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Hunger Strikes

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Mark is having a moment.

Mark is having a “fuck you, Mars” moment. He’d had a lot of those his first few weeks back – every time he choked down a protein sludge shake to rebuild muscle mass, every time a shaky-handed intern needed three tries to get a blood sample, every time he set a coffee cup down too hard and it cracked because hey, gravity works here. Not that he had any coffee, those first few weeks, nope nope nope. That, too, was the source of several Fuck You Mars moments.

He did convince them to let him have protein sludge in a coffee cup until he was deemed healthy enough to choose his own food. And once he was allowed to select his own meals (within some constraints), his food consisted of:

Steak, rare – something far too perishable to be sent on any spacecraft

Corn on the cob – not allowed in space; too much non-food matter attached to the edible part

Leafy green salads – not enough nutrition, needs too much storage space

Coffee – they had coffee in space, but they didn’t have good coffee. He ignores his pre-Mars drinking habits and takes up ridiculous coffee concoctions with caramel, chocolate, mint, chai spice, or whatever other blend of flavors and steamed milk is trendy this week.

Pork ribs with barbecue sauce – spaceships and food sauces were pretty much mortal enemies. Sometimes he imagines the Hermes facing off against a giant squeeze bottle of ketchup.

Rice pilaf – foods with tiny particles were almost as bad as sauces. And while white rice is really the epitome of “starch with no redeeming nutritional qualities” and therefore the least likely of the orzy sativas to be allowed in space, Mark isn’t going to make himself suffer through bland white starch ever again.

NO POTATOES. Mark’s diet consists of no potatoes whatsoever, and God willing (not that he particularly believed in God, but he wasn’t above asking for help from entities that might not exist), he will never eat a bite of potato again.

Not that he isn’t thankful, downright grateful, for the existence and value of potatoes. Not that they aren’t good healthy food, and he still knows that. But he’s certainly had enough of them to last a lifetime, and now he is a Famous Space Disaster Survivor and that means he can write his own meal plans.

So. Moment. Mark is having a Fuck You Mars moment, because he’s wandering around San Francisco at one-thirty in the morning and he hasn’t eaten since breakfast and his subconscious has apparently learned that Starvation = I Need A Potato.

Mark hates potatoes. He can do that and still respect them for keeping him alive; he can multitask his emotions. He has extended at least some of that hatred to all high-starch root vegetables, but potatoes definitely get the lion’s share. Mark not only won’t eat potatoes; he won’t eat at a table where potatoes are served.

His first three months back, he wouldn’t allow potatoes in same the room. Kicked some kid out of a press conference for having a bag of fries. (A week later, he had someone track down the kid and sent an apology. Sent him a signed copy of his first returned-to-Earth mission report; he was told the kid was plenty happy with that.) In the past year, Mark has mellowed on potatoes, though. He has made his peace with the fact that they’re going to exist on the same planet as him. That, in fact, he has experienced potatoes on every planet he has lived on. But they don’t need to be at his dinner table.

Except now. Now it’s nearly two in the morning and he’s wandering the streets of downtown San Francisco. The conference he’s attending shut down at nine, and it’s really awesome being a guest speaker and telling the kids What Life On Mars Is Like – he always starts with, “It’s got a lot in common with life in Idaho,” but now he’s hungry. The movie revival house has kicked everyone out, not realizing that people who’ve just watched Brazil and Dr. Strangelove back-to-back should maybe not be out on the streets with no supervision, and now he’s hungry. The bars are closed and most the restaurants with them because restaurants in SF don’t want to cater to the post-bar drunk crowd, and he is dying for a potato. He tilts his head back and yells up at the sky, “FUCK YOU, MARS.”

Someone down the block glances at him, shakes a fist at the sky in solidarity, and goes back to walking.

Mark paces back and forth the length of a block three times before he acknowledges that (a) there are no potato-serving restaurants on this block, nor are there likely to be later tonight, (b) he is not getting less hungry as he walks, and (c) he really wants a potato.

Hey, lookit that. He spent a year and a half marooned on another planet, and his second-grade list-making abilities survived intact.

