Proof of Life, Part 2

2 Aug

April 6, 2121
Hidaya tossed and turned in her sleep webbing, dreaming again of her sister’s wedding. The happy day had unexpectedly erupted into violence. She heard again the screams, the sounds of looting, and the crash of the door to her and Nassor’s hiding place breaking in. Just before her dream moved to the part where her twelve-year-old self was savagely beaten and mutilated, Memre’ woke her with a Kenyan birdcall track followed by the announcement: “Captain, it is one hour until your scheduled call with Nassor.”

She jerked awake, shuddering. “Thanks. I’ll get ready.” Hidaya grabbed a quick sonic shower, slipped a colorful Dhuluo robe over her skinsuit, and wrapped a similarly colorful scarf as a burkha around her head and face to hide her disturbing facial scars.
Her brain still felt slightly sluggish from insufficient sleep, so she said, “Memre’, add a touch of lemon essence to the air supply. I want my mind clear for this meeting.”

“Yes, Captain.”

She assembled a quick breakfast of fresh cherry tomatoes, green peas, rocotillo peppers, and shelled groundnuts, all harvested from her ship’s aeroponics bio-garden, eating as she picked.

When the AI chimed “incoming call,” Hidaya folded herself into a lotus position in front of the I-cam and breathed deeply. “Open communications.”
The inner wall lit up with the image of her only surviving sibling, Nassor Tsuvecki. He was a tall, handsome man of 39 with short-cropped hair and skin the color of roasted coffee beans. Hidaya knew politics was a dangerous profession, but so far Nassor had navigated the rapids well. His open expression suggested he was not currently being coerced.

“Hidaya! Habari! It’s good to see you! How’s the mining business going? Are you ready yet to come home and be a rocking-chair auntie?” He laughed a big, booming laugh, and Hidaya relaxed further. Nassor had never been able to fake that laugh.

She smiled. “It is good to see you also, Brother. The mining is going quite well; in fact, when I got your message, I’d just finished netting a clusterroid full of antimony, indium, and molybdenum. It should add nicely to my credit balance. I still enjoy the solitude too much to return to a rocking chair on Earth. I’m only 46, after all. I’d ask about my nieces and my nephew, but I know how much this transmission costs. Come, Nassor, what is your business proposition, and who’s your mysterious backer?”

During the inevitable communication lag, she made her morning tea and searched Nassor’s surroundings for clues about the venture with little success. Nassor could have been in the conference room of any company or government agency. She saw no logos or other insignia on the wall behind him or on the papers before him.

After six minutes, another gentleman stepped into camera range to stand beside Nassor. Hidaya gasped quietly under her burkha and tensed. It was Sir Zuberi, the most senior and most respected of Africa’s three representatives to EarthGov.

Sir Zuberi spoke as soon as he appeared onscreen. “Captain Tsuvecki. Greetings. I’m sure you begin to understand why your brother Nassor was guarded about this business venture.”

Hidaya respectfully dipped her head toward the camera, “Sir Zuberi, Nassor, how may I be of service?”

During the break, she again studied the video of her brother. His body language suggested that he was comfortable with Zuberi, that he respected the Egyptian and trusted him. She relaxed slightly, but only slightly.

Fortunately for her patience, Sir Zuberi got straight to the point. “Captain Tsuvecki, Nassor and I became acquainted during work on a political matter benefitting Africa. Over dinner one evening, he mentioned that he has a sister who owns her own spaceship and makes her living as an asteroid miner. This captured my attention because a number of us in positions of leadership in Africa are tired of being underrepresented in solar system exploration and exploitation. Large western companies, such as the Planetary Resources you’ve worked for, control the vast majority of the asteroid mining business, though the Japanese have cornered certain niche markets. China and seven western nations have settlements on Mars. The moon is dominated by industry, Indian concerns are prospecting resources on Venus, and the new scientific outpost on Europa is ‘owned’ jointly by a number of universities.

“We, that is, Africa, would like to be first somewhere in this solar system, so we plan to send a live mission to the Kuiper belt to survey it for resources Africa can feasibly use. We want to set up science and communication beacons along the way that we will control and establish a presence in or near the Kuiper belt that would give us the foothold we’ve been too long denied. We are tired of being last. And you, Captain Tsuvecki, own a ship. You are familiar with asteroid mining and exploration. You are comfortable with solitude. Indeed, I am given to understand that you prefer it.”

The Kuiper belt? Her mind raced with the possibilities: science, adventure, profit, solitude. Focusing first on the profit facet, she straightened slightly, “Sir Zuberi, this is a fascinating opportunity, truly, but what is Africa prepared to provide in the way of supplies and remuneration for this trip? My ship’s hold is not big enough to contain food supplies for a trip to and from the Kuiper belt with any amount of time for surveying. And my current bio-garden and recycling system are certainly not up to a task of that magnitude.”

To calm herself, Hidaya practiced deep breathing exercises as she awaited a response.

Nassor replied, “Using your ship’s schematics, we worked out some preliminary plans for just such an expansion or for the latest 3-D food printer.” He consulted one of papers in front of him briefly. “We will convert your fuel system over to one of the self-contained small modular nuclear reactors since there are no refueling stations beyond the asteroid belt, except the one on Europa.”

Sir Zuberi added, “We will upgrade your sensor and communications systems and supply the sci-com satellites for you to place. The round trip should take 30 to 35 years: about 10 years travel each way plus 10 to 15 years for a survey of a short arc of the belt. We will add to your retirement fund each year you prospect for us.”

When Zuberi paused, Nassor continued, “We’ll send you a draft contract if you’re interested.”

Hidaya nodded, “I am interested. Very much so!”

Sir Zuberi bowed. “Thank you for hearing our proposal, Captain Tsuvecki. It is a pleasure doing business with you.” He stepped out of camera range, and Hidaya heard a door open and close.

Nassor spoke again after he left, “You don’t have to do this, Hidaya, but I thought you deserved first refusal. Thirty years with only your AI to keep you company! Kuzimu! You know Earth outlawed extended solitary confinement decades ago because it’s proven to drive people insane.”

“Come, Brother. This project is perfect for me! You know how I feel hemmed in by people, even here in the asteroid belt where I only see a prospecting ship about once a week. I can’t even stay on Mars for more than a night or two. Space feels more and more crowded here, but the Kuiper belt sounds wonderfully empty. Don’t worry! Nakupenda, Nassor.”

“I love you too, Hidaya. Tutaonana.” His image faded.


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