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The Terroir From Beyond Space

By J.R.H. Lawless
May 21, 2019 · 4,058 words · 15 minutes

Chef’s Station

Photo by Todd Quackenbush via Unsplash.

From the author: In this early short story, originally published in the Ouen Press 2018 Short Story Competition Anthology, what starts out as a deep Solar System explorer's guide to food in space gradually turns into something more dire.


[CCSEA incident report #57005-2112

Commence playback]    

#

     Space travel requires a certain type of mind. Even with the advent of the photonic railway, a simple business trip from Earth to Paradise Mars (still known to some as Phobos) means three entire standard months of Lightway transit boredom.

     To get through this with your sanity intact, you need mental resilience, the ability to find new and meaningful experiences in a constricted daily routine -- let alone the ability to hold fast to the notion of a daily routine itself, when the night and day cycles built into our bodies throughout the millennia become pure fiction.

     For us, pioneers of the Lightway, this imperative of resilience takes on a whole new meaning.

     After all, if the Corporate Council Space Exploitation Authority pays us so handsomely, it isn't for our piloting skills -- the whole point of the Lightway is that the ships don't need piloting; the laser thrust stations take care of that.

     Certainly, some technical skills are required to supervise, without any dangerous transmission delay, the construction of the shiny new thrust stations, at their Lagrange points around Neptune or Uranus. With each new station, humanity's reach is extended, a testament to mankind's resourcefulness -- and our ticket back home, as an appreciated bonus.

     But anybody with half a brain and the right augmented software could do the job. No, the mark of a true Lightway pioneer lies not in the technical, but in the psychological, the ability to survive and even thrive in an environment seemingly barren of new experiences.

     As any true pioneer will know, "seemingly" is the key word here, since the life of the isolated Lightway technician can be far richer and more full of wonder than any corporate metropolis drone's -- given the right approach, and perhaps a bit of guidance, especially regarding that most humble and yet most pleasurable aspect of life, in space or dirt side: food.

     Our employers, in the hopes of aiding current colleagues make the most of their experience, and perhaps even create a few new callings, have asked me to gather together some of my most memorable and fulfilling sensorial experiences in this small tome -- a space traveller's cookbook, if you will, based on my latest mission, a trip out to Neptune and, in principle, back.

    Before I dive into the joys of interplanetary cooking, a quick word of warning regarding food, and space travel. It is a common misconception that meals on a Lightway shuttle are a boring affair; tasteless yeast crackers, spirulina three times a day, 3D food printers that seem to run out of half the flavouring paste options before you've even passed Earth's moon -- all the usual clichés. And like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth there: for the unwary, which is to say most space travellers and certainly the vast majority of people riding the Lightway for business, dining in space may be a penance to soldier through, part of the price of riding the Lightway between the inner planets and moons.

     But if you are ready to be unconventional, to push the limits of the resources given to you in your search for the unique culinary opportunities presented by the light energy and gravitational forces of each new planet and moon -- yes, sometimes even at the risk of your own comfort and well-being --, then you, too, shall be treated to all the richness of flavours and textures humanity's new, extended "terroir", the Solar System, has to offer.

     The following is presented as a six-course menu, but the term "course", here, should be taken more in the sense of "trajectory", rather than as a part of a traditional meal structure; in true pioneering spirit, the order is dictated by the chronology of my most recent -- and, sadly, final -- journey into deep space.

First Course: Barbecue Spirulina Burgers

     You've only just set out, not yet past the orbit of Mars, and you're already bored with the same old 3D food printer options? No problem!

     Take your daily ration of spirulina mash and head on over to the bottom of the wall, under the coms console. Now feel the floor there.

     That thrum coming up through your fingers is your only reminder that you're in space, pioneer. Even though the gravity you feel might be tailored to match Earth's arbitrary 1G, it's really just the constant acceleration boost from the super-powered laser beam hitting your little tin can and mirror assembly every second of every standard day, with the sort of accuracy that could make a German engineer break down and cry for joy.

