Tristan and Arianne

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Chapter 11

The bell tinkled tentatively. Tristan put down his book reader and rose from his chair. The first two visits of the day had not gone well, and so he approached the door with some trepidation.

Temmar stood there, stiff and apprehensive. “Mr. Tristan?”

“Temmar. Hi.”

“Alcofrobas thought you might like a tour. To see what we do here. Well, to see how we feed ourselves, that sort of thing. As for study, well, I suppose individuals will tell you all about what they’re looking at.”

“Sure,” said Tristan. Food production was not something he felt passionate about. Who needed to know, when assemblers, appropriately resourced and programmed, could turn out any dish from any cuisine in the Dynasty at the touch of a button? But, he reflected, they didn’t have that here, and he didn’t want to appear snooty. In fact, he was beginning to look on it as a challenge to finally convince these last hold-outs of the benefits of coming into the nanotechnology fold. And the previous evening’s vegetable casserole had certainly been tasty. The “monks” of Thelema had evidently mastered their own brand of self-sufficiency. “Lead the way.”

Temmar looked him up and down. “Don’t you want to wear something warmer? It’s chilly outside.”

Tristan sighed, wondering how often he would have to explain the simplest things. “It’s a nano-suit. It maintains an optimum body temperature, regardless of the climate. It’s how come I managed to survive in your mountains.”

Temmar looked impressed. “Really? It looks like underwear to me.”

“Looks,” Tristan responded, a little wearily, “can be deceptive. Very deceptive.”

As Temmar led the way along the corridor, Tristan began to explain, as simply as he could, how the nano-circuitry within the fabric of the suit maintained all life support functions, including the recycling of bodily wastes, and, with the addition of a simple breathing apparatus, would even serve as a space suit. As Temmar listened agog, Tristan began to think he might have found his first convert.

Outside, a stiff wind whipped along the valley. Tristan pulled up the hood of his suit, augmenting the audio input fractionally with a touch of his collar, so that only his face was exposed to the chill factor.

Temmar led him first to the pipe which emerged from the ground close to the abbey. Steaming effluent issued into a channel, which led to the cascade of basins he had observed on his arrival.

Temmar pointed to the water swirling into the basins. “They are shaped in a very precise way,” he explained, “to maximise oxygenation of the waste water leaving the abbey, and also to cool it so it’s no longer harmful to the fish and suchlike in the pond. Nothing here is wasted, it all feeds back into the ecosystem and is used again.”

He led Tristan on down to the pond.

“Why do you make the bank in that shape?” asked Tristan as they drew closer. “Is it just for decoration?”

Temmar laughed merrily. “There’s not much here that’s for decoration! No, it’s called chinampa, and it maximises the edge configuration. The ditch-and-bank layout means that the plants growing on the bank are able to draw up water through their root systems, while the fish in the pond - a not insignificant food source - feed on the vegetation at the water’s margin. The ducks you see in the shelter of the island provide us with eggs, feathers for bedding, meat on special occasions, and, of course, more ducks. The sediment, if we can call it that, from the bottom of the ditches and the floor of the main body of the lake makes excellent manure, and is dredged up at regular intervals.”

Tristan looked down towards the middle of the valley, where the hippocybes were nosing through the snow in search of fodder. He noticed that the paddock was delineated by a fence which grew in a zig-zag pattern.

“Why do you build your fences that way?” he asked.

“Zig-zag fences stand up to the wind much better than straight ones,” Temmar explained. “And believe me, in the winter, the wind really blows here.”

Tristan thought for a moment. “This isn’t winter?”

“No,” said Temmar. “We’re pretty much into spring now. We won’t get much more real snow now, I imagine.” He followed Tristan’s gaze to where the hippocybes were foraging. “The poor old ’cybes won’t get frozen snouts looking for their breakfast.”

The tour continued. As they meandered back upslope, Temmar related how even vegetable waste from the fields and the greenhouses, including corn and sunflower stalks, was used as a combination of mulch and nutrient.

“Mulch?” said Tristan. He was as intrigued by the sound of the word as he was by its meaning. It sounded like something to be squashed underfoot.

“It keeps unwanted weeds down,” Temmar told him, “and it provides a blanket against frost, which is a real killer, if you aren’t careful.”

Partly concealed by the end of the abbey building was a long low berm. A pipe from the roof of the abbey led into the grassy bank.

“What’s that?” Tristan asked.

“Our rainwater tanks,” Temmar answered, “heavily insulated against the cold.”

“I thought you got all your water out of the ground,” said Tristan, confused.

“Water for washing and heating, yes,” said Temmar, puzzled by the nano-man’s ignorance of the most basic things. “But you can’t drink the bore water here. Well, you can, there’s nothing actually toxic in it. It just doesn’t taste real good. For drinking, we collect rainwater. The outer skin of the abbey’s roof dome is covered in mesh-filtered water traps, leading to a network of runnels that pass between the upper cells. It all ends up here.” He pointed to the pipe. “And the overflow is directed down into the pond.”

Above the berm was a large bank of photovoltaic panels, turning like heliotropes to track the sun, or, at any rate, that part of the sky where the sun was presumed to be.

“Your power source,” Tristan said, relieved to see at least one thing he recognised.

“One of them,” said Temmar. “We also use hydro power. We have small turbines in a few good sized waterfalls up in the hills, with underground transmission lines carrying the electricity to here. Because, as you see, we would be unwise to depend solely on solar.”

“Yes,” said Tristan.

