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Chapter 21: Kittens Lost Mittens

Tiger Leones here. It's midwake on a type two day, meaning I've been hiking all morning under Wotan's light and the sun will make an appearance only at dinnertime. And if I have to climb down again and unsnag my pack again I'm going to demonstrate some expletives. Again. I'm of two minds about this survey. We could cover a whole lot more sites and do it a whole lot quicker if we took the time to build hover vehicles with long flexible legs that could land without tipping over on terrain, the majority of Thor's continents, that's covered with big rocks or bushes. Or, usually, both. On the other hand, we're surveying the sites to make a judgment what land use category they should be in, and to judge them as potential wilderness we need to experience them as wilderness, up close and personal.

Specifically, this section of mountains is one of the less unsalubrious points to put a heavy transportation corridor through, but if it contains (or will contain after water works on it) some hidden spot of beauty like Zion Canyon, we want to know about it and run the transport elsewhere. With hover vehicles we don't need... road, and with AATS we don't need high voltage power lines, but someone is going to think of some need for a linear feature of intense technological use, and future generations will really thank us for finding a place for it now, rather than when a bunch of people have grown emotionally attached to the future route.

Shortly after Lan Ying joined us, she and Iris and Selen and Ken got down and thrashed out the basic land use laws of Gondor, of course with input from all of us, but those four did most of the work. The basic principle is that half the planet belongs to people and half to the nonsentient species we'll create. A quarter will be in very large wilderness areas which we're laying out now, proportionately on continents and future oceans. Another quarter will be in similarly large people patches. The remainder must be patched up by future authorities and the same fractions must be designated as contiguous wilderness and contiguous people, recursively in smaller and smaller patches, except that at the smallest scale the split is half and half.

There are degrees of wildness: for example, a family's back yard counts as open space in an urban setting, but that intensity of management and occupancy wouldn't be appropriate in truly wild back country. Of course at present the whole planet is truly wild except for eight villages, a few isolated homesteads, and our permanent (we hope) capital, Minas Tirith. No, there's no White Tree; it's distinguished from other villages only by the fact that the Mission Commander lives there (when not traveling), and that it's on land that's suitable, and designated, for intensive urban development. But the redwoods are growing beautifully throughout the capital, as well as in those other villages where the climate suits them. We now have 580 souls on Thor. We consider ourselves to have souls.

Much has happened to get us to this point. And much has been lost.

Wilma was playing one day with Valeria's furry fourth kitten, Daniel, about ten months old (since assembly). Daniel went to sleep in her arms and she just lay back to rest. That's how Valeria found them: Daniel asleep and Wilma dead. Valeria made Wilma a nice coffin and we buried her beside dome one; we stuck some shoring in the grave and Oso learned how to cut stone and made a headstone for her. She wanted to stay with Gondolin, not be shot into the sun.

Wilma's death was a big shock to all of us, signaling the start of Gondor's long-planned transition to autonomy from Earth. Not the least shocked was Willie. He kept working, of course, on revising the smelter material flow so a standard mass handler could be used throughout. He and Valeria and Mica got the new smelter put together and tested in space, and it worked without problems thanks to some debugging overtime by Valeria and Simba that he didn't know about. With Willie's consent, and actually encouragement, we put on a banquet dinner celebration, and when Willie left early to go lay down in dome one, Simba and I raised eyebrows to each other, having been in this situation before, and encouraged Lan Ying to teach us all some ribald Chinese songs. We drank tomato and grape and plum juice and did folk dances and sang more songs until sunset, which on a type one day occurs about two hours after we normally sleep. Willie looked so peaceful laying there. He hadn't needed a knife or poison or anything messy like that; he knew he'd had a full life and it was time to check out, and he did. Right there in dome one, with parents taking turns watching kittens asleep or almost so, we had a nice Chinese funeral while Valeria cut and glued another coffin. We buried Willie next to Wilma. And now there's only one human on Thor.

OK, OK, I got the pack around the last dragon-fanged basalt sill that I had so much trouble to climb over. Four meters more of rope, and I have the pack with me, and now I can take a break, sit by this Manzanita bush, and drink and eat a lunch of seed cakes. I'm going to take a different route down, to cover as much territory as possible, and it's supposed to be a little less steep and broken. The updraft coming up the slope, or should I call it a cliff, lifts up a pretty night-flying butterfly, gray with handsome orange spots, a fritillary (with a generous addition of dry worm genes and other adaptations to thrive in this world, such as the night activity). It won't land on my nose, but it could, for my white fiber-reinforced helmet (with a crushable foam liner) is purely to protect my skull from a repeat bashing in a fall. And of course when the sun is up the helmet shades me from it, beating down on my midnight black fur at this low latitude. We have an oxygen atmosphere now.

We've had that blessed luxury for almost six years. For quite some time ``E'' factories have been building smelters and miners and ``A'' factories unassisted (and those build ``B'' factories which build butterfly chips). Twelve years ago Valeria and Daniel, who takes after his mother in engineering skills, finally automated the last nasty few bits of hand labor left when ``E'' factories build themselves. So we now have a new species in orbit around Thor, poised to devour the universe. We haven't automated the brain cans; in fact we're still using the original three that we hand-made. But in very few years Gaia will be fully operational and, in theory and barring software bugs, able to manage the atmosphere and hydrosphere of Thor for the billion years it will take for Thor to learn to take care of himself. As well as to produce enough semiconductor chips to drown our colonists under the mass of consumer goods.

And now that the atmosphere is activated we've programmed the butterfly chips to bring in mostly water (plus carbon dioxide as the rocks absorb it) and to fill the oceans. That will take twenty years. We choked off factory production when we had enough butterflies for that schedule. And the first area to be flooded was Echoriath, and Gondolin in it. That was sad, but was important as our emergence from the colony's embryo stage. Until we were ready we diverted most of the water flow to the other trenches and deep ocean basins. We started with temporary shelters for the expanding population, split up by village at various places along Sirion. Then as the atmosphere got denser and denser, and uncomfortably hot and sticky down there, we moved everything (including dome covers) to temporary locations on the higher oceanic plate surfaces. And when the lower lying continental plains had enough air to breathe we built the permanent villages.

