The wait has been ponderous.
It had not been too long ago that I had sworn to never so much as step on a local commuter jet, never mind the sub-orbiter I had flown on earlier this morning, and yet, I have now done both — with the worst still yet to come.
“Calling on Gilbert Denabby,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Gilbert Denabby. Please make your way to departure gate fifteen — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.” The tone is frighteningly accusatory for synthesised speech, as if shame will befall the poor man’s entire family tree should he delay any longer.
Perhaps he’s afraid. I share his trepidation.
“So, business or pleasure?” a gentle-looking, but burly young fellow beside me asks, in a rough Scottish accent. I do not turn to look at him, but instead just slightly cock my head his direction, whilst continuing to stare out of the full-height glass window at the rockets as they depart.
“Both, I suppose,” I reply, distracted, fidgeting with my boarding token. “I plan to live there — for a while, at least. Find some work.”
I can almost hear his eyebrows raise. “You don’t already have work lined up? Martian immigration won’t like that.”
“I’m just going to declare myself as a tourist, to begin with” I retort, blithely. “I’ve got enough money to qualify as one; I’ve sold everything I own save what’s in my pack.”
“Ah,” he chuckles. “Casting off the bindings of old Mother Earth, are we?”
“Probably not so much the land as the people,” I say, with a small hint of general disgust.
I imagine he nods sagely, since I cannot see him do it, for I am still gazing upon the launchpad, watching yet another rocket prepare for lift-off and head for the void. “Have you ever been to Mars?” he asks.
I laugh, as the rocket lights up and slowly lifts off of the pad. “No. Before this morning, I had not so much as left my province, never mind the ground.”
“Really?” The Scotsman’s voice fails to hide his disbelief. “Pretty large steps, then. If you’d pardon me for saying so, lassie, I’d say you’ve got pretty large stones — for a woman, I mean.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound.”
“What’s a penny?” I hear a child — a girl, seated directly behind me in the departure lounge — ask of her mother. “What’s a pound?” her brother inquires. The woman’s explanation fades into the background, as I find myself compelled to stray from my watch upon the launch-pad and turn to examine the latest addition to the passenger manifest.
He seems a bit strange, and oddity is not a great quality in an inter-world traveler these days — not after the still-unexplained disappearance of that Titan-bound spacecraft three years ago, in 2060. Tall, gaunt — distant. The man seems resigned to something, and my mind speculates upon sinister motives, doing nothing for my already heightened anxieties.
It just ceased to exist, that Titan ship, along with one thousand passengers — the data-stream from its sensors showed everything to be completely normal up until the point the stream simply stopped. No trace of it has ever been found, but heightened levels of radiation in the area it vanished led to rampant talk of terrorism in the media — the Israelis blamed the Muslims, and the Muslims blamed the Atlantic Union, but no one ever claimed responsibility for it.
Perhaps whoever was responsible decided it wasn’t as noble an act as they had previously thought.
“I would have gone to the Moon first, if I were you,” remarks the older American woman seated beside me. “You could be space-sick the entire trip to Mars — that would be pretty miserable.”
“I hope not,” I mumble, almost silently. “That’s the least of my worries, anyway.”
The rocket clears the launchpad by a hundred meters, and the shock wave reaches the departure area, causing it to shake with the force of a moderate earthquake. “You are the brave,” salutes the Scotsman. “Peacefully into the night go thee.”
“Calling on Sylvia Jensen,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Sylvia Jensen. Please make your way to departure gate twelve — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
The suspicious-looking man paces about my general area, his face varying from sorrow, to anger, to fear. My instinct is to flee from him, to run far away and abandon this entire enterprise, but I do not, for my interest in it is far too great.
“My first flight to the Moon was awful,” the woman beside me volunteers. “As soon as we hit zero-gravity, I tossed up my lunch, and without gravity of course not only did the entire contents of my stomach evacuate, a great deal of it went out of my nose. I had a sore throat and nose for weeks.”
“I haven’t eaten anything for over a day,” I assure her, “so there’s not really anything to throw up. Besides, I’ve got ant-nausea medication too.”
“Don’t be so hard on her,” the Scotsman interjects, chiding the woman beside me. “She looks like she’s having a hard enough time as it is.”
“It is all a bit daunting,” I admit. “I’m not fond of this.”
The burly man smiles, broadly. “I know what this is,” he chortles. “It’s love, isn’t it?”
I blush. “Maybe,” I giggle foolishly, sinking down in my less-than-comfortable plastic bucket seat.
