General Sse Lang is dead of a demon's spell. At last I'm rid of him, if only for a moment! But now it's my turn. I kneel, sitting on my heels. I imagine saliva dripping from the fangs of the audience all around, giving off that insectile stink that around here is always just below the level of consciousness.
Me: Valeria, I'll die with dignity now.
Valeria: No! You don't have to die.
Me: Well, what future do I have? If I go back to Earth I'm a flying corpse, flying forever. You can let me go back up to my ship and I can live there until I use up all the oxygen or go mad, whichever comes first. What you did to the General looks pretty nice to me right now.
Valeria: I'll kill you if you ask, but please, not now. Spend a day with us, OK? At least we have to do the death ceremony for General Liu, and you have to show us what to do.
Me: A funeral. OK, I'll do as you ask, but I'll hold you to your promise, Valeria. Could I go somewhere else, away from that corpse? Away from all these eyes?
Valeria: Certainly. Come on. I think I'm going to have to make a box to put the General in, so I'll be working in dome one. Do you want to be with me or away from me?
Me: I'll come with you.
There's a brief handsign conversation between Valeria and Iris; then we get out of there. I meant what I said: what's my future now? My mission, such as it was, is a pile of dead meat back in that dome. My unit, my People's Liberation Army, is defeated. My China is given over to superstitious, nepotistic idiots (not that the people's high cadres were a whole lot better). My homeworld is forever beyond my reach; I was betrayed by my own people. The animals are going to take Sse Lang out to the garbage pile and I'm going to lay down on top of him, an ironic role reversal, and plunge a knife into my heart, unless Valeria keeps her promise and does her touch thing for me.
The tunnel is pitch black, which doesn't seem to bother Valeria, but the little I can see at the entrance seems competently made of cast concrete and arched blocks. Not a dirt floor here, though dirt has been tracked in and the floor is swept considerably less frequently than daily. I can follow Valeria against the light ahead seeping under the double door at the other end. Dome one has potted plants around the perimeter, more than in dome two, but quite a large open area in the center. There are four mats (laptop computers are laid out on one) and a plastic box with a computer on it and several cabinets to the side, and some bins and racks of assorted supplies.
Valeria: Oh, the workbenches are all in dome two for the lunch! Which it looks like we're not going to get to eat. I'll just have to work on Simba's desk; he won't be pleased. Here, Major Tsun: you just lay on Tiger's mat. She won't mind; she's not that territorial.
I sit, not lay, while Valeria puts the computer and assorted knickknacks on the adjacent mat.
Me: What time is it for you? We had trouble to figure out your times.
Valeria: A little after third hour. Lunch is two hours late.
Me: Oh! You should eat, then.
Valeria: Well, here's what I figured. It wouldn't be right to have a banquet with the General flopped there on the rug. First we have to have the death ceremony and send him wherever he's going, and for that to happen, I need to get busy and make a box to put him in. That's how Chinese do it, right?
Me: Well, yes.
Actually I'd thought to ask how they dispose of garbage here, but my political good sense holds me back from that gaffe.
Valeria: Oh, stupid me! I don't know how big he is. Will you be OK here while I go and measure him?
Me: Yes, I'll be OK here.
She runs off with a steel measuring tape, minus its case. Aah! It's been two years since I got grabbed by General Sse Lang, climaxing in a full month during which I was never more than a meter from some appendage of his disgusting self. To be alone! To be unthreatened! I wish I could just stay here forever! I'll enjoy it while I can on Tiger's mat, for it won't last. And here's Valeria again. She roots through a rack of plastic sheets standing on edge.
Actually, deadly Valeria doesn't break my feeling of peace. With her and with Xena, however much I may think of fur bedspreads or demon death, I feel I'm in competent hands. Astronauts work as teams, and we have to depend on each other, and that feeling of confidence in others is something I've missed a great deal in the last two years.
Valeria: These pieces are big enough.
Really odd, her technique. She flops the larger thick sheet onto the desk, then gets out a small bottle and a smaller brush. It's for writing! Apparently they don't have pencils, even for craft work. She unrolls her tape and paints a tiny dot on the plastic, then another, and then a sequence connecting them, guided by the tape. Now she takes from an adjacent cabinet a contraption like nothing I've ever seen. She flicks a switch: evidently it's battery powered. She holds the sheet down with her knee and leg, holds the heavy-looking machine at arm's length, and supports the free edge of the plastic with her other hand. And the device chews the plastic; she guides it along the dots. Being a farm girl I've helped my father make repairs, and I come over and help hold the sheet; Valeria thankfully uses two hands on the cutter. Valeria has muscles, to work that machine one-handed.
