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Chapter 4: Epsilon Eridani

Ooh, I feel awful!

Me: Computer, Tiger here. Log entry. I'm nauseated, I'm coughing, my left syrinx is clogged and I can barely talk with the right one, and I have absolutely no energy. I'm cold. My guts hurt. And ptosis; don't forget the ptosis. End. Computer: wakeup alarm, eight hours.

Computer: Log entry accepted. Alarm set eight hours future.

I can remember pushing the big button just a few seconds ago. Very long seconds. If I'm alive then most likely I'm at epsilon Eridani. Am I alive? I shouldn't joke around. I'll savor the victory when I'm able. Now, I think I'm best served by letting myself warm up and letting my body start fixing whatever went wrong. I can just guess what it was. It's pitch black in here and there's something wrong with my passive infrared sensor too. The webbing has my arms pinned and I can't reach my shoulder control panel and the sleep button. I'll do a mind exercise for sleep...

Computer: Wake up time. Please confirm. Wake up time. Please confirm.

Me: Aww, shut up.

Computer: You're welcome.

I'm feeling better, comparatively speaking, but my state can't be called good. Well, no help for it, I have to get out of this coffin. I remember how Simba used brass screws to seal two coffins. I pull the right-hand rope. It needs a good jerk before the lid unlocks: scary. Chill air blows down my neck. I struggle to get the mask off, and discover that mucus strands arc from it to my muzzle. The mucus has flecks of blood. Gross!

My first job is to get cleaned up. We're under slight acceleration, and my head is down, which is aft, to cause fluids and mucus to drain by gravity from my respiratory system, which evidently they've done since I can make a hoarse noise from my left syrinx now. I tell the computer to chop the acceleration. Being more radiation resistant than the humans I'm in the aft tank and I just have to push a little to get into the tiny cleanup area. I get into the body bag and valve in a liter of water and start rinsing off antifreeze, mucus and reinforcing fibers. I ask the computer for a little acceleration, and the water drains by gravity from the bottom of the bag. Acceleration off. More water. Rinse, my smeared face particularly. Drain. More water. This time with fur conditioner; we learned we'd need it from the practice freezing, but I mustn't use too much because I can't pop around to the pet shop to buy more: giggle. Drain. Rinse. Drain. I don't feel up to wet dog shakes, which is what I usually do to go from wet to damp after a shower; I content myself with pressing my body firmly as the weak gravity pulls the drops slowly to the bottom of the bag. The dehumidifier will have to take care of the rest of the water as my limited body heat evaporates it off me. I'll have to think whether I should set up the water recycler myself, in case Simba is too sick to do it when I thaw him.

Well, sick or no, I have responsibilities. I worm through the narrow space past my tank and Simba's; the tanks are narrower for our legs and they fit partly side by side, since he's head forward. There's equipment ahead of it, protected as we are from the radiation, including several consoles connected to the main computer by AATS. I turn one on and log in. When everyone's thawed out we'll put on suits, let all the air out, drag the tanks outside, unfold the expansion panels on the shorter wall segments to give us a full square meter of interior cross-section, and attach the consoles and spectrometers and telescopes to the walls, but no way am I going to try any of that now.

The computer tells me that we're essentially halted relative to epsilon Eridani, about 5e12 meters away toward galactic north. As planned; the computer wouldn't have woken me otherwise. Expendables: we have 150 kilos of oxygen, ten kilos of nitrogen, ten kilos of carbon dioxide and 36 kilos of water (I transferred four to the waste tank). Two hundred kilos of ration bars, a hundred kilos of Chang seeds and miscellaneous vegetable seeds are also in this category. Power: 136 out of 12096 pusher modules have been marked defective. The rest are fully powered but only about 150 watts, of 2.12e12 watts available, is being drawn for life support. The shield tank has 98 percent of the water it started with. So the basics are in good shape, although the radiation shield leaked more than expected and that should be dealt with before we return. That might be tricky because charge exchange in the titanium produces vanadium-49 which is quite radioactive. But we planned ahead: we have a replacement front end for the ship bolted on the tail, the first three tanks, minus water, and in front we can take off a few bolts and cut two pipes, a quick operation, and be rid of the worst radiation while we put on the replacement.

Next I put up a graph of radiation, specifically radiation received by me. Sheesh, no wonder I feel terrible! 25 gray units. But the freezing reduces the damage done by a factor of ten, for rats. Simba, Willie and Wilma seem to have gotten about the same amount, so the humans have half a lethal dose. That doesn't mean they're half dead; they'll feel half dead like I do, but it won't be bad enough to kill them. But in theory lions can take more damage, including radiation damage, before dying, and experience shows that we recover quicker from injuries. In fact, having slept, washed, moved around and gotten my brain circulating, I can think about food now without my stomach tying in knots. I'd better wait a while, though, before eating. Since radiation kind of sunburns you from the inside out, I'd better allow a full 48 hours for my intestinal lining to regenerate before subjecting it to any serious work. I'll be ravenous by then, I'm sure.

So why were our estimates so far below reality? Hmmm. I put up a bunch of graphs: cosmic rays as a function of energy, their direction, magnetic field strength and direction, hydrogen and dust density. The sleeting interstellar protons were stopped by the shield as they should be. But jeez, there are two giant spikes of very high energy cosmic rays going diagonal to our path, so the shield was useless against them, and between them there's a river of increased ionized hydrogen stiffened by a magnetic field. There's a theory that the galaxy has a kind of skeleton of magnetic fields, where the fields and the cosmic rays react back on each other to make bundles and sheets, and it looks like we blundered into one of the bones of the galaxy. All this info has been telemetered back to Earth, and the astrophysicists must be having a field day with it. Well, considering where it happened, they haven't quite seen it yet; it has to return to Earth at the speed of light. I wonder what would happen if an inhabited planet hit those cosmic ray channels.

