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Chapter 10: Gondolin

At Thor we have our hands full digging up and smelting ore, but we make time to review my proposal of where to put our new home. Simba's tail posture suggests a challenge, and it's me he's challenging. Politely, but I'm on the hot seat.

Simba: I'm not completely comfortable, Wilma, about putting our base at the bottom of a subduction trench. One, we intend to flood it as quick as humanly or lionly possible. Two, subduction means earthquakes, and we're just asking for trouble there, particularly if the shocks from comet impacts set off additional quakes. Third, it's at the foot of a slope and it's in extensional terrain with lots of cracks. We're exposed to landslides, both down the slope and out from under us, dumping us into a crack like the truck we found. I'd be a lot happier with a seismically dead site in the middle of a plate surface, if not up in the highlands.

Tiger: I'm not comfortable bringing up kittens who can't play outside. This is their world and if they get into the mindset that outside is off limits, we'll have city kids forced to manage the farm: a botch. The risks are real but in my opinion they're worth it. I think Wilma's picked the right area.

Simba: The atmosphere is argon and nitrogen at 4.5 percent Earth normal. Your blood would boil, and you can't breathe it anyway.

Tiger: Did you read the numbers?

Simba: OK, OK, the pressure is higher because it's down a hole, but you still can't breathe it.

Tiger: Pure oxygen at that pressure is just a little less than what we breathed at the Lion Foundation, up in the mountains. 161 millibars. You can work outside perfectly normally if you have a helmet.

Simba: Sure, helmets on kittens.

Tiger: Sure, helmets on kittens. They can't go out at all on the plate surface, and forget the highlands, because their blood would boil as you just said; we can't make little space suits for them. Wilma, could you show us the image of the site again? With particular reference to landslides.

Me: See this less lumpy area? If you follow the extensional cracks, see, it looks like a block of material collapsed. This area has already had its landslide. We need to take seismic profiles there to know the true subsurface conditions, but along the whole length of the trench this one has the best combination of a relatively large area of relatively flat land, probable landslide stability, and moderate elevation above the bottom of the trench. It's thirty meters above the local profile low, which is about four hundred meters above the lowest point, fifty kilometers to the southeast. Do you want to see the other sites again? Some aren't too bad.

Willie: Don't forget, Simba, that we're going to be doing heavy labor to build this base. Our space suits are rugged, but that rugged? Do you fancy getting out the knitting needles when a suit wears out?

Simba: I don't mean to be the meanie here, really, but I take physical risks seriously. Nobody's bothered that we're going to build this structure and then flood it in a few years, right? OK, nobody's bothered. Wilma, I get your point on the landslides; I guess I'm satisfied there. But Willie, I still worry about earthquakes. I've never been in one, thank goodness, and neither have you. Convince me I'm worrying too much.

Willie: We have the Los Angeles building codes on one of our discs. I believe Wilma has an extensive data set of earthquakes including subduction quakes, so we have a pretty good idea what we're up against. It's simply a matter of building strongly, of putting in the effort to make a building that will hold together. I'd much rather do all the digging and brickmaking and re-rod welding with bare hands or vinyl gloves than to risk wearing out our suits. We need to be down in that trench. And I think Tiger's right, that the kittens...

Simba: The Lion Disc editor knows about kittens. I know Tiger's right, but our job here is to balance one risk against another. And Wilma, I looked at the other sites with you before. OK, I think you've convinced me: that site is the right one. Sorry to throw so much cold water. Also on the gloves, let's give lion skin a try; I certainly intend to. Wilma, perhaps you could look up a reference on what you do to make leather usable. I hope the skin is still good after so long in vacuum; when Tiger and I shed, I just wrapped up the larger pieces and stuck them in one of the miscellaneous junk bags outside the ship.

Willie: You wouldn't mind? It sounds like something out of Hitler: lampshades of human skin.

Simba: Of course I wouldn't mind! I'm not using the skin any more, after all.

I'm glad we're finally agreed on the site. And we have another load of ore to smelt, plus we have the aluminum and iron from the last batch to roll into strip and weld into structural tubes. At least we're limiting the work to nine or ten hours per day, depending on how much useful metal we get out of each load.

Next day we take a working break at midmorning and run through just what we're going to do to begin building our base. Step zero: fabricate tools which we'll decide on in this session. Step one: ferry the tools and ourselves to the surface. This will take a more powerful lander with redundant pusher chips plus their partners: an unanticipated commitment of time for the chip maker. The X-ray sensor will be delayed yet again. Step two: test the feasibility of working without the space suits. In other words, we'll stand naked (figuratively speaking) on the surface of the alien world, possibly in lion skin boots or possibly in bare human feet. The lions have their lion skin boots built in. We'll have to build one accessory for this test, an emergency can, because if anything goes wrong it will take too long to put the space suit back on. In fact we should have four cans at all times, one for each of us.

Step three: make a thorough seismic study of the subsurface. I'm expert at gathering data of that kind and interpreting it, but I've always worked with store-bought explosives. Willie, on the other hand, did some research as a teenager and thinks he remembers how to get us a bang. Safely, not teenage style. Step four: make the final decision where to place the vault: which subsurface jumble is least unsalubrious and involves the least hacking through hard rock. We'll want a spot at least three meters below the surface to get enough radiation shielding.

Step five: start digging. This will involve, we decide, a shovel for each of us, two wheelbarrows (with low-tech metal wheels, not pneumatic tires, and sleeve bearings), and one pickaxe. We hope we won't need more pickaxes. If needed we can make a star drill and a sledge hammer, but we hope even more fervently that we won't need to use those. Step six: make cement blocks. The regolith is essentially pre-made cement: just add water and possibly crushed rock, if there isn't enough already. (How would we crush the rock efficiently?) We'll need to experiment with regolith from different localities. We may want a heavy-duty mining attachment for the personnel lander to collect the stuff, because we don't want people working outside our trench wearing out their space suits.

