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Chapter 23: Kittens are Resilient

Ardent jumps toward the door, then looks back at me. I signal that he should run, and follow him, with the rest of the kittens. Cinder, limping, brings up the rear. Outside beside our door are planted two decorative Manzanita bushes. The sound comes from the one on the right. There are an awful lot of dead leaves under and behind it... Is it leaves at all? It's a scruffy, faded backpack, and the sound comes from within! Ardent opens it and out crawls a very young kitten, a little over three kilos mass. Flame! But on seeing us he shuts up and goes right back in the backpack.

Me: Yay, kittens, Flame was right here all along! Talisman must have hit button four to put him to sleep, and he just woke up.

I wave my arms; one of the villagers (I can't tell who) searching about a hundred meters away looks at me. Using the armflap version of Tiger signs that many people know, I report our success and ask the person to take care of shutting down the search.

Me: Ardent, why didn't Flame come to you? One of my pocket kittens, let out of a backpack by a sibling, would have climbed all over him.

Ardent: I don't know much about kittens. Maybe it's because he isn't used to being with me.

Me: If you didn't hold him, who did? Let me guess: only Talisman.

Dragon: Sometimes Joy got to hold him so he could have milk.

Me: Guess what the right way is? We have a problem here: we have to get Flame to treat us like a normal family. I have a problem: I have no milk to give him. So here's what I'll do. We're going to take this backpack over to Forelle's house and I'm going to buy a hit of prolactin, assuming he has it in stock. It will take about twelve hours for my milk to come in. Until then, Flame gets water and Chang seed mush, and I'll hope he doesn't get diarrhea in my pocket. Come on, let's be a normal family on a stroll to buy supplies. Any normal family has a corpse or two flopped on the sleeping mats! What a day! How are you feeling, Ardent?

Ardent: I'm not sure what you're asking. Could you please explain?

Me: Good, Ardent, to ask like that. So many strange things have been happening. Is your mind strong enough to handle them, or are you going to curl up in a ball and wait for the world to get a little simpler?

Ardent: I wish it could be different, but I don't know how it should be. I can handle what's happened so far; it's not that different from what we did at home, except I never had the nerve to bite Talisman. Curling up in a ball? Maybe that's how Joy feels, with Talisman always yelling at her and hitting her.

Me: Hmm. I'll think about that answer, all three parts. Here we are; now is Forelle in? Someone's in. It's Tiger here. Is that Forelle?

It is. He opens the door and lets us in. He and his mate Raindrop have an area in front to be the shop, with cabinets of supplies, while his growing family shares the rear of the dome. The shop, as well as the rear, has an eating table with benches, for people often gather in the evening at Forelle's place for tea and gossip and music. Lan Ying organized extracting the DNA from the tea varieties she had brought from Earth and getting the bushes genetically engineered to grow in our harsh climate. She also got the Eridanus Corporation to send the genotype of several other cultivars of the tea bush, after 21.6 Earth years round trip delay at lightspeed.

Forelle: That's wonderful that you found the lost kitten! You poor little ones; I heard about the awful way Talisman treated you. Would you like some guava juice?

Ardent (seeing my signal): Yes, please.

Me (stage whispering to the kittens): Good, Ardent. You remembered to say please.

Forelle: Here you are, kittens, and one for you too, Tiger. On the house. Now, what brings you to my humble abode?

Me: Having found Flame, now I have to feed him. Do you have prolactin in stock? I'll need two hits, one for me now, and one for Simba which we'll get later when he's able to leave Joy overnight.

Forelle: It's on my emergency supplies list... Yes, I do have exactly two syringe loads. That will be 3.60 fangs for one.

Expensive! But translate it to 3.6 hours to make each one. Though in reality Forelle buys it for less, but it sits in his freezer and most of the time it expires unsold. His village pays for it then, for the benefit of having it there if ever needed for an emergency like this one, but some number of fangs of Forelle's capital was employed, that could have been used to buy goods that actually sell, like guava juice. I don't begrudge him his undoubtedly high markup. I type my name and password on his computer to authorize the payment and I drop the syringe into my pocket to unfreeze.

Hmm, the kittens have finished their guava juice, and that gives me an idea. I unzip the pack again, on the table. And thinking ahead, I empty out my pocket and have Ardent warm up the syringe. I dip my furry finger in my juice and hold it out where Flame, crouched between the two empty water bottles, might smell it. I wiggle my finger. Flame shows his fangs in a threat display. Ardent and Dragon look intently; Cinder and Ember come round too, though Ember doesn't really understand what he's supposed to be looking at. And Forelle isn't to be left out.

I'm patient. Eventually Flame can't resist investigating the finger, and kittens investigate with the mouth first. It's worth sucking. I dip again and replace my finger, but not as far inside the pack. After about five minutes of this I've gotten a significant amount of thick, sticky guava juice down Flame's throat and I've gotten him out of the pack and clinging to my chest. Ever so slowly I closed the pack and now I'm holding open my pocket. My sticky finger leads Flame into it, where a normal kitten would have leaped to. Maybe half the small cup of juice has been transferred to the fur on the back of my finger and thence to Flame.

Me: Well, well! That worked out, didn't it? Forelle, may I buy a bottle of guava juice? And we also need six toothbrushes.

Forelle: Certainly: 0.22 fangs plus 0.05 fangs deposit on the bottle, and the brushes are 0.15 fangs each.

Expensive, expensive, but then, they don't grow guavas in this village. And the grower definitely wants her bottle back. And the brushes are handmade, after all. I pay and put my considerably lightened coin purse in Talisman's pack, my trophy of personal combat. Yuck. Hmm, I have another job to do. I retrieve the syringe of prolactin from Ardent and remove the cover.

