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Chapter 22: A Real Bastard

I return to Pounce's dome, and vehicle, and he takes me back to the west. For the site evaluation, Simba, Lan Ying and I all have navigation cards in our computers. Each of us has permission to read everyone's position; each computer records that position periodically in a log file, so if someone fails to check in we know where to find her. This time the disaster isn't to Simba, but the log file lets me guide Pounce right to him. It's not quite time to stop for the day and he's still hiking; he jumps when our shadow crosses in front of him. I get the door open and yell to him.

Me: Hey, Simba! There's an emergency. We need to pick you up.

Simba (yelling): Can you see a landing zone ahead? There's nothing behind me for two or three hours walk.

Pounce: Nothing! Climb up one of the higher rocks.

Simba: What about my pack?

Tiger: Leave it. Just bring your computer. We can drop you here tomorrow and you can finish the survey.

Once Simba has climbed onto his chosen rock, Pounce maneuvers with the rear door facing him. Simba opens it (the vehicle rocks) and slides his computer inside.

Simba: Pounce, let's try it like this. Let me pull the vehicle more in the center. Now I'm standing on the landing skid. Lift it up about a centimeter.

Pounce can't control his altitude quite that precisely, particularly with Simba moving around, but Simba smoothly and slowly (and bravely) climbs onto the delta wing and then into the cabin, while Pounce continuously adjusts the force vector to track him.

Simba: Aah, I'm in! Pounce, that was very smooth piloting. OK, Tiger, what's the emergency?

Me: Pounce, head toward the homestead, but hold up out of line-of-sight, until we decide what we're going to do there. Simba, the problem is with Talisman and Joy, the ones you're going to check up on. Talisman killed one kitten and regularly beats the others, of which there were six, not two. Four of them escaped and I've got them at Mithrim. The remaining one is a pocket kitten. Our goals are to rescue him, to do something about Talisman, and to figure out what's going on with Joy.

Simba: Jeez! It sounds like I'm going to be hearing a tale, after we rescue the kitten. The simplest plan will be to wait for Joy to have the kitten, get Talisman and Joy physically separated, which shouldn't be hard, and then deal with Joy.

Me: You wish! Talisman keeps Flame most of the time, as leverage over Joy.

Simba: Too bad. We can't just go up to him and tell him to hand over the kitten, Flame.

Me: Subtlety and guile: that's why I went to the effort of collecting you.

Simba: I don't have much to work on, nor to work with. I think we pretty much have to walk up to this cat, preferably minus Joy, and interact with him, trying to figure out his delusion, and provoke him to attack us. When we have him under control we hold down button three to knock him out. Then we have the three of them disentangled and we can deal with each appropriately and separately.

Me: That's basically what I had thought of, but I imagine you can put on a performance.

Simba: I can be a real bastard when I choose to be.

Me: And unfortunately Talisman could turn out to be perfectly charming when his kittens aren't who he's interacting with. The plan doesn't have to work. But what better one is there?

Simba: I don't think there is one. On Terra we could use guns, lethal or drugged darts, but we don't have anything like that here.

Me: There are some things that fangs and claws aren't useful for. Pounce, how close are we?

Pounce: About five kilometers. How about I stop and sneak over the ridge line and check out the terrain; there's a good spot right ahead.

Me: Do it.

A hover vehicle flies silently except for the rush of air, which is minimal if, as now, we fly slowly. And it's hard for our target to see us at such a distance. Likely we'll surprise Talisman. The setting for his homestead seems to be a large impact crater. We can see a small structure, a hut, with an unexpectedly small area of Chang bushes nearby. It's too far to spot Talisman if he's among them. More of interest, the crater rim, the major ridge which we've just crossed, descends to a shallow depression with a wrinkle of low hills separating it from the homestead. Pounce can, and does, fly the vehicle quite close, unobserved.

Me: Thanks, Pounce; that was really helpful. Simba and I will go in to the homestead. Would you stay here, please, and guard the vehicle, or do whatever seems appropriate? Thanks. In the unlikely event that we don't come back for let's say half an hour, check on us by air. Come on, Simba; it's not going to get any easier if we dither around.

Simba rolls his eyeballs. Sometimes I project my own feelings on other people. My scaredy cat has definite opinions about what we're about to do, and I also have misgivings centered on the possibility of a shredded pocket kitten.

Talisman has a small plot of about a hundred scrawny-looking Chang bushes, and as expected, he's fussing among them. Minus Joy, a joy from my point of view. We walk silently and since he's facing west we get within thirty meters of him. He takes a water bottle out of his scruffy backpack and out of the corner of his eye catches sight of us.

Simba: Good afternoon, Talisman!

Talisman, whirling around: Who in hell are you! Get off my land!

Simba: We actually came to see Blaze J1555-3577. We heard she had some kind of health problem and we wanted to see how she's doing. I'm Simba L7-1340 and this is Tiger L6-3512.

Talisman: You! You headquarters people have been hounding me since we came out here!

Simba: And we're finally here in person. We'll just sit over here and watch you work, and wait for Blaze to show up. OK, Talisman?

Except for being crazy, Talisman seems normal. He carries himself confidently and his fur is in good condition, no more than normally dusty from a day of farm work. He has a decorative piece of brass jewelry tied around his neck, not typical for a Novanima, though a few young blades in the capital have been seen wearing such. He speaks with a firm voice, though the content again isn't typical. Very un-otterly, in fact.

