The Visitor: Snapshots

A story by Gil 'the Great' Ruiz


  This story is a SEQUEL to The Visitor, and it 
probably won't make much sense if you haven't read "The Visitor"
first.  I recommend that you go back where you found this
story, and get the first part before you read this one.

  Then again, you don't have to and I can't make you.  But I
would if I were you.


Legal Stuff:  This whole story and all of its characters are
copyright 1997, Gil Ruiz.  This story may be distributed
freely as long as this paragraph is included.  Permission to
use any of the characters from, or basing other stories on
this work must be secured from the author (that's me).

Comments are welcome.  My address is

Beginneth the story:

  Flash!  And there I was.

  The sun beat down with an almost palpable force.  It was
sometime near late morning, and the heat of the day was just
beginning to rev up.  This meant that it was beginning to go
from extremely hot to absolutely intolerably hot.  A small
breeze blew from the southwest, and hardly anything living
was astir.

  'There,' by the way, was a tropical savanna.  Where else
did you expect me to find lions?  The smell reminded me of
my uncle's farm.  Hot and humid, it smelled of hay and grass
and dust.  And antelope dung and wildebeest dung and zebra
dung and giraffe dung and rhino d... well, you get the idea.

   Now then, where was Naline?  I checked the small computer
on my left forearm, took my bearings, adjusted my backpack
cooler full of vittles, and set off into the ocean of grass.

  That's the thing about savannas, you understand: grass.
Deserts have sand, forests have trees, tundras have snow, and
savannas have grass.  Lots and lots and lots of grass.
Everywhere, far as you can see.  All kinds, all sizes, all
colors.  Oh, there's trees and bushes and rocks and other
such things that break up the monotony of endless grass, but
mostly there's grass.  It's one gigantic lawn.  I wouldn't
like to be the one that mows it.

  Naline's world was a pretty place, as far as worlds were
concerned.  Big bright sky.  Clear blue, dotted with fluffy
white clouds.  Wide open spaces, green with all the grand
array of flora that makes the countryside pleasant to look
at.  There were huge herds of herbivores everywhere.  Big
ones, little ones, striped ones, brown ones, of every size
and kind, eating away in the hot savanna sun.  Angels flew
about, playing harps while streams of ethereal light cascaded
down from the heavens.  Wait, that last one wasn't true.  But
it was really nice.

  And hot.

  Who's Naline, you ask?  She's a dear friend of mine.  No,
it's not what you think, gutter-head.  She's a precious
little girl I met something over half a year ago.  Now that
I think about it, I suppose she's not all that little
anymore.  Naline is a lioness, you see.

  I met her when I was on vacation here last time.  I was on
a hunting trip and I chanced upon a dirty, scraggly, lost
little furball with the most adorable eyes you've ever seen.
Of course, being the sterling person that I am, I promptly
volunteered to help her find her way back home.  We became
great friends on the way and I was terribly sad when we
finally found her home and we had to part company.

  I don't like 'good-byes,' you see.  Not the 'good-bye' that
one says when one is leaving forever and never expects to be
back again.  I hate those.  Fortunately for me, this 'good-
bye' had turned out to be a 'see you later.'

  I reached the top of a grassy hill and took my bearings
again.  You know how you always hear of folks lost in the
desert wandering around in huge circles, never realizing
they're not going anywhere?  That's really easy to do in the
savanna.  One horizon-full of grass looks pretty much the
same as the next one.  Good thing for me I've got my high-
tech navigational gadgets.  I have no idea how come every
single creature in this endless ocean of grass isn't
wandering about, lost and directionless.  Hah, now that would
be a sight, wouldn't it?

  I clicked a button or two in my wrist unit and checked my
direction once again.  Little arrow said go that way.  Well,
who was I to argue with little arrows?  Off I went, plunging
once again into the giant lawn that was Naline's savanna.

  Long as I'm wandering about almost lost, let's do the
introductions.  Name's Cruz.  Nice to meet you too.  I'm kind
of a mercenary-type person who hires himself out to nice
people who are in deep poo-poo.  You know, kidnapped kids,
missing pets, stolen heads of state; fixing all that stuff is
how I make my living.  Your family fortune's been stolen by a
ruthless corporate pirate?  I make it better.  Your power-
hungry uncle kills your father, tries to dethrone you, and
sends you into exile?  No problem.  I charge exorbitant rates
and usually break lots of stuff.  Makes the job fun.

  I was on vacation again.  All work and no play makes Cruz a
bored soldier of fortune.  And somewhere in the vast ocean of
grass, the one I was stomping about in with my size 9 1/2
boots, was my little friend.  I just hoped I didn't get lost;
I hate missing appointments.

  Oh yeah, the reason my 'goodbye' had turned out to be a
'see ya later' had to do more with luck than foresight on my
part.  Hey, I never claimed to be any kind of genius; I just
happen to be one of those persons on whom fortune is always
smiling.  Just before we had parted company, I had sense
enough to give Naline my business card.

  Well, they're business cards only in the loosest sense of
the word.  Actually, they're in the form of a little chain
bracelet.  But they're very, very useful.  More so than your
everyday, regular kind of business card.  They can be used to
call me anytime, anywhere, anywhen.  I think they're rather
nifty, myself; only the classiest mercenaries use them.

  "Here," I had said as I'd fastened the little chain around
Naline's wrist, "if you ever need me, just touch here, and
I'll be here right away."  The bracelet housed a designator
which allowed me to pinpoint her exact location and flash on
over whenever she beckoned.

  Flashing?  It's a method of travel.  I don't know exactly
how it works; I just uses them, I doesn't designs them.  Hey,
if I knew how they worked, I'd be an engineer, not a
mercenary.  All I know is that you push a button, there's a
bright burst of light, and you're there.  'There' can be
anywhere at all in the universe, and you get there
instantaneously.  Saves a fortune in rocket fuel.

  I'd been occasionally flashing in now and then, when
emergencies arose and Naline was in it deep. But I'd been
thinking for some time that it would be nice to flash in and
just visit and have a nice long talk and catch up on current
events and chat about old times.  But I hadn't had the
time, what with all the mystery and intrigue and cloak-and-
dagger stuff that fills my calendar.  But I'd gotten paid the
previous week so I figured I deserved a few months off.  So,
there I was, orienteering myself through the vast grasslands
of her world.

  A golden ball of energy and activity became visible over
the gently rolling hills.  No, not the sun; it was Naline,
my little Kitten.  My, how she'd grown.  She was still a
cub, but she wasn't quite so small anymore.  Her little head
bobbed up and down as she tore across the savanna grass,
followed on the other end by her endlessly flickering tail.

  "Cruz!"  She flew through the air with boundless joy,
knocking me both out of balance and out of breath.  She
stood over my ribcage, paws on my neck, looking down on my
temporarily incapacitated person.  "Didja miss me?"  She
affectionately rubbed her head all over my face, the way
lions do when they're happy to see you.  Come to think of
it, I had kinda missed the taste of lion hair in my mouth.

  "Yeah, I missed you lots."  I spat out some fur, and tried
to get the rest of it off my tongue with my gloved hand.  I
gotta get a less energetic lioness to befriend.  Oh, who was
I kidding?  I loved her tons.

                                        - 0 -

  Flash!  And there I was.

  Where is there?  There is here, Naline's world.

  And it was on fire.  The entire savanna was blazing angrily
all around me.  Thunderous plumes of thick black smoke rose
furiously, obscuring the sun, bathing all the nearby real
estate in a bizarre orange glow.  I hate it when that

  "Kitten?"  I couldn't see her anywhere.  That was bad.  I
could hardly breathe.  That was bad too.  I had brought my
combat helmet.  That was good.  That was very, very good,
because it meant that I could breathe safely.  And use the
high-tech gizmos in the helmet to find her.

  As the helmet systems came online, a piercing high-pitched
noise came through the sound amplifiers.  Great, just what I
needed, feedback noise.  Come on, what's wrong with this
thing?, I just got it calibrated.  Wait a minute that wasn't
feedback noise, that was a yell.  That was Naline!  Where
where where?  I looked around desperately for my little

  I was standing in the middle of a grassy clearing, which
was on fire.  There were about a dozen trees dotting the
nearby landscape, which were also on fire.  And there was
lots and lots of black smoke, which wasn't on fire, but got
in the way of seeing things like little lost lionesses.

  Lions usually aren't afraid of grassland fires, because
they can run quickly enough to avoid them.  A hop, a jump,
and a skip, and they are out of harm's way.  But where in
the world was Naline?  And why couldn't she get away?

  The yell came again, and this time I was able to locate
its panicky source.  She was way up in a tree.  The good
thing was that she was safe for the moment because the tree
wasn't on fire.  The bad thing was that the flames had
completely surrounded the tree, and were beginning to spread
to the lower branches.  Not much time.

  I was ever so very glad I had shelled out the big bucks to
buy the suit I was wearing.  Not just because it was bullet
and blast proof, but because it was fireproof too.  Heck, it
was everything-proof.  Kinda gives you a warm fuzzy feeling
inside to know that there's nothing that anyone can throw
against you that will harm you.  Oops, sorry, didn't mean to
make a bad pun, there.  But it was true.  It was also true
that Naline did not have the benefit of a big-bucks suit to
keep her untoasted, so I did like the proverb says and jumped
from the frying pan into the fire.

  Have you ever walked through fire unscathed?  It's a
marvelously empowering feeling, you should try it sometime.
Imagine the atmosphere itself incandescing from the heat,
white-hot fire blazing all around you.  Flames gushing from
the burning grass, exploding around your feet with every
step, swirling up your legs, rolling past your body,
whirling around your arm with every movement as you walk.
I held out my hand and watched the fire play around my
fingers.  It almost made me cry, it was so pretty.

  And hot as hell.  Literally.  Say, did I ever tell you
about the time I went to hell?  It looked just like this.
I'll tell you about it later, when I don't have to rush to
the rescue.

  "Hang on, Kitten," I yelled, "I'm coming!"  If she
answered, I didn't notice because I was trying to solve the
problem of how to climb a charred, charcoal-covered tree.
Charcoal, in case you didn't know, is slippery stuff, and it
doesn't make for good climbing.  Good sliding, yes, but not
good rescuing.  Crud.  Wish I had claws.

  Hang on, I did have claws.  In one of these pouches of my
load-bearing harness I carry climbing claws.  Now, where did
I put them?  Gotta take inventory one of these days.  Ah,
there they were!  I quickly put them on and zipped up the
tree in no time.

  When I got to Naline, she was completely covered from tip
to top in black soot.  She looked like a little black
panther with large green eyes.  Very becoming.  "Didn't your
mother ever teach you not to climb trees during thunderstorms
and fires?"

  "Get me out of here!"  From the panic in her voice to the
fear in her eyes, Naline was the very picture of a trapped,
cornered animal that knows there's no escape and it's about
to die.  She didn't have to worry, though; the cavalry was

  "Alright, alright, keep your whiskers on.  Here, breathe
through this."  I stuck a respirator in her mouth, just the
thing to keep her from choking to death on the suffocating
smoke.  "Don't make that face at me, just do it!"  I wrapped
her up in a sheet of thermal foil, the kind they wrap re-
entry vehicles in, and held her tight.

