Next Previous Contents

Chapter 11: Colony Embryo

Tiger here. I judge from Simba's reports that we're coming up on a major milestone, and the job I've set myself for this week has been to write up a summary of the project status, to be sent in with our notification. Some people may wonder why I'm acting like I have some unseen supervisor back on Earth who's crouching to jump on me. I'm forever out of reach of anyone on Earth; there's a good chance that the complaints they're certainly making about our behavior here won't even reach me within my lifetime. But my motivation is to offer this crew as examples to the people of Earth, and they can know what we have done and why we made our various choices, and they can compare the actual outcome with the intention, and in the inevitable subsequent colonies they can (I hope) imitate the successful parts and (I hope) make different mistakes than the ones we will have made.

So here's an outline of the last three and a half (Earth) years, by functional group, not time order.

Simba is nearly ready with our lion eggs and has portions of the modified chromosomes seven and eight for the other species. It's the lion eggs, in fact, which prompt me to prepare this report. He's been working with dogged determination. Willie and I have been reviewing his work unobtrusively and it's all cross-checked and documented. When the first ten lions were assembled one of them had an error in glutathione recycling, which wasn't caught in checking and which proved fatal. We don't want that kind of thing to happen to us and Simba has faithfully followed the procedures that the Lion Project staff recommended afterward, involving duplicate gene sequences and extensive intercomparison, which more than double the effort required but which would have prevented that tragedy.

Gaia: Willie is incredible. It took him a full Earth year, but he got a silicon on sapphire technology that I'm sending back to TransForce for commercialization, and in five days he can build an implantation machine that uses it, and in three weeks he can build a Czochralski machine to make the rolls of single crystal sapphire ribbon (enough for fifteen implanters). Silicon is deposited epitaxially on the sapphire, and then the tape goes under a multiple-beam implanter, and the whole thing has builtin calibration targets, and it's just so clean and so fast! The little chip prototyper used to take fifteen days to make a butterfly chip; the factory turns them out in fourteen hours each. And Willie puts half of his time into making factories; he's built eighteen so far, meaning we're making more than one butterfly per hour. Sometimes we thought it was two steps forward and one back, or ten steps forward and nine back in the worst parts, but we all supported Willie and he never lost his toughness, and he won in the end.

Willie is still working on the ``A'' factory, the one that will make implanters and everything else. He's not giving up there but it's a long way away.

We renamed Gaia's bees to butterflies, obviously, because of the sapphire wings. Lepidoptera means ``jewel wings''. Pusher chips are glued between two sapphire strips half a millimeter thick, not single crystal, in a machine Willie and I designed, since we can't tolerate a lot of hand labor. Snowball chips just get a second ribbon as a jacket over the silicon; flexibility actually helps them since the snowballs tend to cool unevenly. With such a short operational experience it's hard to guess failure rates, but we believe from accelerated life tests that the failures occur on the chips, not from crud leaking through the epoxy glue. I'm not willing to say anything longer than 1e5 hours, thirteen Earth years, but I think once a chip is made it will do its job until I die, with very few exceptions.

Something I should add to the report's introduction: we have to stick with MKS (metric) units because all our engineering and scientific data is in that form and we have neither the technological capability nor the inclination to create a new unit basis, but Earth years and Earth days are obviously a crock on Thor. For us a ``day'' is an activity cycle of approximately 92423 seconds, two thirds of Thor's rotation period, and about 1.5 hours longer than a Terran day. An ``hour'' is one twenty-fourth of a Thor day. There are no timezones; hour zero is sunrise at the sub-Wotan point on the type one days; so sunrise in Gondolin (fifty degrees East) is at hour nineteen, not the sixth hour as on Terra. A ``year'' refers to Wotan's revolution period of about 1.810e7 seconds or 195 and a fraction Thor days. The day in which the vernal equinox falls is the zeroth of the year, as in the original Roman calendar (except they didn't know about zero and so started at one). Seven months of 28 days fit conveniently in this year (minus one day every five or six years). Willie is into that kind of stuff and he figured it all out. However, we don't have the automatic response to Thor's time intervals that we have from long cultural familiarity on Earth, and we've found it convenient sometimes to simply specify time intervals in seconds, and since the numbers tend to be large we use E format: a number from one to ten, ``E'' and the number of tens to multiply by. (The heptapi had a similar convention but with base seven.)

We're making half pushers and half gatherers, and so far it's a little over seven thousand of each. Tomorrow: fifteen more each, and the rate increases as Willie makes factories. You can go down to Sirion to our pool and watch the butterflies drop their half kilo snowballs, splash, every fifteen seconds. When the rocks slid the pool area got less than its share of sandy regolith, and we shoveled out the remainder, patched a number of cracks and gaps in the rock and built a wall around two sides (``dam'' dignifies it too much). It's about ten by fifteen meters in area and as much as 2.5 meters deep on the upstream side. In the last four months or so the snowballs have been enough to keep ahead of evaporation and seepage, so it's full to the top and there's a trickle of overflow. We swim (never alone); neither sweat nor ammonia-tinged Freyja water will harm the neck seals or gas exchange membranes of our helmets. Sometimes we even take off the helmets and wash and rinse the fur of our heads, breathing with a hose in the mouth. Plan: to cover the pool, or one corner of it, and put in enough plants that we can breathe the air.

The flow of water is trivial compared to the size of an ocean: 75 days just to fill our dinky pool. But gravity sucks: that little flow releases almost twelve megawatts (1.17e7 watts), and our entire operation runs off that power; a thousand copies of us could do so. Even flying us one person at a time from the surface to our ship is powered by the infall of water from Freyja. Wasting the unused power would take additional chips, so instead we spend it on raising water out of Wotan, getting almost as much water as we get from Freyja and taking a third the number of chips because the travel time is less. And the number of butterflies will increase quadratically, and exponentially when we get the ``A'' factories designed, and someday, within my lifetime I hope, the plop of snowballs will turn into an avalanche and Gondolin will sink with joy beneath the waves.