“You have met them, haven’t you?” the American woman lectures me. “You’re not going all the way to Mars for someone you’ve only just met over the Inter-world Web, are you?”
“Well, I –”
“Have you no romance, woman?” growls the Scotsman. “This lass has just given up her whole life for love! I think she’s to be commended — who of us makes that sort of commitment these days? Nobody even gets married anymore.” He shakes his head. “Makes you wonder just how much more selfishness there could possibly be in the world.”
“That enslavement called marriage was never about romance, but ownership,” the American sniffs. “We’re all better off being free as individuals, unrestrained and without obligation.”
I choose to keep quiet, but the Scotsman does not. “The best of human history came out of love.”
The woman laughs, cynically. “What? Paintings and poetry? You can’t ride a painting to Mars. Personal ambition and capitalism have made our little flight tonight possible, not the fantasies of under-achieving so-called ‘artists’. Love is just a silly primal mechanism to encourage us to mate, and nothing more.”
She looks me straight in the eye. “If that is all you’ve given up your life on Earth for, you’re going to find yourself sorely disappointed.”
The Scotsman puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t listen to her,” he advises me. “Americans, as we all well know,” he grunts, looking past me at the woman seated opposite, “are eternal pessimists.”
“Calling on Peter Reams,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Peter Reams. Please make your way to departure gate four — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
“Whatever,” she snaps. “Spending three days in a steel tube for no prospects other than meeting someone you’ve never met who may not even exist at all is just dumb.”
The Scotsman is quite irritated. “Why are you going, then?” he demands. “For money, I wager.”
“Yes,” she sneers. “For money. There is no other good reason. If you’re going to risk your life and take a chance of dying horribly not only on the way there, but while you’re there — and on the way back, too — there better be a damn good financial benefit in it. What about you, Mister Scott — are you going for love, or money?”
“For the adventure!” he roars with exuberance. “To live life as it is truly meant to be lived. They’re forming an army, the first off-world army and I want to be part of that from the start.”
“You’ve been in the military before?” I ask.
“Aye,” he replies, “ten years in the army of the Atlantic Union. I fought in the African wars. What a travesty that was.”
“Now he wants to go shoot aliens,” the American woman deadpans. “May God help us all.”
“God?” the Scotsman barks, “GOD? I’ll have you know there is no God. When I was in the Sudan, there was no God. When I was in Ethiopia there was no God –”
“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” the woman interrupts, and breaks his rant. “I thought everybody in a foxhole believed in God.”
“If you saw what I’ve seen, what people are capable of doing to each other, then –”
“Maybe those people aren’t people at all,” she interjects.
“You know,” I say to her, “that’s the same attitude Muslims use to justify terrorism.”
“Hush, lass,” the Scotsman warns, “talk like that will get you the thrice over from the authorities here. That won’t be much fun.”
I sigh. “They’ve already stripped me naked with scanners, subjected my things to every conceivable test for anything, and had me undergo an hour-long psychiatric evaluation — what more can they do?” The suspicious looking man continues to pace. “Speaking of psychiatric evaluations,” I say quietly, nodding in the man’s general direction, “what about him?”
The Scotsman frowns. “Just trust that the authorities have done their jobs,” he recommends to me. The darkening twilight lights up with the ignition of another rocket, drawing my attention back to the launch pad. “If you let paranoia rule your life, you’ll never get anywhere, lass.”
“If you don’t, you might not get to wherever that is in one piece,” I smile, with very little conviction of my words, but he retorts anyway.
“Space travel is the safest form of transportation,” I say, staring out through the glass, as he says it, in chorus. We laugh. “It is true though,” he says, seriously.
“Except that when it goes bad, it goes very, very bad,” the American reminds me. “Very bad.”
“You’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you? Ignore her, lass. It’l all be just fine — you’ve got love waiting for you at the end of this trip, remember that!”
“I will.” I smile, taken again with the euphoria of love. “Two hours until take-off,” I read off of the window. “Two hours –”
“Calling on Francis Darby,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Francis Darby. Please make your way to departure gate seven — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
“I think that man who’s been pacing for the last while just threw his digital ID in the trash,” notes the American woman, with a small amount of alarm. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Maybe he plans to claim refugee status on Mars,” I suggest. “Maybe, he’s filed off his fingerprints too,” I joke, but she doesn’t seem to see the humour in my silly remark.
“Won’t they just scan his DNA anyway? What is the point in trying to hide your identity?”