Me: Kittens, take a look at this; it's a syringe. Don't touch; the needle is sharp. Every now and then you have to put up with having one of these things stuck in you, and you'll get your turn in a very few days when Rose or Simba gives you a complete medical examination. It hurts, but a lot less than a beating by Talisman. Normally I let Simba give me shots, but I've practiced and I know how to do it. Watch.

I spear. The hormone solution is still rather cold and that makes it hurt more, and I allow my face to wince. I return the syringe to Forelle for proper recycling and reloading.

Me: The liquid in the syringe tells my milk gland to start making milk, so I can feed Flame proper milk rather than guava juice. We stick kittens with needles for a reason, and we'll explain the reasons first. You don't have to enjoy it, but you should bear the pain to get the benefit, like I bore the pain of the needle to be able to feed Flame. Will you, Dragon?

Dragon: That thing is scary. But to feed Flame, you stuck it in yourself! You must really want to be Flame's supervisor. I'd try to be brave, for that.

Me: Good for you, Dragon.

I pop the bottle of juice into Talisman's pack and we return to Orion's and Rose's dome and its grisly guest, who they're looking at. Blood stinks. But Talisman can damn well wait his turn because I have other things to do before dealing with him.

Me: Orion, Rose, I'm awfully sorry about all this mess. Look, we have to figure out what to do with the body, and until it's out of here there's no point in trying to clean the rest. I'll scrub the floor afterward; it's on my list. Until then, could you just try to kind of go around it?

Rose: Oh, don't worry, Tiger! It's worth the inconvenience to have him off his kittens' backs.

Now I need to do for Talisman's kittens what he, demented, never did: register them in the colony records. I do this once or twice a week and it's a matter of a few minutes to do these four: Cinder J1580-0422, Dragon J1581-3234, Ember J1582-1116 and Flame J1583-1153. And Talisman J1272-0440 is marked officially deceased.

Me: Now, kittens, I'll show you how to use the computer in the next few days, but you have to be able to read before you can get it to really work for you, so reading lessons will go along with the computer lessons. But we have three more jobs to do today: deal with Joy, bury Talisman, and clean the floor. Do any of you have an idea what to do about Joy? I'm not saying I'll do anything you ask, but you know her and I'd like your opinion.

Ardent: I wish she could be rescued. I would have brought her but I knew she wouldn't leave. I could take care of her.

Me: Simba told me she's still refusing to leave. And if a kitten takes care of an adult, that's generous and otterly and heroic, but it isn't healthy for either the kitten or the adult. She'd have to join this family and be taken care of by me and Simba. And our duties take us all over the planet; we'd refuse to be stuck at your homestead. How would you feel about visiting Joy every week at first, and less often later?

Ardent: Well... I know you want to ditch her, but you said to tell you what's real. I'd miss her. It would be like leaving Diablo, I mean Dragon here and only seeing her once a week. But here in the village so much happens! So many people, and they help, not beat you and take your stuff like Talisman says. The food just tastes so good; I can feel myself growing strong already. And to be able to read! I know I can't have both...

Me: Ardent, I don't want to ditch Joy. But one thing you should remember: no matter how bad off Joy is, she's an adult and she's your supervisor. It's her duty to provide for you good food, a social world, and education. She may be too delusional to know it, or she may be curled up in a ball, real or symbolic, and unable to deal with the real world, but if you were to say you'll stay with her and take care of her and give up the life you've had just a taste of today, her duty is to tell you, leave me and go with Tiger. Understand? And you'll have the same duty to your own kittens: to provide the basics for them, and if you can't, to find someone who will.

Cinder: But we can't just ditch Joy! How is that not ditching her?

Me: You have a responsibility, Cinder, to the colony to grow up straight and strong. To the planet to replant it, to make yourself able to replant it. And you have a responsibility to me, Tiger L6-3512, as mission commander, as the symbolic nexus of the colony and the planet, to do your best to build yourself. Joy had her turn being taken care of; now it's your turn; and it's your job to use your turn wisely and productively. Burning yourself out trying (unsuccessfully) to take care of Joy is neither wise nor productive. Joy is an adult, as you will be eventually, and that means she has to take care of herself now.

Dragon: But I want to see her! When my arm is better I want to show her!

Me: Oh, Dragon! Of course you can see Joy and show her what you're doing. We're not going to ditch Joy. Simba is out there right now helping her get her head back together. If she can survive, we'll help her do it. But what's your main job, Dragon?

Dragon: To grow plants where there are none.

Me: Right, to replant this planet. What do you have to do for yourself so that happens?

Dragon: Grow like a plant, so I'm strong enough to carry them.

Me: Right! And you can show that to Joy, and I think it will help her to uncurl from her ball and face the real world if she knows you're growing, as you couldn't do living with her and Talisman.

Dragon: Ardent, we need to be strong. Talisman came in here and stopped Tiger from showing us the exercises to make us strong. Let's do those exercises! OK, Ardent? And we won't forget Joy. We can show Joy what we learned, later.

Ardent: It's hard, Tiger, but I think I understand what you're trying to say. The best would be if Joy would come with us, but if she won't, we'll learn with you, and do what we can for her when we visit.

Me: Good kittens, good kittens! You're learning so many tough lessons today. And I'm going to bend my schedule and do what Dragon asked. But there's a problem doing strength exercises when so many of you are injured in different ways. If you hurt, do the exercise up to the point where it hurts and stop. There will be time to grow after your body has healed. Oh, your mat is spattered with blood! Just turn it over, and I'll just lay on the floor and show you. This exercise strengthens your belly: raise your legs and hold for a count of five; see what I do. Now down. Cinder, was that hurting you? Ardent and Dragon and Ember, do it again, total of ten times. Two more, one more, that's it. Very good, kittens! Now if you strengthen your belly you should strengthen the other side, your back, but we have too many injuries, so I think we should stop exercises at this point. OK, Dragon?

