Donald

Donald looked up and saw Albert on the viewing platform. Albert was fast becoming a good friend to Don and it was flattering that one of the most important humans on the habitat deferred to Don’s knowledge of honey and how to influence the taste by carefully selecting the flowers the bees had access to.

Don checked the hive in front of him. It was a particularly large colony and he had earmarked it as one for potentially providing new queens to populate the apiary on the Mars habitat. The bees would be needed to pollinate the planned fruit farms. One night, Albert had let slip the ideas he had for using Mars to grow food plants to supplement the diets in the habitats. Slightly inebriated at the time, Albert had seemed concerned that the human population were not as healthy as they should be but had not elaborated.

As well as looking after the bees, Don was also responsible for a team that oversaw all the insect populations in the various habitats. Aphids, ants and ladybirds colonies were being studied to see if there was anything beneficial in their interactions. Other insects were being studied as potential food sources to supplement the algae and fungi that currently formed the basis of all food production. Don recalled that had also been an initiative that Albert had suggested to the entomology co-op.

Don had also heard a rumour that Albert had raised a query to the Council about using the now disused embryology equipment for animal species for the Mars colony but that had been rejected. Don had only seen pictures and films of animals on old earth. The few species that had made it to the habitats were pets; cats, dogs and budgerigars. There were various wild species of birds which had been brought by the habitat designers in the early days, but no large animals.

Packing up his smoker, Don returned to the equipment shed where he removed his protective suit. His next job was in the greenhouse habitat. He needed to check the hives there and would take the opportunity to talk to Jasmine about the fruit tree project and what insects would be needed to ensure proper pollination. Jasmine had the most beautiful dark blue eyes.

At the shuttle port, Don bumped into Jess. Smiling they hugged one another and stepped back. Jess and Don were close. Their parents were good friends and so not only did they go to school together but were often left to play together whilst their parents socialised.

“Have you heard from Stuart?” She asked. Don shook his head. Don was unusual in the habitats. He had a brother. Don and Stuart were congenital twins and so did not break the one child per couple rule. The two brothers were very close growing up but whilst Don was content to take life as it came, Stuart was always looking for adventure. His many brushes with authority were mostly benign pranks but hacking the Council data core was a step to far. He had been sentenced to three years labour with the Mining Co-Op. Apparently, they needed help reprogramming the auto miners and the Council felt it would be a more practical use of Stuart’s skills.

“Not for a few weeks.” Don replied. “He’s really enjoying the challenge out there, even if he misses the comforts of home. He was talking about staying on voluntarily when his sentence ends, but I convinced him to come home first. Anyway, where have you been lately?”

Jess winked and with a smile said “Meet me at Luck’s tomorrow night and I’ll tell you all about it. Gotta get to work now so see you then?”

Don nodded at Jess’ back as she skipped away. As usual, she had assumed he would acquiesce and hadn’t waited for Don to reply.

Don ran to the boarding gate for his shuttle, taking his seat just as the shuttle’s engines fired up. Don had a fear of space and so shuttle journeys were an ordeal last for him. Gripping the arms of his seat and with his eyes firmly shut he endured the forty-five minute journey. Disembarking at the greenhouse lock, here was met by the lovely Jasmine.

“Hi”, she smiled at him. Blushing Don mumbled “hi” back, inwardly cursing hiss shyness. Taking his hand Jasmine drew him down thee corridor to her office. On her desk was a 3 dimensional hologram of. peach tree.

“Do you think Albert will like Peach tree honey?” Jasmine enquired.

“I don’t know. According to the archives, Peach trees were primarily pollinated by hand because they tended to flower early in the season before many insects were awake. I’m sure the bees will do the job since we won’t have to worry about the cold, but it will be an interesting experiment. Have you been able to get the seed to germinate?”

Jasmine nodded, grabbing his hand she drew him to the window to her seedling nursery. Pointing to a small green shoot, she turned to Don, “Isn’t it amazing?”. Don could not help but smile at the enthusiasm in her voice about the small green shoot. It would be a few years before the tree would be large enough to flower and bear fruit. By that time, it would be safely transplanted to the orchard on Mars.

“Are you busy tonight?” Jasmine asked. “We’re having a party and I would love to dance with you”.

Inwardly Don was torn. He had already promised to meet Jess and he also had to get back due to an early morning meeting. Still holding Jasmine’s hand, he shook his head sadly. “I have to get back for a meeting tomorrow but maybe next time”. He didn’t know why he had felt the need to conceal his evening plans, but he wasn’t ready to explain his complex relationship with Jess yet.