As I sit here dusty and sweaty (I've popped my shoulder button to cool myself off fast) with my pack beside me and my bare soles and butt on hard stone, I look out over my creation, lit by Wotan's ice cream light. The stones, of course, are the major part and I had nothing to do with them, but every stalk of green is here because I decreed it. Same for the people. Same for the monster in orbit whose butterflies actually noticeably darken the sun. I am literally a god. And I remember as clear as if he were still alive and were sitting right beside me: Willie warned us all about hubris, so long ago. Did I give birth to Hell disguised as Heaven? Will I ever know?

The long years weigh on me. I'm 195 Thor years old; almost 112 Earth years. How many old ladies my age have you seen dragging forty kilos of water and food and surveying equipment up a slope I would have considered unclimbable back on Earth? I'm fit to work, but does my creation need me to work? My creation is perfectly capable of managing without its god, because its god decreed it. I contribute to the colony; many of my skills are unique and are still sharp, such as brilliant chip design (though I have apprentices); but what properly ought a retired god to do? Often my thoughts turn in that direction, and the same for my dearest mate Simba.

Nonetheless, the job I'm doing in the immediate present is both important and fun, except when a hair catches in splintered rocks and is pulled out. I should cut the divine philosophy and get on with something useful.

Hmm, maybe not so fast. What's that sound? It's a lot bigger than a Peromyscus. If it weren't impossible I'd say something like a coyote was moving among the Artemisia and Manzanita at the top of the slope three meters above my rock seat. Simba playing a trick on me? I'll check it out carefully.

Oops, a rock tilts underfoot and clatters down the slope. It's answered by scurrying from ahead, then silence. Damn, I've lost the advantage of surprise, but I still want to find out what it is. Between two rocks I peer: nothing. I climb up and into this little valley. Water occasionally flows here and cascades onto the cliff, maybe two rains since we've been seriously filling the oceans, and it's nice, but the same thing is happening all over the planet and it's not enough to save the area from a pipeline or whatever future generations might want to install. OK, scurrier, where are you?

I cross the dry streambed and... Hold it, I smell jaguar. I turn back and trace the scent upwind. Hmm, a tiny black tuft moves nervously on the ground next to a concealing bush about three meters ahead.

Me: Hello, kitten; I see you. Come out and introduce yourself.

If the kitten matches the tail it's very young and could be scared by a large midnight black stranger. I crouch down to appear less threatening.

Me: Come on; I'm not going to hurt you. I have cookies in my pack. Want one?

Larger kitten, slowly rising: Do you have water?

It's larger only by comparison to the two tiny ones who come out from behind the bush. Its mass is at most twenty kilos, probably fifteen. Its tawny spotted fur is unkempt and covered with dust from the trail. It carries a little backpack which has bulky content, though I can see easily that there's no corresponding mass to contribute to the kitten's tired motions. The little ones are tired too. The smaller one sits down dejectedly in the dirt.

Me: Yes, there's water in my pack. Sit here and wait for me to bring it.

I started with water for five days and this is the middle of the second, so my pack's mass is as much as all of the kittens put together. I get it onto my shoulders and hips and climb back up to where the poor things wait patiently where I told them to. Seeing my water bottle their eyes brighten but they wait politely. Over-politely, particularly for the smallest who's a year out of the pocket, if that.

Me: Youngest first, right? There you go; fill up, kid.

Jeez! A two-liter cylinder started out mostly full; now it's about half gone. No question, these kittens are dehydrated.

Me: Do you feel up to eating a cookie?

They all nod their heads ``yes'' in that creepy politeness of theirs. I deliver one cookie to each one and the cookies vanish. It's probably best to wait half an hour before giving them another, or better, splitting up a seed cake. And now it's time for an exchange.

Me: So, my name is Tiger. What are your names?

Kitten: I'm Ardent; she's Diablo; and he's Ember.

1441! I thought the older kitten's scent rang a bell. Fact number one: Ardent J1548-1441 lives 25 kilometers west of here with his sister Blaze J1555-3577 and parents Talisman J1282-0440 and Joy J1297-2003. Fact number two: Diablo, Ember and the nonevident ``C'' kitten are not in the colony records. The reason I have the recognition codes right in my nostrils is that Simba and I were going over the family's records before we started out. Simba is surveying the quadrat to the west of this one because he's going to have a water shortage and he's going to get more from Talisman and Joy, probably tomorrow or the next day. As the colony's official psychologist Selen has had his eye on that pair since they joined up, and he's had net conversations with them twice. Everything fine at this end; nobody here but us chickens, they said. My ass. Nobody here but us chickens and ``C'' and Diablo and Ember. Selen asked us to pay them a physical visit and see what was really going on.

In this rapid phase of population growth we're having each pair beget two kittens with each other, and beget two with partners which the colony administration selects on eugenic principles, and then take four more newly assembled people. We're very concerned about our population bottleneck, not to suffer like the Terran cheetah, and we want a variety of genes at each locus, and we definitely don't want eight people with correlated genotypes coming out of one family, ever. Sometimes people object to the outbreeding part, and then it's handled by sending bottles of semen by courier, but most couples handle it with grace and good humor, just like Simba and I did, and a kitten's gene father visits as often as work and transport schedules allow, and the families often become good friends.

For not outbreeding Talisman gave the excuse that his Chang bushes were precarious, and he'd continue the breeding program when his food production was more reliable. He must think Selen and the rest of the seniors specialize in warming our mats with our broad butts; it may be hot here but I have hands-on experience with Chang bushes and they grow well in a lot hotter territory both on Terra and on Thor.

So curiosity and worry about the Talisman family turns into the need to do something drastic. Let's try to get some more information out of the kittens.