Getting myself into that position to hold a plastic sheet with my knee is not something I'd do while naked, particularly while being watched by someone I didn't know. But apparently people here lack any idea of modesty, just as they lack pencils. Hmm, what happened to Valeria's toenails? And fingernails? Probably some fungus disease or a deformity; I'll probably never know because it's going to be hard to phrase the question in a way that won't be embarrassing.
Valeria: Thanks, Major. It's hard cutting sheets alone. That was the top, and now I'll just mark and cut the bottom.
Me: You're welcome. Could I ask a question?
Valeria: Certainly. Could you hold the sheet again, please?
Me: Got it. When you killed the General, I didn't see any weapon. How did you do it? I'd feel a little more peaceful if I know what will happen.
Valeria: I used my claw. Were you a mated pair? We weren't sure from the press releases, but we thought perhaps you weren't, that the pairing was supposed to happen here at epsilon Eridani.
Me: Um, no, um. Your claw. People don't have claws.
Valeria: This person does. Hang on a minute; there; the sheet is cut through. Now look here at my claws. Oh, it's all bloody; I never washed my hands; I wasn't thinking! Just a minute while I clean myself. I'm sorry.
Me: Just what are you, Valeria? Are you a mo guey?
Valeria: I don't know what that is; we know almost no Chinese. I'm a 'uomi. 'Uomi have claws.
Me: Then you're not a person? You're an animal? Or are you a demon?
Valeria: Oh! I, well, I'm not that good on social things and I didn't think again. You couldn't know about 'uomi because the signals hadn't reached Earth when you were launched. I know what a demon is and I'm not a demon. By our definition an animal is, well, most animals run around and most plants and fungi don't, and we're animals, all of us including you. By our definition a person is someone who can do the kinds of things we do. We think the key is symbols, using words and writing, but nobody's completely sure. In any case, we're people too, including you.
Me: So why do you look human?
Valeria: Simba made us that way so the Earth humans could identify with us, and we with them. The adults didn't have the resources to make real humans, so they made fake humans. They thought that having only lions on Thor would be very bad psychologically and there would be hostility between us and Earth, so they added the other species, particularly us 'uomi.
Me: That's... Chinese people would never do that.
Valeria: Why not? I think it's cool to have lots of species. We're going to make dolphin people when we have an ocean to put them in, and raccoons, and bears, and maybe something else. There should be two ocean species.
Me: May I see your claws again?
Valeria: Yes, here, a whole handful. But let's not stay away too long from the job, because people are waiting for this box, not least of which is General Liu.
Me: They're so beautiful, so white, but so deadly.
Valeria: They're opal; all my hard parts like bones are opal. OK, I'm going to mark the sides of the box. The ends will come from the scrap that's on the ground.
Me: What about the two hei ren, the old adults?
Valeria: They aren't 'uomi; they're human, same as you.
Hei ren are not the same as me; they're far below han; but politically I think it prudent not to state the obvious.
Me: Are you their child?
Valeria: Oh, you thought that because I've taken their form. No, that's out of loyalty to them; the human representative ought to look like our own humans, shouldn't she? All the young people are new creations assembled from genomic material in digital form. Simba took some shortcuts so the job could be finished in a reasonable time, using the adults' own somatic cells, but they were cross-checked extensively and damaged regions were patched. I'll bet you thought I was being hypocritical, forbidding you and the General from begetting. The various problems we discussed are real, and our adults were very concerned and did their best, successfully, to work around them. OK, that's the last piece; now I have to straighten the edges. A couple of slices to get started...
A shapeshifter? But she's so perfectly formed! And she's so solid as she slides a block plane across the edges of the plastic sheets. What is she? Person? Animal? Mo guey? All three? And Xena, is it truly an it?
Me: Valeria, I've been thinking of Xena as ``it''. Am I making a mistake?
Xena: I'm here, Major. Here's your key back. And thanks for the clear instructions. I'm really sorry I had to handle you roughly and I'm even more sorry General Liu ended up dead. I just heard the story.