Curiosity satisfied, I have a last job to perform: extracting the string of metal from my guts. It must be really gross by now. Although really, biologically it's only been in there a few hours; the long years were spent frozen at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Creepy, Surya and Holly should be through grad school, and they should have all their eight kittens; the oldest should be about fourteen years old. My little first grandkitten Anansi, by Alex out of Attila, should be starting college. Do I feel that old?

Surya's thesis should be somewhere in the comm stream, saved (I hope) by the computer. He planned to do it on CQMT, and he had some really interesting ideas that he was trying to turn into a topic that would yield some results. Eventually I'll want to look at 5.4 years of news, all that's made it at lightspeed to epsilon Eridani. But not now, no way!

I put on the rubber gloves and unplug my control box. Gravity sure helps you keep your legs spread, doesn't it? This position is hard to maintain in zero G. Now, which unit do I select; which is the front? I get unit 18 out; it's grossly covered with mucus, blood clots and peeled, frayed skin. I feel pressure around one of the bends in my colon and I use the control box to wiggle various units until it's relieved. It takes me about half an hour to gently remove the whole bloody string. It all goes in a shit bag and that into the refrigerator. We thought ahead to what it would be like waking up at epsilon Eridani, though the blood and stuff wasn't expected. I really have to thaw out Simba, giggle, like a package of frozen vegetables, and we'll get the recycler online, get our own strength back, and then thaw Willie and Wilma, who will need a lot of care from us.

Me: Computer, log entry. Tiger 6-3512 Leones here, to everyone back at home. We've arrived, we're alive, and I'm proud to represent you in the epsilon Eridani system. We hit channeled cosmic radiation; you'll have seen it in the telemetry before this message gets to you. I'm sick, and I'm not up to doing a whole lot just yet. I'm going to thaw Simba first, when I have a little more strength, and then we'll both care for Willie and Wilma because the radiation will hit them harder. I'll do what I can for the science quick look, but the data will come in a little slower than we originally planned. But we're here and we're going to survive. End.

The ship adds the log entries, as it does all commands, to the telemetry data stream, and in 10.8 years the people back on Earth, who I carefully referred to as ``everyone back home'', will see it. People, particularly young lions, know me and pay attention to what I do, and even 10.8 light years from home, or especially out here, I'm going to do my best to be a good example for them. In this case I'm telling them that I'm tough, I'm steady, I'm responsible, I'm thinking ahead about what to do, and I'm not going to be pushed by guilt or imagined expectations into doing more than I can.

On which topic, I think another nap would be a really good idea right at the moment. We have sleep webs but I don't feel up to negotiating the narrow spaces to find one, so I wedge myself in the tight passage beside my tank. At least now I can reach my shoulder joint and press button four to put myself to sleep.

Eight days later we're all feeling a lot better, though Willie and Wilma still look a little white around the gills, a joke considering their skin color. My midnight black fur is starting to look decent too; the antifreeze solution, a little soapy, soaked out the oil and the radiation disturbed for a while the glands in my skin that would replace it. The humans, unfortunately, are losing fur in patches. Lions' fur grows differently and radiation doesn't affect us that way, though if it had happened just before shedding I shudder to think how bad we'd look. Yesterday Simba and I took the tanks outside, extended the walls and moved the equipment into its operating position, and now we have enough room so one person can squeeze past another who's working at a console. Wilma and Willie stayed inside; they got Wilma's larger telescope set up but that's about all they had strength for.

Me: Wilma, how are you doing?

Wilma: I'm OK, feeling better. I've been doing spectra of the star and planets, napping or doing other work while the data's being recorded. I'm on the third planet, the smaller gas giant. We really have to give names to the planets. I'm actually looking forward to some ration bar soup at lunch.

Me: Good for you! Let's all think about naming schemes, a little later.

Wilma: The science quick look spectra of the fourth planet should be done by tonight, and I've programmed a sky survey to look for comets while we sleep. I ran all the first planet spectra through the automatic analyzer program, and I finished checking the first one. I think I'll need to rest after lunch; then I'll start the second.

Me: That's great news. If I can finish my work I'll check spectra, whichever one is next to be done. Probably this evening. Now Willie, what does the plasma package tell us?

Willie: The passive plasma instruments seem to have kept their calibration throughout the flight. I've turned on the active part of the Burmese package. We're inside the perimeter shock, that is, we're in the magnetosphere of epsilon Eridani, and the stellar wind is definitely there, though weak at this distance. Elemental abundances are believable, but this star has about a fifth the S-process metals that Sol does, and a tenth the R-process isotopes. No gold mines here, sorry.

Me: Just so there's enough to make bonding pads on our chips.

Willie: We can get that much, but gold and tungsten and things like that are going to be really rare materials in this system.

Me: Simba, how are the plants coming?

Simba: Well, that's not good news. I have eight little sprouts, out of a big handful started. My patience has run out on the others; they're going down the toilet today. I think the radiation killed most of the seeds.

Wilma: Oh. It sounds like we're going to get really skinny.

Oh, shit! What am I going to do now? Am I going to have to use the contingency plan and go home after five months, after so much risk and expense and sweat to get out here? Yaah! What I'm going to do is be steady and set as good an example for my crew as Wilma is doing. I grab my lashing tail in my hand, visibly, and order it to be steady, mentally. This is supposed to symbolize fortitude and good humor. I hope it doesn't just look stupid. I nod to Simba to continue.

Simba: Right, we're going to have to go on a crash diet. Wilma and Willie, you were frozen when I started this; shall I fill you in? We have a hundred kilos of Chang seeds. The original plan was to plant two kilos hydroponically in comet-derived plastic racks. Some die, but the rest absorb comet-derived water and we have five hundred kilos of sprouts at ten grams each. This happens about thirty days after arrival when we've found a comet and gotten the bug factory running to produce the plastic. Which, by the way, it's started doing; I diverted some of our shit which was supposed to go for potting soil. The radiation didn't kill the Xylogen bacteria. Chang bushes double in mass every thirty days, so ninety days after arrival we have forty gram plants starting to produce their first seeds. At that point we start thinning the weaker plants, which go down the sewer to get cooked into potting soil. By 120 days we're getting two kilos per day from two tons of biomass, immature plants, and we'll have eaten the last of the ration bars, plus when we see that everything's going OK we can eat part of the unused seed to tide us over to full production, leaving us with a reserve of original seeds in case of problems.