Me: Wow, you're far from home. How long have you been walking?

Ardent: Since yesterday. Are you going to take us back?

Me: Well, that depends. Were you trying to get home?

Ardent: We were trying to get to Mithrim. Did we go the right way?

Me: Yes; I came from there. But it's far. I'm glad I met you here. Go over to those rocks and look what I had to climb up.

Far, as in half an hour by hover vehicle to where the rocks start, and a day and a half rapid walking by an adult who's in shape. The kittens are suitably impressed by the cliff they just barely missed the chance to climb down.

Me: So why would three kittens try to walk a hundred kilometers to Mithrim?

Diablo: Talisman hit me. Here.

Me: Let me take a look.

I palpate her upper arm very gently. There's a big bruise that I can feel under her fur. I don't press through it, but I do feel the humerus at each end, and my definite impression is that it's not straight. Talisman broke her arm. I'm not going to decide what to do until it's time, but drastic is a good general description.

Me: Thank you, Diablo, for holding still. At your age I would have made a lot more noise and wiggle.

Ardent: It's best to keep quiet. If you yell it sets off Talisman and he'll just say you didn't learn your lesson and he'll pound you more.

Me: Listen, you three. Someday you'll have kittens and you'll need to teach them. Pounding on them is not the way! Swats, yes, but not pounding, and particularly not breaking arms! I'm famous as a tough teacher, but I never ever beat up a kitten. Got that? OK, so he broke Diablo's arm and you decided it was time to get out.

Ardent: No, I'd been planning for a long time. I tricked Joy into showing me the map and how to understand it, and I memorized the way to Mithrim. I always took a pack with two water bottles and food when we kittens went out to play, so Joy wouldn't be surprised by that. Diablo said something to Talisman and he took her out back. I figured I knew as much as I was going to, and I was worried he was getting into one of his mean phases, and I could see that Diablo could walk even if her arm hurt. So real early, as soon as Talisman went out to work on the plants, I put four water bottles and two jars of Chang seeds in my pack and told Joy we were going out to play. We have a house we built; we dug it out and covered it with dead Artemisia bushes so it stays cool. But I kept on going.

Me: You did well, little one.

Ardent: I did well? Really? I've never done well before. Oh!

He's reacting to my threat display, with fangs exposed.

Me: Sorry, sorry, don't be afraid. See, I've got my mouth closed now. I'm angry at Talisman and Joy, not at you. You did well, and I'm sure you've done well all along, and your parents should have told you. Not telling you is as bad as breaking Diablo's arm.

Ardent: You're sure different. You're not a jaguar, are you?

Me: No, I'm not. I'm pretty well known around here, and I'm surprised your parents didn't tell you about me, to recognize by sight or by scent. A midnight black lion named Tiger L6-3512; this is all new to you?

Ardent: I'm sorry I don't know you. Are you going to swat me?

Me: No. I'll hug you if you want. No hug? I should have expected it. Score one more minus for Talisman and Joy; that one's even worse than the others. Now, something comes to mind. We've seen the ``A'' kitten, the ``D'' kitten and the ``E'' kitten. There are two more. Where are they?

Diablo: Talisman took Blaze out back.

Me: And then what happened?

Diablo: No more Blaze.


Ardent: We never saw her again and it was safest not to mention it. That's when I started planning how to go somewhere else.

Me: Wise kitten. How about ``C''? The other kitten?

Ardent: It was too far for Cinder. I put all our water in one bottle and gave it to him, and he went back home. I told him we were almost there, but he couldn't do it, and I knew he couldn't get back without water.

Me: You had a difficult choice there. As the old adult with bloody claws I'd have decided differently, but I'm not going to criticize you, kitten. Now, how long has it been since Cinder left you?

Ardent: A long time.

Me: Was it today?

Ardent: Yes.

Stupid question. They gave Cinder all their water, and drank about a liter of mine, so they've probably not been drinking for three to four hours. Cinder is certainly alive now. If we get the vehicle out here before the sun comes up we have a chance of finding him, searching from the air, before he turns into a raisin. But even with aerial mobility it's going to be hard to spot a small creature whose coat, after all, was designed to not be seen. And Wotan's light is far from ideal for searching.

Me: Now I have a difficult decision. There are four kittens: three with me and one lost. I want to get as many out safely as I can. For you, that means we have to find a spot where a hover vehicle can land. Back down the cliff there's no good place for half a day's march, and you don't have the strength or the skill to climb down anyway. So we'll go west. My map shows a likely spot about an hour and a half from here. Drinking my water and eating my food, can you stay with me? I wouldn't want to have to try to make a landing pad with my bare hands in this mess.

Ardent: Are you taking us home?

Me: I never answered that, did I? No, I am not taking you home. I may be going to your home, but you aren't going with me.

Ardent: We can stay with you if you don't go too fast for the little ones.

Me: Diablo, can you walk an hour and a half with me?

Diablo: I guess. I don't want to go home and get beaten up all the time.

Me: Ember, can you walk with me?

The littlest kitten hides behind his sister. I'm not going to get an answer, but I have the strength to carry someone that small. Or larger. I won't, however, unless asked.

Me: OK, here's the water bottle. I'll bet a little more will fit in your stomachs now. And here's a seed cake: a piece of it for each of you. Rest a minute or two more. I'm going to report our situation to my people and reserve the vehicle.

Ardent: There's not much water left. We should save it, shouldn't we?

Me: No, drink it all. I have more in my pack.

I dig out my computer and start sending mail. The first is to the hover vehicle driver, a jaguar named Pounce. I explain that we'll need to walk about five kilometers to a likely landing site, and when we're about half an hour out I'll send mail again and he should come for us. The driver's main job is growing Chang plants but he knows he may be needed, by us and by regular villagers, for emergency transportation, so he'll have his computer in his backpack, set to beep for urgent messages. And it's part of the deal that he'll swallow the 0.2 fang deposit on urgent messages (which someone in a non-business relation, like Simba, wouldn't do). The second message is to Simba, Rose and Orion, who we're staying with. I'd appreciate Simba's insight in this matter but unfortunately when you're in wilderness you don't act like a financial magnate and run the beeper all the time. He's not likely to check mail until he stops for the night.

