Precious Cargo

Omar frowns into the webcam. “Are you sure you will be home for my birthday?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I say, wilting inside but still managing to smile into my own webcam. “I promise.” It takes nearly three minutes for my reply to transmit from my Mars-bound cargo hauler to Omar’s home back on Earth. I receive his response another three minutes after that.

“It won’t be like before?”

“Nope.” My smile refuses to drop. “I’ve made sure of it this time. I’ll even have time to spare.”

Omar looks away from the webcam and fiddles with the spoon he used for breakfast. His uncombed mop of hair, brown like mine and curly like his father’s, covers his eyes. The seconds tick by. Anxiety curdles in my stomach, but I keep smiling.

“Okay,” he says. Looking back at the webcam, Omar adopts a playful smirk. “Sooo, since you are coming back from Mars, does that mean I get a present from there?”

“Omar,” Brandon’s voice intrudes from somewhere off-screen. 

Omar’s head whips around. “What?” His voice is impossibly innocent. 

My smile drops as a memory from last year elbows its way forward—Omar calmly handing me his three-month late Martian gift, saying, “No thank you,” and shuffling away. My chest constricts. It’s difficult to breathe. Have the oxygen recyclers stopped working? I’ll need to check those. 

Get it together, Hissa. Don’t break down. Not in front of Omar.

Omar absentmindedly nods at the lecture his father is giving him. I take that time to collect myself, sucking in fresh oxygen and suppressing my anxiety. I put the smile back and ask, “I thought you didn’t like stuff from Mars?”

Omar’s head snaps back. “I do now. None of the other kids at school have stuff from Mars. I’m the only one. They think it’s super cool.”

If that’s what it takes. 

“Well then, in that case, I’ll be sure to bring back an even cooler Martian present. And before you ask, no, I won’t give you a hint. You’ll just have to wait and see when you turn nine.”

“Oookay.” He lolls his head back for maximum dramatic effect and adorableness. My smile becomes more genuine.

“So, how’s school go—”

Brandon walks into frame. He smiles down at Omar and rustles the boy’s hair. “All right, bud,” he says. “You need to finish getting ready for school. Say goodbye to your mother.”

“Okay.” Omar blows a kiss into the webcam. “Bye, Mom. Love you!” He bounds out of the dining chair and out of frame, disappearing into the sunlit house. 

Although Omar won’t see it, I return the kiss. “Bye, Omar. I love you too!”

“Don’t forget to put your tablet in your backpack today,” Brandon yells after Omar.

“I won’t!” Omar yells back. His father looks unconvinced. 

Brandon takes Omar’s place. His face, an older and harder version of Omars’, is neutral. Please let this be a quick hello and goodbye kind of chitchat.

“Hello, Hissa.”

“Hello, Brandon.” So far, so good.

“So, you’re actually going to make it back in time this year?”

Damnit.

“Yes,” I say, crossing my arms. “I’ve done the math.”

“You’ve done the math before and still managed to miss your son turning eight. And seven.”

“That won’t happen again. I’ve given myself enough wiggle room this time to guarantee it.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you have.”

Khara ‘aleik! Just say goodbye already.

“When are you going to stop planet-hopping for a living?”

“Technically, I never go to the planets. Only to the stations orbiting them.”

Brandon glowers. “I’m serious, Hissa. When are you going to get a job that allows you to spend time with your son, to actually participate in his life instead of getting weekly status reports from him?”

My body temperature skyrockets and my vision narrows. “Do not go there. I will not be guilted by you like this, not again. And for the record, you complain about my job, but I don’t hear you complaining about the money I send.”

Brandon shakes his head, smiling without joy, and gently raps the table with a clenched fist. “You know what?” he asks after a few seconds. “I’m done. If you want to miss your son’s childhood then by all means go right ahead. I’m done trying to stop you. Safe journey, Hissa.” The call drops and I am left staring at a static image of Omar’s smiling face.

My eyes squeeze shut. A sleeve quickly absorbs the tear that manages to escape. 

Allah, give me strength. And please, smite my ex-husband. Just a little.