Willie: When we see that everything's going OK, sure.

Simba: Well, I did the whole cycle back at Earth. It was a good plan; it would have worked out if we hadn't hit the cosmic ray channels. And we do have backup; we brought enough seeds so we could deal with something unexpected that killed a lot of plants.

Willie: Sorry, I'm feeling worried. Obviously we have to make the food last as long as possible. We're supposed to have ten ration bars per day: half a kilo. Same for Chang seeds. How low can we go?

Me: I can handle 360 grams per day, dry, and not lose mass, though I really notice that I'm not getting enough to eat. My mass is 72 kilos of which eleven is fat. If we eat 250 grams per day the fat would make up the difference for, calculator program, just a second here... 250 days? That seems like quite a long time. I used molar equivalents of fat and starch. I imagine I really would lose muscle as well as fat, and my ability to work would be reduced. Do you two know the corresponding numbers for humans?

Willie: Actually, no. Drinking but not eating, a human can last thirty days. You were assuming a shortfall of about twenty percent after adapting to starvation; that would extrapolate to 150 days, but that's just a guess. Search the fact base for keyword ``starvation''.

Me: I did already, just now; we didn't include anything useful. We thought we'd get blown up or mummified, or make it here intact. Well, we were tacked, all right. But it sounds to me that whatever other decisions we make about food, we should go on approximately half rations. That makes the ration bars last two hundred days rather than one hundred, and our endurance is about that long. If you humans are fading faster than we are, we should eat less and give you more.

Wilma: That wouldn't be fair.

Simba: A point, please? If it can save the mission, I don't really care and neither should anyone else. Now, does anyone want to hear what I propose to do about the problem?

Me: Definitely.

Simba: I'm going to keep sprouting batches of seeds, as much as will fit in my equipment, and the survivors get planted and start to grow. Let's suppose a quarter kilo of seeds a day, with eight survivors. You can tell in a day if they're going to sprout; I was just giving this batch every chance.

Wilma: We actually could eat the duds, couldn't we? That would make the ration bars last longer.

Simba: Good idea. The ones I have now are pretty far gone, with mold, but we'll eat them right away in the future. After thirty days we have 240 plants and the largest ones are twenty grams each, say three kilos total. By that time supposedly we'll have the agricultural pods ready, and lots of plastic racks. We do a mass germination, maybe over ten or twenty days as we simultaneously fabricate the racks, but we germinate every seed we have. This results in forty kilos of surviving sprouts. We'll freeze the duds; they won't be delicious but we can extend the ration bars with them. We get up to two thousand kilos after about 5.5 doublings, or 165 days, rather than sixty days as planned. By then the plants will be half a kilo each, rather than forty grams. Can we survive?

Me: What do you think, humans?

Willie: The alternative is to go home with our tails between our legs. I want to try. If we fail we can still go home.

Wilma: Of course we'll do it. We can adjust our eating rate and so on when we find out how many seeds really survived and how the plants do. If we spread the nonsprouting seeds over 165 days then we can eat 150 grams per day each. We'll actually be getting almost our full nutrition. We won't really suffer, except for the next few weeks.

Me: I certainly agree. But Simba, is there anything we could do to speed up the plants' growth?

Simba: Actually, I could try increasing the carbon dioxide level and I could fiddle with the day-night cycle.

Me: Good. Now we have a strategy decision: do we stick with the original research plan, or make changes? We discussed variations; are any of them now made better due to our food problem?

I have a real good idea what strategy changes I intend to make, but I've found that people like to be in control of their lives, so I tell the bossy part of my personality to shut up. If my very smart crew members miss any points, I'm sure they'll accept them after ``their'' ideas have been welcomed enthusiastically by me.

Willie: We have two strategies. If something were seriously wrong, like we couldn't find any comets, then we have a list of stuff that we could do in about five months, optimized for quick execution, like everything from the first planet gets done first, then the rest in order. When the ration bars and Chang seeds run out we would come right home. If we think we can be self-supporting, we have a somewhat different list which is ordered with the most important items first, in case we kill ourselves in the middle. It assumes that we'll have time to come back to particular worlds for further study later. It also assumes that we'll be able to manufacture at least one orbiting probe to help with the mapping, and a lander to send down on the first planet, the one with life. I propose a kind of hybrid strategy. We'll have a lot longer than 150 days, but we could starve in the end and have to come home. We have to mine a comet to get the plastic for the plant racks and agriculture pods. Let's plan after that to do the quick return list, but to build the automated probes too and use them as much as possible. We might not have too much energy ourselves at the end. Assuming the food works out, we can then switch to the long topic list, omitting items we've already done.

Simba: I suggest a second orbiter. We'll really thank ourselves, either if our time starts getting tight or, upon success, when we have a lot of area to study. Changing this ship's orbit to study different areas of a planet is not going to be easy, with the agricultural pods and a lot of bags of comet juice stringing behind and swinging around.

Me: All good ideas; we'll do all. Simba, is there any chance of starting to grow polyimide now? I'd like to get a start on the cables and the fiber reinforcement for the pods.

Simba: Not unless we incubate the oobleck in our pockets. There's only one bug factory.

Me: How about in a shit bag? We can shake it periodically to spread the gases around.

Simba: Well... Actually, it probably would work. We'd have to be very careful that it stayed sealed -- use the clip that comes with the bag. Also, we'd want to make up several bags. Room temperature isn't optimal for growth, but it's not too bad. Look, suppose we incubate the bags in our pockets! Willie and Wilma could put a bag under their underpants. It's still not optimal but it's an improvement, probably worth the trouble. I'll set up four bags.

