What few of them were visible, that is, within the glare of lights that ringed the circular pod enclosing Lunar III's botanical garden.
Stretching out overhead, invisible against the dark sky, was a clear plastite dome that created the illusion that the garden was open to the outside where the stark basin of Tycho, in the southern lunar highlands, stretched out to where the Moon's surface just began to suggest its curved surface.
Harsh sunlight, filtering through the polarized plastite, etched every last detail of the crater's craggy rim as well as the irregularities of smaller meteor strikes that pocked its inner expanse. In the distance, coming from the direction of Lunar III's spaceport, Leah could just make out a moonbus as it tracked its way across the crater on the daily run to Lunar XI and beyond.
Closing her eyes, Leah cradled her head in laced fingers and imagined the busy mining station. The passengers getting off there and others coming aboard the moonbus as it prepared for its next hop to Lunar V where her father worked as a geobiologist...
"Wouldn't you just love to be on that moonbus right now?" said a voice, shattering Leah's reverie.
"What for?" said another. "My dad says if you've seen one Lunar colony, you've seen them all."
"Oh, that can't be so," replied the first voice. "Different colonies concentrate on different specialties. Some are mining colonies and others are research colonies like this one doing botanical work."
"I heard Sylva Hedison's dad is a pilot on the moonbus," said a third voice.
t that, Leah rolled over, luxuriating in the longish grass and said "That must be a romantic occupation."
"Not really," sniffed Lida, whose father judged every colony to be alike. "I heard it's noisy and smelly inside."
"With air recycling and environmental controls everywhere? I doubt it," said Mrozy, the group's realist.
"I don't care what anybody says, I'd still like to take a ride on the moonbus some day," insisted Mara.
The three girls lay in a circle looking up, the same as Leah, their heads nearly touching. They had waited almost two weeks to get use of the grass in Botanical 5 for their picnic after Lida's mother had reserved it for them.
Botanical 5 was only one of several pods dedicated to growing plants in actual soil as opposed to pure laboratory environments where they were raised hydroponically, with their root systems suspended in fluids and sometimes not even that.
In fact, Leah's mother was a botanist who had moved to Lunar III with her husband ten years before when Leah was only three. Her father specialized in geobiology, trying to find the right combination of elements in the dry lunar soils and geological formations that might support terrestrial root systems while her mother studied the effects of the Moon's lighter gravity on plant development.
Looking at the garden around her, Leah could only conclude that her parents and their colleagues were making good progress. All around the patch of grass she and her friends were lying on at the moment there was a wide assortment of plants, all terrestrial in origin naturally, but not every one instantly recognizable as such.
There were tall palms and a few dwarf conifers, flowers with stiff stalks that reached for the dome overhead and others that crawled along the ground. Thick shrubs crowded the spaces between them and different species of shrunken maples and poplars were studded with white barked birches that Leah guessed may have been the most successful in adapting to the Moon's low gravity.
At the moment, the girls lay in the shade cast by a pair of birches from lights that circled the base of the plastite dome duplicating the quality of sunshine that could be found on Earth.
"Dann Polgrath's older sister told me she was here when they first opened Botanical 3," said Lida. "She said when the plastite dome went up, they inflated it like a big balloon."
"You believe that?" asked Mrozy.
"Dann's always telling stories," said Mara.
"Not this time," replied Lida. "I asked my dad about it...he's a low grav structural engineer, you know...and he said it was so. When fully inflated, plastite can be as strong as steel in a low gravity environment, he said."
"Wow," whispered Mrozy, looking up in new wonderment.
"And what about these things?" asked Mara, changing the subject and pointing to a vine festooned with purple grapes.
"Don't touch those," warned Leah. "Remember what my mom said, don't touch the fruits, they're part of an experiment."
"Wouldn't dream of it," said Mrozy, staring. "But my older brother always brags about how he used to eat all kinds of fruit and stuff when our family still lived on Earth. I wouldn't know about that because I was too little at the time."
"Yeah, your folks came up in the same rocket as mine," said Leah.
he fact had always made the two girls feel closer than regular friends, almost like sisters.
"Your brother is probably making it up," said Lida dismissively. "Who'd eat anything grown on a vine instead of synth-foods?"
"But haven't you ever wondered what fruits and vegetables like carrots and potatoes taste like?" asked Mara.
"Me neither!" exclaimed Leah. "Yuch!"
"What's so bad about 'em?"
"You want to eat stuff that grows in the ground? Why some of it even depends on bugs and bacteria to flourish...my mother told me that. Just the thought of eating a plant turns my stomach."
"Mine too," quickly agreed Mrozy.
"I can't imagine such a thing," admitted Lida, screwing up her face in distaste. Then, lowering her voice, "I heard that some people back on Earth even eat dead animals like pigs and cows!"
"Ewww!" said the other girls in unison.
"But that's nothing," continued Lida, enjoying the effect of horror her words had on her friends. "You want to know something else?"
"I'm afraid to ask, but..."
"If you've got a weak stomach, you better leave the garden..."
"No, no, go on..." It was like that delicious moment when the girls talked openly among themselves of boys and first kisses, the sensation of being on the verge of something forbidden...
"Well," went on Lida, unconsciously squirming closer to the others and lowering her voice even further, "I heard that people on Earth..not all of them surely, but definitely some...eat the unborn offspring of chickens..."
"Eggs?" queried a trembling Mara.
"Must be," said Lida. "But that's not all. People even drink the milk of cows!"
"Gross!" said Leah, disgusted.
"They make other stuff with that milk, don't they?" asked Mrozy. "Ice cream and cheese and yogurt..."