“They won’t necessarily,” says the Scotsman. “If they scrutinised every ‘refugee’ who turned up on Mars, there’d be a fair number less people to do the jobs nobody wants to do. It’s a bit like the old French Foreign Legion.”
“But… but, he could be a terrorist!”
The conversation around us goes quiet. “Hush, woman,” growls the Scotsman. “I’m not getting interrogated because of you.”
“Then go sit somewhere else.”
“Oh, right — that would be really wise. ‘Oh, why has he decided to disassociate from her, now? To deflect suspicion? Perhaps we’d better have a chat with him.’ No thank you.”
We sit silently for a while, and the terminal rumbles with the launch of another rocket. The usual dull-roar of the departure lounge soon returns to it’s usual din, and it appears we’ve escaped interrogation, for the moment.
“That man has another digital ID,” the woman whispers in my ear. “I saw him take it out from inside that faux-tree in the corner, over there,” she points.
My anxiety is not at all interested in hearing such things.
“Maybe he’s a space marshall,” I whisper back. “He could be a white-hat just as well as a black-hat.”
“I wish I could share your optimism,” comes her reply. “However, I don’t.”
The Scotsman overhears. “If you make trouble,” he growls in a low baritone, “they’ll make us all go through security again, and our launch might be cancelled. Do you really want to sit here for another entire day? I have to say that I don’t!”
“I like breathing though,” I say. “It’s pleasurable, the whole continuing to live thing.”
“Exactly,” the American agrees. “That’s why we need to confront that man.”
We sit quiet, for a moment. “What, me?” the Scotsman inquires, eventually, “I’m not talking to him. What do you expect me to say? ‘Hello there! Are you a space marshall, or a terrorist?’ That’d work real well.”
“Why not tell a security guard, or something?” I suggest.
The Scotsman stifles his mirth. “Because, lass, they’ll think you’re just trying to be disruptive, and then drag you off to interrogation. These days, most terrorism in space-ports is simply about suggesting there may be terrorism — it’s known as psychological warfare.”
“Isn’t that counter-productive?”
“Which? The psychological warfare, or the dragging you off to interrogation?” He smiles at me, to try to ward off my fear. “Just trust that the people here know how to do their jobs,” he repeats. “Everything will be just fine.”
“I don’t know about that”, the American says. “That guy really rubs me the wrong way.”
“You rub me the wrong way,” notes the Scotsman.
“That might be, but at least you know I have too much self-interest to be a terrorist.”
“Good point. Could we please stop saying the ‘t-word’, though? I’d like my anus to remain untampered with today.”
I volunteer a euphemism. “How about ‘pickle’?”
“Why ‘pickle’?” he asks.
“Okay,” says the American, “I don’t like the look of that pickle over there.”
The Scotsman objects: “We still don’t know conclusively that he’s a pickle.”
“Well, you won’t go over there and ask him, so how will we ever know if he is or not?”
“Calling on Robert Bailey,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Robert Bailey. Please make your way to departure gate one — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
“This wasn’t how I pictured my first space-flight. Or, at least, this wasn’t how I pictured waiting for my first space-flight.”
“Do you want it to be your last space-flight too?” asks the presently-annoying American woman. “If not, you’d better take better interest in your safety.”
It begins to rain outside, the water pelting against the window.
“Does lightning ever happen around here?” I ask, and the Scotsman shakes his head.
“No, they chose this place because of its good weather. Mother Nature is never a hindrance to the rockets.”
“No,” observes the American, “you only need to worry about the human element.”
“It’s never been proven that any space craft has ever been destroyed by pickles,” argues the Scotsman. “So keep your conjecture and speculation to yourself.”
“So what took out the Titan flight then?” she sneers. “Geese?”
Thunder, of the man-made variety, echoes from beyond the glass as yet another rocket heads for parts unknown. “It’s just as likely geese as pickles,” he replies. “How about turnips? Or parsley?”
“I don’t understand those euphemisms, but I still say pickles.”
“You’re a stubborn woman.”
“That’s why I have a seven-figure bank account and you don’t.”
“How do you know what I have in my bank account?”
I crouch a bit lower in my seat as the two surrounding me argue.
It seems as if it will never end, but then the American woman drops a proverbial ‘bomb’: “You know, I wonder why you’re so against the idea that there could be pickles, or that there might be a pickle here right now — maybe,” she suggests, grimly, “you’re a pickle.”
It’s not so much a question as an accusation.