The other seven thousand pusher butterflies are on comets. We have 7e7 newtons of force available (and increasing quadratically). Wilma is still finding comets, faint dusty ghosts, most of them. It scares me to look at the statistics: so few comets are big and white enough that we were able to find them in visible light when we first entered the system. And of course the ones we could see were skimpy in dust. The gods of this system (not taking this seriously) must be smiling on us. Wilma found a rather large comet, 180 kilometers diameter, that was already headed in the general direction of Freyja. We saw it on the initial survey but it was poorly placed relative to our arrival point and it was dim in the visible, being rich in the dust we wanted, so we filed it and forgot it. Wilma resurveyed it and got a good orbit, very good for us. We have enough chip production capacity to exert enough force to get it to go past Freyja close enough to be steered onto a collision course with Thor, after it's run across the system and had its course bent around by epsilon Eridani. This one comet will give us, almost twelve Earth years from now, eighteen percent Earth normal pressure at the plate surfaces, of course not with Earth normal composition. Meaning that we'll be able to move our home out of the trench any time after that.

Half the chips will be on that comet and half will be on other comets where the equal and opposite delta momentum will push them our way. We already have quite a number of good candidates, though smaller, which will arrive starting about two years ahead of the biggie and continuing for many years. Well-placed comets bring us a lot of material with a relatively small initial investment in butterfly chips, but the chip requirements go up after the easiest comets are harvested, and comets have a lot of ammonia and methane. Most of the water and carbon dioxide will have to come in from Freyja and Wotan snowball by snowball, but if the atmosphere is started off with comet material we'll have time to build up the number of snow butterflies.

We built our underground biotech laboratory. It was a lot of work and a lot of learning how to mix concrete under our conditions. Willie and Wilma bounced the safety issue back and forth and insisted on doing long-term tests and headed us off from an embarrassing and disastrous collapse of the concrete blocks. The regolith around here has too much aluminum and not enough iron oxide. We have to bring in regolith from a different plate, but it's worth the effort to have a safe building.

We've also built an above-ground dome and we've moved a quarter of the Chang plants and most of the vegetables in there, plus that's where we live. It's crowded but we like being surrounded by plants, and the harvesting ants generally stay in their territory, not ours. We shouldn't be crowded; after all, the dome is 24 meters in diameter, and the cover, supported on branched steel poles, goes about four meters over our heads, and it comes down pretty steeply at the edges so we bump our heads less than two meters from the edge. But in a house on Earth all you have to do is live in it. Here you have to put in enough plants to produce the oxygen you're going to breathe -- and there's nowhere near enough floor area to support the four of us. We'll need three domes to be self-supporting, and in the meantime we pack this one with plants, right up to the edge, and electrolyse water for most of our oxygen, and eat mostly Chang seeds grown in our ship's agricultural pods.

For access outside there's an airlock: ferrite-loaded plastic strips close you into the vestibule and fans pump air either outside or inside as appropriate, and when the plastic clings around you, you pull open the seals on the other side and leave. There's also a ramp down to the underground vault, roofed with an arch of concrete blocks. It's designed with a right-angle bend so additional domes can be connected as our colony grows. The underground tunnel is a lot of work to dig, but we've thought of several scenarios in which a buried connection like that could be a lifesaver.

Wilma has done everything that nobody else had time for, and she's never complained. She's getting pretty good at gene splicing and she's the one, for example, who rescued Jalapeño chilis, whose seeds took a beating in the radiation storm. We're producing almost a complete set of spices: cloves, coriander, dill, sage, basil and so on; Wilma sprouted the plants, which in some cases took significant genetic cleanup but none were as bad as the chilis. I've talked very frankly with Wilma, privately; she doesn't resent that astronomy and geology are kind of on hold right now except for the automated comet search, and she's happy to have a role in the colony even if it's infrastructure. And I'm careful to be seen valuing her contributions equally with Simba's (truly the most important) and Willie's (almost as important). If she hadn't done the chilis Simba would have insisted on taking care of them, because we need variety and interest in our food to keep up morale, and Simba is on the critical path, and the critical path is getting done on time not because Wilma worked on the lion genes but because she worked on the chili genes.

An aside, not for the report: in a recent message from the Eridanus Corporation we saw that people are snapping up cinnamon and allspice plants, cultivars ``Simba'' and ``Tiger'' respectively, not to dry the leaves for spice but as decorative and fragrant pot plants. Given the original mission plan there was no way we could grow real cinnamon and allspice trees, nor did I want to accelerate several kilos of each spice to lightspeed, so I had the defensive chemical genes spliced into a more manageable plant whose seeds we could bring with us. It turned out that a Maranta background could survive the chemicals, had leaves that would dry crisply, and was the right size for our situation. Maranta has dark markings in the center of the leaves, and as kind of a joke the person doing the job gave one cultivar midnight black markings, and alternating auburn and lion color, a fairly good imitation, for the other. Lions' sexual identification scents are cinnamon and allspice.

Simba: Hey, Tiger, do you suppose we could all get together and talk about something, maybe over lunch?

Me: I'm willing. Do you know where Willie and Wilma are?

Simba: They were outside digging the access tunnel for the second dome. I see them; they're coming in for lunch. We should have something special.

Me: I have soybeans stewing; I was planning on burritos. Got any ideas on spicing them up?

Simba: I sure do; let's get started mixing and wrapping.

In burritos a slug of cilantro and fresh grated coriander, top and bottom of the same plant, will make your eyelashes curl. When we've gotten our bellies full of sticks with kick, Simba makes his announcement.

Simba: Good news, people. Well, ambivalent news, but I've finished the lion eggs. The next step would be to impregnate Tiger. We've agreed that when we do that we make an irrevocable commitment to care for the kittens, and we commit them in perpetuity to care for this planet. That latter part is ethically questionable, but we decided five Thor years ago that abandoning this planet was also unethical. We made our choices then. Now is the time to confirm those choices irrevocably. How do you want to handle this?