  It was then that I realized that they never taught
burning-tree descending back at combat school.  That's what
we get when the government gets a hold of public education.
I bet if I'd gone to a private combat school, they would
have taught everything from burning-tree descending to ice-
covered-ladder ascending.  Well, I'd just have to improvise
and not fall.

  Naturally, the next thing I did was fall.  I banged every
tree branch on the way down.  Twice, I think.  I hit the
blazing ground with a back-breaking, rib-cracking thud.
Fortunately for Naline, the rib that had cracked didn't
belong to her.

  "Don't squirm!" I could hardly breathe, much less shout
out instructions, so I just kinda squooshed her till she sat
still.  Sorry, Kitten, no time for gentleness.

  I laid on the fiery, burning grass for a few seconds until
my lungs figured out how to breathe again.  It was quite
unpleasant.  I got up with a painful grunt, carrying Naline
in my arms.  Was it me or had she gotten heavier since the
last time we met?  Better not ask her.  It's not gentlemanly
to ask ladies about their weight.

  I ambled down the blazing savanna, upwind towards the fire
line.  If I could get to the other side of the fire, the
side that had already burned out, we'd be safe from the

  Come on, how wide can this fire line be?  Naline was
safely tucked in my arms, but I could feel her shaking and
shivering like crazy.  Poor thing was probably scared to
death.  "Hang on, Kitten, just a little bit longer."  Come
on, where's the edge of this inferno?

  Speaking of the devil, I took two more steps and the view
immediately cleared.  We emerged from the writhing wall of
rising black smoke and blazing flames, past the windy vacuum
zone at the edge of the fire, and into the charred remains
of the grasslands.  The fire had already burned everything in
sight, leaving behind only a plain of cooling cinders and
charred trees.  I was struck by the sharp contrast between
the brilliant blue of the sky with the dull black remains of
the savanna.

  I located the least unpleasant spot and deposited my
precious cargo on the ashy grass.

  "You can come out now," I said with a grunt as I tried to
find the least painful way to sit down, "we're okay now."

  "Are you sure?"  She stuck her little face out of the
bundle of thermal sheeting and checked around to make sure I
wasn't lying.  "Aaaah!  What happened to you?"

  "It's just a helmet.  Hang on," I took the protective
headgear off, "see?"  "Oh," I pointed at the respirator,
"you can spit it out now."  She made a face as she took the
unfamiliar thing out of her mouth.

  "My, how you've grown," I commented with a smile as I
brushed the soot off her face.  She really had; she seemed
about twice as big as last time I'd seen her.  That would
make her, what, a lioness teenager?  I'd need to look that
up when I got back.  "Hold still."  The golden tan of her
lion fur appeared once again as I dusted the black ashes off

  "You okay, Cruz?"  She gave me a concerned look-over.
Hey, broken ribs ain't easy to hide.  You try it sometime.

  "Just bopped a rib, Kitten.  Don't worry about it, I've
got more."  I slumped forward and rested my elbows on my
crossed legs, the least uncomfortable position I could find.
"Just gimme a second to catch my breath."

  "You look great, Kitten."  And she did.  Except for the
soot, I mean.  She was now a little larger than your average
dog, but she was unmistakably feline.  Her expressive green
eyes hadn't changed a bit, they still had that intelligent
glint.  And the same indefinable charm that could bend my
will like a blade of grass.  I could argue and rage and hold
my own against crusty old colonels and dogged sea captains,
but there was something about Naline... something that
bypassed all my flinty defenses and could make me act
against my better judgment simply with that irritatingly
wonderful look she had.  Good thing for me that she was on
my side.

  "No I don't."  Naline examined herself critically.  "I'm
covered with black stuff and I smell like smoke and my fur
is all disarrayed and..."  Out of the corner of her eye I
caught a glance that said "feel free to interrupt me and
contradict me anytime."

  "Yes you do."  She raised one eyebrow, looking as pitiful
as a lost kitten seeking its mother.  "You do," I insisted.
"You've grown a lot since I last saw you and... hey, let me
see those claws."

  Despite Naline's best efforts to hide it, I could feel the
pride leaking out of her as she splayed out her set of
feline claws.  "Wow," I took her front paw in my hands and
tested the tip of each claw, "nice.  Very sharp."  Her wrist
had gotten bigger too, and the bracelet was beginning to get
a little tight.  I'd have to get her another one for next
time.  She was growing into the powerful predator I knew
she'd one day be.  I was proud as peaches.

  She suddenly turned and looked into the horizon as if she
had just remembered something really important.  "I better
go and find my pride."

  "Hey, not to worry, I'm sure they're alright.  All the
same, you'd better go."

  "Okay."  She got up to leave.  "Cruz," she gave me a look
that said thanks more effectively than a platinum thank-you
card, "thanks for coming."

  I smiled a smile that said "you're welcome," and brushed
her sooty chin with my finger.  "Anytime you need me, just
call, and I'll be here."

  "Thanks."  She turned to go, and walked away into the
charred, blackened hills of the savanna.  Clouds of ash
accompanied her every footfall.  I needn't worry, she'd be

  She would, but I wouldn't if I didn't see a doctor soon.
A broken rib is a serious thing if left unattended.  I hit a
few buttons on my forearm computer unit and ... Flash!
There I wasn't.

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  "Alright, alright, I'm glad to see you too."  Naline wasn't
done saying hello, not by a long shot.  She was taking full
advantage of my being temporarily incapacitated by inflicting
her greetings on me as vigorously as she could.  She rubbed
her furry little head on my face as if I were a magic lamp.
If she didn't quit soon, a genie was liable to come out of my
nose or something.  "Come on, let me up."

    Naline gave me a great big smile as she skipped off me,
allowing me a second's respite to sit up and catch my breath
again and recover from her energetic greeting.  I managed to
get all the fur out of my mouth just as she skipped on my

   "Well, did you bring it?"  Naline asked, brimming with

  You know, when I was a little kid and Gramma had come home
to visit, I never asked how her trip had been or whether she
was tired or not.  The only thing I wanted to know was what
she had brought me.  Naline had the exact same expression on
her bright little face.  Kids is kids.

  "Sure," I nodded at my backpack, "just you lead the way."

  Naline smiled gleefully and impatiently skipped about as I
got up.  She led us into the ocean of grass, chatting as
interminably as ever.  She updated me on the present world
situation.  Everything from who liked whom in the pride, to
what her father had told the hyenas the previous day.  Same
Naline I remembered, full to the canines in chatter.

  "Say, uh, Cruz..." she paused momentarily as she glanced
up at me, "what's wrong with your hair?"

  "My hair?"

  "Yeah, it's different."

  "Like how different?  Is there a bug on it?  Grass?  What?"

  "No, it's...," she looked it over critically, "shorter."

  "Oh.  I got a haircut."

  "What's a haircut?

  "Well, unlike yous lions, our hair grows and grows..."

  "Like a mane?"

  "Yes, like a mane.  But, unlike a mane, it doesn't look
good long.  Not on me, anyway.  So I cut it short."


  "Because it looks bad."


  "Yeah.  Over here, it kinda poofs up," I teased my hair to
show her how, "and over here, it curls over like thus, so it
looks dumb."

  "I think it would look good."

  "Yeah, well, I didn't come all this way  to discuss
hairdos, right?"

  And I hadn't.  I had come for a picnic.  I know that sounds
kinda crazy, picnicking with a lion, right?  Well, it sounds
crazy to me.  Anyone who flashes light years with a cooler
full of foodstuffs and other such gastronomical sundries
strapped to his back to meet with a friend for lunch, and
that friend happens to be from the species pantera leo,
absolutely has to be certifiably crazy.

  So call me crazy.

  Last month we had been talking about what different animals
tasted like.  I'd never eaten zebra or wildebeest or
elephants or rhinoceroses or any such comestibles, and I was
curious.  Naline had enlightened me on the subject and
instructed me on the finer points of savanna gastronomy.

  For my part, I had told her all about all the different
things I'd eaten in my travels.  Believe you me, when you're
in the business I'm in, you get to eat all kinds of things
you never thought you would.  You remember when you were
three years old and your mother would tell you not to put
such-and-such in your mouth?  Well, that's all that one eats
in some worlds.  You get used to it.  After a long while.
I'd lost a lot of weight during my first few months of
freelance mercenarying.

  So anyway, I promised that I'd bring an assorted hodge-
podge sampler of all the various things that could be found
in some of the more exotically stocked markets around town.
And that's exactly what I'd done, much to the excitement of
my little lioness friend.

  She led us to a large cluster of thickly foliaged trees.
Inside was a nice, inviting clearing that just begged to be
picnicked in.  We found the quietest, shadiest spot and sat
down to business.

  "Ready?"  I took off the backpack cooler and set it up
between Naline and me.

  "Yeah."  You know what they say about curiosity killing
the cat?  Naline seemed like she was losing a life a minute,
wanting to know what goodies I'd brought.

  "Keep in mind you might not like some of these."  I put my
hand on the lid and opened it ever-so-slowly.  You could see
her eyes widen in anticipation.  I moved even more slowly,
letting the lid creak as it opened.  Naline was gritting her
teeth and going crazy with impatience.  Tee-hee.  I'm so


  "Alright alright.  Here we go."  Lemme see, where to
start?  "Okay, Kitten, this first little item," I reached
into the cooler and got out a small slab of meat about the
size of an apple, "is all that they eat in Sentres Homitai.
It comes from a deep sea mollusk that's ugly as sin, but it's
tasty as my uncle is wide.  And he's pretty wide."

  "Gimme gimme!"  I had her eating out of the palm of my
hand.  Literally.  She didn't even pause to taste it; it was
gone faster'n it takes me to write the word "zip."

  "So?  How was it?"

  "Not too bad.  Gimme more."  She licked her chops in eager

  "Okay.  This next item is eaten more in the desert regions
of the outlying territories.  They call it, well, I've never
actually been able to pronounce it properly, but it's rather
popular."  I cut it in two and gave her half.  I munched on
the other half because, you know what?, I really like this

  Naline rolled the morsel in her mouth, first on one side
and then on the other, savoring it with every taste bud she
had.  She chewed a bit and looked all around as she tasted
and swallowed.  I've seen culinary judges that make less of a
show of tasting things.  She finally delivered her veredict:
"A little dry."  Pbah, what did she know?

  "Next on the menu," I produced a teeny bit of meat about
the size of a grape.

  "What?  That?"

  If I'd brought nothing but a single bread crumb, she
wouldn't have been able to make a more disappointed and
disheartened face.  She had probably expected a gigantic
steak or a whole side of beef, and I had instead brought out
a teeny weeny bit of avian chow.  Naline looked at it as
derisively as one would look at rotten eggs marinating in
spoiled milk.

  "It's a small tropical bird dipped in spices and smoke-
cured for four months."

  "That's a bird?"  She didn't seem impressed.

  "Well, I didn't say it was an eagle.  Here."  I tossed the
minuscule bird in her direction.

  She caught it with one swift flick of her tongue.  Her
expression instantly changed from one of derision to one of
extreme surprise.  "Holy... oh... geez...!"

  I had somehow forgotten to tell Naline that these little
critters are powerfully and fiercely hot like nothing else
I'd ever tried.  Some restaurants serve them along with an
anesthetic drink for afterwards.  First time I'd had one, I
drank two.

  "Oh, WOW!  Aaahh... that's hot!"  She panted and wheezed,
her tongue hanging out a foot and a half.  I think I saw
smoke coming off of it.

