Sep 052012
 

Hydroponic equipment and racks against a reflective background.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?”

Headshakes.

“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.”

Aug 272012
 

Tomato plants lined up on metal racks with artificial lighting overhead.Vetkar Allis was showing the Quality Inspector from Niepach Agro around his small-cubage agronery. Civadmin regulations required each grower who supplied raw materials for food processing to be inspected annually, but since the inspections were done by the food processing corporations who held the growers’ contracts, it wasn’t much of an inspection. Unless the grower was deficient in production or the various management kickbacks that kept the contract mechanism well-oiled. Vetkar never stinted on such things, but even if he had, it would have been difficult for an inspector to find anything to cite.

“And the total cubage allocated to variety production?” the inspector enquired boredly, his datapad at the ready.

Vetkar handed him a wisp of mylar that contained a plan of the agronery, showing each production area and including measurements and statistics. “Eight point six percent,” he said crisply. His contract with Niepach allowed him to put up nine percent of the productive cubage into products other than soy, and he’d been slowly increasing the amount of other production, year by year.

The inspector slid the wisp into his datapad’s input slot, and nodded. “You’ve added dairy? That requires an additional inspection.”

“It’s already scheduled,” Vetkar nodded at the datapad.

“Oh. So it is. All right, let’s check on the storage units.”

Patiently, Vetkar showed him over the holding bins and racks, the chemical and tool storage sheds, seed storage, and the loading bays where materials were transferred to and from Niepach delivery drones. The inspector, a rotund, rather dour-looking man who’d replaced Kegan Istril last Yearturn, took a few desultory readings with a biometer and chemstrips, noting the results on the datapad.

“I notice you’re due for an upgrade on your maintenance filter hoods,” he said, scanning the readouts, “but you’ve appealed for an extension.”

“Yes, they’re well within parameters for another couple of years’ service,” Vetkar said as he led the way past the processing area and the scooter stand, to the rows of growing vats, stacked four-high and stretching, seemingly, into infinity. Maintenance racks stretched between each row, with their controls on a stanchion at the end. Vetkar went to the first one, and lifted the cover that protected its keypad from dust and chemical vapor.

He gestured to the inspector, who looked blankly at him. “You can verify the seals, first,” he suggested. “That way you can confirm that the maintenance readouts haven’t been tampered with.” The inspector blinked. “That won’t be necessary, Agronist,” he said politely.

Vetkar suppressed a grin. The man didn’t even know how to check the seals, he’d bet. He had “new employee” written all over him, and it appeared Niepach was cost-cutting in the training budget again. “Well, that’s alright, then. Do you want me to run a random select of filter hoods, so you can check their tolerances?”

“Uh, that’s alright, let’s just look at this one, and, um…” the man pointed, “the one for that row.”

And so it went. When it was over, Vetkar reflected that he ought to invoice Niepach for the time he spent doing the inspector’s job. It would be amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that this clueless git was in charge of maintaining the integrity of a good portion of Hurst Niepach’s contribution to the food supply. One of the reasons he and Gislet had decided to put as much of their cubage as contract allowed into variety products was so that he and his family could supplement their rations from the agronery’s produce.

It cost them—the yield bonuses from high-yield soy, his contract crop, would have been more lucrative than what they could get on the specialty market for their fruits, vegetables, and modest dairy output, but it was worth it. A better future for his children started with good quality food.

The thought of his children reminded him he needed to return a call to the Special Activities Coordinator at their school. He dug his comlink from a pocket as he shucked off the new coverall he’d worn for the inspection.

“Bride’s Arms School.”

“This is Vetkar Allis, Kacek and Pralet’s father? I’m returning a call from Stipendary Gavrost…”

“I’ll put you through to his comlink.”

He carefully folded the coverall and slipped it into a plastic bag, shelving it, while he waited for the connection.

“This is Gavrost.” Vetkar was startled, he’d expected to reach the man’s message box.

“Uh, this is Vetkar Allis. You called… something about a field trip?”

The man’s voice warmed perceptibly. “Ah, yes, Agronist. We’re planning a field trip for the third and fourth levels, as you know… a shuttle trip to Pykalt Interstellar Port, and a tour of the Port facilities.”

Vetkar chuckled. “I know, I know… the kids have been talking of nothing else for days. We sent in their permission vouchers, didn’t we?”

“Oh, yes, we have them. I was calling about another matter. The charter company called yesterday. They have a surface-to-orbit shuttle for us, but the pilot they’d booked has come ill. I noted on your Parent Information Profile that you have a current STO Pilot’s Qualification?”

Vetkar blinked. “I do, yes. I did a hitch in the Home Legion as a shuttle jockey. I’ve kept up the Qualification, but I don’t actually do any regular piloting, you know.”

“Yes, but your Qualification is current, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. But…”

“Agronist Allis, on such short notice we just can’t find another pilot, and if you can’t volunteer, we’ll have to cancel the field trip. I hope we can count on you?”

Vetkar chewed his lip anxiously. The kids were so looking forward to the field trip, it would be awful if the school had to cancel. But it would mean a whole day away from the agronery, he’d have to do the critical chores extra-early, rearrange his planting and pollinating schedule, throw extra work on his wife to do the dairy takeoff and processing… He hesitated.

Gavrost sensed the hesitation. “There’ll be four other parent volunteers and three school staff on the trip, to assist. All you’d need to do is the actual piloting,” he wheedled.

Vetkar nodded, reluctantly, even though he didn’t have a visual circuit on his portable comlink, then belatedly added, “Well… alright. I’d hate the kids to miss the chance.”

“Wonderful! I’ll stat the volunteer waiver and orientation to your message box right away. The children will be so delighted!”

Vetkar grinned ruefully to himself as he broke the connection. A regular softy, he was.

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