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Chapter 20: Otter Chase

Over objections of the critters, the lions and beavers, I do my share of dishwashing. We don't have maid service on space missions! Afterward the beavers (I've learned all their names) take me on a tour of the colony's exterior, leading downhill toward their river. The light from the gas giant is quite adequate for a tour, much brighter than moonlight.

Mica (on the helmet speaker): This is our river, Sirion. You can see the big snow pile about five hundred meters downstream, but this section is fed by a pile about a kilometer up that way, you can just see it through those rocks, so the water can warm up before it goes into the pool. Someday we'll be able to swim anywhere in the river, when we get an oxygen atmosphere. We're water creatures, and we really look forward to a proper water environment.

Me: It's a pleasant little stream. But this water is coming all the way from the outer gas giant? That's hard to believe.

Night: Actually about half comes up from Wotan, to balance the power usage. I guess we've grown up in this place so it all feels kind of normal to us. But really, Mica, hasn't Sirion grown? I can remember when it was just a trickle and it ended just beyond that pool.

Mica: Yes, we're just getting more and more chip factories. Here, Major: this is our destination. This is where we can swim.

Me: Maybe it would be better if you swim and I watch. I didn't exactly bring proper swimming clothes.

Titania: Neither did we! But do what you enjoy. Go ahead, go through the airlock and get your helmet off. Oh, don't sit quite that close; we tend to splash.

Selen: Otter chase! Otter chase!

And he leaps half the length of the enclosure, enters the water minus the advertised splash, and makes a high-G turn underwater as Mica darts to cut the corner. They speed out of sight under the submerged edge of the pool cover, propelled by their flat tails, closely followed and then overtaken by their mates. And they're back, and this time there's a riot of splashing that soaks the regolith nearly to my slippers. They're having fun, aren't they? I'm reminded of the irrigation canal that ran along the edge of my family's farm, and me and my brothers and sister in it. We'd have splash wars like that. I miss my family, all dead now in the famine, and I didn't even know what was happening. I can never bring back that feeling, to be totally free. Like beavers.

Selen: Are you sure you won't join us, Major? You'd enjoy it and we'd enjoy it.

Just once... After all, I don't think these people are going to criticize me for decadent or primitive behavior when they do it themselves. I efficiently remove my slippers, dress tunic, bra, trousers and underpants. Thus disencumbered, I step into the water -- not jumping, for I'm not sure how deep it is. It's not warm, but not freezing either. I surface dive, and breast stroke through the crowd of beavers, and circle daringly just under the bar and back in again. On surfacing I bring with me an armful of water and I get one of the black beavers right in the face with it!

Me: Gotcha! My brother was a sucker for that move and so are... Splut!

We have a nice exchange of splashes followed by an underwater tag chase. My parents would joke about us kids emptying the canal, and that joke would be very apropos here too. But as a kid I wasn't weakened by radiation sickness.

Me: Time out, please, beavers! I'd better not overdo it.

Selen: OK, time out, everyone. Let the Major get clear.

Me: Um, how would I get dry? I went in thinking like a kid, and I didn't plan how to change back to being an adult.

Selen: Shake your fur; that will get most of the water out of it; and then rub your skin. When we go back the air is very dry and it will slurp the water off, except for your head.

Me, damply: It was fun, Selen. Thanks for bringing me out here. It was nice to do that for one last time.

Selen leans on the edge of the pool with his elbows and rests his chin on his hands in a comically human pose.

Selen: It doesn't have to be the last time. If you stay with us you could come down here any time you want. And we'll even let you call us beavers. Think about it while you watch us. And if you want to talk, just yell.

The small -- whatever it is, not a beaver -- bends double sideways and takes off with a flick of its, his beaver tail, leaving Child Lan Ying to transform back to Major Tsun and to think about what he said. On the farm you learn that forces like typhoons and droughts come down on you, and you may be terrified or devastated at the loss of so much work and the certainty of lean times ahead, but you have to think clearly and execute an effective plan to salvage the situation as much as you can. I've been doing that, clearly stating and ranking my limited options. Evidently I've left one off the list. Why?

Han are a superior species. We know that in our bones; we have over two thousand years of history and we had a civilization that even today is the envy of the world when others, specifically two others in this colony, were grubbing in the dirt with pointed sticks. And animals belong in the barnyard to pull the plow or to be eaten by han. Selen's oblique proposal is that... Thinking back, I've heard a number of people gently pushing me in the same direction Selen just did, herding me like a pig which decided to get a little too independent. Now let's not get irritated. Speaking objectively, I'm supposed to think about actually joining this barnyard colony. Just this morning if someone had brought up the idea I would have laughed her off the ship, and if asked to give a definite answer I would definitely have told her I'd die first. Which is in fact the plan I've asked Valeria to help me with.

General Sse Lang said he'd die before submitting to an operation which from Tiger's perspective, though perhaps not from mine, was an obvious matter of elementary hygiene. I laughed that he'd backed himself into a corner he couldn't pull strings to get out of, but am I acting the same way?

OK, objections to living with animals. I haven't worked with every one of them, but if I close my eyes and mentally erase the fur and the nudity and the dark skin and the claws, Valeria and Xena and Iris and Selen and the other whatevers could be bright young cadet trainees just like me when, lying about my age, I talked myself into the People's Liberation Army. Tiger is like no officer I've ever heard of, but I have to give her credit: her furry brood sure got the job done on us, and evidently have done a lot of other jobs to make this colony go. The two hei ren: again, I didn't interact with them much, but what I've seen was competent and agreeable. But they aren't han, and they never will be.

Me: Selen! Hey, Selen!

Selen: Here I am. What's up?

Me: If you're not a beaver, what species are you?

Selen: We're otters. I meant it: you may call us beavers if it makes you happy.

Me: Which is the best species? Otters? Lions? Jaguars? Whatever Valeria is?

