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Chapter 18: Descent of the Phoenix

I wasn't sick after the test freezing; why am I sick now? Ooh, my belly hurts, my head hurts, my throat is raspy. General Ju Ba Jie will act out that nickname when he thaws an hour after me: the ugly eighth sister in a family of pigs. I'd better use what little time I have to get ready: tea, maybe a man tou. No, I'd better dissuade him from that; he'd just barf it up, and I'd have to mop the mess in zero G. How did Major Tsun Lan Ying get stuck in this pool of puke, as the maid and service girl to a pig of a Minister's son who likes to wear uniforms? Very important is to get myself dried off and get my uniform on. Aah, I should be resting, not hurrying.

It was a plum assignment for an astronaut, a heroic mission to the stars. At first. Then I started training with Colonel General Liu Kai and started to get familiar with him; oh, how smoothly he put it. General Fam Pi! So where's the training to make the scientific observations? Where are the mission timelines? We'll have everything we need, says General Sse Lang. Everything will work out timewise, says General Sse Lang. I complained to my colonel, a real colonel, and he filled me in on some mission features I hadn't appreciated yet. Sse Lang: the colored skirt wolf. And my colonel let me know that as much as he was sorry I'd gotten stuck with the General, if I sabotaged the deal and got myself kicked off the mission then, one, the General and the Minister between them would make me wish I'd never been born, and two, they had an alternate patsy already picked out so I would just be dumping the honor on her.

So I went along, yielding gradually enough to delay the consummation until arrival here at New Paradise, but giving the General enough hope of eventual success that he didn't give up on me. Here, of course, the General can (and probably will) still make my life miserable, but there's only one of him. I can't just tell him to go fuck himself, because if I have my way we'll eventually, or quickly, be returning home, but neither do I have to be so accommodating to his concept of the mission plan. My unexpected physical weakness won't help there, but with any luck the General will be affected similarly, so I'll have some respite. From his amorous advances, not his other demands.

I wish I knew what the problem was. I'm not helpless in science and space medicine, of course, and the symptoms suggest a generous dose of radiation, but I'd assumed our shield would work perfectly or not at all. It would be too much of a coincidence if it leaked just enough to make us sick but not enough to overkill us.

The automatic equipment at that end is doing something. I wish I could turn it off and just leave him frozen, but he thought of that. I'd better make the tea.

Gen. Liu: Oh! Ooooh! I'm freezing! Tea! Bring me tea! I'm dying!

I wish. From what I've read about radiation, in certain dose ranges it takes some time to find out just how bad you've been hit. Too bad we've been irradiated equally.

Me: Here, General. Take it easy. Here's a squeeze bottle of warm tea. Let me dry you off a little.

Gen. Liu: What did you do? You were supposed to be a pilot! Where did you bring us out?

Right, I reprogrammed the guidance system in mid-flight with my frozen toes.

Me: If you can hold on to your tea for a moment and take the towel, I can start up the planetary navigation system.

Gen. Liu: Well, do it, damn it!

Me: Yes, sir.

I wouldn't be too surprised to find that whatever gave us the radiation did enough other damage that the automated systems can't handle it, so they've wakened us in the middle of nowhere at some incredible fraction of the speed of light. And it'll be my job to fix whatever it is, and to convince the General, possibly with a blunt instrument, that finishing the mission is impossible. Then we'll attempt to return to Earth. The operative word here is ``attempt''.

Well, a tawny globe floats outside the viewport. We're in the right star system, or we're in some star system and only a mythical dragon could have diverted us from epsilon Eridani, but we have the wrong planet. I struggle to get the ephemeris updated, and then to get the telescope pointed the right way. Now I'll sweep around... The big, yellow gas giant is there, with its white moon embedded in a mysterious, glowing red haze. I save an image. Now the other direction; I have to roll the spacecraft.

Gen. Liu: Ulp. Gakk! Urp! Urp! Uhhh...

I spin around and jump for the spray of globules. No choice: I let them land gently on my tunic. Yuck. And that jump wasn't good for my insides either, but I wasn't swilling tea like he was.

And now Gen. Liu gets to see what he's managed a glimpse of only once before. Trying to be dignified about it, I silently remove my damp and smelly tunic, wipe my chest as best I can with a dry sleeve, and put on a clean one. It's ironic, isn't it, that Gen. Liu gets no pleasure from his triumph. I finish blotting up the few drops that escaped to hit the wall and equipment.

When I remove the freezer unit from my intestines I'll have to expose my yin tao to view for an extended period. I think I'll want to do that as soon as possible while the General is diverted by his sickness. If possible, while he's asleep. But he's right: the navigation fix has the highest priority. I return to the console. And the second gas giant, eggshell color, is right there. I save another image. I can slew the telescope around in this position to see the outermost planet -- there it is. Image saved. This time I'll very, very slowly spin the ship to get the telescope pointing at New Paradise again. And then I'll try to tire the General out.

Me: Sir, we've arrived at our destination, but it's not as we expected. If you'll put your uniform on and then take a look in the viewport you can see what I mean.

His yang jin is in its storage configuration this time. I wonder what it would be like if he had flown through space for sixteen years with a hard-on. He's having trouble getting out of the tank. He's having trouble getting the trousers on. He's having trouble getting his hands into the sleeves of the tunic. He's a mess; I resist the urge to take a digital photo. I indicate where he should look out.

Gen. Liu: What in hell is that?

Me: I've seen the Sahara from orbit many times. It looks like that. The brown arc, it's not clear what that is, but it may be a section of ocean like the Red Sea.

Gen. Liu: We'll need water. Make a note of our position.

Me: I've done that, sir.

Gen. Liu: I'm depleted. I need to rest.

Me: Yes, sir, I think that would be very wise. Your chi is drained. Later we can try to revitalize it with some gin seng tea, if your stomach feels up to it.

There, the pig is snoring. I get busy digging out my freezer unit. Yuck, I must be in really bad shape inside. It's lucky I'm a farm girl, not afraid to get my hands dirty. Maybe if I get him to eat he'll get a fatal infection. No, I'm not up to mopping all the vomit that would be produced. In the confined space my soiled tunic smells of mixed stomach acid and mildew. I'd better get busy and wash it in the limited water we have for that purpose.

A week after arrival we're still weak, but it looks like we're going to survive. It turns out that poor little Ju Ba Jie is scared of needles, and I took great pleasure in skewering him to squirt some IV fluids into his veins. It was no fun doing it to myself, but getting to watch his reaction made it worth it. Now we're up to drinking freeze-dried chicken broth. His sex drive is on standby, for which I thank whatever god is politically correct today, and I've only had to ignore two or three pinches on the rear.