Wilma: I'm scared by what we're doing. It could turn out very, very bad. But if we give up our responsibility here it probably will go a whole lot worse. I've thought about this a lot of times and we've talked together, and I always get the same answer. I knew you were almost done, and I don't need to take a lot of time to decide. I want to continue with making the kittens.

Willie: Wilma said it like I would. I'm not going to back down; I said that the first time and every time we've talked. We should continue and take the consequences. There will be consequences.

Me: Simba, what's your position?

Simba: My feelings are the same as before. There are lots of really good reasons not to do this, but there are a couple of very good reasons to act, and I think pro outweighs con. I advise continuing. I would scarcely have finished the eggs if I didn't think they should be allowed to live.

Me: Wilma and Simba and Willie, you've said my position for me. I want to make the commitment. So are we all decided? Any second thoughts, now's the time. OK, so ordered. Thor, epsilon Eridani II-a, is now colonized by us and our seed. And knowing that Simba was close with the eggs, I got all our documents ready; Willie and Wilma, you reviewed yours last month. The colonization order, there, signed. An order to the Eridanus Corporation shutting off our power feed; signed. An order to the Eridanus Corporation requesting as much Terran cultural material as they can feed us on the uplink; signed. An order to them to negotiate seriously with Chang about our use of the Chang bush genotype as general crop plants and as a major part of Thor's ecology; signed. An order to Claude as trustee that he should have Simba and me declared legally dead, and then he should eject the corpus and dissolve the Simba and Tiger Leones Family Trust. He knows what to do; I've been keeping him informed and feeding him suggestions what to do with our money. Not ours any more, of course. OK, signed by me; Simba, your turn. And your trust documents, Wilma and Willie. OK, they look all in order... and they're in the data feed. Aah, that's a big load; I don't know if it's going off me or coming on me. Probably both. I've put together a status report on the project and I'd like you all to check over it so I can send it in the next day or two. And now, Simba, when shall we do the implantation? Shall I spread my legs now?

Simba: Don't joke. Let's at least get the dishes cleaned up.

Willie: I'll take care of that. Don't get distracted.

Simba: Thanks. You hold down button three for twenty minutes, and while your body is getting ready I'll get the endovehicle prepared.

Lion mating is complicated and time consuming. We're designed so we can't get pregnant by accident; both the male and the female have to go through a coordinated two-day process. Simba and I have lots of practice, having made eight kittens, two with each of the four original lions of the opposite sex. Simba would of course prefer to monopolize me reproductively, and I'd prefer to keep him on a short leash too, but with only eight lions we needed to mix up the genes, and all the lions put up with the cross-fertilization with good humor and hospitality. Giggle, mating with Charlie is really an experience, with his extreme territoriality...

What's happening now is, I'm telling my ovaries to prepare three to five eggs, and telling my uterus to prepare the small implantation patch to receive one of them. In a human this happens automatically each month, and the whole uterus is available for implantation. When the first egg burrows into the patch it promptly closes, and the latecomers don't survive. Normally the male I'm going to mate with would also hold down button three, but he would be generating sperms. My eggs won't meet any sperms this time; instead the implantation patch will receive a kitten that Simba has just finished assembling: mating the Novanima way.

There, I feel the itch in the button that tells me the nerve program has started. My vagina is wide open but in maintenance mode; there's no sexual pleasure to this whatsoever.

Simba: You ready? I'm ready with the vehicle.

Me: Ready. Let me stuff it in. E-e-e, it's cold!

Simba: Sorry. I'll make a note to put it in warm water next time. Is that uncomfortable?

Me: Well, it's kind of stretching my cervix. Do your job.

Simba: OK, I've got it in to the end. I see the natural implantation area on the anterior end. The way your uterus is folded inside I think we can have one spot on the left dorsal side...

Me: A-a-a! It's sensitive in there!

Simba: Sorry. It's not that big of a needle. I'm backing up and on the right dorsal side, here's the next. And the last one, backing up a little more, on the ventral side. OK, all done, needle retracted, and out pops the vehicle. I'll clean it up.

Me: It didn't hurt that much once I knew what it was going to be like, but that's really an unusual place to get shots. I hope the hormones work right. We're in trouble if they don't.

Simba: Well, it's quite clear what to do from our genotype disc. I think Dr. Franck anticipated that we might need to do multiple births so he used a hormonal connection to get the implantation patch prepared.

Me: I doubt it; I'll bet it was just the easiest way to get a bunch of cells to do something special. I feel jumpy; I feel like to join Willie and Wilma outside digging.

Simba: I need a break from the cells too. I'll see you out there.

The underground laboratory is the endpoint of what will be a system of tunnels connecting all our domes. The problem is, the regolith isn't consolidated like soil would be on Earth; even Luna's regolith is more consolidated due to vacuum welding. Here it's more like sand with rocks in it, and it flows back into our holes. Thus we've had to make fiber-reinforced plastic shoring to line the pits we dig. While it's extra work to make the pit liners and iron posts to hold them up, they reduce the labor of shoveling enough to make them worthwhile. Also, we're digging the tunnel for dome two and we'd end up with the dirt sliding out from under the foundation of dome one unless we shored up the pit wall over the central tunnel. Even so, we have at least two more weeks of digging ahead of us just for the tunnel.

Two days later, though, Simba and I have a different job: the second step of Novanima mating. Wilma and Willie have joined us to watch; it is, after all, a very important event in the development of our colony.

Simba: First I'm going to check the implantation patches. Hit your button three, Tiger. Here's the vehicle; I put it in warm water; is it OK?

Me: Better than last time. Could you turn my machine so I can see the video feed better? Thanks, that's fine. Oops, I missed that patch.