Talisman: Buzz off, leeches!

Simba: Or maybe we'll just walk up and down your rows of bushes and tell you what's wrong with them. It will only take a few minutes; you don't have many plants, and the ones you do have, that haven't died, aren't in good condition. How do you provide for your family from this few plants?

Simba has now punched enough of Talisman's buttons and insecurities to get him moving toward us. A headlong charge is what we're after. Simba pulls a dead leaf off a nearby bush.

Simba: Look at this! Dead leaves all over this bush. And the ants are lethargic; they don't keep the bush clean nor have they even made it up here yet to try to bite me. What does Ardent think about all this; does he think this is the way to run a farm? Let's get him out here to check out these ants.

Too bad: Talisman is boiling inside but he keeps it under strict control. If only he'd do that for his kittens! And not do it for us: we need a good solid attack, which we can defend against leaving him on his face in the dirt with his arm twisted, or some equivalent position.

Talisman: I've told you for years and I'll tell you again now: you aren't wanted here. Go away.

Simba: You must be starving. Do you have enough milk? Stick your head up, Flame, and let's see how you're feeling.

A kitten of Flame's estimated age will pop up its head when called. Talisman slaps his hand over his pocket, but the little moving lump under his skin was unmistakable.

Simba: For the record, what's Flame's recognition code? Of course he has no serial number.

Talisman rabbits, and we rabbit after him.

Simba: Talisman, running won't help! You're going to have to deal with it eventually! We won't let go of this! Give it up, Talisman, before another kitten dies.

Talisman: You stole my kittens, you bastards! You won't get this one!

After that all three of us save our breath for running. Unfortunately Simba designed the jaguars' feet for less grasping and climbing ability and more running speed, and Talisman is drawing ahead slowly. However, he's heading straight for a surprise. Hidden by an Artemisia bush Pounce drops below the ridge line. He'll move about ten meters to the right and Talisman will run right into him.

I wish. I can see their heads. Talisman makes a good defense twist and keeps on running. Now, at least, he has another jaguar on his tail. Up we all go at full tilt up the steep and crumbly crater wall.

After about thirty minutes combing the chaos of shattered rock, we've jumped each other several times but have evidently lost Talisman. Not surprising; he probably is thoroughly familiar with the terrain near his homestead. Both Simba and Pounce are in line-of-sight, so I handsign to them to come down. We meet at the vehicle. The sky is bright with dawn light, but the sun isn't up quite yet.

Me: Well, that was a bust. You did a good job, Simba, of being a bastard, but Talisman kept himself under control too well. He figured out a move we couldn't counter. And Pounce, no blame to any of us that he got away. He had the advantage on us.

Simba: It could have been worse. He might have said, I'll cut Flame's head off if you don't do this or that.

Me: And my logic is to screw around with him for five minutes at most and then to go right up the middle, and we end up with a dead kitten, most likely. This whole business makes me sick.

Simba: I think you're not alone in that. Here's what I suggest. He has one bottle of water, no food, and eighteen hours of continuous, hot sunlight about to start. He has to come back. We'll stake out his house. Also we need to see if Joy is still alive.

Me: Good points, both of them. However, I wonder: how long will we have to wait, and how many people will it take? I'm not sure if I like the idea of dumping Ardent et cetera on Rose and Orion for several days.

Pounce: Cheetah and I could kittensit too. It's no problem.

Me: Actually I think it is, for the kittens. They're imprinted on me, and flipping family to family won't be good for them. Here's what I propose: Let's investigate Joy, together, Simba and me. We'll allow up to half an hour for that. Then Simba will stand guard here as long as it takes while I have a warm comfy mat back at Mithrim, starting to straighten out four kittens psychologically.

Simba: It's a good plan. We'll have sun, hot sun, until wake time and beyond. I'll use button two to stay awake. I'm sure Talisman will dry out before I run out of button two time.

Me: OK, then. Same as before, Pounce will stand guard here. Come on, Simba. Oh, the illegal kittens' names are Cinder, Diablo and Ember. You've met Flame already.

Simba: Interesting theme here: arson? But why did they call one kitten Diablo? It doesn't quite fit the pattern.

Me: I'm not sure I want to find out the reason. I object to that name.

Back at the hovel, we don't see Talisman returned, nor anyone else outside either. It seems deserted. Nonetheless we enter very cautiously. As the nominally better fighter, I take the lead. There's a curtain of plastic that serves as a door, which I draw aside carefully. Thanks to my infrared sensors I can tell that Talisman isn't hiding in the shadows, but in the interior darkness Joy sits on a mat with a torn cover, one of three. I go under the curtain and sign for Simba to follow. He's going to take the lead interviewing Joy.

Simba: Hello, Joy. I'm Simba and she's Tiger. How are you this evening?

Now that my eyes are starting to adapt to the gloom, I can see that the side of Joy's face is puffy and there are lines of disturbed fur across her arm and chest, as if the bases of the hairs were held down by blood clots. The rest of her fur isn't in good condition either: it lacks oil, and is full of dust and dirt. I'm dirty too, but the kittens and I have a good excuse for being dirty; this is supposed to be their supervisor! I'm not favorably inclined toward Joy, right at the moment. But psych is Simba's job and I keep my mouth shut and my self well in the background.

Joy: You must leave. Talisman is very angry. He'll beat me. He'll kill you. You must leave quickly.

Simba: What has he been doing, Joy? Tell us, please.