     To the true Lightway pioneer, that kind of awesome power right under your feet screams out one thing: barbecue time!

     So go ahead, grab your service crowbar and strip off a section of the heat shielding from under the main console -- I find an area the size of a plate is plenty. Keep the removed section -- don't forget to put it back later! -- and chuck those algae greens onto the exposed panel. Take a good lungful of the aroma as they sizzle; that's the sort of space-flight experience the stereotypes forget to mention.

     As long as you're a few days out from your thrust station, 5 minutes should be about right to give your algae a nice, toothsome texture, while still sealing in the juices and nutrients. Any closer to the thrust station, and you'll want to reduce that to around two or three minutes.

     If you're feeling really naughty, you can tell the computer you're out of toothpaste and need a refill. The 3D printer makes it from the same nutrient mix that goes into the food, and it makes a mighty fine barbecue sauce and baste for your fresh, piping hot spirulina burgers.

Second Course: Forbidden Fruit

     Often, a pioneer's got to make their own way in the world. Other times, the powers that be get things just right.

     To my mind, the best example of perfect design is the electrosynthetic fruit-growing chambers that come standard on all the latest Lightway pioneer shuttles.

     They are a stroke of genius; utility and grace wrapped up in a single, superb package. You will have noticed by now how some of the fruit growing in the chamber is never flagged as ripe for picking. The modified yeasts bubble and sprout plenty of smaller fruit as they're teased by the electron currents fed in directly from the solar panels outside, providing both nourishment and pleasure on a daily basis; these other fruit, however, remain forbidden.

     If you're attuned to such things -- as I suspect you are, if you're reading this --, you may even have noticed how one day's harvest differs from the next; the yeast strains produce different colours, textures and tastes -- sprouting different fruit entirely! -- based upon the changes in the outside conditions. The citrusy notes of a planetary fly-by crop have little in common with the fig-like offerings of your average day in deep space -- and you haven't lived, in my books, until you've tasted the energy-gorged strawberry-analogues you get the day after a solar flare!

     And yet, however great the pleasures and variations of the day-to-day offerings of the yeast may be, they are nothing compared to that untouchable fruit, which ripens a little more on the electric vine every day of your journey.

     For it is only upon arrival at your mid-journey destination -- after entering a wide Neptune orbit, for example, such as in my case --, that the grid will unlock, and you will be allowed to sample that perfect fruit, the summary of forty-three standard Earth months of travel across the Solar System.

     Take a moment to feel the surface of the fruit; if you are on a deep space mission like me, it will be brown, and rugged, with bumps and grooves corresponding precisely to the peaks and drops of the energy received from your planet of arrival, during approach and orbital insertion.

     Bite into the fruit -- beneath the skin, a pale, fleshy layer formed by low energy, deep space radiations will flood your palate with sweetness.

     But unlike a terrestrial fruit, your perfect summary will not stop after a mere two layers. Every step of your journey will be present, from the tangy coatings of planetary fly-bys -- larger for Saturn or Jupiter than Mars or Venus, of course --, through the seedy pockets marking the asteroid belt, and all the way down to the hard core formed by the wait before departure.

     Bite after memory-soaked bite, that fruit will bring back, but also reinforce, and even justify, all that time spent locked in your shuttle, zipping through the Solar System at speeds once thought humanly impossible.

     It is a moment of perfect, sensual poetry, a testament to the foresight and great humanity of our corporate betters; though perhaps marred by a single, inevitable thought: since there can be no rising above such a beautiful experience, the rest of the journey can only go downhill from here.

Third Course: Neptunian Ringshine

     It's a long wait, zipping around again and again in Neptune orbit, while the constructor probes do their thing and build the new Neptune L4 relay station -- so very, very slowly.

     A Lightway pioneer's work takes constant vigilance; hours of waiting and staring and waiting again until some micro adjustment needs to be made to the probes' operations. On a good day, you'll be called upon to act twice, maybe three times at a push, over a twelve hour shift.

