Retired Navy Captain John Kelly has started his one hundred and twenty-seventh day in space. He has not slept in many weeks and needs to aim the surgical scalpel a second time at the matured plant in front of him, red leaf romaine. While doing so he hums a flat tone. The same tone he finds himself humming whether doing work for this project or not. The same tone he finds himself humming almost all the time now.
He does not find the fact he is humming strange.
Only that when he wants to stop, he can’t without effort. If this new habit gets noticed by one of the other crew, or worse NASA, he is certain he will be put on the next Soyuz home.
He has to avoid that.
Much is left to be done and time is short.
He pinches the soft flesh of his columella hard enough to make his eyes water in attempt to make the humming stop, but the sound keeps right on coming. If he were in his right mind it would remind him of a cat’s involuntary purr of satisfaction.
He looks around more out of cautious habit than an expectation to see one of the other five astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
The place is huge with nooks and crannies.
Skip is tucked away in a special little cubby he has been using to work on this experiment.
On good days he knows he is making history. Space grown edible fiber is big news and the implications would be wide reaching, but he has kept silent.
No one can know.
The start to it all came from a section of lettuce seed that got packaged with a meal. It was insignificant, four or five small buds in all. It was freeze dried. It should have been worthless. It shouldn’t have grown into anything and somehow slipped by all the screening procedures NASA has set up to avoid anything surprising getting onboard the station. Since he found it, he was compelled to try and hydrate it back to life. He felt it was ordained.
It took only a few days of UV lighting and soaking in water to earn him several sprouts. It was a nice surprise. Skip kept it going with a carefully scrounged hydroponics kit.
The accumulation of months of work is that he has several heads of the first ever grown space lettuce.
And it’s ready to eat.
But he can’t stop humming.
With the monotone utterance continuing and nobody around, Skip throws an uppercut into his own jaw.
Even in zero G he briefly sees stars.
Besides the fear of being sent home, the other reason Skip wants to stop humming is because of how badly he wants to keep doing it.
Allowing his body to make this sound is the most physically rewarding thing he has ever felt in the entirety of his life .
Short of breath now from the punch to the face and tasting the coppery bite of blood in his mouth, he manages to stop humming long enough to cut a few more leaves from a head of lettuce with the scalpel he stole out of the crew’s first aid kit.
He smiles and swipes a crispy red rimmed leaf free from his cultivation and, completely unaware, starts humming again.
Not twenty minutes later it’s the soft hum creating the meal’s ambience, the space lettuce with a honey mustard vinaigrette whipped up from the packets of condiments shipped to the space station with the pre-prepared meals.
Skip decides his hum compliments the normal sounds of everyday space life; the sound of the station, of machinery whirring in the background, life support and radiation, home.
“What is this?”
Skip sits across from his American counterpart, Lindgren, a civilian Medical Doctor, A quiet man with a religious bent.
“It’s space grown fibrous nutrients,” Skip answers cutting a section of leaf with the scalpel before spearing the bite. He holds the bite of leafy green up to his mouth, but waits. He wants to relish every second of the moment to come.
The first bite waits while he eyes his dining companion.
The Doctor just arrived twenty days ago. Skip knows him through training, but even then conversation had been limited.
Skip has discovered he prefers silence, besides the humming that is. Humming is the only thing he wants to hear. Anything that stands in his way of the humming must be ended.
Lundgreen is examining the contents of his plate, confused. “You grew this here?”
“Yes,” Skip answers growing annoyed. So little time remains, every second that passes is one second closer to the end.
He doesn’t want to miss any of it by talking. Talking diminishes the experience, dilutes it, almost renders it normal. Only in the silence, bathed in his humming, can he appreciate the subtleties of space exploration.
Taking the bite from the end of the ecuminical surgical tool with his teeth, he chomps down, surprised by the burst of static that fills his mouth. The taste is sterile and it reminds him of hospital air, or the air of the station.
The taste of the lettuce even overpowers the homemade honey mustard vinaigrette dripping from it.
He has never eaten anything better.
Skip chews, slowly becoming aware he is humming along with the station again and also that Lundgren is still not eating his lettuce.
The doctor is staring at him and Skip does not appreciate it.
Then the answer hits him similar to an electrical short.
Only one thing separates him from the bliss of life alone in space.
It’s a short reach across the table and a simple flick of the scalpel to open the jugular of the man from Texas.
Skip prides himself on perfection, on doing a job well the first time, and waits; the arterial life blood spurts from his colleague’s neck; it will not be long. The blood flow eventually lessens and the man’s frantic attempts to staunch it stop also.
The surprised look on his now lifeless face is horrid, almost appetite suppressing.
Not noticing the droplets of fresh blood mixing with the vinaigrette on his plate, Skip shovels the remaining lettuce into his mouth.
Standing, he hums with complete abandon.
Now to the other four.