Selen: She's 'uomi. I like being an otter; I wouldn't switch species with anyone. But I think you're trying to answer a different question.

Me: Suppose you had very definite ideas about who was best, and others thought differently. How would you deal with that?

Selen: I do have definite ideas, and so do the others. We're not shy about saying what our strengths are, but we never do it in a way that tears down the other person; I mean we make mistakes but we try. And we're honest about our weaknesses, but we don't dwell on them either. That goes for individuals and species both. We try to build ourselves up where we're weak and to share where we're strong. Together we can do so much more than we could separately. I'd be surprised if that weren't also true in China.

Me: May I be honest about a weakness I see? There are a lot of areas where you people seem very primitive. I should talk; here I am naked. But there's a lot here if you look below the surface. Why did you people turn your backs on civilization and devolve in some areas?

Selen: I've read Terran literature and I'm familiar with the concept of clothes equal civilization. The 'uomi had several debates, sexes separately, whether they should greet you with civilized clothes or in their normal way, and they decided you had to accept them as they are. We otters aren't human: we stay warm with our fur; we don't need clothes. Neither do the 'uomi unless they've turned off the fur; they decided that ``obviously'' they had to meet you in human form. And even without the fur they're pretty adaptable to temperature. There's a lot to do to build this colony, and we're only just now becoming able to put significant resources into decorative textiles like the rugs you sat on. There are a lot of areas like that: on Earth you're used to equipment or technology that we just don't have the workforce for. Like chairs: I came across a picture in a lesson of a Louis Quatorze chair. Here you have a plastic box with rocks in it to lean your back against. No Louis Quatorze for a long, long time.

Me: Hmm. That's a good answer. But the two hei ren: I'd expect them to try to keep at least a pretense of civilization.

Selen: Willie and Wilma? We were all shocked to see the amount of elaborate clothing under your space armor that you carried all the way from Earth. The adults figured that they had other more important things to bring. So they had a bunch of little pants for the humans, a lot of real pretty patterns, and they kept the ship at a compromise temperature where both species would be comfortable. Willie and Wilma like it that way and they've never felt any need to change since it's kind of hot down here below Echoriath. When inside the domes they used to wear the pants but they all wore out and they knitted the decorative wraparounds as a replacement. Outside they don't wear the wraparounds so they don't wear out as fast.

Me: Did you say ``turned off the fur''?

Selen: Yes; 'uomi can do that. They have three fur patterns that simulate real humans but the default is full fur just like everyone else.

Me: Oh. Those demon girls and boys have a lot of secrets inside their bodies.

Selen: We Novanima have a lot of stuff that's really nice. Stuff that you don't have. How much is that going to bother you?

Me: Maybe you should go over that with me. Are you cold, standing in the water?

Selen: Maybe a little.

He lithely slides from the water onto four legs as if he were a wild creature, then flips over and sits, his tail sticking between his legs which kick in the water. As if he were wild: that's important, I think. He isn't wild; he can talk to me; he knows what he wants and he's going to try to sell me on it. He may not be human but he's not just something we shoot for the pelt.

Selen: The fur, of course; that's one of our best features. The fangs; even 'uomi have them; get Valeria's mouth open but be careful not to cut your finger. Our bones are opal, very strong. Our skin, particularly on the feet and hands, is reinforced with opal flakes. I can hike thirty kilometers up those rocks with a 25 kilo pack and my soles are stronger the next day than when I started. Our physiology and breathing is suited to hard work, and our muscles respond predictably to training. We can see in the dark with low resolution using thermal infrared. We make all our nutrients in our livers including protein from atmospheric nitrogen. We can regenerate or repair more damage than humans can; we have circulating stem cells. We have a bunch of manual controls for functions that are nonvoluntary in humans such as blood pressure, sweating, sleep, excretion and reproduction. We have pockets to put the kittens in, and both males and females produce milk.

Me: Hold it. Males? Pockets?

Selen: Take a look; here's my nipple.

Me: That bothers me. A lot.

The correct word is ``disgust'', but I have the sense, unlike some recently dead people, to choose my words to avoid hurting people unless I want them to hurt. Selen promptly closes up his pocket.

Selen: We don't go around showing off our pockets, but they're handy to put things in and people use them. I really hope that's something that can be worked around.

Me: I'm going to be frank with you, Selen. You're not human. I've never in my weirdest dreams imagined something like you. Never imagined being exiled to a group of somethings like you. We talked about who was better, and I have a very definite opinion just like you, fur and liver and infrared and all. You obviously value and respect the other species, even though you like being an otter. Could I know that I am han, but value and respect you even though you aren't?

Selen: Do you value and respect me right now?

Me: Well... yes.

Selen: How about Xena? And Valeria?

Me: Yes, I value and respect them. As individuals.

Selen: That's good enough, I think.

Me: Well, I think I have to decide that. Could I have a little more time?

Selen: Certainly. With me or without me?

Me: This is complicated to say in English. It would comfort me to have you here, to look at you, but out of respect for you as a person I'm not going to grab onto you just for that. I'm a big girl now.

Selen: See this handsign? It says what you wanted, most of the middle sentence in one sign. I suspect you'd enjoy learning more handsigns. That's supposed to bias your decision.

Giggle! I could put up with the whole barnyard just to talk with Selen. And isn't that my decision right there? Yes, I believe I can be han and know I'm the best, and still be honest about my weaknesses and share my strengths, and still accept someone like Selen who feels similarly about himself. So it's decided. I'll release Valeria from her promise. Then what? Obviously I'll ask Tiger to give me an assignment and obviously she'll ask what I can do besides mopping the General's vomit and piloting spacecraft, which her youngest jaguar can do too, and we'll have to play it by ear from that point. I've mostly dried off and I'd better put on my uniform and get properly neatened up. Hmm. There's a point: should I appear before Tiger as Major Tsun of the People's Liberation Army? What People's Liberation Army? The counterrevolutionaries have killed or exiled or dispersed everyone. I'm probably the last surviving officer on active duty and my rank as Major is maybe a point of historical pride but totally irrelevant now. Should I take off the insignia? Then I look like a traitor about to be shot; that won't do. Underpants and bra? Tiger would burst out laughing and then throw me out.