* * *

An hour later, after a quick stress-relieving workout and a sponge bath, I float back into the cockpit. It’s cold, cramped, dimly lit, and the bulkheads occasionally groan at me. But it’s got one of the best views of the Milky Way. And it’s also home. 

I brew some Karak chai tea and strap back into the cushy pilot’s seat. I close my eyes and inhale the intoxicating aroma of the tea’s herbs and spices. I bring the steaming zero-gravity cup to my lips and—.

Chirp-chirp. 

—I sigh.

The telecom app chirps again. Looking at the caller ID, I roll my eyes. Great, it’s her again. I tap the Audio Only button. Video calls are astronomically expensive, and only Omar is worth such an expense. 

“Hello?” a female voice pipes through the speakers. “Li’iikhtiar? Hello? Has the call connected? Ugh, they went and changed the UI of the app again . . .”

“Dr. Kowal,” I sigh. “Hello. How’re you doing today?” 

Waiting for my response to travel tens of millions of kilometers back to Mars, I finally take a sip of my tea. The warm, milky substance is delightful. To pass the near ten minute round-trip response time, I read through my morning news download from Solar Public Radio. No new headlines from the Earth-Mars trade summit. There’s a small economic piece discussing the influx of Martian imports, particularly in the medical and materials sectors. Oh, it appears the United Koreas and India worked out their dispute over that aluminum-rich asteroid. That only took three years and a few threats of war.

“Oh, I’m doing all right,” Dr. Kowal says, her voice sounding forcefully cheerful. “Just calling to check in on the shipment.”

I look at the ceiling. Don’t be snarky. Be professional. This client is paying WulaniMed, and by extension me, a fortune for this shipment. Using my best professional, not in any way snarky, voice, I say, “The meds are still in my cargo hold on course to Wells Station, snug as a space slug in a rug.” The same place they’ve been the last eleven times you’ve called, I bite off. Barely.

“Right. Of course. And you’re sure you won’t need to turn around for anything?”

What’s with this lady? I’ve never had such an anxious client before.

“Outside of catastrophic mechanical or electrical failure, no, there should be no reason to turn back. Plus, I’ll be past the Point of No Return in seven hours, anyway. So unless I’m interested in dying of dehydration or starving to death, once I pass the PNR, I am committed to reaching Mars no matter what. You can consider these meds as good as delivered.”

I don’t know how much clearer I can be than that. Please let it sink through this time.

“Right. That’s good to hear. I shouldn’t keep pestering you like this. I apologize, Captain Hissa.”

Finally. She gets—

“It’s just—”

Damnit!

“—these pharmaceuticals you’re hauling will be crucial in maintaining a healthy Martian population in the years to come. Especially for such medications like those you carry, which are still hard for us to synthesize in bulk on Mars. You’re doing the people of Mars a great service, possibly saving many of their lives. Thank you for making this delivery.”

“Oh, well, um . . .” That was heavier than usual. Healthy population? Saving lives? I’m just a hauler doing a job. I’m not doing anything special. WulaniMed had plenty of other haulers doing the same thing. I clear my throat. “That’s, uh, great doc. I mean, you’re welcome? Look, I’ve got some maintenance reports to read over, so I better, you know . . .”

“Of course. I apologize for monopolizing your time. Safe trip, Captain Hissa.”

“You as well—I mean, thank you, Dr. Kowal. Li’iikhtiar, out.” 

I disconnect the call and stare out the cockpit’s viewport at the countless stars of the Milky Way, a wondrous view I never tire of. I sip my tea. 

You’re doing the people of Mars a great service, possibly saving many of their lives.

I shake my head, down the rest of the tea, and refocus. However noble the good doctor thinks this delivery is, it’s still just a job. And it’s time to get back to work.

* * *

Bleep-Bloop.

Glancing away from the maintenance report, I peer at a different screen. Someone posted a new message to the spaceTruckersIRC chat client.

<Ralphs_Comet> Hey! Is anyone watching the vid stream of the Mars summit?

I glance at the time. The summit wouldn’t start for another hour. All right, Ralph. I’ll be the one to play along today.

<Chai-Girl> not yet. why?