The pained expression on the Scotsman’s face betrays his outrage, but he cannot do it justice for if he does, security will have words with him for sure. “How dare you,” he says, quietly. “You Americans think you can just go accuse anyone of anything, don’t you? You think that you have the right to just traipse over to whoever you like and compare them to Lucifer himself.”
“Yes, we do. ‘Better to know the Devil than to permit him escape your gaze’.”
“Calling on Susan Ellison,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Susan Ellison. Please make your way to departure gate eleven — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
“I doubt all those innocent people you’ve locked up over the years would agree with you.”
“Better to imprison ten innocent people than let one of the guilty walk free.”
“Um,” I interject, “isn’t it meant to be the other way around?”
“Not anymore, lass. Not anymore.”
“As it should be,” says the American.
I ask her, “So, you’d go to prison to stop the pickle over there, then?” The Scotsman stifles a laugh. She doesn’t respond. I am not surprised.
Ninety minutes to launch and the prospective pickle is sweating profusely.
“Yeah, I don’t like the look of that, either,” whispers the American to me.
“Maybe he’s just nervous. Like me.”
“Did you exchange your ID with an artificial plant?”
“My point exactly.”
“Okay,” I admit, “so maybe he’s a bit dodgy. But, what if he’s fleeing the Mob or something? That would explain the change of ID and the nervousness.”
“What if the Mob blows up the ship to get him, though?” The eternal optimist.
I ponder. “Criminals don’t generally kill themselves in order to kill someone else. It’s not exactly in their job description.” The man leaves his baggage, and heads for the washroom.
“Maybe he’s not going to bother waiting until we get on the ship,” the American muses.
“Anything he managed to smuggle through wouldn’t be strong enough to do any real damage to the terminal,” I reason. “It’s not as if he’d be able to cart a huge bomb around or anything. There’s explosive detection everywhere.”
“Unless there’s a larger conspiracy.”
“How,” asks the Scotsman, frustrated,” have you ever been able to get on any flight before this point? It just seems like it’d be impossible for you to live with yourself, all of this suspicion and rampant distrust of your fellow human beings –”
“I’ve never really seen a pickle before. Well, not like that pickle.”
“He’s not a pickle!”
The pickle returns from the washroom, carrying his baggage.
The Scotsman’s eyes narrow. “Now, that is strange.”
“I told you! He’s a pickle!”
“Calling on Walter Greeves,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Walter Greeves. Please make your way to departure gate thirteen — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
Presently, the baggage the ‘pickle’ had left before his soiree to the washroom appears to no longer be where he had left it, nor anywhere one can see from our existing vantage point. “I’m going to the toilet,” declares the American, who promptly rises from her seat and moves off toward the last-known location of the pickle’s luggage. Once there, we watch her spin around a few times, scanning her surroundings, and then carry on to the toilet.
“She’ll be lucky not to get us all questioned if she keeps this up,” says the Scotsman.
“Why aren’t they questioning the pickle, though?” This is a question that thoroughly perplexes me.
“I don’t know, lass, but I’m starting to wonder that myself.”
“But not enough to risk delaying the flight.”
He sighs. “No. There’s a ‘time-limit’ on joining up with the Martian army in this rotation, and that just happens to be about two hours after we make landfall on Mars.”
“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, lass. I’m not technically finished my business with the army of the Atlantic Union.”
I blink at him. “You’re AWOL?”
“Something like that.”
“So, if I involve myself in this, they’ll likely scrutinise me a bit more, and that probably won’t be all-too healthy for me.”
The American returns from her safari having failed to spot the pickle’s former, now elusive baggage with a packet of ‘potato chips’. “Can’t spot it,” she says. “I tried to look for it as much as I could, but a security guard started to follow me so I decided to give up on it for now.”
“It’s not going to be too long until they put us on the boarding transport,” I point out. “There’s not much time left to do anything about anything.”
Perhaps someone else might have taken an interest in the strange behaviour of the possible pickle. I stand up, feign a stretch, and take a quick survey of the departure lounge to see that ignorance, intentional or otherwise, appears to be the rule of the day.
“Nobody else seems to care,” I observe. “What if I talk to security?”
The American scoffs. “I don’t think they’ll pay much attention to the paranoid rantings of a first-time ‘spacer’. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a newbie ‘freak out’ –”
“You’d be able to buy a sandwich,” the Scotsman finishes, “a very plain sandwich.” He looks at me, “She’s right, though. They won’t listen to you, and they’ll probably detain you. Besides, what about the love of your life? Don’t you want to unite with him or her?”
“Yes, but alive!” My nose wrinkles in irritation. “Well,” I turn to the American, “what about you?”