We lions like to communicate, to be in contact with other people, humans as well as lions, but we four adults made a specific decision when we designed the colony that we didn't like how so many Terrans aren't just in contact but are ensnared in the web, with beepers beeping (courtesy of a Tiger Leones comm chip), portable phones ringing (courtesy of a Tiger Leones comm chip), computers barfing mail on the screen without being asked (courtesy of a Tiger Leones comm chip), and so on ad infinitum. Thus we've trained our kittens to be moderate and discreet and appropriate about how freely they offer themselves to be interrupted by random input. Fortunately we haven't advanced to the point where we have junk e-mail advertising timeshare condos or incredible stock deals. The 0.05 fang deposit on each (non-urgent) mail message also helps since the recipient will cash the deposit if annoyed.

Oh, here's mail back from Pounce; he'll await our next message and then fly to pick us up.

Me: OK, kittens, I've sent my mail and the vehicle will come to meet us, but it will take about an hour and a half for us to get to the landing site. Let's get going to meet it.

The kittens put one foot in front of the other. This kind of steady progress hour after hour is characteristic of adults, but the kittens must have been really brutalized to have normal kitten play beaten out of them. Well, despite the water, cookie and seed cake they don't have much energy to waste on play. I hope they get a chance to be kittens again, soon.

The kittens' uncharacteristic silence gives me a chance to think, and perhaps not a welcome chance. I'm responsible for what happened here, for Diablo's injuries and for the death of Blaze. It was at my order that these tawny stalks were created, were let loose on the planet. When Talisman and Joy joined as mates and registered their choice, Selen objected vigorously, but after extensive discussion among the senior Novanima, in which all too often I was on one side and everyone else was on the other, I finally put my foot down and told them this colony doesn't jerk people around in their individual lives, we have no law that covers splitting up Talisman and Joy, and as far as I was concerned we weren't going to make any such law.

Selen told me I'd regret the consequences. I told him I was sure I would, but I'd really like to see a writing assignment from him, and anyone else who wanted to participate, in which he carried forward the implications of what he wanted to do. It had been a long time since I'd nailed any of them in teacher role like that, and Selen was pretty shocked, but he did as I asked. We have the packet of essays edited into a coherent short book (web presentation, of course), with metaphors and references to classical Terran history and Greek legends replacing details of our specific dilemma. It's given a lot of people a lot to think about, judging from comments we received.

Dilemma: now that's a nice metaphor. Bos taurus has two horns, quite long in some cultivars and always sharp. You can get nailed by horn ``A'', or you can get nailed by horn ``B''; it's your choice. I took mine and like Selen said, I'm responsible for the consequences. That's my job.

But people are uncomfortably aware of the main conclusion of our essay set, which is this: Simba gave every Novanima on Thor the same gift that had been given to him and to me: free will. He didn't have detailed control from within the genotypes over behavior, so as to program sweetness and light into every soul. Each person has to make her or his own choices and has to develop and use her or his specific personality responsibly, prudently and effectively. If Talisman, and to a lesser extent Joy, didn't do that...

So if Talisman and Joy are in fact responsible for whatever they did to these kittens, than am I off the hook? Not really. In law the concept is called ``joint and several liability''. They're responsible fully, since they made the choices and did the deeds, but I'm also responsible fully, because I'm in charge, and I made the choices that let Talisman and Joy loose. And so is Selen; after I rejected his protests he had very little choice beyond doing the best he could with a bad situation, and taking responsibility for being unable to do better. Everyone is responsible for everything on this planet. There's a lot of good here that everyone can, and does, take great pride in. But now we're seeing our first really bad situation that we have to live with. Will this kind of stuff grow quadratically as the newsfeed suggests is happening on Terra? Or can we do better, if only because our population density is lower and will remain so if people stick with what their lessons teach? Did I give birth to Hell disguised as Heaven? Will I ever know?

After about an hour of philosophy and plodding we run into an obstruction, about two meters wide.

Me: Hold up, people. Ardent, how did you get over this crack in the ground?

Ardent: It's narrower at the other end, where the hill goes up. Diablo and I could jump over, and I carried Ember with me.

Me: Let's take a look there. Don't walk too close to the edge; it's collapsed in several places and could do it again.

On Terra rainwater would rapidly wash sediment into an earthquake crack like this, but one or two small rainshowers haven't done much here. Indeed, at the other end it's only about half a meter wide and Ardent can jump over easily. I carry Diablo and Ember and just take a long step. We continue west up the gradual slope. For about twenty meters.

Me: Hold it again, people. Do you smell something?

Ardent: No.

Me: Stay here, upwind of me, while I hunt. I smell jaguar, very faint. Ardent, come over where I'm standing.

Ardent: It's Cinder!

Me: And I can tell you exactly where he is. You three wait by this bush.

I leave my pack with the kittens and cautiously approach the edge. The scent is slightly stronger here. But a little voice, and the example of several scallops chomped out of the overhanging wall, stop me three meters back. I build a pile of three rocks to mark my place.

Me: Come on; we're going back to the other side. I think Cinder has fallen into the crack.

Ardent: He's not home?

Me: I'd guess he changed his mind and tried to catch up to you, and misjudged how to cross the crack. Same order as before. Ardent, you go first. Come to me, Diablo and Ember; I'll carry both of you. And a big... Yike! The damn thing dropped out from under my foot.

Ardent: You got over.

Me: Yes, unlike Cinder. Now let's find him.

Ardent: You're going to climb down and bring him up?