"Stop it!" said Leah, giving her friend a playful shrug.
"Oh, I don't believe all that," declared Mara. "Lida's making it all up. We've had ice cream and yogurt plenty of times and I know they don't come from any animals."
"Don't be a vac-head, Mara," scolded Lida. "The food we eat here is processed in synthesizers. No animals or vegetables involved."
"It's a lot more natural than...I can't even make myself say it," said Leah, her stomach upset at the mere thought of consuming raw foodstuffs.
"Well, then, if I didn't kill everyone's appetites, let's see what my mother packed in my supply satchel," said Lida.
"I am hungry," admitted Mrozy.
"I can eat too...I think," said an uncertain Leah.
n another moment, Lida had broken the seal on her supply satchel and handed out individualized, vac-sealed meals stamped with the reassuring ReadyFoods corporate label.
"Now this is what I call food," exclaimed Mara, tearing off the alum neutralizer foil from her meal. Instantly, the foil vanished in a puff of steam. "My favorite! Synth-burger with soy sidings."
"I'll take the synth-steak if no one wants it," said Mrozy.
"Here you go," said Lida handing the meal over. "Here's the synth-loaf and side greens for you, Leah. I know you like that."
"Thank you," said Leah, taking the meal and releasing the foil. Instantly, the aroma of the processed nourishment filled her nostrils causing her stomach to rumble. "Excuse me!"
They all laughed then and began eating the colorful synth-foods, each semi-solid portion separated into individual recesses and consumed via built in ingesters. For some minutes, everyone was silent except for the occasional slurping sound. Presently, however, they finished the main course and were ready to move on to dessert, also stored in handy trays and the faux sweetened contents accessed via ingester.
"That was good!" said Mrozy after the meal was concluded.
"It always tastes better when you're on a picnic," observed Mara. "I wonder why that is?"
"Probably the company," suggested Leah.
"Yeah, you should see my brothers' table manners," said Lida.
"We have!" replied the others in unison as everyone broke out in laughter.
Unfortunately for Leah, it was only a few weeks following that happy picnic that her world came crashing down.
It took place in the unlikeliest of places as the colony's clocks indicated evening was approaching (they were set by the North American States' eastern standard time). On the other side of the clear plex shielding that formed the outter bulkhead of her family's living unit, Leah could see that little had changed over the craggy moonscape below. Set near the center of Tycho's crater, Lunar III was located in the best possible position to take advantage of the sun's light, a requirement for its botanical research and the plants growing in its half dozen plastite pods.
The pods themselves were set at the ends of an equal number of radiating corridors anchored by a central hub housing the main laboratories and residential compound. The living units themselves were quite roomy with larger units able to accommodate growing families. The Pomeau's however, occupied a smaller, two bedroom unit that nevertheless came with distinct kitchen area and living room. Just then, the family was gathered around the kitchen table for the evening meal.
lthough eating on the Moon was a much simpler affair than it was on Earth (there was no cooking for instance), most families still preferred to follow traditional mealtime rituals, gathering together in the mornings and evenings to nourish themselves together and talk about news of the day.
"Did you finish your homework, dear?" Katherine Pomeau was asking Leah as she removed a large tray from a bank of cabinets.
"Yes, mom," replied Leah, taking her accustomed place at table. "The learning systems went down this afternoon but booted back up after a few minutes. Boy! That gave me a scare!"
"I heard about it from Mrs. Cleary next door," said her mother, setting the tray in the center of the table. "The software engineers were running a systems check on the HVAC housing and the commands got mixed up somehow."
"So that's what happened," said a new voice in the room. "I thought it was another EM event from sunward like we had a few years ago."
Clark Pomeau had just emerged from one of the bedrooms bringing the zipper of his jumpsuit up the last few inches to the collar. It was rare to see him on weekdays because his geological work usually took him all over the Moon.
"Don't even say such things," reprimanded his wife. "The colony had to go on emergency power for a week and it took months for the labs to rebuild their records from backups. It set my work back...well, I just don't want to talk about it."
"Don't blame you," said Clark with a wink to Leah.
Leah smiled. "Hi, dad."
"So, what's for supper?" asked her father, throwing a leg over the top of his chair and plunking himself down. It was the same needless question he asked every time the family sat down for the evening meal and though the menu never changed, Leah liked to hear the cheery greeting.
"We've got steak, pork, or meatloaf garnished with a choice of greens and for dessert, you can choose between homemade apple pie, ice cream, or an assortment of pastries," replied her mother, going along with the conceit.
"Mmm, mm!" said Clark, reaching over to remove the temp-seal over the tray. The interior was divided into a dozen segments, each bearing different kinds of nutrient pills representing daily requirements of vitamins and minerals deemed necessary by Lunar nutritionists for good health in a low g environment.
"Which one's the meatloaf, now?" asked Clark with mock seriousness.
"The pinks," said Leah with equal seriousness even though both knew very well that none had flavor associated with Earth foods. It was a game her father had played with her since she was a baby and one that sentiment prevented her from abandoning now that she was older.
lark took a pink pill and made a show of swallowing it with a gulp of water. "I love meatloaf," he said.
"Oh, cut it out," chided his wife, smiling.
Taking a green pill, Katherine popped it into her mouth and swallowed it dry, a feat that never seized to impress her husband. "I won't be sorry if I ever have to swallow one of these things again."
"You might not have to," said Clark.
"What do you mean? Wait! The clearances came through?"
Clark nodded. Now it was his turn to smile. "Our rocket leaves in three weeks."
