“Good evening, Heather.” Mo looked nervous. Why would he fall back into that mode? Was it a mistake to invite him to her private space? She hoped he wasn’t going to start addressing her as Your Majesty or something. He wasn’t sworn to her even though he owned property in her realm. He was Jeff’s hired man and a citizen of Home now. She waved him to a chair in sight of the kitchen. He sat but stiff and tense.
“I made spaghetti. It’s a favorite in my family. I hope you like that OK?” she asked.
“That will be a treat. I haven’t had it in months. Different sorts of restaurants are one of the few things I occasionally miss about Earth. We had a Vietnamese and a Hungarian place we frequented in our old neighborhood.”
“I’m afraid you’re getting canned sauce with a few spices added and pouch meatballs,” Heather said.
“That’s a big step up from the self-heating meals I’ve been having sitting on the edge of my bunk. I don’t want to go to the cafeteria in my suit liner and I’m out of time and energy to get cleaned up and go back out by the time I get in.”
The cafeteria wasn’t much, just six tables and a tiny kitchen. But it served better meals than out of a self-heating can. Between Heather’s own employees and some lot owners still in temporary shelter, there were thirty four people living centrally in connected pressure. Two families living at depth in tunnels under Heather’s land because the modular housing they towed from Armstrong was destroyed or buried in the Chinese attack.
A few others lived in because their work didn’t permit them to live on their own land and commute. Not only did they have no fast elevator system to the depth they were at now, but there still were not small personal vehicles to be had. The traffic system and some vehicles were designed, and the standards issued by royal decree. They would be manufactured when the roads were cleared. They just needed to make a bigger printer to make the structural modules. The hand built bus that had connected them to Armstrong briefly was now sitting waiting on their surface streets to be cleared.
“That’s awful,” Heather said of eating canned meals. She was genuinely concerned. Mo was an asset and anything that wore his morale down was very bad. “We have kids living in pressure who would probably do courier work cheap if they just knew there was a market. They could run a hot meal to your room from the cafeteria. They probably don’t think to ask because they lived under strict North American law in Armstrong. They didn’t ignore it here like we did on M3 even before the revolution. I will drop a hint to some parents,” she promised.
“I never thought to ask either,” Mo admitted. “I guess my brain is stuck on Earth-think a little bit too. My son has turned into quite the entrepreneur on Home, so you’d think I would have adjusted, but it didn’t occur to me.”
“What does he do?” Heather asked.
“He buys old spex and com pads from folks. It seems like most people get new ones often, whenever there’s a new feature they like. Most of the time they aren’t worth the time to try to sell them. But if he’s standing right there offering cash they’ll dig it out of the drawer they tossed it in. People still find it hard to actually throw it away if it still works fine. The new people coming in are shocked at the prices for everything and happy to economize on something. He sells some to Earth because the down leg shipping is cheap.”
“I’m aware your daughter already has quite a reputation as an artist.”
“That’s one we didn’t see coming. She always was sketching stuff. Pictures of fancy clothing mostly. But she was a discipline problem when we lived on Earth. The school never saw her as having any artistic talent. In fact she got poor grades in basic art and then couldn’t get in the more advanced classes. My wife has shown me articles from Earth denouncing her work as simplistic and childish, but people sure seem to be willing to pay serious money for it.”
“On Earth that would be seen as a negative in academic society,” Heather pointed out. “If the great unwashed masses like it then it can’t have any value. Only the pure praise of their scholastic peers.”
“Well, she doesn’t seem to be pining for their approval,” Mo said.
“Good. I’d be disappointed if she paid attention to such foolishness.”
“I have to admit. I haven’t been gone from Earth all that long. But I’m already looking at the news feeds and thinking I can’t believe I used to accept what they said pretty much automatically. Now they sound like they are raving crazies most of the time. But if I said that to the people I used to work with down there I can just see the looks they’d give me.”
“So sad, now you are oppressed under my iron fist,” Heather said.
“Oddly enough I think you are capable of doing the iron fist thing,” he said actually making a fist. “It’s just not scary because from everything I’ve seen you won’t do it for some stupid reason that doesn’t make any sense to anybody. Everybody from Armstrong is very happy you smashed their punitive force with an iron fist and didn’t let them be dragged back to a North American jurisdiction. Even the ones in temporary shelter. They are certain things will get better. They had no such hope at Armstrong. Things were so bad there some of them were near giving up and going back down to the Slum Ball.”
The tension Mo showed when he arrived seemed to have passed.
“That’s the nicest thing anybody has said in awhile. So, if you aren’t scared of me why were you all nervous when you came in?”
“I guess because I’m just a mining engineer and I keep expecting someone to tell me I shouldn’t be doing robotics and civil engineering. Now I’m going to advise you on something and I’m not even sure what discipline to label it. Environmental engineering? Process engineering?”
“All we care is if it works, Mo. We’d take your advice for just about anything if you display general competence. We’re not stupid and we’re going to run any ideas past other on Home and Earth before we undertake any big commitment of time and money. I’d take your advice on making spaghetti if you can show me a better way to do it, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t certified as a chef.”
“Good. I’m encouraged you’ll get other advice. That takes some of the pressure off.”
“Come sit here, it’s ready and no pressure to talk business while we enjoy it.”
“Oh my, you have wine.” There was a plastic carafe of red. Glass was just too heavy to justify lifting it from Earth. She served the pasta separately with a big blob of butter melting on it and the sauce and meatballs in the pan she used to heat it. Her serving dishes and table space were very limited. They had grated cheese in little foil packs and she wouldn’t serve on plastic plates and had metal silverware. Given how she was raised she had limits to her practicality.