Dragon: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Now our next job is to do the death ceremony for Talisman. And this is our way to help Joy, because when she sees Talisman dead and helps put him in the hole in the ground and covers him up with dirt, it will help her remember that he'll never hurt her any more. Simba is planning what to do, so now I'll talk to him again on the computer and find out exactly what our part is. Hmm, this time Simba isn't answering so quickly. We'll have to be patient.

Ardent: Is something wrong with Joy?

Me: We can't tell. Probably Simba is paying attention to her, not to the computer. Well, let's make the time useful. Kittens, run your tongue over your cheeks; notice the little bumps? Are any of them swollen and itching?

Cinder: Yes; I hate it! When I press them with my tongue it makes me taste weird.

Me: Which ones?

Cinder: This one, and this one.

Me: Sorry, you can feel it but I can't. Describe which one.

Ardent: Will this do? The top row farthest back, and the second row, second from the front. That's what bothers me.

Cinder: Me too.

Dragon: Me too!

Me: When you press the itchy button you taste something. The button is telling you that you need to eat foods that taste like that. You need more potassium, which you'll automatically get when you eat fruits and vegetables like Simba and I cook, and more molybdenum. I'll buy you a mineral supplement that you'll eat until your molybdenum button stops complaining. You liked the juices so much today because they have a lot of potassium and your body knows you need it. But why are you deficient? Because Talisman hasn't been fertilizing his plants properly, and what the plants aren't getting enough of, you aren't getting from them. If Joy is going to insist on staying at the homestead she should put fertilizer on the plants. Oh, here's Simba. I'll read the words to you.

Simba (on session): Hi, Tiger; I love you. Joy is doing a lot better, a lot less delusional, even lucid some of the time. What's happening at that end?

Me: Good news here too: we found Flame, hidden in a backpack under a bush. I've taken prolactin so I can feed him. We're working at this end on two issues: what to do about Joy, and the death ceremony for Talisman.

Simba: Wonderful news about Flame! Joy still insists on staying here. She says she couldn't handle people in the village. It would be OK for Pounce to come out here occasionally with supplies and to pick up production, such as it is, but she knows she's always had trouble dealing with people and she's worse now. She's surprisingly insightful into her own insanity. I really agree with her: when she's stable enough to run the farm by herself, which I think will be soon, we should let her do it.

Me: Ardent makes the point, we can't just ditch Joy. I agree, and I think she needs some supervision.

Simba: Agreed. I have a feeling someone, guess who, is going to have to spend a lot of time with her. We'll need to negotiate that: me, you, Joy and the kittens. And Selen, if he decides to deal with this long-term. And Pounce, who provides transportation. I think I should stay here overnight at least one more day if not two, and daily physical visits after that for a week or two. If Joy continues to improve the supervision could get less stringent, and could be transferred to NetBoard too. We'll have to see. Joy logged in this morning; I vouched for her to set a new password, which she'd forgotten after so many years.

Me: That's good. But thinking longer term, continued contact between Joy and her kittens will be important for both. I mentioned weekly visits to the kittens. So with our responsibilities, how are we going to deal with that?

Simba: I'm not sure. Weekly commutes from Minas Tirith aren't a good use of our time or colony resources. We aren't really tied to a specific place; we could temporarily move to Mithrim. Build a dome for ourselves.

Me: Temporary as in 25 or 35 years, right?

Simba: Before we left on the survey hikes we were talking about whether we felt elderly. I don't think we're going to feel elderly in 35 Thor years. I think for us it's reasonable to call a 35 year stay ``temporary''.

Me: Not disagreeing, but that's off topic. Let's say that we know what we're going to do for Joy in the next few days, and in that time we'll firm up our longer term plans and get schedules revised on our existing projects like the wilderness survey. OK?

Simba: Agreed. Now let's go on to the death ceremony. Bring the body, the kittens, and some plastic sheet so we can lower him in the grave. Hmm, try to borrow one or two shovels. You know how hard it is to dig, with the dirt slipping back into the hole. You might have the kittens try to think of some good words to say. Like I told you, I'm going to get Joy in that hole digging it out and filling it in. I think that will really help her believe she's rid of Talisman.

Me: Sounds good. Anything else we should bring? I'd thought to get some proper fertilizer. The kittens are deficient in molybdenum and potassium, and it's obviously because the plants aren't getting enough.

Simba: Very good point. Joy said that Talisman said something about artificial fertilizer and precious bodily fluids, but it was pretty incoherent; I'm sure you're not surprised. Get some supplement for the kittens, and also for Joy. And would you get some fruit, anything that's available? That will start getting potassium into Joy. Something else that would be nice: a complete starter kit of Chang seeds. Talisman only put in wheat flavor. According to Joy it had something to do with the Goddess Ceres. And the ants: Joy impressed me. We came out here to inspect the place, and she identified that the ants had the flu, and asked if I could get resistant ants. She's that coherent! And then she started digging up old latrine pits that the worms have had a chance at, and spreading the shit around the plants. She's going to recover; I'm sure of it.

Me: Solid! I'll bring out, let's see, three packets of ants? They'll spread quickly through all the plants. I suppose we're paying for all this. Anything more? You have enough food?

Simba: Yes, enough. With the kittens and Talisman gone the farm produces a surplus. But later we've got to get a vegetable patch in here. Either the veggies all died or Talisman didn't believe in them.