I wish the news were as good from New Paradise. There's nothing there. There may have been chlorophyll when we left, but it's not there now. During training I did a little unauthorized extra, comparing the spectrum of New Paradise with that of Earth, and my feeling from the line strengths was that the fertile area of our new home was a lot less than Earth's, but General Sse Lang assured me that it was perfectly normal for planets not to be covered pole to pole with greenery. Well, in 27 years (the lightspeed time from New Paradise to Earth plus our own travel time) the plants all wilted. I'm reviewing my desert survival skills. It takes a lot of water to raise children, and I'm marshaling arguments against General Gong Ji's inevitable comment that his mon ancestors conquered China on less water than that. He may be mon, though from the shape of his face I'm reminded of a misbegotten meo, but I'm not a fleabitten barbarian; I'm han and proud of it. And I also know a reasonable amount of history and geography, and the mon had a lot better land than that desert down there.

Gong ji: when I was little we had a rooster, and we'd heap the pig shit in a big pile until it was time to prepare the soil for planting. The rooster would hop on top and, thus elevated, would proclaim his superiority. When my father wasn't looking I'd throw turds at him to make him fly. The gong ji, not my father. The General reminds me of that rooster sometimes, when he's not reminding me of a wolf or a pig.

We've sent down the exploration lander to see just how bad it is. Our target is that first spot we saw, near the brown arc. And it's time for me to supervise the automatic guidance, which isn't smart enough to pick a spot free of rocks and not free of interest. Well, there's a flattish area; I'll set down on the flat near the brown and near a more irregular or rocky terrain. Five hundred meters, two hundred, slowly, gently... It's down.

Gen. Liu: This is an historic moment, Lan Ying, our first landing on New Paradise. All of history will remember this time.

Me: I hope so, General. But let's promptly check out what we've landed on. Our success depends on what we find here. I'll start a panoramic scan. Okay, okay! It really is a lake.

A scummy froth covers the lake, and dried slime covers this flat beach, washed up by the small waves, as well as covering the rocks I've landed near. But slimy water is a whole lot better than no water. I have the distinct impression of saltiness: white powder and crystals litter the ground.

Me: I'll activate the X-ray fluorescence scanner and look for significant samples that we can bring back to the ship.

Whoa! In training we never got that big a signal from anything, much less from organic surface layers.

Me: General, take a look at this spectrum. It's extremely strong.

Gen. Liu: Perhaps we've chanced on a valuable mineral deposit.

Playing violin to a cow. The spectrum is complex, and it doesn't drop off at higher energies like the training spectra did; it seems to get stronger. This isn't an X-ray fluorescence spectrum; it's nuclear! I switch the readout to its highest range: there are two powerful lines at 1173 KeV and 1332 KeV. And what's that, according to my gamma ray table? There it is: cobalt-60. That radiation is used for industrial X-ray applications such as checking the welds on our shield tank.

Gen. Liu: What did we find?

Me: Cobalt, plus a lot of other stuff. I'm going through the lines in order of intensity.

Later I'll explain what kind of cobalt. In the next lower range there's a strong line at 662 KeV: cesium-137. It's superimposed on a smeary background running from 200 to 550 KeV, suggesting beta particles from several isotopes, cobalt-60 and cesium-137 among them, that cause correlated X-rays. And where there's cesium-137 there should be strontium-90, with no gamma rays but a beta ray at just the right energy. Not ignorant, this han farm girl who fought her way into the People's Liberation Army Air Corps and then into the Astronaut Corps.

Gen. Liu: Cobalt is important for industrial alloys. We can export it. What else is there?

Me: There's a problem, General. It's radioactive. These lines are from cobalt-60, and cesium-137 is on the other range, and likely indications of strontium-90. Someone had a nuclear war and deliberately set out to exterminate whatever was here. I'll bet the scum we see all around here is the rotten remains of sea life, plants whose chlorophyll we saw from Earth. Exterminated. And we'd die too if we went down there. We can't even bring the lander near the ship; it's sure to be heavily contaminated.

Gen. Liu: What? Who did this? The capitalist imperialist bastards and their running dog cats, they scorched the earth to keep us from New Paradise!

That ``imperialist'' phrase always struck me as funny, considering that our government is heir to the greatest empire on Earth. Of course I have the political savvy to keep that opinion to myself; otherwise I wouldn't have risen to the rank of major by age 31. I also have a sense of timing, and General Sse Lang may be vulnerable now to being redirected. Homeward.

Me: It's going to be hard to overcome that kind of thing. If we can't even go down to New Paradise without getting a lethal dose of radiation, it's going to be kind of hard to colonize it.

Gen. Liu: I am not going to fail! We'll survey the planet and see if the war was localized. If not, we'll investigate the other planets for suitability, starting with the large moon of the second planet.

Me: Yes, sir.

I can easily insist on not getting pregnant until there's enough infrastructure to support survival of the shao hai, or until pigs fly, whichever occurs sooner. I can also remind the General what he's not going to be doing until that time, since he didn't want birth control pills to possibly impair my fertility. I think I understand how his mind works. I think he'll head for home fairly soon. It'll seem like an eternity, but a tough girl like me should be able to tough it out.

One thing makes me very curious: who fought the war? General Sse Lang assumes the imperialist team did it. He's good at politics; he's good at pulling strings; but he's not good at analyzing how much mass it takes to wreck a planet. I think it's vital that Earth in general and China in particular find out whether we're talking about space battle fleets, or worse. But there's not a chance in hell that this pair of people could find out with the equipment we have, even if General Sse Lang could be convinced to divert from his plans of interstellar sexual conquest.

It's late in the second day of our survey. The war seemed to have focused around the two fetid lakes, though we've found surprisingly few bomb craters. Nonetheless, no place on the planet is habitable. Not counting the south polar region, which I estimate is unhealthy but not actually lethal; however, lakeside scum conveniently stuck to the landing pads giving me a good strong signal I could show the General.

So why do I have a malf on the radar warning detector? I told my colonel it was a total waste to bring the thing. Its purpose is to warn a fighter pilot when an enemy plane or missile launcher locks radar on her. I thought it very unlikely we'd meet enemy planes... But someone fought that war, and they may not have stuck around but they might have put something automated in orbit. I'd better take this seriously.

Me: General, there may be a tracking radar out there. I'd better find out where it's coming from.

Gen. Liu: What? The imperialists?

Me: It could be a malfunction. Let me analyze the signal.

Gen. Liu: Do it. Quick!

Me: Yes, sir.

No, I'll laze through the motions when the next step is a missile on my tail. The signal is from ahead, and is increasing very gradually. It's a search signal, not tracking. The pulses are sophisticated: coded in a repetitive pattern. The senders apparently have the skill to make pulses that would be much harder to distinguish from background noise, but they didn't: they don't care if we're aware of them. If we change orbit we probably can avoid detection, since they have to detect the signal after a round trip with a bounce off an uncooperative target, while we see the signal after one trip starting from their best antenna.

Me: We need to do some evasive maneuvers.

Gen. Liu: Don't dither around; make like a pilot, girl!

Me: Yes, sir. Hang on.

I spin the ship to get an idea where the thing is: yes, to our north. Now I slew the tail around and give a firm thrust to reorient our orbital plane. The General looks a little green, and my insides are uncharacteristically queasy too, but both of us refrain from urping up our chicken broth. We have a sophisticated computer system on this ship and I can set it to record the intensity of the radar signal. From that I can later figure out fairly accurately the orbit of the space defense station.

