Saturday, 16 June 2012

Story 15 - The Quarrel

I was walking home with my girlfriend one night and we were arguing. What it was about isn’t important 'cause of it not being in any way relevant to the story so I’m not even gonna go into any of it… Although just for no reason at all I may as well tell you we’d been with some of my mates who’d all pretty much ignored her 'cause of there being some fit barmaid they’d gone down this particular pub to watch. We’d sat at the bar instead of finding a table but my girlfriend had been all pissed off and settled on a table to herself instead. This meant of course that I’d had to sit with her but had been wanting to talk to my friends too and had sort of been flitting between the two places, exhausted with all the hassle of it all. Now she was sulking on the way home, obvious thoughts of what dickheads my mates were and why hadn’t I just sat with them, like why had I even bothered talking to her at all?

So anyway, I guess the story really begins when we were on the hill about two minutes away from our flat; no longer talking and not going home until things had become a bit more resolved, not wishing to enter whilst still in a bad mood with each other and all that.

I was on the bench smoking a cigarette while my girlfriend was sort of skulking about, not yet ready to sit down next to me; but at the same time having no desire to walk away and leave me behind either.

It was in this moment of me sitting there and her standing around nearby when I first noticed the guy walk across my field of vision. A figure out of nowhere, coming into focus momentarily: thin, ill looking, younger than me and slightly shorter. Either a drunk, a homeless person; or both. – in fact my guess of him being one of the many beggars you often see around our city (Brighton) was confirmed almost straight away as I watched the figure approach a couple who were now walking up the hill towards us. A conversation I couldn’t hear but could tell from the body language that he was asking for money and being refused: The shake of the head from the man, and then the blank, poker expressions of both him and his girl as they continued past him.

I drew on my cigarette, not wanting to stare for too long, allowing my eyes to drop to the floor, drinking in a brief moment of peace before out of nowhere the thin beggar had positioned himself next to me on the bench, leaned his face to my ear and spoken, “Give me 50p or I’ll slice your face.”

I froze for a moment, not wanting to turn and face him, trying to give myself time to decide how to best handle this unexpected encounter. I remember thinking I could probably jump up quickly to put myself into a more defensive position; or if it’d be better to simply tell him to fuck off and leave me the hell alone.

I was already in a bad mood of course and taking it out on this guy (at least verbally) didn’t seem like such a terrible idea at the time. The problem however was, if he really did have a razor blade then all it’d take would be one quick swipe of it to ruin my face for life. And I liked my face.

I also liked my girlfriend; despite the current argument. And I had to think about protecting her. To be honest if I hadn’t been with her and hadn’t been in a bad mood then I’d have probably got up and run away without a second thought. I’m not the sort of person who really cares about being macho or anything. Running away is simple and that’s what I’d have done. Problem solved within a couple of seconds.

“I mean it mate, I’ve got a razor blade here and I’ll slash your fucking face if you don’t give me 50p.”

I looked across to my girlfriend who was now walking into the kebab shop across the road, shouting something to me about wanting a coke; completely unaware of our current predicament.

“That your girlfriend mate,” he was now saying. “Nice girl. Give me 50p or I’ll slice your face.”

Keeping my head I did two things at the same time. Actually more than two. I got up quickly, stepping back and away from the bench so I was now looking down at the drunk; far enough so he couldn’t get hold of me with one movement.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet and said, stalling for time, “Ok mate, 50p it is, or make it, I’ll give you a quid, but that’s it.”

By being friendly I was attempting to pacify him, by taking a firm hold of my wallet I was making sure he wouldn’t snatch it and by stepping away I was stopping him from slicing my face. (I say all this ‘cause I remember consciously taking all of these things into account which is why I go into detail here.)

He got up quickly and at once was right next to me, in front of me, stumbling about in the wake of my path. I remember him taking a swipe at my wallet and pulling it away just in time as I took out a quid, which I handed to him saying, “Here you go, but that’s it,” and made to walk across the road to the kebab shop; but already I could sense a growing agitation coming from the drunk.

“Give me fifty quid or I’ll slice your face.”

I couldn’t believe it. How had fifty p suddenly changed to fifty quid? I’d thought I’d somehow stopped the whole situation and now it was gonna be over. I was about to happily share my girlfriend’s coke while this guy would wander off down the hill, accepting the fact that I’d outsmarted him, that I’d been too quick. He was now gonna go and hassle some other unlucky bastard.