     After having watching everything in the entertainment catalogue at least three times, a man could be forgiven for wanting to sample some of Neptune's own pleasures, if only just to make the waiting more tolerable. But Neptune is unattainable, spinning out there, Lord of the Waters but not a drop to drink, surrounded by the rings of rubble left over after the rogue moon Triton decided to crash the party...

     And those rings are mighty dark, so dark it took centuries for astronomers to confirm they even existed -- so they could use a little something to make them shine.

     This line of thought regarding Neptune's structure and feeling is what inspired me to craft Neptunian ringshine -- to my knowledge, the first alcoholic beverage distilled beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Our employers are steadfast in denying us pioneers any proper libations during missions; but after you, too, have sat and watched old Mother Earth go all the way behind the sun, come back around again and start taking a second lap's lead over your new planet, I'm certain you will understand the need for a stiff drink as well as I do.

     Luckily, that's not too difficult a need to satisfy. The ship is loaded up with more types of genetically modified yeast than you can shake a baguette at, after all. Even after breaking into the back of the electrosynthesis cabinet and stealing what you need, there should still be plenty of yeast left to produce some sort of fruit during the return trip, so no problem there. Call it an experiment!

     The main challenge will be finding some mash, for flavour, and enough sugars to produce the alcohol. There are plenty of options for both of these; don't forget that the medical catalogue contains all sorts of starchy bandage pastes and high-glycemic stimulants, and it isn't all that hard to fake enough symptoms for the printer's poor, simple AI to issue you some primo brewing material.

     After you've sourced all the ingredients, you still have work to do -- with "still" being the operative word. I met with multiple failures before I managed to work out a distillation system that didn't fill the glass with toxic methanol; I dismantled those early attempts as soon as I recovered enough eyesight to see the damn things. But I persevered, and soon worked out a simple yet elegant still to produce history's first drops of Neptunian pure.

     You'll need a big pot to start with -- if your shuttle is anything like mine, you'll probably have to dismantle the 3D printer's secondary coolant unit; but hey, isn't that why there's a primary unit in the first place?

     Once that's done, all you need is the biggest glass you can find, whatever the magnets you can pry from the bottom of your EVA suit boots to make sure the glass stays fixed in the centre of the pot, and a large, curved surface that covers the pot and won't combust when you fill it with liquid oxygen from the air tanks -- the dust shield lid covering the maintenance ducts worked well for me, and wasn't too hard to pry off.

     Put it all together, and you've got yourself a working ringshine still.

     As you've seen with the spirulina burgers, the Lightway shuttle designers weren't too keen on open heat sources, or any cooking surfaces at all, for that matter, since the shuttles are designed to produce whatever was needed directly from the 3D food printer. This adds an extra complication for the ringshine project, since you need a heat source to cook the mash and keep steady temperatures of around 80°C, so the ringshine evaporates, condenses on the cold lid, and drops back down into our waiting glass.

     Obviously, you can't just pull the old laser thrust heat recovery trick again, since you're simply spinning in Neptune orbit at this point, your feet sticking to what used to be the walls, as your tin can of a ship spins on itself to generate artificial gravity in the absence of thrust acceleration.

     So, after some consideration, I decided to sacrifice the heater from the shuttle's maintenance ducts and repurpose it as a cooking plate. It might get a little cold in there now, but I figure it mostly contains electronics anyway, and those are supposed to run faster in the cold, aren't they? Stands to reason, since people spend so much on computer cooling units. So it'll probably be fine.

     Backed up by a proper heat source, your ringshine still will, at last, be fully armed and operational. At this point, if you're anything as desperate for a new sensation as myself, you'll be sorely tempted to just chug the first drops of ringshine as soon as they fall into the glass. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but I wouldn't recommend it, in hindsight; not only do you run the risk of burning yourself badly, either from the vapour or sloshing liquid oxygen, but you will also interfere with the distillation process, taking longer to get the next drops, and messing with the quality.

