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Chapter 1: Prologue

Tiger L6-3512 Leones here. I'm not a kitten any more; oh, no, not a kitten by any means. I've had a long, eventful and productive life, and I hadn't planned on ending it on quite the sour note that's playing now in all corners of Terra. But I was trained too well to know what my responsibility is and to carry it out to the bitter end.

In fact, today was all too close to that bitter end. Who would have thought the bastards had missiles, and knew how to fire them, and that the propellant wasn't rotten with age and the batteries (missiles date from before CQMT) still held enough of a charge to find my fighter. I dodged the first missile but then my belly was towards the second and I never even saw it. Fortunately the pusher chips in the nose still had power, as well as the plasma rifles. While twisting to lose altitude and line up with the weeds where I planned to set it down, I managed to decapitate the two houses, the only two-story houses in Nikç, from whose roofs the missiles were launched. The gliding belly landing (hover vehicles have no wheels) was fast and bumpy, but I got slowed down before falling into the defenders' trench, which I saturated with enfilade fire. A torso, a whole body flying: they didn't have a chance.

I take pride in the skill that kept me alive, but not in the way my platoon and I treated those villagers. We're supposed to convince them to accept population control peaceably, but this bunch were much more intransigent than the average in Illyria, with fatal consequences when they started shooting, seemingly every male in Nikç and many of the females.

My mate Simba and I are the only two Lion People in the First Division. He's not here; he has his own platoon. Actually as the Marshal I should be warming a chair back in camp, but the planning is all finished for this campaign and it just needs execution and monitoring, and I have this perverse sense of responsibility.

When we, the original eight lions that were bioengineered, were growing up, we studied many topics. Combat was one of them, because unlike humans we have serious weapons in our mouths and at the ends of our fingers and toes, and we could really mess up human acceptance of Lion People by misjudging when to hold them back --- and when not to. But our purpose was to contribute to the communities we lived in, and in college I learned to design quantum logic chips, while Simba got his start in biotech.

In fact, his first job was over winter break of his freshman year working for Dr. Chang, who had just set up Xylogen. And he took his pay in stock at forty cents a share; can you believe that? Both of us worked for Xylogen the next summer, and when we graduated the stock was worth just over a million dollars. When Dr. Chang found that he was managing people all the time and not bugs, he wisely bailed out and found another way to make his talents useful. We invested heavily in Chang Agricultural when he took it public, and as with Xylogen the stock went through the roof.

An exercise for the reader: did Dr. Chang behave ethically when he saved the world from starvation? At the time famine stalked the third world and there were even occasional food shortages in the U.S.A. and the European Union. But Chang bushes can suck water vapor out of the air, among other creative features, so land that was formerly classified as desert could yield a crop, and the area of potential farmland almost tripled overnight. Nobel Peace Prize, everyone gushing how great Dr. Chang was. I knew him personally both from working for him and later during the research at the Lion Foundation, which contracted with Dr. Chang to genetically engineer the bushes. He didn't let the praise go to his head, and in fact it was Dr. Chang himself who first mentioned to Simba his doubts about the long-term effects of the Chang bushes.

Soon after that I had my own issues to worry about. I was promoted to be the chief chip designer for Whinx, and my W32 design was rumored to be flaky. The rumors were right. But the cause wasn't sloppy design (not from Tiger Leones) nor sloppy production; it was the Coherent Quantum Momentum Transfer effect. With the right bit pattern in the ALU output register we could peel the left side of the chip right off its header. We could push on things. Like hover vehicles or satellites being launched. And by the Principle of Relativity, if you can transfer momentum you can transfer energy, and information. Space power satellites. Pocket phones. Never out of range, never needing batteries. And we received a royalty on every chip.

The expedition to epsilon Eridani, propelled by CQMT, was supposed to be an international effort. The Burmese came through, King Alaungpaya being young and forward-looking. So did the Indians. NASA provided ten million U.S. dollars in discretionary funds, and the Japanese eventually made a contribution, but we ended up paying for most of the starship out of our own pockets. Of course Simba and I were on it, but too many skills were needed, and also we'd go crazy sealed up in an elongated phone booth for years on end, so we included our childhood friends Wilma and Willie Ragland.

The scientific goals were all planned out ahead, and we trained hard to accomplish them. The centerpiece of the mission was to investigate the oxygen atmosphere and chlorophyll absorbtion bands on the innermost planet. I still have nightmares about tentacles. And mushroom clouds. As the only remaining life in the epsilon Eridani system, the four of us felt it would be totally cowardly to just abandon it and go home, leaving it dead. To repair Njord was beyond our ability, but we felt it was not irresponsible to try to terraform Thor, a barren rockball.

But we needed colonists, with plenty of variety in their genotypes, and so they would have to be genetically engineered like we were. You can't do that with humans for various technical and political reasons, but it was also out of the question politically to give our colony over totally to lions, so as a compromise we built fake humans on a lion chassis. We also put together two other new species: Otter People and Jaguar People.

Wilma and Willie died (a natural death), having seen their grandkittens. We didn't. Putting an oxygen atmosphere on Thor took a long time, but Simba and I still felt vigorous and able to contribute. But the news from Terra was getting grimmer and grimmer. Yes, food production tripled, but so did the population. With the technology we had developed on Thor and our unique perspective on training and population structure, we felt we had something to offer our homeworld. And it was so convenient: our colony needed to be rid of its beloved, godlike matriarch and patriarch in order to grow straight and strong, to take over as the custodian of life in the epsilon Eridani system. So we went home, bringing two each of the new species, mated pairs of the original colonists.

When we arrived the population was 51.3 billion humans (and about thirty thousand lions). The sea surface temperature was (and still is) way up, as was the sea level. We could predict what was going to happen, and we set up organizations to carry civilization through the inevitable collapse. You don't want to hear what Ice Island Bavaria did to Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular. New York alone had a billion people. In late summer their team was playing in the World Cup, and at a crucial moment of one of the games the New York power grid overloaded and collapsed. The New Yorkers rioted in the streets. Their example pushed desperate urban populations over the edge worldwide. Without food deliveries many city dwellers starved and the rest had fresh meat, for a while. Flooding, disease and winter finished them off, at least in New York.

When the population declined to about half a billion, pretty much minus all the large urban areas, the United Nations and the Eridanus Corporation emerged from hiding. Establishing control over multifarous warlords was not a simple job, but we brought the message of population control first to North America, and then southward and eastward. The First Division of course got the toughest assignments, such as Illyria, the territory east of Italy and west of Greece. Which brings us up to the present moment.

My platoon overran the trench as soon as my plasma bolts physically removed some of the defenders and dismayed the rest. Likely I can force open the cracked canopy of this thing and climb out without getting a bullet through the brain. I'd better run back to our trucks and pick up my helmet, body armor and rifle. And I'd better at least put a bandage around my arm where a piece of shrapnel came right through my seat back.

Not so fast, Tiger! Something's moving among the bushes on the slope across the village's small stream. We do a complete job, and all of the survivors, including that one, are going to get population control shots, or they won't be survivors. I'd better chase him (or her) down. Now? No, my people need me in the village, but I'll fix in my memory a scraggly tree, one of the few on the slope of bushes, where I can later pick up the person's trail.

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