Finally, step seven: assemble the building. This will involve mixing large amounts of concrete and mortar, meaning a generous sized water tank on the surface, plus water to put in it. It's marginal whether we'll have enough; we could be stuck making another trip to the comet to gather water. No way can Willie's bees make a significant difference in our water supply for many years. Plus we'll be smelting, rolling, bending and welding steel reinforcing rods continuously in this phase. And of course the last step is to bury our house again, because the whole point is to shield its contents from cosmic radiation.

Willie: How close is the bee chip from being done?

Tiger: Tomorrow morning, and then we start on its power nexus.

Willie: It's really discouraging: we can look out the window there at Wotan and see the water we need, but we need it now, not when we've built the B factory and have a thousand bees in flight. Look, the comet miner goes through a hundred kilos of comet material a day, of which a third is water. We boil it off and save the dust, but suppose we made a second larger comet miner that could gobble up raw comet material and bring it back here under heavy acceleration? The comet express!

Me: Good idea! But if we want a lot of water, it's fairly simple to boil off the other stuff: methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide.

Willie: Right, that would triple the production rate. What do you think, Tiger? What order would we make the chips in?

Tiger: The production schedule is running backward! But I think you have a good idea. We didn't anticipate needing so much water when we built the first miner, so we just threw it away. Oh, well, that's the breaks. I don't want to distract you from the B factory because we can't keep ahead of the demand for chips without it, so I'll take care of designing the miner. And Wilma, can you do the civil engineering for the building in considerably more detail? What I'm mainly after is how much water we need, which means how much concrete, poured and in blocks. And of course we need to plan for the reinforcing steel too, as well as a digging plan, with a volume estimate. I wish we could get time estimates how long all this will take, but I'm sure we don't have the expertise to estimate this job.

Me: Right, I'll get right on that. Do you think we should do more metal now, or later?

Tiger: Now. To get to the comet it takes fifteen days each way at one G. Suppose we can double the acceleration safely. I'm guessing a hundred to two hundred kilos of water per trip. I'm guessing we'll need several tons of water.

Willie: I just looked it up: for twelve units of concrete you need nine units of rocks and sand, two units of cement and one unit of water, by mass. We may not need several tons, but we'll need several trips of the miner. We should build it before the personnel lander. But there's something else: concrete needs carbon dioxide, which is free in Earth's atmosphere. But not here.

Me: So we'll have to make the concrete blocks in, let's see, a tent filled with carbon dioxide, which the miner will have to collect and bring in. And we'll need to cover the poured concrete with a tent too.

Willie: This is getting complicated. Could we just leave the concrete green? Maybe not; properly cured concrete is twice as strong. Also if we want to grow plants anywhere connected with the concrete structure, or with any exposed regolith for that matter, we'll have to bring in carbon dioxide continuously to replace what's absorbed.

Me: And we'll need bags to store water and carbon dioxide in, and enough plastic for a water tank on the surface. Or could the miner deliver water directly to the surface tank and carbon dioxide into our tent? I'll watch the bugs make the plastic and I'll fabricate the tank, so Simba doesn't have to take time away from making babies.

Willie: I'll bet the Novanima way isn't...

Tiger: I don't want to get stuck waiting for this and for that. Maybe we should build two miners. But Willie, the B factory comes first, agreed?

Simba: Digging will take time. Let's wait for Wilma's construction plans and then try to estimate times, to see if we need two water miners. But I think it's time to get back to our short term goal now, don't you? The miner's up from the surface.

Willie: Sixteen tons and what do you get?

Tiger: Singed fur from welding tube, that's what you get. No company store here. Decide who's going to unload the miner this time, because it'll be docked in about thirty seconds.

On the basis of our various estimates we're sure we don't have enough water or carbon dioxide to make our concrete, but we can get by, barely, with one water miner. Nonetheless we intend to build two; that may seem extravagant now but the way things usually work out we'll thank ourselves later. And we decide that the Thor mining lander isn't strong enough to evacuate us safely if the personnel lander breaks; we're going to have to make two of those also. But the order will be water miner, lander, water miner, lander: we'll use the mining lander as an unsafe backup for about seven weeks while the chips for the second water miner and personnel lander are being made. The chassis (chassises?) will be built first and will then have to wait for the chips to make them go. Tiger dislikes risks, and Simba dislikes them even more, as do Willie and I, but we also have to make progress and we're willing to balance the risk of a catastrophic failure against the risk of taking too long to finish.

We spend a strenuous week mining and smelting our materials, and Tiger's joke about singed fur is no joke when it actually happens. Then we return to Njord, beginning to fabricate subassemblies on the way. Tiger promised me a period at Njord to finish up the heptapus archaeology, in between my other duties such as growing and fabricating our water tank. I have about six weeks excluding time traveling between Thor and Njord. But on the chip production schedule, we've made a chiller bee first, one wafer that we cut in four sections, and its power nexus comes next (fifteen days), after which Tiger builds a similar prototype for the pusher bees (another fifteen days). But it's not going to push a comet, it's going to push our water miner to a comet. Three quarter slices, conventionally packaged, are the most efficient way to get the amount of propulsion we need. We install the chips and send the miner off for a three week round trip, and fire up the chip maker to make nine small pushers (two days each) to go in the personnel lander. Tiger insisted on many small chips so if one breaks there are plenty still there to share the load.