Me: Very good! Now there's another thing I thought of. We agreed that our ``room'' temperature of twenty degrees is a compromise we can all live with; it's warm enough for you humans because there's no gravity convection in zero G. But suppose we raise the temperature, let's say five degrees. That will reduce the energy you humans need to burn. It won't help us but won't make us use any more energy either; we'll just evaporate more water from our noses and mouths to keep cool. And while we're growing plants in here it will speed up their growth. We can go back to something more comfortable for us lions when we're confident of a long term food supply to keep you warm. What do you think?

Wilma: I think you're being...

Willie: I think that would help us meet the mission goals. Let's do it.

Me: OK, agreed. Now I've gotten the chip prototyper started making pusher chips and I have two finished so far. The water, air and sewer recycling systems are running well, particularly after Simba tuned them up from my initial settings, and the first batch of potting soil is ready, if we had pots and plants. Simba didn't say, but the eight Chang seedlings are planted in real soil in one of our drinking bottles.

Willie: Whose?

Me: Don't worry; I sacrificed mine. I'll wash it thoroughly later when we have plastic pots. Now before you get all dewy-eyed at my sacrifice, let's change the topic to planet names.

Wilma: A question? How's our oxygen supply?

Me: We have 142 kilos of oxygen left. There's enough oxygen to burn up all our ration bars and Chang seeds, in case we have to do the contingency plan, if we electrolyse the water we breathe out. OK? I think we need a theme for the names.

Simba: Famous scientists. No, that's no good; too many ways to leave groups out: specialties, nationalities, you name it.

Wilma: Earth planets are named after Roman gods. How about Greek gods?

Willie: Or Norse? Or native American; I know some of them. Or Hindu.

Me: We'd better stick with a religion that's safely dead. Greek or Norse? I'd like to call a planet Artemis. You know, Cathy's fantasy persona, when we were kids.

Wilma: Let's make a list; I'll do Greek and Willie, you do the Norse gods. In order: Aphrodite, Zeus, Artemis and, what, Apollo? Or Ares?

Willie: The first planet is fertile, so the god of fertility, what's his name, Njord. The second planet is the biggest so it's Wotan. The third is Frigga, his wife, and the fourth, well, it's out in the cold, so Loki should be its name. And the big moon is the son of Wotan and Frigga: Thor.

Me: That frigging planet? Giggle. I wonder if we could avoid the cognate.

Willie: OK, call it Freyja, the goddess of beauty and love. I wonder if it has rings, like Saturn.

Simba: Not very likely. Also, wouldn't Odin be the more correct pronunciation?

Willie: By using English Norse I'm sneaking our ``W'' in there.

Wilma: Sneaky! I like it. What do you two think?

Simba: I think the names are pretty good.

Me: So do I. And Loki is the Coyote character. Our Coyote will get a kick out of the name. I'll send a log entry on the names after lunch; in fact, I'll write up this whole discussion. Now it's time for our feast. I plan to eat two bars for breakfast and one for lunch, dinner and midnight snack, but we don't all have to eat on the same schedule. When we have nonsprouting Chang seeds we can add that to the menu.

Over the next few weeks the work goes as smoothly as could be expected. The body bag drain develops a leak and, little gadgets being my specialty, it takes me three hours to figure out why it failed and to reinforce the joint with glue mixed with polyimide fibers. We joke about the midterm election results in the newsfeed which Claude's people prepare for us. Over the spring and summer there were some well-publicized extinctions, and some flagrant overgrazing on National Forest lands that was apparently done with the connivance of the Forest Service management, and every congresscritter seems to have come out as a champion of the environment, and the public seem to have responded favorably. We're reading news at five times speedup: every day we read five days of material.

But our comet situation is no joke. There are fewer comets than around Sol, and of course we can only see the larger ones. The comet we choose had a deceptively uniform appearance, but when we arrive it turns out to be rotating quite a bit too fast for comfort, so we decide to forget it and try our second choice, losing five days. This one has a sedate rotation, but has skimpy dust. Since the first comet also was not rich in dust we decide to mine this one anyway. I match orbits with the comet and program the propulsion to hold our long skinny ship over one pole with its axis parallel to the surface. That takes continuous acceleration against the comet's small gravity, but we have lots of free power, and we can just jump up from the comet to the ship, rather than having to mess with orbital mechanics and with making sure the ends of the ship don't dig into the comet's surface.

We need to strip the metals out of the dust. We had a plan to put a kind of blister on the comet's surface with a heater inside, but we saw real early that we wouldn't get enough dust that way. All four of us have to put on the vacuum suits and use improvised plastic shovels (that break) to gather up the surface layer, enriched in dust, and guide it into plastic bags, which isn't easy in the comet's very low gravity. The pusher chips in our belt packs press us toward the surface but the dirty methane, ammonia and water snow goes in all directions, and it's a matter of skill to get most of it heading toward the bag, held open by a piece of wire. It works out best, energy-wise, for us to shovel in the morning. After four hours of that even my wrists and shoulders, the most muscular in the group, are aching, and my stomach is telling me that one skimpy ration bar will be far from enough to fill it.

Inside from shoveling, we remove our suits' boots (different for lions and humans) and peel off the inner body stockings; Simba and I are careful not to catch fur in the folds and pull it out. There's a clear smell of ammonia, comet stuff tracked in on the boots, despite the heater we set up next to the tiny airlock to warm the boot soles, and where there's ammonia there's odorless but dangerous carbon monoxide. The air feels close, due to the high carbon dioxide, and the activated charcoal absorber really doesn't keep ahead of Simba's cinnamon and my allspice scents, and Willie and Wilma's less pleasant ones, enhanced by the elevated temperature. Intestinal gas is also unavoidable. I think we're all doing very well bearing with our various discomforts, and as commander I have a surprise planned that I hope will help us keep our spirits up.

