Archive | August, 2013

Proof of Life, Part 6

13 Aug

November, 23, 2121

Captain Tsuvecki sat strapped into her harness chair with her VR helmet on her head and the control sphere in her hands. “Phobos Control: I’m ready for departure.”

“Acknowledged Motherlode. You are scheduled for clearance in 17 minutes. Final debt checks coming in now.”

“Thank you, Phobos Control.”

Twenty-six minutes later: “Motherlode, this is Phobos Control. Your credit is clean; you are cleared to depart. The next open orbital slot occurs in 33 minutes. Does that work for you?”

“Yes, thank you, Phobos Control.”

“Sending the autopilot program to you now. Do not disengage the autopilot. It turns off automatically as soon as you are outside the 50-mile zone.”

“I understand and will comply,” Hidaya replied. She tongued off the com channel and waited. Something much more substantial than butterflies ran amok in her stomach as she waited for the autopilot to engage. She did not remove the VR helmet, but she did release the control sphere and stretched out the kinks which tension had knotted into her shoulders. She couldn’t wait to get away!

As she waited, she logged onto MarsNet and checked the latest news feeds and the share prices for Planetary Resources. She had just started some deep breathing exercises when the autopilot engaged and Motherlode at last left Phobos’ orbit.

Proof of Life, Part 5

10 Aug

November 8, 2121
Hidaya decided the crew leader’s promise of “three months more or less” must be contractor code for twice that. The three months had stretched to six, but finally the mechanical mods to her ship were finished. Captain Tsuvecki had spent the interval gathering supplies. When personal interaction became overwhelming, she holed up in her rented room, reading everything she could find on the solar system beyond the asteroid belt.

She’d filled numerous storage devices with various forms of entertainment and exercise programs. To her delight, she found a small shop in Falcon City that sold embroidery threads and needles. Needlework was a convenient hobby for a space captain because the supplies were light and took up little space.

The up side to the agonizing wait was that the abbey had been able to prepare everything Captain Tsuvecki wanted for her bio-garden. Over the next week, they would set up the plants and starts in the ship garden. One of the monks even had four small tea plants that were responding well to low and zero-G conditions. He included one in her consignment on the condition she make regular reports on the plant’s progress. Hidaya promised eagerly. A pouch of hot tea even once a month would be heavenly!

She carefully stored away seeds, water additives, and nutritional supplements as the monks worked on the garden. She double and triple checked the sci-com satellites that she would deploy along the way, and ran system checks with Memre’. They made sure the AI’s data banks were fully functional, were virus-free, and contained all the information necessary for the trip.

Proof of Life, Part 4

6 Aug

May 12, 2121

On arrival at Deimos, Captain Tsuvecki was pleased to find that the price for antimony had recently spiked. Her clusterroid sold for almost twice what she’d expected. She used most of her profits to purchase some land to retire to on her return: 12 hectares of unimproved land 15 kilometers outside of the smallest Martian settlement, Cuidad del Cortez. She then set up automatic property tax payments to MarsGov through her Mars Bank account.

She took Motherlode to the shipyards on Phobos and turned her over to the modification crew recommended by Sir Zuberi. When Hidaya handed the crew leader her list of requested modifications and the credit transfer authorization provided by Nassor, the crew leader’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline.

“Mon Dieu! What did you find out there, Cherie? The Holy Grail?”

Hidaya let the folds of her burkha slip, exposing her scars and causing the man to visibly wince and avert his gaze. Professing boredom, she sighed and gave him her cover story: “Oh, my last find was a nice clusterroid, full of antimony.” The man whistled sharply, still not making eye contact. Hidaya continued, “But these mods are for a think-tank science survey.” She tapped the list with her forefinger. “I’ll be gone at least a decade, doing information gathering for a brain trust that wants to prove the asteroid belt was once a planet. Can you believe they even want me to check for evidence outside the elliptical plane? That will add years to the survey and take me out of range of the refueling stations.” She shrugged and added, “At least they agreed to all these mods. And they pay well….”

The crew leader shook his head in sympathy and studied her list. “We can have all the mechanical mods done in about three months, more or less, but you’ll have to stock the bio-gardens and purchase your seed supplies and other items yourself. Try the Benedictine abbey at New Pisa. They specialize in modifying plants for spaceships.”