The power nexus now has to work with the water miner, but for two weeks Willie had it to play with. He and Tiger encapsulated the four bee chip quarters each with its own technology: a conventional ceramic header, painted-on epoxy, sprayed low-melting arsenical glass, and hand-drawn sapphire tape epoxy glued to both sides of the chip. The first step was to run all four of them back and forth from Wotan to Thor a couple of times, and it turned out to be completely feasible to dynamically redirect the chips so power was exchanged directly between one chip moving upward and one moving down, while only the unbalanced momentum and excess heat were transferred to the power nexus. Transferring the CQMT from one chip to another takes about five times the speed of light delay. Willie was a little worried about that since we were at Njord, but using what she learned from Surya's thesis, Tiger found that the relevant delay is the distance between the chips, not the distance to the power nexus. Willie also worried about our ability to steer the bees, but the bees are smart and they had little trouble navigating; they didn't smash into Thor or enter Wotan's atmosphere without permission.

That came next: Willie programmed the bees to have two in the atmosphere at the level of the water clouds, one flying to Thor (whereupon it dropped its snowball) and one flying back. In the atmosphere one cooled itself and froze a snowball while the other dissipated the heat. This test in its complete form lasted two days, and was unfortunately cut short when the glass-coated bee, while freezing its snowball, suddenly went silent. Too bad, but that's why we did the test: to find out which coatings would hold up. That's the one Willie had the best hopes for. Willie changed the program to omit the trip to Thor, to just drop the snowball into Wotan's maw. The epoxy painted one failed a day and a half later. The conventional and sapphire-covered bees continued to operate until Willie had to give up the power nexus for the water miner.

So I had a generous period of time to try to understand the golden age of the heptapi. Monumental sculpture: I believe I have photos of every sculpture in the ``capital'' plus the major works in the smaller cities. Mostly they were scenes of titanic battles but one piece in particular struck me: a single heptapus with one tentacle gracefully outstretched to the viewer as if giving a benediction. The tentacle is sculpted in sections and if I were designing it, it would have a metal rod or cable through holes in the center and a nut hidden on the back of the sculpture compressing the stack. I have maps of land use showing where heptapi lived, worked and did whatever else they did. But I have more understanding of ancient Ur on Earth than of the heptapi.

One particularly frustrating discovery I made just two days ago in the easternmost city: in a dark back room in a building decorated with a modest sculptural scene I found three piles of large, thin, flat slabs. They have a texture, and a suggestion of rows. There's not enough light for the lander's camera to see any more clearly, and the lander has neither the dexterity nor the strength to lift a slab and take it out to the light. And even if I've found written records rather than building materials, I'm sure it's going to be a nightmare interpreting the symbols. Simba was lucky that the heptapi speak in a representation which, though bizarre, fits the kind of image processing software we can comprehend. But think of Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphics, how much trouble it was to interpret them, and that from our own lineage whose material culture is at least comprehensible. I'm just going to have to record the coordinates of the three piles of whatever, and in twenty or thirty years maybe someone can visit in person and lift and view the slabs. And maybe more useful: he or she can hunt in the oceans for the lairs of the modern heptapi. It's not likely that we'll soon have time to return to Njord with better equipment.

Well, I've carried out my responsibility to the heptapi and to the people on Earth. I feel inadequate, but likely any professional archaeologist would feel the same, faced with those stripped ruins. And archaeology wasn't my only job. On science I handled the plasma and particle experiments and I frequently monitored the star's spectrum and surface patterns as well. For engineering I wrapped four fiber-reinforced plastic emergency cans and one large fiber-reinforced water tank, plus, with Tiger, assembling the water miner and sections of the personnel lander. Yesterday evening we drew into orbit around Thor, had a late dinner, and then went outside and installed its pusher chips, the last of which was just finished and tested today. The personnel lander, even though holding only one person, is bigger around than our ship, with its cup-shaped cabin and spidery landing legs, though of course it's much shorter.

A new day dawns; the computer turns up the artificial light. After breakfast Tiger leads us in planning the day.

Tiger: Everyone brushed her fangs? OK, Here's what I'd like to do on the new lander. First I'll run a few tests on it. Then we'll land the equipment we made: shovels, wheelbarrows, emergency cans and water tank. We're supposed to be getting confidence that the lander is safe for us to ride. If we agree, I think we should do it like this: skip lunch, do the job on an empty stomach. I don't want anyone to barf in her helmet. We'll ride the lander one at a time. Each of us will do some physiological tests at one G, then go down to Thor. When everyone's down, sorry for the waiting, we'll assess how healthy we're feeling, and then disrobe. Doesn't that sound voluptuous? We'll dig a test pit to assess our aerobic capacity and to get a little feel for the tools and for possible problems in working suitless. Then we'll get our space suits back on and come up one at a time. Sound good?

Me: To see the new home! We've been in this system almost a year and never set foot on anything except one comet, never been more than a few meters from this spacecraft. This is kind of mundane, but should I scrub my feet this morning, do you think?

Simba: Last time I checked, all our pads were pretty strong. But I'd omit the scrub, or only do it in the evening, so as not to use up the blister resistance before going out on the surface. The amount of work we've planned to do, we'd probably be perfectly safe without scrubbing.

Willie: Prudence! I remember when I was five years old, first day of spring, I was about two kilometers from the Lion Foundation and got a blister... I didn't omit scrubbing after that. Anyway, I'm glad we've been scrubbing our soles and palms. And I'm excited to get down on the surface. I hope everything goes OK.

Tiger: So do I, so do I. Speaking of which, I'd like everything to be done in this order: Wilma, Willie, me, Simba. Wilma, that puts you at point: the first person to be put at risk on the new lander; waiting alone down there; the first to find out if we can work without the suits; the one to come back into the ship alone. I'm open to discussion on that.

Me: (Gulp.)

Tiger doesn't have to tell me why she picked that order: if I'm killed or seriously injured the other three can probably finish the mission, whereas I can't substitute for any of them. Let's put that a little more positively: my special skills were more vital earlier in the mission. I'd really rather some generic other person took point. But I'm a lion, honorary, and I'm brave and tough. I pushed the big button in the tank at the start of the mission, and I'm not going to be any less brave now.