Joy: He'll beat me. He'll kill you. Please leave quickly.

Simba: Ardent is safe. He and Cinder and Diablo and Ember are far from here, safe.

Joy: My kittens! But Talisman will kill them. And Flame too. You don't have Flame, do you?

Simba: No, but we have a plan to get him back.

Joy: And what about Blaze; have you seen her? She's been gone so long.

Simba: No, I'm afraid she wasn't with Ardent and the other three. Let's think about getting Flame back. Talisman has to return here. He has to attack me, because I won't give him water. When he does, I'll knock him out and take Flame. We'll then take the three of you to Mithrim. You can get the help you need, and Flame will be safe with the other kittens. We'll deal with Talisman so he won't kill or beat up anyone again.

Joy: You must leave quickly! Talisman will come back. He's very angry. He'll beat me. He'll kill you. You must leave.

Joy is around the bend, nonfunctional. Consequences...

Me: When did you last drink, Joy?

Joy: You must leave. Talisman will come back.

Me: Simba, can you see what they're doing for water in here? Jeez, a surplus deliquescence engine! With a solar panel sticking up through the roof, not AATS. They seem to share one drinking cup. Yuck. Here, Joy, drink a little water.

Joy: Thank you, but Talisman is very angry.

Me: You're welcome. Drink some more.

Evidently Joy isn't able to take care of herself in her present condition; she hasn't been drinking. She takes all the foul-tasting fluid that the deliquescence engine has collected from the air. Much of it is probably Joy's own bad breath; I wouldn't drink it. Next problem: I don't want her kidneys short-circuiting.

Me: Joy, you need to pee now.

Joy: Ardent will dig the latrine pit. But Talisman will beat me.

No composting setup to make potting soil; that's so simple to do! I go outside and scan the vicinity for a returning Talisman. No such luck. Here's a small shovel, and an array of filled holes. I dig another. Simba guides Joy outside. The light reveals fully how awful she looks: both old and new wounds, probable bruises various places including prominent swelling along the side of her face, matted, snarled and filthy fur. How could a Novanima sink so low, to let herself be abused like this? If Simba ever laid a hand on me, not that he would, I'd disembowel him on the spot. Joy seems to know what to do in a latrine; thank goodness she's not so far gone that we have to press her buttons for her. Jeez, I can smell her urine from here! She must not have urinated since the kittens ran away. I was right to worry about her kidneys. And her shit: it's like little stones, for the same reason. And not much of it: she wasn't eating either.

Simba (by Tiger signs turned away from Joy): Pretty bad, eh? I'm thinking about just knocking her out for the duration. When I don't have to worry about Talisman appearing at my back, I'll give her proper medical attention.

Me: That's a really good idea. Don't forget to turn her frequently. She's been slashed all over, and the wounds will fester if she lays on them too long.

Simba: Trust me; I was the one who taught you that, remember?

Me: This whole business disturbs me. A lot. Can you handle it for however many hours?

Simba: It disturbs me too. But your style is to go out and stomp on something until it works. I'm able to do the starfish thing: put the pressure on and hold it until the clam opens up. You go on back and take care of those four kittens. But before you go: is your pack by any chance in the vehicle?

Me: Yes, I brought it; what do you want?

Simba: Would you please bring me two full two-liter bottles of water from your pack? I don't want to drink the deliquescence engine crud, and there's not enough for me anyway. Also I could use some seed cakes; I'm not going to get any dinner otherwise, and possibly no breakfast, and I'd like to feed some to Joy too.

Me: OK, I'll get them for you, and your computer, then leave. I'll keep you posted what's happening in Mithrim. I've asked Selen to pop over here when he can get away from his duties in the capital. Not to minimize your abilities, but shrinking heads is Selen's job, and your job is to do a survey.

Simba: Yes, Commander. And you're supposed to be surveying too, not nursing kittens back to health. Just teasing. I'll keep you informed too about what, if anything, happens at this end.

Pounce and I return to Mithrim only about an hour late for dinner; the sun is well up. I tell Pounce to give my apologies to Cheetah. Inside, Ardent quietly but anxiously greets me.

Ardent: Did you get Flame? Did you get him away from Talisman?

Me: No, Ardent. I'm sorry. Talisman ran from us and we couldn't catch him. We have another chance later this evening. Simba is staying with Joy, and Talisman has to come back to get water to drink, and Simba hopes to catch him then.

Ardent: Awww. Rose and I made dinner, really weird food, but it tastes good. I fed Cinder and Ember, and Rose supervised Diablo eating. Arrow went home. They're all napping now so be quiet. You're invited to have some dinner. I was getting hungry and we were going to eat without you, but you came just in time.

Me (winking at Rose): Why, thank you, Ardent! But I'm all dusty and dirty from chasing Talisman all over the mountain. If you can wait just a few more minutes, I think a quick shower would do me a whole lot of good, and make the dinner much more pleasant. I wash quickly. How about it?

Ardent: Well, OK. Rose showed us what a shower is. Isn't my fur nice after being combed?

Me: Yes, it is, Ardent. Thank you so much, Rose. We've just gotten a good look at the conditions these kittens were living under. OK, I'll be clean in a jiffy.

