Asteroid of Fear


7. Growing Vegetables

As it turned out, the Endlichs had a reprieve of two months and fourteen days, almost to the hour and figured on a strictly Earth-time scale.

For what it was worth, they accomplished a great deal. In their great plastic greenhouse, supported like a colossal bubble by the humid, artificially-warmed air inside it, long troughs were filled with pebbles and hydroponic solution. And therein tomatoes were planted, and lettuce, radishes, corn, onions, melons--just about everything in the vegetable line.

There remained plenty of ground left over from the five acres, so John Endlich tinkered with that fifty-million-year-old tractor, figured out its atomic-power-to-steam principle, and used it to help harrow up the ancient soil of a smashed planet. He added commercial fertilizers and nitrates to it--the nitrates were, of course, distinct from the gaseous nitrogen that had been held, spongelike, by the subsoil, and had helped supply the greenhouse with atmosphere. Then he harrowed the ground again. The tractor worked fine, except that the feeble gravity made the lugs of its wheels slip a lot. He repeated his planting, in the old-fashioned manner.

Under ideal conditions, the inside of the great bubble was soon a mass of growing things. Rose had planted flowers--to be admired, and to help out the hive of bees, which were essential to some of the other plants, as well. Nor was the flora limited to the Earthly. Some seeds or spores had survived, here, from the mother world of the asteroids. They came out of their eons of suspended animation, to become root and tough, spiky stalk, and to mix themselves sparsely with vegetation that had immigrated from Earth, now that livable conditions had been restored over this little piece of ground. But whether they were fruit or weed, it was difficult to say.

Sometimes John Endlich was misled. Sometimes, listening to familiar sounds, and smelling familiar odors, toward the latter part of his reprieve, he almost imagined that he'd accomplished his basic desires here on Vesta--when he had always failed on Earth.

There was the smell of warm soil, flowers, greenery. He heard irrigation water trickling. The sweetcorn rustled in the wind of fans he'd set up to circulate the air. Bees buzzed. Chickens, approaching adolescence, peeped contentedly as they dusted themselves and stretched luxuriously in the shadows of the cornfield.

For John Endlich it was all like the echo of a somnolent summer of his boyhood. There was peace in it: it was like a yearning fulfilled. An end of wanderlust for him, here on Vesta. In contrast to the airless desolation outside, the interior of this five-acre greenhouse was the one most desirable place to be. So, except for the vaguest of stirrings sometimes in his mind, there was not much incentive to seek fun elsewhere. If he ever had time.

And there was a lot of the legendary, too, in what his family and he had accomplished. It was like returning a little of the blue sky and the sounds of life to this land of ruins and roadways and the ghosts of dead beauty. Maybe there'd be a lot more of all that, soon, when the rumored major influx of homesteaders reached Vesta.

"Yes, Johnny," Rose said once. "'Legendary' is a lot nicer word than 'ghostly'. And the ghosts are changing their name to legends."

Rose had to teach the kids their regular lessons. That children would be taught was part of the agreement you had to sign at the A. H. O. before you could be shipped out with them. But the kids had time for whimsy, too. In make-believe, they took their excursions far back to former ages. They played that they were "Old People."

Endlich, having repaired his atomic battery, didn't draw power anymore from the unit that had supplied the ancient buildings. But the relics remained. From a device like a phonograph, there was even a bell-like voice that chanted when a lever was pressed.

And it was the kids who found the first "tay-tay bug," a day after its trills were heard from among the new foliage. "Ta-a-a-ay-y-y--ta-a-a-a-ay-y-yy-y--" The sound was like that of a little wheel, humming with the speed of rotation, and then slowing to a scratchy stop.

A one-legged hopper, with a thin but rigid gliding wing of horn. Opalescent in its colors. It had evidently hatched from a tiny egg, preserved by the cold for ages.

Wise enough not to clutch it with his bare hands, Bubs came running with it held in a leaf.

It proved harmless. It was ugly and beautiful. Its great charm was that it was a vocal echo from the far past.

Sure. Life got to be fairly okay, in spite of hard work. The Endlichs had conquered the awful stillness with life-sounds. Growing plants kept the air in their greenhouse fresh and breathable by photosynthesis. John Endlich did a lot of grinning and whistling. His temper never flared once. Deep down in him there was only a brooding certainty that the calm couldn't last. For, from all reports, trouble seethed at the mining camp. At any time there might be a blowup, a reign of terror that would roll over all of Vesta. A thing to release pent-up forces in men who had seen too many hard stars, and had heard too much stillness. They were like the stuff inside a complaining volcano.

The Endlichs had sought to time their various crops, so that they would all be ready for market on as nearly as possible the same day. It was intended as a trick of advertising--a dramatically sudden appearance of much fresh produce.

So, one morning, in a jet-equipped space-suit, Endlich arced out for the mining camp. Inside the suit he carried samples from his garden. Six tomatoes. Beauties.

"Have luck with them, Johnny! But watch out!" Rose flung after him by helmet phone. With a warm laugh. Just for a moment he felt maybe a little silly. Tomatoes! But they were what he was banking on, and had forced toward maturity, most. The way he figured, they were the kind of fruit that the guys in the camp--gagged by a diet of canned and dehydrated stuff, because they were too busy chasing mineral wealth to keep a decent hydroponic garden going--would be hungriest for.

Well--he was rather too right, in some ways, to be fortunate. Yeah--they still call what happened the Tomato War.

Poor Johnny Endlich. He was headed for the commissary dome to display his wares. But vague urges sidetracked him, and he went into the recreation dome of the camp, instead.

And into the bar.

The petty sin of two drinks hardly merits the punishing trouble which came his way as, at least partially, a result. With his face-window open, he stood at the bar with men whom he had never seen before. And he began to have minor delusions of grandeur. He became a little too proud of his accomplishments. His wariness slipped into abeyance. He had a queer idea that, as a farmer with concrete evidence of his skills to show, he would win respect that had been denied him. Dread of consequences of some things that he might do, became blurred. His hot temper began to smolder, under the spark of memory and the fury of insult and malicious tricks, that, considering the safety of his loved ones, he had had no way to fight back against. Frustration is a dangerous force. Released a little, it excited him more. And the tense mood of the camp--a thing in the very air of the domes--stirred him up more. The camp--ready to explode into sudden, open barbarism for days--was now at a point where nothing so dramatic as fresh tomatoes and farmers in a bar was needed to set the fireworks off.

John Endlich had his two drinks. Then, with calm and foolhardy detachment, he set the six tomatoes out in a row before him on the synthetic mahogany.