Me: Sir, I'd really like to know what and who we're up against. Suppose we send the lander to investigate. If they shoot it down, we know we have a real problem.

Gen. Liu: That's really stupid. If we lose the lander we only have one more and we'll have trouble to fall back to the second planet's moon.

Me: That's a point, but let's think about this. It will take time, a long time, before we're strong enough to resist an attack from space like hit that planet down there. Think of an analogy on Earth. Suppose we kicked the enemy off some island. We'd leave a small garrison to keep watch that they didn't come back, and we'd also have observers on adjacent islands. I suspect strongly that's the strategy we're seeing: we'll meet opposition throughout this system. But we don't know; we have to take a risk to find out. There's another thing: with the kind of military power we see used here, I suspect that radar isn't their only detection system. We may have evaded the radar but they may still know we're here. I recommend a preemptive strike, to gather intelligence while a retreat is still possible.

Gen. Liu: It's an interesting analysis. Chairman Mao counsels boldness tempered by caution. We'll approach the enemy installation with the lander and find out how big a threat it really is.

Me: A wise choice, General. I'll work the lander into an approximate orbit, and in about three hours I'll have enough data stolen from their own radar to estimate where they are.

Gen. Liu: Get on it, girl.

Me: Yes, sir.

Will they be so obliging as to shoot us down? I'm of two minds: a missile would signal us to scoot for home with my reputation intact and my yin tao unvisited. (I'm not saying I'm a virgin, but I'm definitely selective.) On the other hand, the flower of death for the lander could easily be followed by a second one. But any successful soldier knows that worry is useless: what happens, happens. You do your job the best you know how, and maybe you'll get through it.

Well, it's taken until after chicken broth time, but by correlating the battle station's own radar signal and that reflected off the lander I've been able to quickly get the lander into a similar orbit. It's big and bright: no effort at concealment. I'm going to make a fast pass making a visual record.

Me: General, keep your eyes on the screen. The lander's starting past the thing. Shit, what is that?

Gen. Liu: You're the pilot; you tell me.

Me: It's a pile of junk!

Gen. Liu: Come around and make another pass.

Me: Doing it. There it is. I'm coming to a stop, daring them to do something. What do you make of it?

Gen. Liu: The sphere probably houses equipment. The white rectangle may be an antenna of some kind. There's no sign of optical sensors, nor of weapons.

Me: I think I agree. I'm moving in closer. Well, I'll be dipped! Look what the rectangle is: a sign! ``Come to Thor'', in English, and something smaller with an arrow. Whatever Thor is. This must be an artifact left by the imperialists. Closer: there, I can read it. It says, ``Message''.

Gen. Liu: We'd better take a look at their fam pi.

Me: Right; they may have more information about the war. I'll have to use all my skill to detect possible booby traps. I'll bring us around. But the EVA will have to be tomorrow because of the way our orbit is oriented.

Gen. Liu: Can't you speed it up?

Me: Unfortunately it's a six-dimensional problem, and we have to stay within safe acceleration limits to avoid popping open the ship. I'll program most of the maneuver into the automatic controller: continuous acceleration with gradual changes that won't disturb our sleep.

And I need my beauty rest. An EVA can really take it out of you and I don't feel up to it after a long sick day, particularly if I have to first chase a satellite with no navigation transponder. The light exploration lander started from a better position and also has more acceleration, so it caught up quicker. I hope General Sse Lang has dreams of his beautiful bride blundering into a booby trap. The imperialists went to a lot of trouble to get a message to us, and after luring us to their orbiting junkheap I doubt they'd blow me up gratuitously. I shouldn't call it a junkheap; it may lack sophistication but it did the job. I'll bet the white sphere is merely an empty balloon, a visual target, and the small box contains a pusher chip to counteract air drag and a radar transmitter with a simple piece of wire for an antenna: broadcasting in all directions so we'd be sure to notice it eventually. Now of course the key question is, are the imperialists still here, way beyond their scheduled departure date, and if so, why?

In the morning we're flying formation with the erstwhile defense station and I've just gotten the packet of papers on board; I'm still in my space suit minus helmet and gloves. I grab, or politely take, the pages of English text from General Sse Lang as he finishes reading them. There aren't that many, but here's a condensation: New Paradise (which they call Njord, an ugly name) was inhabited by intelligent squidlike creatures of awful aspect and temperament. Excited by contact with the imperialists, the squids broke into a frenzy of nuclear destruction. I'm reading between the lines here: the effects weren't limited to the planet's surface, and the imperialists' noble decision to colonize Thor, the second planet's moon, was actually a desperate grab at survival when a return to Earth was impossible. After difficulties which aren't mentioned (but which I've tried to anticipate for our own mission), they've built housing and have had children. We're invited to a banquet to discuss and coordinate our mission, as they put it. There's a phone in orbit around the moon and we should call to let them know when we're coming. There's a lot of debris in orbit and we'd better keep to clear lanes that they've mapped for us.

I put myself in the General's head: there are nubile females down there and infrastructure to support the New Workers' Paradise and his line of heirs which he will beget upon his queen. Plus upon the nubile females. Returning to my own head: the imperialist expedition was sent out under very bizarre circumstances with a crew of two hei ren and two of what they call lion people. The latter are said to be extremely dangerous, though what they're doing putting animals on a starship I have no idea. But Chairman Mao tells us danger is opportunity: specifically, an opportunity for General Go Ro to become a meal for lions, after I bravely but unsuccessfully try to defend him from the imperialist monsters. The ideal is if I survive and return to Earth a hero. An acceptable outcome is if I survive and return to Earth.

Me: General, we must go to this planet Thor.

Gen. Liu: Exactly! We must advance resolutely.

Me: They've invited us to gather intelligence about their installation.

Gen. Liu: If you're going to hang a capitalist he'll sell you the rope.

Me: We must make plans.

I'm finding it hard to keep a straight face: I adapt the lines from bad spy movies I've seen and the General parrots the responses. Definitely we must make plans. It's possible the imperialists are luring us into a trap, but I think that's very unlikely: it's just not their style. It is, however, ours, the General and his queen.

With the power of our stardrive it took us a day and a half to fly from New Paradise to the second planet, but it took us three more days to pick our way through the glowing cloud of gas surrounding Thor, find the orbiting balloon and radar beacon, and negotiate a time to meet. The extra time was welcome, for we've just started to be able to handle solid food. From orbit we observed a patch of chlorophyll centered on the indicated coordinates, at which we could barely see an array of dots and a short river, unique on the planet per a cursory examination. I've just set the personnel lander down next to the imperialists' domes. The banquet was billed as lunch, but epsilon Eridani is just about to set and this location, at the bottom of a deep natural pit, is already in shadow, rendering details indistinct through our window.

Gen. Liu: What's that?

Me: An imperialist. I expect we're supposed to follow him.