The weird food turns out to be tofu or soybean gel rollups in maize tortillas, with plenty of greens and squash in the stuffing. Ardent's job turned out to be to slash up the greens, squash and tofu with his claws (scrubbed clean with an old toothbrush, toes too) and to do some of the rolling. He did pretty well, too: I can tell which ones Rose did, but Ardent's rolls are quite acceptable in evenness and size. Ardent says Ember ate part of a roll and he finished it. But he's not able to say quantitatively how big a part Ember ate, which I and all my kittens could have done at that age. But math lessons can wait until tomorrow.

It isn't really polite to have one's computer open on the dining table, but I have an excuse, unfortunately. If Talisman appears and Simba makes a report, I want to know and, if necessary, react to it immediately.

Me: Joy was in pretty bad shape. My guess is that she'd been sitting on her mat since yesterday not eating or drinking. Maybe Talisman gave her something. I do know he gave her a hard bash in the chops; the side of her face was swollen. Ardent, how much does Joy usually take care of herself?

Ardent: She acts kind of like a kitten and she's always worried about Talisman hitting her, and that just sets him off so he does it worse. But usually she eats and drinks. Did you give her food? I wish we could have rescued her too, but she wouldn't have come; I know it.

Me: Simba will keep her safe. I gave her water and got her to pee. I left plenty of water and some dinner from my pack, and Simba will share it with her. I haven't decided what we'll do with Joy when this is over, but she'll be taken care of.

Ardent: Good. I did what I could. I guess it takes an adult to rescue an adult.

Me: Usually it takes an adult to rescue a kitten too. You did very, very well on that. And I'm very glad to see how you made dinner with Rose and took care of the little kittens. With Talisman and Joy you haven't had much in the way of lessons. You have a lot to learn and you've started... What's the matter? Does it make you nervous when I talk about learning?

Ardent: I thought you said you didn't beat kittens.

Me: Oh, that's the connection! No, I don't beat kittens. Poor Ardent; you've missed out on a lot, a lot! I want you to pay close attention to me. This morning you didn't know how to make tofu rollups, right? Now you do. You learned from Rose; you had a lesson from her in making tofu rollups. Got that? Would you like to have more lessons like that? What else could you learn?

Ardent: That was a lesson?

Rose: Yes, Ardent, I gave you a lesson. Did this Talisman hit you when you did things wrong, and that was supposed to teach you?

Ardent: Talisman could hit you any time, but always when you didn't do what he said. He called it a lesson.

Me: The lesson of pain: it's not a bad thing. You climb a rock and you don't hold on with four hands and you fall: that's a lesson, and next time you'll hold on more carefully. But for most lessons, smiling faces are a lot more effective teaching the kitten. Can you understand that? Can you hold both kinds of lessons in your mind at once?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Tell me another lesson of pain that someone had today. Not from Talisman, from the natural world.

Ardent: Well...

He looks really nervous.

Me: I'll bet you're wondering when I'll hit you like Talisman did. Right?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Think instead of something today when you felt peaceful and safe. What is it?

Ardent: When you gave us water.

Me: Hold that feeling in your mind, and add a search for when someone got hurt today, that could have been avoided, and probably will be in the future.

Ardent: Cinder stood too close to the edge and fell in.

Me: Very good, Ardent. Very good. You calmed your mind and you were able to answer my question. Whenever your mind wanders off in a lesson toward being hit, wrap it in calmness. I'm a demanding teacher and I'll insist that you do the task I set you, but I'll help you make progress and I won't push you to do what you can't do. Nor will I hit you when you get stuck; I'll help you get unstuck. Got that?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Rose, you want a turn?

Rose: OK, Ardent, what lessons did you have from me today? Think of one besides the dinner preparation.

Me: Well, um, you showed me how to use your kind of latrine.

Rose: Good, Ardent. That was a happy kind of lesson, wasn't it? Not a hitting lesson. And did you give a lesson today?

Ardent: Yes, I taught Diablo how to use the latrine. And you taught me to teach her your way, not to hit her when she did it wrong.

Rose: Yes, very good, Ardent. You learned to teach the right way. Talisman does it the wrong way, and you learned from him, wrongly. Now you know the right way to teach, don't you, and doesn't it work better?

Ardent: Yes, Rose.

Me: May I break in here? Ardent, obviously Rose wants you to say yes. What would happen if you said no?

Ardent: She'd hit me. No, she doesn't teach that way. She'd do something else I wouldn't like.

Me: I don't think so. Remember when you taught Diablo. And thank you, Rose, for doing a good job on these kittens when I wasn't able to. Ardent, suppose you told Diablo how to use the latrine and you asked her, ``Do you understand?'' And she answered, ``Yes, Ardent.'' And then she messed it up and got urine all over the floor because she didn't understand.

Ardent: I'd hit her. I'm not supposed to teach that way. I'd teach her, I'd tell her that if she doesn't really understand she should say so and I'll teach her again.

Me: Good, excellent Ardent! Diablo will get good training from you. But now let's think about what Ardent tells Tiger.

Ardent: I have to be brave. I have to calm my mind.

Me: Right, brave Ardent. Say what's real, whether the listener likes it or not, and deal with the consequences. Talisman wouldn't listen to what's real, would he? You were right to walk out on him. But most adults would rather hear what's real, because they have to deal with it. When I came back here I told you we hadn't gotten Flame. I didn't like that, you didn't like that, but it's real and we have to deal with it. Similarly on lessons, if you're stuck or don't understand something, you don't have to like it, but you do have to tell your teacher, just like you'd want Diablo to tell you. OK?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger. Really. I'll remember to say what's real, and be brave.