  "Quick, eat one of these."  I took out another little
tidbit from the cooler and offered it to her in my
outstretched fingers.

  "Naa-aah."  Naline shook her head no.  She said something
that somewhat resembled "I don't trust you anymore."

  "Come on!  These things put out the fire."  She gave me a
doubtful look.  "They're made from the liver of another
tropical bird that eats these first birds like popcorn.
They don't taste too great, but they put out the fire real

  She gave me a look that somehow let me know that if I was
tricking her and giving her something that would make her
predicament even worse, she would do nothing less than bite
me.  I knew better.

  "Come on, Kitten, before it really starts to burn."  That
was threat enough for her, and she ate it with record-
breaking avidity.

  "Aaahhhh," her shoulders slumped in relief, "that's
better."  She gave me an accusing look, "you did that on

  "Me?"  I acted as if she'd deeply hurt my feelings.

  "Yeah, you."  Her reproachful gaze quickly faded away as
her attention was once more drawn to the cooler full of
goodies.  "What else did you bring?  And no tricks."

  "Okay, no tricks."

  We spent all morning sampling the large variety of things
I'd brought.  And you know what?  I can't think of a better
way to spend a morning.

                                        - 0 -

  "Okay, so let me get this straight.  You lions hunt and
kill other animals, and you're telling me that they don't

  "No.  Well, not as such."

  Naline and I were lazing under the barely sufficient shade
of a hilltop tree.  The hill wasn't very high, but it offered
a great view of the savanna grasslands.  It was late
afternoon, and the relative cool of the evening was beginning
to replace the oven heat of the day.  I had flashed in early
that afternoon and we had wandered the savanna grasslands for
a while before settling down for a nap.  We had been talking
for a while and had presently wandered into the subject of

  You see, Naline had finally attained the sufficient size
and skill required to go out hunting with the pride
lionesses.  Recently she had been on her first real honest-
to-goodness, catch-them-and-eat-them, do-or-die hunt, and she
was explaining to me how things worked around here.

  "What do you mean 'not as such?'  You lions purposely get
together, stalk, chase, kill and eat another living being
that has just as much right to live as you do, and you're
telling me that they aren't upset about it?"

  "Of course they're upset.  But they accept it.  They know
that that's just the way things are."

  "They accept it?"


  "Are they stupid?"

  "No, they know that those are the rules.  We hunt them to
eat, and they try to get away."

  "Rules?  You're not playing a game, you know."

  "No, it's not a game, it's survival.  We all know the
rules, and we live and die by them."  Naline saw my next
question coming, and answered it before I could even ask it.
"Simply put, we try our hardest to hunt them and eat them,
and they try their hardest to get away.  Even if it means
seriously injuring or even killing their hunters."

  "How rude."

  "No, it's just the way things are.  These are the rules
which we all know and live by.  We know the risks and the
rewards, we know what it means to be the hunter and the

  "And they don't take it personally?  If someone was trying
to kill me and eat me, I think I would."

  "Of course not, they know as well as we do that those are
the rules of the game."  Naline was getting frustrated by my
apparent lack of understanding.  "We don't do it... I
mean..."  She stared ahead for a while, frowning and

  "Well, you hunt, right, Cruz?"

  "Yes, I hunt."

  "Why do you hunt?"

  "To eat."

  "And what would happen if you didn't hunt?"

  "I'd go buy something to eat."

  "Buy?"  Naline was momentarily taken aback.  Buy?  New

  "Yes, well, you see, where I come from, there's lots and
lots of food available for everyone to eat.  And there
really is no need for anyone to hunt because all you do is
go and get food from the corner grocery."

  "So you don't need to hunt?"

  "No.  There's plenty for everybody."

  "Then why do you do it?"

  "You mean 'you,' as in 'everybody where I come from,' or
'you,' as in 'me personally'?"

  "You, Cruz.  Why do you hunt?"

  "Because I'm here, not there, and I can't just go off and
buy food whenever I want it."

  "But you could bring it, like you did that one time."


  "But you don't."


  "So you hunt and kill, even though you don't have need."

  "Well, yes... I suppose you could say that."  I didn't
like the way this conversation was going.  She had somehow
managed to turn the tables on me and put me on the defensive.
How was it that she always did that?

  "You come from a land of plenty, where you have all you
could possibly want, and come here, where you hunt, even
though you don't have to, and kill other animals, when you
could have brought food from home.

  "Well, when you put it that way..."  Why was it that I felt
like I'd been caught with my hand in the cookie jar?  Hey, we
were supposed to be talking about Naline, not me.

  "That's horrible!"

  "Beg pardon?"

  "We hunt not because we like to or enjoy it as
entertainment, but because we must.  We either hunt or die.
You do it when you have no need.  That is the worst thing
I've ever heard of!"

  "Hey, I... that is... ahh..."  Well, wasn't this peachy?
Not only had she put me on the hot seat, she'd turned the
heat up to 'crispy.'  Now it was my turn to look frustrated.
I caught Naline smiling triumphantly out of the corner of my
eye.  "Hey, don't smirk at me."

  "Am I wrong?"

  "No, it's just that..."  Oh, might as well admit it, she
had me on the canvas, pinned and down for the count.  "Okay,"
I sighed in defeat, "you got me.  I never expected a predator
to convince me that my hunting was wrong, but you did."  Her
grin got bigger and she puffed out her chest in victory.
"You lions hunt out of need and I don't.  I'll quit hunting
from now on.  Will that make you happy?"

  "Quite."  If she'd been smiling any harder, her teeth would
have fallen out.  "Oh, don't sulk."

  "I'm not sulking."  Actually, I was; I hate it when I'm
wrong.  Rrrrgh.

  "Yes you are."  She leaned over and rubbed her head on my
shoulder, purring like a kitten.  "Will you smile for me?"
She gracefully batted her eyelashes, flashing her striking
emerald eyes.  "Please?  A smile?"

  "Hmmph."  No, I wasn't going to let her win.  Come what
may, I wasn't going to give in and get in a good mood.  She
upped the ante and brushed and stroked against my back with
her soft furry side, as if I was her most favorite person in
the whole wide world.

  "Pleeeease?"  She laid her head on my lap and playfully
swatted my arm with her tail.  She was purring like a
chainsaw and exuding charm like nobody's business.  That was
it, that was too much for me.  I broke down and laughed out
loud.  How could I not?

  "You made me laugh," I frowned, feigning offense, "and now
you must pay."  I flashed what I hoped was an evil-looking

  "No!"  Naline pretended to be scared, but she was unable
to wholly suppress her good-natured smile.

  "Yes!  And now I'm going to...," I raised my hand and
dramatically flexed my fingers, "tickle you!"

  "Nooo," she squealed.  Through the years, I had learned
exactly where her most ticklish spots were, and I intended
to exploit them fully - every single one of them.  "You'll
have to catch me first!"  She quickly jumped out of my lap
and gave me an "I dare you to catch me" look.

  "You're easy to catch."  I sprung at her and caught nothing
but a handful of air.

  "Missed me."  She smiled a self-satisfied smile.

  I lunged again, this time missing her by mere inches.

  "You're too slow."

  She was right.  Despite all my training and combat
experience, she was still naturally faster and more agile
than me.  Except that I could...

  Flash!  And I was right on top of her.

  "Nooo!  That's cheating!"  I had her firmly by the neck,
tickling her like there was no tomorrow.  She laughed
hysterically and struggled to break free.  "You're cheating!"

  "All's fair in love and war, Kitten."

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  "Oooh," Naline rolled on her back and stretched her little
kitten paws in the air.  Her great big bellyful of food made
it look like she'd swallowed a cannonball, "I ate too much!"

  She had.  And so had I.  We had emptied the cooler full of
food and now we were laying in the shade, getting sleepy in
the warm afternoon.  We had sampled meats and cold cuts and
steaks and birds and fishes and such until we had eaten more
than any living creature ought to be allowed to.

  "It's good for you."

  "Everybody in the pride is going to wonder where I got all
this food."

  "Eh, just tell them you caught a rhinoceros."

  "I can't tell them that," she giggled at the thought,
"they'd never believe it."

  "Okay, tell them you found a recently expired herd of
elephants and got to eating them all."

  "Noo, then they'll want to know where it is so we can all
share it."

  "This is harder than I thought.  Just tell them you have a
friend mercenary that flashes in from parts unknown every so
often and stuffs you full of food."

  We both glanced at each other.  "Naah," we shook our heads
together with a smile.

  "Why don't you just charm them?  All's you got to do is
bat your long eyelashes and look coy and innocent..."

  "Like this?"  She tilted her head just so and flashed her
big green eyes, making the single most innocent face
imaginable.  You might have caught her breaking into your
house, stealing your valuable stuff and carrying it all out
your front door while she set fire to everything else.  But
when she made that face, you would have found it impossible
to believe that she had had anything at all in the world to
do with it.

  "Yeah, that one."  It was uncanny how innocent she could
look.  "You know, Kitten, it's a good thing you haven't gone
into crime."

  "Why's that?"  She responded with a silly grin.

  "Because you could commit any single unimaginably awful
crime, and whenever they came to arrest you, all you'd have
to do is make that face and they'd let you go."


  "Yeh."  Hmm, it perhaps would be better to put a little
disclaimer at this point.  "But you wouldn't, right?"

  "Do what?"  She made her innocent face again.

  "That.  That face you just made.  To charm people and make
them do your bidding and get out of trouble."


  "Maybe you better not.  Or I'll show up and tell them how
you really aren't as nice and cute and innocent as they

  "They wouldn't believe you."

  "Well, then I'd have to somehow convince you aren't as
wonderful and graceful as they make you out to be."  A bright
idea occurred to me.  "Maybe I'll tell them about that time
when you stepped in the ostrich doo-doo."

  "Nooo," she flipped right up and gave me a pleading look,
"you wouldn't"

  "Yes I would."  She looked positively horrified.  "And then
I'd tell them about that other time when it was

  "No!  Don't tell them that story!"  If there's anything
that little girls Naline's age can't stand is to be
embarrassed.  Who had the advantage now, Kitten?  Scratch one
up for 'ol Cruz.

  "Or maybe..." Which dreadfully shameful story could I bring
up next?

  "Not the one with the giraffe!"  She had guessed it.

  "Well, I hadn't thought about that one, but thanks for
suggesting it."  That got her.

  She scrambled up from where she was laying and jumped on my
chest.  "You won't!"  She examined my expression, trying to
read my intentions.  "You wouldn't!"

  "Hmm, well, it is a very good story.  Then when the giraffe
said..." I chuckled a bit, bobbing her up and down on my

  "If you ever tell anyone that story, I'll be very mad at
you and never be your friend again."  There was more pleading
than indignation in her voice.

  "Let me think about it."  I rolled my eyes around for a
while and pretended to be in deep mental deliberation.  You
know, it's great fun to mess with kid's minds.  It's one of
my favorite hobbies.  And Naline's is the most fun mind to
mess with.  I let her stew for a little while longer until
she seemed like she wouldn't be able to maintain her sanity
any longer.  "Oh, okay, I won't ever tell."


  "Kitten, you know you're my favorite little lioness and
that I'd never ever do anything to embarrass you."  She
didn't seem at all certain of that fact.  "I think you're
the nicest, kindest, most wonderfully friendly kitten I've
ever met."