Me: I'll do the job, Tiger.

Tiger: Thanks, Wilma; I love you. OK, let's try to make progress on something this morning while I do the tests. I'll handle loading the tools on the lander.

Willie hugs me, silently, rather a long time. I rehearse how I'll feel and what I'll do. I'll be scared, but I'll go outside, get in the lander, do the acceleration tests, then point the lander downward, trusting it to hold me against a fall the size of the world. I'll feel scared but I'll do it.

My work for the morning is going to be something light: organizing the heptapus building friezes to try to bring out some kind of pattern. Actually there does seem to be a relation with who lives near the building: martial or combative themes are popular when many hovels lay around, while more innovative scenes correlate with the density of palazzi, though fighting sculptures are still in the majority. I do keep an eye on what Tiger's doing. She gently moves the lander in all directions for about fifteen minutes. Then she sends it zooming away from our ship with aggressive swoops; to see it I need to expand the scale on the navigation window. Backward, forward, sideways she gives the pusher chips a thorough workout, and the reaction on our ship can be felt slightly. I don't want to interrupt her so I send her a mail message that the lander's partner chips could signal their forces to the main navigation control, rather than letting it deduce the forces from the ship's acceleration. After over an hour of continuous pounding on the chips, she brings the lander back and sedately docks it outside. She gets suited up; now we're going to risk the first landing and the first load of tools. I made the polyimide rope she'll tie them with, and the iron ring which the mechanical grabber will hang on to.

Tiger's back in, and off it goes. Since the target isn't optimally positioned, the landing takes about twenty minutes. There's really nothing to see until the end, just external views of Thor from orbital altitude, but I watch anyway, splitting the external view with the navigation window, and out of the corner of my eye I can see that both Willie and Simba have similar windows on their screens. I put my arm around Willie and he reciprocates. There's the trench; there's the landslide scar; there's the flat area... and it's hovering. Tiger goes down gingerly on the side toward the profile low, then hits a key and the lander jumps up a little as it lets go of the wheelbarrow and two shovels. Tiger turns the lander, still hovering; the wheelbarrow is actually standing on its wheel and two feet. She makes a thorough photographic survey of the area where we're going to be working. Then in a declaration of possession, she places the lander on the regolith and shuts off the thrust.

Tiger: We're down. In about two hours, Wilma, you're going to be there. Excited?

Me: Right, excited and scared.

Tiger: Me too. OK, let's get this show on the road.

She launches the lander skyward.

After four more trips up and down, the lander has earned a small degree of confidence from me. Tiger's left her suit on, minus gloves and boots, and I'm all dressed, with gloves, boots and helmet. I wish I could wipe sweaty palms on something.

Willie: Wilma, hug? I love you, always have and always will.

Me: I love you too. Tough as a lion, right?

Willie: Right! Show us how it's done.

I scrunch in the airlock with one of our four consoles and two extra air bottles. I'm going to fly the thing myself, not be delivered like a wheelbarrow. The turbomolecular pump may be faster than alternatives, but five minutes drags on so long! OK, the light changes from red to green and I pull the exit door inward, working the toes of my boots around it. I'm scared. I sit in the airlock just a moment to calm myself. I'm still scared, but I push out into space. There's my steed. I get in; in zero G there's no need to open the door which completes a chest-high cup to hold me. I fasten the safety rope to an iron ring on a rope tied around my waist, and clip the console onto its rack that I built. I sit on the floor.

Me (using the helmet microphone and speaker): OK, Tiger, I think I'm ready. Shall I start it up?

Tiger: Go for it! Just like the practice yesterday. Keep up the chatter so we know what's happening.

Me: OK, I'm moving a little away.

The keyboard has a pair of tiny joysticks in addition to a trackball. Most machines would have just one stick or the trackball only, but we knew we'd be flying stuff through these consoles, and we all prefer the trackball for text work. I push the ``cyclic pitch'' stick very gingerly to the side and the lander responds smoothly. I rotate so the red and green X's overlap on the navigation window.

Me: Now raising the thrust to one G.

That's an awful lot of force on my butt; is something wrong? I almost open my mouth but the window shows only seven meters per second squared. I advance the setting to ten: Earth gravity.

Me: One G. That's a really heavy force. Tiger, can you confirm?

Tiger: Confirmed from force over mass, Doppler velocity derivative and second derivative of position. We're not used to gravity. Try to remember how to behave and how to avoid falls. How are you feeling? How's your head?

Me: Fine so far. I'm going to try standing up now.

Tiger: OK. Remember to squeeze your leg muscles, and I don't want to see any pot bellies on my crew. Tell us what you feel.

Me: I'm pulling up on the cabin edge. This is really scary! I'm unbalancing the lander; I'd better straighten it out.

Tiger: Put it on autopilot for this test, OK?

Me: Done. OK, I'm pulling up on the cabin edge again. Jeez, it's so empty out there, and I'm feeling a little lightheaded. I'm sitting again.

Tiger: What went wrong?

Me: Well... Let's try that again with legs and belly contracted. I forgot to do that. OK, I'm pulling up on the cabin edge. I'm straight up and kind of dancing from side to side; the autopilot program must hate me. I have to contract my pelvic floor muscle to keep my urine in. I hope I don't wet myself by the time this is over! My head's OK so far. The trajectory is noticeably below the horizon. I'd like to take over the piloting; it's stupid, I know, but I'd feel safer.

Tiger: You're in control out there. I think you'll be safe in one G; you've tested enough.

Me: OK, sitting again, and navigation on manual. This is kind of stupid, watching the screen for external view when I can just look through the wire mesh at it. There's the trench. Altitude 9e4 meters, speed 1e3 meters per second and decreasing.