Simba: I'm going to do all the steps head to tail. Here's the natural patch. It looks believable: quite red.

Me: We've never had images of this before. I imagine if the extra patches look the same, they're ready. I wish the image were steadier.

Simba: I have a 25x magnifying lens on it; you have to keep still and avoid jiggling. I'm recording all of this and I'll edit the video later to extract the best frames and send them back to Earth. Here's the left dorsal patch; it looks red too.

Me: It looks the same as the other. That's good.

Simba: I hope so. Here's the right dorsal one, and the ventral patch. I think we're ready to go, don't you?

Me: Right; let's do it.

Simba: OK, I'm going to put in two backup patches in the left and right ventral surface. They're kind of close to their neighbors; I hope we don't have to use them. Little stick here. OK, vehicle coming out.

Me: You sound like Dr. Newman when he gave us shots.

Simba: I'm going to do each kitten individually, not try to save time by overlapping steps. Everyone please be patient. I think they deserve our individual attention. I'm starting on Iris.

He's right, but waiting like this grates on me. I compose myself with a mind exercise. Simba thaws the assembled eggs one by one. He made twenty of each, and he'll use five today. They aren't being fertilized by sperm; they're assembled in a fertilized configuration.

We've already named the kittens. By Lion Person custom they aren't just blobs of tissue and they deserve our respect even if they can't yet move or make noise. We original lions were named alphabetically, though a few of us prefer nicknames (I hate being called Cynthia). Simba (David) and I followed the same plan with our kittens on Earth, as did the other pairs, though we were quite a bit more creative in choosing names. We're going to continue the sequence here on Thor. Simba has tried to bias the genes of each kitten to get a targeted combination of strengths, and Iris, ``rainbow'' in Greek, is the one we hope can be the colony's leader. I hope he works out, for genetic engineering isn't like plugging boards into a computer: our training and his own efforts to create himself will be about equally influential as the genes.

Oh, good, Simba has something on the microscope camera.

Simba: Top to bottom, the lanes have Iris-1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The finish line is on the left.

Me: It's always been so abstract, that the eggs race for the implantation patch. It's not that good of a feeling that you'll implant the winner and destroy the losers.

Simba: Right; I wish we could do this naturally. Kind of like buying meat at the store: the uncomfortable parts are out of sight. It looks like Iris-3 is pulling ahead.

Me: Come on, let them have some dignity. They aren't horses racing for money.

Simba: Sorry.

It takes five minutes for the eggs to swim across the microscope field. The distance to swim is greater within my body, but Simba has done some preliminary experiments and generally if the eggs swim quickly at the beginning they'll be able to finish the full distance at a similar speed. It looks like one egg was a non-starter, one is noticeably slower than the others, and Iris-3 is only a little faster than the remaining two Irises.

Simba: OK, I've loaded Iris-3 into the injector. Let's put the vehicle back in, and I'll switch your machine to show the vehicle camera again. There's the anterior patch; the needle is over it; squirt! Now let's watch.

It takes about five minutes; then, suddenly, the patch changes from bright red to dull, all over within a few seconds.

Me: Welcome, Iris-3. I thought the patch closed, actual physical movement.

Simba: That's the impression I had, but there aren't any muscle fibers in there. Apparently it's a surface change; another egg wouldn't be able to bind. I'm going to get Jacinth going. Now here's a question: suppose two eggs bound at the same time?

Me: That wouldn't be viable. They'd both be rejected, or at the least, when their placentas overlapped they'd both bleed to death.

Simba: Wonderful.

The procedure is similar for Jacinth (pronounced ``Yacinth''), Ken and Lucent, taking about half an hour for each kitten. Simba has a separate polystyrene tray for each set of eggs, and in the end he drops them all into a dish of calcium hypochlorite that he makes for sterilization.

Simba: I'm sorry about that, eggs, but we have to simulate natural fertilization. I wish everything could be cozy for all the eggs, but it can't.

Wilma: I think we have to go through this with joy. Welcome, Iris, Jacinth, Ken and Lucent!

Willie: Right, welcome!

Me: Look, people, I don't want to dampen your spirits. I'm happy to have Iris, Jacinth, Ken and Lucent; I welcome them into my body. And to quote Willie, I'm not backing down from our commitment: we're going to replant Thor and we're going to have a slew of kittens to help us do it. But I hope you can understand, there's a lot of ambiguity here. Simba's been disturbed about the ethical issues from the beginning, and so have I. I made my choice early, and I've been ruthless and steady, so you haven't seen my doubts very much. But they're there, and I'm hurting inside. Look, give me about an hour alone with that bucket of bleach, OK? Then, I promise you, we'll celebrate our new kittens properly, with joy. OK, people?

Wilma: Do you want to be, like, alone? Or may I watch the bucket too?

Me: Alone with my thoughts, not body. Whoever wants to can stay.

I don't think about stuff; that's useless. I don't go over and over the choices I made; that's useless and only hurts me. I wrap my spirit around the sixteen dead kittens, symbolically, and give them a spiritual funeral, a nice sendoff into the afterlife. Not that I literally believe in that stuff, but it's a comfort for me, like for a lot of humans, to act as if I do. Simba, Wilma and Willie are doing something similar, whatever it is that they do to comfort themselves.

I planned ahead. I hadn't anticipated how the fertilization would hit me in my ethics, but I had anticipated that we'd have something to celebrate, and I put on a pot of soybean flavored Chang seeds, and I picked, washed and sliced three kinds of squash. I try to shoo off the other three to dig in the trench some more, but they insist on helping me fry the beans, wrap them into curry burritos, and bake the squash pie. It's a good celebration, and I don't let my spirits stay dampened by my grief over the dead eggs and worries about the danger I'm putting the new kittens into. We taught Mariposa and Coyote to keep on living fully and joyfully even though their mother was dying of cancer, and they lived that reality through her death, and we learned back from them the lesson we had taught them. We're going to survive and Tiger Leones makes something good out of every situation she's in, no matter how bad it seems at first.