Me: Or both. I'll buy the stuff from Forelle and then get Pounce to bring us out; it will probably take about an hour. I love you. Bye.

It takes us a little over an hour to get to the homestead. The biggest problem is getting the body into the hover vehicle in a semi-dignified manner (as the villagers watch): Pounce and I put him on the plastic sheet and then Pounce stands in the cargo area and I lift the other side of the sheet, keeping Talisman reasonably level.

When we arrive, Simba signals to Pounce that he should put the vehicle over near the Chang plants, turned so the cargo bay, with the body, is facing them. Once out of the vehicle, the kittens have a bizarre reunion with Joy.

Joy: Kittens, kittens, I'm so happy to see you! I thought you were gone forever. I was so sad, so alone.

Ardent: I'm sorry I didn't take you with us, but you wouldn't have come.

Joy: I have to stay here. I have to wait for Blaze. Have you seen her?

Ardent: No, I'm sorry. We haven't seen her.

Cinder: I fell down a hole. It hurt real bad and I was scared, a long long time. Tiger got me out.

Joy: Oh, I'm so sorry. Thank you, Tiger, for saving him. Have you seen Flame?

Flame pops his head up from my pocket. I've noticed that he stays inside a lot more than a typical kitten his age, and I'll have to teach him that he's not going to get slapped, like I saw Talisman do, if he watches or explores outside the pocket.

Joy: Oh, oh, Flame, I'm so glad to see you! I thought you were gone forever. I'd feel so alone without you.

Me: You understand that the kittens will be going back with me after the ceremony, right? But they'll visit you. The current plan is weekly.

Simba: You know they're safe with us. You're not alone, even if the kittens are in the village learning things.

Joy: I understand. Simba explained it to me. It's been hard to take care of you kittens, to protect you from Talisman. I'm sorry you got hurt so much. I was so sad, so alone.

Ardent: We know. You did your best for us, and we did our best for you. Now it's time for us to learn to read! And we won't forget you; we'll show you what we learned every week.

Dragon: I have a new name now, not a yucky monster. I'm Dragon now. Do you like my new name? I do.

Joy: Dragon is a lovely name. Blaze called you that, didn't she? Have you seen Blaze?

Dragon: No, I never saw Blaze after...

Joy: If you see her, tell her to come home. I love her. Hello, little Ember! Can you say hi to Joy?

Ember: Eep.

Joy: Hi, Ember. So little. I wish I could have taken care of you better.

I can understand the repetitions and lack of coherence on emotionally charged topics, but through all of this reunion nobody, even Ember, has tried to hug anyone. It's like an Earth prison where there's a glass barrier between the prisoner and the visitor.

Me, discreetly to Simba in Tiger signs: None of them hug. Should I try to be an example?

Simba: Hug me first, then try Joy.

Me, by voice, hugging Simba: What a day! Our life is turned upside down yet again, and I get in a kill or be killed situation. I need a hug!

Simba, hugging: You're doing fine; you got all the kittens safe including Flame. We'll all be fine.

Me: Joy, you're coming out of a very rough situation and going into only slightly less rough times. Would you like a hug?

Joy edges away from me.

Me: I won't grab you if you don't want to, but I hug a lot, not just with Simba, and it really comforts me and builds up my friendship with the other people, particularly Simba. Did anyone hug you, before Talisman?

Joy: My supervisors hugged me sometimes. Talisman would be very angry. He'd beat me and kill you.

Me: He had his chance to kill me. There he is in the vehicle; he doesn't seem to be objecting to what we're doing. Want to give it a try?

Joy: Is he sleeping?

Me: The long sleep. He'll never wake; he'll never hurt you or the kittens again. You can do good things now. Like hugging.

Joy: Are you sure? He'll be very angry.

Me: We're going to do a death ceremony for him, and we plan on having you working closely with the body, so you know he's dead. Go ahead; try to wake him.

Joy: I'm afraid.

Me: Can you be brave?

Yes, she is brave. Poised to jump away, she reaches into the vehicle's cargo bay and touches the sole of Talisman's foot. The zombie doesn't rise. She gives a little stronger jab. Nothing. She tries a really solid poke, moving his whole body. He doesn't wake. He's dead, really.

Joy: Talisman will be very angry. But it was so nice when my supervisor comforted me when I was little. I'll be brave. Would you hug me, Tiger?

I oblige. It takes a while, but I'm sure it's very therapeutic.

Me: See, Talisman doesn't have anything to say about hugs any more. Which kitten is willing to hug Joy? It's Dragon! Joy, be real careful of her right arm. Talisman broke it. Anyone else? No? We shouldn't rush the kittens. I imagine Talisman punished anyone he caught hugging, right? But with one kitten doing it the rest of you will feel better about hugging in a few days.

Simba: Hugging is good, and I'm glad to see you doing it, Joy and Dragon. Now, are we ready to begin the death ceremony? Gather around the vehicle; kittens, you can climb up on the fins so you can see Talisman. Let's all try to tell something good that Talisman did. You don't all have to talk, but try to think of something. Who wants to go first?

Dragon: He gave us food.

Simba: Good, Dragon. Feeding the family is very important. Anyone else?

Ardent: He was fair. He didn't hit us just for no reason even when he was mad; it was always for a reason.

Simba: I didn't know that. That's important, to do things from reasons or plans, not just because you're in a rage. Anyone else?

Joy: He was so strong, so able to deal with people when we were young. He complemented my weakness.

Simba: Yes, the pair can do so much more than two apart when their strengths and weaknesses are complementary.

Me: I was impressed that yesterday and today, even when his world was falling apart he cared for Flame, and he kept Flame out of the battle area, and if he had won he could have gotten him back easily, but if he lost, Flame would be found promptly. I don't have to like that Talisman attacked me, but his handling of Flame was exemplary.