Me: Hey, people, don't grab ration bars quite yet. Today's a special day: on Earth it's Thanksgiving and I made a special treat. Simba, if you'll just pop this bowl in the microwave oven I'll bring out the main course. Voila!

Wilma: Oh, Tiger, they're so cute! Little turkeys!

Yesterday when nobody was watching I cut off a quarter of a sheet of paper -- we have two reams to last eight years -- and I drew and cut out little turkey heads, tails and wings, colored them with pencils, and stuck them to the edible rice paper wrappers of whole ration bars using glue I made by mashing up a fragment of a ration bar. For the side dish I took today's hundred grams of ungerminated Chang seeds, barley flavor currently, ran them through the rolling mill a couple times (it works just as well on them as on metal), and added cloves, allspice, sugar and water. After cooking it comes out as kind of a porridge. Not a lot, but when cooked it doesn't look so skimpy. We don't have enough spices to do this every day, but the special ingredients are there to be used to keep up our morale.

Me: I'm not God's creature so I'm not going to be hokey with a religious prayer, but I do want to give thanks. I'm thankful that CQMT was discovered, because it got us the stars: this star. I'm thankful that I was in a position to make sure that happened. I'm thankful that everything eventually worked out so I could be here, even if a bit battered and hungry. And I'm very thankful to have you people with me, doing your jobs with no complaints.

Simba: I'm thankful to be here too. In our life Tiger and I have been in a bunch of bad situations, and I'm thankful that so far we've been able to make lemonade out of them. Remember, Tiger, when we chose mates and you were so angry with me? I'm so thankful I had the nerve, and you had the wisdom, to turn that around, so I got you.

Willie: I'm really thankful I got to be a lion, that my parents took a chance on the low paying job in the back woods. And thank you, Tiger, for picking us to be on the crew. And Wilma...

Wilma: I'm thankful, very thankful, that you and I were led together. I thought I'd end up as an old maid. And right here, I'm thankful for all this data! The corona on epsilon Eridani is totally unlike Sol's. And I'd better shut my mouth because I think we'd rather eat our turkeys than listen to a science summary.

Me: Right, people, dig in. Next year, I swear I'm going to make a tofu turkey and stuff you till you burst!

We enjoy our ration bars and barley porridge. Really, it goes part way to filling our bellies, which is a welcome change. We've been eating and chatting (and getting some of the science summary) with our heads toward the center of the ship, but now Simba and I invert (a bit complicated in a cross section of one meter square) and just hold each other. Taking the cue, Willie and Wilma do the same, and we do a kind of footsie. That sounds sort of stupid, but on the mat we liked to get our arms around each other so everyone could stroke and be stroked. There's barely enough room for a pair to hug in this ship, and we were joking around one day and discovered that stroking with the feet was actually useful as a substitute. Not saying it publicly, but I'm thankful we did the mat thing, however hard and inconvenient it was, because if I had dumped myself directly into this overpowered phone booth I would probably have fought for space and probably would have used my claws repeatedly.

Simba is rubbing against me in a most interesting manner. I close my eyes and wriggle back. I'm thankful for Simba and I'm feeling a little guilty about not saying it publicly, so as not to set him above the humans, and I intend to send him a nice mail message that Wilma and Willie won't see. I wish we could take turns being commander, but of course that's impossible, particularly with my personality. Hmm, this is the longest we've ever gone without mating, even after my accident. We've been too sick, or too busy, or too tired, or too hungry, or there's always been some excuse. In reality I've been a little shy, not the lion way, and I didn't want to deal with the consequences of making Willie and Wilma uncomfortable. Before we left we had the luxury of doing EVA to Willie and Wilma's bedroom. We talked about sex and they said they would be uncomfortable but we weren't going to get private rooms, ever, and we'd all better get used to it. The commander decides that the crew's mental health requires that they be together properly, and gives Tiger permission to proceed. I gently kick our pair free of Willie and Wilma and I rub against Simba with an unmistakable genital component. He's obviously psyching himself up; then he responds vigorously.

We should have done this long ago. While enjoying being connected to Simba while his semen gels, I can hear motion and breathing from the other end of the ship. Fortunately Wilma is a non-breeder, having had a hysterectomy a few years ago due to a very difficult fibroid tumor that refused to respond to lesser treatment. In principle Simba and I could breed, though we've had our eight kittens and it's the kittens' turn now. But to get pregnant I and Simba would both need twenty minutes of rather boring preparation two days before the planned mating, and that's not going to happen either intentionally or accidentally. The purpose of mating is to glue the couples together, and I'm thankful to have a good charge of gluey lion semen inside me.

Over the next three weeks we shovel about two tons of comet juice and run it through our distiller. Water is allowed to freeze in one bag, to be given to the Chang bushes when they're big enough to take it up, and carbon dioxide freezes in another bag. We brought with us a modified Xylogen bug which efficiently turns methane and carbon dioxide into polybutyrate plastic, our all-purpose light duty construction material. Another bug uses the same ingredients plus ammonia to make polyimide fibers, trade name ``Kevlar'', and Simba can make several other kinds of plastic in smaller quantities. We all take turns fabricating the polybutyrate into hydroponic plant racks, and germinating Chang seeds. Only a little under 0.1 percent of the seeds sprout, and Simba picks them out from among the duds, and freezes the rest to eat later. Simba carefully nurtures the survivors spread out in the racks, and they're growing well; the very first plants are up to ten centimeters high and they have several branches and many of their small leaves. More racks means we can attempt to germinate more seeds, and finally we're back to getting enough to eat. For us the limited starvation was uncomfortable and psychologically threatening, but our bodies handled it well: the humans look in better shape than when we started, and our fur covers our fat layer so any thinning couldn't be seen.

Wilma does her share of shoveling and planting, but her main duty is scientific observation: all kinds of spectra of the planets and of epsilon Eridani. But telescopic images are useless because we're so far away. She's anxious to get in closer because the spectra look fascinating, particularly of Njord, the one with life, which has really bizarre infrared absorption bands.