“OK, you’re right I’m not a chef,” Mo admitted. “What did you add to make this so good?”
“Commercial sauce, but good stuff, Midi brand from North America. I added a little extra garlic, a tiny bit of anchovy paste, a tad of basil and tarragon, maybe a teaspoon of honey and five of those little dark chocolate chips like they put in cookies.”
“Amazing. Chocolate? Anchovies?”
“Those sort of things you add in moderation. You don’t want them to stand out or take over, but they add to the complexity. A lot of what we buy is intended for the sportsman and camping market. The quality tends to be much better than emergency food. Don’t be shy, take seconds.”
He had another full plate serving and she had just a little more. Eventually he sighed and leaned back in his chair. That was the first she was sure he was over being uncomfortable.
“Now tell me what is so complicated you couldn’t just send me a text,” Heather said.
“I’m aware you had plans to move steadily toward food independence. Jeff made me aware I should start talking with experts at inside cultivation on Earth to know how to lay out chambers and tunnels. Then later he told me to speak with the French who were interested in doing the same thing. We really have it easier in a lot of ways. We don’t have to worry about pests and disease as long as we don’t introduce them. On Earth it’s a struggle to bring in air and water and have workmen in and out without introducing problems.”
“And if we do have contamination we can pump a tunnel back to vacuum,” Heather said.
“Yes, and we can make our own air, water is harder but we have some that can be mined in dark craters. At least enough until we have a regular supply from the outer system,” Mo said.
“But we don’t have biomass. We’re carbon poor and we have no extra lift capacity. Nobody is even taking standby status freight. So we have everything we need but enough carbon dioxide for the plants. Eventually we can recover most of it from sewage and mulching crop waste, but we lack the tons we need to start a large recycling system going. We can’t do hydro or build soil without organics.”
“Exactly,” Mo agreed. “Eventually, long term, we can send ships to bring back hydrocarbons or carbon dioxide from Jupiter or beyond just like they are doing water now.”
Heather thought briefly of reminding him the first snowball wasn’t back yet and that the second expedition was having troubles. After considering it she didn’t see how that would help and it was confidential so she stifled it.
“What I want to propose is a stopgap. We have three million cubic meters of rock and regolith to back fill. There is anywhere from fifty to two hundred parts per million carbon. We should process the material to remove that carbon. You might also consider separating and stockpiling the iron at the same time. It will be a considerable asset in time and cost little to do so.”
“Yes, but the iron is easy to separate magnetically,” Heather said. “How much of a process is getting the carbon out? Is it going to involve milling and chemical extraction?”
“That’s the beauty. All you have to do is heat it and it and the majority of it is released as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane gas.”
“Enough to be worthwhile?” Heather asked.
“It varies from fifty to two hundred parts per million.”
“That doesn’t sound like much to me.”
“But Heather, if our material runs at the median concentration it means three thousand tons of carbon in just our back-fill. Plenty to stock a closed system and buy us time. If we need to we can send a group to set up mining in some of the dark craters. That would give us more water and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same regolith has higher carbon content too.”
“Would we have to divert some of our robots doing back-fill to run a remote mining operation?”
“No, because we will reach a point where we have as many robots working as the road network will support. Then we just replace the obsolete ones that wear out. We wouldn’t send the robots to a dark crater however, we’d send an automated robot maker or two.”
Heather thought about that a bit. “You can handle and convert the carbon monoxide easily? That stuff makes me nervous in a sealed environment.”
“We can burn it to carbon dioxide through a catalyst screen. We’ll do it physically isolated from environmentally controlled cubic,” he assured her. “The carbon dioxide liquefies easily to transport it if we do the dark crater operation. It’s in the ideal form to release for plants.”
“I’ve been speaking with Jeff about this. We also want to have a yeast tank operation. They’ve developed some strains of yeast that can be processed to something people actually want to eat – not just survival food. But without the biomass we weren’t going to be able do it because we had no feedstock.”
“Hydroponic beets are an excellent feed stock for tank yeast,” Mo said.
“You’ve been researching this deeper than you’re admitting,” Heather said.
Mo blushed. “I’m still no expert. But I had to be certain it would work as a package before proposing it.”
“What I’d like you to do is make a couple prototypes. I take it the transport robots won’t each have an extraction apparatus will they?”
“No. We don’t really need to change the design of the scoop and move units. We just add a mill at the edge of the crater to extract the iron and carbon. Then when the bin gets full of processed material it tosses it in the crater so it doesn’t build up a slope and make us periodically move that unit forward to a new lip. The material will be loose and that’s a dangerous operation to do.”
Heather nodded. “We want a prototype, and a unit to transport to a dark crater and test there for carbon iron and water extraction. Build that unit with weight and dimensional limits in mind for transporting it. I’ll need a budget proposal and a short description of the operation for Jeff and whomever he decides to consult. When can you have that for me?”
“I’ll have a basic proposal in a week,” he promised. When Heather lifted a skeptical eyebrow he explained. “I have an outline already and just need to add some drawings and address some of the questions you raised.”
“I’m curious, how do the other moon bases handle waste? Do they recycle and if not how do they dispose of it?” Heather asked.
“I have no idea. But I’ll inquire if you wish,” Mo said
“Yes, I wish. Would you care for some dessert?” Heather offered.
“I thank you, but not after the second helping,” Mo said, putting a hand flat on his stomach.
“Thank you then. If you send me a message about this, title the message with ‘Carbon’ on the header and I’ll know what it’s about.”
It was an obvious dismissal, and Mo stood and said his goodbyes quickly.