Cinder: When he talked about the stars, that was the best.

Simba: Tiger and I like the stars too. Ember, you have anything to say? No? Now let's all be with Talisman's spirit; let's leave behind all fighting and hitting and killing; and be with him as he leaves our world. Just a few moments of silence.

Simba left off the formula about hugging Talisman's spirit, I see. For sure, Talisman wouldn't like that part and his family would know it. Ember piles rocks two by two, quietly. Considering his age he doesn't make much noise, does he?

Simba: Now let's get Talisman into the ground. Tiger, were you able to borrow some shovels? Come over here; I'll just make four piles of rocks at the corners of the grave. And please shovel dirt on just this side; none towards the plants, please. Joy, you shovel too, please. Oh, and Ardent, you're going to use your small shovel? That will be fine, but be careful not to get hit by us adults, OK?

If I had four deep gashes in my back closed with twenty staples, I wouldn't be bending over and lifting shovels of dirt. But if Ardent feels it's important to exorcize this demon, or to support Joy, or to use one of his skills to further an activity of his new family, I'm not going to shoo him off. He won't do that much damage to the healing wounds.

It's not like a grave on Terra with vertical sides, because the regolith would immediately collapse. The grave is more pyramidal, and it ends up about 1.5 meters deep: kind of shallow. Simba climbs out and helps move the removed dirt away from the grave so it doesn't fall in again, Ardent joins him when the pit is too deep for him to throw the dirt out, and Pounce comes out too when the space gets too small. Between swings I look carefully at the area Simba wanted to keep clear. It looks disturbed, as if it was dug up in the recent past. I have a pretty good idea who's down there, and why Simba picked this particular site for Talisman's grave.

With five people working, or four and a half, the grave is finished quickly.

Me: Is this enough, Simba?

Simba: Right; you and Joy come out and we'll put Talisman in.

Me: Here, Joy, take my hand. There, you're out. Next we have to get Talisman out of the vehicle. This is going to be easier with one person at each corner; let's have Pounce and Simba stand in the cargo bay. Just pick up the plastic, and keep Talisman reasonably level. Joy, back up; let them get clear of the vehicle. Now walk sideways around the grave. There, stop; yes, he's centered. Now just lower the plastic; watch what others are doing; keep him level. He's down.

Talisman lays in his grave, all bloody in the light of the sun soon to set.

Me: OK, Joy, would you go into the pit, please?

Joy: Talisman is going to be very angry.

Me: Would he want me messing with him when he's being planted, do you think?

Joy: You're right. OK, what shall I do?

Me: Go down from this end; just stand beside him. That's right. Kind of wrap the plastic over him. Fold it on top.

Joy: Um, Tiger, should we bury the talisman with him? I think it made him crazy. I think he would be more peaceful without it. I never dared to say that to him before.

Me: What's the talisman?

Joy: This.

It's the brass jewelry thing tied around his neck. Not brass right now, though: it's covered with clotted blood.

Me: Take it off and give it to me. Fold the plastic. That's good; do the same for the other side. Now I'll start putting the dirt back in. Spread it with your feet. Would you push some under his neck, please? I don't want him settling unevenly. And the same at the small of his back. Let's do the other side now; get the sides evenly filled. There, I think that's enough; you can come back out, and everyone shovel!

The grave is only slightly mounded when we're done.

Simba: Well, the death ceremony is over. Joy, I think we should put away the supplies Tiger brought us. Let's say goodbye to the kittens now.

Me: Yes, the ceremony is over, but there's one loose end: the talisman. Who should keep it now?

I take the bloody thing from atop the package of fertilizer where I left it.

Joy: Can you destroy it? It made Talisman crazy.

Me: I might. Are you saying you don't want to keep it?

Joy: Me keep it? Talisman would be very angry! Take it away, please!

Me: Ardent, do you make a claim on it?

Ardent: No, no! Joy's right: it made him crazy. He was always touching it and talking to it.

Me: I have a connection with it too: I killed him, so like the backpack it's a trophy of combat. But I'd never wear it; no way!. We're not really able to make a proper decision now, I think, so here's what I'm going to do. I'll clean it up and make a display frame for it, and I'll keep it in our house. In ten years when we're all a little more emotionally normal about Talisman, we'll decide what to do with it: destroy it, give it to one person, or share it. How does that sound?

Ardent: Please, I don't want to have to look at it every day.

Me: OK, a covered box, not a frame.

Joy: Be careful of it. Don't let it get you too.

Me: I will, Joy. I'll be careful. And I think we're done now; say goodbye to the kittens, Joy. Stick your head up, Flame.

Joy: Oh, kittens! Little Flame, I'll miss you so. But Simba told me all of you need to learn a lot that we haven't been able to teach you. Do what Tiger says, kittens, and come back and show me what you learned, like Tiger said you would.

Ardent: We will, Joy. We miss you too. And we've already started learning. I learned to say ``please'', and why to say it, and to teach without hitting, and to ask when I don't know something.

Dragon: I learned to say ``please'' too! And I learned to exercise to make my belly strong.

Cinder: And we all learned to wash dishes.

Joy: Oh, you're doing so well! Goodbye, kittens, and come back soon.

Dragon: Could I hug Joy again?

Simba: Does Joy want to hug? Certainly; hug whenever you want. Hug me and Tiger too; we like it.

Well, Dragon isn't quite ready for that adventure, but it's good that she's taking the lead in hugging Joy. They break it up, not taking too long, and I get the kittens into the vehicle, and Pounce flies us back to Mithrim.

On arrival at Rose and Orion's dome, I have a pleasant surprise waiting.