So overjoyed was Katherine, that she could not contain herself, leaping from her chair and throwing her arms around her husband in an unaccustomed display of public affection.
"Wow! If I knew the news was going to get this kind of reception, I'd have waited till later..."
"You big lug..." was all Katherine could muster as she finally pushed herself away. "Oh, it's going to be so nice to feel sunshine on my skin again, to breathe fresh air...and no more pills or synth-meals!"
"Man! I can just taste that T-bone steak right now," Clark was saying, leaning back and tapping his stomach.
"You mean...we're leaving the Moon?" asked Leah, stunned. "Going back to Earth for good?"
In the excitement, her parents had completely forgotten what the news would mean to their daughter, who had no immediate memories of Earth.
"Yes, dear," said her mother, reaching across the table to take Leah's hand in hers. "We're going back home. No more closed environments. No more spacesuits. No more EMT events..."
"Well, let's not get hysterical, Katherine," chided Clark. "But life will be easier."
"Oh, but it will be good to eat real food for a change!" declared Katherine, looking askance at a green nutrient pill. "Stews and soups and pastries and three course meals..."
"Fried eggs and bacon..."
"Clam chowder and baked haddock..."
"Blood sausages and pig's feet...and liver!"
"And cottage cheese, coffee milk, and real ice cream..."
"I'm going to my room," said Leah suddenly.
"What's wrong, dear?"
"I'm not feeling well."
"Let her go, Kath," said Clark, laying his hand on his wife's arm. "I think she's just upset."
"Likely about going back to Earth. All her friends are here, you know. She really doesn't know anyone back home."
"Oh, I should have realized that. But I'm glad we'll be staying a while at my sister's. That way, Minitis can help her get reacquainted with Earth."
"She and Minitis were pretty tight when they were little," agreed Clark. "But for right now, give her a few days and I'm sure she'll get used to the idea of moving."
ut after a few days had passed, Leah didn't feel any better. In fact, watching her parents on the satellite phone to Earth, talking to relatives and making living arrangements for the family's return, only deepened her distress.
"Having to eat stuff grown from the ground? Drink milk from a cow? Eat the meat of a slaughtered animal?" Leah shuddered. "Just the thought of it makes me want to throw up."
"Me too!" agreed Mara, holding her stomach.
"I guess if I had to, I could force myself to eat vegetables and fruit, but meat and milk from the body of a living cow..." Leah shuddered.
"Isn't there anything you can do?" asked Mrozy, more distressed at losing her "sister" than the horrible fate that awaited her back on Earth. "I wish you didn't have to go! Maybe when the rocket leaves, you can hide and miss the flight?"
Lida snorted at the idea. "That's been tried before and never works. What Leah needs is a better plan than that."
The girls were sitting around a little table in the big atrium located in the central hub of Lunar III where small shops offered a modest assortment of Earth imports, consignments, and even some local product, mostly sculpture made from moon rocks by artists from the different colonies.
The atrium itself was a popular gathering spot for residents of all ages and with most of the available tables taken, no one was paying much attention to Leah and her friends as they sampled an assortment of synth-foods.
"What kind of a better plan?" challenged Mara.
"Well, if it were me, I'd start saving nutrient pills until I had a big supply of them," replied Lida. "Then I'd hide them in my pockets and luggage to take to Earth."
Suddenly, Leah perked up. "That's it! I could do that!"
"But you'd run out eventually," said Mrozy practically. "What would you do then?"
"All she'd need is enough pills to tide her over until she could find out where she could get more on Earth," said Lida. "That should be easy. A lot of people there prefer to get all their vitamins quick and easy from nutrient pills than having to cook real food and stuff."
"Sure! That's it!" said Leah again. "They must sell pills and synth-foods everywhere."
"Boy, what am I gonna do on Earth without you guys?" asked a relieved Leah. "I'm sure gonna miss you!"
With that, the emotional dam broke. Up to then, the friends had managed to keep the reality of Leah's departure compartmentalized but now, with a plan for her survival in place, tears suddenly filled their eyes.
"I'll miss you forever and ever," declared Mrozy, falling into Leah's arms. The friends, who had felt more like sisters their whole lives together, held each other for many minutes until their shuddering bodies at last grew still.
"I'll never forget you," said Leah. "And when you go back, I promise, we'll see each other again and we won't ever be parted then."
"It'll be another whole year before my father is rotated back," said Mrozy, sniffling and wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
Quickly, hugs were exchanged with Mara and Lida and then it was time for Leah to return to the living unit where her parents were busy saying their own goodbyes to colleagues and neighbors.
aking advantage of their distraction, Leah went through the kitchen area collecting all the nutrient pills she dared hoping that their absence would not be noticed. Over the next two days before the scheduled flight, she spent all her meager credits to buy even more from dispensers in the atrium where her purchases would not be noted by her parents.
By the time all of the family's belongings had been loaded on a power cart for transport to the moonbus station, Leah was satisfied that she had collected enough pills to last her for weeks on Earth hiding them on her person as well as scattering them through the family's luggage.
It was another tearful goodbye at the moonbus station the morning they boarded. It seemed as if the whole population of Lunar III had showed up but the only ones that really mattered to Leah were Mara, Lida, and especially Mrozy. And then, all too soon, they were strapped in their seats and Lunar III was falling behind them as the craft glided swiftly across Tycho heading for a gap in the crater's craggy rim.
The trip to Lunar I, where the rocket base was located, was short, or so it seemed to Leah, who took in everything with fascination including the repetitive stops at Lunars II, VII, and IX to pick up and let off passengers. At last, however, the 'bus settled in the receiving area of Lunar I, the oldest and largest of the Moon colonies and the family made its way down the exit tube to the main concourse. There, Leah could not help but be impressed with its size and scope.