Me: Selen, I've decided. I'm going to join your colony. But I have...

Selen, damply hugging me: Oh, that's wonderful! Welcome, welcome! People, come here and hug the Major; she's finally decided to join us!

Hug, hug, drip, drip. They're all very nice and nude hugging of otters is a sensual experience not to be missed, but now my front and part of my back are wet again. Of course otters wouldn't care.

Me: Yes, I'm really happy to finally decide and I'm glad you're willing to have me. But here's a slight problem. I can't be Major Tsun any more. If you say Willie and Wilma, then you're probably going to be calling me Lan Ying. But then, I can't wear that uniform any more either. That's my dress uniform, but if I popped up to our ship and got something else, all the clothes I have symbolize my membership in the People's Liberation Army; that's what a uniform is. So what do I do?

Selen: Don't wear your uniform. Look, I'll make some kind of clothing for you; it will be my gift; but it will take time, and until then I suggest you tell yourself like this: I'm Lan Ying whatever I wear, and nobody else has Earth clothes either; I'm just as well dressed as Valeria or Petra or Quin or Oso, and almost as well as Willie and Wilma.

Me: But I can't go to Tiger, to my new commanding officer, like this!

Night: Everyone else does. Imagine you're Valeria.

Me: This is going to take nerve. A lot of nerve.

Night: You have nerve, don't you? You can stay steady in a difficult situation. We were watching you and we all noticed. Now the threat is inside your head, but you can get through it, right? And if you're anything like Wilma, you'll even enjoy it if you get your mind pointed the right way. Would you like to rehearse, to practice being otterly?

Me: Otterly, that's a new word for me. Thank you, but I think rehearsal isn't quite the best way for me. Waiting will just drain my energy. Let's go back and do it.

Mica: I'll carry your clothes; it would look better if your hands were free. Come on, get your helmet. I have to see this.

The broken stones and microscopic glass chips are abrasive under my civilized feet. I hope I don't have a blister before I get to the domes. The black sky is cold on my jade skin, used to work but not to a negative infrared balance. My tits jiggle in unaccustomed, childlike freedom. The air swishing between my legs reminds me of its lethal composition, just outside this plastic fishbowl helmet sealed at the neck with an inflated plastic bag. I have nerve, so they say: it takes nerve to put one foot in front of the other out here. My usual calming routine before a difficult interview is not exactly getting done. I made my decision; this is my life now; and I'd better crunch it toughly underfoot, jiggle it to the full, and make time to prepare to greet my commander.

Here we are at last. And no blister, or only a very small one. And there's Tiger; all the adults, actually. I put the loaned helmet and tanks in their original rack slots. Nothing's helped by delay.

Me: Tiger, I'd like to join your colony. I'm reporting for duty.

Tiger: Welcome. We welcome you to join Gondor and Gondolin. I see the otters gave you the colony uniform. But I don't see your insignia of rank; what shall I call you?

Me: Call me Lan Ying. Do you have an assignment for me?

Tiger: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. More of a training exercise. Come on over here. Sometime soon you should go through all the cabinets so you know what supplies and equipment we have, and also the vault underneath. I'm issuing you this computer. I'm sure it's different from what you're used to, as is the information it can attach to. I'll use it to create your identity; this will just take a second. We use our names as login IDs; do you have a special ID that you'd prefer?

Me: We used serial numbers. Let's use my name.

Tiger: OK. Now type your password twice. It likes it. You now exist. Exit from my session and log in as yourself. I've given you a default setup and this icon is for our training materials. Go through everything. It took me, what, fourteen or fifteen Earth years, but we've added material since then in a number of areas. I'm being slightly sarcastic there, but only slightly. We are what we are because of the training, and to understand us properly you need to have at least reviewed most of our material. That's your long-term goal, but much more immediate is this: tomorrow the 'uomi and jaguars are doing mate selection, and you're going to observe, and you need to read the corresponding lesson set so you can understand what's happening and why. Watch what I do to locate that topic, click, and the check button turns it on in your active topics menu. Now you do it. From the file menu, or whenever you start the Lion Disc software, you'll see the active list, and you just click on the topic. For now let's just close that and go back to topic selection.

Me: The file menu again?

Tiger: Yes, you got it. How to Use This Software. Spend a day or two thrashing through stuff, then start that lesson set so you have some idea what you're seeing. Tiger signs: we use them a lot. You should learn them at a fast but reasonable pace, and practice making the signs for what you say in English, however much you've learned in signs. Next, the money system lessons: you can read about American law for historical background, but the material for Thor is what you'll be living from, and since you're a communist you may have a fair amount to learn there. General computer use: I don't know what you had in China, but I'm sure the Maoists would never allow what you have here, and you have to learn how to make it work for you rather than drowning you in data. You might turn on Medicine and Physiology now, but put serious work into it only after you have those other topics under control. You need to know about your own body, but your responsibility there will be for Novanima, which are identified as ``lions'' on the disc. All Novanima are essentially the same in physiology and anatomy. So that's your first assignment: training. Enough for you?

Me: Yes, Tiger.

Tiger: I see the otters told you the right phrasing for around here too. Look, I want to be serious on this: our goal is to make this colony work. I'm not too dumb in handing out assignments to advance that goal, and very often ``yes, Tiger'' is a very appropriate response. But sometimes it's not. If you challenge me I'll be annoyed. If you don't challenge me and I find out the hard way that you should have, I won't just be annoyed, I'll be very angry. Remember that.

Me: Yes, Tiger.

