Business and pleasure in the Arctic Free Zone

Wine and glasses

Photo courtesy Jaunted.

In the world of my novel-in-progress Carbon Run, the Arctic sea ice has completely melted, creating new trade routes and economic opportunities. A brief war that ended in a stalemate resulted in the creation of the Arctic Free Zone, an area where no single nation holds sway and where virtually anything goes, economically. That includes trade that in other areas of the world would be illegal. In this opening scene of chapter 12, entrepreneur Molly Bain shares a drink with a business partner.

The lounge servbot set the glass of 2090 Château Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc before Molly Bain as she sat alone at a table in the bar of the New Ocean clipper Aurora Borealis. Tiny waves riffled the liquid’s surface, reflecting the power of the Arctic winds on the snow white nanotube fabric spread taut on the ship’s yards. Molly sipped, her coral lipstick leaving no trace on the crystal. A short, gray-haired man in a business suit took a seat at another table a few feet away, and he nodded in silent greeting. She acknowledged him with a glance of her amber eyes. Fingering her 24-karat gold necklace, she drew the man’s attention to her smooth neckline and her full décolletage.

“I admire your choice of wine.” The man had a Scandinavian accent. “The art has fallen on hard times.” A servbot waited by his table for his order.

Molly turned up the corners of her full mouth a millimeter. Molly had an oval face, skin the color of polished beech, and her auburn hair was arranged in the current fashion of East Indian traditional styles. A length of small diamonds covered the lighter skin beneath her part from her crown to a point below her hairline, forming a sparkling widow’s peak. “It’s amazing that the wines produced in the lower continent are still this good, Mr. Nordland. The Spike has destroyed winemaking everywhere else.”

“Please, call me Kristian.” The request by Nordland was really a plea. “After all these months, Mrs. Bain, we should be on a first-name basis, don’t you think?”

“I agree, Kristian.” Molly noted his blue eyes, light tan, and platinum com-cuff. “Please call me Molly. It’s good to see that we agree on more and more things as our negotiations progress.”

Nordland moved from his table to Molly’s. He was short, but well-built. “May I?” His voice quavered slightly. Molly sensed a hint of awkward teenager in him, though he was in his fifties. She indicated the mahogany chair with her slender hand, the sapphires in her com-bracelet glittering. He set his own wine on her table.

“Allow me to say to you again that your idea was brilliant, Molly. To bring all the principles together aboard the Aurora for the final rounds. Virtual talks are fine. But face-to-face meetings are always best. And here, surrounded by such beauty—“ Nordland swept his eyes around the lounge, accented by Italian leather and Turkish copper, finally settling on her face. “—agreement is certain.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Kristian.” Molly tilted her head as she looked at another couple ensconced in a booth. “We have a few issues to work out before we reach Dudinka. Fee scale details, security…“

“Now that we have taken on our last passengers, I have a feeling we’ll close our business long before we reach Russian waters.”

Rain splattered against the picture windows, distracting Molly. They were darkened to simulate night in the 24-hour Arctic day, but she could still make out the light at New Victoria as Aurora headed north out of Canadian waters under courses and topsails. She also saw Nordland’s reflected profile, and she found herself running various negotiation scenarios with the executive through her head, as if she were writing an AI subroutine. He was a key vote in the consortium she and her partner had bargained with for eight months, and the next days would make or break her plan to dominate the Arctic market.

Nordland placed his hand flat on the table. “And once we conclude our business, perhaps we can find more ways to work together. Who’d have thought that sailing vessels might be a growth business again? But that’s just one opportunity that the Warming has given us in the Arctic. You still have a worldwide reputation for artificial intelligence software, despite some of your history.”

“History?” Molly knew exactly what Nordland meant, but she wanted to explore his attitudes.

“The technology community knows about your role in the methyl hydrates disaster, though no one blames you. It’s understandable that you dropped out of sight afterward, but you haven’t fooled anyone by publishing some of your research under a pen name.”

A tone caught the pair’s attention, and a feminine voice came through the public address system. “Your attention, please. Per regulation, the Aurora Borealis is required to inform all passengers that we have crossed the eightieth parallel into the International Arctic Free Economic Zone. Thank you.”

Nordland gulped his wine, eyeing Molly. “I’ve known you up to now only as the president and founder of your Association. But your professional reputation in AI science, and now in your current line of business, is widespread. Everyone sings your praises…in both realms.”

Molly listened, pleased by his compliments and the confidence in her intellect.

“I’m curious.” Nordland’s voice quavered again. “Now that we’ve crossed over, are you, um, working?”

“Thank you, Kristian, for the compliment. But I’m very busy. You know, reviewing proposals, answering emails, calls, and so on.”

“That work is in your capacity as president of the association. But perhaps I could persuade…“

Molly considered Nordland’s proposal. He knew every port authority executive and C-level leader among the shipping companies that had taken advantage of the new trade routes through the Arctic Ocean. He was the best connected man in the Free Trade Zone. Another business deal with him could have significant dividends down the road. “I have no appointments this evening.” Molly ran her fingers down the stem of her wine glass.

Nordland grinned. “Your fee, if I may be so direct?”

“Standard A-1 rate on the Cyprian Association updated scale. Hourly or for the night?”

Nordland swallowed, as if anticipating his favorite dessert. “I’d like a companionship contract.”

On the other hand, Molly thought, a liaison with someone on the opposing side of the bargaining table might complicate matters. Some sort of balance was required. “I’m sorry, but my availability is limited to tonight. I’ll be off duty, you might say, until the association agreement is signed.”

“Just so.” Nordland was crestfallen. “I agree to your terms. But then, I hear that one private evening with you is worth a week with the best elsewhere.” Nordland cleared his throat. “Shall we go to my cabin?”

Silently, Molly directed her com to run a high-level background check on Nordland, specifically looking for arrests, convictions, media reports, or other hints of violent behavior. Results were negative; he didn’t even have outstanding surplus trash or recycling tickets. “Sounds lovely.”

What do you think?

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