"Wow!" she declared, craning her neck to watch the various people-lifts as they streaked up and down the multiple levels of living units that towered to a glastite dome far overhead. All around them, thousands of people were coming and going all dressed in colorful styles of clothing that had been mostly absent in the less cosmopolitan Lunar III.
"Get used to it, Leah," said her father. "Earth will be a far more bustling place than this. In Cleveport at least, where the off-Earth rocket field is located."
But to Leah's disappointment, they were only passing through the concourse to catch their scheduled rocket to Earth so she was not able to see more of the bustling colony. With their luggage having gone ahead of them, there was no delay in boarding and soon, the pilot had given the two minute warning.
Take off was not what Leah had imagined. Instead of a fiery blast and a deep rumble that should have shook every rivet in the ship's frame, there was barely any sensation of movement as the rocket's mighty cold fusion engines lifted the gleaming needle skyward. Slowly, as the rocket leveled out in a shallow orbit around the moon, Leah felt the recliner she was sitting in adjust to the new angle, keeping her upright in relation to the cabin around her. Through a small porthole at the end of the family's row of recliners, she could see the glow of the distant Earth begin to suffuse the interior of the ship before it slipped into the back side of the Moon. When it emerged into the sunlight again, the rocket made like an arrow directly for the blue and white planet that now lay dead ahead.
"Why don't you try and get some sleep, Leah," advised her mother. "You likely were too excited last night to get much and it'll be awhile before we can bed down once we land."
eah needed no persuading. Her eyelids were heavy and so, after pulling the tab to adjust the headrest function in her recliner, she closed her eyes and fell quickly to sleep.
She awoke suddenly however, vaguely disturbed and when she tried to remember, she knew it had been a dream or nightmare rather, about being forced to eat the burned flesh of some animal...
"Almost home!" whispered her father in her ear. "Look! You can already see the lights of Earth's cities."
It was true. The rocket had descended low enough in its orbital entry that Leah could look out through the little porthole and see a darkened landscape webbed like a sheet of broken plex with strings of light indicating cities and towns and roads that crisscrossed the planet's surface.
"They're beautiful!" exclaimed Leah.
But soon they were gone as the rocket emerged into the planet's dayside, obviously in its final approach. In seconds, even as she felt the pull of gravity as the ship slowed its descent, she recognized the shape of the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. Then, the rocket had sprouted its retractable wings and for the first time during the trip, Leah heard the sounds it made. Outside, it must have been a loud screeching as the rigid, durasteel wings cut the atmosphere but inside, it was like a low whistling. That was cut short however, as the rocket rushed quickly to the ground and landed with a barely perceptible bump on nitrogen cooled tires. Later, in its cradle, the ship would be righted again to prepare for its next run to the Moon, but for now, it rumbled slowly down a vast concrete apron to the reception area.
"Welcome to Cleveport," said the pilot over the intercom. "On behalf of the crew, we hope you have a safe and pleasant visit on Earth."
xiting the rocket was a hurried and confusing affair for Leah and soon she and her parents found themselves on a walkway that wound through an enclosed forest of maples, oaks, and poplars to the public transportation hub. The scent of plants and earth was heavy in the air as they followed other passengers to the hub. At last, they emerged into the open air where for the first time in years, Leah breathed fresh air and felt the warmth of unrestricted sunlight on her skin.
"Boy! It's hot out here," she said, just as a Ford anti-grav roadster pulled up in the smart track. Almost as soon as it stopped, a woman leaped out and threw her arms around her mother.
"Kathy!" she screeched in delight. "It's so wonderful to see you again! And you too, Clark."
When the woman had finished giving her father a hug, it was Leah's turn.
"You've grown so much!" bubbled the woman who Leah finally identified as her mother's sister Cloris. "Here, why don't you get in the car beside Minitis; I'm sure you two cousins will have a lot in common."
Somewhat reluctantly, Leah slid into the seat next to a girl her own age and whom she remembered only in images that Cloris had sent to the Moon over the years.
"Hi, Minitis," said Leah. "I'm Leah."
"I know that, silly!" said Minitis, laughing. "We used to play together all the time when we were kids, remember?"
In truth, Leah had to admit that she did have vague memories of those times. She and Minitis had once been playmates.
In another minute, the anti-grav cart with the family's luggage had arrived and the gear stowed away in the roadster.
"36 Western Trail," Cloris said. There was a series of boops and beeps and a couple flashing lights on the dashboard before the roadster engaged and pulled smoothly away from the rocket field.
Soon, Cleveport was left behind and they were surrounded by the Ohio countryside. Fifty-six point two miles to the southwest, Leah knew, lay the mega-tropolis of Cleveland but there was no need to pass through it on the way to Cloris' home in the suburban township of Keys. As the roadster sped along at speeds that exceeded 120 miles per hour, Leah chatted with her cousin, renewing their old acquaintance and with every moment feeling more and more at home. Still, it took a while for her to stop marveling at the blue sky that vaulted overhead with nary a cloud in sight.
t last, they arrived at 36 Western Trail and Leah found that her aunt's home was just as it appeared in the images sent to the Moon and as she stepped into the ample vestibule, was surprised at how familiar it all was.
"What do you think, Leah?" asked her aunt.
"It's just the way I remember it," Leah said, moving further inside the circular structure where an inner barrier of clear plex gave a view of a rock garden that could be observed from every room in the house.
Sunlight was everywhere.