Me: I'm going to find out where he is, and in what condition, and then decide what to do. You three wait here. Actually I'd better report my situation first. That's a lesson for you, Ardent: keep people informed of your situation. Then, if I fall in with Cinder, my people will know where I am and will come to rescue you. Here's where the other water bottles are in my pack, and the food is on this side. Drink when you need it. Ember, cutie, sit where you won't get stepped on.

I send a quick message using my computer, and put it away again. Now I edge up to the edge. I get down flat on the ground and wriggle forward so I can see. It's dim outside and dark inside, but my infrared shows me a crumpled form about ten meters below, wedged in a narrow spot between the walls.

Me: Cinder! Cinder! Move your tail! Give me a sign! Kids, stay back; don't try to see; don't fall in too!

Kittens! But yes, I think I can convince myself that the tail moved. I wriggle away from the edge and shoo the kittens back to their bush. Is it prudent to go down there? Obviously not. A bean counter would write off Cinder, and I'm realistic: the sign of life might be just my imagination, or I might get to him but in the rough handling of rescue or the wait for proper medical treatment he might die anyway. But it would be a pretty lousy retired god who abandons one of her people without a try. Particularly one who's been as ill-used as these have.

Me: I think Cinder is still alive. Now for it to stay that way we all have to work together. I'm going to climb down. Your most important contribution will be to stay here so I can think about Cinder and climbing, so I don't have to think about you. Understand? Can you do that?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger. Are you going to swat me for going to look?

Me: I'm thinking about it. But I have something more important to do now. Ardent, you do your part, which is to keep Diablo and Ember in line. A nap might be a good idea.

Quin and Selen have been cooperating to make real nylon rope for about ten years now, and I have a heavy thirty meters of it. There's a conveniently large and stable rock about twelve meters from the edge which I tie the rope around. Piece of cake, plenty of length. I'll believe it when I'm back up with Cinder. Not coming down directly over him, I toss the rope into the abyss, and wrapping it around my butt, I entrust myself to it. The poorly cemented regolith crunches under my strong bare feet and cascades wherever I step. The crack isn't exactly vertical and I'm on the down side; I'm very aware of how the up side is planning to break off and crush me. OK, I'm at the end of my rope and I'm just about at Cinder's level, but three meters to the right. I scoot a meter closer but the walls close in and that's as far as I can manage. From here I can see what happened: he was standing at the edge trying to get up the nerve to jump over and the dirt collapsed. The dirt may or may not have partially cushioned his fall, and may or may not still be partially supporting him. As the ground lies I'm too fat to get beside him and I don't have enough rope to get under him. The rope is holding up my butt but the position takes strength and I can't stay here forever.

Me: Cinder, can you hear me? Don't move, just try to say something.

Cinder (weakly): Yaaw.

Me: Poor Cinder. I'll get you out. Very gently, can you move your arm? Over your head?

Cinder: A-a-a.

Me: I know it hurts. Is it sore, or is it broken? Try to reach toward me, brave kitten.

Yes, brave kitten. He struggles, gets it up, knocking loose a shower of dirt, and reaches over toward my voice. Yes, it's enough. And Diablo couldn't have done that; I doubt Cinder's arm or left shoulder is broken. Now the ruthless old adult with bloody claws is going to give him a painful surprise. I can just barely reach his little wrist. I take it from the back side so his claws can't cut my wrist tendons, and I pull.

Cinder: Aa-aaa-aaaa!

The whole section collapses; I could swing myself right through there now! But he's in my lap. And wonder of wonders, he has the strength to grab with claws and turn himself face down. Aaa, I may deserve the claws but I don't like it.

Me: Hold on, Cinder, we're going up. Climb more on my chest, OK?

I shove his butt and he gets the idea. It's a relief to get moving out of there as my footsteps knock loose showers of dirt. At this angle my legs aren't that effective at lifting me. But my scaredy cat (which is having a catfit inside me) pressured me to do all that extra bar work and one-handed pushups and so on, and after 112 years it's finally paying off: my arms can do the work that my legs can't. My butt is going to be rubbed raw by the time I'm out of here, from the rope scraping over the fur. With my free hand I pop my shoulder button one for some sweat to cool me. Aah, Wotan light. The rope as it moved against the dirt dug a deep trench, dumping the material on top of me, and now as the motion increases in intensity the sides are coming off too. OK, this is as high as I'm going to get.

Me: Hey, Ardent, wake up! Talk to me, don't come close.

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: I have Cinder. I'm going to get him to climb up along the rope. When you see him, not before, you come out and drag him a body length away from the edge, then carry him to the bush. Got that? Repeat back what you're to do.

Ardent: When I see Cinder, drag him away from the edge, then carry him.

Me: How far from the edge? One body length. Carry him where? To the bush. Tell me again what you're to do.

Ardent: When I see Cinder, drag him one body length from the edge, then carry him to the bush.

Me: Good enough. Wait until you see Cinder.

When I was that age I could get instructions right the first time, with all arguments in place for each predicate including the quantitative ones. But I also had a team of excellent teachers who knew what they wanted and how to get it: not exactly Ardent's situation. Someone needs to give him the training he's missed. Someone also needs to get a badly injured kitten off her chest. I said I would get Cinder to climb the rope. That was a euphemism for the actual procedure.

Me: OK, Cinder, we're going up now. Turn around and grab the rope.

I lift one little hand onto the rope (he doesn't want to release my fur); then I get my free hand around his neck from behind, and peel him off me. With my elbow I shove his butt and he slides, complaining weakly, up the trench the rope has cut, as dirt showers onto me. I get my hand on his butt and push him out as far from me as possible. There, Ardent has him. Mission accomplished, part ``A''.

I wish I had someone to shove me up by the butt. My right arm is awfully tired from holding the rope. I swing my right leg up and catch the edge. It breaks off and fifty kilos of regolith pours into the crack. Let's try that again. The dirt under my chest falls away and my toes lose their grip as I thud against the newly exposed surface. Third time's a charm, with claws. I scrabble with both feet against the crumbling dirt, wrenching one toe and undoubtedly taking the edges off the opal claws. Come on, Tiger, come on! I give a mighty shove with my arms as the rope rips loose another section of wall under my chest... and I'm momentarily up, supported against gravity by other than muscles and rope. I backpedal furiously on all fours. Aah, relief! Except for the bruise on my knee and the pain in my toe and a shard of sharp rock in my ribs. I'm just going to lay here for a moment. The old lady deserves a rest. Thank you, scaredy cat, for making me do all those chinups.