Me: Don't feel guilty, either of you. We deserved the rough handling, and the General knew his options and chose what I think was the right one.
Xena: Thank you, Major. Maybe smiling faces won't appear today but I hope we can get to be friends soon. Were you asking a question about me when I came in?
Me: I've just learned that Valeria isn't what I thought. Maybe you aren't what I thought either. I'm having trouble asking the question. I'd be angry if someone asked that kind of question about me.
Xena: In combat simulations I've found it's better to find out what's real and take damage doing it, than to not know and to take more damage later from ignorance.
Me: OK, Xena, here goes. You don't look like me; you look like a furry, spotted animal. My definition: not a person. But obviously you're not a person; well, by my definition again. I'm confused; help me out. I'm not used to talking animals. Actually, I'm not really used to any foreigners: non-Chinese.
Xena: We're not used to anybody new. Let me try to understand your question. Well, it's certainly true that Valeria and I are a lot closer genetically to the dry worms than to the humans, but how should you treat us? Like a dry worm, or like another human? I think all of us rate human-type treatment.
Me: Well, when you put it that way... I'll stop treating you like a worm. From now on I'll say... Well, what sex are you anyway?
Xena: Female: she.
Me: OK, you're a she. How do you tell, anyway?
Xena: The scent. When we practice rolls or bar work, sometimes you can see someone's vagina, but the scent is always there. Smell my shoulder.
Me: It's a distinctive smell, not too bad.
Valeria: Now smell under my arm.
Valeria: No, really! I know humans sometimes, or usually, smell really bad there, but my scent is nice. Other Novanima like Xena have their scent glands on the top of the shoulder so you naturally smell it when you hug.
Me: OK. There's a similarity.
Valeria: Allspice is for females, and cinnamon for males.
Me: Sorry, I don't know those English words. They're foods, right?
Valeria: Yes, you put them in food. Could you two hold while I glue? Careful not to touch the glue because it's hard to get off your hands and fur.
This place is fascinating. It makes my skin crawl. Chinese people don't mutilate their bodies; they don't mutilate their genetic material either. But Valeria acts so normal, so human. I wonder what other little surprises lurk under that dusky skin. And she's totally unashamed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to show her claws to the visitor, to have me smell her armpit, to let me and the late Skirt Wolf view every secret part of her body. And Xena: if I mentally erase the fur and draw in a pair of tits, Xena could be my own little sister when I went away to basic training. Are they people, or cute, deadly talking animals? They talk to me like I'm one of them. What do I think? I don't know what to think.
Maybe if they'll let me, I'll take an extra day to satisfy my curiosity, before asking Valeria to kill me.
Valeria: Thanks; the string around the box will hold it. The glue dries fast. Now I'll just glue some spacers on the lid so it doesn't slide. We'll close the box with a piece of polyimide reinforced strip glued around it. So I'll need to file off the corners; the bend radius can't be too small. And we'll need spacers so the rope sling won't slip off. I'll just cut those out while the glue finishes drying. We're almost done. Hey, is it customary to put the person's name on the lid? If so, you'll have to do it, because I don't know Chinese.
Me: It's been a long time since I've done any mao bi, but if you have a brush and some paint I'll do my best.
She comes up with a larger jar of black paint and a foam brush which is probably used for painting the furniture. My teacher in elementary school would cringe, but I get the job done. I have an impulse to inscribe ``Colonel General Sse Lang'', but these people are somehow trying to give the General a good funeral however much he must have annoyed them, and I catch Valeria's spirit and write his right name.
Valeria: That looks cool. OK, now what do we do in a Chinese death ceremony? I'm supposed to work with you and take the lead in our part of it.
Me: Well, a lot of peasant families would burn incense and pray to whatever gods they believe in, but General Liu is much too correct a communist for that kind of thing. The normal procedure is that his friends and associates get together and tell stories about him and get drunk. I think that last part might not be appropriate for you.
Valeria: You say good words about him, maybe? Do the stories have to be long? If not, I can say something. I didn't know him that well, after all.
Me: I think that would be nice, Valeria.