"Minitis, why don't you take Leah to your room," suggested Cloris. "Kathy, you and Clark will have the guest room. I'll be in the kitchen getting supper ready if you need me. They call it an auto-kitchen but really, you still have to do all the work yourself!"
"The same old complaints," said Katherine as Clark manhandled their luggage down the hall.
"Believe me, you had it easy on the Moon...what with only pills and synth-meals to worry about!"
"I won't deny it," returned Katherine, laughing.
The reminder of mealtime put a damper on Leah's rising spirits as she felt her stomach do involuntary flip flops. What, she wondered, was Cloris preparing for supper? More to the point, how was she to avoid eating without drawing attention? Her mind racing, she decided to plea an upset stomach caused by the recent rocket trip as an excuse. That would get her through the day at least. Breakfast might be skipped by pretending to over sleep and lunch by just not being around...
"So, you guys are gonna stay with us until you find a place of your own, huh?" Minitis was saying.
They were making their way down the curving passage with doorways on one side and the clear plex shielding on the other when Leah realized she remembered exactly where her cousin's room was. Inside, a single big, variegated bed sat amid feminine flourishes that adorned the pastel colored walls and the few pieces of convertiture that dotted the otherwise neat room.
"You can have this convertinet to put your things in," Minitis was saying. "And this side of the bed is yours. It has its own controls." So saying, she lifted the dainty coverlet to reveal a touch panel that could be easily reached from someone lying on the bed.
"Pretty cool," admitted Leah. "You didn't have this the last time I was here."
"Ma used to be a little old fashioned," said Minitis in a stage whisper. "But she's since gotten with the program!"
hey both laughed then, just like they used to so that by the time she had finished unpacking her things, Leah had almost forgotten her problem. She was reminded of it however, when she came upon the hiding places for her nutrient pills which she took pains to store out of sight without her cousin noticing. Maybe she could confide in Minitis at some point, but she had to be sure she wouldn't betray her secret to the adults.
"All set?" asked Minitis.
"Guess so," said Leah, letting the hidden mags close the convertinet's drawers on their own.
"Good, let's go to the kitchen and see if Cloris needs any help. Later, we can walk around outside and we'll visit all our old hangouts."
"That'll be nice," replied Leah, somewhat trepidatious about going into the kitchen. Who knew what horrors she might find there? She thanked her lucky stars that the kitchen was equipped with scent dampeners, otherwise any smell of foods being prepared might have forced her to make a run for the bathroom!
As it turned out though, nothing was brewing or, at least, nothing that she could see. Looking around, Leah only saw clean, white furnishings and early period 21st century brickwork devoid of any evidence that the area was the center of food preparation for the house. At a small work podium in the center of the room, Cloris was leaning on her arms and studying a rugged holo-screen built into its surface.
"Can we do anything, Cloris?" asked Minitis going over and peering over her mother's shoulder.
"Maybe you can, Min," said her mother. "What do you make of this?"
"Looks to be within prep-parameters. What is it you're trying to do?"
"I've got a roast in the thermo and I want to make sure half of it comes out the way Clark likes it, medium well."
"Oh, then you have to adjust this temp reading..."
"I did that."
"...and then punch in the locator signals."
"Now that always gets me confused."
"You just do this and let the computer take over..."
"You're such a good mother's little helper!"
"Aw, c'mon, Cloris!"
"Do you know anything about cooking, Leah?" asked Cloris.
Leah shook her head. "We didn't have to do any cooking in Lunar III."
"Well, you're gonna need to do some fast catching up then," laughed Minitis. "Unless you plan on eating only pills or those yuchy synth-meals."
"They weren't so bad..."
"You kidding? That pasty stuff in a tray? Why..."
"Hush, dear," said Cloris. "You're forgetting Leah hasn't had real food in ten years."
"I forgot! I'm sorry, Leah."
"It's okay." But it really wasn't. The exchange only heightened Leah's inner panic, especially a few minutes later when Cloris removed the roast from the thermo...the scorched flesh of an animal really...and its stench filled the room.
eah could barely contain her growing nausea when Minitis began filling a glass pitcher with white liquid that streamed from a dispenser in the frigid-air. Watching it fill the container in creamy waves and ripples that left a film on the inner glass was finally too much to bear and she quickly excused herself.
In Minitis' room, Leah quickly sought out her pills and made sure she had some in her pockets. No way would she be caught without them in an emergency!
"Are you sick?" asked Minitis a moment later.
"Maybe a little," said Leah.
"Maybe you should lie down for a while?"
"I think I will," replied Leah, seizing the opportunity. "Can you apologize to your mother for me? I don't think I'll be in for supper."
"Sure. I hope you feel better."
After Min had gone, Leah lay on the bed, relieved that she'd escaped having to sit down for supper so easily. Now all she had to do was sleep late the next day and keep away from the house at lunchtime...
It had taken some ingenuity, but Leah had managed to avoid most of the family's meals over the next few days and at others merely picked at her plate, giving the illusion of eating, until she could get away.
She had slipped into her parents room briefly to retrieve the remainder of the nutrient pills she'd hidden in their luggage but already, her supply was running out. She had to find an alternate supply soon or...or nothing! She had to get more! Then, luck seemed to break her way when her mother asked if she wanted to go with her to a local country store. Leah didn't know exactly what a country store was but any store would likely sell nutrient pills and synth-foods so she readily agreed.
er first surprise was that they would not be going to the store via anti-grav car but by foot. At Lunar III, no destination was more than a few minutes away by foot but on Earth, she'd assumed the greater distances would require transportation. Her mother quickly disabused her of the notion as they walked up an unpaved road that lay behind the scattered homes that fronted on the smartway.