Ardent: Tiger, Tiger, I can't get Cinder to sit up.

Me: Aah! Then let him lay. Really. I'm coming; I'll look at him. Lay off the water. He needs water but not poured down his throat.

Elementary first aid: if he can't sit up by himself, don't do more damage: let him lay. If he won't swallow by himself without choking, don't choke him by forcing liquids on him. At Ardent's age or not much older I knew those things. At least Ardent followed instructions and put Cinder well away from the edge, by the bush. I'm going to keep all criticism out of my voice.

Me: Ardent, thanks for getting Cinder safe away from the edge. OK, Cinder, how are you doing?

Cinder: Yaaw.

Me: Oh, poor Cinder; you had a really rough day, didn't you? You're safe now. We'll be going soon to a place where you'll have water and food and safety. Does that sound good? Let's see if you can move your tail. Move your tail for Tiger!

It moves. His spinal cord isn't severed, and given the amount of jerking and shoving he underwent, his back is intact enough to protect the nerves.

Me: Where do you hurt? Touch where you hurt.

He touches his ribs on one side, then the other. Not surprising.

Me, touching his belly: How about here?

Cinder: No.

Me: How about your head?

Cinder: My sides hurt. Can I have water?

Me: Sure you may.

He turns his head and sips a little water. He got off remarkably lightly for such a disastrous fall. A few broken ribs, bruises and lacerations: it's nothing to laugh at, but he'll be on his feet tomorrow and he'll be as good as new, physically, in a month. Next question: what are we going to do about the psychological and training issues for these kittens? And just what do we do with the damned parents? Well, first we have about two more kilometers to cover, to get to the supposed flat area. I take a moment to report by mail that I'm safely out of the crack, we now have four kittens, we're starting to move again, and Pounce should leave in about ten minutes.

Me: Cinder, we have to travel about two more kilometers. I think I'm going to be carrying you. How do you want to do this? I can carry you in my arms, or you can sit up on my shoulders.

Cinder: Arms. Aaa, side hurts.

Me: Try sitting up; I'll hold you. How's that; can you handle that? Drink some more water. OK, Cinder, I'll pick you up.

Cinder: Aaa-aa!

Me: Sorry, but I can't hold you without your ribs pressing somewhere. Try sitting on my shoulders. Now how are you going to get on me? Stand up, just for a moment; Ardent, help him balance. Now climb on.

I get my face practically in the dirt, and with lots of help from Ardent Cinder climbs on the back of my neck and sits. Then I do a pushup and fold into a sitting position. But there's a minor problem: my helmet. I take it off, and Cinder promptly grabs my ears.

Me: Please, Cinder, not my ears; that hurts. Hold around my forehead, not in my eyes, please. There, that will work. You can lay your head on top of mine and rest. There, that's a good kitten.

On my butt I squiggle up to my pack and buckle the helmet on the frame and get the thing on my back. Now with fifty kilos of pack plus kitten on 75 kilos of me, I struggle to my feet, holding Cinder's little foot in my hand for safety. This old lady's thighs are going to be sore tonight!

I didn't really expect the extra ten kilos to make that much difference, but by the time we reach the flats my thighs are telling me they want a rest and they want it soon. The kittens have hardly spoken a word, to me or to each other, just steadily walking forward. The arrow-shaped hover vehicle buzzed us a few minutes ago. On seeing the shadow Ardent, Diablo and Ember vanished instantly and together under a convenient bush, while Cinder gripped my head nervously. To my direct question, Ardent explained that anything unusual and sudden was best experienced from hiding, since most often it was Talisman in a rage. I replied that it's prudent to see to one's own safety, but in the real world unusual events are often positive experiences and after a cautious evaluation one should be prepared to enjoy them. Ardent looked dubious; I chalked up another black mark for Talisman.

Seen in person rather than on the map the flat area looks like a partially buried impact crater. Pounce set his craft down at a precarious angle with one landing skid centered on a large rock, broad but not too high. How could we make spider legs for the vehicle that could handle the more typical rock fields which the kittens and I have been picking our way through for the last two hours? Hmm. Pounce is a male jaguar. I have enough people skills to anticipate trouble on that score from the kittens.

Me: Pounce! Pounce, we're here. Thanks for coming out to pick us up, and sorry we took so long.

Pounce: Hi, Tiger. No problem; thanks for letting me know when to fly so I didn't have to sit out here for two hours.

This is all said at long range in a loud voice. Ardent, Diablo and Ember have closed in behind me and Cinder is again gripping nervously.

Me, quietly: Kittens, I've worked with Pounce before. He's nice. He has two kittens at home. He teaches them well, the right way, and he doesn't beat them. Can we please be polite to Pounce? Treat him the same as you treat me. OK?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

I'm hearing ``Yes, Talisman'' and I don't like one bit that Ardent is probably treating both me and Pounce the same way he treats his male parent.

Me: OK, kittens, this is a hover vehicle. It will take us to Mithrim in about half an hour. So you'll get where you wanted, and a lot easier than if you had to walk all the way, right?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Here's what I suggest. We'll put me, Diablo and Ember in back with Cinder on my lap. Cinder, we'll find a comfortable position that doesn't hurt. Ardent, you sit up front with Pounce. Diablo and Ember will share a seat belt; that should fill it enough that it will stay on. Cinder won't have one; that's the breaks. Try not to hit anything, Pounce. Ardent, you look dubious. Tell me plainly what's troubling you.

Ardent: Cinder should have a seat belt. Suppose I sit in back with him and share?

