Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapter 23

A clanging knock at the door startled Jass; she'd begun to drift off to sleep while reading the reports. She checked the time: ten minutes before she was due at the dockmaster's for dinner. She unbuckled herself and quickly tied her shoes. “Coming!” she shouted at the door.

When she drifted into the hallway, Kristin was waiting. “What took you so long? Usually you're ready to go before I am.”

Sorry, dozed off. I know the ship reports are important, but damn they're boring.”

Kristin laughed, and the two navigated their way through the station. When the ship had docked, maps of the station and the surface colony had been uploaded to their computers, but Jass still wasn't oriented to the station. It took the full ten minutes to find the right quarters.

Jass knocked at the door, the sound ringing through the corridor. After a moment, the door was opened by a short woman with a friendly expression. “You must be the visitors? Great, come on in, dinner's almost ready.”

The quarters were small for a family of three, Jass thought as she floated through the doorway, but there was a definite sense of homeiness. The space was neat, but not spartan. Several framed photographs of stars and galaxies hung on the walls, and Jass suspected that the photographer was one of the family members. A net in the corner held back an assortment of toys, many of them puzzles and simple machines. Space had even been set aside for a small bookshelf, the volumes secured by thin elastic bands stretched across the front of the shelf. Jass and Kristin followed the woman into the tiny kitchen area.

Most kitchen spaces on stations were like the galley on the Curious Machine: small, consisting mostly of drawers and cabinets, with a spout for the hot water needed to reconstitute food and a small oven for heating prepackaged meals. This kitchen had those as well, but several cabinets had been ripped out to make space for other machines and gadgets. One recess sported a sun lamp shining down yellow light onto a tiny hydroponic herb garden.

I'm Karen, by the way.” The friendly woman smiled as she extended her hand.

This place is incredible,” Jass commented, shaking her hand. “I don't think I've seen anything like it away from a planet.”

Karen nodded and turned her attention to one of the unfamiliar machines in the kitchen. “Thank you! It's our own design, for the most part. We're only here for one year out of three; the other dockmasters on rotation don't bring their families, and they prefer other quarters, so we got permission to make some changes here for our own shifts.” She tapped a button on the machine. “Pardon me for being a bit rushed, I'm just about done here.”

Ben appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mom! Dad says he's going to be home in five minutes!”

Alright, Ben, thank you. Did you wash your hands for dinner?”

He nodded.

Good. Can you set the table for me?”

Jass was startled, and Kristin asked, “A table? How did you get that to work here?”

Ben pulled on what appeared to be a smooth section of wall; it folded down into a metal surface at waist-height. Karen held up a dish and pointed to a dark spot on the bottom. “We added magnetic strips to the dishes. It holds them down. We rigged the cabinet doors to serve double-duty, too.” She gestured at Ben, who pulled down a cabinet door: on the inside of the door, Jass saw a few nylon straps, and finally understood.

So you just strap yourself in there, and sit around a real table?” She laughed. “That is completely brilliant. I love it.”

Karen beamed. “We thought it was important to eat proper meals, not just gulp down some prepacked stuff while floating around. It helps keep us grounded, no pun intended.”

In a few minutes, the small kitchen had been transformed from a room of cabinets and machines to a cozy alcove. Steaming dishes of cubed meat in a rich sauce and mashed potatoes were placed at each seat, along with a capped glass of water. Karen surveyed the table and nodded. “I think we're ready to eat as soon as Chris gets here.”

As if in response, the door opened, and the dockmaster pulled himself into the room. “Sorry I'm a little late, something came up at the last minute.”

Ben shouted in delight and launched himself toward his father; the two tumbled for a moment in an exuberant hug.

No rough-housing with guests, there's not enough room,” Karen called. “Come to the table and eat before everything gets cold. Or warm, in the case of the water.”

Ah, thermal equilibrium, it ruins all our fun,” Chris commented as they made their way to the table.

Jass examined the plate in front of her. “Ok, you have to tell me how you do this. I didn't know you could do any real cooking in microgravity. Doesn't it clog the filters, or put too much water vapor in the air?”

Karen shook her head. “Actually, no. I've been studying cooking techniques in various gravities and atmospheres for years, even before I left college on Earth. I mostly use sous-vide. Chris figured out how to attach a water pump and storage system to an existing machine. No water is ever open to the air: I put the food in one of the bags, seal it, toss it in the machine and latch it. Then the hot water is pumped in and the food cooks. When it's done, I just pump the water back into the storage tank for reuse.”

Kristin took a bite of meat, and closed her eyes. “This is amazing. I haven't had anything this good since we left Mars. Not even in Andronivi.”

Most commercial kitchens on the colonies can't afford the time and expense to sous-vide to order. It's a long process. But since I can plan my own menus in advance, it works pretty well here. I'm trying to get the word out about it, get more families trying to cook their own food no matter where they are, but it's hard to get started. Still, I think people are looking for ways to feel at home no matter where they are. Good food is an important part of that.”

Jass almost cried at the first bite of the slow-cooked beef. The rich sauce held the cubes of meat to the plate, and the creamy mashed potatoes stuck of their own accord. The beef was hot and tender, each bite melting in her mouth. She could taste the herbs and spices that had been added to the potatoes, and was hit by a sudden homesickness for Mars. Maybe I should start my own garden when I get home, she thought, washing the food down with a draught of water.

The meal was soon finished, but everyone was reluctant to leave the comfort of the table. Finally, Ben began nodding off. Karen unbuckled herself and carefully pulled him out of his seat. “I think it's bedtime. It's been an exciting day.”

As they left, Jass found herself wondering what it would be like to live like this. They spent so much time and energy on things that could done much more conveniently, she mused. Maybe the cost of convenience was higher than she'd thought. They seemed intent on more than survival. They were living.

Jass extricated herself from the table, with a glance at Kristin. “We should probably be going, too. I need to wake up in time to inspect the ship tomorrow.”

Chris nodded, and the three made their way back into the open room near the door. “Thanks for coming. It's nice to have visitors.”

No, thank you,” Kristin replied. Jass noticed that she looked drained, but happier than she'd been in months. “This has been amazing.”

Karen returned as the women opened the door to the main corridor of the station. “I'm so glad you had a good time! Feel free to stop by again if we're on rotation the next time you're here.”

We will,” Jass said. “I may get in touch soon about some of your cooking ideas, I'd like to try some of those myself back home.”

As Kristin and Jass made their way back to their quarters, they were silent. Jass felt she'd caught of glimpse of something she'd missed, but couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.

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