“Ok. Never mind. Let’s get back to work.” Jasmine let go of his hand and walked back to her desk.

Albert

Albert stood outside the door to his apartment, raised his wrist to the scanner and waited for the door to open. It had been unreliable of late and he really must remember to call the block supervisor to fix it. Shaking his head at the door, he walked into his apartment and headed for the kitchen.

He thought he should stay awake for a little while in case his neighbour needed him. She had arrived home in the early hours of the morning a bit worse for wear and was having trouble opening her own door. The sound proofing in this part of the habitat was old and so Albert had heard her curses and gone out to assist.

Albert was old and hadn’t slept well for years. Not since… he didn’t want to think about it but standing at the kitchen sink his brain refused to be quiet.

Not since his wife had taken the option to self terminate. Cece had been an engineer responsible for maintaining the communications array on the outside of the habitat. Her suit had malfunctioned and she had been temporarily deprived of oxygen and heating. The medics had fixed the freeze burns and broken body parts but regenerating the brain was still beyond medical science. Cece had struggled to control her lower body as a result and in the end the Council had approved her termination request and allowed her to bequeath her remaining thirteen years to her husband.

Albert hadn’t wanted to accept the bequest but if he had refused, the Council might have refused Cece’s termination. Albert knew the pain she was in and in the end could not stand in her way.

His mind moved towards his fiftieth birthday, only a few weeks away now. He should have been preparing for his “of continuing use” appraisal but that would not happen now until his 63rd birthday.

Finishing the cup of tea he had prepared whilst musing on the past, Albert headed back to bed.

The next morning Albert cleaned up his tea things from the early hours and mused over over the luxury of what used to be a routine of millions on old earth. Albert was lucky. His contribution to the building of the “tea plantation” in the Agricultural Co-Op’s greenhouse meant he was gifted with a 50 gram portion each month. That meant he could have around ten cups a month or one every three days.

Albert didn’t particularly like tea but it reminded him of Cece. Cece had loved tea. Cece, the woman who loved him so much she had agreed to give up her right to bear a child. The couple’s genes were considered too close and so the Council demanded sterilisation as a condition of their union. Albert wasn’t interested in children but he knew it had been a hard decision for Cece. Albert still marvelled at the idea that anyone could love him so much that they would sacrifice something so important just to be with him. Yet she had never held it against him or used it as weapon in those times when their relationship hit the inevitable down points. A remarkable human being and he missed her every day.

Yet the memories were the impetus to carry on. The inspiration to continue to live and not just live but to find purpose and meaning, to be useful and to feel alive. It was the only way to honour her and the love they had shared.

Putting on his coat, Albert left his apartment and headed to work at the food production facility. As usual his walk to the shuttle port was uneventful. He chose the spinward route which was quicker but also took him past the apiary. Albert often stopped by the glass viewing platform to watch the hives in action. Honey bees had adapted to life on the habitat remarkably well. The various species had been almost extinct before the old earth’s fall but were now thriving. The honey they produced was the only natural sweetener left to the human colonies and each harvest was eagerly anticipated.

Honey was Albert’s current research project. Like early beekeepers he was experimenting on the different properties and flavours that could be produced depending on the flowers that the bees collected the nectar from. New food tastes were a welcome relief to the limited range of food available in the habitats. Much of the food was based on algae or fungi, both of which needed flavouring to make them palatable. Albert headed a team trying to find natural ways of providing a variety of new tastes to tantalise the population in this unnatural life away from the planet the species evolved on.

Nobody living on the various habitats had ever set foot on old earth. Even if it wasn’t hot and the atmosphere toxic, scientists warned that centuries of adaptation to space would make it difficult to return. Some disputed that and there was the ever present groups arguing for policy changes, demanding that plans be made for a return to the planet’s surface. In their younger years, both Albert and Cece had been a part of a group that wanted to research the possibility. After a particularly vocal set of demonstrations and student strikes, the Council had agreed to investigate the possibility. The protesters were satisfied and went back to their lives. Of course, the investigations had confirmed that old earth was uninhabitable but had offered instead to look at a colony on Mars. That colony was almost about to be realised.

Looking through the glass, Albert saw someone threading their way across the flower meadow behind the hives. Nodding to the head beekeeper, Donald, Albert continued on his way.

At the shuttle port, there was a slight delay as a new shuttle pilot was drafted in. Apparently, the scheduled pilot had called in sick. The delay was not long and Albert arrived at the laboratory hub ready for another day’s work.