Captain Tsuvecki thanked the man, gave him her contact information, and took a shuttle planetside. Mars had a population of nearly a million now since low gravity made it a popular choice for retirees with resources. How was she to cope for three months around so many people? She seldom remained more than a day or so on the surface after bringing in an asteroid before the press of people pushed her back into space.

Her first move was making an appointment with a psychiatric physician. She’d need a sedative to sleep regularly. Her second step was renting a secure sleeping cube in Dragon Dome Inn. She deposited her personal items in the tiny room and left to find a virtual arcade where she could successfully ignore the press of people and check out the newest games.

Five hours later, she pried herself away from the VR console. Mission to Mercury was merely okay, but Sundiver was definitely addictive! Still, her stomach told her firmly that it was time to eat. She splurged on some swai, a Chinese catfish that had adapted well to the new Martian oceans. She always missed meat when she was in space. She shook her head. Thirty years on a vegan diet! Kuzimu! She made a mental note to splurge on beef, if she could find it, before beginning her pre-trip cleanse.

After dinner, she met the doctor, who blanched on reading her records and readily prescribed a mild soporific. After filling the prescription, she returned to her rented cube, took her medication, and started making lists of items she would need to purchase for the journey. She caught herself nodding over her seed list, turned off the lights, and slipped into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Proof of Life, Part 3

3 Aug

April 27, 2121

On her return to Deimos, where Planetary Resources had its asteroid processing headquarters, Hidaya arranged a second face-to-face with Nassor. They played speed chess, in which players must move at the timer, as they awaited each other’s responses.

Over one tightly fought game, they’d agreed on some abort protocols, on energy systems, and on a cover story for her to use at Deimos when ordering the ship upgrades, which were extreme enough to spark unwanted curiosity. Nassor stressed Africa’s goal of  being first to the Kuiper belt, which meant keeping Hidaya’s trip a secret from the Americans and Europeans, many of whom loved nothing so much as a race. Over the second game, the siblings argued about the life support system:

“You deserve the best!” Nassor repeated stubbornly, arms folded over his chest and feet planted in the stance that Hidaya remembered all too well from their childhood together.

She smiled at him with a mixture of love and exasperation, “I know you do, Nassor. And I thank you. But I don’t believe that the new 3-D printers are the best. New is great where backups are available. If this 3-D food printer fails out past Jupiter’s orbit, I’m dead.”

“You can always print new parts for any that fail.”

“I’m more concerned about the programming and the circuits. I also worry about the fact that the raw materials, the substrate, are only good for 30 years. This trip could easily end up taking longer than that.”

Nassor’s arms remained crossed. Hidaya was mildly surprised his lower lip didn’t move out, just a bit. Perhaps he’d finally gotten that gesture under control.

“Besides, Nassor, I enjoy working in the aeroponics section. The full spectrum lighting, the smell of growing things, the way working with plants feels in my hands. All these things are psychologically healthy for space travelers, especially those who won’t make planetfall for a while. Don’t forget the ISS Udokan disaster in 2105. The programming in their ‘new’ model 3-D printer had a virus, planted by a disgruntled Synthotec employee.  The printed food poisoned the three crew members. Before they could make it back to the nearest refueling station, the virus had infected all of their ship’s systems, including the AI, which opened their airlocks and killed them.”

Nassor tossed his head, “I’ll trade you the ISS Udokan disaster of 2105 for the ISS Rio Tinto disaster of 2093. A nasty virus took out that crew, too. But this one came out of one guy’s gut and compromised the life support recycling system! They died slowly as the plants which made their oxygen rotted away, which seems even more gruesome than the deaths aboard the Udokan.” He shuddered violently.

“Yes, but they hadn’t followed proper cleansing protocols before heading out. I never head into space with animal residue in my gut, Nassor. I eat sterile for at least a week before shipping out. You know how careful I am.”

Nassor shifted his weight, which meant she was getting through to him, so she pushed on. “And the further we travel from Earth, the more we need reminders of Earth. The psych evals from the Europa scientists prove that. Weren’t you warning me last time we spoke of the psychological dangers of this trip? I need my gardens, Nassor.”

Wagging one finger at her, Nassor relented, “Very well, Hidaya, but I insist you take a smaller, proven food printer and some substrate for any emergencies.”

“If it will make you feel better, Brother, then okay. You have too much faith in technology, though.”

“So says the captain of an asteroid mining ship?!”

“Who else is in a better position to know just how untrustworthy technology can be?” she retorted, and laughed with him before capturing his queen.

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.