Me: Rose, you shouldn't have cleaned the floor! Talisman, and his blood, was our responsibility and I don't want to slop that over on you.

Orion: When someone messes up royally, it's everyone's responsibility to clean up the mess, and you're doing your share taking care of the kittens. Besides, the floor was overdue. And you could just peel the blood off in strips, mostly. It wasn't a big deal.

Me: Well, thank you for taking a big job off my hands and knees.

Rose: It's lunch time, and we made extra for you and the kittens, and after that I prescribe a nice nap. You've had enough action this morning to last a month.

Me: Or a year. Ardent, do you kittens take naps? I recommend it.

Ardent: Sometimes we sleep a little in our play house. But I don't want to miss anything! I want to start learning!

Me: Oh, you're learning a lot, believe me. Take a nap after lunch and it will settle the morning's many lessons in your mind. Then you'll be ready to learn more when you get up.

Ardent: OK. I'm hungry; Rose, could we please eat the food?

In addition to scrubbing the floor, Rose and Orion were nice enough to wipe the blood off my mat, Simba's and the kittens', so they and I have a place to nap after lunch. Being adult I wake first, and I silently occupy myself at the table. News isn't handled around here by professional reporters; the people involved post a report or essay telling their viewpoints. I'm sure winged gossip, hastened by multiple Tiger Leones comm chips, has circled the globe several times by now, and I notice that my home page is getting repeated hits. My public awaits a full report on Talisman and the Fire Kittens. I'm in the middle of writing one when my ears (hearing undimmed by age) catch a whisper.

Ardent: Diablo, Dragon, don't do that! You'll set off Tiger!

Dragon: Hush; she won't notice if you shut up!

Ardent: Stop it! I'll hit you.

Me: Ardent and Dragon, come over here please. Cinder and Ember may come too if they want to learn something.

Written all over their faces is ``We're in for it now.'' And Ardent has extra resentment for Dragon.

Me: Let's all understand something first. Kittens don't ``set me off''. I have the training and the experience to know what I want from you and how to get it. And I'm fair. So, Ardent, you needn't worry that criticism or punishment I give to Dragon will slop over to you; you'll get your own personalized copy. Got that?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Now, Dragon, I haven't found out yet what you were doing, but if Talisman had found out about it, would it have set him off?

Dragon: Yes, Tiger.

Me: And did you know whether I also would object to it?

Dragon: No, Tiger.

Me: But you did it anyway. Was that prudent?

Dragon: Um, I don't know what prudent means.

Me: Evidently not. It means that when you choose an action you make yourself aware of what benefits you'll get, and what harm you could do to yourself and others, and you choose carefully whether to do it or not. Were you prudent, this time?

Dragon: No, Tiger.

Me: Remember to be prudent. It will save you from a lot of pain. Don't tell me what you were doing yet, but try prudence: analyze whether you should have done it.

Dragon: Feeling good like that isn't worth a beating.

Me: Probably true. Now there's another point: suppose I truly wouldn't have noticed. Suppose you were at your playhouse. You know Talisman would object, but he wouldn't know; should you do it then?

Dragon: I'm not sure.

Me: Ardent, help her out.

Ardent: I can't tell when Talisman's reasons are real or crazy. What he says not to do, I don't think much about that when he won't find out.

Me: You're probably wise there, but Talisman is dead now. Suppose Tiger tells you not to do something, and now you're out there somewhere and nobody's around to know what you choose. Should you do it? Dragon, try an answer.

Dragon: No, Tiger.

Me: Obviously that's the answer I want, but tell me why not to do it.

Dragon: Um. I'm not sure.

Ardent: Maybe your reasons aren't crazy.

Me: Bingo! Maybe I'm not totally crazy. Maybe there's experience behind those rules, and you can avoid something nasty if you obey. You'll be imprudent, all of you, and you'll learn a few rules the hard way, rules that Simba and I will already have told you. Please try not to get yourselves killed, OK? Dragon, do you understand the issues? Can you accept lessons and rules from me even if you don't fully understand them?

Dragon: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Obviously the answer I want. Think about it. We'll all see how sincere that ``yes'' was. OK, let's change back to Ardent. Self-criticism time: in the whispered conversation you made one big mistake. What was it?

Ardent: I said I'd hit Dragon. But I couldn't make her stop. What should I have done?

Me: Very good: you didn't have to hunt for the mistake. What you should have done is shut up and let her do it, and deal with the consequences. Simba and I are going to be doing a lot of that: we teach you and you forget or rebel. We have to let you learn in your own way, and cleaning up the mess afterward will often fall to us. That's one of the less pleasant parts of raising kittens, but we have to take the bad with the good. As senior kitten you have to do the same, cheerfully. OK, Ardent?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: Good. Now back to Dragon. Finally, let's hear what was this earth-shattering sin you committed, and I'll give you a judgment on it.

Dragon: I'm afraid.

Me: Afraid to set me off? Would you like a hug? Perhaps from Ardent instead of scary me?

She would like a hug. And it does help her get her courage up.

Dragon: I was rubbing my thing.

Me: I assume it's the thing you pee with. For a female it's called your clit. You're allowed to rub it. Don't force me to see you do it, which I'd treat as a challenge; what you did was discreet enough. You'll learn later the details of why not to do it around adults and older kittens, and if you're not discreet I'll point that out to you, but enjoying your own body is your right. Any questions?

Dragon: You won't beat me?

Me: I don't beat kittens. At most I swat. By my standards you did nothing wrong, so I won't punish you. Talisman might disagree, but I killed him this morning. He won't beat you any more.

I would have hoped for a dramatic hug, but Dragon wanders off in a daze, unable to understand how she escaped a vicious punishment.