He still wants a potato, though. Dammit.

He hails a taxicab – there’s always a few driving around downtown, especially this soon after the bars have closed, and leans in the window as the guy stops.

“Take me to the potatoes!” Mark barely jumps back fast enough to keep from getting his feet run over when the guy peels away with a screech of tires. Apparently he looks like A Manic Nutjob right now. Hell, he probably is some variety of Manic Nutjob, and the taxi driver has no way of knowing that he’s the nonviolent kind. He’ll need a better opening line.

He hails the next cab, and says, “um, do you know of any steakhouses that are still open?” Steakhouses all have potatoes, right? He hopes he didn’t say that part out loud.

The cabbie is shaking his head a bit as he says, “Only food place I know open this late is Orphan Andy’s in the Castro, and it’s not a steakhouse.” So yay; Mark’s brain-to-mouth filter sometimes works.

“What is it?” Mark doesn’t actually care what kind of restaurant it is, except that a Thai place isn’t likely to have potatoes.

“It’s a diner, not a steakhouse. Kinda famous in the neighborhood. You… you know about the neighborhood, right?” The cabbie looks a little nervous, like he wants the fare but he doesn’t want an angry bigot at the other end of it.

Mark gets into the cab. “Castro’s fine; diner’s fine. Burger and fries is close enough for me.” Fries and maybe a chance to flirt with someone is double-fine, but mostly he wants a potato. Or some version of potatoes.

They ride. Cabbie asks him what he’s doing in the city; rather than talk about the whole Mars thing (because really, this is all one extended Fuck You Mars moment and he’s not giving that damned planet any more fanboys) he mentions the movies, and the guy starts talking about how there used to be so many more late night movie houses and his nephew used to be in some acting group that met up at the one on Geary before it shut down, and Mark says “mmhm” and “wow” at the right moments, and then they’re at Orphan Andy’s and it’s open and there’s pictures of scrambled eggs and home fries. Mark perks up, throws a ridiculous tip at the driver and thanks him before heading in.

He sits down at the counter and nods to the cook. “Got anything with baked potato?” he asks.

“Nope; sorry. Fries, home fries, potato salad,” he says, shaking his head with a smile. “We got steak, burgers, and breakfasts. Baked takes too long to cook.” Apparently he’s heard this question before.

“ ‘S okay,” Mark says. “Gimme…” he glances at the menu, “gimme scrambled eggs and home fries,” he says. Eggs cook faster than burgers or steak. Probably.

After about five minutes of sipping coffee and fidgeting with the menu – he might order a burger after this because he’s really hungry and his NASA doctor people insist he should eat LOTS OF PROTEIN whenever he can, even though he’s almost back to his pre-Mars weight (f y m, he thinks quietly) – he has a plate of eggs and toast and chopped-up potato cubes advertised as Homemade Locally-Grown Organic Home Fries.

He dives in.

They taste… basically nothing like what he was expecting.

Oh, he knew that. They taste like what he remembers diner home fries taste like. They’re bland with a bit of onion and more salt than he’s used to, and in years past they might’ve been cooked with bacon grease to add flavor but in vegan-conscious SF they’re not. And he was ready for that. He wasn’t ready for… well, they taste good (as diner potatoes go), but he was expecting something different.

He eats them anyway. He’s really, really hungry. He starts in on the eggs and toast before waving over to the counter guy.

“Hey, I was wondering – could you make a baked potato for me?”

“Sorry, dude,” he says. It sounds like he’s gotten this request before. “We don’t even have an oven.”

“Yeah, but you got a microwave, right?”

“Yeah, but…” the guy takes a half-step back, is about to brush him off.

Mark gets out his wallet. “I’ll pay you twenty dollars for a microwaved baked potato,” he says. “Look, nobody else is here, and I really don’t care how good it turns out. I don’t mind waiting the extra time. I’m… it’s for a bet,” he finishes. It’s not entirely a lie. Mark is betting that a microwaved baked potato will make the craving go away.

The guy grabs the cash before Mark can change his mind. “Okay, done.”