The lander's window precludes a good view of what's in his hand, but as we exit the lander he conveniently holds it up: a sign saying (in English) ``Welcome; Please Come Inside''. What's more shocking: it's barefoot, covered in white and gold striped fur, with a long tail ending in an astonishing black tuft. And within the fishbowl helmet and underneath the pointed ears: white vertical bars across its muzzle that move together with a scissoring or slicing action. A major in the People's Liberation Army does not show fear, but she feels it if she's not brain-dead. General Go Ro stops; I use a gong fu move to get him started again. Showing weakness now, before we know enough to make proper plans, could be fatal for both of us.

Is it wise to do this? We need information, badly. And the imperialists need information about us. They could have destroyed us twice already: a shrapnel bomb in either of the two radar beacons. Likely they wouldn't have gone to so much trouble to bring us here merely to trap us at the first meeting. It's not their style and there's no advantage to them. The furred animal leads us past two plant-choked domes to a third.

Its airlock is a flimsy construction of plastic sheets. A second bizarre creature, brown with a flat black tail like a beaver, pops out to greet us with a bow. The dome is lighted artificially and more shapes can be seen inside through the translucent plastic cover. The gold lion enters first; apparently fans pump the ammonia-laced air out from around it, making the plastic cling. General Sse Lang motions for me to go next, to trigger any danger. The beaver tail fastens a seal behind me, the fans whirr, then the lion pulls open the front, possibly of magnetic plastic.

Hmm. Humans live here, even if they are hei ren, and we're going to have to eat the banquet. Before the General gets through the airlock to give a different order I remove my helmet and gloves and place them on the rough plastic-topped table indicated by the lion, next to the rack holding its own helmet and tanks. The air is not fresh. There's the pervasive odor of agriculture, which in China would be conducted outdoors, overlaid with an odd mixture of non-Chinese spices and underlaid with something ominous, threatening and possibly insectile. The lion lets in the General who, after a short hesitation, takes off his helmet and hands it to me to put away. The lion exposes its dental apparatus in what is possibly intended as a welcoming smile.

Lion: Welcome to Gondolin. My name is Iris L1001-1212 and I'm the student leader of Gondor. I'm thinking, with your air tanks and the metal ring around your necks, you might be more comfortable at the banquet minus your space armor. What do you think?

A calculated risk: agility within the dome complex versus speed in the getaway, assuming we can get back to grab our helmets. We're not at our best physically either. We, meaning the General, didn't make a final decision, but we did anticipate possibly removing our suits: underneath we're wearing our dress uniforms, though with ribbons, not medals.

Me (in Chinese): General, standing around in these suits for hours is going to get rather tiring. I can feel the weight of the tanks already.

Gen. Liu (in English): Yes, that's an excellent idea. Major Tsun, would you help me, please, with the shoulder assembly?

The lion creature learns fast how to help an astronaut take off her space suit, while the beaver wrestles the General's tanks and suit onto the table. Strong, that smallish beaver. I'm pleased to notice that the boots stay underneath and well away from the neck and arm seals. Even so, I see to storing my own suit.

Gen. Liu: There, that's much more comfortable. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Colonel General Liu Kai of the People's Liberation Army Astronaut Corps, People's Republic of China. This is an historic meeting between our two groups. I look forward to an expansive future of...

While the General plies his specialty (in which my name does not figure prominently), I repress my resentment. I'm a trained and seasoned astronaut. My rank of major is earned. Et cetera, none of which is going to get me nearer my goal. So let's take in the situation.

First, physical. We saw 21 domes when we came down. All but two seemed choked with greenery; we're in one of the more open ones. The dome is about 25 meters across: quite spacious. The skin has been patched in many places, and is held up not by air pressure but by several metal poles with branches that bear round shields on the ends, so the plastic doesn't tear. The foundation is cement; an ugly patch is visible to my left. Toward the opposite side is a closed double door, of white plastic, not wood, which obviously leads to steps or a ramp to a tunnel which I'll have to assume connects the domes underground. The floor is dirt like a peasant's barn; even my family's house had a proper floor. Around the perimeter are numerous large potted plants, perhaps three rows of them. They're Chang bushes, curse that capitalist's name. Dividing the dome along a diameter, so from here I can see both sides, are plastic sheets draped over some kind of poles. On the right side of the curtain is a motley collection of tables, workbenches, desks, packing crates and the like, evidently the venue for the banquet. On the left are some rugs elevated about twenty centimeters above the rest of the ground, with a sizable area in front free from furniture.

Now for people. Change that to livestock. In that sizable area are clustered about ten heterogeneous creatures, paying polite attention to the General's speech or looking us over. Aha, the ones in back are two hei ren and next to them two lion people, one black and one striped, which look a bit more solid than Iris does. Working on the right side of the curtain at a workbench next to it are two more smaller spotted cats -- and two naked boys, one Chinese and one with very dark skin but with the bizarre red hair that bai ren sometimes have. They stare at us curiously, without a bit of shame for their undress. Iris the Lion makes some kind of handsign and they return to work, cooking food and setting out dishes on the workbenches.

My overall impression is of a barnyard where the animals have revolted and enslaved the native hei ren farmer, wife and children, and are now trying to manage the farm better than the original natives. And very likely succeeding, giggle! Of course this is fantasy. And speaking of fantasies, those boys are definitely growing up. And that will provide a motivation for the General, if he would just shut up: they must have sisters. Aah, the speech is ending at last.

Iris: We look forward to a long and productive relationship too, particularly in the area of science. Now here's what we have planned. Since we weren't sure just when you would be coming down, we had to wait to start cooking some of the food, which the jaguars and 'uomi are doing now. So we'll entertain you before lunch with some folk dances and music, and we can learn a little about each other informally. Then we'll eat, and afterward we can make some serious coordination plans together. Does that sound reasonable?

Gen. Liu: Yes, a good plan. Your facility looked fascinating from the air. Perhaps a little tour could be arranged.

Iris: Certainly; many people will want to show you what they're doing, and I hope they don't overload you with projects and demonstrations. Now as for personnel roles among the Novanima: half of us are married. The 'uomi and jaguars will be very soon, but until then the sexes remain apart, and so when you're talking to one of them please speak only in generic terms about the opposite sex, if at all. The male 'uomi and jaguars will take a break from cooking and will show you their folk dance, and will then get back on the job and you'll see their female counterparts. Then I'll leave you since my group will be performing, but I'll turn you over to our human representative and her assistant, and after that I'll make like a student leader and see the food's served properly. The adults will stay in the background. They'll talk to you, but they'll divert any substantive discussion to me or the human representative, unless they decide I'm screwing it up too badly. The reason for that is, this is our world and we have to learn to manage it, including interacting with missions from Earth.

Gen. Liu: Hm. Just how much of a leader are you, and how much power really resides in the adults?