Tiger: Make sure it does decrease; mind the velocity bounds as a function of altitude.

Me: 5e4, 6e2. 3e4, 4e2. 1.5e4, 3e2, I see the landslide. Coming down; I'm looking up at the edge of the plate surface. 7e3, 3e2. 5e3, 2e2. 3e3, 1e2. I see the ring of rocks. Coming down, 5e2 and thirty. 2e2 and thirty. 1e2 and ten. I'm hovering at fifty meters, and there are the tools and tanks. OK, I'm going to set it down...

Tiger: Facing the tools so we can keep an eye on you, please.

Me: OK. There, it's on the ground. Not too much of a jerk, do you think? Willie, I'm safe!

Tiger: Great job! OK, take this next part really carefully. Remember the legs, the belly and the pelvic floor.

Me: Right. I'm standing, moving, squeezing both places. My head's OK. Door's open; I'm holding onto the frame real tight; feet on the ground! My head's OK but I'm not used to walking. I'm going to walk around the lander. One circle, two circles. I think I'm going to be OK. There, I closed up the door again. I'm moving toward the wheelbarrows to get out our mat.

Tiger: Any problems?

Me: We should have practiced this squeezing business. Likely I can rest the muscles when I sit or lay on the mat. OK, it's unfolded; I remember how to unfold in one G. Aah, it's a relief to sit down. I didn't have any trouble with lightheadedness, but I'm sure if I stopped moving I would have.

Tiger: Aerobics?

Me: I'm not sweating a bit. I'm warm enough although the ground is cold under my butt. I think you could take the lander up for Willie.

Tiger: Right. On its way. Keep me posted on your condition. Willie, you ready to join your mate?

Willie: Damn right!

It's going to be thirty or forty minutes before Willie can get down here. Danger? I was afraid riding the lander, and yes, I feel very alone, but I doubt anything really bad will happen if I just sit here on the mat. Later we'll do a bit more in the area of tempting fate.

I want to get a good look at my new home. My mind instinctively orients on the horizontal ground and I'm not used to that; for almost a year orientation has been arbitrary. At this point the trench runs southeast to northwest and the sun is about twenty degrees up in the East, to my left, illuminating this area. The northeast slope, which I'm sitting on, is the plate going under, and it has about a twenty degree slope, broken with frequent mountains and canyons. Probably it's steeper underground to the southwest. The southwest slope, the overriding plate, isn't truly a vertical cliff, but it's much steeper, maybe forty degrees. This valley is spectacularly deep, like Everest upside down; Earth's Grand Canyon would correspond to one of the larger cracks in the northeast slope. Earth has several similar trenches, but no mortal eyes will ever see them like this: they're underwater and pitch black. And partially filled with sediment. This is an awesome setting for our new home.

Earth would be colorado, but Thor is monochrome: shades of gray. The regolith is lighter gray, and where it's fallen or been blown off basalt blocks the stone is dark gray to charcoal color. We'll add green to the palette. This wasn't clear from orbit but our chosen site isn't truly flat; rather, it's a lumpy saucer shape, about a hundred meters across and two or three meters deep, When the land fell the basalt broke up on the lower, southwest side and a row of blocks formed a slightly raised toe, which I'm sitting near, facing the sun, warmed by it. By force of will we'll bring rain, and we don't want it to collect and flood our building. But mid-toe there's a gap in the blocks, and a small amount of digging will make a free exit for the water to flow southwest to the profile low, about a hundred meters from where I'm sitting and thirty meters lower. I'll want to explore that area, but I'm ashamed to think like this: climbing there and back would be something of a challenge for my pelvic floor today.

Dust was blown off some basalt blocks. We'd better make ourselves aware when dust storms are likely, and how much mess and damage they cause.

A new world should have its special odors, and experiencing them will be one way we tempt fate later today. Until then I can smell canned air.

Because of the low air density the sky is not blue as it would be on Earth; it's very dark. Thus shadows are black, as on Luna. I have trouble to tell what color the sky really is: perhaps a dark blue-green. There's not much air above me to scatter sunlight, and epsilon Eridani is a little cooler than Sol so the blue (and ultraviolet) part of its spectrum is deficient. The sky to my right over the southwestern mountains is dominated by Wotan in half phase, a gigantic ``moon''. Holding both my hands at arm's length I can just cover it with my fingers fully spread, while my thumb would cover Luna three times over. Thor's rotation is phase-locked to revolution, so Wotan will hang in the same place all the time. The brightest stars can be seen even in daylight. South of the glare of Wotan above the mountains of the opposite plate I can see the box and belt of Orion; the stars are distant and so his shape is similar to what we see from Earth. His neighbor Taurus is covered by Wotan, but I can see Sirius and Procyon, the eyes of Orion's two dogs. Sol, in Serpens, is below the horizon now.

Willie: There's the trench. I'm ready to take over from the autopilot program if it screws up.

I scan the sky but there's no rocket flame to make our lander conspicuous 1e5 meters up. I'm nervous having uncertainty overhead and descending. I'm scared for Willie; his voice is steady as he calls out the altitude and speed but I can tell he's scared too. There he is! And I can see the lander is coming down sedately in the middle of the saucer. Willie orients with the camera facing me and sets it down.

Willie: I'm down! Wilma, I love you.

Tiger: Good job!

Me: I love you too. Stand up and walk carefully, and remember to move your legs and squeeze your belly and pelvic floor.

Willie: OK, door open, holding onto the frame, and... on the ground. I'm not lightheaded but I'm wobbly. I'll copy Wilma and walk around the lander twice. I'm not having any problem with urine like Wilma did, probably because I have two urine valves. OK, Wilma, here I come, oops, almost lost it there. You really forget how to walk, don't you? Aah!