Valeria: OK, then, let's do it. Well, let's get all the parts together first: the sealing strips, the glue, a small tractor board, a dropoff hook, and I think about six meters of rope should do it. Rope, rope, here's a piece long enough. We're getting low on rope; someone needs to make more. We'll take the box to dome two, put the General in it, have the speeches, bring him through here so we can use the cargo lock, and launch him. Oh, that's a minor detail: where do you want us to launch him to? Or do you want him buried? I just assumed we'd send him into the sun; we all decided that was where we wanted to go if we were killed.
Me: Could you send him to the same place the nuclear bombs went? After all, he really was attached to them.
Valeria: Sure, no problem.
Let's keep all the garbage in one place, people. I deserve that little bit of revenge.
The funeral is prim, proper and brief. The young critters, who have been sitting around at the banquet tables doing something on computers, all gather on the open side of the curtain to listen. I give the longest eulogy, not that long since there isn't all that much good you can say about Sse Lang. Valeria says that the General had a vision of what he wanted to do with his life, and however much they may have disagreed with his plan, she intends to emulate his dedication. How sweet she makes it sound, not having lived with the reality. Tiger's slant on the situation is that Sse Lang gave his life as an example for the young animals; she carefully papers over the fact that the lesson is about stupidity that the young animals should avoid. There's something about killing Iris which confuses me and doesn't seem to bother Iris, who seems to be alive, and Tiger concludes by asking everyone to hug General Liu's spirit as we say goodbye to him. That's not my style and I'm sure he'd be disgusted too. But they all mean well and they've done their best to put on a nice funeral, for which I thank them. Verbally, not just in my mind.
The launch is an eye-opener for me. They have a spare helmet and tank assembly which they lend me. At first I was going to balk and insist on getting into my own suit, but I thought that if I were going to request death in a day or two anyway, why should I be over-cautious about using equipment I didn't know? And having seen Valeria at work, I have just a little more respect now for the manufacturing technology around here.
It turns out that the tractor board is a self-contained spacecraft, eight pusher chips glued to a piece of plastic about half a meter square. Ropes from the corners connect to an iron ring, which the remotely controlled dropoff hook is clipped onto if needed. The six-meter rope is tied at each end around the coffin and it loops through the jaw of the hook. The critters use this setup all the time to bring in cement, to take pallets of plants to remote locations, and to carry supplies and products up and down from the little space station they've built centered on their starship. Valeria uses an interface from her computer to carefully test that the chips on the tractor board are putting out balanced force, and that the hook will open under load when they ask it to. Then, up goes the General. For form's sake I stand at attention and salute. And it's over. My life in Hell with General Sse Lang is over! Too bad my life minus Sse Lang is almost over too.
Valeria (on the helmet speaker): Well, Major Tsun, what would you think about going in and getting some lunch?
Me: Yes, Valeria, that would be very appropriate. Let's see if I can work your airlock by myself this time.
Valeria: Excuse me, teammate; could I go through next to stay with the Major? Some people could go in through dome two and the other domes too. You don't all have to crowd around dome one. OK, I'm in; next person's turn. Major, disconnect the hose at the back and just put the helmet on the rack; see what I do. I'll leave my stuff here and get it later; Tiger won't mind. Come on; they'll be serving the food.
The stove thingies have been keeping the food hot for the last three or four hours, and the naked boys and their jaguar teammates are shoveling everything into serving bowls. I'm shown to a central seat at an actual table with attached benches. To my right are Iris and Tiger; to my left are Valeria and Xena; and across are the striped adult lion, the two hei ren, one of the beavers who was introduced but whose name I can't remember, and another young lion. Same as at home, the event begins with speeches, to allow the food to get good and cold.
Tiger: As mission commander I'd like to welcome Major Tsun to our colony in Gondolin. It wasn't easy getting to this point, and I commend all of you, including the Major, for carrying out your duties with care, courage and courtesy. I'm afraid, Major, that your future is somewhat different now than when you came down here, but we want you to remember your visit with us as something positive. If there's anything we can do to help you through your troubles, please discuss it with us. I'm not committing in advance to a blank check, but there's a lot we can and will do. And right now I'd be surprised if the request weren't for me to shut up and let you eat this delicious food!
Amazing! I was dug in for at least fifteen minutes of boredom. This Tiger impresses me.