Tiger: Now your second assignment is small but important, and it's definitely your responsibility: get General Liu's blood out of his rug. Would one of you otters please show her where the buckets and salt are, and how to get cold and hot water? And Selen, she needs something over her tonight; do you mind if she takes the other rug for that? And she can have the extra mat under it too: a sandwich.

Selen: Sure; no problem. Where will she sleep tonight?

Tiger: Lan Ying, that's mostly up to you. Your proper place is here in dome one with the other adults. But both Valeria and Xena have invited you to their domes for tonight. Here's what I'm going to suggest: spend this evening and night with Valeria, and do morning exercises and breakfast with Xena. Then report back here for the mate selection.

Me: Yes, that sounds like a good plan.

Yes, that gets me away from these two intimidating, long-toothed and very solidly built lions and these two hei ren who I'm going to have to learn to value and respect despite their being hei ren. It's not cowardice to take a difficult assignment slowly and in easy stages that are more likely to be accomplished successfully. What I've agreed to for my sleep partner is a demon girl with bloody claws and, if I take Selen's demonstration at face value, a pocket like a kangaroo. What a choice!

Tiger: So, welcome to Gondolin.

And she hugs me, with a spicy scent resembling Valeria and Xena, not a Chinese spice. Nude hugging of lions (dry this time) is a sensual though scary experience. Next comes the other lion, Simba I think his name is, with a different spice. Now the male hei ren approaches. Nude hugging of hei ren is a sensual experience I wish I could bypass, but I force myself to do it. Sse Lang never got this much of a feel of me; why... Because I'm going to have a working relation with this rank-smelling gray-haired ape and (I change partners) his definitely female and equally rank gray-haired mate, and people hug around here. I'm surprised: they aren't greasy or slimy as I expected.

Me: I'm happy to have a place here. But I think I have some washing and some studying to do, so I'll let Selen show me where the supplies are.

Wilma: We're happy to have you too, but I think there's something we should talk about before you go. Two points, actually. First, I've noticed that the relation between Chinese and black people sometimes resembles cats and dogs: what seems like a natural antipathy. We, Willie and I, want to minimize that feeling. Your position is hard: the newcomer, while we're established here and know all the ins and outs. So we're going to leave you in peace to work out how you want to deal with us. We're not going to flop all over you like puppy dogs. When you're ready for a little more warmth in the relation, let us know. You hug us when you're ready; we won't pursue you to repeat what was obviously a pretty traumatic squeeze.

Willie: Wilma's right: our relationship is like a growing sprout, and I don't want to squish it by too warm a welcome, so the result can be warmer later. Do you feel OK with that?

Me: Well, yes, a slower approach probably would be easier for both of us.

Wilma, smiling: Good, Lan Ying, good. Now there's a second point that probably should be talked about early, and it's a bit embarrassing, but it's also a danger to avoid. I'm sure you've noticed Oso and Quin. I have, and this old goat here knows Valeria and Petra aren't kittens any more too.

She elbows Willie in the ribs and he giggles and jabs her back.

Wilma: A fantasy is fun and harmless. But an obsession isn't, and making it real is even worse. The 'uomi starting tomorrow will have their own mates and their own lives, and your responsibility, and ours, is to help them grow up straight and strong and able to replant this world. You have no mate. You never will have a mate, and particularly not among the 'uomi. You're doomed to deal with that with fortitude, grace and good humor. Can you do that?

Me: (Gulp) I'm familiar with the problem. Both problems.

Like Light Bulb lao sze at my middle school who taught us math, with extra tutoring sessions on the side for selected pupils. I learned on my brothers what a kick in the balls can do, and validated the lesson on Light Bulb. And I didn't let that stop my progress in math, unlike one of my girlfriends who dropped out.

Me: In my position in the Army and the Astronaut Corps I've had to handle sexuality, mine and others', and I know to keep things under control.

Tiger: Good. If you find you're having trouble, talk to Simba, before the trouble escalates, please, not after. If we're dead, talk to Selen. The reason you don't talk to me first is that they're a lot better at handling that kind of problem.

Me: Yes, Tiger. I mean that. I expect to behave properly, but if I'm having trouble I'll seek help.

Tiger: Good. Any more, people? No? Then, now you're dismissed. No, that's not the right way to say it; I'm not trying to throw you out. Better: the initiative is with you now, and a bucket of water.

The otters and I clear out of there. Mica, Night and Titania vanish, I suppose to gossip about what they heard with other critters and each other, while Selen stays with me in dome two. Any woman knows how to get rid of bloodstains, but this rug is worse off than the usual monthly spotting. Fortunately it's polyester, not wool. Between us, using several changes of salty water, we get just about all the blood out, as well as regolith chips.

Me: Selen, Tiger said I was supposed to have the other rug, but do you suppose I could just take this one? Should we check that with Tiger?

Selen: It's my decision, since they're my rugs, and yes, I'll make you a gift of this rug. But I'm curious. The General treated you badly, didn't he? When he was here I didn't like the way he interacted with you, and your story of how you were selected sounds nasty, in several ways.

Me: Yes, it's a great relief to get away from him.

Selen: Do you suppose it's a touch of revenge, sleeping on this particular rug?

Me: Well, I guess you could say that.

Selen: You deserve it. Come on; bring the rug and I'll dust off the mat and we'll set you up in dome four with Valeria.

So here I am in dome four with my back against the side of Valeria's backbox. This is proving to be one of the memorable cram jobs in my training. I've had worse, like when the payload specialist on a satellite repair mission came down with the flu and the backup astronaut slipped getting out of the practice pool and his ankle swelled up like a grapefruit. But this set of lessons I'm doing is clearly designed to be taken in over at least a two week period. Valeria, Petra, Orion and Wolf have their own big task to finish, to apply and execute the lessons I'm rushing through. They're very diligent students, quiet and industrious, not boisterous like others I could name at that age, despite how I saw Orion behaving at the banquet. They take stretch breaks every half hour, at which Orion tends to revert to his true nature, and I find it helpful to follow their good example; and the break in the middle for dinner is welcome.