<Ralphs_Comet> Something’s going down; check it out.

I connect to the public—and thankfully free—live video stream dedicated to the Earth-Mars Trade and Governance Summit being held on the Red Planet. Like most spacehaulers, I was keeping a close eye on the summit. Its outcome would determine how much scrambling and competing we’d need to do for jobs. The fallout from the last major trade meltdown between Earth and Mars had been the reason I missed Omar’s seventh birthday.

Watching the video for a few seconds, I raise an eyebrow.

<Chai-Girl> an empty podium. not what i would call solar system shattering news. 😉

<Ralphs_Comet> Exactly! 

<SpaceOdyssey> Oh boy. Here we go again. Don your tinfoil hats everyone.

<Ralphs_Comet> Just hear me out; Empty podiums mean big news: declarations of war; natural disasters; terrorist attacks; contact with extraterrestrials!

<Chai-Girl> that last one hasn’t happened yet. ;p

<Ralphs_Comet> Yeah, well, it will be preceded by an empty podium; I guaran-damn-tee you that.

<Chai-Girl> or it’s just an empty podium, and the intern controlling the camera switcher screwed up.

<SpaceOdyssey> Naw Hissa. It’s definitely aliens.

<space-cat-7> LOL

<Chai-Girl> ^_^

<420_cruise> rofl!

<Ralphs_Comet> Just you all wait. You’ll see. Something big is going down. I know it.

I snort and go back to filling out my TO-FIX list. (1) Coolant pipe R2 has a small leak, probably because of an ancient washer. (2) Solar Panel D2 needs a new set of fuses after an electrical short. (3) Find the electrical short that murdered SP-D2’s fuses. (4) Empty dryer lint trap even if fire would add ambiance to that part of the ship. (5) Patch the micrometeoroid hole on port side Cargo Module 3’s hull. (6) Determine if any cargo in CM3 is damaged. (7) If cargo is damaged, then mentally prepare for a call with Dr. Kowal.

On and on the report continued for two dozen more items. It was going to be a busy few days, one of which would require a six to eight hour EVA. Working on a spaceship was hazardous, and there was never a shortage of problems that if left unsolved would lead to my death. But no other job in the solar system was quite like it. I can’t help but smile, the nine-year-old in me still in awe of what I do for a living.

A near-constant stream of audio alerts fills the cockpit.

What the hell?

The IRC chat is filled with dozens of haulers virtually shouting various forms of “holy shit” and “I don’t believe it” and “this is fucking crazy.” Nestled in the middle of the messages is one from Ralph.

<Ralphs_Comet> Told you! I fucking told you! Empty fucking podiums man!

Frowning, I look over at the muted video stream and my jaw drops. Rendered along the bottom of the screen in bold white letters on a red background are the words—BREAKING: Mars Formally Declares Independence from Earth.

Well, fuck. Why couldn’t it have been aliens?

* * *

Twenty minutes later, my WulaniMed point of contact calls.

“Hey Roman. I was—”

“You need to turn your ship around right fucking now.” 

He seems to be in a good mood. “So, I’m guessing you caught the news out of Mars this morning.”

“Of course I fucking did! Now turn your ship around.”

“I’m less than four hours from the PNR. Why not just finish the delivery?”

“Because WulaniMed doesn’t want you to. So turn your ship around.” 

“But hasn’t WulaniMed already been paid?” So have I, partially. And I wanted the rest of it. “Also, won’t the client, I don’t know, take issue with not getting the goods they paid a fortune for?”

“Not your concern. Why are you arguing about this? I’m trying to help you. Chances are good if you go to Mars they’ll impound your ship. Good luck getting back to Earth any time soon when that happens.”

I’m confronted with an image of a dejected-looking Omar sitting alone at a table surrounded by birthday presents and balloons. My stomach tightens as if a black hole had formed inside of it. I need to turn around. I should get away from this mess and get back to Omar—

You’re doing the people of Mars a great service, possibly saving many of their lives.

“What about the Martians?” I ask, my mouth dry. “Dr. Kowal said these meds are important, that they’re crucial to keeping Martians healthy.”

