With a little more drive and ambition, Chuck Poulson might well have found himself serving as first officer aboard a hyper liner. By the same token, if Cadet Penelope Parker had accepted the amorous advances of the notorious Commander Dickens, she might well have been posted to the Cromwell, the latest Type 53 destroyer.
But with things as they stand, Chuck and Penny find themselves serving together aboard the half derelict space station Orbital One, alongside a motley crew of ‘misfits, slackers and has-beens’.
And that would have been that, but their neatly ordered world is suddenly turned upside down as they find themselves at the centre of intrigue in a plot involving sabotage, larceny and murder. Can Penny redeem herself and put her fledgling career back on track? Can Chuck just muddle through it all with his limbs still attached to his body?
Cut off from outside help, they find themselves propelled to the sharp end of the service and with things not always as they seem, they must negotiate ruthless staff officers, overcome battle hardened marines and outwit inter-stellar crime
Targeted Age Group:: Young adult upwards
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
When I set out to write The Blunt End of the Service, was the first piece of advice I received was ‘Look for inspiration’. After due deliberation I decided on the things I enjoyed the most: Star Trek – that most famous of sci-fi dramas, Lewis, the wonderful detective series set in the beautiful university town of Oxford, and Terry Pratchett, the creator of the amazing Discworld novels.
As a consequence, my tale is… set in space and has detectives. As for the late, great Mr. Pratchett, would that I were able to emulate his extraordinary imagination and gift for writing but alas, some things are not meant to be.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Many of the characters in the book are composites of people I’ve met over the years. Everyone has their little foibles and idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses… and when you get to my age you’ve generally met at least a few that are interesting enough to form the basis of a character. Having said that, I’ve never met a murdering psychopath so as far as that one’s concerned I just had to use my imagination and make everything up.
Senior Cadet Penelope Parker sat on the bench outside Commander Dickens’ office. Twenty two years old, she had a mop of auburn hair which surrounded a slightly freckled but pleasantly featured face. Of medium height, she was blessed with a trim figure that drew many an admiring gaze from her male counterparts.
She was in the final weeks of her fourth year at the academy and like all students she was required to present herself for a formal interview before she flew home for the summer break. It reminded her of her elementary school days when she was ordered to stand outside the principal’s office for some misdemeanor or other. Mr. Hopkins, a law enforcer turned educator, had a well earned reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, though as far as Penny was concerned, the man was just plain mean with borderline sadistic tendencies thrown in. Never one to spare the rod, his favorite expression was, ‘This is going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt me’. He wasn’t wrong, either.
As Penny’s course tutor, Commander Dickens enjoyed a similar exalted position within the educational hierarchy, but whereas you had to be careful what old Hopkins was doing with his cane, you needed to pay more attention to what Commander Dickens was doing with his hands, which tended to wander to places normally regarded as off limits. Cadet Wendy Evans, who was sitting in line ahead of Penny looked at her watch and blew out her cheeks.
“Who’s in there now?” asked Penny.
“Janice Goody,” said Evans. Janice wouldn’t say boo to a goose, thought Penny.
“How long’s she been in there?”
“Oh, a good thirty minutes. Don’t give much for her chances.” Penny nodded her head in agreement. There were only three females on the course which meant that Commander Dickens wasn’t exactly in a target rich environment. He’d go for the easy option, and if there was a soft target amongst them it was Janice Goody.
A few minutes later the door to the commander’s office opened and an ashen faced Janice beat a hasty retreat down the corridor.
“Tunic buttons done up wrong,” noted Evans with a wink, as she got up and headed for the commander’s inner sanctum.
Penny pondered her strategy for the coming interview. Best treat it as a military exercise. A diplomatic stance to begin with, and failing that, maneuver coupled with gradual strategic withdrawal using the lie of the land to best advantage. Satisfied, she waited her turn which came surprisingly quickly, Evans exiting the office with all her buttons fastened up through the correct holes. She gave Penny another wink as she walked by.
“That was quick. How’d it go?” asked Penny.
“No problem,” said Evans flexing her elbow. “Oh, and he said to send the next person in.”
Penny knocked politely and pushed open the door. The commander was bent over the desk, resting his weight on his left arm while rubbing his ribs with the other. There was a pained expression on his face.
“Are you alright, sir?” she asked.
“Oh, fine thanks. Just bumped into the edge of the cabinet. Silly thing to do.”
“If you like, I could come back another time,” Penny said.
“Not at all, not at all,” Dickens replied. “Please take a seat.”
At fifty six years of age, Commander Dickens had spent the whole of his adult life in the service. As a young midshipman he’d forged the reputation of being a bit of a swashbuckler, a hot-shot, a risk taker. They were the qualities that got you noticed by your superiors and Dickens was soon marked for fast tracking through the ranks. It also got him noticed by that certain group of females who are wont to be impressed by a handsome young buck bearing an impressive row of medal ribbons.
All this suited Dickens perfectly and life could not be better. At the age of twenty seven he was the youngest commander in the fleet with the pick of assignments and an even larger pick of the women. If he played his cards right the sky was the limit. Unfortunately, his next move was less than a masterstroke.
There are a lot of things that you can do to advance your military career, but getting caught in flagrante delicto with the base commander’s wife is not one of them. Especially with her daughter taking notes, as it were. Rear Admiral Francis J. Norris was not one to be crossed at the best of times, and in this particular case, not only was he rather less than amused, he was also taking things very personally, which was, on reflection, only to be expected.
