Johannes Kamph took pride in his tomatoes. As the chief food manager for Hydro Unit Three, he had readily beaten the other Units for four years running, and not only with his tomatoes. His squash, corn, and cauliflower always took top prizes, and his peppers won two of the four years the contest had been held. Everyone knew it was a morale booster, but the competition was taken very seriously by the growers themselves. In theory, they were supposed to be sharing ideas that could improve yield, but in practice, this only happened with the less desirable crops, such as turnips. Kamph had always wondered why they’d even bothered with things like cassava, which could have remained in the DNA banks until someone with no memory of their taste might one day believe they should be revived. But crops like tomatoes and peaches? No way would he have considered these unnecessary, especially considering the way he and his team had learned to grow them. His peaches, whether raw and juicy, or turned into pies, were another of his Unit’s top vote-getters. He knew they weren’t really his peaches and tomatoes, but still, he took great pride in what Unit Three was able to put on the colony’s tables. Hardly a day went by without someone spontaneously shouting praise for a great meal the night before across a community gathering, or at the pool dome. He always went away from such encounters determined to top his own efforts the next year.
The Hydro Units had been performing at a level even their original designers couldn’t have foreseen. Nearly all the plants had survived the third burst acceleration with no ill effect, though some tomatoes had inexplicably been torn off the vines and spattered against ceilings and walls, while equally tender fruits held on just fine. Over time, most of the plants seemed to adapt to the reduced gravity quite well, often maturing at larger sizes than their Earth-grown ancestors. Tomatoes often turned out the size of grapefruits, while grapefruits themselves grew as large as cantaloupe. Watermelons seemed to be an exception – they remained Earth-sized for reasons the food scientists were unable to explain. These volume increases meant that the colony had fresh and nutritious foods at a much increased rate than original estimates had predicted, making food one of the few things aboard the Argos that didn’t require rationing in some fashion. And Johannes, as a result, became something of a minor celebrity, especially when he perfected a wheat strain that vastly improved the outcome for pie crust. Some aboard had even voiced concern for what might happen when Johannes was scheduled for his next sleep, as the crew referred to the stasis period required of all on board. They just hoped he was training his replacement properly. The lack of a good pie crust might just be cause for mutiny.
Steven Derwent had logged more than ten thousand hours aboard the landing craft simulator. He’d come to view this duty as play time, because he was in his own estimation never going to actually pilot the real thing. The same could be said about most of the mission specialists aboard the Argos – most would not live long enough to be useful in those specialties when the time actually arrived where they’d be needed. He knew staying up to speed was mainly to enable training up the next generation, as well as the other specialists currently in stasis. They would need substantial coaching as well as their own thousands of hours. Derwent spent more time in his two other assist roles, cooking, and maintenance, though the need for hull maintenance had thus far been minimal. So cooking became his primary contribution to the colony, where he’d become especially adept at baking breads. His pies weren’t bad, either, at least according to Shirani Joss, the chief software engineer aboard, and his partner. She seemed to have a thing for pies, which to Steven often seemed unusual, as he didn’t imagine pies were a big thing in Northern India, where Shirani had grown up. But it seemed her Uncle Walim had spent some time in the States, and written glowingly to young Shirani on the subject of apple and cherry pies. By the time she’d been accepted at MIT, she was already convinced of her love for pie, and when she actually tasted pie for the first time, she’d declared her allegiance to pie for life, apparently. Steven didn’t really mind – every time he baked a new recipe, she’d be all over him for the next week or so. The elderberry pie had been good for his love life for nearly a month.
A part of his simulator duty required face time with Arles Harmon, the head of the astronomy and planetary assessment teams. Shuttle pilots were required to stay up on the latest understanding of various planetary atmospheric dynamics scenarios. There was no way they could really know what they’d be facing until they’d gotten very close, so it was helpful to have as broad a repertoire as possible. Harmon was an odd duck among the crew. While he was not the finest physical specimen produced by the human species, he was certainly one of the smartest, something that tended to be reinforced every time Steven was in his general vicinity. It wasn’t that Harmon was egotistical or narcissistic, not at all. It was merely that Harmon never really came down from his mental heights. His social skills stunk, thought Steven, but he might be the one mind aboard that had more value to their mission than anyone else, including the Captain. And he had to admit, every session he had with Harmon left him just a bit more confident they’d actually find what they were seeking, a new home.