Me: Could you sit up for half an hour, Cinder? With a belt around your middle?

Cinder: Hold me.

Me: I agree; he couldn't handle it; he needs to be held. By me. And someone experienced, that means me not you, needs to be within arm's reach of the other two kittens. You're looking dubious again. Your eyes are straying toward Pounce. Say it in words, Ardent.

Ardent: I wouldn't sit next to Talisman unless he made me. He'd do something mean.

Me: Why doesn't that surprise me? But remember this, Ardent: most people behave very much different from Talisman. You said yourself that I'm different, and Pounce is a lot more similar to me than to him. Repeat back what I told you about Pounce.

Ardent: He has two kittens and doesn't beat them.

Me: Good kitten; you remembered. So what should you do about Pounce?

Ardent: I should be brave and sit next to him.

Me: Good! I wish I could hug you. OK, I'm going to sit to get the pack off... Aah, that's a relief. Pounce, can you stick that in the cargo area?

Pounce: What's in this thing, bricks?

Me: Water, lots of it, enough for five days. Well, three and a half now. Ardent, would you go in the back seat for a moment? Yes, just climb up. I'll lean back in the doorway, and would you please help Cinder very gently lay down on the seat? Now let's get you out and Diablo and Ember in. Sit right there, kittens, and I'll put your belt on you.

Pounce: OK, Ardent, would you climb in the front? I assume you don't want me to lift you. There, you got the buckle but... it would be easier if you'd let me tighten it.

Ardent: Well, OK...

Pounce: There. Tiger, you have the little one, Cinder? Is everyone back there ready to go? Your own belt is on, right? Hang on, kids; we're going to fly!

Cinder sleeps in my arms; he's too tired to do anything else. Diablo is too small to see out the window and is also exhausted; she sleeps too. Ember wiggles, but he's been taught silence, brutally, and soon he joins his sister. Ardent, on the other hand, is just tall enough to see over the edge of the window and despite his fatigue and his fear of Pounce his nose is glued to the polycarbonate. To fly! What an experience this must be for a smart yet deprived little guy.

About ten minutes out, I'm reviewing what I found out from the kittens and something clicks.

Me (speaking loudly over the rushing air): Hey, Ardent! How old is Ember?

Ardent, now fearful: Um, I don't know.

Me: Is there another kitten?

Ardent: I couldn't bring Flame. He needs milk.

Me: Wonderful. No criticism to you; you have no milk to give the kitten; but dealing with your parents is going to be a lot more complicated with a kitten in someone's pocket. Is there a pattern to who takes Flame when?

Ardent: Talisman has him almost all the time. He keeps saying Joy won't run away if he has Flame. He did the same thing to Ember.

Me: Wonderful. My goal is to get Flame away from Talisman, but that's going to be really hard. I need to think how to do it.

Yes, I need to, but needing doesn't make a plan appear by magic. The problem is that the interaction necessarily will be an attack on Talisman, and everyone on this planet knows a very effective style of self-defense. Unless Talisman is too insane to use his training, my attack would at best be ineffective and at worst would open me up to a thorough slashing.

But there's another factor. The kittens have been gone for almost two days and Talisman can't have overlooked them. Is he going to take out his rage by murdering Joy and Flame? If so, when? How long can we wait before confronting him?

Me: Ardent, Talisman knows you've run away. What's he doing now?

Ardent: He chased us. When we didn't come back from play he hunted for us; I saw him but he didn't see me. But then the eclipse started and we were able to go straight up the hill without being seen.

Me: Good for you. Guess what he did then.

Ardent: Probably he beat up Joy.

Me: What would he do to Flame?

Ardent: Probably nothing unless Flame is too wiggly; then he'll slap.

Me: You don't do that to your own kitten; got that?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Pounce: Jeez! What's going on here?

Me: Talisman is out of his gourd, and I have my doubts about Joy. Did you ever see either of them?

Pounce: This Talisman would be a few years older than me, right? I'm pretty sure it was him; he came in to get supplies, but he was really unfriendly the one time I met him. Not a bit otterly.

Me: OK, our first job is to get these four kittens to a safe place, and get medical attention for Cinder if he's injured more than I can handle. I could turn right around and confront Talisman, but I won't: I'll collect Simba first. Ardent, this is a lesson for you: you know your strengths and weaknesses, and if you need help on a job you get it, before starting. My style is direct. I'd walk up to Talisman and tell him, your parenting style stinks so hand over Flame. How do you think he's react? This job is going to take subtlety and guile. Simba can do that a lot better than I can, and that's why I'm going to delay to get contact with him. Pounce, in a rock field would he be able to just climb into this vehicle?

Pounce: It's risky. The vehicle would bounce and he could lose his grip and fall. If the rocks weren't too big...

Me: We'll only know when we try it. Ardent, there's the village up ahead. Watch the landing.

Mithrim is a small village; it has eight domes in two facing rows, with a nice grassy street or lawn between them, and fields of Chang bushes surrounding. Two otter kittens are racing up and down the street on hoverboards; they sideslip out of the way as we come down. We're deposited in front of Rose and Orion's dome, and having seen the mail they're outside to greet us. Little Arrow, Pounce's older offspring, hides behind her grandmother, who's kittensitting, and peeks at the unfamiliar Fire Kittens from between Rose's legs. Cinder is still in my arms. But there's a problem and the kittens aren't going to like my solution for it.

Me: Thank you, Pounce, for flying for us. Pretty soon, in half an hour or an hour, I'll need to go back out there, find Simba, and deal with this Talisman.

Pounce: You're welcome, and I wish we could charge him for the flight costs. See you.

Me: Rose and Orion, I have a favor to ask of you. Listen up, kittens. I'm going to get you properly settled, but then I'm going to go back out with Pounce and Simba to try to rescue Flame and Joy. Where do you think you're going to be while I'm doing that?

Ardent: In the round thing?

Implying that their hovel isn't dome-shaped.

