Two days before the world died, Vetkar Allis was busy spreading manure on the north forty. Well, not “manure,” as in ‘the organic end product of animal digestive processes,’ but “manure,” as in ‘exquisitely balanced chemical nutrients and enhancements formulated to produce maximum yield.’ The manure catalyst was supplied at cost-plus to Niepach Agro contractors like Allis.
The empty tank was loaded on a float pallet for the Niepach Agro supply truck to retrieve and guided to the exchange point. He glanced upward. The angle and intensity of the light told him he had half an hour or so before he’d have to collect and process the dairy outflow. That might be enough time to check on those fruit crops.
He stripped off his hazmat suit—manure catalyst wasn’t something you wanted to come into contact with—and racked it carefully in the equipment shed, then abstracted a battered float scooter and maneuvered it among the big control towers until he came out on the far end. Before him stretched—literally farther than the eye could see—row after row after row of grow vats, each row separated by maintenance racks from its neighbor. To his left, the arrays were stacked four-high, showing a uniform pale green, the soy seedlings planted ten days ago reaching sturdily upwards to the light. To his right, there was more variation.
He turned the scooter and made for the several rows of vats that were partly shielded by filters curving over them from the maintenance racks. These were the genetically modified fruitstocks that relied on changing day lengths to initiate their fruiting cycle. Less yield per vat, but they were high-price items. The first few rows were apples, the three standard varieties, and then a couple of rows of specialties. The Crimson Crunch were in blossom: Each vat held three, with narrow, straight twigs rising from two branches stretched horizontally, bent ninety degrees from the stubby rootbase. He pulled the scooter to hover close, carefully lifting one of the filter hoods, and stuck his head under. A wash of faint, sweet scent rewarded him.
Yes, they’d have to be pollinated tomorrow, surely. The dense clusters of blossom promised a good crop. He inspected the vats carefully—automatic sensors could tell you when something went wrong, but human eyes were still the best judge of when something might be about to go wrong, and it was always cheaper to catch things early. His neighbor had lost six rows of tomato vats last year because by the time a fluid pressure anomaly had registered on the sensors, a critical feeder line was splitting.
Carefully, he hovered down the rows of vats, checking connections, filter hood adjustment, indicator lights. All well. When he reached the end, it was time to go empty the dairy-production units, and start the processors.
His children, Kacek and Pralet, found him in the dairy processing shed, checking the readouts on the row of dairy producers behind their sterile plasglas window. Each producer, a vat-grown construct of the digestive system of a dairy cow right down to the rubbery, swaying udder and the puckered waste outflow valve, had a dozen sensors attached, monitoring enzyme levels, production rate, molecular integrity, and all the other factors that kept a model “Bossie 9” producing milk for up to 20,000 hours before its molecular integrity disintegrated and it had to be replaced.
“Fa, FA!!” Kace was at the stage when he couldn’t vocalize anywhere below a roar without concentrated effort. Vetkar turned around, squatted slightly, and held out his arms, relishing the sensation of having them full of warm, wriggling offspring. “FA!!” Kace bellowed in his ear.
“Whoa, there… What’s up, big fella?” He knelt with one knee, and set Pralet on the other, with Kace in the curve of his arm.
“Fa, teacher says we’re goin’ to space!” Kacek reported importantly. Pralet wriggled with excitement. “With you, Fa!”
Vetkar chuckled. “I just volunteered to drive the bus, mighty mites. Your teachers will be showing you around.”
“Oh.” Pralet sounded disappointed. “But you’ll be there?”
He nodded. “With the shuttle.”
“Have you been to the spaceport before?” Kace probed.
He nodded again. “Lots of times. When I was in the military, before you were born, mighty mite.” He glanced at his chrono. “Does your Ma know you’re home from school?”
“Well, run in and tell her, then. She’s been fussing over the kitchen processor all day, maybe there’s something special coming out, hmm? I have to finish the milk run, then I’ll be in and you can tell me all about what you’re going to see in space.”
It wasn’t until hours later, when the kids were tucked up in their bunks, that he sat down in front of the battered comsuite to check the day’s messages. Gislet was wiping down the storage and processing units, and the elderly dishwasher was chugging away, so she didn’t hear his soft exclamation of dismay. But she could tell by the set of his shoulders that something was wrong. “Vet?” She dried her hands, and came over to the comsuite, setting them on his shoulders and feeling the tension there. “What is it?”
He shook his head, grimly. “Another water rate increase.”
“Oh, no! All of it?”
“Not residential. Just industry and agro on our side of the ring. Something about an upgrade to the processing facility, combined with a new share issue for Oquan Hydro.”
“But… won’t that wipe out whatever we’d hoped to get from the four percent soy yield increase?”
“Pretty much. I swear, if I had a nasty, suspicious-type mind, I’d think that Niepach tipped off Oquan about the production increases. The timing is perfect.”
“Maybe we should give up the dairy and specialties, after all…” They’d talked about it before. The dairy operation paid its way, like the fruitstocks and specialty vegetables for the restaurant market, but they didn’t net anything like the amount that could have been made from growing more soy with the same investment in space and equipment.
“No, dammit! I want the kids to drink our milk, eat our food. It’s appalling, that an agronist’s kids should have to eat standard rations, even emp-class rations.”
“They’re nutritionally complete, balanced, and supplemented at school for the childrens’ developmental needs, aren’t they? I love the stuff we grow, too, but at this rate…” she shook her head. “We’re never going to be able to buy shares.”
Although technically their contract with Niepach Agro qualified them to be approved for employee-class rations and cubage—Gislet bought staples at the Hurst Niepach Hypermarket, when they did go into town to shop—contractors never qualified for the retirement shares and other benefits that an actual company employee received. Only if they could scrape together the not-inconsiderable sum of cash needed to buy either the limited retirement shares Niepach offered for contractors, or full stakeholders’ shares, could they ever hope for any kind of economic security.
Vetkar sighed. “Maybe if I plant some faster-maturing varieties, I can get a full five crops this year.” Obsessively, he called up the planning spreads sheets for the agronery. Gislet leaned over, her arms circling his shoulders, and laid her cheek against his hair. “Not tonight, please, dearest… you’re not getting enough sleep, you know.”
It was true, he’d slept badly last night, and been up, as usual, two hours before first light. He reached up to caress her cheek. “I’ll be in to bed, soon, love. You get some rest, you’ve been up just as long.”