Me: Good, brave kitten! Now I'd like to finish what I was saying. To be a normal kitten, not one all twisted and injured in body and mind by Talisman, you have a lot to learn, and you've gotten a good start on it today. How do you feel about what you've learned today?

Ardent: I didn't know a lot. I'm scared that there's so much I don't know. But I'll be brave.

Me: Good. But it's easier for you to keep straight on your foundation if you concentrate on what you did accomplish, rather than what's not done yet. Let's go over that again.

Ardent: Well, I learned a lot of things. I was scared but I was brave too. I learned about keeping clean, washing my hands. I learned to be nice to Arrow, and to be nice the same way to my family, not like Talisman. I learned to be brave when eating new kinds of food, and to help the younger kittens to be brave, without hitting.

Me: Good, Ardent, very good. I'm glad you learned a lot, and I hope you'll be less scared and more happy to learn, as time goes on and you don't get hit. OK? But now we seem to all have finished eating. Who wants to learn how to wash dishes?

Rose: Oh, the poor thing! Let him play or rest.

Me: A team effort makes the work easier and is a good lesson for Ardent.

Rose: True. Let's put Ardent on a box and he can stack the dishes in the drying rack.

It's been an exhausting day for all the kittens, particularly Ardent. Now, after dishes and fang brushing (with a spare brush from Rose), I put him to sleep at his end of the mat. The screwy lighting, sleeping in daylight, doesn't bother him a bit. I'm tired too, but not ready for sleep. Instead I spend the evening discussing the kittens' case with Orion and Rose (in Tiger signs), reading news, and catching up on paperwork. A new kitten today! I create her identity and mail her serial number back to her supervisors, with a note of congratulations. There was another one yesterday evening too, which I took care of among the wilderness rocks and bushes. Isn't a Tiger Leones comm chip wonderful?

What a joke Thor is! It's midmorning according to the sun which is beating down hotly, but on this type two day most people are asleep, like Rose and Orion; they went to bed three hours ago. Sunset will be at lunchtime tomorrow. Lan Ying hates the screwy lighting phases, lacking manual control buttons. Often I have to use shoulder button four to sleep on this type of day, but like the kittens I'm tired too and my eyes are closing. Again. I give myself another shot of button two. I'm going to keep myself awake until...

There's my mail icon! It's mail from Simba: what I was waiting for. But it's not good news. There was a reserve of water in the tool box by the Chang bushes, for Talisman to drink while working. As he was well aware, it's possible to get among the bushes without being seen from the hovel, if one goes on four legs. Talisman ate a meal of dry Chang seeds picked off the bushes, guzzled water, then popped at least one full bottle into his backpack and took off running. That's when Simba noticed him, from the sound. There was no point pursuing, since Talisman can outrun Simba, but Simba climbed up on the highest rock and tracked Talisman. Rather than going up in the hills again, he took off in a straight line to the southeast.

In hindsight it was an obvious trick and we should have searched the area for resources and removed them. But it can't be repeated and Talisman clearly knows that. Where's he going? He's going to run a hundred kilometers across the baking desert and grassland southeast... to here. A Novanima can do it given enough water. Talisman (and Flame) won't make it on one bottle but a pair of two-kilo bottles should be enough, barely. The abrasive regolith and rocks will use up his foot pads but again they'll be enough, barely.

Now, how fast? In long-distance running a Novanima (except an otter) in excellent condition does twenty kilometers an hour until her foot pads wear through. I've run 160 kilometers in about eight hours, twice on Terra (on snow and leaf litter, not abrasive rock chips). So I can expect Talisman to arrive in about five hours. I'd better sleep, then. Will Talisman run right off the desert into this dome? No; he'll be tired, and more important, he doesn't know which dome we're in! But Talisman is cunning; he'll most likely wait and watch, and soon after we show ourselves he'll stroll down the main (and only) street like he belongs here. Will he think that I'll have told gossipers what he did to the kittens so everyone in the village will be alert for and hostile to any new male jaguar? Quite possibly. I can't predict what he'll do, or when. So I'll wake the kittens an hour early and get them a good breakfast before we have to deal with whatever crisis Talisman has in store. I'll set my computer to give me a quiet but insistent wakeup beep in four hours. I send a mail reply to Simba outlining my plan. I tell him to sit tight in case Talisman changes his mind and comes back there. Then I override the premature button two signal by holding down button four until I drop off to active dreams.

Beep! The sun is westering now. I yawn and stretch (informally); then I go around to the sleeping fire kittens and gently poke each one on the foot sole.

Me, quietly: Wake up, kittens; a new day dawneth. Or dusketh. Or afternooneth. Whatever. Let's eat breakfast. Be quiet; let Rose and Orion sleep a little more. Cinder, how are you feeling? Can you stand up?

Cinder: Hurts.

Me: Aaw. Poor Cinder. Are you hungry?

Ember (in pantomime): Yaaaw.

Me: Ardent, I think Ember feels alone. Would you comfort him? How are you doing, Cinder?

Diablo: I'm up!

Ardent: Shush, Diablo. Do what Ember does.

Ardent is holding Ember, and Cinder is at last on his feet, wobbly but moving. I infer that Diablo's good cheer (despite her painful arm) rarely goes over well with Talisman, and Ardent and Ember have learned their lesson well. Soon I'll need to teach them that good cheer does go over well in a normal family.

