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«Houston, Texas, January 4, 2052 (Launch minus 15 days), 08:07 CST. Billy Jepler’s lips pursed in a mischievous grin. “If they begged you to join ...»

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In the Blackness of Space, by Robert Kuntz

Houston, Texas, January 4, 2052 (Launch minus 15 days), 08:07 CST.

Billy Jepler’s lips pursed in a mischievous grin. “If they begged you to join the Galileo

crew,” he repeated, “what would you ask for?”

Blackness charged the edges of my vision, blurring the walls of the diner. I felt the sweat

coming. I hated blacking out in public. Taking slow, deep breaths, I forced myself to look

across the table at him.

“Never.” Somehow, the word escaped my clenched teeth. My voice rose, “I will never ride in a car. Or bike or bus or train. I’ll never leave Earth.” I took a long, steady breath, trying to quiet my pounding heart.

Billy was dressed in a black power suit. Even though he was overweight, with an unruly head of black hair, his serious persona had a sobering effect on people. You could joke with Billy Jepler, but you never bluffed, bullied, or blathered.

Billy waved his hands and then clicked his ballpoint pen a dozen times. “Grant, relax. I know your fears. Who met you ten years ago when you were a new PhD who’d walked over a thousand miles from Charleston to work here at NASA?” My heart settled. I looked around the dimly-lit diner. The shades were pulled down, blocking the small square windows in front. A ceiling fan turned lazy circles overhead. The only other customers were back by the kitchen.

A broad-shouldered man of inexhaustible energy, Billy had a boyish face with steel blue eyes. Plump like the donuts he was savoring, he reminded me of a throbbing number 8. I was like a tepid number 1, a bean pole with straight hair and a thin nose.

Billy pointed a beefy finger at me. “My question is not ‘Would you go to FarSpace?’ My question is ‘If you had them over a barrel, what would you ask for?’” He glared at me, but then raised an eyebrow.

I grinned. As serious as Billy could be, he had a spirit of fun when it came to his friends.

He knew how to bump me off the downward slide to blacking out. I took another slow breath.

“An Elvis Presley record collection, a bassoon and electric guitar, a pair of kestrels, two poodles, and blueprints for Confederate naval vessels.” Billy nodded thoughtfully. “Things from the crew’s two-hundred-pound packages…nothing for you.” “I’m not going!” Sweat soaked my forehead. I focused on my breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out. Slow seconds in, steady seconds out. Your feet are on the ground; you’re OK. I looked down at the ancient rust-colored linoleum, cracked and buckled like a Martian landscape.

I was surprised Billy had asked me to breakfast. Two days ago, Manny Weppler, the computer specialist on the Galileo’s crew, had a prolonged seizure during a launch simulation.

He was in the hospital, on a ventilator, diagnosed with mission-disqualifying California encephalitis. Billy had to be going crazy to find a replacement.

I’d known Jepler for ten years. He was the master of multi-tasking, working on dozens of projects at once. Billy’s deals, cons, trades, and larceny had saved the program countless times.

We had a vision to send people deep into space, to planets where humans might live. With the president-elect promising to end FarSpace on his first day in office, we had to launch in two weeks.

Billy leaned forward. “OK, you’re not going. But, Grant, work with me here. You’re the most knowledgeable person I know. It’s not just that you can walk me into the ground with those sturdy legs. You can think me into the ground with that brilliant mind. You have a passion for what we’re doing and you see the big picture, so I need to know.” His voice was soft. “What changes would you make?” We’d protected FarSpace from so many gnat-brained accusers that it was hard for me to criticize the program. “You won’t tell anyone from outside?” “Only Jean-li Neuwin, the VidNet reporter,” he said sarcastically. “I have a mini-podcorder in my shirt pocket, and I’ll tell her the recommendations of Dr. Grant J. Chapman, the most anal computer genius in the FarSpace support crew.” His ballpoint fired off another staccato burst. “Relax. Just tell me.” I picked up my orange and then peeled and sectioned it. The four sections without seeds I put on the right side of my plate. The six sections with seeds on the left. Using my fork, I pierced those with seeds and worked the seeds out. I lined up the fifteen seeds in three rows of five. They reminded me of pungent, miniature number 9s.

“Whoever established those miserly weight restrictions doesn’t have the intelligence God gave kumquats. The nauts are risking their lives. They’re the most important element in the whole mission. You don’t send people on a twenty-five-year trip into space and deny them twohundred pounds of personal gear. If you’re loyal to your people, you let them take the stuff of their dreams.

“Let Naomi Branch take her kestrels. She’s raised them since they hatched. Let Carmen Pioquinto have her Elvis record collection, electric guitar, and bassoon. Let Ushamla Beduee take her rose bushes, bee hives, and those maddening mazes she sends bees through. Let Ihor Dremenev take his poodles and Bronson Gwen his naval blueprints. They’ll be in space for years. Give them what will keep them sane.” I ate an orange section from the left. The taste reminded me of my walk to Houston. On the way through Louisiana, the road went past an orange grove. I helped myself to an orange, and as I ate each section, I slipped the seeds into my pocket. With the fifteen seeds on my plate, I now had 177,215 orange seeds, 3,988 peach pits, 5,735 cherry pits, plus apple seeds.

“You are an amazing man,” Billy said. “At most, you talk with the Galileo’s crew ten minutes a month. Yet you know their hobbies and interests because you care about them.” I shrugged.