     For best results, I recommend using your first and perhaps even second runs of the still as "feints", mixing them back into your mash to reach a proper product, with flavour -- nutty, with hints of rum -- and alcohol content worthy of the God of the Sea himself.

     A word of warning, however: this is not a beverage for the weak of heart. Even after I was reasonably confident I was making drinkable alcohol and not toxic methanol, there were still some very strange side effects after partaking of the ringshine -- I'm pretty sure the walls are not supposed to start talking to me like that, and certainly not in that tone of voice.

     Perhaps using genetically modified, electrosynthetic yeast in the mash wasn't such a hot idea? It's a possibility, but I'm confident future generations of Lightway pioneers will build on my experiments and perfect the procedure.

Fourth Course: Neptune Slushies

     After a few nights on the ringshine, and once the voices have quieted down, you'll probably be feeling a bit peckish, and perhaps a little weak. For me, this was precisely when the 3D food printer reserve storage decided to give up the ghost, for some reason -- typical.

     With all that nutritious algae solution about to go to waste, and no way of repairing the storage unit since I'd completely cannibalised it for my various culinary experiments, I was certainly facing a major crisis, and would have to find some way to survive off the yeast harvest alone, until I could rendez-vous with a supply base -- which wouldn't be until Mars, at the earliest.

     But worry not! Again, that pioneer spirit must shine through to turn misfortune into opportunity.
     In this case, you've got a mighty hunger, on one hand, and a pile of rapidly rotting nutrient slurry on the other. A perfect opportunity to treat yourself to a very cool, deep space treat: Neptune slushies!
     Simply yank an algae slurry container from the now defunct containment system and strap on your EVA suit.

     One small step through the airlock and you're out into the local Neptunian weather; even on the sunlit side of the shuttle it may be a touch chilly for some, perhaps, but perfect for flash boiling and freezing your nutrient slurry, turning it into the perfect base for a refreshing, easy to digest slushie.

     As you make your careful way back into the ship -- hopefully your boots keep better hold of the hull than mine did at this point -- make sure the frozen flakes don't float out of the canister and into open space. You need the vitamins a lot more than ol' Neptune does!
     Back in the ship, mix the flash-dried flakes to taste with whatever water is still potable in the recycling system, and enjoy! Add glucose syrup and/or post-distillation ringshine mash to taste.

Fifth Course: How about them apples?

     It will be painfully obvious by now that those lazy constructor probes are just messing with you, and have no intention of ever completing the laser thrust relay station you need to leave Neptune and get back to the rest of humanity.

     With the judicious use of a few emergency override codes, you'll be able to take full control over those little metallic bastards. As long as you have a few high-energy slushies left to keep you going, a few feverish Earth-days of work should be enough to show them how it's done.

     Yes, it will mean cutting a few corners and violating any number of safety protocols, but at the end of the freakishly short Neptunian day, all you need is a station able to bounce photons off your mirror, to push you along. All the other bells and whistles must just be for show, right?

     So finish off that station, and you'll finally be set ting off back towards the Sun, and home!

     Almost as importantly, solar energy will be on the rise again now that you're heading back inwards, so what electrosynthesis yeasts you have left will start producing sour little apple and berry-like growths -- just enough for you to survive on, hopefully. If not, then I find drug-enforced catnaps, using up the remains of the medical supplies, are just the thing to stave off the worst pangs of hunger -- which are an interesting experience in themselves!

     So ignore those silly, buzzing voices coming from the speakers, demanding to know what the hell is going on -- they're probably just your imagination again anyway --, and enjoy the fruits of your labours while savouring the variety of textures and tastes each new hundred leg of your journey brings, one hundred thousand kilometres at a time.

Collision Course: Last Call

     If, by any chance, you ever wake up out of a comatose state to find yourself irreversibly locked into a deadly rendez-vous with Jupiter's gravity well, a victim of circumstance and shoddy laser thrust management -- worry not!

