Some special content, written by Christina Engela, for our Christmas countdown.
A Really Bad Day In The Life Of Lance Corporal Thomas O’Blivion
By Christina Engela
Imagine, if you will:
He awoke with a start. A tense face was craning over him, staring. This wasn’t ordinary staring.
It was staring with intent.
“How’agh Mn php’tui!” he said, sitting up and regretting it instantly. The owner of the face withdrew something tasteless from his mouth and regarded it curiously. It looked like a cross between a calculator and an electric shaver. It hummed and blinked at him. When the other finally switched it off, it made a funny little noise, like a kettle perking.
“Take it easy, son!” The doctor said reassuringly, “You shouldn’t get up so fast. Not with five broken ribs, anyway!”
“Where am I?” O’Blivion panted.
“Sickbay. How do you feel?”
“Fine thanks and you?”
“I’m not the one with five broken ribs.”
“Five?” He repeated, sinking back onto his pillow. “What hit me — a tube train?”
O’Blivions last question went unheard. A pasty looking man in a pin-stripe suit had just entered. His blue eyes locked onto him like heat seekers.
“Darndest thing Ah ever saw!” he said in a deep, booming voice.
The man had thinning grey hair and an expanse of forehead that somehow reminded him of a furry watermelon. The man with the authoritarian voice ambled up to his bed like a biker would belly up to a bar.
“Darndest thing Ah ever did see,” he repeated. “You saved us all today, son! The whole damn station. We owe you our lives!”
“We all do!” Came the doctor’s contribution followed by a pat on the shoulder. The suited man gripped his hand and began pumping it like it was on the end of a crank.
“Ah’m Benjamin Cartwright the Third. Ah run the Cyclops Mining Corporation down on Porters World.”
“I know who you are, sir.” Said O’Blivion. Who on Starbase 14 didn’t know the big boss of the Body Corporate of the planet around which the station held orbit?
“Well, what’s your name, son?” The big man asked almost reverently.
“Lance Corporal Thomas O’Blivion!” Came another voice known for its ability to make air solidify. Tom winced as instinct made him try to sit at attention. It was the Chief of Station Security Himself. Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Irons didn’t merely walk, he strode. The man’s red hair and tendency to turn crimson when enraged – which was fairly often – had given him the name of ‘Old Fire Irons’. He had a voice and bearing that left his subordinates in no doubt whatsoever that he took his orders from a Higher Authority.
“S-sir?” Tom replied, somewhat unnerved.
“At ease, Corporal. Relax!” said Old Fire Irons, breaking into a grin which made the young marines skin crawl. “You’re starting early, aren’t you?”
“Collecting medals. I only got my first when I was a sergeant!”
“M-…” he stammered.
“The Silver Cluster, first class.”
Tom let his head fall back into his pillow. He broke into a relieved grin. “Thank you, sir.” He chuckled, wincing again.
“No.” said Fire Irons. “Thank you! By the way…” he asked the doctor, “What exactly broke his ribs?”
“Darndest thing Ah ever saw!” Exclaimed The Third again – whom, it occurred to Tom, might well have seen it. Tom, on the other hand, hadn’t. He’d felt it. Bugger – and he was still feeling it! He let the feeling of well-being wash over him as he remembered the perfectly ordinary beginnings of the day…
Starbase 14 wasn’t exactly the ideal place to start your career. Then again, I suppose that depends on which line of work you’re hoping to make a career in. It’s not that Starbase 14 was unpleasant or anything, though it seemed a trifle formal. The working environment for a security marine was probably average as imperial starbases went, but Lance-Corporal Thomas O’Blivion didn’t know that, he was new, you see. He’d been there for three weeks and somehow he’d felt cheated. He reckoned he’d as healthy a sense of humor as the next guy, but you have to draw the line somewhere – like your career for instance. Starbase 14 had a slight, er – terrorism problem. There were the occasional minor hijackings, one or two robberies a week, occasional riots – nothing too serious – but this particular starbase had quite a reputation. There was some labor unrest on Porters World, the planet around which Starbase 14 held orbit – and as the Corporations head offices were on the station, that’s often where the trouble occurred.