At dinner the main dish is Italian pizza pie topped with various sliced vegetables and underlaid, says Jacinth, with fake cheese synthesized from soybeans. In the Western tradition they have dessert, which is another sweet pie of squashes. My stomach will only put up with a small piece of the strange Western pastry, plus hong dou tang, sweet red bean soup, and just one bite of pizza. Of course there's no tea. If Tiger thinks she can get DNA out of my mushrooms, I wonder if she could do the same with tea?

With my astronaut's manual dexterity I quickly picked up the skill of pointing at things with the computer's little ball, and after that the computer has been a joy to use. It adapts the lesson to my understanding, skipping quickly through sections that are obvious (to me) while repeating and varying as necessary the sections, such as the one on the role of sex in marriage and mate selection, which may have been obvious to the author but which I found were from an absolutely alien viewpoint. I wish I'd had lessons like these when I was a girl: I was always good in school, though fractious, but I was always so bored when the teacher went over and over a topic, while the few items I missed gave me a lot of trouble because I hadn't figured out that I could ask for help and survive.

The demons and spotted cats seem to be finished, but I'm not. Valeria shows me how to turn on the computer's backlight, and she goes to bed with her various siblings.

Finally after an additional hour the program and I decide that I'll be able to make intelligent comments about mate selection in the morning, so I go to sleep too, with my back on the vinyl mat and my chest and belly covered by the damp rug that still retains a few bits of Sse Lang's life blood. In Hell may he be condemned to screw with the demons he lusted after, equipped with teeth in a very interesting location. I'll probably have nightmares tonight and I submit a request for a role as one of those demons.

Valeria doesn't stay on her mat at night. Once I wake with her head next to my shoulder so she's breathing on it, and her hand under my rug, on my belly. I hold very still, and after a few minutes she flops the other way onto Petra, with my belly unripped. Another time she makes the most piteous noises; I stick up my head to check on her and Petra does the same. Petra's handsign probably means, ``Ignore her and let her fight it out'', for that's what we both do. But at sunrise Valeria is full of bounce, and she claims to have turned her dreams into productive lessons. Orion says she's repeating a scam they'd heard before, but Wolf says he can do it too, though not reliably.

I cut through the tunnel over to dome three for morning exercises with Xena and her teammates. I'm having flashbacks to my basic training, and I'm glad I have the excuse of radiation sickness. A month floating in space with no exercise equipment, and five percent higher gravity, and of course the radiation, do wonders for your strength and stamina. Xena is as flexible as an otter, while I'm stiff like an old lady. One hand pushups? I used to do two on each hand to show off to the other (female) astronauts. But not today, no way! Xena does five. Their chinup bar is a marvel: pusher chips on discs at the end of an iron pipe, so it will just stay wherever you lift it. Chinups (two handed): I can do only five of those today. The soles of my feet do feel stronger after a night of repair, and I briskly walk around the set of domes while Xena, Rose, Quin and Oso run in the hills adjacent to the colony. If Tiger does the same exercises Xena does, no wonder her arm looks like a dockworker's. But what's odd: the naked boys' muscles are very normal looking, not scrawny yet not massive, but they do the same exercises and even compete with Xena and don't always lose. Perhaps the secret is to use what you have effectively. As a girl I wasn't scrawny either, but my brothers as they grew up had access to larger male muscles. Nonetheless they couldn't match my carefully nurtured stamina and hitting power, however often they forgot the lesson not to tease me physically.

The shower afterward is quite an experience. The critters have a technology I'm very thankful for: a water heater in each dome. But you have to remember to fill it through a funnel after you take out some hot water. That water then can go into a bucket with holes in the bottom, which you stand under, the water running into a plastic drip pan with a hose to the latrine, not a patch of mud in the regolith. I've been given the honor of first chance at the shower, a dubious honor from my point of view, since being viewed isn't my idea of relaxation. Quin, next in line, pours the bucket of hot water into the shower bucket and it starts raining on me.

Quin: Can I ask you a question, Lan Ying?

The correct answer is obvious.

Me: Yes; what is it?

Quin: Well, in historic rockets a major design criterion was specific impulse. But they reported it in seconds, and that's not the unit I get when I calculate it. Do you know where the seconds came from?

I give Quin a brief but unflattering overview of imperalist units of measure while quickly washing most of my body, before the water runs out. I wish Quin's eyes didn't follow my hand as I do so, for my yin tao is next.

Quin: Thanks; I won't make the same mistake they did. You know, I'm really jumpy about the mate selection. Talking like this helps me stay steady. In China, how do you pick mates? I doubt it's like here.

Here I am washing between my legs and he's totally innocently chattering about sex, with his own organ prominently on display to me. What I'd really like to be doing is hiding behind a curtain or sinking into the ground.

No! Tsun Lan Ying, formerly Major in the People's Liberation Army, does not let herself be intimidated by a half grown boy, particularly not sexually!

Me: You're right: China is very, very different from here. You meet people in your work or recreation who seem compatible, and the relationship grows.

Ahh, that ordeal is over, and I proceed to the drying apparatus. Careful not to scratch myself on the helical wire supporting the hose, I blow myself off, as Quin takes my place in the shower.

Quin: I really hope there will be someone good for me. Will females be interested in biotech, do you think, or would they just be bored with it? It's always been such a mystery, what female 'uomi will be like. Suppose I get one like Xena; will that be good for me or bad?

Lao tien! He's not only displaying his pocket to me, he's washing the thing out, going around the female-sized nipple with soap!

Me: Um, I'm sure either of the females will be a fine partner for you, Quin. Um...