Me: Go and talk to her, Ardent. If you kittens have any questions be sure to ask me, because I'm sure this is a whole new way of behaving for you.

Orion: That brings back fond memories: I'm remembering when I was little, when you chewed me out. I was pretty wild, wasn't I?

Me: Forget and rebel: you did those a lot. It might help if you and Ardent talked about it because likely he has some of your personality underneath his discipline. Talisman picked up a fair amount of your genotype.

Orion: That's not something I like being reminded of. I'll make sure Ardent understands what to expect as he grows and I'll give him some suggestions how I dealt with it and how people like Selen helped me deal with it.

I add to my outline a note that I should discuss this little incident in my report and I should remind parents of the principles involved, because some might be getting the emphasis wrong. Talisman was extreme, but without supervision even good-hearted people can drift in nasty directions. But here's Ardent again, evidently with a question.

Ardent: Were you scared of Talisman?

Me: Yes. He scared me a lot.

Ardent: Was that why you were trying to get away from him?

Me: Getting away? When? My plan was to attract him close to me, close enough that I could kill him.

Ardent: When he made his thing, I don't know the word, get long and you were kind of going backward.

Me: On a male it's called the penis. Normally I would have continued to attack him verbally, but he's too cunning for that; I found that out the hard way yesterday. I thought that by letting my fear show and by appearing to retreat I could excite him to try to grab me and throw me on the mat. I think he was about to do it when you attacked him.

Ardent: It was worth getting slashed to finally get my fangs into him. And I didn't want you hurt like he does to Joy!

Me: Hmm. What you did took a lot of courage and I'm not going to criticize you for doing your best. But I'd like you to remember something. If he hadn't been interrupted by my claw, you would very quickly have found it wasn't worth it to bite him, because he would have killed you. When you attack, you lose. Period. I wanted him to forget that, to attack me, and then to lose. It worked out a little different: you yelled at him, he attacked you by trying to swat you away, and that put his wrist between your fangs. Then you were attacking him and that opened you up for a slashing. But then he was attacking you and I took advantage of his weakness, killing him and ending the exchange. Later there will be combat lessons for all of you kittens, and once you've learned the basics Simba and I will teach you some better ways of handling a situation like that.

Ardent: I guess I have a lot to learn.

Me: And the more you learn, the more you find to learn. I'm still learning; don't doubt it. But I'd like to go back to something you said: tell me how he would hurt Joy.

Ardent: When he beats us kittens he takes us out back. He doesn't do that to Joy. Not often, but sometimes he makes his thing, his penis long, and it's best for kittens to try to sneak out, if we can, but if he's blocking the door we have to kind of hold still and pretend we're not there. He talks to Joy and she gets scared kind of like what you did, and that sets him off. He grabs her and puts her on the mat and kind of gets on top. Then he gets real mad and starts hitting her and clawing her and he yells that she's not his mate and she has to give him something that's his; it's kind of hard to understand. When he's finished beating her he gets his penis long again and gets on top and stays there for a while. That's a good time to sneak out.

Me: Jeez, what a thing to show a kitten!

Rose: I can't believe he was that perverted. He's obviously putting her in maintenance mode and then raping her that way. Poor Joy!

Me: Yeah, I agree. I'd better tell this whole story to Simba so he can start digging into that area. Joy will be miserable until she works through it. Ardent, it can really harm a person to have that kind of thing done over and over. I think that's a big part of the reason Joy acted so weird. I'm sure this is obvious to you, but don't imitate Talisman sexually, like you won't imitate him in other crazy areas. If you need a reminder, remember what happened to Talisman when he tried to treat me like Joy: he ended up dead. Most females would do something drastic if threatened with rape; most likely they wouldn't kill the male, but they would make sure he learned a lesson of pain. Got that, Ardent?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Rose: Orion would never do that to me, but if he did...

Orion: Be nice to people, Ardent, and particularly be nice to your mate. You and she are supposed to be a team, so build up the connection, don't tear it down with nasty behavior and rough demands.

Ardent: Yes, Orion. I could tell that Talisman wasn't doing right to Joy.

Me: Good judgment. I see some more kittens with flapping ears learning lessons here, and I'd like to prepare you all for something. Simba and I have been apart a long time. When Simba comes back from helping Joy, he and I will get discreetly alone, and if you glance our way you'll see a lot of hugging and kissing and wiggling, and if you stare indiscreetly you'll see that Simba's penis is, as you put it, long. We'd both appreciate it if you kittens would be discreet with us and if you want to talk to an adult, bother Orion or Rose, not us. Leave us to enjoy mating, OK?

Ardent: Yes, Tiger.

Me: And similarly for Rose and Orion: leave them in peace when they mate. You don't have to be scared or anything like that, but you spoil it if you walk up to them and say, hey, Orion, how come your ``thing'' is so long? And then they'll snap at you. Be discreet, please.

Ardent: Like what Dragon was doing: I should have not bothered her.

Me: Right. You didn't know; now you do; now you can be nicer. Any more questions? I think Ember would like a little attention from you, and I think my essay would like some attention from me too.

Dinner was nice and simple: azuki bean Chang seeds with chili and a generous dish of zucchini squash, most of which the kittens devoured for its potassium content. The dishes are washed, with help from Ardent and Cinder. Rose, Orion and I have a NetBoard session set up and we're waiting for Simba and Lan Ying to join us. Rose has hers in English while Orion and I are in Tiger signs, and we've been having fun bedeviling the translator program with puns and twisted words.

Ardent: Are you talking again on the computer?

Me: Yes; we're waiting for Simba and Lan Ying to get online.

Ardent: What does that squiggle mean?