The last thing Tom wanted was a posting on a starbase. He would’ve preferred a long voyage on a starship as a member of a Starmarine security detachment! When Tom completed his training at the Academy he was asked what his preferences for posting were. He’d promptly replied: “Anywhere but Starbase 14”. That had been what his buddy Aiden had always referred to as a ‘bad move’. Tom chuckled wryly to himself, swinging his standard issue security baton around his wrist with practiced nonchalance. He had plenty of time on his hands, doing rounds, walking the beat. Two thousand people, base personnel and civilians altogether, needed quite a bit of space aboard the Starbase. He’d roamed the passages and corridors from deck to deck for a few hours already. Nothing had ruined his day yet – well, that is, more than the ‘day’ itself. As if it could get much worse! Life was not always dull here, he mused – as if that were actually a good thing! Aside from occasional thefts, there were a few assaults and one or two periodic cases of disturbed peace and domestic squabbles to contend with! Starbase 14 even came with an ‘unofficial’ red-light district complete with sex workers and its very own underworld – scaled-down of course. Tom had heard there were, on average, about 20 homicides per annum, guaranteed minimum. Oh, yippee.
The reason for all the trouble on Porter’s World – and aboard the Starbase – was because tof the continual labor disputes – the root of which were always on Porters World, where the actual industry itself existed. Porter’s World was supposed to be a thriving mining colony, at least as far as the Corporation was concerned. The workers themselves mostly worked on the planet – but tended to come up-station for recreational purposes, and sometimes, to hold an occasional demonstration. As a result, Old Fire Irons went and put a quota on the number of miners allowed on station per 12 hour cycle. Old Fire Ironsalso knew the other marines loved to get some use out of their truncheons. Tom, on the other hand, would’ve loved to be somewhere else. Any somewhere else. A nice place, like maybe Mantza – where the sun was said to shine a warm oceanic 27 degrees 14 hours a day, and the colonial women perfected their nude tans on perfect tranquil beaches…Hmm.
Tom proceeded down the corridor, tugging at the tight collar of his uniform tunic. It had been designed, he reflected, by someone who had known with some degree of certainty that he would never have to wear the bloody thing! The trousers were also embarrassingly tight, especially in certain delicate areas – such as, for example, in the ‘red light district’ of the station – a dingy little cantina known as Morks. Local legend had it that the sign writer was a little preoccupied at the time. Tom had spent some time wondering how that could’ve ever happened
Duty was a cast iron word to the young marine of Irish stock, but perhaps not as cast iron as the 2000 credits he was paid monthly. For that kind of money he’d be prepared to wear a rubber gorilla suit in a heat wave. Lance Corporal O’Blivion proceeded further down the passage, paying casual attention to the inhabitants going about their business. Most of them were friendly enough, although some, usually the richer ones – made their livings off the underpaid colonists. It’s an old, old story. Quite a few of those rich folks were snobs and would stride past, displaying their pointy little noses as if they had noses for every day of the week.
And so it came to pass that Tom found himself perusing the recreational complex, or rec-dec. It took up an entire level of the station and offered every entertainment from dancing arts to pink elephants. Then there was Morks, which sat right at the center of the place, like the festering core of a bad apple. Once more, he noticed the tightness of his trousers and thought it best if he gave Morks a miss altogether. At least until he could get around to the quarter masters store – or at the very least, a tailor.
Tom’s ruminations were rudely interrupted by a loud noise, rather like a bomb going off, come to think of it. Tom heard some screams and then general pandemonium broke loose. A violent wind started up and he realized the air was escaping through a hole somewhere in the outer hull. People began running everywhere at once.
“Get moving! Everyone out!” He heard a man nearby shouting. It was Constable Briggs. The constable – a few years his senior – was prancing about, waving his truncheon while trying to hold onto his helmet. Tom shouted to get his attention. Briggs turned around in mid-wave, accidentally braining a fleeing civilian with a resounding – and surprisingly solid clonk.
“Oh, bugger!” Said Briggs, as the unconscious civilian collapsed to the deck with a leaden thud.
“What was that – a bomb?” Tom shouted to be heard above the wail of the wind.
“Don’t know! There’s a great big hole in the side back there!” Briggs replied, a look of mild irritation crossed his face as the gesture sent another unsuspecting refugee reeling.
“Over there – just follow the wind!” Briggs quipped, not for one moment thinking Tom actually would. Heading off in the direction indicated by Briggs, Tom was instantly lost in the throng of mad milling lemmings, rushing hither and thither all at once.