“Give me fifty quid or I’ll slice your face.”

I’d been nice enough to give this guy a quid, which at the time wasn’t exactly breaking the bank, but all the same I was still relatively hard up, and there was no way in hell I was even gonna consider giving this guy far more than I usually allowed myself to spend in a week.

“Look mate,” I said, trying to be friendly, deciding I’d have to cleverly talk myself out of this one. “I’ve given you a quid. That was pretty nice considering it’s double what you asked me for. You can go and ask someone else, I’ve given you all I’m gonna give you.”

“Give me fifty quid or I’ll slice your face.”

All of a sudden he started approaching nearer, closer to me with a look of violence in his eyes before swinging a bony fist through the air, which I dodged, and then he was on the floor, lying in the road: Literally, all happening within a couple of seconds.

He looked kind of pathetic as I stared down at him. In a blur I considered kicking him a couple of times just to make sure he didn’t get up and start harassing me again but didn’t. Although I nearly did. I’d been more scared than I’d realised and at the moment of him lying there I felt a great sense of relief as well as the strange urge to punish him for having given me such a shock.

Instead though I carried on talking; sticking to the original plan of using my brain instead of my fists.

“This is Brighton mate. Plenty of people are gonna give you money here. Why don’t you head into town? Loads of people around there.”

“It’s fucking shit mate.”

“What, Brighton?”

“It’s a fucking pile of shit.”

“You from here?”

“Nah mate, from London,” he said as he got up.

“What’s that like?”

“Fuckin’ shit.”

“Why’d ya come to Brighton?”

“Give me fifty quid or I’ll slice your face. GIVE ME FIFTY QUID OR I’LL SLICE YOUR FACE!”

My girlfriend was near us now. She’d come out from the kebab shop and was sipping her coke, watching our conversation, aware I was being hassled; although not giving away any like fear or apprehension over whether this guy really meant what he was saying about slicing my face.

I gestured to her, mouthing, “Go home,” then in reaction to her lack of response gave up with the whole mouthing thing and shouted, “Go home, I’ll catch up with you later!”

She was just standing there sipping her coke though, not doing anything.


I needed her out of the way. I needed her to leave me alone with this guy so I could simply leg it.

I began to walk down the hill, drawing the drunk along with me, leading him away from my girlfriend who was hopefully gonna get the hint that she wasn’t helping matters by staying close.

The drunk followed, deciding now upon repeatedly mumbling his familiar offer of not slicing my face if I gave him fifty quid.

My girlfriend started walking down the hill towards us.

“Give me fifty quid mate or I’ll slash both your faces.”

It was more than I could take. Actually no; there wasn’t any anger involved. No lack of patience. It was simply my last resort. I’d attempted to be nice, tried to be clever and was without the opportunity of running away.

There was only one thing for it.

I stepped a couple of paces back from him and clenched each of my hands into fists. He was talking to me more now but I was no longer listening. I said nothing. Did nothing. There was no, “Come on then.” No, “You’d better watch it.” No, “I’m gonna smash your head in, kick your arse,” or whatever.

I simply looked at him, concentrating on his hands, assessing the time it would take him to pull out a knife or razor, waiting for him to make his move, read to knock him down as soon as he did.

In one rapid movement he jumped at me, fast as lightening. But instead of attacking he merely pushed me aside, sprinting down the hill.

And then my girlfriend was suddenly next to me, asking if I was ok while I remember half wanting to chase after the guy; kick his head in for putting me through what he’d just put me through. And in retrospect I should’ve been cuddling my girlfriend, telling her I was fine, she was fine, it’d been nothing and there was nothing to worry about. But I just couldn’t.

“Give me a minute,” I said to her. “I just need a cigarette. Then I’ll be ok.”

Although at the time my mind was swirling:

“Fuck that bastard,” I was thinking to myself as I fumbled around with my lighter, sparking up. “Fucking should’ve decked him. Taught him a lesson good and proper... And fuck my girlfriend. Bitch. It’s her fucking fault I got into the whole fucking situation in the first place.”

“Are you all right honey?”