Me (quietly): Come on, kittens; let's not wake Rose and Orion. Normally I'd do exercises just after getting up, but I'm expecting an interruption and I want to get a steady start for the day. Let's start with the latrine. Ardent, would you please help Ember?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Ember is just old enough to press his own buttons, if given a little help positioning himself, but I have to wash his tiny hands. The rest of the kids take their turns. I give Cinder a suggestion how to crouch without over-bending his wrenched knee and ankle and his bruised hip. Finally I have my chance.

Me: Now, who's going to help make the food? Cinder, you're up to helping with that? Good for you. I'm going to make Chang seed mush; what flavor do you like?

Ardent: Flavors? I don't know what that is.

Me: Really? Well, I like maize flavor with, let's see, allspice and sugar. Ardent, can you read?

Ardent: No, Tiger. Only that one map.

Me: Well, in that cabinet, bottom shelf, third jar from the left...

Ardent gets out food and equipment, Cinder measures a cupful of the flattened Chang seeds, and Diablo puts in the water. It takes a few minutes to nuke the porridge, during which time the kittens set the table under my supervision. I pour tomato juice for everyone and they're fascinated.

Diablo: That's blood!

Me: Yes, Diablo, that's like the blood of a plant. I didn't see that kind of plant growing at your home so I guess it's new for you. Try it. Hold the cup in both hands so you don't drop it. Is your arm healed enough that you can do that?

Diablo: Oh, it's good! Give me more.

Ardent cringes.

Me: Diablo, look at Ardent. He thinks I'm going to hit you, and then turn on him. I won't, but I will tell you how to ask for more juice. Say, ``May I please have more?''

Diablo: May I please have more?

Me: Sweet, polite Diablo, certainly you may have more. There you go. When you use that form for a request you acknowledge that you can't force me to give it. If you threaten force, you make me think about fighting you. Does that make you afraid?

Diablo: Yes, Tiger.

Me: And this fear tells you, don't do that. Remember to say please. I'll remind you, without hitting, when you forget. But try not to forget.

Diablo: Yes, Tiger.

The kittens vacuum up the food. Simba wasn't making it up, that Talisman's Chang bushes are in poor shape, though he chose the most abrasive phrasing to express it. And neither was Talisman making up the excuse he gave for delaying the official breeding program, even if he didn't take his own advice about the unofficial one. I suspect the kittens are short of calories, and from the way they were all chugging the tomato juice I'm sure they have metal deficiencies. I took only a small cupful for form's sake, so they could have more.

Me: Oh, good morning, Rose. Good morning, Orion. I hope we didn't bother you too much.

Rose: No problem. What we discussed last night... Are you sure you don't want us here as backup?

Me: I can handle Talisman one on one, and the psychology is simpler if there's only one player on each side.

Orion: OK, then. We'll have breakfast with Cheetah and Pounce, but you just yell and we'll come running. Good luck.

Me: Thanks; I'll need it to get Flame back safely.

Ardent: Talisman? And Flame?

Me: He's out there somewhere watching; he runs fast and he should have arrived already. I'm sure he'll come to confront me. We'll just do our normal activities until he shows up, OK? Actually, let's all walk over to Pounce's place and then come back here, so he can see us and knows which dome to come to.

Ardent: No! I mean, it might be better to hide.

Me: This old lion would much prefer never to see Talisman again, but he won't go away. We have to deal with him eventually, and we gain nothing by delay. Delay also puts Flame at risk: Talisman must have used all his water, so Flame has none either, and Talisman might get mad at Flame and hurt him.

Ardent: OK, we'll let him see us. But I'm worried: what will he do then?

Me: I don't know, but it has to begin with an attack on me. You just stay in the background, hidden. And worrying only makes it harder. Can you kittens do that: take it easy until the tough situation starts?

Ardent: I'll try, Tiger.

The kittens, coached by me, put on a nervous show of nonchalance as we accompany Rose and Orion over to Cheetah and Pounce's dome. Returning, we wash the dishes together, and then I show the younger kittens how to brush their fangs. Unfortunately all but Ardent have to share my toothbrush; I discreetly demonstrate the procedure on my own mouth before letting them have it. Yuck. Ember needs it done for him, and Cinder too because of his injuries, but Diablo can handle the motions herself. Later, preferably before the next meal, I'll buy five new brushes from Forelle, the otter here who's the part-time shopkeeper and resells such items together with nonlocal food. Now it's time to teach the kittens how to stretch, and to do some physical therapy on Cinder. I carefully position myself so I can watch the door.

Me: Now we'll do stretching exercises, and after that exercises to make you strong. Everyone sit on the mat. Cinder, you don't have to make your leg straight if it hurts you, and Diablo should use just her good arm. Now bend forward until it feels like your legs are tight. Good, Diablo. Now press gently against the stop. If it hurts you're doing it too much. Good, Ardent; you're doing it right. See me: when you've done it as long as I have, you can touch your nose to your knees.

Diablo: I can do that too! Ardent can't.

Me: Ardent, ignore her; don't try to compete. When you don't stretch and when you've been beaten too many times, you get stiff. Patient stretching is what will fix that. Cinder, that's your lesson: patiently and gently press against the stop. That will help your knee and hip to heal.

Ardent: Ember isn't doing it. I shouldn't hit him, should I?

Me: Good judgment. A little kitten doesn't have the patience to do the full exercise; Diablo will run out of patience too. Let them play and then come back to the exercise when they're ready.