Next day I'm digging at the bottom of the trench. We put in more and more shoring sheets between the iron poles, and every time the shovel grates against something I'm expecting to find flat concrete, but it's only rocks and more rocks. It's hot work and my heavy shoulder muscles serve me well; I pop upper button one to enable sweating. My bare feet are supposed to stand on grit like this; it erodes my soles but slowly due to the opal leaflets in the skin, harder than the glass chips in the regolith. Wilma and Willie, I can see the sweat running down their dusty dark hides; digging suits their shoulders and backs too. When we started work on the surface Simba and I both checked their soles at frequent intervals, visually and by feel, but now we all have confidence in their bare feet. Their skin wraps around the glass grit and mostly is not cut. Wilma was really creative to put our base down in this subduction trench so we can work wearing just the helmets.

And the next morning the kittens have had two full days to grow. It's time to see what they've done with this opportunity. Willie and Wilma are outside digging.

Me: I'm steady, Simba, but I've got nerves that I have to be steady against. I hope all the kittens are OK.

Simba: So do I. Here's the vehicle; hit the button and stuff it in. Well, there's Iris; I'll save this image. Now Jacinth. Don't you think she's larger?

Me: Yes, but let's get good images of all of them. Right. Hi, Ken. Hi, Lucent.

Simba: Just a sec while I crop the images and edit the contrast. Hmm. Let's see it with a little more stretch in the saturation. What do you think of this set of images?

Me: I see what you mean; Iris is definitely not as well developed as the other three.

Simba: Jacinth, Ken and Lucent are very similar. Ten, twelve, eleven or twelve somites, but how many does Iris have?

Me: It's hard to see. Should we take another image?

Simba: I'll try. Don't crash into Iris, but turn the vehicle over. Let me have control. With the lighting from the other side... The first image was better. There might be three somites. Iris may not even have started doing somites yet. The contrast is low, probably because of the early stage of development.

Me: That doesn't sound good. Compare the rates of development.

Simba: Unfortunately we don't have any actual data about lion development. We're seeing this stuff for the first time. But I have data for frogs, chickens and mice, and I'll look it up. Here it is: if he's like a mouse, Iris is growing at two thirds or three quarters of the others' rate. Or, he sat around in growth arrest for about twelve hours.

Me: What now? May I take this thing out of my vagina?

Simba: Right, gently. I don't think we need any more images. Let's work out the contingencies on a NetBoard session. Logged on? The first branch is, do we kill Iris and try another in the backup patch? Or do we keep this one?

Me: Or do we look again tomorrow and decide later?

Simba: That's a real good point, but it eventually feeds into the first two. We've undertaken a responsibility to this Iris to do what's best for him. We've also undertaken a responsibility to the other kittens to do what's best for them. Now suppose this one develops; what happens?

Me: In the best case we're just seeing a natural variation and he comes out as good as we are.

Simba: That case really bothers me; if we do kill him we'll never know if it was justified. Now the next case is that he's mildly deformed: not as bright as he should be, or his leg or tail isn't straight, but he can still be a useful member of the community and can still make someone a good mate.

Me: Right: we all sat around the conference table, remember, and discussed that point among ourselves and with our supervisors and Dr. Franck and Dr. Newman and Dr. Deutsch, and we agreed that when we made a kitten we'd take what we got. I think we should make a place with us for a kitten who's mildly deformed or retarded. But suppose it's not mild? Suppose his guts are in knots or he has no face or his brain has been run through the blender? We're condemning Iris to probably a life of pain and certainly of degradation, and we're putting a big burden on our other colonists who aren't as able to handle that burden as we might have been on Earth. In that case, not killing him would be cruel to everyone including him. My life seems to be made of ambiguous decisions. When I got us into the Eridanus project I worried that I'd lead us all to death in space, never to see Earth again. Well, it came true, and I don't even care. I have more important things to worry about. Come on, Tiger, get off the self-pity! Let's talk about a delaying strategy. Do we get any useful information out of a delay?

Simba: I think we do. By the way, there's another branch; let's look at that first. I think it's rather likely, actually. Suppose we do nothing and Iris dies? He's not a burden on the colony, but Jacinth and Lucent will have to share Ken as their mate. It's not exactly ideal.

Me: Right, far from ideal. Suppose we do nothing today, but take another look tomorrow? What can we expect to see? How long do we have?

Simba: If Iris has a bunch of somites and... Let's get another set of images in twelve hours. If Iris in 24 hours looks like the other kittens in 12 hours then I'd advocate taking a chance on him. But if he's not making progress, I say kill him and implant another one.

Me: We should let Wilma and Willie give their opinions on this.

Simba: Right. In any case, we aren't going to be using either of the backup patches. I want to put in one patch today and another tomorrow when we check on Iris. Then the re-implantation could occur the day after, and there would be one more chance the day after that. Beyond that, we're not going to have an Iris; the skew in birth times would be too great.

Me: Agreed. Go ahead, do it.

Simba: It'll take just a moment; I have to put on the needle.

The bad news about Iris casts a shadow over the day. We do dig down to the top of the tunnel junction, but I'm not as happy about that progress as I ought to be. In the evening I fly the simulator. I kick myself in the butt, symbolically, and tell myself to have proper discipline as the mission commander, and I demolish two bunker complexes and two separate armor columns, the second one after the adversaries blew one of my wings off, not a fatal problem in an A-10 but thereafter requiring considerable skill to control the plane. Whatever happened, I'm tough as nails. And whatever will happen.

Simba: I think it's about time, Tiger. Did you land yet?

Me: Don't distract me. OK, the plane's on the ground, what's left of it. Let's see how the kittens are coming.

Simba: Here's the vehicle. Press your button and stuff it in. OK, I've got control. Here's Iris; see, Wilma and Willie? Definitely he has five somites now, when twelve hours ago the other kittens had ten to twelve somites. Here's Jacinth: she's full of somites all the way to the end of her tail.