I tend the chip prototyper, which doesn't take a lot of time, and as it finishes the pushers, optical sensors, processor chips and so on I install them on our first orbiting probe. But I put a fair amount of time into agriculture. I use the rolling mill with the heat on to bond raw polyimide fibers between polyterephthalate sheets. It's labor intensive, but we worked this out on Earth and the result is very strong, worth the effort. Willie and I glue these strips together into balls eight meters in diameter, which are our agricultural pods. A microwave sulfur plasma glowball goes in the center; so far from epsilon Eridani there's way too little light for the plants, while when we orbit Njord the ultraviolet would be too harsh, so we paint one side white to reflect the sunlight and one side black to radiate heat, and light the interior artificially. We have kind of an assembly line out on the comet's surface -- epoxy glue and paint work in space -- and we move the plant racks into the pods as we finish. Our goal is one pod every four days. We'll need twelve hundred square meters of ``floor'' area at two hundred square meters per pod, or six pods. We also need to accelerate the things, so the racks are appropriately tilted (the roots and leaves will just have to grow at an angle) and a patch at the top has no plants but does have the cable anchor and a simple airlock.

Willie's special job is the comet dust. While it's mostly graphite, useless, he's electrolytically smelted about eight kilos of iron out of it, twelve kilos of aluminum, four hundred grams of copper, two hundred grams of chromium, fifty grams of vanadium, four kilos each of sodium and potassium (as chloride, sulfate and carbonate), two hundred grams of phosphorus, and miscellaneous others. This result is good and bad. We have enough metals to build the chassis of our orbiting probe and to fertilize our Chang plants, though their growth will be limited somewhat at the end by the phosphorus supply. We don't have enough for the second probe or the lander, and it's doubtful if the copper is enough for wiring. We'll be using pure aluminum for heat radiators. Titanium is in the ``miscellaneous'' category because it needs vanadium and tin for alloying, and there's enough vanadium for the quinone isomerase in the Chang bushes but nowhere near enough to make the titanium useful. Near the end of our comet campaign I have a little talk with Willie.

Me: Got any ideas on natural resources? On Earth we planned that if we could find any comet we'd just stay here until we had all the metals we needed. But I don't feel comfortable with that plan any more: we have to get on with the science, in case the plants don't grow and we have to go home. So what's prudent, do you think?

Willie: We talked about an automatic miner and smelter, but we wrote that off as being too complicated. I've been thinking about that again, though. It's still too complicated but we may be forced into it.

Me: Well, let's brainstorm. Suppose a separate miner and smelter. In fact, suppose the smelter is on this ship but the miner is autonomous. We'll make the miner so when it fills up it can fly to where we are, and then we smelt the mined dust. Problem solved!

Willie: It's a step in the right direction, but an autonomous miner is still complicated. Think of a little bulldozer: what about traction? Same as we use when shoveling: pusher chips, pressing the treads down on the comet's surface. Control would be tough, though.

Me: We won't have the partner chips on our ship. We'll feed power by AATS from the ship to a box on the comet, anchored to it; you were talking about how to anchor in this soft fluff. The box has the partners of the pusher chips on the mining machine, minimizing the power needed and the problems in the control program too. And look, we can forget about the treads: the miner just has feet. Lift, set down, dig, repeat.

Willie: Not bad! The mouth will have a kind of a sweeper or shovel in front, which pushes in the surface layer. Now what? Warm it up, boil off the volatiles and save the dust in a bag that trails behind the thing. Simple! I'll get right on a detailed design.

Me: Great! But I'm thinking of the sweeper. Do we use an electric motor to run it? I don't think so.

Willie: Why not? Oh: wire. We have only a little copper. How do we insulate it? Can we even make brushes? And the magnet laminations: I can only do so much with the little rolling mill. Look, what we need is a crank and some way to use a pusher chip to turn it.

Me: A crank? Willie, you're a genius! We'll have a disc with several small pusher chips at the edge, and their partners on the chassis. The controller will work hard, turning the forces all the time, but it's nothing Simba can't program. I think this thing is going to work!

On Earth I do just a part of the whole process of making chips. My part, designing them, is important, but I still feel slightly incomplete. It gives me a real sense of accomplishment to work with Willie to design the mining machine, go out on the comet and dig up another half ton of snow, stuff it down the distiller and put the dust in the smelter, help Willie roll the raw metal into generic shapes, weld them into a chassis, attach all the subassemblies (and not forgetting Simba's job programming the various control units, which I also helped on), and then to see it hop slowly across the comet stuffing its face, and intelligently going around areas where we had already shoveled off the dirty layer. We hang around for two days, resting and finishing the orbiter, mainly to see if the miner will break. We designed well: there's no sign of metal fatigue or frost buildup, and by working continuously it already has put about two kilos of comet dust in its sack. The sack is large, and flexible; we've designed the machine to hold about two hundred kilos, though we expect to retrieve it before it's full. Besides ten centimeter hops on the comet's surface, it has enough propulsion and smarts to cross this solar system and bring the dust to wherever we are, and then return. That meant taking some pusher chips out of the orbiter, but on the trip to Njord there will be enough time to make more.

So it's time to leave the Kuiper cloud of comets for planet Njord, 4.5e12 meters away. Trailing out behind our long skinny noodle-shaped spacecraft are agricultural pods and bags of supplies, hanging from cables of various lengths so they don't bump together. We must look like a boat, or better, one oar, that had gotten tangled in kelp and is now dragging clots of the messy seaweed behind it. We're accelerating at one third G, three meters per second squared, a compromise between wasting time moving and wasting time making the plastic needed for stronger cables and plant racks. Halfway to Njord we'll turn the ship and bags around to decelerate, unlike on the trip from Earth where we had to keep the shield in front even though we were decelerating. The passage will take 28 days.

