(This is a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago.)
Remember growing a bean sprout on your grade school classroom windowsill?
You’d fold up newsprint around a cardboard tube to make a little pot. Fill it with a bit of soil and add a dried bean. Pour in water until the moisture crept up the newsprint, blurring the inked letters. Couple days later a little green tendril would snake its way out of the dirt. Then one leaf, then two. Eventually you’d carry the little swaying plant home to your mother, who’d be properly impressed.
Nah, I don’t remember that either. My Gran tells me stories though. She remembers a bean plant, put on her mother’s kitchen windowsill and forgotten. Said she found it some weeks later when looking for cookies. She remembers being sad about the poor little dead bean.
I guess I get my love of green things from Gran. She grew up somewhere in the middle of the Old Country, where all the big farms were. Crops stretched for miles, she said. Forests of rustling corn. Wheat meadows that looked like oceans of gold. Those farms used to feed the whole country. Other countries, too. She doesn’t remember what happened to them. Says they all went to dust. Maybe it was pests or something.
We have a farm, but Gran doesn’t like it. No beauty here, she says. She doesn’t like looking out the windows, just isn’t interested in all the lovely green growth outside. The oldsters can be contrary like that. They think nothing can ever be as good as when they were young. I just don’t get that way of thinking. Our farm isn’t the biggest in the District, but I’d put our goods up against anyone else’s in a tasting contest. We use nothing but natural nutrients with our plants. Never any chemicals or those tailored DNA boosts. Sure it means our produce is smaller than those that used such, but they’re pure. Straight stock and seed from the Old Country. You couldn’t hardly find that anywhere these days. Besides, those jumped-up starts had no flavor to speak of, while everything we grew had strong, fresh flavor. Our melons were sweeter. Our carrots were crisper. The juiciest tomatoes in five Districts came from our little farm.
Big don’t always mean good, you know.
I guess I could understand Gran though. Our farm is nothing like the ones she’d known. Instead of greenness underfoot and a big blue bowl of a sky overhead, we have the inky blackness of space, a beautiful starfield, and the looming bulk of Saturn. Our farm is in geostat orbit above - or below, if you wanted to get technical - the third moon of Saturn, Tethys. That’s where we get our irrigation water, since she was mostly ice. Well, that’s where Pop gets our water. I ain’t allowed to go on harvesting trips just yet. Tethys has a quick orbit - and two close neighbors, Telesto and Calypso - which means we got short periods of daylight/darkness/daylight. The plants didn’t care much. Most tend to be more compact in growth, but in zero gee that don’t matter at all.
Our habitat keeps at a full gravity, even though Gran and Pop were the only ones to ever set foot on Earth. Myself, I was born on the LG 5 station at Eureka, just off Mars. Earth is nothing but a pale blue dot in the sky to me, and the subject of nearly every story Gran told these days. Pop wants us to stay strong though, and says it is good for Gran’s bones. I hope he’s right. She moves slower and slower lately.
We’ve been here at Tethys forever - my whole life, anyway - as part of District 724, answering to the Titan Ag Collective. The Collective were good folks, I reckoned. Just trying to make a living. They sold supplies, and marketed goods and services system-wide. Drones traveled between Titan and the Moon, to Mars, even the colony on Venus, sometimes carrying our little farm’s produce along. The Collective even helps newbies get on their feet and get productive. Not for free, of course. We sometimes bought nutrients from them, but only if we ran short. Recycling out here is a necessity. We use everything we can and all waste gets processed and reused.
Yes, all waste. When you live out here you can’t afford to be picky about things like that.
Our septic system feeds into the recycler, where microbes and pure sunlight do the work to turn it into distilled water for drinking and a sterile nutrient sludge. The sludge itself is worth its weight in platinum. Dense with minerals and trace elements, it has nearly everything our plants need. The nitrogen and phosphorus that make plants and fruits healthy is right there in our own recycled waste. Plants need potassium, too, though, to make good strong roots. Fortunately, the ice Pop harvests from Tethys is just silly with it. But that’s why he chose this location, as far away from everything as it is.
A smart man, my Pop.
I don’t mind the isolation. We have a satellite feed from Titan that relays all sorts of classes, films, and so very many books. I read everything I can. Learn everything I can. Enough to know I am perfectly happy right here with my plants in this backwater corner of the solar system. If Pop wasn’t happy here, he sure didn’t show it. He’s always busy, working on something or other. Or shuttling down to Tethys on an ice run. He was always kinda quiet when he came back from her. But no matter how I beg, he won’t take me yet.