Billy clicked his ballpoint as if he were trying to wear it out. “But you have to be realistic, Grant. You can’t add kestrels, bees, and poodles. They’d breathe oxygen and eat food the crew needs.” I looked up from the seeds. “You don’t understand it, do you?” Billy grinned. “You’re the science geek, not me.” “Look, Billy, the Galileo’s going on a twenty-five-year trip. In 1980, a pair of researchers estimated that every year a person eats three times his weight in food, breathes in four times his weight in oxygen, and drinks eight times his weight in water. Multiply that by eight crew members and twenty-five years, and stocking the ship would require a grocery store the size of Rhode Island. You can’t send that to FarSpace. So the crew members have to raise their own food and recycle air and water. They need a complete ecosystem, one with functional redundancy. You can’t have your CO2 scrubbing system inoperative when you’re out past Jupiter.” Billy looked fondly at his last donut and nodded. “It’s more complicated than sending a farm into space.” “Right. It’s not just growing crops. It’s recycling human and animal waste in a system that keeps humans, plants, and animals alive.

“The ship’s ecosystem is modeled on the Biosphere II experiments of the 1990s, taking nature’s interdependent life-enhancing systems into space. The living part of the Galileo is made up of two rings, each with seven distinct biomes, one after another like beads on a bracelet.

“There’s a small rainforest with a seventy-five-foot waterfall and trees that will reach one hundred feet.” “The nauts need monkeys and macaws?” “Neither of those made the cut. The rainforest’s tropical foliage, along with the plankton and coral reef in the ocean biome, recycles CO2 back into oxygen so the nauts keep breathing.

“The next biome is a dual-pond, tree-lined savannah. The stream from the rainforest flows through the savannah ponds and then twists through the smallest biome, the mangrove swamp. Then the stream flows into the tiny ocean. It’s a 660,000-gallon sea with a living coral reef, a sliver of beach, and coconut palms.” Billy centered his donut on his plate. “I remember that. An ocean the size of an Olympic swimming pool.” “The next biome,” I said, “is the fog desert with lizards and cacti, followed by the ag biome with pygmy goats, chickens, and crops including oats, rice, sweet potatoes, beans, and onions.” “And the last biome,” Billy said, nodding, “has the rooms where the crew lives.” “More than rooms. It’s got living quarters, machine shops, labs, med-bay, gym, and library. The nauts will have to fix the plumbing, monitor the health of the biomes, and repair farm bots when they’re light years from Earth.” “OK, that’s the Galileo.” “No. That’s the first ring, half the Galileo. In order to have failsafe redundancy, they’ve built a second ring.” “With a second rainforest, ocean, and farm.” “If something goes awry nine light-years from home, you can’t just pop over to the neighbor’s for a dozen eggs to replenish your flock.” “I get it. Functional redundancy.” “Their lives depend on it.” I ate another orange section from the left and enjoyed the juice trickling down my throat.

I thought again of the long walk from Charleston and the seeds I’d started collecting on the way.

I now had seeds from five varieties of common apples: 2,701 Cortland, 409 Grimes Golden, 3,511 Jonathan, 1741 Melrose, and 122 Albemarle Pippen. I knew if I planted them, each one would grow its own new variety. Apple seeds were like that. But I kept them nonetheless.

Billy squinted his eyes nearly shut. “The rings are balanced ecosystems. And now you’ve got a problem. You want to add kestrels, bees, and poodles. That ruins the ecological balance. You’ll kill the nauts.” “Not if you keep the Beta Ring attached to the ship.” “Take a third complete ecosystem?” “Why not? Go beyond functional redundancy to failsafe redundancy.” “But the cost.” “Billy, you’re not thinking. The Beta Ring is already in space. It’s the base on which the Galileo’s been built. It’s been connected to the rings from the beginning. Construction crews lived there. Its animals and plants have supported human life for seven years. It will cost less to keep it in place than to disconnect it.” Billy held up a hand. “Calm down, Grant. You’ve convinced me. No need to wake Houston.” He thought for a minute and then said, “So why do the engineers say the Beta Ring won’t hold up to a twenty-five-year space flight?” “You’ve been listening to Rennellson. He has the IQ of a flatworm and the guts of a paramecium. Yes, he’s the head engineer. Yes, he’s more vocal than anyone else. But guess who loses his job if the Beta Ring goes to FarSpace? Talk to other engineers—like Malloy and Granger on the rigging team. The Beta Ring was built to last 75 years. Take it along. Don’t let the next administration put it in mothballs.” I ate another orange slice from the left.

“It’s all about failsafe redundancy,” Billy muttered. “Back-up systems, ‘spare’ animals, and environment.” “It’s all for the nauts. You do everything possible not only to keep them alive, but to give the nauts a life.” Billy lifted a finger. “Point one, no priority higher than the nauts.” He looked at his donut and thrust out two fingers. “Point two, failsafe redundancy for every aspect of FarSpace.” Suddenly his eyes got wide, and a gleeful look passed over his face, as though he’d discovered the key to donut heaven.

“Grant, you’ve sparked a breakthrough for me, solved a giant problem.” I didn’t get it.

Billy leaned back in his seat, picked up his donut, and took a bite. He sighed and then chewed with a faint smile on his lips. He looked at me with steely eyes. “OK, you miracle worker. Tell me what you would take. What would keep you sane?” I took a deep breath and looked at Billy’s cherry red tie. “Plenty of people think I’m not sane. I won’t get in a car…” Billy clicked his pen furiously. “You have degrees in this stuff. Help me out here.” Billy’s questions were bothering me. Sweat began to collect on the back of my neck.

“I’m not going!” My arms started to shake. If I didn’t get out of this dingy place and into fresh air and sun, I’d black out. I stood from the table and glared at Billy. I’d only blacked out twice this month. First the sweat, then the shakes, and finally the system got so overloaded it shut down.

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