It's a quiet time for us after the bustle of creating and filling the agricultural pods, and we all get a chance to review the science data that Wilma and Willie have been collecting. Njord as a home to life is very different from Earth. Dry, the spectra suggest it's a desert. It gets more insolation, about twice Earth's sunlight, somewhat like Venus, but it's managed to avoid the catastrophe that turned Venus into Hel. Referring metaphorically to the Norse goddess of the underworld. But in the telescope the planet is just a dot, much like Pluto from Earth but viewed in the opposite direction. We're all anxious to get there and actually see what's going on.

Now that we're no longer preoccupied with fast-breaking duties I decide that it's time for some maintenance that we've put off for a few days: a thorough blood analysis, as thorough as one can do 1e17 meters from home. Simba has finished the tests.

Simba: You humans are losing calcium and we lions are losing silica from our bones. We need to compromise between spending limited food on exercises and maintaining healthy bones and circulatory systems. And it's so cramped in here; it's impossible to exercise the way we're used to. I'm reluctant to let such a thing go by, but I think we're doing the best we can.

Me: I can feel myself getting weaker and I resent that. Strength is important to me, an important part of what Tiger is.

Willie: You know, what I miss most is chinups. There's no way to set up the bungee bands to pull down on them. Well... I just had a brainwave: suppose we put two pusher chips on a bar and programmed it to pretend it was a barbell in one G! And we have the foot anchors for that stupid jumping exercise, so if we reverse the thrust, now we have a chinup bar. What do you think; is it worthwhile spending the resources?

Wilma: I'd get a lot of good out of an exercise machine right now.

Me: So would I, so would I. The chips for the orbiter will be ready before we get to Njord, but if we made our bar first then the orbiter would be, I'm estimating, two or three days late. I think it's worth it, don't you? It'll take us several days to know what to point the orbiter at anyway. Simba will program the barbell, right? I want a safety feature that if your hand slips it halts, doesn't go through the wall. And Willie, I'm estimating that as a product your barbell would cost about seventy bucks at retail and it can take the place of an exercise machine costing several hundred, plus being safer. Write up a patent application and we'll send it to Earth, and TransForce will develop the product for you.

Willie smiles broadly.

Simba: Bar exercises don't take that much energy and they'll be good for us, I think. But there's more from the blood tests and it isn't happy news. Willie, you have cancer. So do I.

Willie: Oh.

Wilma: Oh, Willie! And Simba! What are we going to do?

Simba: Find it and kill it. Agreed?

Willie: Agreed. This is scary. Can we get started promptly? I don't want that stuff in me one second longer than necessary.

Simba: My thought exactly. Stick your arm over here for a shot. The same antigens that the blood test detects, this will tag them with cesium-137. Not your usual medical isotope but they could make it up on Earth and it would stay active until the end of our stay here. Now I'll give myself the lion version of the same stuff. Ouch, I hate it, jabbing the needle through my skin plates.

Me: I thought we were resistant to cancer.

Simba: Resistant doesn't mean immune. And I agree with Willie: I'm scared, both of the treatment and... I'm the first lion to get cancer, and if surgery isn't complete we don't know if human immunotherapy will work for us.

Wilma: Do you think the radiation caused it?

Simba: Our effective dose should have given humans a ten to twenty percent chance of getting cancer. It could just be bad luck that half of the people got hit, or it could be that freezing works differently on us than on rats, not protecting us as much. Willie, would you find the radiation detector?

Willie: Here it is. Guess what, I'm radioactive. It seems to be concentrated in my belly.

Simba: May I get in there, please, and see for myself? I can't be completely sure, but I'm betting that your intestinal lining is involved. If true, that's easy to remove, if caught at this early stage. Now let's find my tumor. Well, that's odd, it's in my left leg. Please, not the bone! No, I'm pretty sure it's in the muscle. Wilma, could you check that? I want it to be there and it may just be wishful thinking. Muscle tumors are rare, but who knows with lions? Also the way our stem cells work, it could be that the radiation made a stem cell go bad and it just happened to pick that spot to settle down.

Wilma: Sorry for the elbow jab. Yes, it's definitely about three or four centimeters under the surface, not in the center. But I can't feel the tumor; maybe it's too small. So what do we do now?

Simba: Well, I'm thinking about food efficiency. Willie, how about you starve yourself for 24 hours, to get the nutrition out of what's inside you, and then we'll make up some of that awful purgative and you cleanse your system. I want to save the bottled stuff for the return trip, but we have the recipe and enough phosphate to make some. Then, our medical kit includes a neat little jobbie with a CQMT pusher chip in it, a video camera, and interchangeable weapons. I'll review the chapter on the surgery, and then tomorrow you'll stick the vehicle up your ass and I'll fly it up your colon and attack the cancer.

Willie: I trust I won't be awake for this.

Simba: According to the books, you could be. The lesson said that blasting polyps is painless. In your place I'd want to see it on the video.

Willie: I'll think about it. So what about you?

Simba: As soon as we're done talking, either I or Wilma is going to hack a piece out of my leg. I have the primary medical training and the emergency room work experience, but it's going to take every bit of toughness I have to stick that knife in. Wilma, you're the backup medic, and knocking myself out and letting you do it is attractive in some ways, but the way I feel about having things done to me, it would take just as much toughness to put myself in your undoubtedly capable hands. I've decided, I'm going to do the job, but Wilma, if I feel I'm messing it up you be ready to take over, OK? And I'll need you to pass me things and wipe blood away.

Me: Wilma, I'm here too, as backup.

Simba: I want to start. This business scares me, and talking and delaying just wears me down. Let's get all the stuff ready.

Simba shaves an area on his left leg over the tumor, using the carbide cutter, since our fur has silica in it for fire retardancy, and he glues the fur out of the way with the chewed-up pulp of a few Chang seeds. It's bizarre to see his naked skin, part tawny and part auburn with the stripe boundary cutting through the shaved area. He scrubs it with acrid brown iodine solution. Then he injects himself with novocaine, snarling under his breath each time he sticks in the needle. Wilma has a (washed) human underpant ready to wipe away blood. Too bad we have to use such a pretty thing for dirty work, but the blood will wash right out. I can tell that Simba is doing a mind exercise; then he plunges the carbide cutter through his skin and slices a line about ten centimeters long. We can hear his opal skin plates crunch as the cutter breaks them, and blood wells out. Wilma blots as I hand Simba the steel knife. Working blind, for the blood comes right back, he cuts into his muscle.