Gran likes the satellite feed, too, though she only ever watches films, grainy old things from forever ago. I sometimes watch with her. It is interesting to see Earth from before. Before it got ruined. I couldn’t imagine my bare feet in sun-warmed grass, or feeling wind on my face that wasn’t created by a ventilation system. Mars has atmo, even a weird sort of mossy grass, but we never visited anymore.
My job - well, after schoolwork - is taking care of the farm’s seedlings. We don’t have the credit for a dome, nor the spare atmo to fill it, so we use Pop’s invention instead: thermoplastic elastomer bubbles. Pop used to be a big deal with some corporation back on Mars. All kinds of inventions. But after Mom died he just didn’t want to be there anymore. Oh, he still invents things. The extruder in our habitat is always churning out something. If it was good, we used it. If not, back into the hopper it went, since the thermoplastics were recyclable. Some of my old toys are out there right now, helping our plants grow.
I think Pop’s elastomer bubble is just brilliant. It’s airtight, so it doesn’t leak when filled with atmo, but it’s also stretchy. As a plant grew, I could take that bubble and just pull on it to make it larger. The plants could then grow radially instead of just vertically. Those bubbles were mighty tough and I still didn’t know their limits. We have a tomato plant out there now that is half a klick long and still going. I was willing to keep stretching as long as it was willing to keep growing!
We start our seeds in the usual way, in a nutrient bath between layers of sterile gauze. When the roots sprout, I take over. My small hands are the most suited to braiding up the delicate, filament-like roots. Left to their own devices, the roots would grow every which way, eventually preventing light from reaching the leaves themselves. Plants would grow in any direction you could imagine, but they still liked to have at least some idea of “down.” After braiding off, each seedling is moved to its own elastomer bubble, with the root braid attached to a capillary nutrient feed in the bottom of the bubble. The feed is connected to a tube line, and the line connected to the nutrient dispenser on the habitat. A second line rides alongside, pulling minute amounts of oxy and carbon dioxide directly from the hab. Just enough to ensure proper photosynthesis. Pop always said we breathed to make our little farm grow.
With all the bubbles and tubes, from outside our hab looked like it was under attack by a swarm of green jellyfish. I love being out among them in my little suit. I imagine I’m underwater, in a giant kelp forest. Or exploring an alien planet. Gran always said a good imagination was required when living in space. She never looked very happy when she said it, though.
Since we are growing in the nearest thing to hard vacuum, the plants also need heat. Tiny solar panels - another of Pop’s inventions - are attached to each bubble. They collect energy constantly from both the Sun and reflected light from Saturn, and disperse it in the form of heat throughout the bubbles. I think that’s why that tomato plant was so dang big. Well, that and the magnetic field. Tethys is deep in Saturn’s magnetosphere, you see, which meant our little farm is constantly exposed to all these extra electrons and ions. It means a ton of extra shielding on the habitat, if we want any kind of uninterrupted electrical field inside, but it also means we could be stingier with our precious seeds since every one sprouts.
Yep, every single seed we planted would sprout thanks to big old Saturn.
I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. I can’t imagine doing it the old way: starting so many seeds then pulling out perfectly healthy seedlings to let the others grow. “Thinning” it was called. Waste of time to me. And I hate the thought of killing those baby plants, just when they were getting strong and reaching their new leaves up to the light. Sure, we recycled everything but usually only at the end of life. Like that tomato plant. I wanted to see how big it would get, so Pop left it growing, but usually tomatoes only lasted about 15 Titan days, or half an Earth year. This one had been blooming non-stop for the past Titan year. I named it Goliath, after a giant in one of Gran’s stories.
Pollination is my other job. Since each plant is inside one of Pop’s bubbles, pollination has to be done by hand. By my small hands, to be exact. Most could be done by a giving the bubble a good strong shake. Pollen would fly off the flowers, making a pretty cloud inside each sphere. There are no bees in space… But wouldn’t that be a sight? Fitted up with little pressure suits and helmets. I’d never seen a real bee but that’d be something. Made me laugh every time I thought of it.
Wind is usually the other pollinator, but there ain’t any wind in a vacuum. I shook what I could, the smaller plants, and used an old brush on the others. Pop had rigged up a coriolis machine in Goliath’s bubble. Mounted on the underside of the solar array, but inside the bubble, it turns on every few hours. The vibration shakes the pollen free from the flowers, and the fan’s motion swirls it all around, coating the flowers, leaves, and fruit. The pollen catches the light from Saturn and sparkles like gold dust. It’s a heck of a sight.
It’s a good life, no matter what Gran says. She didn’t wake up this morning, though. Finally just had enough of space, I ‘spose. I was sad, but I knew I’d see her again, in the sprouts and blossoms of our little farm.