"Using transportation in the megatropolis is one thing, but out here, getting some exercise naturally is the best way to go," said her mother. "When you can walk somewhere rather than ride, so much the better. This way, we can enjoy the fresh air and each other's company."
It did turn out to be a pleasant walk and their conversation was such that they arrived at the store in what seemed to Leah no time at all. They must have taken a roundabout route because the store, designed to reflect a rustic look of two centuries before, fronted on the smartway. Out front, a number of cars sported ID tags indicating that their owners were likely visitors driving through the area and not locals.
Inside, Leah's nose was assaulted with a variety of scents that she soon traced to wooden bins arranged around the store filled with different kinds of vegetables and fruit, some still streaked in the soil from which they'd been pulled. Other displays included what was called "homemade" candy and pastries, and elsewhere even tobacco products that she'd heard some people deliberately burned in order to inhale the smoke!
"Kathy, is that you?" asked an elderly man in a white apron.
"Fred! It's so good to see you again," replied Katherine.
"When did you get back?"
"Just a few days ago..."
"From the Moon?"
"So, you and Clark went the distance after all?"
"We did. But we're back home to stay now. We're over at my sister's until we find a place of our own."
"Well, that's wonderful," said Fred. "But you have to come over again when you have more time. Would love to hear all about life on the Moon. We can sit on the antique rocking chairs I have out front. The genuine old time lemonade will be free!"
atherine laughed. "It's a date!"
"And who's this with you? Can't be Leah...she's only a baby!"
"This is her all right," replied Katherine." She grew up pretty fast on the Moon."
"I'll say! She's a little lady now. Does she still like peaches?" So saying, Fred took something from one of the bins and handed it to Leah.
"Thank you, Fred..." Leah managed, repelled at the fuzzy softness of the fruit's skin.
"Peaches were your favorite as I recall," Fred was saying. "Of course, you used to have me cut it in pieces when your were little."
"I used to like these?" Leah asked her mother.
"Certainly. You liked all kinds of fruit, bananas, oranges, even kiwis!"
"She was a regular little experimenter," agreed Fred. "Just like her mother!"
"Do you still keep the milk over here...?"
"Sure do. Was hoping you weren't here for a resupply of nutrient pills or synth-meals because we don't carry them."
"Are you kidding? We've had enough of that stuff to last us a lifetime! From now on, it's real food all the time."
"Whew! That's good to hear. To many people are going all synth because it's less trouble than fixing a real meal. Anyway, for the milk, you looking for it in genuine glass containers or vac-packs?"
"I'm afraid it has to be the vac-packs this time, Fred. They need to conform to my sister's frigid-air."
Shrugging, Fred led them to the rear of the store where a bank of clear plex doors gave access to refrigerated ware. As he and her mother worked on what she needed, Leah drifted away, still wondering at the odd fruit in her hand.
She was stopped when she found her way blocked by a clear plex door panel on the opposite side of which were self operating machines whose conveyor systems were busily filling old time glass containers while others loaded and sealed vac-packs with a pale fluid that Leah immediately recognized as milk. So fascinated was she with the process that she didn't notice when Fred came up to her.
"Still like watching the homogenization process do you?" he asked. Then in a stage whisper "Want to see Bessie? Well, it's not the same Bessie you used to visit, but it might as well be."
eah didn't know what to say but before she could answer, Fred was escorting her through an exit to the outside and around to the rear of the store building. Then she stopped dead in her tracks. There, a few yards off was a fenced in area and beyond a large building whose yawning openings hinted at stalls where it just occurred to her cows were kept for milking...she'd completely forgot that!
"Here's the new Bessie, over here," Fred was saying, taking her elbow and guiding her to a fence rail. On the other side were a number black and white colored bovines...much bigger animals than Leah imagined...including one that approached the fence and lifted its huge head in her direction.
Involuntarily, she stepped back, noticing its heavy udder and everything came rushing back to her, the accumulated horror of the last few minutes since she and her mother arrived at the store. As panic overwhelmed her, she turned and ran back to the road, flashing past her mother who was just coming down to join them.
"What's wrong with Leah?" Katherine asked.
Fred shrugged his shoulders. "I have no idea. I was just taking her back here to see the cows. She used to like that when she was little."
"Well, I'm sure it's nothing. I'll see you later for that chat, Fred!" With the anti-grav stickers activated on the pair of vac-packs, it was easy for Katherine to pull the containers along behind her as she hurried to catch up with her daughter.
Back home again, Leah swept immediately to her room and shut herself in. As if daring herself to be sick, all the way home she had to fight off thoughts of cows and udders and flowing white milk. Could she really have liked those lumbering, disgusting creatures once? Then she remembered there was something in her hand and opening her fingers, found that she'd brought the peach home with her. Repulsed, she tossed it on to the convertinet and wiped her hands on her slacks. Just thinking of the strange fruit's silky surface sent shivers up her spine. A growl from her stomach reminded her that she was hungry and reaching into her stash of pills, she found that there were only a few left; enough for the rest of the day, but that was all. What was it Fred had said? His store didn't sell nutrient pills? Or synth-meals? The next nearest place to get them would be the shopstop in Cleveland and there was no way she could get there on her own!
ust then, the room's door panel slid open and Minitis walked in. Quickly, Leah shoved the remaining pills in her pocket but not fast enough to escape her cousin's notice.
"You don't have to worry," said Minitis. "I know about your nutrient pills."
"They were left over from the rocket trip..."