Willie: Are those arms?

Simba: I doubt so soon; maybe the limb primordia are gathering there. This is Ken, and here's Lucent. Compared to Iris they're all faster, even over the last twelve hours. It's more than just growth arrest.

Wilma: Tomorrow...

Simba: We have to make the final decision. If the situation hasn't improved dramatically, and I doubt it will, Iris has to die. Look, he's going to die anyway; I'm sure of it. Lions can't deal with that kind of growth rate error.

Willie: Suppose we implant a replacement Iris, and let Iris-3 go in his own way.

Simba: If Jacinth, Ken and Lucent weren't in there, that's what I'd do: let Iris-3 do whatever he could, then when he finally died, try again. But suppose I'm wrong? Then we have five lions in there, one drastically deformed but viable, or dead after considerable growth. That puts the others at risk. We have to kill him. I suggest tomorrow, unless he pulls off some magic. The re-implantation would be the day after.

Me: Let's give him every chance: do the abortion on day four and implant the new Iris immediately after. Is that feasible?

Simba: Yes, actually that would be more fair to him. But I want to get pictures tomorrow anyway.

Me: Agreed. This is tough for us, people, particularly for the mother, but let's keep steady and make the best we can out of this situation. And I think our best involves happy shovels tomorrow morning.

Next day the pictures aren't any improvement. Iris is doing his best; he's made it to fifteen somites overnight, but the other kittens have definite front limb buds and their hearts are larger and slower moving than before so the camera can pick up their beating. Simba pricks me with the needle again, injecting the hormones that will induce the final backup implantation patch. Afterward I take the first turn on the wheelbarrow; in the narrow trench it works out best if one of us specializes on that for an hour or two, then trades off. I'm pleased with our digging progress, although the last two meters will take as long as the rest of it combined because of the way the slope goes. Evening is music night. We're going to have to make musical instruments for the kittens, and that's intricate technology, and I'm the miscellaneous gadget maker so the job will fall to me. Actually it'll be fun. Once we get over the Iris problem. Well, there'll be lots of challenges beyond him, I'm sure, but I'm not going to miss out on the fun of our family because of tragedies and judgments that might in the future turn out to be mistakes.

It's morning, and time to kill a kitten.

Me: People, I'm going to get a steady start today and I suggest you do the same. A long time ago I refused to eat because of an emotional upset, and that was dumb, and I promised myself I'd do better in the future, like today. A-a-a, twenty one-handed chinups on the left arm; that's the most I've ever done! Now the right side, a-a-a, made it! Sorry, people, to hog the bar.

Wilma: Hug, Tiger? You deserve it. Don't worry about the bar.

Our breakfast is simple maize flavored Chang seed mush with coriander.

Me: OK, people, did you finish brushing your fangs? This is a tough planet and we need strong teeth for it. I'd like to handle it like this: First we'll check Iris' progress. Assuming he's still not in good shape, then I'd like to say goodbye to him, a real short speech, and the rest of you can say something short if you want. Then we'll kill him, and after that we'll implant the new Iris. OK? Well, then, let's begin.

Simba: The vehicle is still cold.

Me: Very appropriate. I'm not trying to punish myself or anything, but I'd feel really shallow complaining about a cold vagina. You're right, it is cold.

Simba: There's the patch for today; it looks ready. Here's Iris. He's still making progress; somites most of the way down his tail. Here's Jacinth; see the hind limb bud? And her heartbeat is more clear today. Ken, looking good. Lucent, similar progress: hind limb buds and a larger, slower heart.

Wilma: Iris isn't giving up, is he? But he's not going to make it, right, Simba?

Simba: Right. Development happens on a definite schedule, and if the main pacemaker is slow the subparts, like brain and limb development, won't be coordinated. We can't be sure of the outcome, but the possibilities are bad or worse.

Me: Iris, I love you. I wish I could have known you as a breathing, playing kitten. I'm really sorry I can't let you leave this world in your own way. But I also have responsibility for three other kittens and your replacement. I hope I'll be forgiven for ordering your death. Goodbye, Iris.

Willie: Goodbye, Iris; I love you and I wish I could know you as a person.

Wilma (crying): I wish I could hold you, little kitten. You're brave in life; now be brave in death.

Simba: Iris, I love you. Out of death comes life, and I regret the death part, at my hands. I beg your forgiveness. Tiger, shall I do it?

Me: Do it.

Simba: This will hurt; I'm using the burner.

Indeed it does hurt. On camera we can see the glowing wire and the smoke and steam and my blood. I force myself to watch; to love Iris as he is consumed by fire. It would be dishonorably shallow to mention the pain I feel to the other people when Iris must hurt so much more. My face is blank; Wilma and Willie are streaked with tears, something humans can do that lions cannot.

Simba: It's over. I'm backing out the vehicle, and I want to run some salt solution in there to clean out debris. Then we'll start the implantation.

Me: Goodbye, Iris-3.

Iris-7 is the winner among the next set of eggs, and he takes his place on the backup implantation patch without incident.

Me: Goodbye, Iris-3, and welcome to my body, Iris-7. I have responsibility for the kittens, but also for the four adults, and I think we'll get our mental stability back best if we do some heavy muscle work this morning, the work we've been doing for the last half month. But I also think it would be appropriate to have a proper assembly celebration for Iris-7 at lunch time, so let's break early, at two, and make a squash pie and whatever other goodies we think of from now until then. OK? Good. Willie and Wilma and I will go out first, and Simba, join us when you've put away the medical equipment.