Willie flops beside me and puts his arm around me; we embrace. Too bad our helmets keep our mouths apart. But we compensate with a thorough stroke all over. We'd better keep that on a platonic level for now!

Willie: OK, Tiger, I'm settled. You can take the lander away. Hurry down and join us; I want to get started.

Tiger: I'll see you in about forty minutes. Don't wander off, please!

Willie and I pass the time by exploring the area with our eyes. I point out Sirius and Procyon. Willie is suitably impressed by the huge half-circle of Wotan, and by the Everest scale of our valley.

Willie: I want to look at some of this stuff. Do we have to actually sit on the mat for the whole time?

Me: Well, a little walking practice probably won't hurt if we're careful about it. I want to see between these boulders. Sooner or later we'll have to dig out the dirt to let rainwater run out. See, our site is like a bowl.

Willie: You think ahead, don't you? You're right, walking is something I have to practice. Oh, I got up! Oh, I took a step! I feel like a baby.

Me: I wish we could survey the site with proper instruments. Come over here; wouldn't you say right about here is the lowest point? We'll have to dig out about three meters of dirt from between the boulders. Tiger, can you hear? For our practice dig I'd like to dig here, so the effort is useful.

Tiger: Good suggestion; we'll do that. But cut the chatter for a minute; I'm like you, Wilma, trying to fly this rattletrap manually and I've ended up sitting on my damn tail.

Willie: Maybe we should get back to the mat.

Me: Because Tiger's coming?

Willie: Because I need to sit down. I'm feeling a little lightheaded.

Me: You can sit anywhere if you need to. Were you moving your legs and squeezing?

Willie: It's better now that I'm walking. I guess I forgot to do it while I was looking at the dirt. I feel OK now. I'm going to just keep walking; I think the practice will be good for me.

Me: I really ought to rest my pelvic floor muscle. Aah, relief! It's a strain being up for so long.

Tiger: 1e5 meters; I'm coming in.

Willie won't sit while the lander is coming down on top of us, but he finally takes the considerable load off his feet when Tiger has it on the ground.

Tiger: OK, here goes. Squeeze, door open, hold on, feet on the ground! That feels weird, not like I expected. I'll do like you two did, walk twice around the lander. I'm really feeling wobbly, not lightheaded but I really have to pay attention to get my feet to go the right way. OK, on my way to you. Yaah! A-a-aa! Damn it to Hell! On my frigging face, what a way for the commander to greet her new planet!

Me: Are you hurt? How's your helmet and air tank? I've got you; let me help you; don't try to stand.

Tiger: Aww, don't fuss. My helmet didn't hit the ground very hard. I got twisted around and mostly rolled off my hip, and I let myself go on my face because I didn't want to squish the air tank and I didn't want to pull a muscle in my shoulder. Check the tank.

Willie: The hose looks fine. You're sure you're not injured?

Tiger: I bruised my hip, the muscle, not the bone. I must have hit a rock. Come on, I'm going to stand; get your helmets out of the way. Can you see if my suit is torn on my hip? The helmet blocks my view. There's the rock I must have landed on.

Me: The suit's OK. Polyimide fiber is tough.

Simba: Is everything under control down there?

Tiger: Don't worry, dearest mate, I'm not checking out yet. I just tripped over my own feet, or a rock or something. You have to be real careful walking; we're out of practice.

Simba: Don't try so hard; let your instincts practice doing their job.

Willie: That's right; when Wilma and I went out to look where we're going to dig, I was concentrating on that and my feet behaved a lot better.

Tiger: Good advice. I'm going to just sit on the mat for a minute. Wow, doesn't Wotan look huge from here!

Me: If you look a little south you can see Sirius there, and Procyon there.

Tiger: The sky is dark, isn't it? And kind of greenish-blue, not violet like it would be on Earth way high up. I'm settled down now; let's go look at your dig zone. Actually, you know, if we're going to work there we ought to bring over the stuff, particularly the emergency cans. Would one of you help me fold the mat?

By the time Simba gets himself landed we have the equipment moved adjacent to the gap between the two center boulders. His exit from the lander and approach to our position is much less dramatic than Tiger's.

Simba: Well, we're all here and I think I've sat long enough. Do you think we're ready for the next phase?

Me: I guess. This is going to be really weird.

Tiger: Would you rather someone else went first?

Me: No, I know the reason I should do it. And we practiced; I'm sure I can handle it. I'm steady. I'm going to start now.

Tiger: When you have your helmet off remember to use Tiger signs.

Me: My mouth will be full of tube. I can scarcely use anything else.

I peel the Velcro off my left glove. My instinct is to never ever touch the seals except inside the spacecraft with the inner door closed, but I override the instinct and gingerly pull off the glove. How strange my naked hand looks in the light of epsilon Eridani! It doesn't hurt; just the funny feeling I get when I'm in the spacecraft in the suit but gloveless, because the suit squeezes blood to the unpressurized areas. On impulse I stroke Willie who's watching me nervously, and I get a nervous stroke back. OK, the other glove; I set them both in my open emergency can. I unbuckle the harness belt of my oxygen tank. Next I peel the waist seals open and roll the stretchy polyimide cloth up to my shoulders. It's a little disconcerting, everyone staring at my tits! Well, they see them all day every day, but being casual in the spacecraft is a lot different from disrobing, removing my space suit no less, in a public place on the planet's surface.