“I don’t give a shit about the Martians or their health anymore. And neither should you. They put themselves in this fucking mess so they can figure out how to get themselves out of it. Turn your fucking ship around, now.”

The image of Omar is replaced by one of an anxious-looking Dr. Kowal surrounded by sick Martians. She looks up, saying, “You’re doing the people of Mars a great service, possibly saving many of their lives.

“I . . . I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Okay, fine,” Roman growls. “Let’s try this. If you don’t turn around, you won’t get the rest of your pay, WulaniMed will never hire you again, you’ll find it difficult acquiring new contracts from anyone else, and WulaniMed will sue you for theft of property. Are those good enough reasons for you?”

“Roman, come on. You can’t be serious about all that.”

“I’m very serious. WulaniMed is really fucking serious. It’s us or the Martians. Your choice, Hissa. Make the right one. Roman out.”

Blood pulses loudly in my ears, and my skin prickles as if it’s baking in radiation. I could lose everything if I don’t turn back: Omar, the Li’iikhtiar, my job.

But if I turn back, Mars could lose . . . people.

I pull my hair and scream into the void. The scream transforms into sobs and then into slow, deliberate breathing.

How did this happen? People are terrible at keeping secrets. People love to gossip. There should have been some kind of warning. How did no one know this was going to . . .

Sonuva—

I jab the icon of the telecom app.

* * *

“You knew about this.” I say the moment the call connects an hour later.

“Hello, Captain Hissa,” Dr. Kowal says, sounding stressed and tired. Good. 

“You knew about this.”

The ten-minute response time stretches into eleven before I receive Dr. Kowal’s subdued response. “Yes. More or less. We didn’t know the details. Had no idea it would be, this. We were given a rough time frame and warned trade might become interrupted, potentially for a long, long time.”

“So you, what, got together with the other Martian docs to buy up a bunch of meds to prepare for the fallout or something?”

“Basically. Two years ago, every medical facility got word through trusted sources saying we should start overstocking the hospitals and clinics. The sources heavily implied we should focus on stockpiling critical medications that are still difficult to produce on Mars. So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

“Well, your little subterfuge has backfired. WulaniMed has recalled all of its haulers.”

“I know. WulaniMed’s CEO called me shortly after the declaration. He had also surmised I knew something about this turn of events. He wasn’t happy, to put it mildly. Threatened to sue me out of my medical practice. He was even less happy when I pointed out that as of ten o’clock this morning he no longer has that power.”

Despite my anger, I crack a smile. It was nice knowing WulaniMed couldn’t intimidate everyone.

Dr. Kowal continues, “I’ve been calling the other haulers trying to convince them to make their deliveries. It hasn’t been going well.” 

The unspoken question fills the cockpit like a dense cloud of rocket exhaust. 

“I don’t know if I’ll be making my delivery either.”

A bitter laugh spills from the speakers. “As sad as it is to say, that is the most hopeful response I’ve received this morning.” 

I lean back and look away from the monitor. Staring out the viewport, I focus on the small red-tan orb that is Mars. I picture Dr. Kowal standing on a dune in the middle of a desert, staring up at the Martian sky, trying to pluck spaceships before they can fly away. A hundred feet away on a verdant hill stands Omar, grasping for my ship and only my ship.

“While I’m sure it means little to you now, for the sake of transparency, you need to know I cannot guarantee your ability to leave should you choose to make the delivery. I have some pull at Wells Station, but given the state of things . . . well, it’s possible you and your ship could be stuck here for quite a while.”

Hurray for transparency.

“Also,” she continues, “compensation for your sacrifices will be . . . minimal. WulaniMed made it very clear we aren’t getting our funds back for the undelivered pharmaceuticals.”

I close my eyes and rub my forehead. This is not a difficult decision. Nearly every other hauler out there, including a few insane Martians who’ve already passed their PNRs, have turned back to their respective homeworlds. Just tell the scheming doctor you’re turning around and that she’s on her own. 

You’re doing the people of Mars a great service, possibly saving many of their lives.

“Honest answer, doc. No bullshit. How badly does Mars really need these meds?”