182 Thor days later I'm outside gluing plastic sheet together for the cover of dome two, terephthalate laminated with polyimide fibers, like the agricultural pods in space. This is a type three day, with sunset at our lunchtime, so this morning we have real light to work by, not the dumb lamps. The kittens socialize inside me; it seems like one or the other is kicking or punching every second, day and night. Thank goodness they have an instinctive compulsion never to extend their claws or exercise their teeth in the womb; Simba says the cue is being wet and dark at the same time. My uterus feels stretched to burst. I hope that's not real, for it will be nasty if Simba has to slice me open to deal with a ruptured uterus. Kick! I rub my tummy. Despite how my uterus feels, my hand can only detect a small bulge under my thick abdominal muscles. There, that strip of plastic is stuck solidly to its neighbor, and I've managed to not glue any fur to it this time, except for one spot. I can get another roll of plastic and start attaching that to the strip Willie is halfway done with. I scratch my crotch.

So why am I scratching my crotch all of a sudden? Because button three feels the slightest bit funny. Is that wishful thinking? We've all been anticipating the birth for days, watching the kittens on ultrasound every evening, joking about whether their activity patterns match their genotype. Wilma has been taking prolactin that Simba synthesized for her, and her external milk glands are visibly engorged. We all want the kittens to come soon. Maybe I'm just projecting my thoughts onto the button. There's a simple strategy.

Me: People, I'm going to take a short break: take a leak, walk over to the pool and back.

It's our safety rule that we never ever go out of sight without telling the others, and in two or three minutes Simba, partway through a strip on the other side, will take a look between the perimeter boulders to make sure I'm all right. I amble over to the latrine pit and empty myself out even though neither my bladder nor my rectum are full yet; normally I'd do it inside, to capture the wastes to be cooked into potting soil, but if I've judged right I'm soon going to be too busy to remember such details. Now down the slope to the pool, keeping my mind on snowballs, not crotch buttons. The snowballs are coming down every twelve seconds, not like clockwork but on average, and the water tinkles as it overflows over the wall. I count twenty as they fall. Enough; I amble back, waving at Simba checking on me. Now, what's button three really doing?

It's saying, press me now.

Me: People, the stork is on final approach. Would you please finish up your strips, then come inside? I'm going to get our stuff ready. Don't rush; do a good job. I won't start until everyone's ready to go.

May you live in interesting times! I push aside nerves. My scaredy cat advises me to delay. Thanks, scaredy, but my duty lies forward and outward. When the kitten judges that it's ready to be born it stops secreting a hormone, and that activates the signal in button three, and also a five day timeout, which would press the button for me if I didn't do it voluntarily. Lots of lion systems are designed like that, like urination, with a signal, a wait for voluntary action, and ended by a timeout. In my case Iris obviously was the last to be ready, and I want to give birth promptly because the other three have been waiting patiently beyond their own due dates. The danger is equal now or later, and I want to get it over with. And there's a reward at the end, of course. I hope.

I nuke water in the microwave oven, and I get out the drip pan and the artificial pockets that we made. We'll also probably need all the underpants for wiping stuff, and I have a roll of gauze to be an improvised tampon. I wish we had paper towels; they'd be so much more civilized than the drip pan; I'm not a car, after all. I'll do the job on my exercise mat, not directly on the dirt floor, not that it matters because we track dirt everywhere.

Aah, here's Simba.

Me: At last, the kittens can fight on the outside of me now, rather than inside!

Simba: I'm looking forward to seeing how my work turned out. Actually, I'm kind of nervous.

Me: So am I, so am I. Let's just go forward, OK? What happens, happens. Hi, Willie and Wilma! Let's wash up a little, wash our hands. I'm thirsty; I'm going to drink a little.

Wilma: When I had my kids they wouldn't let me have any water. Should you?

Simba: They didn't want you to vomit. Lions don't vomit under stress. I think Tiger should drink if she feels thirsty.

Willie: I'll get the camera set up.

Me: Oh, I forgot that. Would you all check the preparations? What else is missing? It's hard to do my act of being steady as a rock.

Wilma: You're just fine, Tiger, and we'll have four fine kittens before you know it.

Simba: Could you lay down, please, and I'll check the kittens by ultrasound.

Simba smears the gel in patches on my belly and straps on the sensor crystals. Instead of the rotating emitter that Dr. Newman used on me we've adapted the technique we used in the oceans of Njord. There they are, wiggling impatiently. Is Jacinth going to flip wrong way up? No, she follows her instinct to stay head down, except Ken kicks her in the face and she punches back. Come on, kids, this is serious!

Simba: The amniotic membranes must be really tough. I think the kittens are ready. Here's an underpant to wipe the gel off with.

Me: Thanks. OK, I'm going to start now. Twenty minute wait. Get comfortable.

Similar to getting pregnant, the first step, I end the pregnancy by sitting and holding down my button three. It takes a long time. I clear my mind, occasionally remembering my own previous births and the wonderful kittens that popped out of my vagina (one at a time). I'm not worried about the pain, as a human female might be; I know I can bear and have borne far worse pain with equanimity. A three hundred gram kitten is pretty easy to bring forth. At last, there's the first squeeze, like in an orgasm.

Me: It's starting. Unless my uterus has different ideas, I'm going to do it on the sixth contraction.

One minute wait. This one's stronger, a familiar pattern, but my uterus feels so full of kitten! I get into a squatting position and slide the drip pan under me. The other people are so intent on me. One minute wait. Stronger yet, and pop! pop! Murky fluid squirts from my vagina with a biological smell. Smells are so new on this world! Wilma seems drawn to it. But only two pops? I assume the back two kittens will lose their amniotic sacs in the next contraction. A minute more. Squeeze, a-a-a, someone's head, probably Lucent's, is ramming my cervix open. She's not really half in and half out, but it feels like that. I wish the minute would hurry past... and it does; squeeze. Normally I'd deliver the kitten at this point, but I want the strongest possible contraction, so by force of will I relax my whole body and leave my uterus unaided. My cervix feels even more wedged, but I know Lucent's head hasn't been forced through. One more minute and we'll know if this is going to work.