  "Yeh.  Really."  I'd gotten her a little riled up, and this
was going to take somewhat more finessing to get her all
settled again.  "I mean it."  She still looked a bit

  "Hey, how could I ever say anything bad about you?  You're
smart, quick on your feet, and sharp as a thistle."

  "What's a thistle?"

  "It's a carnivorous plant that eats really cute lionesses
for breakfast."

  A small grin broke through.  "It is not."

  "See, that's what I'm talking about.  Smart, cute, and
intelligent to boot."  She tried not to show how pleased she
was, but it was leaking out really badly.  "Won't you smile
for me?"

  She attempted to hold it in, but was being less and less
successful with each passing second.  "Please?"

  Finally, she couldn't contain herself any longer and let
free a bright cheerful smile that probably had all the boy
lions drooling after her.  Mission accomplished.

  "Say, would you mind?"  I nodded off to the side, "I can't
breathe."  She gently stepped off me and curled up into a big
furry ball, purring happily beside me.  If I had been able
to, I would have purred too.  I mean, how could I not be
happy?  I had my best kitten friend beside me, we'd eaten
tons of great chow, and now we had the whole remainder of the
day to nap and chat and rest in the shade.  What more could I
ask for?

  I sighed deeply and looked up into the sky.  Specks of
sunlight flickered through the leafy canopy overhead, forming
a shining, living picture of green and gold.  A gentle wind
rustled in the trees, filling the air with just the kind of
whispering murmur that makes you relaxed and happy all over,
inside and out.

  "Say, how's your parents?  Your mom, your dad?"

  "They're okay.  Same as always."

  "Brother, sister?"  Naline had been part of a litter of
three.  Or so she had told me.

  "Well, he's finally beginning to grow a decent mane.  My
sister's learning how to hunt, but she's not as good as me."
I sensed the pride in that last statement.

  "Say," I rolled over to my side so I could get a good
gander at Naline, "how's Phil?"

  Phil, by the way, was Naline's beau.  Or he was, last time
I saw her.  He had been so for a while.  Come to think of it,
the first time I ever heard about Phil was back in the jungle
when Naline and I first met.

  Incidentally, Phil wasn't his real name, but a pseudonym.
Naline was kinda shy about telling me, a then total stranger,
the name of her then love interest.  So to protect his
anemonemity, as Naline had put it, we agreed to call him
Phil.  The name had stuck, and we called him Phil whenever
we talked about him.  Hey, I respect people's anemones.

  "Oh, he's fine."

  "Has he realized yet that he's the luckiest lion in the
savanna for having you as a friend?"  Back then she'd
complained that he was real nice in private, but real un-
nice when in public.  I'd told Naline it was just a stage he
was going through, and that he would change with time.

  "Yeah, I guess."

  "What, doesn't he still like you?"

  "Yeh."  I'd heard that tone of voice before.  It had always
come from disappointed girls that weren't too happy with the
guys they were with.

  "Hey," I gently touched her chin with my finger and slowly
turned her head so I could look at her straight in the eye,
"don't tell me he's still not over that silly stage."

  I had told Naline that acting mean towards girls was just
a temporary stage of life that all boys went through.  That
is unless... hmm.  A troubling thought intruded in my mind.
There were some young guys that didn't mistreat girls because
they thought they were yucky.  There were some guys that
mistreated girls just because they were jerks.

  "No, not yet"

  "Hey, don't let it bother you.  I'm sure he'll get over it
real quick and then treasure you forever like a rare and
precious jewel."

  "What's a jewel?"

  I gently tapped the tip of her nose.  "It's you."

                                        - 0 -

  That was too much for me.  "That's it," I said as I arose,
my eyes blazing with anger, "now he's done it."

  Phil and Naline had been fuzzy towards one another for
something like three years, ever since her kitten days.  Back
then he'd been kinda nice and kinda mean.  Since then, the
nice had given way to the unpleasant by a wide margin, and
he constantly had her in tears.  Unfortunately, Naline had a
bad case of the fuzzy-wuzzies for him, and she couldn't see
clear enough to dump him like the bad trash that he was.

  I'd gotten the call late at night and I'd flashed into the
savanna to find my best lioness friend in tears.  Tonight's
episode had started when Naline had found out that Phil had
been - ahem - friendly with another lioness behind her back.
When she'd confronted him, he'd gotten angry and smacked
Naline in the face.

  He'd bullied, he'd pushed, he'd abused, but he'd never
physically hurt her.  But now he'd crossed that line.  Now
he'd hurt my little Kitten.  Now he was going to pay.

  "What are you going to do?"  She paced worriedly alongside
me as I stomped down the savanna towards the Rock.  She tried
to read my face as I ground my teeth and uttered highly
impolite things under my breath.  Her eyes followed my every
move as I unholstered my gun and shoved a full clip of
explosive bullets into it.  I chambered two rounds into the
twin barrels with a metallic 'chik-clack' that echoed down
the savanna grasslands.

  She immediately understood what I was about to do.  "No!"
She swiftly jumped in my way, blocking my path, her eyes
pleading with mine.  "Don't, please!"

  "Kitten, this..." keep cool, now... calm and control...
"this disrespectful, vulgar goon has done nothing but treat
you badly for years."  I stepped around her and continued
towards the Rock.  "And now I'm going to put a stop to it for

  "No, please don't."  She once again blocked my way and
pleaded with me with tears in her eyes.  "I love him."

  How many times had I heard that story before?  Too many.
Boy meets girl, girl falls crazily in love, boy treats girl
like sewer scum, girl says she loves him and lives unhappily
ever after, convinced she's somehow going to change him.  I'd
seen it too many times in too many places, and now it was
happening to Naline.  It's enough to make me wanna spit.

  "Doesn't he call you names?  Doesn't he make you feel
unloved?  Doesn't he make you feel worthless??"  Her gaze
fell to the ground.  I kneeled before her and gently lifted
her chin until our eyes met.  I softly brushed her bloody
cheek.  "Didn't he do this to you?"

  Her answer was but a whisper.  "But I love him."

  I tried to reason with her.  I tried to convince her.  I
tried a hundred ways to make her see that he simply was not
the guy she thought he was.

  But, alas, I was unsuccessful.

  Her only reply to my every argument and objection was "But
I love him."  How could I argue against that with mere logic?

  I had been in this situation before, and the rational
approach had failed me every time, even as it was failing
now.  Perhaps a new strategy was needed.

  "You know what?"  I abruptly stood up and pushed her away.
"I think he's right."  I took a few steps and turned away
from her.  "I think he's right about everything."

  I couldn't see her expression, but I could feel her
incredulity and shock.  "Wh.. what?"  The pain and hurt in
her voice was almost too much for me to take.

  "I think he's right.  About you.  About everything."  Did
your parents ever tell you that it hurt them more than it
hurt you when they punished you?  They were right.  It tore
my heart to say the words, and I prayed like crazy that my
gamble would work.

  "Not only are you clumsy and slow," I felt her cringe at
the words, "you're also dimwitted and unattractive.  Heck,
you're lucky any male lion would even look at you."

  "C-Cruz...?"  Her face quivered with pain and unbelief.  I
turned around and saw a crushed lioness, heartbroken and
afraid, tears burning with the hurt of betrayal.  I longed
to end the charade and hug her and comfort her, but this was
for her own good.  My poker face had never been so strained.

  "I'm sorry I found you in the jungle.  I'm sorry I ever
led you back."  I pointed in the direction of the Rock, "I'm
sorry I burdened your pride with a useless mouth to feed.
You should go running to Phil and beg him to take you back."

  By this point, all Naline could do was stare with empty
eyes and sob.  I slowly approached her and whispered into
her ear as I kneeled next to her.  "You're worthless."

  "I...," she looked about helplessly, tears in her eyes and
confusion in her heart.

  "Face it, you're no good, a nobody,"  I leaned closer and
whispered forcefully, "you're worthless."

  "I..."  Her mouth moved as she tried to say something, but
nothing but sobs came out.

  "A worthless lion if ever I saw one."

  "I..."  Her eyes closed tight and every muscle in her
body quivered with pain.

  Everybody has a point beyond which they will not tolerate
any more abuse.  Some will put up with a lot, others with
none.  Some don't take any guff from anybody, others let
themselves be used as floor mats.  Up to this point, Naline
had let what's-his-face walk all over her.  She'd let him
push, use and abuse.  It was my hope that if I prodded her
just enough, she'd come to that psychological point where
one's had enough and won't put up with it anymore.

  But I knew I was pushing both her and my luck a little far.
Perhaps just a little too far.

   I gripped her head in my hands and forced her to face my
withering, despising expression.  "Face it," I gritted my
teeth and spat out the words, "you're worthless!"

  That did it.  That pushed her over the edge.  A wave of
rage burst through Naline and her face steeled in anger.  She
roared with white-hot fury, "I AM NOT WORTHLESS!!"  Naline
exploded with a powerful blow that hurled me back into the

  Next thing I remember was grass in my mouth and stars
dancing before my eyes.

  "Cruz!"  Naline was right at my side, "Gods, I am so
sorry!"  Her tears of anger had turned to tears of regret.
She helped me sit up with the gentlest care.  "I am so very,
very sorry," she apologized as she looked me over with
motherly concern, "are you okay?"

  A stream of hot blood flowed from my neck somewhere.  Just
a scratch, nothing fatal.  My expression must have been an
open book, because she immediately read the whole thing in
my eyes.  She saw right through everything I had been saying
and understood exactly what I had been trying to do.  "Oh,
gods, I am so, so sorry."  She gently doctored the wound
with her tongue as she sobbed.

  "I've been so blind!"  A torrent of hurt feelings and
sudden realization poured forth as everything became clear.
Naline suddenly stopped and looked right into the center of
my soul with her large emerald eyes.  "But I might have
killed you!  Why did you do it?"

  I smiled as I gingerly turned my neck.  "Love hurts."

  What else was there to do?  We cried together, alone in
the darkness of the savanna night.

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  We laid back and enjoyed the sleepiness creeping up and
taking us into its warm, inviting arms.  There's nothing like
eating like crazy, then taking a long nap in the great
outdoors to get you relaxed all over.  I thought of how lucky
I was to have a friend like Naline and being able to see her
every once in a while and share great times like this.  I
think if everybody had a great friend they could look forward
to seeing, then the whole universe would be a better place.

  Naline stretched herself, took a cursory glance around, and
snuggled into a tight furry ball.  She let out a soft sigh an
fell promptly asleep by my side.

  Sometimes, in this crazy topsy-turvy, overworked, high-tech
universe of ours, you gotta take time out to smell the roses.
Or nap with the lions, whichever's your favorite.  I'd known
folks that had worked themselves to an early grave, and I had
decided long ago that such a fate was never going to happen
to me.  Not if I could help it.  I mean, you gotta work hard
and everything, but there's more to life than just that.  I
suppose that's what the gently purring feline beside me
reminded me of.

  Everybody oughta have a nap with a cat at least once a day.
It would make the universe better.  I can think of at least a
dozen wars that wouldn't have happened if some people had
just got themselves a cat and had taken the time to nap and
rest and not become power-hungry megalomaniacs bent on
universal domination.

  I watched Naline's little body as it rose and fell with
every purr.  Her leg twitched momentarily.  She was dreaming.
How cute!  A stray beam of sunlight glinted off her bracelet.
Made it look as if Naline was wearing a golden star.