Now comes the hard part. I sit on the mat, and Willie brings out the portable air bottle. I'm scared; at last I can wipe my sweaty palms on something, my rolled-up suit shirt. This is going to take guts. I inhale deeply. I reach back and turn off the oxygen valve, and I poke my finger under the inflated neck seal, releasing the pressure. It's not that much but I can feel my lungs expand uncomfortably; I force myself to let out a little air. Now I peel the safety closure under my chin and remove my helmet. Tiger takes it from me and lifts off my air tank over my upraised arms. And I poke the hose from the portable bottle in my mouth and turn on its valve. Breathe in through the mouth, out through the nose. It seems to be working. I give the Tiger sign for OK, and start pulling my arms out of the tight shirt sleeves. Now this has to be done carefully. I release the neck Velcro and pull the shirt up over my head centimeter by centimeter, careful not to knock the tube out of my mouth; the shirt is now hanging from the tube.

I raise my arms and Tiger fits the shoulder straps of my air tank over them; I take over the helmet. Inhale, spit out the air tube as Willie turns off the valve. Helmet on. Chin strap fastened. Oxygen valve open, but I hold my fingers up my neck so the oxygen flows out, ejecting Thor's argon and nitrogen, and I exhale most of my air as well. Tiger flattens the expansion bladder too. Now I let the neck seal fill up, and get a breath of rank-smelling air: not enough, since the expansion bladder is empty. I have to suppress panic and wait for the flowing oxygen to allow my lungs to fill slowly. Aaah, it's over. So that's what Thor's atmosphere smells like: burnt rock and a subtle, vaguely rotten stench. Not the stuff of romance. I strap the harness belt around my bare midriff.

Me: Jeez, that wasn't easy! Scary, particularly there at the end when I had to wait to breathe.

Tiger: You're steady as a rock, a real lion.

Willie sits beside me and gives me a big hug; I stroke him back. But it's time to finish the job; this will be a lot easier. Off come the boots, and into the emergency can to join the shirt. The vinyl mat feels strange to my bare feet; anything would feel strange, wouldn't it? Now I roll the suit pants over my butt, and then it's another shove and slide job to get them off my legs. Done! I toss the pants into the can, stand up and look myself over.

A lion would be auburn all over, wouldn't she? Today I wore the underpants in yellow with green leaves, but even though they're pretty they kind of spoil the lion effect. I saucily tilt my hip toward Willie, then at that specific rate I've learned, I slide my underpants down my long legs. Standing, I twirl them around my finger gently hitting Willie's chest, then flick them into the emergency can. Now I'm a real auburn lion! Willie appears to be having trouble containing himself; he doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands.

Tiger: So that's working out OK, right, Wilma? Let's all get out of our suits and go dig holes in the ground, OK? Simba, would you handle the air bottle when Willie's ready for it, and I'll take his helmet and tank.

Did I overdo it? But Tiger looks amused, not angry. She turns so Willie can't see her hand.

Tiger (by Tiger signs): Business before pleasure, that is, pleasure after business. Let Willie concentrate on shoveling, OK?

Me: OK. Should I put the underpants back on?

Tiger: Your choice, but it would spoil the momentum.

Simba pokes her and she turns back to help Willie with his helmet. He gets through the tough part. At the end he takes off his underpants in a much more businesslike manner. Not being obvious about it I sneak a look at his penis; it's admirably disciplined, not priapic. Being unable to breathe must have scared him out of the mood. Not me! Tiger and finally Simba get their suits off, a more difficult job than for us humans since the fabric pulls at their fur wherever it folds.

Simba: Aah, at last I can move my tail! I wish we could tape it or something; it's uncomfortable to have to stick it down my pant leg. I'm not having any trouble with the movements. Are all of you OK? Good, then let's start digging.

Tiger: Dirt between the toes: it seems like my whole life since I've felt that!

Each of us takes a shovel; Simba and Willie put theirs in a wheelbarrow. We climb the slope between the two boulders, a little more than a meter higher than where we were sitting. The grit feels strange underfoot. The slope on the other side of the crest isn't too steep.

Tiger: OK, spread out. I've never used one of these things and I can imagine hitting your neighbor. Who's used a shovel?

Me: Willie and I have, planting bushes around our house. Watch me. Stick it in the ground and step on the bent-over edge. Willie, thanks for making the edge wide; it's not bothering my bare foot. Shovels you buy have a narrower step.

Tiger: And then what? Lift the stuff up? It falls off.

Me: Damp dirt would hold together. Just get as much as you can into the wheelbarrow. See how I do it? I'm a little wobbly but I'm really getting used to having my feet on the ground again.

Tiger: Wobbly is an understatement, for me. I'd better let my instincts do their job. Yes, that's better; I spilled less that time.

Willie: At home we'd use gloves, but I'm pretty sure the scrubbing has toughened our hand and foot pads.

Simba: Well, stop if your hand feels funny. We have a lot of work to do and a blister would slow you down. Today is supposed to be just a test anyway. Too bad our shed skin was ruined; next shedding we'll tan it right away and we can try the glove idea again.

Tiger: How full should the wheelbarrow be?

Me: Let's say ten scoops; I don't think we should push for maximum efficiency. Willie's and mine is about ready. Who's going to empty it? I will; let me pick the spot, OK? And Willie, you fill Simba's barrow.

The wheelbarrow is tilty, but the light load makes it easier to handle. There's a space behind the big boulder on the right that will hold a lot of soil. I dump. Simba's coming down the slope and I give him a clear berth. Oops, good thing I did because his heavier load gets away from him and the barrow goes over sideways.

Simba: A-a-a! It got me in the ribs. Jeez, that's hard to control. Well, the dirt doesn't do any harm there, does it?

Me: No problem; we may not have to even move it later. You lead the way back. Let's not give Willie and Tiger any rest.

We get a rhythm going, three people filling one barrow while the fourth, taking turns, dumps the other. We're breathing hard and exercising our arms and backs, but our work with the exercise bar has kept our muscles and hearts reasonably strong. Nonetheless I find it works best to count to three after each shovelful before lifting the next, and I notice that Willie and Simba are using a similar strategy. Tiger isn't. We've taken off a significant part of the dirt blocking the exit.