“I just need a minute,” I told her. “Then I’ll be ok… Just leave me a bit… No, don’t touch me… Just go on home… I’ll be all right in a minute.”

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Story 14 - Control Panels

The control panels are flashing red. A strange anomaly has appeared on the view screen and the captain has ordered a level one alert. It’s a dust cloud in the shape of a perfect hoop. The hole in the middle is black… whether it’s an actual black-hole or not is something I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Certainly the atmosphere on the bridge is tense.

The captain shouts for me to get down to engineering immediately and the information-pad in my hand is ignored but swiped away nonetheless. When someone bothers to look they’ll see our sensors have been showing a 0.02% malfunction over the last several hours, which I suspect is getting worse. In a ship this size it could be interfering with our exterior imaging array.

I slouch into the turbo-lift and command to be taken to section E2, silently cursing my low rank.

“How about you?” I say to the lift’s computer. Were you ever a lowly control panel? How long did it take you to work your way up to having your own voice?”

“Unable to comply,” is the simple response I get. “Please restate the question.”

Engineering is bustling with a flustered liveliness. Flashing red lights along the walls and ceiling add to the mood. Staff are arriving from various sections. Most of them, like me, seem uninformed of what they’re supposed to be helping with. I search out a senior officer through the crowd who subsequently informs me that we’re all awaiting orders, and when I ask if there’s anything I can do in the meantime he only tells me that it’d be helpful if I could just pass this message along.

So I’m meandering around for a while, telling anyone who’ll listen to keep calm, not panic and that it’s probably only a false alarm. There I am, busily doing nothing when I notice Juliana Shawls standing by a control panel in the navigational section of the engine room; her face deep in a kind of perplexed concentration; an unsolved problem obviously blocking her out to the rest of the world.

Juliana Shawls who I’ve been trying to find the opportunity to talk to ever since being assigned to this ship. I ponder if now would really be the best time to tell her how much I admire her work; how long I’ve been following her career; how honored I am to meet her in person. How I’ve dreamed about her more times than I can care to remember…

No, forget it. Why would she even care? I’m a nobody amongst hundreds of other nobodies. Someone of my rank would and should never talk to an officer in such a way. But there again, if my theory about our malfunctioning sensors is correct I may have enough reason to interrupt her thoughts. I could even be of help.

I walk over, wondering how I’m to open our conversation: when her head is going to rise from the control panel and she’ll stare into my eyes, inviting me to state my reasons for talking to her.

“So nice it is to meet you,” she’ll say. And then I’ll be telling her there’s no time for idle chit chat because we need a diagnostic to determine if there really is an anomaly outside, if such a menace is actually present at all; or whether the danger could be worse than predicted.

“Never mind the diagnostic,” she’ll reply, letting her hair down in front of me. “Why don’t we take this chance for me to show you my quarters?”

She’ll be leading me away through the crowd, throwing orders to a passing cadet before we come to the turbo lift. And once inside we’ll no longer be able to restrain ourselves.

But wait. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen to a lowly cadet such as I am.

I pick myself up from the floor; try to focus, to shake off the throbbing pain there now is inside my head. Why do I seem to be the only one conscious in engineering? I have to contact the bridge.

I stumble over several bodies to the nearest control panel, punch in a code I can hardly remember. The flashing red lights are blinding to me as I shout, “Bridge! Get me the bridge God dam it!”

A rush of static gushes out of the speakers. Somewhere in there I think I can hear the voice of the captain, though I can’t be sure.

“This is cadet 362,” I say.

There’s no response but more static.

I look around me. I’m not an engineer and have no idea what half of these control panels are for. An officer is needed, not me. Why is it that I’m the only one left conscious? I need to find an officer.

Making my way over the bodies I search out someone with a blue patch on their left shoulder. By the hyper-drive area I immediately notice some movement. Yes, the blue patch is there on this officer’s uniform, and they’re awake too. It’s the most beautiful officer I’ve ever seen. She’s smiling at me…

No, wait. This isn’t happening.

I pick myself off the floor again; ignore the throbbing pain in my head, the flashing red lights. I search the bodies around me, more bodies, finally come across the same officer I spoke to earlier. The one who told me to be alert and wait for orders. I shake him by the shoulders trying to rouse a response. After some minutes of this he begins to mumble sleepily.

“Wake up!” I shout. “Focus!”