"Oh, you can drop the pretending, Leah. I know what you're up to. Think I can't put two and two together? You've been avoiding eating anything since you arrived here. What's wrong? Don't like my mother's cooking or something?"
"It's not that. Your mother's a great cook, I'm sure..."
"Then what is it? You can't keep making excuses not to eat. If I've caught on, then the others can't be far behind."
Leah thought for a moment then realizing that with her pills running out, she had no choice but to come clean. Maybe Minitis could even help her out.
"You promise not to laugh?" she said in a small voice.
"I can't," said Minitis truthfully. "Because for the life of me, I can't figure any logical reason for your not wanting to eat. Do you think you're fat or something?"
"It's nothing like that," said Leah hurriedly. "It's...it's hard to explain but maybe I've gone too long without having to eat real food but I just can't bring myself to eat...well, raw food."
"Raw food? You mean uncooked?"
"No, I mean food, stuff that's been grown from the ground or that comes from an animal..."
"Well, what other kind of food is there? Oh, sure, I read about how ages ago, they used to make food substitutes like dehydrated milk or powdered potatoes and stuff, but they stopped doing that because it was unhealthy..."
"There's nutrient pills and synth-food," reminded Leah.
"Oh, that kind. But those things are only for emergencies or if you're living someplace where real food isn't handy...like the Moon!" exclaimed Minitis, the light of understanding suddenly shining in her eyes. "I get it! It's been so long since you've had real food, you can't get used to the idea of switching!"
"Something like that. Every time I think of eating real food, I get nauseous. Frankly, I can't see how you do it, eat the stuff, I mean."
"I've never even given it second thought. People eat food. It's living on nutrient pills and synth-foods that unnatural."
"That may be and maybe some day I'll end up eating real food but right now, it grosses me out," said Leah. "Is there any way you can help me get more nutrient pills? The country store doesn't sell any..."
"I don't know where you can get any around here," replied Minitis. "But look, maybe if you started small..."
"Thanks, Minitis, but I'd rather try and think of something else. There's got to be an answer!"
ith that, Leah escaped from the room and ran from the house not stopping until she reached a little copse of woodland not far away. There, stopped, threw herself on a big boulder and tried to think but all that came were rumbles from her stomach.
Rumbles that grew to the point where she could not stand them any more. Compelled by hunger to desperate measures, she waited till late that night, after Minitis had fallen asleep, to slip out of bed and make her way to the auto-kitchen. Moonlight streamed through the inner wall of clear plex casting the rock garden into eerie relief and reminding her of the friends she left behind at Lunar III. How she wished she could be back there with them! Would they laugh or sympathize with her situation now? She wasn't sure but certainly Mrozy would understand. Mrozy...suddenly, she felt the absence of her friend, her "sister," more acutely than ever and wished she could confide in her the way used to do. But then, her stomach chose that moment to rumble again, distracting her and reminding her of her predicament.
Slowly, she tip toed along the hall, through the foyer, across the entertainment nexus, past the dining room, and into the auto-kitchen. There, everything was still like a scene in an old time painting. The counters bare. The floor shiny and spotless. Moonlight played through a series of clear plex windows and skylights illuminating the way to the frigid-air.
Only desperation would have compelled Leah to seek nourishment in the auto-kitchen but the growing pains in her stomach left her no choice. Still, she determined to find something to eat that would cause her senses the least distress. Having gone over her plan a dozen times while waiting for Minitis to fall asleep, she concluded that there must be something in the frigid-air that she could nibble on that had not been grown in the ground or taken from a slaughtered animal. Her hand shaking, she reached out to pass it over the sensor that slid the door panel aside revealing foodstuffs that needed to be kept chilled. The temperature within the frigid-air was maintained behind a perma-shield that activated instantly when the panel opened, preventing any escape of cold air from inside.
In the light from the frigid-air, she looked over its contents. Neatly arranged in individual suspenser fields that locked in flavor as well as freshness and preserved perishables indefinitely, were an assortment of plant edibles that Leah by now recognized as carrots, asparagus, potatoes, string beans, and a number of others. Also in sight were the fruits including apples and oranges and grapes. Storage areas for liquid dispensers held juices, water, and milk. For the latter, natural additives could be mixed in with the wave of a hand including Brazilian chocolate, sub-Saharan coffee, and Alabama strawberry. Not ready yet to think about meat products, Leah avoided even looking at the frozen foods sections.
nwilling to consider digesting vegetables or fruits, Leah's eyes wandered over condiments and dairy products to finally settle at the very bottom of the frigid-air where the least used items were stored. Taking a closer look, her heart suddenly leaped when she found what appeared to be a tray of synth-food! Eagerly, she passed her hand through the perma-shield and withdrew the plastic tray. Holding it close, she noticed that the tray, although similar to a synth-food tray, was slightly different but she dismissed that as a vagary of Earth's different brands. On the Moon, Lunar III's civil government held a contract with ReadyFoods but she knew there were a number of other providers in the synth-food market so the difference here didn't alarm her. Also going unnoticed, was the fact that the neutralizer foil, which had already been lifted by someone, hadn't evaporated when the package was originally opened. Peeking inside the opened package, Leah found the familiar compartmental arrangement but this time, there were no ingesters. Not needed, she surmised, in Earth's heavier gravity.