Iris: If Tiger says jump, you jump. However, here are two good examples. We had a comet impact; you may have noticed the continuing volcanic eruptions at the North Pole. I shadowed Tiger in planning for its effects, and the union of our plans was executed. They were successful, since we're still here. Shortly after that there was a flood of comet-derived water. I reported it to Tiger and she told me, get us unflooded. So I did: I made up four work teams and sent them to dig up the blockages and bail out seeping water. The plans for this meeting with you were almost entirely the work of the young people under my leadership, though of course they were reviewed and discussed extensively with the adults. That's the nature of my authority. I have authority to make agreements with you. If the adults are going to repudiate something they'll do it immediately, not spring it on you later. And I'm pretty good in social work; I doubt I'll do anything that will need to be repudiated.

Gen. Liu: Hmm. I'll enjoy conferring with you. So shall we see a folk dance?

We're seated on the rugs, and there's something cushiony underneath covering the bare dirt that I think has been heaped up. I'm reminded of my family's rooster. Through the curtain I hear clanks as pots are covered; then the kitchen workers come out to do their dance.

Iris: These are Oso, Quin, Orion and Wolf, and Jacinth will accompany them on trumpet.

Jacinth turns out to be another tawny lion. The trumpet is an appropriate instrument, for while the dance starts slowly it builds to a martial-looking climax with much jumping and thrashing in which jaguars and boys switch partners in intricate patterns. Judging from my own brothers I'd have expected more jiggling and flapping from the boys, but somehow their organs are neater than what I remember seeing. In case he's missed the deduction, I remind General Sse Lang what's next.

Me (in Chinese): General, if the boys are that pretty, what must the girls be like?

Gen. Liu: Let's keep our hands to ourselves, Major.

Hah! Let's keep our hands to ourselves, General Sse Lang! The boys return behind the curtain, the doors open, and out of the ramp come four figures: two spotted jaguars, indistinguishable from the males, and two stunningly nubile young beauties, clothed similarly to the boys, one hei and one breathtakingly bai with long blonde hair. I steal a glance at General Sse Lang. He's trying to find a more comfortable position for...

Iris: These are Petra, Valeria, Rose and Xena. Valeria is the human representative in Gondor. They will be accompanied by Mica and Night on flute.

It's a stately dance with intricate footwork. The partners change continuously and they brush against each other, fur against skin, how can this be, chastely yet voluptuously. All sides of their naked bodies are seen in turn, gracefully arched. I feel jealous, a useless emotion now. With any luck the General will come in his pants and embarrass himself. And to climax it, no pun intended, when the dance is over beauty number two, the hei ren, voluntarily approaches Skirt Wolf, while I'm joined by a jaguar.

Beauty: Welcome to Gondolin, General Liu. My name is Valeria U1012-2423, and I'm the human representative in Gondor. I'll keep you company from this point and answer any questions you have. I hope we can have a productive and enjoyable relationship, your mission and our colony. May I sit next to you?

Pant, pant; the General uncharacteristically can't get out one word. A productive and enjoyable relationship, my ass. I wonder if the nudity is some kind of stratagem. But the old bag in back is bare-breasted, though she and the other hei ren have a rag around their middles.

Jaguar: And I'm Xena J1016-3062. Anything you might need, just ask me. May I join you?

The thing has teeth like the lions do, though maybe a little smaller. But Xena is smaller too: Iris said they were younger. It's the handsome color of dry wheat straw dotted with rosettes of black spots. Beautiful and, I'm sure, deadly. Come on, General, don't keep your hands to yourself, and this Xena can do me a favor that I can't quite ask it for straight out.

Iris: This is Lucent, my mate, and Jacinth and Ken, and Mica and Night, and Selen and Titania. Tiger will play part of the Chaconne from Bach's Second Partita for Violin, for us to dance to.

It's a nice dance. I'm no connoisseur of decadent imperialist music, but I think Tiger plays pretty good. The frying from behind me seems to be winding down. I'm actually getting a little appetite, stimulated by the smells wafting over the curtain. General Sse Lang's appetite is definitely being stimulated too; he ducks his head and whispers in Valeria's ear, and she whispers back. The music ends and we, with Xena and Valeria, clap appreciatively.

Iris: Thank you, and thank you Tiger. These are our adults and teachers: Tiger L6-3512, Simba L7-1340, Wilma Ragland, and Willie Ragland. They don't dance. (Giggle.) You could chat for a moment while I check on the food.

Evidently this doesn't mean to chat with the adults: they don't approach, and Valeria turns on the chatter about farm production, which General Sse Lang laps up with professional appreciation. The recent performers chat at a distance in low voices, occasionally sneaking a glance at us. Xena is more reserved than Valeria so I take the initiative.

Me: I noticed several of you making hand signs. What are those?

Xena: Oh, Tiger signs! Tiger had a big accident and couldn't speak, so she and Simba and her Earth family invented them so she could communicate that way until she recovered. They're very useful. You can imagine that with so many young people in a small space, it could get noisy. We try to keep our voices down and to use Tiger signs as much as possible. They're also better than English for computer input.

Me: So it's a separate language?

Xena: Right; the words and grammar are completely different. Would you like me to teach you some basics?

Me: Perhaps later. Do you live underground?

Xena: No, in the residential domes. Four people, two species per dome, and lots of plants and ants. This is dome two. We moved most of the plants into the new domes, five-C and six-C, and we might make another dome and leave this one open like it is, permanently. The older Novanima will be begetting kittens soon, and inside play space will be convenient so parents and kittens aren't always outside in helmets. I like the outside, but I also have my lessons. How about you?

Me: Yes, I like the natural world too, but my training and missions keep me from it. It looks like there's a lot of manufacturing going on here. Do you have a factory job, perhaps? And what kinds of things are made?

Xena: Yes, I like manufacturing, but Valeria and, well, there are a lot of people doing manufacturing, but Valeria is the leader in that. I heard her telling the General some of it. We make everything: plastics of all kinds, steel, titanium, copper and brass, ceramics, textiles; Selen just got started on the textiles. Aren't these rugs nice? He made them specially for today, but we'll all have one to sleep on afterward when he makes more.

Me: It's a nice design. An American design, I believe. How close are your ties to America?

Xena: It's a Navajo design that Selen copied out of our lesson disc. He and Titania, his mate, took the style and varied it for each rug. She's the best artist. The adults came from America, but with a 38 year round trip lightspeed time we really can't be tied to anyone; we have to learn how to manage this world ourselves.

Me: Um, I thought it was 10.8 light years.

Xena: One way, 18.8 years... Oh, you must be using Earth years. All our time units are based on Wotan's motion.

I catch sight of a boy, the Chinese-looking one, still naked, coming around my side of the curtain. He makes a few hand signs. Tiger doesn't look pleased, and neither do the other adults. She answers back the same way. Next to the boy, Iris responds. Then the boy announces in a firm voice: ``The egg rolls are ready. Let's eat.''

Oh good; I'm ready for some action in the banquet department, though I'd better eat moderately given the tender state of my insides. Let's hope it's not pun, fermented pig slop. Xena pops to its feet, as does Valeria, and gives me a helpful hand up, not that I need it. It does a cute little ballet twirl under my arm: not my favorite way to be assisted to my feet.