  It occurred to me that, as time went by, Naline had gotten
to calling me more and more when there really weren't any
emergencies around.  Just to talk.  To be sociable and chat.
At first, she'd only called me when she had been stuck
between the proverbial rocks and hard places that abounded in
her neighborhood.  But her calls had gotten less and less
emergencical and more and more social.

  It appeared that I had become something of a confidante or
advisor to Naline.  Instead of being the emergency call guy,
it seemed she'd found in me an impartial third party on whom
she could dump and unload all of her troubles without worry
of it getting back to other members of her pride.

  Hey, you know as well as I do that sometimes it's easier
to talk with a total stranger about heavy-duty, sensitive,
compromising things than with those close to you.  Not that
I was a total stranger, mind you.  But, you know, sometimes
there's stuff you can't talk with your parents about.  Or
things that you can't tell anyone because they might tell
and it might fall in the ears of someone you didn't intend.

  So here was me, the non-involved third party, the impartial
objective observer, the guy on the sidelines, the bleacher
warmer, the perfect listener.  For my part, I was glad to
play the part of shoulder to cry on.  Anything for my little

  An bright orange bird lit upon a nearby branch and started
singing away like it was the star attraction.  I quickly
glanced at Naline to see if the sound disturbed her slumber.
I wanted in the worst way to shush the bird and get it to go
away, but I couldn't think of a way to do it that wouldn't
make more noise than it was making already.  I wished birds
had a remote control 'mute' button that I could press.  But
they didn't.  I guess nature wasn't built for my convenience.

  Naline didn't seem to be the least bit bothered by the
singing, so I quit straining my brain in search of ways of
getting the bird to be quiet.  Come to think of it, its
singing was quite pleasant.  Pretty, almost.

  Alright, I hear you fussing at me, telling me to quit
being an old curmudgeon and to lighten up a bit and quit
being irritated by innocent songbirds.  You're right.  I
really had no business being bothered.  Matter of fact, I
had every reason to be as happy as I'd ever been.

  I had just eaten a great big lunch, I was sitting in a
shady woods getting sleepy, and I had my best lioness friend
napping next to me.  What more could I ask for?  Nothing much
else, I don't think.  The thought immediately brightened me
up and I actually started to enjoy the trilling tones of the
orange songbird.  I wondered if it accepted tips.

  Yeah, come to think of it, I was pretty happy just sitting
here in the savanna grasslands with Naline.  I mean, I enjoy
my profession just fine and all.  I enjoy shooting at things
and blowing things up and fighting bad guys and flashing all
over creation and causing interglobal political incidents as
much as the next guy.  Who doesn't?  But this was different.
Sitting here, I mean.

  Right here there were no big political interests at stake,
no lives in danger, no riches or fortunes on the balance, no
crucial split-second decisions to be made, no nerve-racking
hostage situations, no imminent disasters, no just about
anything that makes the life of a freelance mercenary what
it is.

  There was just me and the trees and Naline.

  And I was happy.

  I was sure there was a lesson here to be learned somewhere.
I suppose if I'd been a more intelligent and observant
individual, I would have learned that lesson and figured out
how to use it in future situations, finding innumerable and
useful and profitable applications for it in the years to
come, making my life happier and more enjoyable, and
exponentially increasing my value as a person and worth as an

  But being the person that I actually was, I just fell
asleep, unlearned and unprofited.

                                        - 0 -

  Flash!  And there I was, at some inhumane, God-forsaken,
much-too-early hour of the morning.  It was dark and I was
tired and my bed wasn't anywhere around.  On top of all this,
there was a massive chorus of deeply irritating crickets
singing away like a cathedral choir.

  "I hope this is important, Kitten.  Have you any idea what
time it is back home?"

  "Oh, Cruz, I've met this wonderful new guy!"  She
pronounced the word 'wonderful' as if it was her favoritest
word in the entire world.

  "That's it?  You made me come halfway across the cosmos to
tell me you've found a new beau?"  If my tone of voice
sounded irritated, she didn't even notice.  Matter of fact,
she didn't seem to notice anything I'd said.

  "He's sooo handsome," she verily glided on air, a dreamy
glaze over her eyes, "and he's sooo nice!"

  "You realize I have to meet an ambassador tomorrow to try
and explain that I didn't mean to blow his house up?"

  "Well, I didn't just now meet him, he's actually been in
the pride for as long as I can remember.  It's just that...
I've never noticed him before."  A silly smile formed on her
face as she glided away on a cloud of giddy bliss.

  "Hello?  Is anyone there?"  I waved my hand in front of
her face, but the stars in her eyes sparkled on, wholly
undisturbed.  "Earth to Kitten, annoyed mercenary speaking.
Do you read me?"  A dreamy giggle was my only answer.

  "He's nice and polite and charming and handsome and nice
and polite and charming."  She smiled a smile that lit up
the night.

  Unconsciously, a smile formed on my face too, and the
crummy cloud over my head quickly dissipated.  Blast it all,
it's just not possible to stay annoyed when one's favorite
little Kitten is swooning from love-sickness.  "Is that so?"

  "Yes, he's just perfect!"  She floated around me in her
billowy cloud of happiness.  "He's handsome and strong and
smart and witty and funny."

  "Okay, stop it, you're making me sick."

  "He reminds me of you."

  "Really?  Tell me more about him."

  "And his eyes... ooh, his eyes are sooo romantic."

  "Optically well-endowed, is he?  Anything else?"

  "Like what?"  She seemed surprised that there could be
anything else superlative that she might have missed.

  "Like, does he like you?"

  "Oooh, that's the funny part!"  She laughed a silly giggle.
"I think he's liked me all along.  All this time.  And I
hadn't noticed.  Isn't that wonderful?"

  "Yeah."  Naline had been all kinds of bummed after she had
broken things off with Phil and her father had kicked him out
of the pride.  She needed a new person to befriend and share
things with and fall in love forever with.  For my part, I
was thrilled that she'd found him.  "What's his name?"

  "You tell me," she responded with a playful smile.

  "We still want anemonemity?"

  My answer was an affirmative, indicated by the vigorous
up-and-down shaking of her head.  Man, this love sickness was
serious stuff, she wasn't even thinking straight.

  "Okay.  How about 'Robespierre'?"

  She shook her head 'no.'

  "Manganoothres Upbesplaar?"

  More negative head shaking.  "Shorter."


  "Yeah..." she mulled it over for a couple of seconds, "I
like that.  Yeah, Nick."  She giggled and smiled and skipped
a few steps.  "Nick.  Yeah."  She was quite pleased with
herself, I think.

  "Okay, so how exactly do you unmistakably know this Nick
guy likes you?"  She looked at me as if I was lamentably
slow-witted.  "What?  Did he tell you?"

  "As a matter of fact, y..." she couldn't finish the word.
She stood there, mouth hanging open, as if I'd hit her
'pause' button.  "Well, not in so many words, but I could

  "Oh," I crossed my arms and returned her 'lamentably slow-
witted' look right back at her, "could you?"

  "Yes I could.  He's been really nice to me and he's given
me lots and lots of compliments," I think she was trying to
reassure herself more than she was trying to convince me,
"and I've asked around and everybody thinks that he likes
me."  She nodded her head as if to say 'so there!'

  "Hey," I laughed and rubbed her chin just the way she liked
it, "I'm just ruffling your feathers, Kitten.  I'm sure he's
irresistibly love-stricken.  I bet you're everything he ever
thinks about, morning, noon and night and late night at
ungodly hours of the morning when sensible people are asleep
and not wandering about the savanna like insomniac

  "Yeah, I bet he is."  If she caught my small tweak, she
didn't let on.

  "I mean, how could he not fall irrevocably in love with a
stunning kitten like you?"  Oops, that last comment must
have pushed the elevator of her cloud of happiness another
level up, because she became even more giddy and silly.
Great, this meant another half hour of hearing how great
Nick was and how much she liked him.

  But you know what?  I didn't mind, because, hey, she was
my little Kitten.

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  I don't like waking up.  I mean, I like it right before I
wake up when I'm all relaxed and asleep and such.  And I like
it after I wake up when I'm all rested and refreshed and I'm
planning what I'm going to do that day and eat breakfast and
stuff.  I just don't like waking up.

  The physical and mental process of tearing yourself away
from the wonderfully relaxing state of sleep, into the high-
gear state of wakefulness is just unpleasant.  To me, at

  You're laying there, in the warm lap of slumber, dreaming
of nice, relaxing, pleasant things like gunfights and
combustion accelerants and such.  Next thing you know, the
cold, harsh arms of the waking process brusquely rip you
from that marvelous state, and force and push and shove
their way into your subconscious, demanding all your bodily
functions to rev up to the waking state.  It's kinda like
standing in the midst of a hundred racing vehicles while
they're all starting up their engines and revving them up
for the first time.

  Once I'm awake it's alright.  But I just don't like the
bit when I wake up.  I know, it's weird.  That's what my
therapist says.

  This particular departure from my sleeping state was
incited by an indistinct rumbling noise somewhere in the
land of the awake.  It slowly seeped into my dimly aware
subconscious, stirring up sleepy brain cells one by one
until they were all aware that something amiss was going on
outside.  Then they all got together and dinged that little
bell that lets the rest of you know that it's time to get up
and look around to see what's going on.  So I awoke.

  And it was loud.

  First thing that I noticed when I opened my eyes was that
I, the cooler formerly full of food, the leaves on the trees,
the trees themselves, and the ground under all of us was
rumbling like a rocket engine.  Next thing I noticed was that
Naline wasn't by my side anymore.

  "Kitten!"  I quickly looked around, fearing the worst.

  I soon spotted her.  She was in the far side of the
clearing, her little head stuck between two trees, looking
out into the savanna grasslands.  Whatever she was staring
at had to be causing this commotion.  It was impossible to
stand up, so I kind of trudged over on my hands and knees.
I sidled up alongside her and took a peek out between the
trees.  It was enough to make you soil your trousers.  It was
a gigantic stampede!

  Zebras.  Thousands of them.  Millions of them.  Who knew
how many?  Way too many!  And they were all racing down the
savanna hills, kicking up dust and grass and whatnot like
nobody's business.  They filled the horizon from end to end,
appearing at one end, almost flowing over the distant hills,
and disappearing at the other end, vanishing into the dusty
distance.  And kicking up an uproar like you've never heard

  "Naliiine!"  I shouted over the racket.

  "Whaaat?"  I could barely hear her.

  "What's going on?"

  She couldn't understand me over the deafening roar, so I
signaled towards the living flood of black and white and made
an inquisitive gesture.  She understood the question and
shouted out the answer.



  She drew a great big breath and yelled in my ear as loud as
she could.  This time I got it.

  Holy cheese!  In my line of work, I'd seen things whose
mere printed images alone could cause persons of average
build and valor to faint like fragile maidens and unhinge the
steadiest of individuals.  This qualified as one of them.

  Imagine millions upon millions of living creatures,
rushing, thrashing and crashing over everything in their
path.  Millions of striped, black and white dynamos, armed
with steely hooves, tearing up sod and grass and rock,
running unstoppably over the savanna.  They rose over the
hills and disappeared under the valleys like living white
water rivers, thundering as they moved.