The spacious rec-dec was the only level on the station that wasn’t sub-divided into air-tight compartments. With a breach this large, anyone stuck on this level would die from exposure, suffocation and decompression in mere minutes! Tom’s mind raced ahead, calculating the result. It was a horrifying prospect – the sudden loss of pressure could implode the rec-dec – and effectively snap the station in two! Everyone on the Starbase could die if something wasn’t done to prevent things from going that far! With all the people on the rec-dec making a mad rush to get out, the damage control teams would never reach the affected areas in time! Tom followed the wind. It was quite easy, come to think of it.
It had become quite a gale, which was tearing the stalls and displays to pieces. Their owners, flapped around looking like wet hens, struggling in vain to rescue their wares. Debris fluttered past Tom as he staggered through the morass of densified air in the middle of the shrieking maelstrom. Then Tom saw it – a hole in the side of the station, more than twice the size of a doorway! Tom would’ve liked to say he could see the stars outside, but the sheer amount of detritus in the way made it all too unlikely! The closer he got, the stronger the wind tore at him. His plan was simple: he had to plug the hole. Only something strong that could stand the pressure would do – a metal plate of some sort! He wasn’t sure how much time he had to find something suitable, but he reckoned it wouldn’t take too long for the air in the rec-dec to be all sucked outside. Add to that, he also had to plan a route to approach the hole – going too close to it – or walking right up to it would bring his plan to a premature and somewhat undesirable end! Just walking up to it, he calculated, would cost him about 40 years of salary and a sizable pension. No – he’d have to approach it from the side – where the pull would be considerably weaker. He hoped.
A nearby stall was struck by an overturned light pylon and disintegrated in the wind. Tom waded through the current towards it, and began tearing away at a steel plate that made up part of the construction. His fingers sensed the coldness of it as he manhandled it out of the tangle and staggered away from the tangled wreckage. A glass carried by the wind suddenly smashed on the back of Tom’s helmet with a nerve-rending crash. Sticky liquid splattered down his face. Bourbon. Not bad, he thought, amused by his calmness at the whole thing.
Tom struggled towards the hole while dragging the vibrating, singing plate with him. It was almost as tall as him, in very good voice – sounding like a very large wood saw playing a 21st century space opera – and carrying it just under normal circumstances would’ve been quite a chore! In this wind it was trying to flap around like a sheet of cardboard! It was all he could do to hold on and stop himself from being sucked out with it – a thought which conjured up images of Tom riding the plate like a space surfer! Tom dismissed the mental image, and focused on the task of wrangling the plate to the hole.A cascade of debris was blowing past him, through the hole and out into space. A pink flamingo from the zoo pen on the other side of the rec-dec flapped squawking past him, flying backwards, and disappeared into space.
Tom approached the yawning, gaping hole with mounting apprehension. He didn’t care to join it! He sidled along the wall, creeping up to the maw. Bracing himself – and with one, swift muscle-rending movement, he swung the shuddering plate into the air stream – allowing the vortex itself to suck it in! The steel plate slammed into place over the hole like a bath plug slamming into a drain-outlet under water, and held firm! The gale died around Tom almost instantly!
Appreciating the sudden and unexpected peace and quiet, Tom sighed with relief, and leaned against the plate. With unnerving suddenness, a small ceramic flower pot shaped like a cow, smashed into the place directly above his head, shattering the new silence, and showering Tom with soil and bits of geranium.
Just then, before he could even appreciate that close call, the air in the rec-dec found a small hole somewhere nearby, and began shrieking as it escaped through it. It was a rather loud noise! Tom could hear the last of the occupants still on the rec-dec scuttling to the exits – just in case the plate gave way. Which, Tom knew, was a realistic possibility. Tom couldn’t let that happen! He looked for the hole. He had to plug it! But he had to find it first! He crouched, looking until he found it. It was small, about the size of a peanut – a shrieking peanut – but he could already see the edges of the hole bending slowly outward – an action which would shortly tear the plate into shreds – and he’d be back to square one!
