Today was Qu Pang's third day at Murdo. The first had been taken up with introductions to the key Committee members before a brief tour of Center, while Support Workers rushed to prepare a suitable sleeping room for him. Qu had spent most of yesterday closeted with Joan Whitney and the other senior Scientists, answering endless questions about his home and finishing with a formal dinner with the Committee in the evening.
Even though the settlement currently contained as many as one thousand inhabitants, everyone knew each other to a greater or lesser extent. There were no strangers - until now. Whether he liked it or not, Qu Pang was going to be the centre of everyone's attention for the duration of his visit.
Today, Billie had been given the task of showing him around the rest of the settlement, and allowing him to meet some of the many settlers who were eager to see the stranger. Billie was pleased, but surprised, to be asked. She had expected one of the Committee members to be given the task, however they were all involved in a meeting, locked away in one of the small rooms. Discussing the impact of Qu's visit, she suspected. His arrival was the most significant scientific event since the pod of whales that had stranded themselves on Scott's beach five years ago. Then, the Scientists among them had spent days and weeks, examining, dissecting, and measuring, first the carcasses and then the bones.
Qu Pang was probably more significant, in fact. Billie was very proud to have been given the job as guide.
At the moment though, she felt more like a bodyguard than a guide, trying to fend off the small crowd of interested spectators, who were following them around.
"We were established as a science research station right from the very beginning, you know," she explained, as she entered a low building. "This was one of the Research Laboratories." Five large metal objects, all a similar shape, were lined against one of the walls.
"What are those?" asked Qu Pang, staring.
"To be honest, we don't really know. None of these machines work anymore and most were ransacked during the first years after the Great Freeze - to help the colony survive. But through here," she opened a door proudly, "we have our Hydroponics Laboratory."
Long tables filled the room, each covered with trays of green plants. People moved about, bending over the trays and topping them up with water.
"'Hydroponics?'" queried Qu, unfamiliar with the term.
"I don't know, exactly." Billie shrugged. "An old word. Something to do with water. It's just been the 'vegetable laboratory' as long as anyone can remember. Of course we catch seals and fish for most of our food, but we need vegetables to stay healthy."
"What do you grow outside?" asked Qu, interested.
"Outside?" Billie looked confused. "How do you mean? The tables would blow over in the first big wind."
Qu smiled, then stopped as he realised she was serious. "I mean crops, in the ground. Like rice or wheat."
"I don't know what they are." Billie shook her head. "I don't think we have any of those things. Just what you see in here." She pulled a face. "You don't really eat plants that have grown in dirt, do you?"
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SFSD XScience Fiction
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