  All of the sudden, the din got louder.  The herd was coming
closer.  First it was a few individuals.  Then a few hundred.
Then a few thousand.  Next thing you know, the entire
universe's supply of zebras was bearing down on us.

  You know the old problem of the irresistible force versus
the immovable object?  I learned long ago that there's no
such thing as an immovable object.  And I strongly doubted
that the patch of trees where Naline and I had picnicked made
enough of an immovable object to keep us safe.  We were in
deep trouble of the worst kind.

  The herd flowed around the small woods like river water
around a rock.  They charged towards us in a maddening
stream, splitting in half at the last second, rushing past
us on both sides, filling the clearing with choking dust as
they disappeared behind us.  I hoped it would stay that way.

  But it didn't.

  Here and there a zebra or two would crash past a tree as it
rushed along.  Then a few more.  Soon three or four hundred
would hit the same tree.  It was only a few seconds before it
fell and perished under the grinding hooves.  A second tree
fell.  And then a third.  I got that bad disagreeable feeling
that I get when I'm sorta sure that something injurious is
going to happen to my delicate person.  Big-bucks suit or no
big-bucks suit, if I fell beneath the pulverizing mass of
striped quadrupeds, I would certainly become a former living
being.  And I like being a present living being.

  Suddenly a zebra crashed through the clearing, tore past us
and dashed out the other side.  I knew that in less than two
seconds, that one zebra was going to be followed by thousands
more, making things very uncomfortable for Naline and me.
Time to go.  I snatched Naline up and sprung aside, just as a
striped blur thundered by, breaking up the flora in a most
disturbing way.  Trouble was, there was nowhere to run.

  There is a last-ditch maneuver that they teach you in
combat school.  A desperate, frantic gamble that you only
take as a last resort.  This was an appropriate time, I
thought.  What you do is...

  Flash!  And we were in the air.

  A couple thousand feet up, actually.  The way the maneuver
works is that, when you absolutely positively have no place
to run, you flash up into the air, find a safe zone as you
free-fall, and flash down to it.  And that's what Naline and
I had done.

  Naline screamed in terror.  I couldn't blame her.  This was
possibly the first time she'd ever been up this high and
free-fallen.  I forced her plight out of my mind, I could not
afford to get distracted now.  I desperately surveyed the
ground below for any non-zebra-covered sections of real
estate.  Trouble was, I couldn't see any.  The entire savanna
was covered from end to end in zebras.

  If I had been smart, I would have found a designated safe
zone as soon as I'd arrived on the savanna.  Something like
a cave or a fortress that I could flash into in case of an
emergency.  But since I wasn't, I was caught with too many
pots and not enough burners, unfit and unprepared.  Well,
this was no time for self-recrimination.

  We neared the ground at a worrisome rate of speed, but I
still hadn't found anywhere suitable to flash down.  Just to
be safe, I flashed up high into the air again.  Naline didn't
like that at all, not even one little bit.

  She would have been a smidgen less worried if she had known
that it didn't matter how fast we got while skydiving.  The
geniuses that came up with flashing had made it so that you
always flashed in at a standstill with respect to your
destination's frame of reference.  You could flash from a
ship going at lightspeed to the surface of a planet going
considerably slower and you wouldn't go 'splat.'  Man, I do
love those scientists!

  There were zebras to the left, there zebras to the right.
There were zebras on the ground, there were... weren't any
zebras in the water!  Yes!  I'd find a body of water and
flash down into it!  I desperately surveyed the zebra-covered
ground below for any suitable bodies of water.  There was a
small water hole.  Nope.  The river.  Nope.  Ah.  A lake.
Should be deep enough in the middle.

  Flash!  For a sliver of a fraction of a second we hung
absolutely motionless, suspended in midair, inches above the
surface of the water.  I barely had time to mentally thank
whoever it had been that had invented flashing and roll into
a ball before we hit the surface.  My dive would have never
gotten us qualified to enter any diving competitions.  Most
certainly it was neither elegant nor graceful.  But I had a
lioness in my arms and a tenth of a second to prepare, so I
think we did rather well, considering.

  Did you know that cats in general and lions in particular
don't like water?  If you'd been in the water with me, you
would have found out plenty quick.  Naline kicked and clawed
and coughed and spattered as if she'd been dropped into a vat
of acid.  I let go of her as quickly as I could and followed
her to shore, trying my best to keep her undrowned while
keeping myself unclawed.  That's hard work, you know.

  Naline and I slowly swam to shore.  I wish I'd picked a
smaller lake; this one seemed like it was a thousand miles in
diameter.  Gasping, coughing and struggling, we made it
lakeside.  We dragged ourselves on shore and collapsed
exhausted on the muddy bank.  I hoped there weren't any
crocodiles around, because I definitely wouldn't have been
able to do anything to prevent them from eating us up for

  We laid on the mud for a while, catching our breaths and
getting our minds down from the panicky, hysterical states
into which they had gotten.  I weakly turned my head and
examined Naline.  She was okay.  Or as okay as one can be
after one's been run down by a herd of zebras, fallen out of
the sky, and nearly drowned in a lake.  But she'd be alright.
None of us had any lasting damage.

  "Cruz?"  Naline coughed a couple of times, trying to catch
her breath.

  "Yeah?"  I didn't sound so aerated myself.

  "Let's never do that again."

  "Okay."  I had no objections to her most wise suggestion.

  You know, life sure is funny that way.  There you are one
second, happy as a lark, enjoying things along as if there
was nothing but you and life.  Next thing you know,
everything's turned to noise and chaos and fear, and you're
fighting for your very existence.  Life's that way.  You
never know what it's going to throw at you.

  You never know when your time is up.

                                        - 0 -

  "Heeey, what's wrong with you?"  I had just now flashed in
and found my now-all-grown-up-but-still-my-little Kitten
gloomy and downhearted.  She was sitting on the edge of a
cliff on the side of a gorge, staring out into the sunny
distance.  I sat next to her and gently stroked her neck.
"What's going on?"

  She sighed as tears welled up in her eyes.  "Gramma 'Fina

  "Oh..."  Poor Naline.  She'd been really close to her
grandmother.  She was always telling me stories of the things
she'd said or done.  Even though Naline had long left her
kitten days behind, she still adored her grandmother as much
as she did when she was three months old.  "I'm really

  "We'd been expecting it for a while," she stared down into
the deep cliffs of the gorge, blinking the tears away, "she
was really old."

  "But it doesn't make the pain any less, does it?"  I
silently read her face, gauging the hurt and the sadness.

  "Little bit."

  "Hey, I'm sure that wherever she is now," I nodded up to
the brilliant blue sky, "she's really happy."

  A single cloud was in the sky, throwing its shadow on the
savanna lands.  The shadow undulated and waved as it traveled
across grass and trees and hills.  It seemed almost like a
living thing, traveling as if with purpose, unstoppable
towards the horizon.  I followed the shadow for some time,
watching it first cast a dim twilight on the trees as it
neared, then completely engulfing them in shade, then finally
releasing them once more to the blinding sunlight.

  But after a while, I noticed the shadow diminish and grow
less and less dark.  At first, a few patches of light
appeared in its middle.  Then a few more.  Then, as it
slowly moved along, the cloud gradually disappeared until it
vanished completely, leaving the sky clear and clean, blue
from start to finish.

  I was suddenly awakened from my cloud-watching trance by a
movement of Naline's head.  She was looking down into the
gorge. At a hawk, flying down below us.  Like a miniature
cloud, the hawk cast its own little shadow on the canyon
floor as it zipped hither and thither.

  "You think so?"  Naline's eyes followed the hawk as she

  "I think so what?"

  "You think she's somewhere, out there, happy?"

  "Sure, Kitten."

  "I don't know, I've been thinking..."  She followed the
hawk as it wove and danced its way around canyon walls and
sheer cliff faces.

  "You've been thinking what?"

  "I've been thinking that maybe there's no 'out there.'
Maybe there's no 'there' after we..." she hesitated at the
word, as if something dreadful would happen upon its
utterance "...die."

  Oh, so it was like that.  The afterlife is one of those
things that living beings think and worry and argue about,
but always without success because mostly one has to quit
being a living thing in order to find out really what's
what.  But then it's too late, isn't it?

  "You think so?"

  "Well, my father always says that we'll become stars and
go to the sky after we die.  But I'm not so sure.  Maybe
it's just one of those things that they tell cubs.  Maybe..."
she stared and sighed and thought, unable to finish her

  "Kitten, look at me," she turned her head and gave me the
full attention of her shining emerald eyes, "I can personally
guarantee you that there is definitely a 'there' there."

  "How do you know?"

  "Been there.  Took the tour.  Got the T-shirt."

  "Really?"  She examined my expression in minute detail,
making sure that I wasn't joking around or playing silly
games with her.  "Seriously for real?"

  "Scout's honor."  Lemme see, how could I explain this so
that Naline would understand it?  "You see, being in the
freelance mercenarying good-guy business, you get calls and
jobs from the most unexpected places.  Some time ago, I got
a call from the Big Cheese, from the Main Man, from the Head
Honcho #1 Guy himself.  He had a job for me to do and so on
and so forth.  Best thing was, I got to go to Heaven for the
interview.  I've been back a couple of times since."


  "You know," I pointed a finger towards the sky, "up there."

  "Really?"  Naline's gaze went from me to the sky and then
to me again a couple of times.  "No fooling?"

  "No fooling."

  "You've been up among the stars?"

  "Sure."  I'd actually literally been up among the stars,
but I knew what Naline had meant.

  "What was it like?"

  "Classy.  Nice weather.  Nice people.  Pleasant place to

  Naline's gaze followed the hawk as it rounded a sheer rocky
formation and disappeared from sight.  She sighed again, but
she didn't sound quite as forlorn as before.  I think now she
had hope, she had something to look forward to.

  "Hey, if I'm ever back there again, I'll make sure to look
your grandmother up."



  I put my arm around her side and laid my head on her strong
shoulder.  In the sky, a new cloud began to form out of the
humid daytime mists.  She didn't have to worry about death,
Naline didn't.  Not for a long, long time.

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  Naline and I had been laying in the mud for the better part
of five minutes, recovering from the shock of being run over
by herds of zebras, skydiving without parachutes from miles
high, and almost drowning in oceans of water.  The sun beat
down as it always does in this neighborhood, and pretty soon
we were verily caked in hard, brown clay.  I decided it would
be a good idea to move before we were permanently cooked into
the muddy bottoms.

  We laid there quietly for a couple more minutes, listening
to the sound of thundering hooves.  After a while, they
seemed to fade into the distance.  Good riddance!

  "Would you mind running along?"  Now, that was an unusual
thing for Naline to say.  I sloshed and turned in the mud a
bit until I could see what she meant.

  "Hello?  I said would you mind moving on?"  Strange.
Naline hadn't moved when she talked.  Hey, when did it get
cloudy?  It was then that I realized that it hadn't been
Naline talking, and it hadn't been a cloud that blocked the
sun, it was a huge... something.  Gray.  Big.  A great big
elephant!  Cheez louise!  She was standing not three feet
from us, looking down at us between a pair of great big
tusks.  Naline's eyes were big as planets, taking in the
massive bulk that was the lady elephant.

  She looked more annoyed than angry, so I figured we'd
probably hadn't landed on her kid or anything when we'd
fallen in the lake.  I sat up as best I could and tried my
best diplomatic tone.  "How may we help you, madam?"