What's he doing now? Do I have to watch him wash his yang jin too? He pokes around his balls; is he going to give himself a hard-on? No, it stays at a medium length but he disassembles it! The outer skin pushes back on the shaft revealing internal structures, which he soaps liberally.

Me: I'm sorry, Quin; I'm not really used to group showering. I'm going to get started on the food, and we can talk some more over breakfast. Sorry.

My hair is still damp, and I have no idea which cabinet holds pots or spices or whatever, and neither do I have any idea what the usual breakfast is around here. But anything to get away from those body parts! I'd probably better talk about this later with Simba. And as for cooking, I can ask for help and survive. Xena is last in line for the shower.

Me: Could you help me here a second, Xena? What do you people usually eat for breakfast? I'd thought to get that started...

So here I am in dome one, fresh and fed. Simba has made a space on his mat for me to sit and observe the wedding or whatever you call it. The four 'uomi and the four jaguars are in dome two reading each other's biographies and questionnaires, and rating their compatibility with their newly encountered partners. The four adults and I have been using our computers to do the same thing, informally discussing which pairs were preferable, and waiting for the action to begin.

Willie: I think the 'uomi will decide in five minutes.

Simba: You never know. I had my eye on the Jacinth and Ken pair, but I didn't seriously think they'd go for it, and neither did any of you. It took them so long to do the mate selection, and they were so worried at the beginning, but haven't they worked out well?

Willie: Yes, they have. It's pretty clear for the jaguars, too: Xena and Orion are kindred spirits, and so are Wolf and Rose.

Simba: I don't disagree, but like I said, you never know what they're going to get into their heads. They know what to do better than we do, after all.

Wilma: Looks like the 'uomi are moving. Let's pay attention.

Quin (on session): It looks like we're about done. Does anyone need more time?

Petra: Just a second. I'm going to cut it off; make a final decision. There, my scores are on the page.

Valeria: You're ready, Oso? Then I'll analyze the scores... 197 for Oso and Petra, Quin and Valeria; 178 for the opposite pairing, with all sixteen people scoring two pairs. Both good, but the first pairing is better. What do you think? Our own ratings match the scores with everyone else's input included. Does anyone disagree?

Quin: We probably should analyze our choices for the observers.

Petra: Right, but for me it's hard to say. I like both of you. I'd do well with either, and you with me. Oso, I tend to be jumpy and flighty, and I think your steadiness will be good for me.

Oso: Tiger always tells me I need a kick in the butt. I'm excited by what I saw in your bio. Valeria, with you I feel intimidated, to keep up with all your interests.

Valeria: Petra complains the same way; she never knows what I'll do next. I have a temper, but most of the time I'm pretty steady, and neither are what you need. Quin, I'm really attracted to your plastics manufacturing. I've always wanted to get my claws into that end of colony work, and I hope you'll enjoy my operation too.

Quin: Metalwork: it's going to be fun, Valeria. And you've made yourself a banjo? I've thought, on and off, about the materials for faking up a violin. I really like Tiger's music. But I don't have the manufacturing skill. You do.

Valeria: I think it's time to take this off the session. Oh, dome assignments! Does anyone have a strong preference?

Quin: I have some of my equipment in dome three. Would you mind if I stayed?

Valeria: Petra? Oso? Most of mine is in dome one. OK, Oso and I will switch places, and let's do that now too. We should keep an eye on the jaguars, but unless anyone has something more to say, I'm going to close up the formal session.

Petra: We're looking forward to dinner tonight. Thank you all for your ratings, and we love you.

Me (verbally): Is that it? They're married?

Simba: They're married.

Me: In China we wouldn't do it so young, and the parents would have a much bigger role, at least where I grew up, a rural area.

Simba: To meet our goals we need explosive population growth. On Terra the lions need to grow fast but not explosively, so we begot our first kitten at 21 Earth years age. Our lions will be doing it next year. We're using these young people; we're pushing them hard. And they're handling it so well! I'm proud of them, and at the same time I'm uncertain of the ethics of what we're doing.

Tiger: Soul baring should continue later; the jaguars have finished scoring.

Xena (on their session): I think the choices aren't going to make themselves, people. I'm submitting my scores now.

Rose: You're right. Here are mine.

Wolf: OK, here's my final set of numbers. You too, Orion? Then I'll run the sum, and it's 136 for the alphabetic pairing and 152 for the other one.

Rose: I like what I see in your bio, Wolf, but I think we need to be clear what we're trying to accomplish. It was hard to pick those scores. Let's talk about it.

Orion: It's obvious that I belong with Xena, and that Wolf belongs with Rose. Xena and I are the battlers, the physical ones, the wild ones, while Wolf and Rose, I'm not saying you're weak, but there's more to both of you than strong muscles and claws. I'm kind of low on lessons, while Wolf and particularly Rose are the opposite. The pairing is obvious, but sometimes the obvious answer is wrong. I'm willing to listen.

Wolf: It's true that Rose and I would have a lot to do together, but so would Xena and I. It took me time to learn, partially, what comes naturally to Xena in combat and sport. Orion, we're pretty good friends, but you're also so different from me and we don't have that spark where I make your strengths part of me and you gain from me too. I think Xena is intermediate: similar enough to catch, but different enough, well, that's why our scores are low: we'd have to get used to each other a lot. With Rose I build my strengths. With Xena I improve my weaknesses. That's valuable.

Xena: If you and I were mated, Wolf, and then Orion and I went off on a five-day hike, would you be happy we're having fun together or would you be thinking we're sneaking off to screw? Let me say that more coherently. We should imitate the otters, be otterly about this: we should all go together on the five-day hike. But jaguars aren't otters, and I can believe jealousy. In myself; in any of us. And I think it's going to be important for me, however we do the pairings, that I should be otterly and interact a lot with both Wolf and Orion, to build up both my strengths and my weaknesses. No wonder our scores are low: we have lots of ways to screw ourselves up, and we have to thread through the battlefield and get to the goal taking the minimum hits.