It occurred to Tom that he could probably reach the exit before it went. He might. After all, he realized, he was young, fit, and motivated enough to cover the distance from there to the closest exit. Then again, probably, he might not. Anyway, it was likely the pressure doors at the exits were already closed, and he had nowhere to go. Tom made his choice and began groping around in the mound of debris that had collected at the base of the plate. Just as the hole was growing to the size of a screaming golf ball, his fingers closed over something suitable for the job. It was light, small, metallic, and he didn’t really care what it was! Instinct took over and he quickly slammed the object over the hole. The noise and wind stopped again. So, it seemed, had his heart!
Tom’s eyes were locked on the object he’d slammed over the hole.
“No.” He whimpered.
A hand landed lightly on his shoulder. He jumped. It was Briggs.
“Well done, my mate.” Said the older man in a tone that suggested that he’d been right by his side the whole time, bravely fighting the Battle of the Steel Plate with him. “Plugged that sucker! Nifty job! Good work! Old Fire Irons’ll give you a com – er…” His voice trailed off into a shocked little whistle. This was followed by a stunned silence. “It’s a bomb!” Briggs said, dead-pan. “A limpet mine. Probably the same as the one that went off earlier!”
And it hadn’t gone off yet. It was the yet that worried Tom. Briggs, an experienced (or so he said) explosives expert, sidled up to the object and carefully examined the detonator with his eyes.
“Primed! Ready to blow! Can’t stop it now!”
“What about the bomb sq-”
“And now?” Said Tom, pensively considering the deeper meanings of his family name and valiantly resisting a rising tide of panic. Tom tried to prise the thing off the plate. It wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t exactly sure he really wanted it to.
“No idea.” Said Briggs. “You?”
Tom thought about it – it was relatively simple. He could just get up and leave – just get as far away from the whole mess as he could, and pretend that it never happened. Of course, it wouldn’t be very long before the Starbase started going to pieces around him. His thoughts lost their ethereal quality. If that bomb detonated, it would pull the plug and they’d be right back where they started. He blinked. He didn’t like that idea.
Tom pulled out his blaster.
Briggs blinked, glanced at the gun, the bomb, the gun. He blinked again.
“It’s a bomb.” He said. “It’ll go off anyway.”
“At least we’ll be here to plug it again.” Tom argued, standing up, a definitive purpose in mind – and began searching the debris nearby.
“Help me to find something to -” he said, suddenly noticing the lack of Briggs to talk to. “Damn!”
Tom found a broken table and propped it on his side a less than comfortable distance away from the bomb, the plate, and the inner bulkhead of the Starbase. Leaning over the top of it, he squinted down the muzzle of his weapon and took aim. Shaking his head, he dragged the table a little further back from the target, until he reached a distance he felt was a little safer, and kneeled behind it to take aim again. Whispering a prayer addressed to any gods that happened to be listening, Tom squeezed the trigger until it reached the limit of its tension, the devilish device the very center of his concentration. He took the trigger to its limit.
A small bang was followed by a brief, but entertaining vision of Armageddon! Before the ball of flames could reach Tom, the wind force snuffed them out. Right out, as in outside. At some point during the proceedings, Tom ducked into the lee behind the table for cover. Then, before he could peek over the top of the table, the pull of the vortex made it fall over. The sound was muffled by the wind. Tom couldn’t see the hole – because the wind had grabbed him and he was skittering across the floor towards a new hole – and open space! A scream of terror escaped from Tom as the force tore at him, rolled him over and pulled him towards the breach in the hull! Tom screamed again, a collection of flailing arms and legs flapping to his doom! He felt himself shouting, whirling, spinning – a strange weightless sensation! Then suddenly, Tom went numb with the sudden shock of stopping and waves of pain. The wind died yet again and he felt his body sag to the floor! Hearing the quiet around him, his eyes still pinched tightly closed, Tom fervently hoped he wasn’t in the void beyond! Tom swallowed nervously, not daring to open his eyes! He loosened his helmet and slipped out of it, sighing to the accompaniment of the debris raining down. Because it felt so good, he sighed again before opening his eyes to see what had happened. Looking up, he saw the hole – which was neatly plugged by his helmet! He sat there a moment, enjoying the restful pitter-patter of pot plants and detritus raining onto the deck or smacking the walls. Then he got up to leave, turned around, patting himself on the back.
The Doberman must’ve been doing about 60 when he caught it squarely in the ribs…