  "Look here, you," she emphasized each word by poking me in
the chest with her trunk, making sure she had my complete
attention.  "We have trouble enough traversing the savanna
what with zebras and all stampeding around, without
having..." she gave us a disdaining glance, "people mucking
about in one's drinking water."

  "Look, I'm sorry, we didn't mean..."  She didn't even let
me finish my sentence.

  "We try to keep things clean," she rolled her eyes and
waved her trunk in the general direction of the lake, "but
there's always some hoodlum or another sloshing around,
dirtying up the water."

  "Hey, it was an accid..."

  "What would you do if I just went over to your water hole
and started kicking up the mud and making it undrinkable,
eh?"  She poked me in the chest once again.  "You wouldn't
like it, would you?"

  "Well, no, actually, we..."

  "Just shoo!"  She waved her trunk as if she were waving a
fly away.  She turned her head away and dismissed us with a
sneer.  "Go on with you."

  "Look, lady,"  I was having just about enough of her rude
arrogance.  She was getting on my last nerve, and I was
gonna let her know it.

  "Shoo!"  This time, her tone meant business, and I decided
it would be a better idea to get moving along.  I collected
Naline, who was stuck shoulder-deep in silt, and awkwardly
attempted to slop out of the mud bank.  I tried moving one
foot, and then the other, but they wouldn't move properly.  I
stomped in the mud for a bit, trying to get myself unstuck.
I could tell by the elephant's impatient sighs that I wasn't
moving fast enough for her.

  Naline and I finally managed to slop ourselves out of the
mud bank and onto terra more firma.  We were covered from
head to tail with mud in various stages of dryness and
hardness.  We looked like mud monsters from outer space or
something.  Definitely not our most presentable moment.

  "Go on!"  A little ways behind the elephant, we noticed a
whole herd apparently waiting for the boss lady to get rid of
us nuisances.  "Shoo!"  Naline and I turned in the general
direction of the Rock and traipsed away in the sun.

  As we walked away, the rest of the herd moved in.  There
were maybe fifteen of them, drinking, sloshing, and rolling
about in the muddy shore.  The sounds of frolicking and
merriment disappeared behind us as we topped a nearby hill.

  "Who do they think they are?"  Naline was livid, furious at
the indignities we had suffered.  "Why those overgrown..."

  "Shhh, they've got good hearing, Kitten.  Keep it down."

  She lowered her tone, but not the heat of her ire.  "You
would have thought we were bugs, the way she treated us."

  "Look, just keep walking and be quiet."  I walked as
nonchalantly as I could and waved my hand to hurry her

  "What?"  I bet she was wondering whose side I was on.

  "Shhh.  Just trust me.  Keep walking and get ready to run."
I tried my hardest to suppress a giggle and waved her along

  "Huh?"  If her expression was any indication, Naline was
perplexed, confused and puzzled all at the same time.

  "Just..." I vainly tried to hold the laughter in, hurting
my delicate pulmonary system in the process.  I tried holding
both hands over my mouth, but even that failed.

  "What's going on?"  She kinda half frowned and half smiled,
wanting to know what the joke was, and trying to figure out
if I'd gone completely bonkers.

  "When we left the water..." a bit of a chuckle escaped my
best efforts to suppress it, "...I dropped in..." I started
a half trot as I vainly tried to breathe normally because I
knew that very, very soon...

  A chorus of surprised and angry trumpeting blasted in from
over the hill.  Splashing, running, and near-panicked
shouting and yelling all mixed with outrage came in loud and
clear from the near distance.  The elephants didn't sound
very happy at all.

  "What?"  Naline was nearing panic herself.  "Cruz!  What
did you do?"

  "I dropped in..." I couldn't hold it anymore and burst out
in hysterical laughter, "an bitter bomb!"

  "A what?!?"

  "A bitter bomb!  It's harmless, but it makes the water
taste like last year's lemons."  The stuff I'd used had
actually been outlawed in some of the more civilized worlds
because of its unbelievable efficacy at turning nice, pure
water into the foulest, bitterest, most undrinkable liquid
imaginable.  It dissipated after a day or two, but it sure
stunk up the place in the meanwhiles.  Hey, those rude
elephants deserved it!

  Naline's swift mind quickly realized both the effects and
implications of what I'd done.  Her realizations came into
sharper focus when Ms. Big Boss Lady came tearing over the
top of the hill, as enraged as I've ever seen an elephantess
be.  She looked as if she'd just drunk a supertanker full of
vinegar, and she didn't look very happy about it.



  "Maybe we better run."

  We tore off, running like crazy, with Ms. Mad Elephant
chasing us in a most undignified way.  It probably made her
madder that Naline and I were laughing hysterically as we ran
for the hills.

  I don't know of you've ever had a lady elephant chasing
you, steadfast in her intent to squish you into the ground
like a bug.  In case you haven't, I must recommend it as a
most marvelous and effective way to make you run as
expeditiously and earnestly as you ever have before.

  Lioness, mercenary and elephant ripped across the savanna,
leaving a trail of dry mud, flying grass, uncontrollable
laughter, angry cursing, and torn grasslands in their wake.
Fortunately for us, Ms. Boss Lady was soon overcome with the
choking, coughing, eye-watering and all around unpleasant
effects of the foul stuff I'd dropped into the water.  She
abruptly abandoned chase, hacking and wheezing, giving us
the angriest glare I've ever seen.  If looks could kill,
every living creature on the side of the continent where
Naline and I were standing would have instantly perished.

  Naline and I didn't want to chance Boss Lady regaining her
breath, so we ran and ran, almost falling over each other
from laughing and running.  It must have been ten minutes or
more before we stopped to catch our breaths under a baobab

  We panted and wheezed and gasped and laughed.  My sides
hurt like crazy from running and Naline was panting like a
pack of dogs.  It was unanimously decided that we should find
a supply of water very soon, else we'd both die from thirst
and exhaustion.  Naline knew of a nearby pond, so we marched
over directly.

  It was a nice, clear pond, ringed all around with huge,
shady trees.  When I say clear, I not only mean that it was
free of mud and silt; I also mean that it was clear of
crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and mean, rude herds of
elephants.  That's important when one not only needs to drink
huge amounts of water, but also needs to wash off large
amounts of dry clay caked in one's hair.  We were covered
with hardened mud from head to toe.  Naline looked like
walking pottery.

  We drank and drank like crazy.  Surprisingly enough, the
water was cool and fresh; something rare in this part of
Naline's world.  I wasn't about to complain, though.  We
drank water enough for eight pairs of mercenaries and young

  "Aaahhh."  Naline had sated her thirst and she plopped on
the shady ground, belly up and a grin on her face.

  "Ahem."  I tapped her paw, getting her attention.


  "We gotta wash off all the mud."

  "So?"  I pointed at the water.  Naline quickly realized
what I meant.  "No!  I don't like water!"

  "Come on, into the drink."  Before she could get herself
upright and escape, I quickly seized the reluctant lioness.
You would have thought I was gonna throw her in a pond full
of piranhas, the way she was struggling to get away.  She
twisted and contorted and kicked her little legs in the air.
In the end, it availed her for nothing.

  "Noooo!"  Ker-splush!  In she went.

  "Don't squirm, it makes it harder to wash off the mud."
She fought me like the fierce creature that she was, clawing
and struggling as best she could.  But when she realized that
I wasn't letting go 'till she was clean and mud-free, she
gave up and let me decontaminate her.  I rubbed and scrubbed
and laundered her until she was good as new, shiny and
squeaky clean.

  When I judged her to be unmudified enough, I set her back
on shore, much to her relief.  She looked immaculate and in
mint condition, as if she'd never been out of the box.
Naline hadn't been very happy about being bathed in such an
un-leonine fashion, but even she had to admit that licking
all the mud off herself would have been most unpleasant.

  We left the pond, headed back towards her Rock in the very
best of spirits.  Naline skipped happily as we went along,
pouncing on insects and tall blades of grass.  I felt as good
as one is supposed to feel when one is on vacation, which is
very good.  Hey, you know what?  Despite things like rude
elephants and stampeding zebras, there are pretty good times
to be found in the savanna grasslands when you're with your
best Kitten friend.

                                        - 0 -

  Flash!  And there I... where the heck was I?

  I'd responded to a Naline call.  And I'd flashed to her
world... I think.  The computer said as much.  But this was
no place I'd even been to before.

  It was night, sometime way after midnight.  Dark.  No moon.
Almost cold.  The landscape was as barren as the grassy
plains of the savanna get.  There were a few piles of bushes
now and again, but no salient rocks, trees or any such
outstanding landmarks.  I was nowhere near Naline's Rock.
Was I even in her pride's territory?  And where was she?

  "Kitten?"  My answer was an earsplitting roar that would
have scared the fur off me if I'd had any.  As it was, it
startled me enough to separate me a couple of feet from the
ground.  I landed in a fighting stance, blade in one hand,
artillery in the other, ready willing and able to sell my
life dearly to whomever or whatever it had been that had
roared so discourteously loud!  I warily scanned the
surrounding countryside, waiting for the attack that was
sure to come.

  Except none came.  Strange.

  "Kitten?  Are you there?"

  "Oh," a voice came from a nearby herd of bushes, "I'm so
sorry!"  An apologetic talking bush was not within my range
of experience.  That's okay.  I'm a professional.  I can
deal with the unknown.

  "Not to worry, talking bush.  No harm done."

  "Cruz, quit being silly."   Now the plant was chiding me.
Wait a minute.  I knew that voice.

  "Kitten?  Are you in there?"

  "Of course.  I'm sorry I roared at you.  I'm a little on
edge just now."

  "What are you doing in there?"

  "Come in and see."  You know how you can tell when
someone's smiling when they're talking?  Even if you aren't
looking at them?  Just by the way their voice sounds?
Naline sounded extraordinarily happy.  She must have had a
smile a yard and a half wide.

  "Okay."  I didn't have to be asked twice.  My curiosity
was dying to find out what in the world Naline was doing
hiding in a bush in the middle of the night, miles away from
her usual stomping grounds, roaring at unwary passersby.  I
stowed the hardware and sauntered on over.

  "Come in through the side, by the rock."  I got on my
hands and knees and followed her directions.  A well-worn
path appeared, concealed by a rock from the casual observer.
Okay, I could do this.  I took a cautious first few steps,
crouching low to avoid branches and twigs.  "Watch out for

  "Ow!"  Something sharp poked at the top of my head.

  "...thorns.  Sorry."  I struggled, burrowed and dug my way
in, finally reaching the center of the bush.  Inside, the
branches and leaves parted to form a sizably large sort of
open chamber, a kind of a roomy space in the middle of the
greenery.  Except the greenery was pitch black.  There was
no moon, and the leaves blocked whatever ambient light there
was.  "I'm over here."

  Great, where was here?  Naline's sensitive feline eyes
could see in this unlit darkness, but I was only human.  All
I saw was black.  "Hold on a minute."  I did have, where did
I put them?, starlight glasses.  They look like stylish dark
eyeglasses, but they amplify light some-thousand-fold.  Made
night seem like, well, not bright as day, but bright enough
to see.  I put them on and beheld the single most adorable
sight I had ever seen in my entire life!

  Right in the middle of the hollow in the bush was Naline,
curled up, resting on her side.  And sleeping alongside her
were the three cutest newborn cubs you've ever seen!