Rose: You're right about risks. And Wolf is right about what's built up: I build my strength with Wolf, but Orion gives me something I need to improve in. It's a risk for Orion and me to join, but we're jaguars and taking risks is our species theme! I think the answer is coming out obvious, and I think we don't see it in the numbers. Orion, how do you feel about all this?

Orion: Risk! I'm trying to learn to think before acting; I'm trying to apply my lessons to more areas. Xena, you can do that already. Look, Wolf, I'm not going to fight you for Xena; I just want to discuss this, OK? Everything you said about Xena applies to me from the other side. She's intermediate enough that I can catch hold of her, and different enough that I can grow with her. Rose, you're as different from me as Wolf is. If we do end up together I promise to do my best, and not to look back to the other pairing, but you could get just what you see here: not much growth. Would you regret choosing me rather than Wolf? That's the risk.

Rose: Orion, I'm evaluating you as you present yourself now. If you can learn to enjoy puzzles, how things work, art, music, I'd love that, but I'll take you as you are. And I already enjoy your style of chase and combat games; Xena and I do that all the time. I can see problems: I'm listening to music and you want to chase and you break the music in the middle and get snapped at. Wolf would know not to do that, right, Wolf? But on balance, I'm willing to put up with your faults, to get your benefits. Want to risk it on me?

Orion: Wolf and Xena get a lot from each other, and you get from me. I risk that I won't be able to make use of the opportunity I'm being given. Whereas with Xena I'm more likely to get a good result, but the rest of you don't gain as much. Yes, for a jaguar the answer is obvious. Yes, Rose, I'll risk you.

Wolf: Thank you, Orion, thank you! Xena, come to me!

There's a pause during which Tiger and Simba smirk at each other. The next line is obviously both verbal and on the session.

Orion: Hey, Wolf! If we could all stop smooching for a minute, we need to shut down the session.

Wolf: Sorry, people; I got carried away by a warrior princess. On the dome assignments, does anyone have a strong preference? No? Then Orion, on three: one, two, three! Your rock takes the edge off my scissors, so...

Orion: I thought of something. Xena, you and Valeria are a pair, right? Would you like to be with her?

Xena: Valeria says it's OK, and she's in dome three now, so Orion and I will stay; Wolf and Rose will switch. Thanks for remembering.

Orion: But the random choice would have worked out; that was luck. Thank you, observers, for your scores, and don't be shy giving me advice how to be a good mate, OK? Let's wander off into the hills with the 'uomi and get to know our mates. We'll pick spots that are separated but not too separate, since we're supposed to learn to be otterly. And we'll come back in time for dinner.

Wolf: Right. Thank you all for your support. Session is now going down.

Wilma (locally): Well! So it was a foregone conclusion that Xena and Orion would end up together, eh? I think Wolf justified their choice pretty well; they all did. And who would have imagined Orion prodding Wolf to tie up an administrative loose end? Our Orion is growing.

Simba: Yes, I'm pleased with all the pairings. It's always a time for nerves when you build something and then set it loose to do its job all by itself. That's how I felt here. They have to learn, and they have learned to manage themselves and this world alone, but that didn't quiet my nerves. Lan Ying, what did you think of all this?

Me: It's so un-Chinese! They're so young, and they're going off unsupervised; it's obvious what they'll do now. Do they know about birth control?

Simba: Yes, though it's a lot different in Novanima than for you. Getting pregnant is a two-day process and the timing has to be right. They know how to do it, and we've discussed when: at a ridiculously young age.

Me: Chairman Mao has some advice on that; I'm sure you know it. I should learn your reasoning, then discuss this with you.

Simba: I'll mail you the URL of that folder.

Me: And I'll have to learn what to do with it. Your computer system is incredible! The, what should I call them, young people used the communication program so effectively; it was as if they were talking and we were there, but they had complete privacy. This wasn't their first time with the program, was it?

Wilma: Oh, no; we all use it several times a day. When we'd just arrived at epsilon Eridani I remember one time when Simba and Tiger were arguing on NetBoard: they were physically overlapping because there isn't room in the ship for two people shoulder to shoulder, and they were hammering on the argument, tails lashing and getting tangled, but they were totally silent; not once did they look at each other! It was all through the board. That was so comical. On the board we feel the other person is right there, not separated, maybe even up on the ship when I'm down here, but I don't see the NetBoard window; I see the person.

Me: This place is going to take a lot of getting used to; a lot of learning.

Simba: What in particular have you found not going smoothly?

Me: I don't break under pressure, but being alone as the only... let's say the only han for the rest of my life: I'm going to have trouble being at peace with that. I'm going to have a close working relation with all of you, and you can rely on me to do my assignments excellently.

Willie: Thank you, Lan Ying. You can rely on us non-han as well. Being dumped into this zoo would be shocking for anyone, but particularly I think for you, and you're handling it well.

Simba: If the pressure on you builds up faster than you can burn it off, do talk to me or Selen or any of us. OK? We want you to be healthy in spirit; we don't want you to die on us. Seriously. Find ways to be yourself; we don't want you to change to be Tiger or Wilma or Valeria; we want yourself. Yes, be otterly, but that takes a firm foundation, which you'll find all the otters have, and I don't want you tearing down yours because you're not in China any more. Understand?

Me: I'd use different words, but I think I understand what you mean. Believe me, it's taken a firm foundation for me to survive this mission.

Wilma: I can imagine! What else is giving you trouble?

Me: Well, pockets bother me. Quin got me in a situation where I couldn't politely escape and then started washing out his pocket, and other parts I don't normally see on public display.

Simba: Is it the pocket, or the fact that our fake humans have some nonstandard features?

Me: I'm sorry, it's both. I guess I'd better get used to pockets, and parts that can be disassembled.