“Our stockpiles are looking good thanks to a few big shipments we received before the announcement. However, it’s all relative to how bad the fallout of this situation becomes. If we can’t get new meds for a few years, we’ll be fine. Three years, we can manage. Four, well . . .”

Four years and you’ll have extra bodies to fertilize Martian soil with. The last trade meltdown between Earth and Mars lasted two-and-a-half years, but that disagreement hadn’t involved secession from the UN.

“Despite my administrative position,” Dr. Kowal continues, “at the end of the day, I’m a simple physician with patients to care for. For their sake, I have to assume the worst-case scenario and plan for that. So the more medication I can get my hands on the better off we’ll be to ride this out.”

My gaze lingers on Mars. The image of Dr. Kowal standing forlornly on a tan dune now includes a sea of Martians. Hundreds of thousands of people surrounding the doctor, looking to her as she looks towards the stars. Brandon has joined Omar on the grassy hill. He stares at Omar while Omar peers hopefully at the stars.

“I’m sorry to have put you in this situation, Captain Hissa. I truly am.”

Oddly enough, I believe her. It would be so much easier if I didn’t.

“I need to think. Li’iikhtiar, out.” I disconnect the call and continue staring out the viewport.

* * *

An hour later, I’m still searching for an answer hidden somewhere amongst the stars.

“This isn’t working.”

Blinking, I glance at the navigation screen. According to the velocity data, the Li’iikhtiar will reach the PNR in thirty-one minutes and seventeen seconds.

I unstrap myself from the pilot’s seat and float towards the ceiling. I gently bounce around the cockpit, then float through the hallway, and drift into the closet that functions as my bedroom. My gaze falls upon an old picture velcroed to the wall.

“What would you do, Mama?”

“You know exactly what I would do, alb albi,” her voice chimes in my head.

I blow out a long breath. “Yeah. I unfortunately do.”

I float the three feet across the hall from my bedroom to the bathroom, an equally small space. Using the rest of my water allotment for the day, I dampen a rag and perform Wudu, washing my hands, arms, and face. Floating back to my bedroom, I grab the extra blanket stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Returning to the cockpit, I don my gloves and look at the monitor showing the position of my ship in its journey from Earth to Mars. I orient myself towards Earth. At least I think I do. Looking over my shoulder, I eyeball the monitor again. 

I shrug. Close enough.

I stretch the blanket out on the floor, placing a magnet at each corner. Switching on the electromagnets in my boots, knee pads, and gloves, I stand at one end of the blanket just off the fabric. I shake my body a little and stare at my feet. “Okay. Okay. I remember how to do this. Kinda.” 

It’s two-thirds through the day, so the Asr prayer . . . wait. I’m on a non-rotating ship. In the middle of space. And the time of day is no longer based on the position of the sun relative to my location. So, how the hell do I choose which of the five prayers to perform? Surprisingly enough, Imam Imad never covered this scenario. 

I glance around the cockpit as if the answer will be magically written on the bulkhead or rendered on a monitor.

“Hell with it. I’ll go with the Fajr. It’s shorter.” Imam Imad would not appreciate that logic—or laziness. Mama would be ashamed, but what else is new? An independent Mars. 

Focus, Hissa!

I speak intention and begin the first rak’ah; As much of it as I can remember, anyway. The electromagnets in my gloves and knee pads allow me to kneel awkwardly on the blanket during appropriate portions of the prayer. After a few minutes, I transition into the second rak’ah. The full prayer is complete another few minutes later.

Still kneeling on the blanket, I stare at the dark gray ceiling and wait. 

No divine intervention occurs.

I gave it a shot, Mama. I peer at the navigation screen again—five minutes and three seconds. I fold the blanket, store it in a cubby, and float to the helm. Tapping a few buttons causes a confirmation pop-up to appear.

CONFIRM COURSE CHANGE

My finger hovers between the two options: CONFIRM and CANCEL. 

Two minutes and twenty-four seconds. 

My vision blurs. I squeeze my eyes shut and whisper, “I’m sorry.” 

I tap the screen.

* * *

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