  What could I say?  I was speechless!  I struggled to find
something appropriate to say, but my brain wouldn't work
because it was being overwhelmed by the oceans of cuteness
that radiated from the three little furballs.

  "They are so cute!"  Naline looked on with motherly pride.
"Why didn't you tell me?"  This had come as a total surprise
to me.  I had known nothing about this whatsoever.

  "I wanted to surprise you."  She smiled and beamed and
glowed so much she almost overloaded my starlight glasses.

  "And surprise me you did."  By the look of them, they were
nowhere over a couple of hours old.  I'd been the first.  Of
all her friends and family, she'd picked me to be the first
to see them.  I was way beyond honored.  What a privilege!
"Wow, congratulations!"

  "Thank you."  She licked and fussed and fretted over them,
the way new mothers always do.  The three little cubs were
sleeping as peacefully as only newborns can, warm and safe in
the care of their mother.  Could you feel the love tonight?
Most definitely.



  That was really great.  Naline and Nick had really hit it
off and they were happy as larks with each other.  You'd
think they'd never made a pair of lions so compatible with
each other, the way these two got along.  After Phil had been
run off, Nick and Naline had become inseparable, spending
just about every single waking hour in each other's company.
At first, I was sure that such a non-stop schedule would end
up making them sick of each other, causing them to get on
each other's nerves.  But it hadn't, and they'd just gotten
more and more in the type of dreamy-eyed love that makes the
worlds go round.

  "Whatcha gonna name them?"

  "I haven't made up my mind yet, I've got to ask Nick."

   For my part, I was glad as peaches about it because Nick
was a really great guy, a sterling-silver-type person who
always treated Naline with the care and gentility that she
deserved.  He always let her go first at lunch time, even
though it was his prerogative as a male lion to be among the
first in line.  He always encouraged her when she was down or
unhappy. And I'm sure if there had been doors in the savanna,
he would have held them open for Naline.  Hey, there was an
idea!  I'd have to get a hold of a door one of these days and
test it out.

  "Say, are you okay?"  I hadn't even thought about that.
She'd just undergone an extremely physically trying time,
how had she fared through it?  "You feel alright?"

  "I'm okay."  She smiled.

  "You sure?  Any pain?  Dizziness?  Lightheadedness?"

  "I'm alright."

  "Nausea?  Fatigue?  Unusual cravings?"

  "Well, I do have an annoying mercenary."

  "Annoying mercenary.  Check."  Were was a veterinarian
when you needed one?  "Want an aspirin?"


  "Alright, alright.  If you say you feel fine, then you feel
fine.  No problem.  Okay.  I just want to make sure that
you're absolutely okay."

  "Thanks.  It's cute when you're frantically concerned."

  "No problem.  Anything for my little Kitten."

  One of the cubs turned in its sleep, tapping the
neighboring one just enough to wake him.  The little cub
started mewing, and Naline was quickly there, reassuring it
with her warm, motherly touch.  This caused all three of them
to awake and wobble about, mewing for their mother.  I took
this as my cue to leave.

  "Kitten," I said as I wriggled my way back out of the bush,
"if you need anything, anything at all whatsoever, you give
me a call."

  "Thank you."  She smiled that wonderful smile of hers and
went back to fussing over her three precious little furballs.

  I emerged from the bush with a wonderful smile of my own.
Huh.  Imagine that.  My little Kitten, a mother.  Hmm.  She'd
make one great mother.  I was sure of that.

  "Bye, Kitten," I called out to the bush, "take care."

  "Bye, Cruz."

  I took one last look around, taking in the dark savanna
sky, breathing deep of the cool night air.  The music of the
distant night birds melded with the whisper of the soft wind,
creating just the kind of harmony that makes you glad to be
alive.  It sure was a great night.  I stepped a little ways
off so that the burst of light wouldn't bother the newborns

  Flash!  There I wasn't.

                                        - 0 -   - 0 -

  The brilliant disk of the sun had faded, diminishing from
an angry, blinding orb down to the size and brightness of a
burnished gold coin.  It seemed as if I could almost reach
out and pluck it from the sky with my fingers.  Evening had
come, bringing twilight upon the savanna.  The herds had
settled for the night, the owls had awakened to a new day -
or night, whatever, - and the lions were preparing for the

  It is a habit of creatures of Naline's kind to roar at
sunset.  They all gather as a pride and call out to each
other in a spine-tingling chorus of deep, rumbling bellows
that echo across the vast expanses of grass.  I dunno, it
kinda seems strange that great, majestic felines would
announce the oncoming dusk in the same manner that the lowly
rooster announces the new day's dawn.  Maybe that's what I
oughta get my uncle for his farm: a rooster for the morning
and a lion for the sunset.  Nah.  He wouldn't appreciate it.

  Maybe it's a way of announcing to the other inhabitants of
the vast grasslands that the kings of the realm are about
and they better watch out.  Maybe they're giving the other
animals some kind of warning, letting them know that a hunt
is about to begin.  Or maybe they're just letting them know
who's boss.  In any case, it was Naline's cue to go home.
Her mother liked her to be home while the grownups were out
hunting.  It was safer.

  Naline's sensitive ears perked up at the familiar sound of
the evening chorus of roars.  "Aww, I've got to go home."

  I remembered back to when I was a little kid and my mother
would call me in for dinner.  I was always out playing
somewhere interesting with my friends and the last thing I
wanted was to go indoors and wash up and sit and eat.  She
would call and call and I would stall and delay and try to
stay outside until the absolute very last second possible.
In the end, her voice would reach a certain pitch, and I
would know that if I delayed any longer, I would be certain
to be in for some trouble of the parental kind.

  "You sure?"  I looked in the direction of the sound,
shielding my eyes from the rapidly fading sun.

  "Well, I can stay just a little bit longer."  Naline, like
me, knew that pitch in her mother's voice and she wasn't
about to go until she had heard it and it became absolutely

  "Come on," I started in the direction of the Rock, "let's
get a head start while we think of a plausible explanation
you can give your mom of where you've been."

  Naline's parents knew that someone named "Cruz" had helped
their little Kitten find her way back from the jungle all
that time ago.  But they didn't know that he, that is, me,
came back every once in a while to check on Naline and see
how she was doing.  I was Naline's little secret; her
invisible friend, as it were.

  Not that I minded too terribly much, you understand.  I
wanted to make as little an impact as I could in Naline's
world.  There was a law against upsetting the natural balance
of virgin worlds.  And if ever there was someone who was good
at upsetting natural balances, it was me.  You know that
hunting trip I was in when I first met Naline?  I had a
permit for that one.  But these return visits of mine were -
how can I put it? - under the table, off the books, not in
the records.  Now you know my secret.  Just don't tell

  "Well," Naline suggested, "I could tell her I lost track of
time chasing a rabbit."

  "No, you told her that last time.  If you tell a lie too
many times, it wears thin until it breaks and you get
caught."  What was I doing, you ask, teaching Naline to lie?
Believe it or not, it's a good skill to have.  When used
within bounds, that is; nobody likes a habitual liar.  Maybe
this time it would do to tell the truth.

  "Try telling her that you have an anthropoid friend that
appeared out of thin air with a pile of food and that you
got run over by a herd of zebras and fell out of the sky and
almost drowned and that an elephant insulted you."

  "I can't tell her that," she countered, "she'd never
believe me!"

  Interesting.  We had us a situation here where a truth
would appear to be a lie, and a lie would appear to be the
truth.  Strange universe we live in, isn't it?

  "Maybe we could tell her an almost-truth."

  "An almost-truth?"

  "Yeah."  Almost-truths, along with love, are what make the
universe go round.  "Okay, tell her that you wandered off..."

  "That's true."

  "and that you found a small carcass..."

  "That's not true."

  "It is, in a manner of speaking.  The stuff I gave you to
eat was technically made from dead animals, so it was, for
all practical purposes, a small carcass."

  "Okay," she smiled, "I like that.  A small carcass.  Yeah."

  "Yeah, and then you, um... got so distracted with it that
you were caught by surprise by the stampeding zebras..."

  "That's not true."

  "Just pretend."


  "And you ran and ran until you managed to reach safety,
and it's taken you this long to get back home."  Yeah, that
was a pretty plausible almost-truth.  "What do you think?"

  Naline tossed it around her little head for a second and
smiled.  "Yeah, I think I like it."

  "Good.  Some of my better work."  I don't know, though.  I
was in pretty morally ambiguous ground.  Oh, well, good thing
I'm not a philosopher, or it would bother me.

  The disk of the sun finally dipped its last sliver of light
into the distant horizon.  The fiery sunset colors of the sky
faded along with the disappearing sun, giving way to the
lights which ruled the night.  Stars gradually appeared, the
brightest first, followed by the billions of dimmer sparkling
gems of the sky.  Night had come.

  "Listen."  Naline cocked her head as she walked, and swept
the night sky with her sharp leonine eyes.

  "What?"  I didn't hear a thing.

  "Bats.  Hear them?"  She seemed as if she were listening
to the music of songbirds.

  "Nope."  My range of hearing didn't go up as high as hers
did, so I couldn't hear the supposed singing of the bats.

  Her excellent night vision and superior auditory perception
highlighted the many differences that existed between man and
lion; between her and me.  We were completely different
creatures from completely different worlds.  I was a human, a
mercenary from a high tech world with high tech needs and
worries.  I'd been nearly everywhere and done just about
everything.  She was a lioness, a wild predator from a wild
place.  She hunted and was hunted, she lived precariously on
the edge of existence, yet thoroughly enjoyed it with the
enthusiasm common to little folks her age.

  Common sense would tell you that we should be enemies, that
I should hunt her and she should hunt me.  We should live in
a balance of predator versus predator, forever in fear and
hatred of one another.

  Yet we were friends.

  In an odd quirk of fate, the kind that makes sense only to
them that run the universe, we had somehow met and forged a
tight friendship.  Me and her?  Her and me?  Shouldn't
happen.  But somehow it did.  And I think it made me a better
person because of it.  I hoped it made her a better lion too.
Last thing I would want would be to be a detrimental
influence on her.

  Me?  A bad influence?  Nah.

  The top of Naline's Rock appeared as we crested another
hill.  We were close to her home and it was time for me to
leave.  But this time my heart wouldn't be breaking, because
I knew that I'd be coming back.

  "Well, I guess I better go home."  Naline turned as her
mother's voice finally reached that final do-or-die pitch.

  "Yeah, I think you better.  Don't want you to get in
trouble with your mom."

  She said goodbye in the manner lions do, and rubbed her
little head all over mine.  Fur in the lips?  Didn't mind.
Not from her.

  Naline turned and, in a fashion typical of all energetic
children, ran off towards her Rock, skipping as she went.
Where did she get all that energy?  Joy of life?  Who knew?

  I watched her little tail disappear into the grassy
distance.  Soon I lost her in the bobbing and waving of the
savanna grass.

It was not too much later that the distinctive voice of her
mother ceased from the chorus of lions.  Probably meeting
and greeting  her little girl.  I could almost picture them,
Naline greeting her mother in her usual energetic way.  Mom
would patiently endure her vigorous 'hello' before going on
to the usual bed-tucking rituals.  Naline was home, safe and

  And I was happy.  I turned and walked into the savanna
night, pressed a few buttons and...

  Flash!  There I wasn't.

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