     When life gives you space lemons -- and plenty of other weird citrus-style outgrowths from the fruit yeast, going crazy in Jupiter's colossal gravity field --, you might as well seize the opportunity to make some new, near-death experiments with the last of the ringshine.

     Other than the aforementioned lemony growths, which make a sweet but refreshing lemonade substitute when pressed into water, you should also find clusters of seed-like sprouts, which could easily pass for skinned pomegranates on the palate and produce a lovely syrup when squeezed, as well as fuzzy little fruit, which not only look but also taste like tiny peaches.

     These last offerings of the electrosynthetic yeasts seem designed to dissolve and transfer their essence perfectly into little glasses of ringshine, as luck would have it -- simply slice them and leave them to infuse for at least four Earth-days, before filtering and bottling.

     After much experimentation involving the unadulterated ringshine, the lemonade-ersatz, the syrupy pomegranate juice, and the peach-like liqueur -- along with anything else I could find in the wreckage of my doomed shuttle and seemed like it could go into a drink -- I have stumbled upon a most satisfying cocktail mix, both in terms of presentation and of taste.

     This, my final and perhaps greatest achievement, I present to you under the name of Lightway Gargle Blaster, in honour of Douglas Adams, the man who inspired me to take up Lightway pioneering in the first place.

Lightway Gargle Blaster

Ingredients

3 cl Ringshine

3 dashes Blue flavouring concentrate that tastes like oranges, from the remains of the 3D food printer

3 cl Peach-like liqueur

3 cl Pomegranate-style syrup

6 cl Lemonade substitute

Method: On the rocks
Glass: Salvaged food receptacle

 

Recipe:

  1. Fill the empty jar 3/4 with ice scraped from the failing shuttle heating unit.
  2. Add peach liqueur, ringshine, then pomegranate syrup.
  3. Use any object vaguely resembling a spoon amidst the mess you've turned the shuttle into to gently lift the syrup through the ice.
  4. Top with lemonade-like drink to taste, but leave enough room for the next step.
  5. Once you have mixed, drizzle a small amount of blue orange flavouring concentrate down the sides of the glass.
  6. The concentrate will fall through the largely orange cocktail -- though that may just Jupiter's baleful glare -- leaving a trail of purple clouds, and a beautiful gradient between orange and blue, reminiscent of a sunset back on the planet of your birth which you, as well, may never see again.

Volume: 15 cl
Alcohol units: Not quite nearly enough

     It is my deepest hope that this account of the culinary adventures of one, humble Lightway pioneer will not only bring pleasure to the senses, but also inform, encourage and guide future generations of deep space workers to ever greater gustative achievements.

     The voices in the speakers -- which I am now reasonably confident to declare as truly coming from Corporate Council Space Exploitation Authority mission command, and not just from the lasting effects of methanol poisoning on my addled senses -- have promised to diffuse my little cookbook to an interplanetary audience, as long as I could provide them with a full report before the fatal liaison with Jupiter's crushing gravity occurs.

     I find I am at peace with my imminent demise; once again, that solid, Lightway pioneer mindset shines through. But I cannot deny just how much the knowledge that my findings and experiences will live on, echoing in the minds, palates and senses of generations to come --beyond the limits of our poor, lonesome solar system, even -- comforts me and helps me find the stoic balance I need in these, my final moments.

     Which reminds me -- if you're ever exposed first hand to Jupiter's terrible gravitational forces, don't miss the opportunity to grab a quick, acceleration-induced post meal nap. Nothing better to aid the digestion!

[CCSEA file notes

Incident report ends here

Filed for insurance purposes

Cause of destruction of company property: human error]

THE END

This story originally appeared in Ouen Press 2018 Short Story Competition Anthology.


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J.R.H. Lawless

J.R.H. Lawless writes Science Fiction full of dark humour and hope, set in a consistent Universe.