Satisfied, she peeled back the remainder of the foil and pressing beneath one of the compartments, popped out one of the semi-solid squares of synth-food. Taking it between her fingers, she smelled it but didn't recognize the aroma. At least it wasn't peas, her least favorite of the synth-vegetables. Tentatively, she nibbled at a corner and though she didn't recognize the flavor, she still found it pleasing. Taking a good bite, she chewed happily and swallowed, enjoying the unfamiliar taste. Tossing the rest into her mouth, she went on the next compartment and though that piece tasted different than the first, it too was quite appetizing. In no time, she was down to the last square when a sound made her stop in mid motion. Turning quickly, she found Minitis standing a few feet away, her figure bright in the glare from the open frigid-air.
"Minitis!" breathed Leah. "You scared me!"
"No doubt," said her cousin, moving further into the light.
"What are you doing?"
"I was so hungry I couldn't stand it anymore," explained Leah. "So I thought I'd check the frigid-air. I figured there must be something in here that's edible."
"And it looks like you were right," replied Minitis with a secret smile.
"Yeah, I lucked out. Your mother had a synth-meal in here. No doubt stashed away for an emergency..."
"Let me see that tray," said Minitis holding out her hand.
eah handed the container to her, only a single compartment remained filled.
Minitis frowned then lifted the tray to her nose and sniffed.
"This isn't a synth-meal," she concluded. "It's a cheese selection."
"A chee...a what?" asked Leah, feeling queasy all of a sudden.
"A cheese selection. Different kinds of cheese that Cloris gets for when we have guests. Congratulations, Leah! You've just eaten your first real food!"
"I don't feel so good," said Leah, holding her stomach. "Is my face turning green? It feels like it..."
"There's nothing wrong with your face or your stomach, I'll bet! Weren't you enjoying it before you knew it was cheese? Nothing wrong with your stomach then was there?"
Leah had to admit that there hadn't been.
"And I'm sure you noticed that the foil covering hadn't steamed away?"
Leah gulped. She had noticed it but disregarded it. Had she subconsciously known it wasn't synth-food all along? Suddenly, she realized that her stomach was no longer hurting. Instead, she was quite thirsty.
"I need a drink of water," she said.
Minitis reached past her to activate the dispenser. A few seconds later, she removed a cup filled with a brown colored liquid.
"Try this instead," she urged. "It's my favorite thirst quencher."
Leah took the cup and hesitated.
"C'mon! You just ate your first cheese! You're on a roll! Don't stop now! It's chocolate milk. I guarantee you'll love it!"
Steeling herself, Leah took the cup in her shaking hand. Staring at the brown fluid, noticing how it filmed the sides of the cup when gently sloshed by the movement of her hand, she fought to keep the the memory of the cow she saw earlier in the day out of her mind.
"I...I can't..." she stammered, holding the cup away.
"You can do it," said Minitis, gently pushing the cup back to her. "One swallow and you won't be able to stop."
Aware that with the last of her nutrient pills gone and no way to replenish her supply, she would eventually have to begin eating real food anyway, Leah disciplined herself, focused on happy thoughts, closed her eyes and lifted the cup to her lips. She hesitated for only a moment before taking the first mouthful. She held it for only a second or two before swallowing. She stopped and breathed violently outward in an attempt to keep from tasting the filthy stuff but the effort largely failed. The flavor still lingered as she imagined the milk coating her mouth and throat as it coated the cup in her hand. But then a funny thing happened. She found the taste not unappealing. Pleasing in fact. And the aftereffect of the milk in her mouth indeed thirst quenching. Her second swallow was taken with much less effort than the first and before she realized it, she'd drained the cup in a single series of gulps!
"Hey! Take it easy, there!" laughed Minitis. "You want to drown yourself?"
"That was really good!" exclaimed a delighted Leah.
"Shhh!" shushed her cousin. "You want to wake up the house? Here's another one, but after this we should go back to bed, okay?"
eah drained the second cup but this time lingered over it a bit, savoring the flavor. She was sure it would turn out to be her favored drink while she was on Earth! Later, as she lay in bed trying to fall asleep, she was amazed at being able to recall the cow...even its heavy udder...and not feel any kind of repulsion. Wondering at her lack of reaction, she tried the same with the packages of meat she saw at the store, the bins of vegetables, the fruits. Suddenly, she remembered the peach she'd thrown atop the convertinet earlier in the day.
Yielding to a sudden impulse, she listened for her cousin's steady breathing. Satisfied that Minitis was asleep, Leah again slipped from bed and found the convertinet. There, resting among discarded charm bracelets, flasks of scent, and the odd feminine accessory, sharply lit in the dying moonlight, lay the peach.
Leah stared at it, noting the lack of reflectivity on its dulled skin, recalling its peculiar texture in her hand, its fuzzy, frictionless rondure. But that was all. There was no revulsion at its silky feel in her palm. Only a curiosity about its flavor, what it would be like to bite into it. Suddenly, her mouth began to water and she could no longer wait. Taking the fruit in her hand, she stopped for a moment to contemplate its origins as part of a plant, its role in generating other trees that in turn would yield more fruit. Looking out the window at the low hanging Moon, she recalled the garden she and her friends had visited once, the delicate nature of the plants there, the extreme efforts of hundreds of researchers to duplicate a process that was so simple on Earth that it happened with no help at all from human beings. A natural process she and her friends had taken for granted but one that promised new discoveries at every turn if only they could see it. And the irony of it all was that even people on Earth, surrounded by growing things and sunlight and open skies, didn't give it much thought either.
But Leah, having been to the Moon and back, had a unique perspective. She could share what she'd learned but only if she had experience of both worlds: processed nutrients and natural foods. But could she cross over? Did she have what it took to partake of both?
ith new reverence, she stared at the fruit cupped in her hands, almost as if she were about to receive a sacrament. Then, lifting it to her lips, hesitated for only a moment before sinking her teeth into it.
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