Red 14. Red 14. Red 14.
Red 14. Red 14. Red 14.
“Sir, I can help you at this station.”
Red 14. Red… “Sorry, what?”
“Sir, if you’ll just step up here, I can process your boarding pass.”
“Of course, miss. One moment. Sorry.” Red 14.
“That’s all right, sir. There’s just a line, is all.”
Red 14. Red 14. “My bad. Give me a moment, this bag is heavy.”
“Do you need assistance carrying it, sir?”
Red — “No! No, sorry, no. I’m fine. Here. Uh, what do you need from me?” Red 14.
“I’ll need your Empire-issued holographic ID, sir. Also a valid interstellar passenger license.”
“Right. Right. I have those things, just give me a second. Sorry, I’m travelling to see my, uh, grandmother. She’s got, what do you call it…”
“Byronic plague, sir?”
“Right, that’s the one.” Red… 14. Red 14.
“In that case, you’ll also need quarantine paperwork, sir. Imperial directive.”
“Byronic plague, she’s in the final stages, so I’m a bit… hmm?” Red 14. Red 14.
“Quarantine paperwork, sir. Representing your willingness to be placed in quarantine upon your return, pending the result of a diagnostic scan for infection.”
Red 14. “Oh. Well, I don’t have that, but I can fill one out. Do you have a copy?”
“Certainly, sir. Old-fashioned paper forms only, I’m afraid. You’ll need to initial on the first page here, and then sign on the second page here and here.”
Red… Red… Red… 13? No, 14. Red 14.
“Ah… I’m afraid I don’t have a pen.” Red 14.
“It’s attached to the desk there, sir.”
Red 14. “Ah, right you are. Initialling here.” Red 14. “Signing there…” Red 14. Red 14.
“I hope your grandmother isn’t in too much pain, sir.”
Red 14. “Hmm? Oh, yes. Thank you. I’m sure she’s fine.” Red 14. Red 14.
“I mean, that’s unlikely, sir. Byronic plague is one of the worst epidemics the Empire’s yet seen. My mother died from it, sir, she…”
“That so?” Red 14. “All signed.”
“Right. Right, sorry sir. Anything to declare?”
Red 14. “Nope, nothing worth declaring.”
“The contents of that case, sir?”
“Personal items. For my grandmother to have. On her deathbed. Sentimental.”
“Can you open the case, sir?”
Red 14. “Uh, no.”
“Sorry. Some of these things are fragile. Packed in very precisely.” Red 14. Red 14. “Don’t want to expose them to artificial air, you know.”
“I see, sir. In that case, we’ll need to apply a magnet-lock to the case, sir. Just so it can’t be opened during interstellar flight. The lock can be removed by security on the other side.”
“That’s fine.” Is it fine? Red 14. Red 14.
“Guard, would you…? Sir, if you wouldn’t mind…”
“Sure, yeah. Is it okay if I leave it on the ground here while he does that? It’s very heavy.”
“That’s fine, sir. Just step away.”
“All right.” Red 14. Red 14. Red 14.
“There it is, all locked up tight. Thank you, guard.”
Red 14. “Yes, thank you. Is that everything I need?”
“Yes, sir. Please enjoy your flight, sir. Hail to the Emperor, death to his enemies.”
“Yes. Right, all of that.” Red 14. “I’ll be boarding now.”
“Very good, sir.”
Boarding the shuttle. Arm hurts. Case is heavy. Seems much heavier than before. How much does that magnet-lock weigh? And can it come off?
This is an old shuttle, antique. Laid out just like a 21st Century atmospheric aircraft. Long centre aisle. Overhead luggage compartments. Seats on either side. About half of the seats are already full. Mostly human. Occasional branded and masked Venusian. No Martians. Of course no Martians.
The old woman behind jabs with long, bony fingers. “Come on,” she snarls. “These old joints need to sit down.” Moving down the aisle. Unfamiliar eyes staring. Arm hurts. Case is heavy.
Made it to designated seat. It’s an aisle seat. Has to be an aisle seat, just in case.
Stewardess smiles. “Can I help you lift your case into the overhead compartment, sir?”
“No! I mean, no thank you.” Nervous smile. Bending down, hefting the case in both arms. Setting it in overhead compartment as gently as possible. On the top of the case, a small display flashes. It displays a number. A red number. 15.
Red 14. It has to be now. Now, damn it. Will that damn lock come off? Lifting trembling fingers to the case. Reaching for the special seal that will open it.
Old woman pokes again. “Come on, young man, help me lift my bag into that compartment. These old bones can’t —”
“Just a moment, please.” Where is that release?
That red number ticks down. 14. Red 14.
“Damn it!” And there it is, the release. Pressing it. Doesn’t open. That damn magnet-lock.
Stewardess is there. “Are you sure you don’t need help, sir?”
“I’m fine, just making sure it’s secure in there.” Reach around to the other side for the emergency release. Hopefully that will disable the magnet-lock, it worked when testing the case before this.
Old woman pokes again. “Emperor’s beard! Young man, you are intolerably rude! I demand you help me at once!”
“One second.” Where is that emergency — there it is! A faint hiss. The glow of the magnet-lock dims. It’s disabled for now. Lifting the lid of the case, peering inside.
The number on the display ticks down. Red 13.
Am I too late? Peering into the case, searching. Damn it, am I too late?
There. A face lifts up from over the ankles. A small, Martian face, with a tiny mouth to go along with limited air consumption. The eyes are glazed from CO2 poisoning, but there’s life there.
“Pappa…” wheezes a weak voice.
Cough to cover the sound. “Excuse me,” to the stewardess, to the old woman. Leaning in, whispering, “It’s okay. It’s okay, Mira. Go back to sleep.” Feeling a wave of warm CO2 passing out of the case and flowing into the passenger compartment.
Looking at the display. Red 15, Red 20, Red 25 and rising. Orange 30. Yellow 50. Green 70. Green 100. The display darkens as the case rebalances its interior tank, sucking oxygen out of the atmosphere. Whispering, “I love you.” Closing the case. A faint whine as the magnet-lock seals again.
Turn and the stewardess is right there. “Excuse me, sir.”
Heart beating. Sweating from right temple. “Yes?” She knows. She saw.
Stewardess stares long and hard. Her eyes say she knows. Her eyes say she saw or heard the outgassing.
She smiles. It’s a small, secret smile. A smile just for me. “Sir, would you help that woman with her case, please?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sorry.” Turning, helping the old woman lift her case into the compartment. She grunts and shuffles into her seat without offering thanks.
Sitting in my seat. Breathing out a sigh of relief. Not safe yet, but safe for now.