Simba: I don't want to be unhelpful or unsupportive, but it's true that the pockets and the claws and the fur aren't going to go away. I expect it will help you to talk about pockets from time to time. Don't worry about offending Tiger or me. We have a lifetime of experience making friends with humans who start out uncomfortable with us.

Tiger: I'd much rather get plain talk that I can understand, than honeyed words where I'm never sure of the interpretation. Tell me, what's this disassemblable body part?

Me: Quin's yang jin; my English is more developed on engineering and military topics. The part down here. He took the cover off and washed the inside.

Tiger: You mentioned you had brothers. Didn't they do that?

Me: No.

Tiger: Well, we were trained to deal with human children. Humans, not 'uomi, have glands under that cover skin which secrete solid junk, and there's probably a good biological reason for it, but a human male feels a whole lot more comfortable if he washes the stuff out. Certainly my human son on Terra felt that way.

Me: Human...

Tiger: Their parents died and we gave them a home.

Me: Oh! That was very kind. Won't the authorities in America take care of orphans?

Tiger: They will, but... It's kind of a long story. Maybe we should leave it for later. How's the food? I'm serious: when the food bothers people they get bitchy, and while we can't give you meat we can do a lot to get you food you enjoy. Starting with the mushrooms you mentioned.

Me: What I've had was quite good. I'm pretty adaptable in food. You know that China has the best and most varied cuisine, and in the Astronaut Corps, as a prestige unit, we had excellent chefs. With astronauts from all over China requesting their favorite dishes, I got exposed to a wide variety. Not that I can cook all of them; I can do the Yunnan style I grew up with, but my job was space flight, not cooking. I do have one question: without meat, is the food carefully balanced nutritionally?

Simba: Chang seeds provide complete protein, and Wilma monitors the vitamin levels so she and Willie get enough. You should learn how to do that so you can keep healthy after we die.

Me: I'll remember. Another thing: in China we don't talk so freely about death. You were very frank with the young people on several occasions where a Chinese parent would skirt around the issue.

Tiger: It's something we all do, and our deaths are very important events on the timeline for replanting Thor. The kittens have to be ready. We don't have the freedom to deny death, and it's easier on us, on them and on you to say it plainly and get it over with: you have to keep healthy after we die, rather than working out a euphemism like, what? Your long-term health depends on monitoring vitamin levels. You see my point?

Me: I think so.

Simba: And let's not overdo the depressing stuff, please. How are you reacting to not wearing clothes? Are you and Selen working on some kind of textiles?

Me: He promised to make me something as a gift. I don't know what part of this place is the most foreign, but if someone caught me sitting here like this among you I'd be thrown in the nuthouse. But your young people are just completely free with their bodies! Being familiar with certain kinds of people I'm not sure that's such a good idea, and we Chinese consider that kind of thing to be for, well, non-Chinese. Of course you aren't Chinese, are you?

Wilma: Certain people like General Liu, perhaps?

Me: I was a little apprehensive when Valeria just went right up to him and sat next to him.

Wilma: So was I, so was I. I have a daughter on Terra. Tiger reminded me, by Tiger signs of course, that Valeria can take care of herself. I guess she proved that, didn't she?

Me: That she did. I'd like to apologize for the General's behavior.

Tiger: The General gave us more than he took from us. In my eulogy I thanked him for his lesson, which was to prove to the young people that ``certain kinds of people'' are real threats in the real world, and we have to keep our society stable to resist being degraded by them. At that age one tends to be overly idealistic. Several kittens told me straight out that some fictional villains we were discussing were exaggerated for literary effect. They won't make that mistake again.

Willie: But if Valeria had been fully clothed in a white puff sleeve dress, what a comical vision! But it wouldn't have made me one bit less concerned for her safety. Clothes are important only because people on Terra expect them. Here, textiles have always been very difficult and everyone except us two, and you, can have a magnificent fur coat any time they want. It changes our perspective, I think for the better.

Me: When the otters were swimming yesterday, it reminded me of something good. When I was a girl my brothers and my sister and I would bathe in the irrigation canal and we'd play games in the water until our parents would chase us back to work. I brought that back, just for a moment: I took off my clothes and splashed with the otters in the water. I was acting childish then, but as a member of your colony, Gondor, I can't wear my uniform any more, and until Selen and I work out clothing I'm just going to have to continue being childish. I'm finding it doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would.

Simba: Welcome to the club: I feel like an old teenager. Definitely omit the clothes if you feel good about it.

Willie: This old goat: I'm feeling my age now and then, but I feel young in my spirit, and that's what's important. When I was a kid I ran around naked in the forest with the lions and the other human kids: kind of a similar situation as your irrigation canal. When I'm working outside I go naked too, because I can get away with it here; I don't have to worry about what the neighbors will think! But inside I wear the cloth because a human male is, well, not totally aesthetic, in my opinion. Unlike the 'uomi who Simba built so neatly!

Wilma: And I wear the cloth to match Willie; I feel I'm as aesthetic as my age allows, which is pretty good, if I do say so myself. You should do what you feel comfortable with. You don't have to copy me. You don't even have to be consistent all the time.

Me: Not consistent all the time: now that's an unusual freedom. I'll do my best to fit into this place while staying myself. Now I have a subject change: tonight's banquet for the newlyweds. I'd like to cook something Chinese.

Wilma: Well, given the day phase it won't be night tonight. But I think we'd all like to see what Yunnan cuisine is, and I have my own idea for a dish. Jacinth will be coordinating; she's ended up as our chief chef. So let's look her up and you can find out what we have that you can turn into a dish. I know there's more tofu; I saw someone soaking the seeds yesterday.

And what Chinese military unit, or any other unit for that matter, would so smoothly turn the person who yesterday was trying to kill some of them and enslave the rest, into an apparently valued member of their group today? This place is really going to take getting used to.

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