Me: Thank you, Commander, for welcoming me after all that's happened. You're right, my future looks rather limited, but you and your, um, people have put some bright spots in what could have been a totally awful day. I'd like to praise Xena in particular for handling a rather dangerous mission in a strange ship, mine, with courage and grace. And I'm going to keep to local custom and keep my speech short. Thank you.
There's polite clapping; Valeria and the two hei ren smile at me, and others around the table display teeth as well. I'm presented with the first serving bowl: steamed rice, well done. My rice bowl: I stop as I'm about to fill it, for it's beautiful celadon, but with a black line decoration no Chinese ever made. To avoid holding up the party I cover the decorations with rice and turn to a plate of do fu in some sauce I suspect is American. There are several vegetables including eggplant with garlic and tomato. All I've seen so far has been monk food: no meat. Next are the spring rolls: unfortunately, soggy from being held for hours before being served. If prepared traditionally they're monk food too.
Iris: Major, they aren't egg rolls, just regular spring rolls. We have no eggs, nor chickens. The person lied when he announced lunch.
Me: Oh. Now I remember; I was getting hungry and looking forward to the banquet. Was that a signal that our arms were to be twisted?
Iris: Right. Nobody here could mistake the reference to eggs as being real, but you were likely to think it ordinary. We understand the Chinese slang for ``bomb'' is ``egg''. Is that right?
Me: Yes, a good joke on us. The food is delicious. If I don't eat a lot the problem is with my stomach, not the food. We've just been eating solids for a day and a half.
Iris: Oh! From the radiation, right? You moved fast. When the adults arrived here they spent two weeks hanging in space way far out, recovering, reconfiguring the ship, starting plants growing, and scanning telescopically for a comet. How bad was your radiation?
Me: About fifteen grays, according to the dosimeters.
Tiger: We got 25. Evidently the radiation bands move around. When we have the resources we should send out some probes to study them.
Me: Commander, what really was your mission at epsilon Eridani?
Tiger: Just call me Tiger. I may have fangs but I'm not military. Just a li'l ole chip designer from a backwater planet in a low-rent spiral arm, giggle! The mission was pure adventure. The mission was to put some adventure back into my people. Of course you don't come all this way and say, OK, here we are; we've seen it; now let's go home. We had a bunch of very definite scientific goals and we worked hard to learn how to accomplish them, and I think we did a pretty good job even if the mission plan got switched on us kind of early. You probably saw the plans, but the results arrived after you were launched.
Me: That's right. We had a lot of trouble understanding some aspects of the mission. Xena told me that around here you ask questions and deal with the consequences, so I'll ask the question: why was this particular crew picked, rather than four Americans?
Tiger: And deal with the consequences: good advice, Xena. One of the consequences is going to be that I'll ask you the same question later. And understand, Major, your question has a lot of emotional charge in it leading off in about four different directions: check out Willie opposite you, smirking. I'm not jumping on you for bringing it up; it's something you need to know about us. I'll answer you straight. I'm here because I'm at the nexus: the chips in the tail of your ship and mine, in the sundippers that used to power them, and all over: those chips are mine. These clawed hands and this bashed-in brain invented them. The day we measured that CQMT had infinite range, two centimeters, I predicted that we'd turn it into a starship, and I made a vow that I'd be on that ship; and what Tiger Leones wants, she gets. I knew how projects like ours work, and that I couldn't just naïvely expect someone, some government agency to do it for me; it had to be under my leadership. So I assembled the economic power to accomplish my goal: the Eridanus Corporation. I'm dead now, but while alive I was its president and its whole reason for existence. Are you with me so far?
Me: You don't look dead. Iris doesn't look dead either.
Tiger: Sorry to confuse you. We adults, it's an obscure point of American law, being legally dead. Now...
Me: Just a second. We always thought it was imperialist smoke and mirrors, the story about how CQMT was invented, some obscure stratagem not to our advantage. You're saying it was the literal truth, that the bioengineered creature discovered it?
Tiger: The literal truth. This creature discovered it. Actually, this creature blundered into it by accident, but I had the agility of mind to see beyond the multi-million dollar hit in the earnings and to see that we could do something with the effect once we got rid of it on our computer chip. Now on to Simba. I may say Tiger did this and Tiger did that, and it's true that I'm the nexus, but Simba and Willie and Wilma were right there with me, keeping us focused on what was important and keeping each other's spirits up when things were dragging and doing just as much work as I did. Simba is my dearest mate, and of course we belong together, and we were, from the first day. As for Willie and Wilma, we had some simple criteria. We needed four people. More took too much resources; fewer couldn't do the work. It had to be someone we were confident we could work with, and it pretty much had to be a mated pair. Willie and Wilma were ideal. I've never regretted choosing them, and I think they've never regretted getting tangled up with me.