Me: Thank you, Xena; I'm up. You can let go of my hand.

Xena: Um, well, Major Tsun, I'm very sorry, and embarrassed, you being our guest, but, well, that was a combat move.

I'm sorry too, little creature: see what the People's Liberation Army teaches... Ulp.

Xena: You could hurt your wrist if you struggle, particularly if you haven't been stretching. I'm not sure I like the feel of your tendons. The rule is, you can go anywhere you want, but your hand stays with me. And don't try kicking me like that; I can tell you're going to do it, and it only takes a little twist to shut you down; you didn't like it, did you? You were nice and I'd like to stay friends as much as possible, so... Not the weapon either, please. Let's be calm and listen to the person's report, and we'll get it taken care of, and I hope we can have smiling faces afterward. Jacinth will take whatever weapon is in your clothing and then let's go around to the other side. The readout is set up there.

Wang ba dan! Damned furry trickster! The readout. Covered by the frying. I wonder what it's a readout for? I wish the General would shut up his yapping and give a little thought to how we're going to get our asses out of this. Smiling faces, hah! I've always wanted a fur rug as my bedspread.

Iris: We won't use names in the mixed sex environment. Teammate, would you report your findings please?

The four adults, in fact the whole collection have lined up behind us and are jockeying for a view of a laptop computer next to the stove thing. The boy who announced lunch has put some graphs on the screen.

Gen. Liu: This is an outrage! I demand to be released immediately!

Valeria: Please, we all need to hear the report to make progress.

Gen. Liu: You'll feel the wrath... Aaah!

Valeria: I can suppress impoliteness the same way as physical counterattacks. Please, listen.

Iris: Are we ready? OK, um, teammate?

Naked Boy: On the prospector, that's a lander-type vehicle that we use for mapping surface composition, we took off the APX and put on a pure X-ray detector. Jacinth put it in an approximate orbit as you were flying down here, and finished the approach once you were inside in case there was a proximity alarm on your ship. I flew it after that. Here's the X-ray intensity from about five minutes of counting just circling the aft end of your ship; these two lobes suggest two similar X-ray sources. Here's a normal spectrum display from fifteen minutes right next to one of them. These four are plutonium X-ray lines. The detector's resolution is enough to distinguish plutonium from uranium, and the bottom reference spectrum is for uranium, which we have a small amount of, so you can tell they're different. This is a nuclear line from plutonium-239 decay to uranium-235, and over here are two more. Underneath I've marked the gamma spectra of several decays and plutonium-239, the top row, is the only one that matches. My conclusion is that there are two substantial masses of plutonium-239 probably attached to the outside of your ship.

Iris: We want the plutonium removed.

Gen. Liu: Our remote sampling probes are powered by plutonium decay. This is an outrage, interfering with a peaceful scientific mission.

Valeria: Remote sampling? You detect the composition of whoever it is spectroscopically in the vapor, right?

Naked Boy: Plutonium-238 has a short half-life and the decay produces heat which can be turned into electrical power. The second row here is the gamma spectrum from plutonium-238 decay. I specifically checked for that possibility. The line energies are wrong and the intensity is much too low. This is plutonium-239, the fissionable isotope. These are nuclear weapons. Gondor wants them to go away.

Another item not mentioned to me in the mission preparation, which explains why General Sse Lang was always so touchy when I asked questions about the ``probes''. The General must have some pull to get hold of those particular items, but these barnyard animals seem to have sharp noses too. And some pretty effective gong fu, if Xena can keep hold of me like this. Is it time to kiss my ass goodbye?

Gen. Liu: And how does a naked brat think he's going to get his wish, now?

I can think of several ways, none of which the General will like.

Iris: Let's return to the other side, please, so we can have our nominal separation of the sexes. Thank you, teammate, for a clear presentation. Bring them around to the rugs and let them loose. Understand, we're going to take care of this problem before you leave here. We have your weapons and your helmets. Fighting, denial and lying only aggravates everyone and we'd prefer to have a calm, professional resolution of the problem. Let me phrase this similar to the lesson on our arm twist technique: in one to two hours the plutonium is going to be on its way to the north pole of Wotan. What's attached to it is up to you. We have the propulsive capacity to put your entire ship into Wotan. We don't like that kind of vandalism. We don't like being pushed into doing it. And then you would be here, and we would be unhappy with you, and we'd be faced with the unpleasant problem of making you productive, since we haven't the capacity to support unproductive members. Let's find a nicer way. How about you tell us how to take a quick sample of Wotan's north pole, and then we'll have a nice banquet and talk about your mission? And by the way, a missile off course will be gotten on course the same way your ship would be. I'm going to be quiet for a few minutes while you discuss with each other what you want to do.

Gen. Liu: Return my helmet immediately, you caricature animal! I shall protest through diplomatic channels!

The General stomps up toward Iris, who is turned to the side, walking away from him. Iris spins around with an angry expression, pointing at the General with one finger, at the end of which a gemlike white claw has materialized. Mentally, I salivate. But the General shows uncharacteristic prudence and backs down.

Gen. Liu (in Chinese): Get us out of this! You're a major; get us out of this!

Me: I'm sorry, General, but they have us by the short hairs. We can go down fighting in a heroic suicide charge, or we can do what they demand. There's no alternative.

Gen. Liu: I will not fail! Chairman Mao teaches that the discipline of the guerrilla is to fall back and survive to fight again, so the enemy bleeds to death from a thousand cuts. Tell them how to jettison the probes, the emergency jettison procedure. We will not give them the targeting codes. Or better: we will jettison the probes for them.

Me: A wise choice, General. I'll try to make that last arrangement, but I doubt they're dumb enough to fall for it.

I would have preferred if ``we'' had insisted on the heroic suicide charge, but this concession will be a step towards defusing a very nasty situation.

Me: Iris! We've decided to accept your terms. We'll jettison the probes and you can use your propulsive capacity to throw them into the gas giant, and your X-ray detector can verify that we've removed all our plutonium.

Iris: A wise choice. We'll all work together to bring about a peaceful and cooperative relation between our groups. Your part of the job will be to tell Xena how to get the probes off. We have an audio connection with her helmet speaker so when she's in your ship if there's a problem she can ask you what to do. And remember, we like Xena a whole lot more than we like you. If she doesn't come back you're going to be spending the rest of your lives among people who remember why you're spending the rest of your lives with them. Does that motivate you to be very careful that the job is accomplished safely? You understand, Major Tsun?

Me: Yes, I understand.

Iris: Xena will have her suit on in a moment, and Jacinth is bringing around our lander.

Me: If my life is going to depend on a little furry animal getting into orbit and not killing itself on the way, and using my computer and so on, you won't be surprised if I'm feeling a slight lack of confidence right now.

Iris: Xena is fully competent to do the job. You just give her the best instructions you can.