Diablo: I will not!

Me: And Ardent, Diablo has a big mouth. That may get her in trouble with Talisman but it's normal for her age. She'll learn politeness gradually, like remembering to say ``please''. We'll be patient with her, right? Now for the next exercise, put your legs apart to stretch the muscles on the inside.

There's a shadow showing through the hazy plastic of the fiber-reinforced dome cover, behind the kittens. It works around to the door and the magnetic seal begins to soundlessly open.

Me, quietly: Kittens, we have an unwelcome visitor. Silently scoot behind the food cabinet.

Silence and scooting: they're expert at that. I get up and nonchalantly lean against the eating table. Talisman sneaks in, then, seeing he's failed to gain surprise, he straightens up to full height, his brazen neck ornament glittering cruelly. Where's Flame?

Talisman: Give me my kittens, bitch!

Me: What took you so long? We were expecting you hours ago. Did you hide in the bushes because what you want to do can't be seen in public?

Talisman: You wanted me to stand by while you cuckolded me, your precious outbreeding program, letting your pet gigolos get their jollies on my Joy! And now you steal my kittens and you put that thing with striped fur in my own home! I'll have what is mine, starting with you! Get on the mat, bitch!

He then hits his crotch buttons one and three, roughly, and becomes priapic. If he thinks my vagina will open to admit that foreign object he has another think coming. A jaguar's sexuality is different from mine but jaguar females are equally selective. Rape is mechanically impossible; how can he imagine otherwise? By being crazy, of course. But if I encourage him to grab me... I edge backward; he advances. Closer, closer!

A small thunderbolt flashes from behind the food cabinet.

Ardent: Talisman! Don't you hurt Tiger!

Talisman makes to swat Ardent away, giving Ardent the opening he needs; he sinks his four fangs through Talisman's wrist, top to bottom and bottom to top. Blood flows freely. Talisman roars and with the unskewered hand slashes Ardent across the back; Ardent's feet are lifted from the floor by Talisman's grip through his ribs.

My mind is parallel processing. Scaredy Cat, loudest, says ``Run!'' Mother says ``Protect Ardent!'' Philosopher says ``Killing is wrong!'' Commander says ``No unproductive members!'' I integrate it all in a flash: this is my best opportunity and it may not come again. As Talisman has his back to me now, I reach to the side of his neck and plunge in a single claw. I slash open five centimeters of his carotid artery and blood spews out like from a faucet. As he turns to confront me (Ardent is still chewing) I cross unseen in back of him and do the other side. But it's overkill; he flops limply face down onto the bed of rapine as his heart finishes emptying him out. The liquid blood cascades off the mat: how Gothic! Like tomato juice from a pitcher knocked by accident from the table, it races across the painted cement floor, sloped for easy scrubbing, toward the latrine.

Yes, we'll have to take out the garbage and scrub the floor. Giggle! Responding to Talisman's roar, villagers burst in, mighty hunter Orion in the lead, followed closely by Cheetah, Pounce and Rose. They stare open-mouthed, shocked. Other neighbors crowd through the door.

Me: You can stop chewing, Ardent; the bone will just take the edge off your fangs. People, give me a minute to get calmed down.

But Ardent, bleeding from the back, struggles to turn Talisman over. Flame! I help; the corpse flops; Ardent opens Talisman's pocket. But it's empty.

Me: Oh, no! Did Talisman throw him aside in the desert like a piece of trash?

Ardent: No! He'd protect Flame somehow, maybe hide him.

Me: People, I'm a little steady now. Could you help in this, please? Talisman was last seen with his pocket kitten, a backpack and two water bottles. None of those are with him now. I'm sure he hid himself within sight of the village for half an hour or so. Ardent thinks the kitten is hidden. Could you search for him? Thank you so much; I have a corpse to take care of here, giggle.

I'd better steady myself down again. The villagers back out the door as Rose and Orion fill them in on the lurid details. Cinder, Diablo and Ember peek around the edge of the cabinet, giggle: so comical; they're in order top to bottom. I'd better steady myself down again.

Me: Come out, kittens, but don't step in the blood, please. Talisman is dead. He won't hurt anyone any more.

Ember holds Cinder's side, the left side. Good. They're all looking at me. For leadership. OK, Commander, earn your title.

Me: Kittens, we need to deal with the situation. (How fatuous, I think.) First, Ardent is injured, and I want to take care of that. Second is to notify Simba. Third, we have to decide what to do about Joy. Fourth, we have to bury this body. Fifth, we have to scrub the floor. That's plenty for today, I think.

Ardent: Will they find Flame?

Me: I don't know. If he's near the village, probably he'll be found. If Talisman dumped him in the desert, then he won't be. I'm sorry I can't give you a good answer. Come on, let me see your back. Oh, hell; I'm covered in blood and so are you. Cinder, would you please keep Diablo and Ember from stepping in it? Just use your mat; oh, it's spattered too. Sit on the floor and do exercises or play or something. Anything. Ardent, come over to the shower.

We leave two trails of bloody footprints. I rinse myself first; I'm sure that later I'll have to have Simba scrub my fur with salt water, but I get most of the blood off. Ardent keeps his mouth shut for rinsing, though I can see that plain water in the slashes pains him. I damp-dry both of us quick as I can, then I get the staple pliers out of my medical kit and put twenty staples in to close Ardent's gashes. Where Talisman finally got his claws between Ardent's ribs, I'm worried about infection in the deep wounds, so I get Ardent to take some erythromycin which I keep in the kit (and that in my pack).