My only problem is my pelvic floor muscle; I need to go back to the mat several times and let it rest.

Tiger: Anyone want to guess how long we've been doing this? It feels like about half an hour. Don't put dirt in Wilma's wheelbarrow; let's fill this one and then I'll dump it, and we'll be done.

Willie: I'm not going to say I could keep going all day, but I think we've proven our point that we can work at this oxygen level without suits, just the helmets. I think we'll do better later because we really haven't been getting as much exercise as we should in the spacecraft. And coming down I didn't feel motion sick at all. I wish we could have some food down here; I'm really hungry.

Simba: I wish too, but we'd have to figure out how to eat it. Something to look forward to: I made a squash pie, and I suggest, each person as soon as he or she gets up should cut a slice and eat it. You don't have to stay hungry until everyone's up. This forty minute business is a real drag. We have to figure out how to use our time on the surface more efficiently.

Tiger: Put away the tools and wait for me on the mat; I'll dump this load quick.

Me: Brush the dirt off your fur; we don't want to get it all over.

Peeling my underpants was just defiance, or wanting to be like the lions, or pure sauciness in front of Willie, but doing this heavy work without pants or shoes turned out to be surprisingly natural and comfortable. I think I'll make a regular practice of it. The lions don't seem to care, but of course they wouldn't any more than a housecat does, clothes being exclusive to humans.

Tiger wants us together on the mat, and remembering her comment about momentum I don't think it's for a chat. I make sure to brush up against Willie, then I walk a little faster so he has to pursue me. Simba notices and drops back; did I notice his tail tip flicking? But Willie is the one I'm interested in, and Willie's tail. ``Putting away'' the tools means stacking them neatly near the emergency cans. And now we can sit on the mat and put our arms around each other and lay back. I love Willie! And he loves me. Too bad we can't kiss, because of the helmets. At the pressure here there's plenty of oxygen for our breathing.

Willie's sedated, and Simba and Tiger are holding each other in that instinctive embrace they have; Simba says it's to let his semen gel, and it's really enjoyable to hold like that. Humans are built differently: I'm energized. I clean myself with my underpant. Humans are a lot more messy than lions, aren't they? I won't be able to wear it under my suit. Next time we'll have to bring an extra one. Wotan is still huge, but it's turned a little toward a crescent phase as the sun has risen. Sirius has gone behind Wotan but Procyon is still visible. Aah, Tiger and Simba are up, and Willie is starting to pay attention, despite the idiot grin on his face.

Tiger: I think we're going to do real well in our home. You're right, Willie; we've proved our point that pure oxygen is sufficient for heavy work building it. I think, though, that inside the structure we need a diluent gas, and I'd like Willie and Wilma to do some experiments on fire hazard. Possibly argon is better as a diluent in our home than nitrogen because it's heavier. You know, I keep saying ``our home, our home''. We need some place names.

Bingo! She triggers an association.

Me: Sirion. The river that will be in the profile low will be called Sirion. It drained Beleriand in the First Age, before it was sunk beneath the sea in the wreck of Numenor. We'll call this district the Vale of Beleriand. And our little village will be Gondolin, enclosed by Echoriath, the Encircling Mountains: these.

Tiger: My Tolkien isn't at expert level. I assume that's all accurate. It's a neat package, but does anyone else have ideas?

Simba: I was trying to think of something but New Something, like New Joisey, kept sticking in my mind.

Willie: Creation myths, we have to be very careful when we explain the names to the kittens. What do we say when they ask, are you Valar?

Me: We tell them no. We tell them they need to know what's a story and what's real; to play with memes and not be devoured; to play with lions and live. That's truth: they need to practice embracing what's weird and wonderful, but to mate with only the ones that are true.

Tiger: By the banks of Sirion we celebrated our love and our dedication to this world. I feel a set of profound essays coming on: a lesson set for our viewers. I'll need help, though, to get the phrasing right; sometimes what I need to do goes beyond my skill.

Willie: A pack of horny teenagers! One theme of the lessons should be that the Valar don't take themselves excessively seriously.

Tiger: Teenage Valar, giggle! Let's get ourselves back... to the ship; I was about to say ``back home''. We'll get some good food, then work on writing in the evening. Then tomorrow we can come back down and start the seismic work. And then we'll know where to dig for the vault. Willie, you have the materials ready for making the explosives? And Wilma, the seismometers?

Willie: They're ready, but we should get an early start. I don't want to have to finish in darkness. We may want to sleep early today; to leave the writing until tomorrow afternoon and evening.

Tiger: The day cycle here is going to be a real pain. Can we talk a bit about how to cope with it?

Simba: I had an idea on the day cycle: three Terran days per two Thor days; we'll stretch our day, what, an hour and a half. Unless you and Wilma have a short circadian cycle you should be comfortable with that day length after a week or two. The problem is, some days will be light all the time, or some will be totally dark. Let's figure out a wakeup time that gives us the least inconvenient lighting cycle...

Putting my suit back on is a little less scary than taking it off, probably because I know what to expect. And somehow flying up is a little less scary than flying down, though I still want to work the controls manually. I'm really pleased with my performance. I was steady in several difficult moments (though we wouldn't have been invited on this crew if we couldn't do that). I was agile and quickly relearned the walking steps, better even than Tiger, giggle. My strength and coordination haven't faded and I didn't once lose control of my wheelbarrow, or of my urine. Kegel exercises, which I'll do hourly whenever I'm not on the surface, will quickly get my pelvic floor muscle back into shape. And I may be 51 years old but I can still inflame my man with pulsing love. And he, me. We may have exiled ourselves in Gondolin, but I think it's going to be a happy place.

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