Me: It's starting. Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, aa-aaa-aaaa!

At the peak of the contraction I pull with my washboard abs (joke: lions' abs are smooth) and press with my thighs and squeeze with my arms around my legs, and I heave my strong back against my belly. It feels like dropped grapes underfoot: poppoppoppop, the kittens rush out through my bruised cervix, head, body, head, body, lubricated by the copious mucus and the amniotic fluid that couldn't get past Lucent. Aah, release! A quick systems check: I still hurt inside, but not a lot more than in previous births. I'm virtually certain my uterus isn't ruptured.

Me: Simba, my uterus is OK. Let's follow plan A.

The kittens lay on their backs or sides in the murk and blood of the drip pan. Their great bug eyes are still closed but as soon as they get oriented they'll shake the fluid out of the infrared sensors in their cheeks. With my claw I cut the cord of the one in front and pass it, dripping and head down, to Willie, who is sitting waiting for the kitten. Wilma gets the next one and Simba gets the third. I keep the fourth, such a tiny miracle. Beside the drip pan I set her or him down (the genitalia look the same for newborns of either sex) and I lock a plastic clip over the bloody cord. Now, into my bucket of not completely cold water. I rinse off amniotic fluid, mucus, globs of skin grease and a surprisingly small amount of fresh blood, as my Novanima offspring wiggles, uncertain and disoriented. I stroke the lion-colored kitten vigorously to squeeze off excess water, but we have no towels; she or he will just have to air dry. I want to know who it is! Not according to plan I press on the shoulder gland to maybe get some scent out.

Me: Yes, it's Iris! Wilma, you want me to check yours?

I set Iris on my foot, a proper lion kitten, and he begins to climb my fur. Strong grip, good! Simba is doing the same as me. I take Wilma's kitten and sniff, then give him back immediately.

Me: Wilma, you have Ken. I forgot, let's synchronize their bladders. Come on, Iris, stand on my hand.

Iris: Yaaw!

Simba: Willie, yours is Lucent and I got Jacinth. Careful of the claws; stand them on your hands and do it over the drip pan.

Jacinth: Yaaaaaw!

Despite wiggles and complaints about being taken off my fur, Iris stands on my hand with ample room to spare, tiny tail lashing. Before he can turn around or try to climb my wrist I press his button one, extending his penis. He crouches and freezes and I press button two; gold joins the murk and blood in the drip pan. Willie and Wilma have done this before with our kittens, though not so tiny. Now all four kittens have empty bladders. I put Iris back on my leg.

Me: OK, Iris, no interruptions now. Go for it.

Wilma: May I have Lucent, Willie? Please don't bite me, kittens! It's working! They can get my nipples in their mouths and not bite.

Simba: We won't uncover the points of our fangs when nursing. Can you get your fingers on their backs more? I think they'd feel safer, more covered. Hey, Jacinth, my pocket is on my body, not my knee!

Iris knows where the goal is, by smell, and I hold my pocket open for him as he drops head down into it. He rights himself, takes the nipple like a veteran, and starts sucking. I don't know what part of the kitten process is the most pleasurable, but giving milk is certainly way up on the list.

Me: Aah, I'm happy to have these kittens! I hope they're going to be happy to be with us too. This is a tough planet but we're all going to thrive together!

Willie: Hear, hear!

Me: You know what I'd really like to do now? Climb a tree, not this steel thing but a real tree like the one in front of our old house. No, Simba, I'm not going to pull that stunt again, but it's what I want to do. Oops, something's happening to the placentas. A-a-a! Come on, get out before I itch you out with my claw. This is the part I really don't like.

It takes two more contractions before the first placenta flops into the muck, and two more before they're all out. Blood dribbles from my vagina; I don't like the flow rate. Obviously it's going to be four times more than after a normal birth.

Me: I don't like how I'm bleeding. Can I have a cup to measure it, please? Somebody time this; call out after sixty seconds.

Simba: Here; I'll do the timing.

Buckets of blood: has this turned into a Gothic horror novel? I keep myself steady and accepting.

Simba: One minute. Take another cup and I'll time another minute. This is about, what, 75 cc's? Wilma, Ken seems wiggly. If he's done nursing he'll want to be in the pocket. Only a little more time. OK, minute's up; how much blood?

Me: Less. Sixty cc's, don't you think?

Simba: Right, it looks like a lot of blood but it's decreasing. Let's measure again in five minutes.

Me: Nerves. I'm jumpy and hyper and scared. Flipping between being happy for the kittens and scared of the bleeding isn't good. I want to steady myself with a good run along Sirion down to the dike and back. Simba, please don't glower; that's what I want to do, not what I will do. Look, I'm going to stomp down the dirt under the mat with my foot and just lay down and let the blood pool in the hole. I'll sleep for an hour and let the blood gel. I want to run but I'll sleep; I'll use the button if I have to. When I wake, Simba, could you help me comb the blood clots off my butt and tail? I'll sit in a bucket of salt water to loosen it. After that I'll stuff gauze in my vagina and take a shower and bathe Iris properly in my pocket. Willie and Wilma, I'm too jumpy to eat but I'm hungry now and I'll be ravenous by dinner time. Could you handle that, please, so I can rest? I want to be hyper; maybe by then I'll feel like helping with dinner, but Dr. Newman always made me lay flat on my back for an hour and I really think I need that right now. This yucky drip pan!

Simba: I'll take it away and dispose of the placentas. I'll cut them up and they'll go for potting soil. You did a great job, Tiger, and I'm proud of you, and happy for our kittens.

Me: Thanks, dearest mate. Now if I could just get myself calmed down! Willie, how about some music? If you don't mind.

Willie: No problem.

On his harmonica Willie plays Silent Night, probably thinking of it because of the mother and child reference. When my mind jumps I turn it straight, into a flow like Sirion will become someday. Iris adjusts his position in my pocket. Following the flow I drift off to sleep.

Next Previous Contents