And in ten minutes, Mark has a steaming baked potato, split down the center with butter and chives and sour cream because damned if he is ever going to eat a plain baked potato again. (He firmly ignores the bit of his subconscious whispering, someday… someday that’s going to be exactly and only what you need. Mark can practice active denial with the best of them.)

He thanks the counter guy again, and takes a bite.

It tastes… yep, that’s a microwaved baked potato. He practically lived on them during his undergrad days. That’s what he needed; the back of his head stops screaming potato potato potato OR ELSE YOU DIE at him. He fluffs a bit with his fork and chases some butter; dips a bite with some skin into the sour cream. It’s good. He’d forgotten that potatoes can taste good. Maybe he can stop leaving the table when someone else has a potato now.

And it tastes… almost nothing at all like a Martian potato. Which only makes sense, after all. This potato was grown under full gravity. The soil it was grown in had a rich matrix of organic and chemical fertilizers and random other organisms. It got full Earth-style sunlight during its days, and normal Earth temperature fluctuations during its nights. It lived through wind and rain and smog and the distant rumble of trucks and bug bites on its leaves and bird shit and of course it tasted different.

Better, he reminds himself. Much, MUCH better. But different.

Not that Mark ever, ever wants to taste a Martian-grown potato again. But… even ignoring that whisper in the back of his mind, he realizes he can’t even describe the difference, exactly. Not just the cooking – warm potatoes were a thousand times better than “microwaved and flash-frozen, eaten cold,” but any college student could grok at least part of that experience. But the texture and something about flavor were different too, and now that Mark wasn’t hungry, he was thinking about those differences – and what caused them.

Could he grow potatoes like the ones he remembered?

Low gravity was right out. But he could find sterile soil… probably, or maybe make it, get some pulverized rock to start with and add… nutrients. Yeah, he thinks, let’s go with “nutrients” for that part. He could grow them in a sealed tent, with the air pressure set to match what he’d had on Mars. He could have a mist irrigation device – wait, no, gravity changed how the mist worked; he’d have to adapt for that.

He got out a notebook, one of the promo things handed around at the conference. BE YOUR OWN FUTURE, it said in bold letters, and Mark snorted (again) when he saw it. He started writing down some equations.

Twenty minutes later, he calls Lewis.

“Whassa… um? Mmark?” she says sleepily. “Izzere a probl’m?”

“Lewis!” Mark has a plan. “I need your help!”

“Whafor? No, wait, gimme a minute; gotta wakeup. Where are you?” She sounds a bit more awake now.

“I’m at Orphan Andy’s. I’m gonna grow Martian potatoes on Earth!”

Dead silence.

“Lewis?”

“Hanging up now, Mark.” And she does.

His phone switches back to the time: 3:14 AM. Oh. So, um, maybe some of this could wait until morning. His internal clock is still fucked – he tries to pay attention to everyone else’s “day” and “night” cycles, but space scrambled that and Mars scrambled it worse, and fixing his circadian rhythms is the least of his therapists’ problems.

Lewis, however, has gotten middle-of-the night calls from Mark before. After the first few panic attacks where she thought he was going to jump off a bridge if he wasn’t talked out of whatever manic idea had caught his attention, had found an effective way to deal with them. (One call: hang up. Two calls: yell and hang up. Three calls: yell, hang up, and block his number. Oh, and send a text to whoever NASA had on Mark Suicide Watch this week, because that was apparently a Thing.) (Mark kinda hoped that wasn’t a Thing anymore, but he wasn’t going to keep calling Lewis back to find out.)

He nodded distractedly at the counter guy and leaves a $50 tip because hey, it’s not every day he gets the idea to do cross-planet botany and besides, working the drunk crowd night after night had to suck. He calls another cab and goes back to the hotel, and fills up every page in the tiny promo notebook plus four pages of complementary hotel stationery with equations and diagrams and random thoughts about Martian potatoes. (Why the hell doesn’t he pack an actual notebook? Maybe the hotel store has them. Wait, it’s four thirty in the morning; they’re probably not open yet.)