Wilma: That's right. By the way, Major, in American custom and law we are Americans, and so are Tiger and Simba. Also, when we left we made a speech which Tiger delivered, in which we told people to think of us not as American representatives but as representatives of all Terrans. I think that's an important point, that we aren't a political mission.
Me: Oh. Sorry.
Willie: We were wondering about your crew composition. We wondered a lot, and having seen you and General Liu in action we wonder a lot more.
Me: Iris was right about our mission plan. The mission, by the way, was definitely political. We planned to go directly into orbit around New Paradise, survey to pick a spot, and go right down and found our Chinese colony. The plan didn't quite work out, did it? As for the crew, General Liu has some characteristics in common with you, Tiger: seeing the imperialists get all the glory from exploring the stars, he vowed to do you one better: to take the stars for China. And what Liu Kai wants, he gets, with some help from his father the Interior Minister. Now founding a colony takes a male and a female, and he needed a pilot, a female pilot, and I was the best with the right gender, and not bad looking as a bonus.
Beaver: Tiger and Simba handled the psychological aspects differently.
Me: I'm sorry, I'm sure you've been introduced but I missed your name. And sex.
Beaver: I'm Selen: male. I'm the psychologist trainee around here.
Me: The psychology on this mission has been pretty brutal, I'm afraid.
Selen: They spent five years, their whole training period, living on an exercise mat to simulate the crowding on the ship and to work out psychological problems. That's Thor years.
Me: That's a good idea, if you have a congenial crew.
Selen: So you weren't actually a mated pair. Your situation is hard on you but it would be a lot worse if we'd killed your mate. We wondered which of us might be killed and how we'd cope with it.
Me: The General and I weren't married, no. There was a legal formality but I didn't take it seriously. I'm sorry to say it, but you're right that killing was on the agenda.
Iris: We don't like that, of course, and we'd like that kind of thing to be over. What do you think? Do you have plans to finish the job?
Me: No. Killing any of you gets me nothing, and you've shown me kindness when you really should throw me on the garbage heap with the General.
Iris: I'm really glad the killing's over. The threat was putting a lot of pressure on us, particularly the mated pairs. And on the kindness issue, we feel better being nice to you than nasty. We'd like to put together a good relation with you, Major. And folk dances and some good food, slightly overcooked, are supposed to get that relation started.
Me: Thank you, Iris, for forgiving me. However long I'm going to be here, I'll do my part. And let's not get too maudlin, OK; let's change the subject. The rice bowl I was given is beautiful! The glaze is Chinese but I don't recognize the decoration style. Where did you get it?
Selen: Why, thank you! I made it, and my mate Titania did the decoration. It's her personal bowl. We don't have many of the good bowls because we have to make the clay. I gather regolith from a specific place that has the right composition, smash it up in a ball mill for several days, and then cook it with water at high pressure and temperature for a month. Oh, hi, Titania; did you hear? The Major likes your bowl.
Another beaver has materialized at my elbow with a dish.
Titania: Thank you, Major. I heard you mention about the radiation sickness, and I thought you might have trouble to enjoy all this food, so Jacinth and I boiled some rice into shi fan with a few bits from the other dishes added to give interest.
Me: Oh, thank you! I've wished for shi fan. It's impossible to make in the ship; in zero G the liquid just foams up and goes all over everywhere. Oh, it's good; I like it with bits of do fu like this. You actually make do fu here? You couldn't very well go down to the market, I guess.
Jacinth: It's not that much work but you have to start it ahead of time, soaking the soybeans and then squeezing out the juice and making it gel.
Me: Markets are comforting. I shudder to think, if the colony had worked out and I'd been stuck there, we would have gone through our Earth supplies and there wouldn't have been any more. No mushrooms, forever.
Tiger: You have mushrooms? What kinds?
Me: Black mushrooms, wood ears...
Tiger: You have wood ears? I propose a trade. Figure out what we can do for you, and your exchange is as many kinds of mushrooms as you care to part with, starting with the wood ears. We'll extract the DNA, repair it, and grow the things!