Susan

Susan opened her eyes to sunlight streaming through the open curtains of her bedroom. Realising that she was fully dressed and had no recollection of returning home and collapsing on her bed, she worried what else she had forgotten about the night before. Perhaps going out and getting wasted wasn’t the best response to the news she had received the day before, but finding out your marriage was not the secure haven she had imagined it to be had been a shock.

It had been an uneventful conversation, a chance remark from a friend and her world had tilted. A funny phrase to use in these times where the human population no longer lived on the world they had called home for so long. But that’s a whole other story. Humans on a habitat revolving around the old home still lived the same petty lives, with the same petty grievances as ever.

Susan’s home was the Europa habitat. She had moved there from the Britannia habitat when she married Gus. They had met on the construction of the first of the Mars planetary domes. Susan was an environmental designer specialising in adaptive planting to make living spaces both aesthetically pleasing and functional air quality engines. Gus was a technician in the team building the CO2 scrubbers vital to maintain a healthy atmosphere in any human habitat. The seven habitats revolving around the old world were rapidly becoming overcrowded, even with the draconian restrictions on procreation and encouragement of end of life options for those whose usefulness had ceased. The Mars habitat was vital and if successful many more could be built to ease the crisis. Maybe the old world could be recolonised too at some point, if it ever cooled down enough to make that viable.

Susan ordered the window display to change to a cloudy day to lessen the wretched pain in her eyes, reflecting momentarily that the physical pain had taken her mind off the mental anguish that was now beginning to reassert itself in her thoughts. Ordering the coffee machine to prepare her usual strong black coffee and the medical dispenser to dole out painkillers for her hangover, she peeled herself off the bed, undressed and headed to the shower cubicle.

Showered and dressed in fresh clothes, she pondered how to spend the next two days before she returned to the Mars project. Gus was supposedly still there. A last minute issue had meant, supposedly, that he had not been able to return for their scheduled break, but if that was the case, why had her friend casually mentioned seeing him on the Eurasian habitat the day before?

Sitting at her kitchen bench Susan reviewed as much as she could remember of the night before.

Jessica was a shuttle pilot, an arduous job and like most pilots she partied at every opportunity. Opportunities were common since all pilots had to take mandatory four day breaks every seven days to relieve the stress and fatigue of the job and being away from their home habitat for most of their shifts. When Jessica suggested that Susan join her at a pilot’s party, Susan had leapt at the chance. Anything to stop the inevitable thoughts that were bubbling in her brain at the lie Gus had told her. She didn’t think Jessica had noticed her initial confusion at the revelation about Gus.

The party had turned out to be a large gathering in a disused shuttle bay that was scheduled for refurbishment. A temporary bar had been set up on one side. On the opposite side, there was a small stage with a sign inviting anyone to provide entertainment. The sound was routed through the hangar speakers. When Susan and Jessica arrived a band was playing old world classics. Jessica dragged Susan to the bar and ordered beers for them both. Draining her glass and encouraging Susan to quickly do the same, Jessica indicated that she was going to join the lively crowded dancing in the space between the bar and the band.

Susan recalled that the pattern of the night was dance, drink, dance and more drink. At one point, Jessica had disappeared for a while leaving Susan to catch her breathe whilst sitting with her back against one of the hangar walls. When Jessica returned her lipstick was decidedly smudged and she had a big grin on her face. No explanation was necessary. Then it was back to the bar and back to the dance floor. Susan’s recollections of the night began to get hazy after that.

The coffee and painkillers hadn’t made much of a dent to the drums in Susan’s head and so she asked the water dispenser for an iced water and headed to the food cupboard. Taking a sachet of scrambled eggs and some bread, Susan walked to the rehydrator and fixed a quick breakfast. The food settled her stomach and she began to feel less of a physical wreck. Of course, that meant she couldn’t avoid having to think about why Gus was in orbit around the old world instead of on Mars.

If he had been called to another project, he would have messaged her. The Europa habitat was enroute to Eurasia from a Mars trajectory so he could even have stopped by and said hello. But he didn’t, he hadn’t and Susan could not think of a good reason why not.

Her brain kept throwing up bad reasons. All of which did not bode well for her and the love she had for her husband and their marriage. Pulling herself together Susan decided she needed a distraction whilst she worked up the courage to call her husband and demand an explanation.

First she messaged the habitat relationship manager and requested an appointment for a joint couple’s mediation meeting. They were overdue an appointment and it was a mandatory task in the out world habitat rules.

Susan opened her phone and swiped to the contacts page, scrolled down to her husband’s name and pressed the dial button…

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