The Argos was now in the fifth year of it’s journey. For the largest part, there had been no real problems. The biggest thing they’d had to contend with so far were three small asteroids. Two had been successfully pulverized, and the third had been sufficiently impacted that it’s trajectory brought it less than three close miles to the ship. There had been a few maintenance issues, mostly component replacement, but Steven thought maybe the maintenance folks were bored and needed some make-work. Everything else, from his perspective, seemed perfect, especially his current love life. Today, he planned to make his first raspberry tart, and wondered how many weeks that would do the trick with Shirani. But his thoughts were abruptly shattered when Harmon, looking up from his compad, asked in a loud voice whether Steven had heard anything he’d said in the last half-hour. That Harmon’s voice was a trifle high pitched made it that much more jarring.
“Uh, sorry, Professor. I was just trying to make sense of these equations. You know that math isn’t my strongest suit,” he said. Harmon snorted.
“I am quite aware of that, Mr. Derwent. But for some reason it seems I must constantly remind you, you’d either better make it your strongest suit, as you so eloquently put the matter, or resign yourself to skipping off an atmosphere and becoming a personal long-trajectory comet. It is up to you. Unless, of course, you are carrying passengers, in which case I doubt they’d appreciate your failure to calculate angle of entry properly.” The sarcasm was less an attack on Steven personally, and more a function of Harmon having few real peers aboard. He often became frustrated with slower minds. But away from his official capacities, he was really a decent guy. Which didn’t really make his responses any easier to stomach, but Steven knew the value of harmony aboard the Argos.
It took another four passes before he got the formula right, but even then, Harmon piled on another hour of work to punish Steven’s earlier failure. He knew Harmon was right – one tiny miscalculation could have disastrous effects. But they both knew it was extremely unlikely he would ever actually be faced with the need to apply this knowledge. OK, maybe he’d have to train the next generation, who themselves would have to know this. But even that was a long way down the road, he thought. In the meantime, wasn’t it more important to be making pie, which had a high likelihood of leading to babies? Wasn’t that in the best interest of the colony, at least in the short term?
Shirani hadn’t actually made any noises about that so far, but he was pretty certain it was either only a matter of time, or the right pie. And, oh, those hips. He wouldn’t mind working out the cosign of those curves. He felt Harmon glaring at him again, and bent to the task at hand, determined to get it right this time.
Harmon looked at Mr. Derwent’s bent form, and wondered how he’d ever made it this far, as a part of this mission. He knew what the alternative would have been, of course, and did not seriously wish that option on anyone aboard. But he did wish there were a few brighter candidates available for his tutelage. He knew there were one or two in stasis, but at his age, he wasn’t certain their wake periods would sufficiently coincide with his own to make much of a difference. He would be entering his own sleep in another three months, scheduled to be out for two years. He wasn’t looking forward to the prospect. He was one of the oldest members of the crew, and this idea of stasis didn’t set well with him. He hated the cold, and hated being unable to make any decisions for himself while in that state. But he was a man of logic, and understood the purpose of the sleeps. He just didn’t care for the idea, as illogical as that might be.
Besides, work kept other thoughts away. Thoughts of Myrah, his wife, killed in the third wave of epidemics, of his son, Jason, missing in the Swiss-Italian Incursion. What had been the point of that? Why had the American government thought a peace-keeping force was worth the bother? They already knew the futility of spending any effort on such a useless enterprise. But Jason’s unit had been assigned to the first wave, when the Swiss had still not gotten the message. Neutrality, they apparently concluded, was simply no longer an option. And it had surprised everyone, even many of the Swiss themselves, when the Swiss Air Force dropped a fuel-air bomb on Rome. No one even knew they had much in the way of an air force, let alone such a destructive device. But when the Italians struck back, they set a significant portion of the Alps ablaze, and Jason’s unit perished to a man. Harmon had been drafted for the Argos about two months before his death, and he had never really had an opportunity to mourn. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t find it in himself to go easy on students like Steven Derwent, he thought. I won’t be there to get him out of a jam. Just like I couldn’t be there for Jason. He shook his head, trying to dispel the visions. They are doing no good, he thought, for me or for anyone else. We all lost not merely someone, but truly everyone. Harmon closed his eyes briefly, trying to recall Jason’s youthful face, but found it was becoming more difficult to do so as time passed. Is all this worth it, he thought? Does the human species even deserve a second chance? Our entire history has been one of greed and destruction, cruelty and abasement. What will make us any different? Harmon closed his compad, and rose to his feet. He had no answers to these questions that seemed to follow him every day. He realized he might never find them. Ah, well, I may as well get some rest, he thought, as he walked slowly from the lab.