Me: There, that's the first job done. Now, kittens, listen up. When you're working with someone, like me with Simba, you need to communicate with him and keep him informed what's happening. Watch how I do it. Here on the table, away from the blood on the floor; don't step in it, please.

Ardent: We have to learn to do what you're doing now, right? I think I won't be able to do it from watching it once. Could you do it again, please?

Me: Good kitten. Yes, you need to learn it. But you need to learn basics first; there's no point in trying to send e-mail when you can't read or write. Sorry. I'll get you and Cinder started reading as quick as I can, and Diablo can enjoy the pictures and learn how to work the computer. There: Simba's notified; he knows Talisman is dead.

Cinder: Nobody will take care of us now. We have to take care of Joy!

Ardent: Tiger will take care of us.

I seem to have drifted into something, haven't I? What was the phrase I used so long ago: deeply entangled. I solicit a NetBoard session from Simba. He's on it right away; he must have been watching his mail icon.

Simba: Congratulations! Too bad Flame wasn't with him.

Me (by voice): I'm talking to Simba using the computer. The symbols represent his words and mine.

Me (on session): Right, we're all disappointed and worried about Flame. Something else has just come up, though. Ardent just asserted that Tiger will take care of the kittens. What do you think about starting a third family at age 195?

Simba: Funny you should mention that. I've been up alone through the sleep period and I've had a lot going through my head. One of the points was, what happens to the kittens? I'd be willing to take them on. But Talisman was male, and I'm male. What will they think about that?

Me (on session): I'll ask.

Me (by voice): You know I have a mate, Simba. Family business takes agreement or at least cooperation by both of us. I just asked him, and he's willing to have you as part of our family.

Ardent smiles broadly. All of them do except Ember, who's too young to understand.

Me: But Simba is worried about something. Talisman is male and beat you up. Ardent, you were scared to sit near Pounce yesterday. Would you be scared to live daily with a large male lion?

Ardent: Would Simba beat us up? If he did, would you act like Joy?

Me: No, to both.

Ardent: I'd be scared. But I was brave with Pounce and he turned out to be like you: nice. I'll be brave with Simba too.

Me: How about the rest of you? Cinder? Diablo? OK, then, we all agree: we're going to be a family. Wait a minute while I tell Simba.

Me (on session): It's agreed; we're a family now. Jeez!

Simba: Scary, isn't it? But there's at least one other issue: what do we do about Joy? Actually she was a little less delusional this morning. She took herself to the toilet and actually cooked some mush for both of us, spoiling it with that fetid water out of the deliquescence engine, but I ate it. About half the time she seemed to realize I wasn't Talisman. I talked to her about coming somewhere where she'd be safe. But she absolutely refuses to leave. She says this is her place and she has to wait for her kittens to come back.

Me: We'll knock her out and dump her in the back of the vehicle.

Simba: And then what? We don't allow nonproductive members. How long do we deal with her delusions? Suppose she never gets functional? What do we do then?

Me: If she refuses to leave we can't let her starve out there. If we drag her in with us, we go to a lot of work over many years, and maybe she'll get better, and maybe she won't. In any case, we postpone the decision.

Simba: That's not Tiger's style.

Me: I have four kittens here with me and a cooling corpse. I'm not sure I'm motivated to deal with Joy right now when I've done a hell of a lot more for her kittens than she ever did.

Simba: You've done well by those kittens, Tiger. But I think I have more of a handle on Joy's situation. May I have a free hand in this?

Me: OK, I'll trust your judgment, just so I don't have to deal with it.

Simba: Actually I have a plan. I'd like to hold the funeral for Talisman out here, and I'd like both Joy and the kittens to actively participate in digging the hole, dumping him in it, and covering him up.

Me: Hey, folks, the big bad wolf is dead, let's dance on his grave, right?

Simba: I had in mind something more solemn, but that's the general idea. I want people, particularly Joy, to have hands-on experience that Talisman is dead and gone, gone, gone.

Me: I see your point and I agree. But we're still searching here for Flame.

Simba: Notify me when you're ready to leave. My time isn't wasted here; I'm making progress with Joy and I want to continue.

Me: OK, bye. I love you.

Simba: I love you too.

So job number two is done, and we've made a start on numbers three and four. But if Tiger Leones has kittens, those kittens need to be in the records of Gondor. And there's a slight issue that I want to come first. These kittens are so well trained! While I was talking with Simba they've been entertaining themselves with silent games, but now their attention is on me. Of course I know why and how they got that training.

Me: Diablo, do you like your name?

Diablo: It's my name.

Me: I wish I could call you something else. Do you have a preference?

Diablo: Um.

Ardent: Talisman called her that because when she was born she bit him. It's some kind of monster that lives in a land of fire.

Me: I know what the name means, and I'd rather my new kitten weren't named for that particular monster.

Ardent: Before she was born her name was Dragon. Blaze wouldn't stop calling her that, and that got her in trouble with Talisman.

Me: I like that name better. A lot better. And it would be something to remember Blaze by. Would you like to be called Dragon from now on, rather than a nasty monster?

Dragon: I'm not a monster, really! OK, I'll be Dragon.

Me: Good, Dragon; I really like your new name! And it fits better with the other kittens' names. Now I want to...

Very, very faintly: Yaaaaw.

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