Simba: Willie, final check where the thing is, please.

Willie uses the radiation detector. The tumor is to the right of the cut. Simba slices in a small arc and takes out a piece of muscle. Willie checks again; the tumor is still in Simba. He cuts again. This time the removed piece is radioactive and the activity in Simba's leg is uniformly low.

Simba: Put that in a bottle, please, and Tiger, let me have the stapler. Wilma, blot again, please.

Holding each small titanium staple in special pliers, Simba puts in a neat row of them to close up the tendonous sheath of his muscle. Later, getting them out will be fun. He dusts erythromycin powder over the area, and then he closes the external wound with larger stainless steel skin staples. I pass him an elastic compression bandage and a wad of gauze, which we'll wash later for re-use. He gives the wounded area a firm squeeze and blood squirts from between the staples. Wilma catches most of it with the underpant and wipes the cut again, and then wipes the eye of the cute koala bear peeking around one of the consoles. Then finally Simba wraps his leg tightly.

Simba: Thank you, Wilma. Thank you, everybody. And I'm really thankful that novocaine works in lion people; I can't imagine being tough enough to do that without novocaine. I'm already getting a headache from it and I'd like to miss that experience, and I'm pretty upset, so I'm going to stay asleep for a few hours. Would you maybe take turns moving my skin, to break the blood clot connecting it to the muscle, so scar tissue can't form? I want to keep the skin moving freely. OK? Well, good night all.

Simba presses shoulder button four, the sleep button, and is out like a light.

Me: Wilma, you were steady, as a lion should be. You did a good job.

Wilma: Tiger, Tiger! You're like a rock; I'm like a leaf! Willie, hold me, but you have your own problem; I'm scared!

Me: I'm real good at doing the rock thing, aren't I? Willie, could you make some space for me? I need a hug from Wilma. And from you. I'm really scared. This wasn't supposed to happen. Oh, I'll just dissect my leg and machine-gun Willie's bowel; just another fun activity in our little adventure. Just hold me for a while, until I can get my steadiness back. I'm not much of a commander, am I, needing my crew to hug me.

Willie: There's nobody I'd rather have in your position, Tiger. Let's all get ourselves steadied down. I'm not going to die, Wilma; I know a little about colon cancer and I'm sure Simba will be able to find it and remove it. And if not, we're not out of options. There, there, let me hug you both. It'll be OK.

Me: Right, we'll all be OK. I think maybe I ought to fiddle with Simba's skin now, like he said. And then I'm going to check some spectral line assignments; we have about fifty of those left to do. They may be boring but somehow spectral lines help me to relax.

Simba doesn't want dinner and puts himself back to sleep: he must really be upset. His tail thrashes in a nightmare. He tends to deal with problems that way and to get comfort from it, where I prefer to have a listener (usually Simba) so I can more productively curse whatever is frustrating me. I make a mental note that he should eat an extra ration bar tomorrow.

In the morning Simba locates his tumor in the removed tissue scrap and examines it with the microscope, saving digital images for transmission back to Earth. With our limited set of antigenic stains he's able to show that it was indeed a stem cell that got out of control. There's a set of surface markers that are different for stem cells, partially differentiated growing cells and mature cells, and any cell that had its markers mixed up should have been killed by Simba's immune system. According to the stains the tumor is failing to produce the growing cell marker even though it's growing. It took two unlucky radiation hits, or more, to activate growth in the absence of a tissue assignment and to deactivate the growth marker that would have warned the killer cells that the stem cell was running wild.

Lunch for Willie is phosphate cocktail. Not lemon flavored. He gets his insides cleaned out, and then he and Simba get busy with his operation, which he's decided to watch. Simba pilots the little vehicle through Willie's colon and spots several suspicious objects, as Wilma marks down their approximate position. One is in the transverse colon and four are in the lower section including one we think is at the primary target's position, though it doesn't look any different from the others. Then while backing out, Simba uses a heated wire to burn through the most distant growth. Willie says he feels heat but no pain, despite the smoke or steam we can see on the video. The vehicle has a grabber, and Simba drags the little fragment out; he can fish it out of Willie's ass without removing the whole vehicle. This process is repeated four more times, and it's all over. A check with the radiation counter proves that the tumor is now in one of the bottles, not in Willie's belly. For prudence Willie will have to starve for another day to let the burns heal, but with luck he's now safe from cancer. From this particular cancer.

Willie: Well, that wasn't too bad, was it? Thanks, Simba. It doesn't hurt in there and I feel OK, apart from being hungry. I'm going to align the optics on the orbiter's video camera. That won't take too much pushing and shoving, to avoid jiggling my insides.

Simba: Are you sure? I was completely wiped out yesterday.

Willie: Well, I guess yesterday I had a chance to calm myself down, to get over the shock, while you just started slashing. If I had been sawing at my leg I would have been wiped out too.

Simba: If there's a next time, I hope not, I think I'll learn from you: give myself a little time before starting the treatment. I'm going to examine these adenomas and I'll call you when I have something to show.

The immunostains reveal that all five polyps were dangerous, but four of them could have grown slowly for years before getting into a true cancerous mode. The primary target, however, had broken the growth rate limiter -- and fortunately for Willie, it revealed its rapid growth by shedding antigens that the blood test could detect. I think it would be really prudent to examine Wilma's colon similar to what we did for Willie, just in case she has precancerous polyps too. Wilma heartily agrees.

This journey to Njord was supposed to be a period of quiet boredom. The ancient Chinese curse seems apropos: may you live in interesting times!

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