“I, uh… I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.”
My face develops a distinct frown. “What’s your ‘difficulty’?”
“Although there’s not technically a warrant out for my arrest, once certain tax authorities find out I’m leaving the planet during an investigation, there might just be.”
The children seated behind us begin to fight. One of them throws a crayon at the other, which bounces off of his head and on to the floor near my feet. Their mother subsequently orders her offspring to remain seated — and quiet — on either side of her.
“Calling on Onatu Venashi,” an impatient, computer-generated voice declares over the intercom system, “Attention, Onatu Venashi. Please make your way to departure gate five — your spacecraft is ready to depart, and other passengers are waiting for you.”
The pickle is sitting now, with his new luggage on his lap, oddly peaceful and content with his place in the universe. This is not generally a good sign.
“So, then I guess we need to tip off the authorities anonymously,” I deduce. “The main question then is how?”
“Well, you can’t send an e-mail, voice or a text message,” notes the American, “they’ll trace it back to you in seconds.”
“Smoke signals?” The Scotsman smiles weakly.
“Where’s the fire?”
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen,” says the loudspeaker, “and welcome to Flight 1AB8 shortly departing to Menara, Mars.”
“In just a few moments, we’ll be organising your boarding of the transport, which will take you out to the ship proper. For those of you who are new, I will briefly describe the procedure that will lead up to your departure.”
There is not much time. I frantically search my mind for options.
“I’m going to go talk to security,” says the Scotsman. “I can’t allow this to happen. I hope it all goes well for you both.” He goes to rise, but I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“No, wait. I think I have an idea. I’m going to the toilet.” I collect the crayon from the floor in front of me, and stand up.
Meanwhile, the voice on the loudspeaker has been droning on: “The transport module will be detached from the transport sled, and loaded on to to the rocket, which will then be elevated to a vertical position for take-off. This means that once you are seated in the transport, you will not be required to relocate a second time to the spacecraft.”
“The washrooms are closed now,” says the security guard. “Go back to your seat until you’re called to board.” So much for writing a warning on the stall door.
“Any luck?” they ask, when I return. I shake my head.
“Well, that’s it then,” the Scotsman takes to his feet.
“No!” I shout partially, before stifling my own voice. “No. Give me a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute — they’ll be boarding any second.”
“Sit,” I demand, and he obeys, almost inexplicably.
You see, on my way back to my seat, I had been given the valuable opportunity to glimpse the pickle’s plastic boarding token: 185742.
“Do you still have that potato chip bag?” I beg the American, hoping she has not disposed of it.
“Oh, it’s in my pocket.”
“May I have it, please?” I turn it inside out, and then scrawl the pickle’s boarding number upon the one side of the cellophane with the crayon, and a primitive skull-and-crossbones on the other. Dropping the crayon inside the inverted packet, I turn and whisper into the ear of the child behind me.
“Do me a favour, kid,” I plead. “Throw this at the security guard when I call him over and I’ll give you all of my desserts for the whole trip.” I toss the bag underneath the seat, with enough force to pass it through to the other side, and then go to stand, praying the offer is suitable.
I wave at the nearest guard with a silly grin on my face, jump up and down two or three times, and then sit back in my seat, praying for juvenile intervention. Fortunately, the child takes the bargain, and with surprising accuracy, smacks the security guard in the chest with the strange note.
The guard catches the bag, and happily notices the number written upon it. I have apparently then been forgotten by the guard, whose brow furrows as he scrutinises the bag, the children and the mother, who is genuinely oblivious.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” begins the loudspeaker, “we are now ready to board –”
In the reflection of the glass, I watch with breath held as the guard raises his hand, and speaks into his earpiece. Four people in face-masks and black jumpsuits promptly appear out of nowhere, and escort the pickle away.
“Black-bagged!” snickers the American quietly.
“There goes all my desserts,” I say, a price willingly paid.
It appears as if we’re all in the clear — at least until the guard decides to walk over, and stand right in front of us. In obvious contemplation, he looks at me, then at the Scotsman, and the American, while all three of us consider what is likely to happen next, and I’m certain that none of those thoughts are good.
Finally, the guard says “Well done,” quietly, before turning and marching off, waving the all-clear to the boarding staff.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now ready to board –”
“Thank God,” says the American, and I think she means it.
People start to board the transport. We stand, and the Scotsman turns and salutes me, then, with what is likely the biggest smile on the planet adorning his face.
“We are the brave,” he says. “Peacefully into the night go us!”