Author Paul Blake has graciously shared one of his short stories with us (a sci-fi comedy,) and allowed me to publish it here. You can find more about him at the end.
The Rezal Principle
The mop bucket weaved along the smooth, white corridor; like a regular in a spaceport bar, drunkenly crossing the dancefloor to reach the toilets in time; the small plastic wheels turning in opposing circles as the bucket was pushed along by the mop handle; the erratic path leaving a slalom trail of grey tracks of water as it splashed up against the sides of the bucket with each course correction. Stoddy Rezal, Custodian Engineer (Second Class), lost in his own thoughts, was oblivious to the spillages. Unkempt in a dirty grey coverall, with smears of grease and dirt across the legs and back, he looked younger than his real age of thirty-four; the patchy beard and shiny, oily face making people think he was barely out of his teens. His mind on far more important things than the cleanliness of the, usually, spotless and gleaming corridor leading to the elevator for the Custodian deck.
On other ships, they have custodian robots to do this work. He thought, as a scowl flashed across his face. I should be preparing for the interview tomorrow. Not that I’ll get it. No one has ever heard of anyone moving from ‘The Custards’ to crew, it just doesn’t happen. Man, I even failed the test for Second Class four times. How does anyone remember which chemicals react violently to each other? On the job sheet it tells you which ones to use, why should I have to know it? He asked himself. The air purifiers cleared the examination deck after two days, just fine, the Examination Officer’s face was a picture though: nostrils flaring trying to identify a familiar, but rare smell; the panic in his face as his brain finally recognised the peculiar, sweet aroma of the deadly concoction; the shrill “Everyone Out!” as he covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve and hit the button to start the industrial strength air vacuums. Obviously, I must not be the only person to have done that or the safety measures would not have been already in place. Stoddy thought with self-justification. The reaction afterwards was extreme: twenty days in the brig, amongst the malingerers and alien captives. They all had a great laugh at my expense when I finally told them what I was there for. His expression turned sour as he thought of their mocking faces and the hysterical cackles surrounding him; the loud, deep guffaws from the Centuri ape-creature, once the story had been translated into its bestial language, pissed him off the most. Like that stinking brute had ever had a bath! Let alone touched heavy duty solvent for removing brain matter from the teleporter chambers. Stoddy grimaced at the memory of the creature’s furry jowls wobbling as its monkey snot dripped uncontrollably from its pig-like snout.
He reached the end of the corridor and absent-mindedly pressed the button to call the elevator, the door whooshed open at a speed that still disarmed him, even after fourteen years of being on board the space freighter HXN8435. Most ships have names that suit their purpose, not this piece of junk, inspirational names such as Intrepid or Endeavour for the ships specialising in exploration and discovering new worlds; or Onslaught or Dreadnought for the warships. Not HXN8435, which sounds like a serial number for a portable vidiscreen. However, when I get a crew position I’ll be able to apply for positions on other, better ships, and ones with more suitable names. This time it will be different, I’m sure. Stoddy told himself as he entered the small room, reaching for the “Go” button; he tried to psyche himself up for tomorrow. It’s an interview, not a test, and everyone says I’m very personable and affable, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I wonder what section they’ll put me into? I’d love to be part of the Scouting team, the first ones on new, unexplored planets; or protecting the Captain and his officers as a vital cog of the Security team, as they teleport into hostile environments on rescue missions. As he was thinking these thoughts, there was a small part of his brain trying to urgently tell Stoddy something important, something vital he had missed. It would even be pretty cool being even part of the Engineering team, messing with the warp drive and giving the ship an extra 10% to escape from pirates and unfriendly aliens. Just as he pressed the button, that nagging voice finally got through. This isn’t the elevator; it’s the ship’s airlock! Stoddy automatically grabbed for the handle next to the button, as the door opposite him slowly began to open and the air in the room was sucked out into space.
‘Captain, there’s an unauthorised airlock release on the Environmental Deck.’ Systems Engineer (1st Class) Lomax said with the emotional detachment typical of his species. Lomax was from the humanoid-feline species Panthera Uncia; his fur was grey with silver specks and black teardrop shaped markings. This gave him a regal look; which along with the species’ characteristic aloof nature meant Lomax was a big hit with the females on board the freighter.
‘Thank you, Lomax, can you scan to see who initiated it?’ Captain Guthren asked annoyed at the interruption to her daily schedule. Captain Majoriie Guthren was human; which isn’t too surprising as most spaceship captains are human. There appears to be a glass ceiling for non-human species trying to reach a certain rank and it is a hotly contested issue amongst Equal Rights for All Species (ERAS) activists. Guthren came from an impoverished colony on the planet Nacrao, where, due to her impressive test scores as a child she was selected to join the space fleet. The whole colony raised funds in order to pay for her journey to the Fleet Training planet of Kuater; a fact she is constantly grateful for and still sends a sizeable chunk of her pay back to the colony in appreciation. She is almost eighty-five years old and reaching the stage in life where she is looking to start a family and leave the stressful world of space transportation behind her; other officers on the Command deck had noted how in the past few years she had started to take more care on her appearance: her long, golden hair was now brushed and braided instead of just being roughly tied back and she was finally using cosmetics to complement and enhance her facial features rather than being applied like a young girl accessing her mother’s makeup collection for the first time.