Me: Try it yourself: it's a picture of a handsign.

Ardent: This one? Flop?

Me (typing): Got it! Now try this next row that I just made.

Ardent: People, Ardent is learning to read. Is that right?

Me: Yes, it is, Ardent. Very good! Tomorrow I'll get you and Cinder and maybe Dragon started on some stories for kittens, using my machine. And I've ordered computers for each of you, which should be here in three days. You can watch my screen and practice the handsigns, but we won't slow down for you to read every word. I'll make a special window for you; let's set the next larger font size; and when sentences come across that you'll be specially interested in, I'll copy them over. Oh, here's Simba.

Simba: Hi, Tiger; hi, Rose; hi, Orion. May Joy join us?

Me: Certainly. Tell her the session ID.

While Joy is making the connection I paste Simba's line over to Ardent's window. He smiles. It takes a while for her window to appear: her skills must be rusty from disuse.

Joy: Hello, Tiger. Thank you for taking care of my kittens.

Me: You're welcome, and I'm happy to see you doing something social. Ardent is here, watching the session. I paste short sentences into his window for him to read.

Joy (and I paste for Ardent): Reading already? I knew you were smart.

Me: He's smiling from your praise. So what have you been doing this afternoon?

Joy: Our plants are really sick. Thank you for bringing fertilizer for me. I put it on all the plants. I cleared the ants out of three of the bushes and put in the new ants. They seem to like their homes. I harvested from the bushes that were ready. Tomorrow I'll start pruning the plants one by one. Many of the branches aren't going to recover.

Me: Oh, that's wonderful progress. With healthy ants and proper fertilizer your bushes will pick right up.

Joy: I hope so. I'm so worried about Blaze; has there been any word of her in Mithrim?

Me: No, Joy, I'm sorry.

Joy: I'll wait here for her. Simba helped me do something else really important. We have a water tank, and Simba and I cleaned it out, and we ordered snowball delivery, and they've already started coming down. Snowball water tastes so good! Talisman called it Wotan's urine and wouldn't drink it. He was pretty crazy, wasn't he?

Me: Yes, he was.

Lan Ying: Hello, everyone. Joy, we haven't met; I'm Tsun Lan Ying, human.

Joy: Oh, I remember reading about you when I was young. You had so much trouble coming to Gondor. I'm sorry for you.

Lan Ying: And you had so much trouble right here. I'm glad Simba is there to help you out. And I'm so glad the smallest kitten was found. Tiger, I read your report. Nasty!

Me: I wish nothing like that happens ever again. And when it does, that someone other than me takes her turn straightening it out.

Lan Ying: Yeah. Am I interrupting? I have something to report, when you're done.

Joy: I told everything, I think. Don't bother with me; tell your story. Shall I get off the session?

Me: You're welcome to stay. None of this is going to be private, I think.

Lan Ying: Yes, Joy, stay on. Get some ren chi, people spirit. From Tiger's report you've been isolated for too long. OK? Here's my report: I found a region of crosscutting joint planes, about a seventy degree angle. Here's the map; see my cursor? I'll draw in the approximate joints. They're about five hundred meters apart in the east-west set and seven hundred meters north-south. There's a plateau here to the north and there have been several rainstorms; the runoff cleaned out a few of the joints and I was able to climb down into them.

Simba: Zot! That's the whole point of our surveys: to find things like that. Where are you now?

Lan Ying: On this northern ridge; see the cursor. It's the rim of a shallow crater; I'm sure of it.

Me: The whole area could drain through those slots. It's Thor's Zion Canyon. It will be beautiful; I can't wait to see how it turns out. Look, let's do some preliminary planning on the river. In the north, the only other way out is eastward over this pass toward Lake Mithrim.

Simba: Stream piracy? Cutting down the pass?

Me: A wall just here will direct the pirate stream's erosion northward and the main water flow west to our river. Not much work.

Simba: Agreed. Joy, wouldn't it be nice to name the river after Blaze? The River Blaze.

Joy: Oh! Blaze would like that, I'm sure. She'd be so proud.

Simba: I think so too. Now once it goes through the joint province, which way does the river drain? It could go either way: east along your route where you found the kittens, or west down the slope about ten kilometers south of Joy's homestead. Rose, you know the weather patterns; show us the local velocity field.

Rose: There it is. See how the easterly winds will carry wet air up from the Lake Mithrim region, and it will rain out in the plateau.

Me: The Mithrim area will have plenty of rain; the western basin won't. Let's run the river west. I'm drawing blue lines: a low dam here and a trench there and it's taken care of.

Lan Ying: We're acting like gods! Joy needs a river... Taken care of! This place is amazing. I never thought I'd thank General Sse Lang for anything, but time after time I've thanked him for dragging me out here and dumping me with you.

Orion: And being the first of a new species: isn't that a blast? Isn't that just the cat's whiskers? We can't have everything perfect, like Talisman, but overall this is a great place to live and I think we're going to do a real good job making it better.

Me: You mentioned gods, Lan Ying. I don't want to dampen anyone's spirits, but that reference strikes me awfully close to home. Who remembers how old Simba and I are? I don't feel elderly; I feel like a teenager! Joy, it's a misfortune to you that your kittens have to join our family, but it gives us 25 to 35 years of real immediate issues to deal with, which is a blessing to me right now. And during that time, Simba, we have to really seriously think about our future, about what we're going to do for the next act, and about the population structure of the Novanima on Thor and of the lions still on Terra. Charlie served four presidents and is now supposedly retired; actually he's cracking the whip over the Rwanda government in the relief effort, acting like he was forty Terran years old. Et cetera. I think we Novanima have to give some real serious thought to our future.

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