Me: Good deduction. Guess who lives here. I'd like you to get to know Rose and Orion, and take their supervision. Rose, under the circumstances I think a female will be easier for them to deal with. Orion, you can play with them as they feel comfortable, but take it really, really slow at first.

Ardent: I don't know those people. I want you to be here.

Me: What shall we do about Flame?

Ardent: Take us with you. I know what Talisman will do; I could help you.

Me: Think about Cinder. And Diablo. And Ember.

Diablo: I don't think Cinder can go. I'd be scared too.

Me: We're all scared, Diablo. I'll be scared standing up to Talisman. You'll be scared dealing with an adult you don't know. Grace and steadiness, that will get us through it. How about it, Ardent?

Ardent: I'll stick with Cinder. Here. With Rose.

Me: Good kitten. That's good use of your courage.

I tell Rose and Orion more details of the trouble the kittens have been in, and that very likely there's a lot about civilized living that the kittens don't know. I insist that Ardent ask Rose for anything they may need, and insist that, while I'm watching, Ardent actually ask for something. Water, he asks for, and Rose invites us inside, and she gives him her bottle, and he passes it around, helping Cinder (in my arms) to drink. Arrow, about Ember's size, tries to grab the bottle, and Ardent snatches it out of reach. I handsign to Rose to demonstrate her style so Ardent learns it while I'm supporting him (this can be said in fewer Tiger signs than English words).

Rose: Ardent, it would be polite to let Arrow have a drink, and she's too young to ask politely, so you have to be gracious for both of you.

Ardent: Oh. Here, Arrow, drink some water.

Me: Good, Ardent. Arrow acts like a normal kitten that age because she hasn't been slapped around by Talisman. If she bothers you, ask Rose what to do. Particularly keep her from climbing on Cinder and banging Diablo's arm, which she would do, right, Rose? Now I'd really like to get Cinder lying down on a mat and I'd like to give him a little more thorough examination than I did after I dug him out of that crack. The rest of the kittens are exhausted too, and I wouldn't be surprised if they sleep most of the time. Come on; let's put him on my mat.

Rose: Oh, I'll get out a spare mat for the kittens.

Pounce and his mate Cheetah have the large style of dome to put their kittens in, soon to be eight of them, but Rose and Orion have an empty nest and a standard small dome. Here there are lots of plants and many of them are spices; I can smell nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon (cultivars Tiger and Simba respectively). The pots are placed to split off an area informally for us guests. There's a kind of bulletin board standing behind the work and dining table under the dome edge, and hung on it (out of Arrow's reach) are two nice paintings: one by Rose herself and another by one of the other villagers. When I go back to Minas Tirith I intend to buy one of his to take with me.

Rose brings out another rolled mat and I gently set Cinder on it, at the end. I asked Orion to dig my computer out of the pack and bring it in, because I had my hands full of Cinder. So I have something to take notes on. Cinder's left elbow and right knee have been wrenched, I think not so badly as to tear tendons, and the right ankle is twisted, again not too badly. His right hip has a big swollen spot and he complains when I press, but it's probably just a bad bruise or at most a ding in the bone, not a serious fracture. His skin is scored at that point, but not cut through thanks to good Novanima construction, probably from when he slammed into a rock embedded in the regolith. There's a patch of fur torn off the back of his head, probably from another rock, but any concussion symptoms have faded in the hours since the accident. I prod and probe cautiously but thoroughly throughout his abdomen, but except for a few bruises I find no threatening injuries. The ribs on both sides are the worst injury, from being wedged into the crack. But most bone breaks in a Novanima, and particularly ribs, aren't clean breaks but crushes, so the unbroken fibers hold the pieces together. Cinder will be in pain but will heal quickly, particularly with the help of a shot of regeneration gel into each of the four damaged ribs.

Me: Thank you, Cinder, for being patient for that examination. Your ribs will hurt you, so don't try any rough games; just let them rest and heal. Now it's Diablo's turn, and I know where you're hurt already. I'm going to straighten your arm. That will hurt, so would you put yourself to sleep, please? You look scared; why?

Diablo (in a tiny voice): I don't know how.

Me: Oh. Feel under your arm; get the fourth button. This one here. Lay down on your back; good, Diablo. Now hold down the button until you go to sleep.

I'm not the one who usually handles medical problems, but I studied this stuff in preparation for the journey here, and of course all lions learn basic lion medicine. Yes, there's a nasty swollen bruise on Diablo's arm and a definite angle in the bone. I gently press it back into line. It's stiff, partially healed already; it's too bad this couldn't have been done immediately after the injury. But the stiffness will hold the bone straight as it heals. There's no need for a cast, and apparently Diablo has been getting along OK without a sling either, though she avoids moving the arm. When time isn't so critical I'll shoot both Diablo's and Cinder's breaks full of regeneration gel, which will speed up the healing. I quickly make notes of what I did to Diablo, finishing with a suggestion for regen gel.

Me: See this, Ardent? I press Diablo's button two to cancel the sleep spell. Diablo, it's all over. I straightened your arm. Be gentle with it and don't do any rough games until it's healed.

The two files of notes should properly go into Cinder's and Diablo's medical directory. But they don't have one, since they've never been registered as Gondor citizens. And I'm not going to get entangled now with creating identities. I send another message to Simba (not that he'll read it in time) summarizing what I did and where the kittens are. And now it's time for me to get busy on the next job. The hard job.

Me: OK, kittens, now I have to leave you and try to get Flame. All you kittens: do what Rose says, and if you have any trouble, talk to her. Particularly yips and yarps: let her show you how to use a toilet here. OK, Ardent? Make sure the others behave themselves. Without beating them. Are you going to be OK?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: And Rose, I'm sorry, but I don't know how long it's going to take. I'll try to be home for dinner but I can't guarantee it. Oh, how stupid I am! You're the medic; could I ask you to give regen gel to Diablo and Cinder?

Rose: Certainly, Tiger; it's the least I can do for these poor kittens.

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