“Where am I?” He finally says. “Who are you?”

“Never mind who I am, focus. Look around you. We’re in engineering. Something’s happened to the ship. I’ve tried to contact the captain but communications are out. We need to assess our situation but I’m not qualified to -”

“- my head! No!” he suddenly cries, falling to the floor, writhing in obvious agony before passing out once more.

I decide quickly not to reawaken him; look around me at the bodies, wondering if I should try someone else. A young female cadet lies to my left. I pick her up, shake her, her eyes open and then she’s kissing me passionately: but I manage somehow to bring myself around from this new fantasy; finding the same cadet lying on the floor next to me. I shake her, slap her face and shout for her to wake up but she doesn’t stir.

I need to get out of engineering. Maybe the situation is different on other parts of the ship. The bridge is where I should go. That’s where all the important people are: the ones who can help; who know what they’re doing. I pray to God someone is awake up there as I stager towards the turbo-lift.

Luckily it’s still working. And as soon as the doors shut and begin to move the throbbing in my head weakens somewhat. Transported through the veins of the spaceship on my way to the bridge I can feel my heart beating fast, my breathes short and irregular; and I’m sweating profusely: but there’s a definite sense of relief to be out of engineering.

Able to concentrate for the first time in a while the thought suddenly occurs that I can use the voice activated controls to talk to the ship’s computer in here.

“How many people are on the bridge?” I begin.

“There are eighteen people currently on the bridge. Four senior officers, two security officers, three science officers, three navigational officers, one weapons operator and five cadets.”

“And how many of those are conscious?”

“That information is not available.”

Hang on, I think. Why isn’t the captain on the bridge? I ask: “What is the current location of Captain O’Conner?”

“This information requires a security override.”

“A what?”

“Knowledge regarding the locations of Captain O’Conner and First Officer Dobson has been restricted to officers only.”

What, I think, is going on?

Then the doors of the turbo-lift are abruptly opening before me to reveal the bridge.

As I step out onto the golden floor the first thing that strikes me is how normal everything appears to be. Officers and cadets stationed at their posts, punching information into control panels, staff gliding about from one place to another, everyone communicating in low, calm voices. The flashing red messages of alert have ceased. The image on the view screen is an unremarkable picture of distant stars.

But soon something strange begins to occur: namely a realization of the fact that nobody has responded to my presence. They all just seem to be going about their business in an orderly fashion; a little too orderly for my liking.

I grab a passing cadet by the arm.

“Where is Captain O’Conner?” I whisper. “What happened in engineering? What is the state of the ship?”

It’s as if I’m not even there however. The cadet confusedly brushes my arm away, continuing in the direction he’d been headed.

I saunter around the bridge in desperation, pulling my hair out; wondering what to do. I move to look over the shoulder of a navigational officer, but I’m not qualified to understand our heading: cursing my rank once again and making a sudden decision I run at an officer by the turbo-lift, tackle him to the ground; then drag him through the sliding doors, commanding for the lift to move immediately.

“Take us to medical,” I shout, without putting too much thought into which section I’m willing to go to next. What I want is to get this officer away from the bridge in the desperate hope of shaking him back to life.

My plan however soon begins to backfire in the strangest of ways. Before I know it the officer has attached his hands to my throat and is strangling me with this crazy look in his eyes. He’s screaming with a frightening sort of anger. And when I say strangling I mean really strangling: actually trying to kill me.

My thumbs are under his hands, I’m pushing against him but he’s leaving me with no choice. I may be of low rank but I’m well experienced in hand to hand combat. I hit him squarely on the chest. Hit him again in the same place with more force and, when he comes at me a third time, kick at his temple to knock him out cold.

In slow motion he slides down the silver wall, crumpling to the floor. I turn to see the doors of the turbo-lift have opened behind me.

Three security officers are blocking my way. “The medical section has been restricted to officers only,” they say. Or at least this is the last thing I hear before being shoved back into the turbo-lift.

“Where am I supposed to go now?!” I appeal as the doors slide shut.

“Unable to comply,” is the lift’s unwelcome response.

I put my head in my hands, once again cursing my low rank. I am cadet 362; a nobody in a ship full of nobodies. I cry out for the lift to take me to the shuttle bay while beside me the officer begins to stir.