Me: Valeria has promised me a gift. I won't be needing the mushrooms after that; I'll give them all to you. Consider it a fair trade.
Tiger: I do want to talk with you about your plans for the future, not necessarily today, but I thank you for your generosity.
Other Lion: I'm Lucent, Iris' mate. Just as a joke, suppose we wanted to pop over to Earth to bring back some mushrooms. What would it take? We have two starships in working condition. How much power does it take to run one?
Me: About two and a half trillion watts.
Lucent: I'm not familiar with English numerical scaling. Can you say that in E format? 2.5e something?
Me: 2.5e12 watts.
Lucent: And Tiger, how about the sundippers? How many would it take?
Tiger: The cost goes mainly by the chip area. Our own collection was 5.4e6 square meters. My understanding was that the Chinese had about the same area, so you must be pushing them harder. That shortens their life. I don't recommend it.
Lucent: Now, how long would it take us to make that many chips? Hmm. Ten centimeters square. Multiplying. We could do it in sixteen years.
Tiger: But remember that we'd need factories specialized to assemble them, because I'm sure the standard butterfly packages wouldn't hold up to that punishment. And the equipment on the ground is even more expensive, with the heat exchangers and all that. It's a nice planning exercise but it isn't really practical.
Me: Forgive my ignorance, but we didn't notice very many chip factories as we were descending.
Tiger: Oh! You weren't looking in the right direction. We have an extensive system of orbiting automated factories. You were supposed to avoid hitting them as you came in.
Me: The debris was orbiting factories? The Workers' Paradise, right here! Or the Workers' Unemployment Line, I don't know which.
Tiger: The former, we hope. We look forward to showing off what we've accomplished.
Bare breasted on dirt floors. My assumptions seem frangible today.
Me: So did you bring your sundippers from Earth, or did you make them here?
Tiger: They would have been made here, but actually we never did get around to making any. We run this place on a very small fraction of the power of falling water. Falling from Freyja, that's the third planet, to here.
Lucent: Could that power the starship? I worked on our periodic report this time so I know the figures: 1.1e10 kilos of water per year, and growing fast. Willie, do you...
Willie: Not enough. The way you're calculating it comes out to about a fifth what's needed, but remember that half of it comes up from Wotan. We'd have to reconfigure the chip routes so it all came from Freyja, and there would be less water and less power, about two thirds. But we're churning out chips and factories day and night, Major Tsun, and if you could wait here for maybe ten years, we could get you home.
Valeria, tears streaming: Oh, no! Oh, no! I screwed up royally! I thought I'd done so well and I didn't think and I made the biggest mistake! And I can't go back.
Me: What's wrong, Valeria? If I went to Earth what would be screwed up? For you, I mean.
Valeria: I was responsible for the General and I killed him when I didn't have to!
Me: Don't shed so many tears for the General, Valeria. I knew him well, and he isn't worth it.
Valeria: No, Major, I was responsible and I (sob) failed in my responsibility. I should have sent him home, not killed him.
Me: Look, Valeria, I'm going to tell you a couple of things. First, what do you think the General would have been doing for that ten years? He would have been after my tail and yours and that stunning blonde demon at the other table. If you hadn't stuck a claw into him out of pure annoyance, I certainly would have. But ignoring that, he would have gotten me pregnant if you hadn't done the ball-slicing thing, and he would have refused. Nothing would have been different if you had known about Willie's calculation; the General would still be dead. You understand?
Valeria: (Sniff) I understand, but that doesn't make it any less my screwup. I was responsible.
Me: That's the second thing I wanted to say. In the Astronaut Corps we have lives on the line and some pretty expensive spacecraft and payloads. We plan and we do training, but there's never enough time and resources to do everything. We have to do the best we can with what's available, and go up there and deal with it. And sometimes we screw up, and sometimes when we come down we can see that if we had just thought of one little thing, or practiced one little move, we would have been heroes rather than on the carpet in front of the Colonel or worse. That's part of responsibility: doing your best and taking action, knowing that sometimes it won't be good enough. Look, Valeria, I think you did a pretty good job handling the General. Nobody would have thought to steal power from, I'm not even sure where, and feed it to our starship! Your Tiger didn't even think of it; you shouldn't kick yourself like you're doing because you missed it. Don't you agree?