He makes a list of Martian features he’s going to have to work with:

  • Dirt doesn’t pack as firmly (low gravity)
  • Plants expand, esp up (low grav)
  • water falls slower; mist stays in the air longer (LG)
  • no parasites (at all) (not a gravity thing)
  • no external nutrients - fertilizer + stone dust dirt
  • russet potatoes
  • air pressure also low

How do you create .38 gravity? NASA has low-grav training, but that’s weird complicated things involving wind tunnels or centrifugal force.

He knows a lot of the differences with Martian potatoes were from gravity – the potatoes he grew there were larger than they’d be on earth, less dense, had taller stalks (which shouldn’t have affected the potatoes a bit, but botany’s tricky; you never know what systems are entangled)... would it maybe be close enough to match the other details and not gravity?

Could he talk NASA into putting a potato patch in orbit, giving it just enough spin to get enough gravity to...

Nope. Nope nope nope, anti-starvation security blanket or not, he is NOT going back into the Vasty Deep Between The Stars, not even to grow potatoes. He can grow Martian Earth potatoes and tell other people how to make Space Potatoes.

This, he acknowledges, is a problem. He wants to grow Martian potatoes on Earth. What can he possibly do to create the conditions he worked with on Mars on another planet? Specifically, this planet, the one he was born on, the one with air you can breathe and weather you can enjoy without instant death. Mars was cold and dry and sterile, and Earth is not.

Earth is… mostly not, he realizes. There are mountaintops where the air is thin and too cold for water vapor and even most bacteria don’t survive. He can’t do much about gravity, but maybe he could re-create the other conditions, do a lighter pack for the soil (normal farmers don’t start with sifted dirt, so maybe that’ll actually make a difference) and can maybe work out a “mist gathering” net on the ground, so he can put more water in the air to simulate the effects of lower gravity on mist, without having all that extra water soak the ground.

He slaps his hands together. He’s warming up to this idea.

Warming... there’s a problem. He’s always cold, these days. And farming in the Himalayas wouldn’t be warm.

But... he could have a cabin. A real cabin. With a fire. He could have a damn sweat lodge in his cabin if he wanted. He could be naked and warm at the same time, look out through double-glazed windows onto the snow and say FUCK YOU, COLD. (That’s his second mantra; normally, it’s just kind of subsumed into the greater Fuck You Mars moments, but he’s also had some Fuck You Cold moments since his return.)

He likes that idea. Fuck you, cold. He could even have some days where he played in the snow... Martian cold didn’t have any fun aspects to it, just cold-cold-cold with tiny ice crystals that screw up your driving but aren’t firm enough to make snow angels or even tracks in.

He sends an email to Lewis.

TO: mlewis@nasaspace.gov
FROM: mwatney@nasaspace.gov

Subject: Potatoes Farming

Hey there, I decided I should farm martian potatoes on earth. I know we can’t do low grav but we could do low pressure (sort of) and low moisture and no parasites/predators; I’m thinking Himalayas but that’s only because I don’t know shit about mountains; maybe there’s somewhere in the Rockies? I’d want a flat space (maybe have to build that; do mountains have flat areas big enough for farming?) next to a cabin, a REALLY REALLY WARM cabin with a hot tub and good internet and music that’s not 70’s disco crap.

He paces around the hotel room, not expecting a reply but too amped to rest.

TO: mwatney@nasaspace.gov
FROM: mlewis@nasaspace.gov

Subject: Re: Potatoes Farming

Go the fck to sleep, Mark.

Well. At least that wasn’t, “That’s a stupid idea, Mark.” Not that Lewis is likely thinking too clearly right now, but he’ll take what he can get. Tomorrow (…later today, actually), they’ll talk cross-planet botany techniques and funding (someone is gonna have to pay for that cabin, and while Mark maybe can do it on his own, it’s always better to get NASA to pay for space-related projects – fewer limits on purchases that way) and Lewis will shake her head at him and he will start – even he realizes he’s gotten a bit loopy at this point – growing Space Pirate Farmer potatoes.

Maybe there’s a market for space potatoes. He’ll try to figure that out when he’s had more sleep.

Space pirate farmer logo: an astronaut helmet with an eyepatch; beneath it are a crossed shovel and hoe