issue, a jackass throwing his life away isn't brave, he's stupid. But in your case I think you honestly and correctly judged that you had a reasonable chance to pull it off. To say that you acted prudently would be going rather too far, but it was a lot better than just a stupid stunt. You were very brave, and I appreciate it. Now I'm sure you've already talked with Col. Hakansson about piloting skills and I won't repeat that, but the fact that you're here and alive means that your skills weren't completely zilch. But I want you to implant in your planning circuits: you are not qualified to fly, and you are to keep your hands off the stick unless there truly is no other alternative. Understood?

Me: Yes, ma'am, and thank you.

Tiger: You're welcome. You mentioned unknown dangers; what were those?

Me: The winds and frozen rain in the storm, and I almost flew into the mountain, and I was attacked by our fighters, and I ended up off course, and my landing was rather rough, a lot harder than Wallace's. You remember I criticized him yesterday? I was a jackass.

Tiger: Interesting dangers. Col. Hakansson mentioned some of them. How did you find the camp, if you were lost? And why didn't you have the map set up?

Me: I didn't know how. I backtracked the fighters; I noticed where they had flown from, and went in that direction.

Tiger: More Nikç training, Gerbil?

Me: Yes, ma'am.

Tiger: Keep it up. I'm glad to have you in my family, Gerbil. Now, I think you had better get moving toward the clinic, and I toward a pile of paperwork. I'll see you at dinner. And thank you, again, for saving my kitten.

Sheesh! (As Wallace says.) I'm happy that today's various events worked out, and I'm happy Tiger recognizes that I did my best, which wasn't too bad, and that she accepts the limitations in what I was able to do. But I hope, very strongly, that this day is never repeated. And here's the clinic. I go in.

Next Previous Contents