‘It appears to be a Custodial Engineer, ma’am,’ Lomax replied. ‘A Stoddy Rezal, Second Class Engineer’
‘Another Custodial Engineer?’ Captain Guthren said with bemusement. ‘That’s the third Custard in five months that has tried to commit suicide via an airlock.’
’According to his bio: you’re interviewing this Rezal for a crew position tomorrow.’ Lomax said after consulting the ship’s computer. Stoddy’s face appeared on the main display screen of the Command deck, along with a very short bullet pointed list of his ‘achievements’. The day Stoddy’s updated bio photo was taken – the photos are updated every five years – he’d just finished recovering from a dose of radiation poisoning; brought on by cleaning too close to the ship’s powercore, after an unknown member of the Engineering crew had removed the warning signs as a prank; his pallor complexion and patchy hair loss was shown in all its glory on the massive screen.
‘Well, I can’t see that going too well for him.’ Captain Guthren joked sardonically. ‘Alright, shut it down.’ She ordered, still wondering why, out of all the occupations and roles on the freighter the Custodians were the most inclined to try to end their own lives. At least this one is using the airlock, instead of trying to kill themselves by sabotaging the ship and risking everyone’s life, like the last one. She thought, shuddering at the memory of how close they came to doing so. The Mechanical crew certainly earned their money that day, noticing and fixing the damage to the shielding system before we entered that asteroid field.
‘Yes ma’am, commencing airlock shutdown procedure,’ Lomax replied. ‘Airlock will close in thirty seconds.’ He pressed a few buttons on the control panel in front of him; his hands moving with a natural grace; like a classical pianist caressing the ivory keys of their grand piano.
Stoddy, silently screaming for help, eyes bulging in panic, looked around him frantically for a way to close the airlock door, the flashing red light of the compartment hindering his attempts; the wind tearing at his clothes, trying to pull him through the increasing gap at the bottom of the airlock compartment door; his knuckles white as he clasped the cold metal handled fiercely for his life.
Where’s the emergency stop button? Where? Where? Where? It should be next to the start button, surely? I’m going to die! He screamed to himself with terror. The detached part of Stoddy’s brain, however, made a mental note to bring the placement of the button issue up at the next ship’s safety briefing, along with airlocks that look like elevators. The mop bucket upended itself, spilling its bubbly, dirty water over the floor and thrust its way towards the gap. The metal bucket buckled as it hit the opening, too tight for it to pass; the welded seams burst and it flattened and flew in space, bubbles and a stream of water trailing behind. Stoddy saw a sign through his clenched-up eyes on the wall to his left, blinking to clear the tears as the pressure around built to intolerable levels, he read “Emergency Stop” and saw the glowing red button below, the glow diminished by the red lights blinking from the ceiling. He stretched out his hand towards the button, it was nowhere near, it was then he saw the mop handle in the same hand. It took him a moment to realise what it was. Why have I still got this? He asked himself and then remembered the mantra from his basic training: ‘A Custodian is nothing without his mop. Always keep your mop close. A mop is a Custard’s best friend.’ Repeated ad nauseum in daily and end of shift briefings throughout Stoddy’s career; custodians encouraged to sleep with their mops, to hold them tight and hug them as you would a child woken up from a nightmare. Stoddy drew the line at naming his mop though, unlike some of his colleagues.
He reached out with the mop in his hand, the wind threatening to tear it from his grasp. Nothing will make me lose my mop. Stoddy said to himself with a determination that surprised him. The mop head brushed the button, the wet strands of wool leaving a greasy streak across the wall. Stoddy’s other hand, gripped to the airlock handle, anchoring him in place, started to loosen as Stoddy’s oxygen levels dropped and he became weaker in the decompressed atmosphere of the chamber.
Just one more try. He thought, raising the mop a final time, like a medieval knight preparing for their ultimate joust. He thrust the mop out towards the button, the sudden action caused his grip on the airlock handle to fail and he followed his mop towards the button at speed. The mop head impacted the wall six inches to the right of the button and the sudden stop caused Stoddy’s body to rotate away from the button, towards the widening gap of the airlock door. He could see the dark, emptiness of space beyond the ship reaching out to him as he slammed into the door face first. He felt his nose crumple against the smooth, metallic surface; he saw his blood stream out of the gap below him and uselessly scrambled for something to hold onto to prevent the rest of him following. No, no, no, I don’t want to die, not like this, please someone help me! I don’t want to die. He pleaded. Suddenly, the door shut with impressive speed, the gap disappearing as the shutdown procedure finally kicked in. Air rushed in through the vents as Stoddy collapsed to the floor in a mess of blood; his mouth open wide, gasping for oxygen like a goldfish out of their bowl and hugging his mop tight to his body; crying and sobbing like a child who’d lost their favourite teddy in a galactic shopping mall.
‘Airlock shutdown procedure complete, Captain.’ Lomax said mechanically.
‘Thank you, Lomax, any news on our suicidal custodian?’ Captain Guthren queried, with interest.
‘It appears that he failed in his attempt, ma’am.’ Lomax replied.
‘Excellent, have him checked over by the Medical crew and taken to Psyche for evaluation.’ Captain Guthren ordered. ‘Oh, and cancel that interview for tomorrow too.’
Paul Blake, the author, is considering writing more adventures for old Stoddy. I for one look forward to that, don’t you?
Paul has a whole list of other free stories over on his blog here, a short story collection here (which I gave a solid almost five stars), and his twitter is here. Thanks for sharing, Paul!