“And we are hoping,” Temmar continued, “to start work soon on a wind farm.”

“A what?”

“A wind farm. The wind drives big fan blades, which in turn generate power.”

“Well, you’ve certainly got the wind,” Tristan acknowledged, his eyes watering.

“Yup,” said Temmar. “And it would be good to have an electric furnace for the smithy.” He pointed to the outbuilding Tristan had noticed on his arrival at the abbey. “As it is, we have to look further and further afield for fuel.” Tristan recalled the orange glow, and realised that they were generating heat for their furnace by actually burning something.

They ascended to terraces, where Temmar indicated the outdoor gardens were located, but there was nothing that Tristan could see which bore any resemblance to a garden. Thickets of gorse waved their cheerful yellow flags in the gale, but there was little evidence of cultivation. Temmar took a path which wound in between the head-high bushes and Tristan followed.

Once they had passed between the thorny barriers, the scene changed dramatically. For one thing, the wind was cut off as effectively as by a wall. For another, the area sheltered by the gorse was given over to cultivated plants so thickly dispersed that they were bordering on lush. But they were not planted in a manner which was comprehensible to Tristan. No neat rows of this crop or that, as he imagined food plants might be grown in the soil. Instead, different crops were intermingled in a glorious profusion, carrots growing in the shade of sunflowers, lucerne sprouting amongst the beans, a host of different shades and shapes of leaf betokening a dozen or more food crops burgeoning in splendid multiplicity.

A number of different bed arrangements were evident, and Temmar pointed out with proprietorial pride how these beds were raised to improve drainage, while those, which resembled the craters of some pock-marked moon, were depressed in order to trap wind-blown debris for mulching purposes ( there was that word again ), while those deep embayments at the base of a terrace were suntraps, focussing extra warmth on those plants that needed it.

“In the beginning,” Temmar related, leading Tristan along a gently curving path which followed the contours of the terrain “we just cut the core out of this big bunch of gorse with brush hooks, and it created a kind of micro-climate. We follow the principles of Mollisonism here,”

“Mollisonism?” said Tristan. “Is that what all this is called?”

“Yup,” said Temmar. “Though it’s also called permaculture. Sort of a mixture of ‘permanent’ and ‘horticulture’.”

“I get the drift,” said Tristan. “But why Mollisonism?”

Temmar stopped and scratched his head. “You’ve got me there. I really don’t know, though I dare say it’s in the databanks somewhere. I imagine it’s named after some ancient sage who first thought of it.”

They emerged from the gorse thicket at the far end of the outdoor gardens, and the wind resumed the incessant battering of all exposed flesh. However, they were now but a short walk from the nearest of the geodesic spheres, and a few brisk paces brought them to the airlock.

Inside, the change in climate was radical. They had gone from the subpolar to the subtropical, and Tristan felt his nanosuit making swift adjustments. The spheres, Temmar pointed out, were triple glazed, with sealed vacuum interstices between the layers of glass. The ubiquitous geothermal water ran throughout the interior in a network of pipes, making the exterior climate essentially irrelevant. Around the inner shell of each sphere, shelves, accessed from outward leaning ladders on rails rising up to a gallery at the sphere’s equator, held banks of fruits and vegetables, including asparagus, sugar pod beans, broccoli, capsicums, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, figs, grapes and loquats, their roots exposed and sprayed from time to time from a mesh of nozzle-pierced tubes carrying nutrient solution from a tank under the floor. From the equator, more ladders, this time leaning inward, connected to a rail near the top of the sphere, provided access to the upper hemisphere, where, among other things, vertically suspended tubes punctured with holes supported strawberry plants and other delights. In the core of the spheres grew larger plants, including bananas, and in one instance, a small crop of sugar cane.

“This is all very impressive,” said Tristan.

“Thank you,” said Temmar, beaming. “Over here is our seed germination workshop.” He indicated a bench with a microscope and a few simple tools. “We use only non-hybrid varieties, because hybrids as a rule don’t produce seed. That is in essence the key to our self sufficiency.”

“Understood,” said Tristan. “But it’s very labour intensive, isn’t it?”

“That’s all right,” answered Temmar. “We believe labour is beneficial. It’s part of our philosophy.”

“Yes,” said Tristan. “I’ve heard about it.”

Temmar continued the tour, taking Tristan around some of the outbuildings scattered along the foot of the cliff. “Here’s something you might find interesting,” he said, as they were about to enter a long low shed.

Inside, a central aisle passed between two rows of chest high tanks. Tristan looked into the nearest of them. It was filled with circulating water that was warm to the touch. A multitude of greyish, leggy crustaceans with dark stripes and long, probing antennae were scuttling across the bottom.

“Prawns,” said Tristan with surprise.

“That’s right,” said Temmar, “though we’re a long way from the sea. It’s still a bit experimental, but we’ve found that they do thrive in the saline geothermal water. We just have to bring it down to the right temperature. Otherwise they get cooked a bit prematurely.” He chuckled. “And we are working on tweaking the chemistry to get it just right for the little critters. But it seems to be going well. They are mature by about five weeks.”

They passed by the chicken coops and the worm farm, and came to where a wooden walkway carried them over the trout and salmon hatcheries. Tristan gazed down at the sleek fat denizens in the pens below him and licked his lips.

“I bet you anything you like they taste better than what you can pull out of that box of tricks of yours,” said Temmar.

Tristan was prepared to concede that he might have a point. In any event, it was past lunchtime, and he was hungry, so they terminated the tour and ambled back to the abbey.

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