Valeria: Well, I have to live with it, whatever anyone says.
Me: That happens a lot, doesn't it?
Tiger: Major Tsun is right, Valeria. And thank you, Major, for a lesson that I don't have the people skills to give. Valeria, we all have to live with decisions that were bad. Remember the comet impact, what happened to Iris? And should you even exist? It's been loads of fun having you, but our decision to create you and commit you to replant this planet might turn out in the end to be a lot worse disaster than killing a Chinese general who didn't have the guts to take a simple precaution for the sake of his children. The lesson for you is, yes, you have to live with it, and you don't have to like it, but you're not alone. Now dry your tears. Excuse me, Major.
And she reaches a hairy black arm across in front of Iris and me like a tarantula's limb, except I can trace muscles under the fur, stronger than my own, which are not insignificant. Valeria sniffs once and wipes her eyes thoroughly on the back of the hairy hand. Then she puts on a determined expression.
Valeria: Thank you, Tiger. I'm steady. And thank you, Major, for sharing your experience with me.
Me: You're welcome, Valeria. I'd like to say something about returning to Earth. Thank you for your offer; I doubt I'd be so generous to a defeated enemy. But let's think about what would happen if I took it. If the counterrevolutionaries got their hands on me they'd try me as a communist brigand, and I'd suffer for days before they finally killed me. That's what generally happened to officers in the last counterrevolution. If I were able to take refuge in an imperialist country I'd be treated as a pariah. I'd survive; I'm adaptable and I can learn capitalist ways; but I'd be excluded from any trust and I'd never do anything close to my potential and I'd regret it every day of my life. I rate returning to Earth better than locking myself into my ship and suffocating or going mad, but not very much better. So thanks, but no thanks.
Tiger: Actually you'd be surprised what's waiting for you on Earth. You remember we told you that the Eridanus Corporation blackmailed the Imperial Chinese? Part of the agreement was that we, not they, took complete responsibility for you and the General. We took that agreement seriously. You're employees of the Eridanus Corporation, and if you return to Earth you'll find that you've both been receiving the same salary Willie and Wilma got, and our Claude has been holding it in trust for you, and you're the General's heir, at least as to the accumulated salary, unless there's a will that Claude didn't tell us about. And if you don't feel like living a life of ease on the income from your capitalist lucre, Claude is supposed to find work for you in the Corporation, which shouldn't be hard given your skills and our interests. And another thing. If I weren't dead I'd be your commanding officer. What do you think of that? What would the General have thought of that?
Me: That's... a lot to digest at once. Do you mind if I give it a little thought?
Tiger: No problem; there's lots of time. Hmm, not everyone has all the time in the world. Xena, would you come over here for a private conversation?
Those creepy handsigns again at the end of the table, but they keep their hands low. The hei ren woman smirks; evidently she can see what others can't. Then Valeria is questioned. She nods her head in agreement several times. Tiger sends her back to her seat with a swat on the butt.
Tiger: We've been in a pretty heavy mood for a celebratory banquet and I'd like to spread a little joy now. 'Uomi and jaguars, you've all been sexually mature for varying lengths of time, except for Xena who's about one month from the official event according to the most recent blood test. The reason the 'uomi aren't paired up is that we had to get through today to know which people were going to be available as mates. Major Tsun isn't going to kill anyone, so the condition is ended. And, all the goings-on today have pretty well mixed up the sexes and introduced people who didn't meet to each other. I suggest that you update your biographies this afternoon and tonight, and do mate selection tomorrow. What do you think?
Naked Boy: Yes! I want to!
Jaguar (I can't tell what sex): Yes, if it will work for the person at your table.
Xena: I feel ready; Tiger asked me first. Let's do it.
Valeria: But who's going to look after the Major?
Selen: The four of us will keep her entertained. It's late; we and the lions will see to washing dishes and straightening up this area. The Major is important but so is your life, and we're here for you and for her.
Iris: Let's plan on a light dinner late, about ninth hour, which I'll organize. In fact, our cycles are all confused and I'm feeling a little full to eat the squash pie. Let's eat it then when we'll really enjoy it and the Major's stomach has had some rest. Agreed? Tiger, do you have anything more? No? Then let's get to our jobs.