Dawn found him up and around. He recovered some dried fruit from his storage cache, enjoying the sweet taste. He quickly dressed and left his house, Nira padding along in his wake. At the Puma trail head, he turned south on the Main Path. Feeling rested and pain-free, he walked freely. Most of the Eyrie still slept, although occasionally he could see a line of smoke from a cooking fire emerging from a chimney. The early morning light laid long shadows across his path. The air had a very slight chill to it, clear sign that the short mountain summer was waning. He passed the last of the Clan Circles and followed the path as it climbed towards a complex of caves. Uncounted centuries ago, these caves had formed the pathway for what had been an underground river. Now, they housed the most valuable asset the Eyrie possessed.
The hydroponic gardens had been established when the Eyrie’s ancestors first came into the mountains. It was one of the few remaining technologies that had survived over the years. Fed by springs that were the vestiges of the ancient river, the gardens ensured a steady supply of produce and vegetables, even through the coldest winter. Over time, the tribe’s agronomists had been able to produce a wide range of edible plants. Even fruit trees, peaches, pears, and apples had been produced. The farm was located in the deepest, most defensible part of the Eyrie Stronghold, for obvious reasons. If anything happened to the cave farms, the Eyrie would starve.
As Fors approached the first of the caves, two Defenders appeared from behind some rocks. Recognizing Fors, they relaxed and nodded. Fors entered the cave and walked back several yards and encountered one of the Eyrie’s Agronomists. Looking up in surprise, she said, “A Star Man! To what do we owe the honor?”
Fors smiled. “I am Fors of the Puma Clan.”
She extended her hand. “I am Tamara of the Orion Clan.” They shook hands.
Fors said, “I realize that you are very busy, but it has been many years since I learned how these gardens work, and I would like to…re-learn.”
“Your timing is fortunate. As it happens, I have just been relieved off watch.” She led him deeper into the cave. “We have developed what we call a top-feed drip system. There is a two-inch layer of a clay-like material, called perlite. It serves as the growing media for the plants.” She pointed at the far end, where the long rack and table was raised slightly. “Nutrient is dripped in at one end and gravity-fed to a drain at the other end, which directs it back to the tank for recirculation. The power for the pumps is provided by direct feed from windmills on top of the caves. These caves maintain an even temperature, so there’s never a danger from frost or freeze, no matter how cold the winter.”
“What about light?”
Tamara smiled. “That is the ingenious part.” She pointed at some low towers near the cave entrance. Fors could see that several more of the towers were spaced evenly along the length of the cave. “Watch and learn.”
Looking back out of the cave, Fors could see the sun beginning to crest the mountain peaks to the east. Within a few moments, the sun’s rays flooded into the cave entrance. With blinding suddenness, the cave was filled with light. Blinking rapidly, Fors felt himself pulled to the side. He heard Tamara’s voice, somewhat embarrassed, say, “I am sorry, I should have seen where you were standing. Can you see?”
Fors’ vision cleared rapidly. Looking carefully, he saw the genius. On each tower was mounted a large reflective shield, highly polished. The sun’s rays were caught and reflected on to the mirror on the next tower. The system carried the light, mirror to mirror, all the way to the end of the cave, providing more than ample light for the plants.
Tamara continued, “We have to continually adjust the lead mirror in order to make sure that we get the full benefit of the light. But the location of the caves was fortuitous, because no matter what time of year, no matter what the sun’s angle is, we are able to stream light into the caves. Also, the mirrors transmit heat, which helps warm the caves. While the plants do moderately well in the cave’s natural temperature, the added warmth increases the plant’s yields.”
Fors walked close to the racks. “What about this clay material?”
Tamara nodded. “Just as we need oxygen to live, plants need nitrogen. The roots of many plants are able to form intimate relationships with particular fungi living in the soil. These are a symbiosis – a partnership of benefit to both partners. The fungi are very efficient at absorbing nutrients, especially phosphate, from the soil. This is exchanged with the plant in return for plant sugars that are absorbed and used by the fungus. In addition, the roots of legume plants form an unusual and highly specialized symbiosis with other bacteria. This symbiosis enables the bacteria to take nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrate and ammonia, which are absorbed and used by the plant. The plants are effectively able to make their own fertilizer as a result of this partnership. In return the bacteria are able to absorb and use sugars produced by the plant. The whole thing works like a big circle. All we have to do is make sure the water flows and the mirrors are properly aimed. The result is a bounty of food to feed our tribe.”
Fors marveled. It was a miraculous system complex, yet simple. He had never really sought knowledge on the cave farms, preferring to study the lessons of the open trail. But he could see now that wresting sustenance from this system was, in its own way, every bit of an adventure as exploring a ruined city. Tamara walked over to another set of racks where some small trees were growing. She briefly searched among the branches, then smiled and handed Fors a fresh peach. Fors hesitated, then took a bite. The fresh sweetness filled his mouth and his eyes went wide in surprise and pleasure. Tamara’s smile broadened. “I hope you are enjoying the peach.”
Fors nodded. “It’s perfect! Thank you!”
“We have worked very hard to improve each generation of plants, but there is still much that we do not know. I am aware of the protocols of the Star House, but we need books on plant genetics. Is there any way you could help us out?”
Fors took another bite and held up the peach. “So, this is a kind of bribe?”
Tamara smiled again. “We really need those books.”
Fors took another bite, then said, “I will speak with Torin. I am sure something can be worked out. Of course, you will have to train the Star Men so they will know what to look for.”
Tamara nodded. “It will be my pleasure to do so.” She extended her hand. “Thank you, Fors!”
He took the last bite out of the peach and handed her the core. “Your thanks are not required.” He pointed at the peach core. “It was a very effective bribe.”