A rickety-looking contraption of metal tube sets down next to our competently engineered and enclosed landing craft. If their lander falls apart on the way to orbit I'll be blamed. And here's Xena. How bizarre: my fur bedspread is covered with a white spacesuit undergarment with only its spotted head and ears sticking out. I wonder what it's done with its tail. Its tanks are strapped to its back and its left hand holds a white plastic box that clinks and clanks: tools. Under the left arm is a laptop computer and the right arm holds its helmet. The suit itself is not in evidence.

Xena: I'm sorry, Major, that I handled you roughly, and I hope later we can be friends. Could we go over the procedure to jettison the probes, and I'll take notes on my computer?

Me: First you have to match orbits with our ship. Can you do that without splattering yourself all over it and getting me blamed for it?

Xena: Yes, Major Tsun, I can find and match with your ship.

Me: Next, there's a keypad on the airlock. The access code is 71503718. Do you know how to work a keypad?

Xena: Yes, Major. I punch those digits and the door opens, right? But are the keys labeled in Chinese, or English?

Me: They're numbers like those, the right side of your keyboard. There's a handle next to the keypad which you'll need to turn, then push open the door. Once in the airlock with the outer door shut, turn the handle, you press the big red button on the forward wall. The air fills quickly; don't panic. It's a lot slower on the way out. The light on the outer door will change to green and the inner light will go red, and you can turn its handle near the light and push the inner door open.

Xena: Red for open, green for closed?

Me: The East is Red, Xena. Once inside you can take off your helmet and gloves. Now do you have any idea how to behave in a starship? You mustn't play and you must be careful about bumping into things with your tanks. Only press the buttons I tell you; none other.

Xena: Yes, Major Tsun. I have extensive experience working in and around our starship. I know not to press buttons.

Me: Next, proceed to the front of the cabin. This will all be in zero G; will that be a problem?

Xena: No, Major.

Me: The console on the right is mine. When you press the first key the screen will light up. The keys are labeled in Roman pin yin and the screen shows the same. I think, rather than dictating to you, it would be best if I just type the commands into your notes.

Xena: Yes, I think so, Major. You'll change the password later, right?

Me: Xena, how did an animal pick up all this stuff?

Xena: The same way you did, Major: lots of hard work and hard experience with good teachers and good teammates.

Me: Hmm. At this point you have the emergency systems activated. Now someone took everything out of my pockets including my keys. You take the correct key with you and you insert it in the lock labeled ``probes'', and under the key slot are two covered buttons labeled ``launch''. But the labels are in Chinese characters; how do we handle that?

Xena: Here's the drawing program. Draw the two characters; use the trackball; and I'll paste the picture into the notes.

Me: I'm not used to this thing. How do I erase everything and start over?

Xena: The edit menu, select clear, and confirm it. But I want to jettison, not launch.

Me: Without targeting information the probes won't move, but the emergency override will allow the probes to be launched even so. That's how a jettison works. Then you'll use your own spacecraft to send them wherever you want.

Xena: We debated whether to put them into the sun or into Wotan, if you had nuclear weapons. We chose Wotan because they can be there in a few hours. Less chance of people changing their minds.

A straw-colored lion checks with the hei ren in back, then brings my key ring.

Me: Xena, this is the probe key. Do you have something you could attach it to so you don't lose it, like a string around your neck?

Xena: Could you do that, Jacinth? Just make a wire ring like what the Major has and clip the key to a scrap of plastic. Well, Major Tsun, I hope I'll be seeing you in about two hours.

Me: So do I, believe me. You know, you're very brave.

Xena: Thank you, Major.

Xena goes around to everyone in the area and hugs each one, coming last to the adults in back. The old hei ren woman cries and calls it ``brave kitten''. Then it marches resolutely over to the airlock, puts on its helmet, checks a bunch of stuff involving the hoses, collects the launch key from Jacinth, picks up its toolbox and computer, and cycles out the lock in its white underwear. Though I'm tempted to suggest that the suit is incomplete, I have a feeling that Xena is thorough enough, and the watchers are enough on their toes, to have caught a serious gaffe like that. A skintight suit! I've heard of them, and of course there's no capability to make anything else here, I guess. The spidery lander vanishes silently upward.

The key is a joke. General Sse Lang is so uppity about security, and insisted that everything have keys and passcodes. I didn't say a word. I just thought up a creative reason why a six-hour system check had to start at midnight, and about once an hour his job was to type a string of digits or to insert and turn one of his keys. Problem solved: he saw to it that subsequent midnight system checks could be handled entirely by his pilot.

Iris: Well. Nothing happens now for about forty minutes. General, it would be good use of our time to talk somewhat about your mission. We have all your press releases, plus reports from the Eridanus Corporation, and the adults have extensive experience planning their own mission, so we have a pretty good idea what you can and can't do with just two people, but we'd really like to hear it from you, not just our speculations. We're interested in the scientific goals too, to coordinate with what's already been accomplished and what's turned up that really ought to be investigated more, but we believe the main goal of your mission isn't scientific. Isn't that right?

Gen. Liu: You've blackmailed us of our sampling probes. What more do you want?

Valeria: You and we need to make decisions. The results will be a lot wiser if based on solid facts and frank disclosures than if we make guesses about your motivation and you wriggle around the truth.

Gen. Liu: I resent that. We have been perfectly frank with you.

Valeria: I'm the human representative in Gondor. That means I'm responsible for you two, and I'm also responsible for the unborn humans you've brought with you. They have to remain unborn. Undoubtedly you noticed when you woke up that you had gotten a massive radiation dose. Our estimate is that frozen embryos would suffer heavily: more than half would immediately die, something like forty percent of the survivors would have developmental defects that would kill them within a year of implantation, many of the survivors, like around thirty to sixty percent, would be in such bad shape that it would be unfair to force them to live, and of the remainder every one would have more or less developmental damage. As the human representative I forbid you to bring to life any genetic material you've brought from Earth through the radiation.

Gen. Liu: And who are you to forbid me anything?

Valeria: The human representative in Gondor.

What frozen embryos? I may not have known what was in the remote sampling probes, but I certainly would know about large quantities of frozen stuff. Freeze-dried, yes, but not frozen.

Me: Valeria, there are no frozen embryos. The coldest thing in our ship is our refrigerator. Xena can check that easily when she's up there.

Valeria: What? Then how did you plan to make your colony?

Gen. Liu: This is a purely scientific mission...

Valeria: Don't feed me that crap again! You don't have the workforce nor the training to do the science! Our four adults trained for five solid years to add to the skills they already had, and still thought themselves inadequate. What else could you do but colonize Njord? The New Workers' Paradise in the hinterlands of space, per your press release?

Gen. Liu: Don't lecture me, you ignorant naked primitive! Major, instruct Miss Naïve here in how the New Workers' Paradise is going to be populated.

Bright move, General Sse Lang, not sticking to your story. Well, I don't mind replying, too much; maybe it will throw the party into chaos.

Me: Once the necessary infrastructure is in place so that children could survive and grow in the New Workers' Paradise, I will get pregnant and bring them forth. You do know how that works, don't you, Valeria?