Dickens had managed to make a few friends in high places during his meteoric rise, and realizing the gravity of the situation he immediately sought their assistance. Unfortunately, his entreaties fell upon deaf ears. Apart from the fact that no-one fancied tangling with old ‘Razor’ Norris, if Dickens was daft enough to get caught with his pants down in this fashion, he quite obviously wasn’t the man they’d thought. He’d swashbuckled his way into trouble and he’d best swashbuckle his way out of it. Damned bad show all round.
To make matters worse, Rear Admiral Norris was the kind of person to bear grudges for an exceedingly long time. He could have had Dickens drummed out of the service altogether but on learning that Dickens had recently signed up for the full twenty five year commission, he preferred instead to make him suffer for as long as humanly possible.
A charge of ‘Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman’ had cost Dickens one stripe and a separate charge of ‘Disreputable Behavior’ cost him another. He was also relegated to the very bottom of the lieutenants list, which meant his journey back up the ladder was going to take a very long time. Next, Norris turned his eye to postings. It wasn’t something he’d normally bother with but in this case he’d make an exception.
It was surprising just how many unsavory assignments there were when you cared to look. In normal circumstances all young officers were expected to undertake the occasional disagreeable appointment but would generally be rewarded with a more attractive posting next time around. Norris had a good look through all the available berths, finally opting for third officer (out of three) on a sanitation barge running non-stop between the surface and a mining platform in the asteroid belt. Twelve months of that and Dickens found himself transferred to the military transport Roundtree. If he thought his luck had changed, he was in for a rude surprise as he was ranked as twelfth officer (out of twelve), with the captain being Razor Norris’s nephew. Every dirty job came his way, and on a large transport there were always plenty to choose from.
And so it went on. One rotten posting after another. Like any sensible man, Dickens considered resigning his commission but was reliably informed that since the paperwork would have to go through Norris’s office, it would immediately vanish within the system. It would take several months to realize that it was missing and several more to confirm it was lost. After a lengthy search, the errant documents would be officially classified as irretrievable and Dickens would be cordially invited to re-apply, with the absolute certainty of a repeat performance.
Dickens also considered going AWOL, but with Norris on his tail, that could only conceivably end in a lengthy term behind bars. The only consolation for Dickens was that they couldn’t touch his row of medal ribbons, so he was still able to impress the ladies with his exploits. It was the only thing that made his life bearable.
His luck finally changed one January morning some years later when the now Vice Admiral Norris was struck down by a massive heart attack whilst relaxing in the tub in his quarters. He was re-enacting the clash of the Hood and the Bismarck when a he was suddenly seized by agonizing chest pains. He was dead before the Bismarck fired its first salvo. By the time his aides found him, rigor mortis had set in and he was carried out to the waiting ambulance still clutching a plastic battleship in a vice-like grip. At the time, Dickens was stationed on a listening post so far into the depths of space that it took a while for word to filter down to him. Once he’d received the news, digested it and then danced a little celebratory jig, he wasted absolutely no time in blasting off a transfer request, preferably to a post on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, occasional sunshine and most importantly, one that was populated with a reasonable cross section of living, breathing human beings.
Norris’s replacement saw no particular reason to deny the request and gave him the choice of a billet at the Imperian Shipyard or a teaching post at the Space Academy on Fairfax 3. He chose the academy.
On his first day at the academy he donned his new uniform, complete with re-acquired lieutenant commander’s stripe and embarked on his resurrected career. At first it had been great, an exhilarating return to a real life with real people in a real job. But then, after a few months, quite suddenly and without warning, things started to go wrong. At first he couldn’t quite work it out. The problem didn’t seem to lie with the job, his home or the people around him; he was content with all that. It was something else; he felt out of sorts, odd, just not quite right.
Maybe it was some kind of reaction to the past? After all, he’d spent most of the last ten years either frozen half to death on some icy moon, stuck on his own for months on end in the deepest regions of space or up to his arse in crud. Of course he resented the fact that he’d been at the beck and call of all and sundry when he should have been ‘out there’ performing glorious deeds, but at the same time he’d had a decade or so to reflect on the fact that it was just one of those things when Admiral Norris had tweaked his back playing golf and arrived home unexpectedly early. It was just plain, bad luck.
So, it was something else, but what? Then some weeks later he noticed a few grey hairs appearing above his ears. A closer inspection revealed the horrifying truth that he also had the distinct beginnings of a bald spot on the top of his head. Dickens finally realized what had been bothering him; he was no longer a young buck. Middle age had arrived, with a mid-life crisis hard on its heels.
And now, sixteen years later, it still hadn’t gone away. His mid-life crisis had become a permanent fixture and something that he’d come to regard as a friendly companion rather than a burden. Like his fellow sufferers, he still felt young at heart, and he worked very hard at presenting himself as such. He maintained a healthy lifestyle, taking plenty of exercise and eating all the right foods, and soon figured out that what couldn’t be achieved by natural methods could be realized by the occasional visit to the cosmetic surgeon. He regularly scrutinized his face, searching for the beginnings of the next errant wrinkle, any irregularities being swiftly dealt with at Dr. Wellcome’s clinic, which for a price, guaranteed to iron out even the most stubborn of creases. He also kept a close watch on his fine head of hair. Restoring that to its present condition hadn’t come cheap, but as far as he was concerned it was worth every penny and to be fair, it had come with a money back guarantee.
He still yearned for adventure, still lusted for excitement… and he still lusted after the ladies as well. Any lady, as a matter of fact – he really wasn’t fussy any more. Unfortunately, or perhaps providentially, depending on how you looked at it, his position put him squarely in the path of temptation, and like many before him he found it a lot easier to give in to it than try and fight it. Not that he enjoyed a very high success rate, though as everyone knows, if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the lottery. His next ticket was sitting in front of his desk.
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