Valeria: What! Someone clue me in here, please: when the little colonist kittens grow up, who are they supposed to mate with? Dry worms?

Gen. Liu: From my loins will spring a mighty line of princes and princesses of the people!

Valeria: And it doesn't bother you that they'll be mating with each other?

Gen. Liu: Does that shock your bourgeois sensibilities?

Valeria: It shocks my training in genetic engineering! What do you do about homozygous loss of function? What do you do about adaptive variation?

Gen. Liu: What do you know about genetic engineering, with your ro dans bouncing in my face?

Valeria: Is this accurate, Major, that you intend to inbreed the whole population and neither of you has enough training in genetic engineering to know what's wrong with that, much less what to do about it?

Me: I grew up on a farm, and I do know that breeding offspring of the same parents can lead to trouble. I am, however, merely a major.

Valeria: I forbade you to bring to life any genetic material you brought from Earth. That includes the genetic material in your own bodies.

Gen. Liu: And just how do you think you're going to forbid that? Perhaps you'd like to join us on our ship, to be our chaperone.

I think General Sse Lang might not get as much pleasure out of that arrangement as he thinks, and I can also think of several other ways Valeria could enforce her demand that the General would like even less. Go, Valeria! Hmm, she's consulting in those handsigns with Tiger, the other adult lion, Iris and one of the beavers. It's not a short consultation, either.

Valeria: General Liu, when you leave here we won't have any direct hold over you, and thus we're going to take positive steps now to permanently enforce my ruling that you're not to bang out one deformed kitten after another. This is a surgical procedure that will cut the tube that your sperms must pass through. It's simple, with a high probability of being effective and a low probability of bad side effects. Titania, our medic, will do it under Simba's supervision.

Gen. Liu: What! I protest! I will not submit to being mutilated!

Iris: Just a moment, please. Can we put the vasectomy on hold for a second? Xena is having a problem carrying out the instructions. Here, Major, you can use my machine to talk to her.

Gen. Liu: I demand to settle this now!

Iris: You're not going to have a ship if we can't get those bombs off it. Think about it. Major?

I sit cross-legged with the computer on my lap.

Me: What do I do, just talk? Xena, can you hear me?

Xena: Yes, Major Tsun. I finished getting into emergency mode and the computer has the right messages. I got the key to fit in the lock, but when I pressed the buttons nothing happened with either.

Me: Damn! Why now of all times? Try this: turn the key back to the left, then turn it on again. Maybe several times. See if that helps.

Xena: Turn it?

Me: You didn't turn it?

Xena: No; you didn't tell me to.

Me: Gaah, what have I gotten myself into! Sorry, Xena; I just assumed you knew how a key works. Turn the key to the right making it vertical; then press the buttons one at a time.

From the speaker there's a loud noise, then another.

Xena: That seems to have done it. Thanks, Major.

Me: You're welcome, Xena. But I'm sorry; I'm going to use you as a trading chip for our freedom. You notice a keypad next to the inner airlock door? Guess which digit string doesn't open it.

Xena: I did notice it, Major. That was a good move. But someone can ride the second lander up here and let me out. Or if that doesn't work, I anticipated I might need a drill and a nibbler. It will be tiring for my wrists, but I can let myself out that way.

Me: 22441651. Got that?

Xena: Yes, thank you, Major. The door's open. I'll hang the probes on the tractor boards, and then I'll be down in about forty minutes.

Me: Safe journey, Xena. Iris, here's your computer back. I believe Valeria wanted to do an operation on the General and he was trying to work out an alternative.

Gen. Liu: The word is refuse, you animals!

Valeria: I don't see an alternative. I assume we'll have to sit on you and knock you out with pentobarbital. Right? Major Tsun, what's your position in this? Do we have to sit on you too?

Me (in Chinese): General, see if they'll let us go back to Earth instead.

Gen. Liu (in Chinese): They can't do this! I refuse!

Me: Remember the arm twist? We've felt the youngest creatures doing it. Suppose the older ones get into the act? My basic training included moves like that, but a lot more brutal. They work, believe me. Valeria can slice your balls by force, whatever you do. Don't doubt it.

Gen. Liu (in English): Let's work out a compromise. We'll take your advice that there would be genetic problems with our colonists, and we'll return to Earth. Without the operation.

Valeria: Are you serious? Huh?

Gen. Liu: Certainly. It's a very reasonable proposal.

Valeria: So how do you plan to return to Earth?

Gen. Liu: The same way we got here: in our starship. That's what a starship is for, to travel to another star.

Valeria: In eleven months? Miss Naïve at least knows that if you split for Earth it's certain death for you. Come on, General Liu; we let you in that ship and you're going to be off to who knows where, and we don't have the time or the spacecraft to chase all over the system to keep an eye on you, and you're going to try to survive on your own, and somehow I don't see you, General, as the type to refrain from mating with Major Tsun for the rest of your probably short life to save your potential kittens from the harm of existing. Give a little rational thought to your options, and ours.

Me: Just a minute, General; I think we're missing something here. Valeria, why is it certain death if we return to Earth?

Valeria: Because when your power goes off in eleven months you'll not be able to stop at Sol; you'll just sail through intergalactic space until the end of time. Unless you hit something, like Earth.

Me: We have power for seventeen more years, in case of an emergency return.

Valeria: No, you don't. Your people gave you a one-way ticket, not a round trip.

Tiger: That's the absolute truth. Our people on Earth, the Eridanus Corporation, blackmailed the Imperial Chinese government to honor the Maoists' commitment to you, which turned out to be for a little over seventeen Earth years, not 33. Be glad you're even here!

Gen. Liu: That's a lie! My father wouldn't do that!

Imperial Chinese? Surely not the mandate of heaven crap again?

Tiger: Believe what you want. Valeria's judgment is correct. You're not leaving here with your sperm tubes. And I want some serious discussion of what you will do when you leave here, and some way we can assure ourselves without a lot of work that you're doing it and not something else that's going to end up harming us.

Gen. Liu: I'll die before I yield to mutilation! Major! Form a defensive circle!

I get to my feet but one of the lions steps between me and the General. I turn my hands palm out, as a sign of noncombatance.

Me: Sorry, General, they're preventing me.

Valeria: Is that an acceptable alternative? Death? I'll do whichever you ask of these two: kill you or knock you out for the operation.

Gen. Liu: I'll die before I yield!

Valeria: Does anyone object? Iris? Tiger? Major Tsun, is this truly what he wants, given the alternative? Do you object?

Me: Valeria, the General would rather die than let you... do what you said. It would be hard for me to bear also. I think the General is making the right choice.

Valeria: Done.

And she strikes for his eyes with one hand; he easily slaps it away. But he's not paying attention to the other hand, which lightly touches the side of his neck. Scarlet blood gushes down his tunic. He realizes what's happened and defends, but he just opens up his other side, which Valeria opens up with her magic touch. What is this? Mo guey, demons from Hell? General Sse Lang collapses in a heap: celibate, killed by one of the nubile demon females he lusted after. Great job, Valeria!

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