It was during that Summer when we all got caught up in the fervour of protecting Earth from aliens when I almost lost my life.
Like many young people I rushed to sign up with one of the various private companies that were advertising at the tube stations and in the back of adult magazines; I think I saw the advertisement at Waterloo station but I’ll admit it might have been in Abseiling Bukkake Nuns. It doesn’t really matter now.
A lot of the companies went bust before they were formed, were scams, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got lucky. The "L. Ron Hubbard Body Thetan Defence Force" company, as incredible as it seems, actually had nothing to do with the crackpot Scientology "religion" and had been simply named after the seven founding members. I actually met Terry L. and Montague Thetan when I applied and we all had a good laugh about the legal challenges and threatening letters from John Travolta at the time. Later I would discover that Montague laughed at everything because he had been dropped on his head as a baby, three times as an adolescent, and twice the day before I first met him. His laugh, like the rash on his lips, was infectious though and I still remember him fondly.
I underwent extensive training – along with seventeen other accepted recruits – in alien warfare on the new-fangled Space Invaders machine at the cafe beneath company headquarters and was introduced to the experience of what space travel would be like through several sessions of heroin-high ‘Pin The Tail On The Donkey’ games. And it wasn’t just physical testing; every week we were subjected to rigorous question and answer challenges at The White Stag. On the Wednesday when we finished third and won a bottle of Pinot Noir we were told we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
We were split into crews of six at random and assigned to one of the company’s three spacecraft. I had never been as proud in my life as the moment I was assigned second-in-command of the Orbital Space Fighter (OSF) Marilu Henner (Taxi was popular at the time if you remember). It felt like forever but in reality it was the day after the pub quiz when we climbed aboard our vessels and awaited the signal to leave Earth behind and begin our six month criss-crossing patrols of the Van Allen belt (the most likely injection point of the vile otherworldly creatures who were rumoured to be planning an interplanetary invasion). I had cycled to the launch pad with my mouth open and the butterflies in my stomach and wasp wedged in the back of throat were a cause of concern as I listened to the countdown over the radio. OSF Tom Selleck was scheduled first to lift off but the Acceleration Spring failed to uncoil. An inauspicious start to our mission. Two minutes later and OSF Linda Carter very nearly successfully became the first of our small fleet into space. Sadly, the rockets didn’t fire correctly and it ended up reaching a top height of four hundred feet before returning to Earth at the speed of gravity. We learned afterwards that Tom Selleck‘s cone penetrated the rapidly descending Linda Carter in the rear and a messy explosion resulted.
You would think that we would have aborted our own launch and that we would have been terrified in light of what had just occurred but in truth I was busy choking and the rest of my crew were drunk on a crate of smuggled-in imported Belgian beer. So it was that at six minutes past ten on that slightly-overcast Thursday morning Marilu Henner leapt from the waste ground behind the Tesco superstore and forty minutes and several panicky manual adjustments to the flight plan to avoid various other private companies’ spacecraft later found herself in a stable-ish low Earth orbit.
I should introduce the crew:
- Dave "Moustachio" Jenkins, English like myself, was the crew captain on the trip. He got his nickname from his insistence on only dating women with moustaches. He said it showed they had enough testosterone in their bodies to be able to handle him.
- Juan "Wang-Spangler" Cortez was half-Spanish and half-filthy pervert. He’d chosen his own nickname he said because he liked to "spangle" his "wang". We were naive and didn’t know what he meant. He often asked if we wanted to know what he meant and we always said no. We were naive but not stupid. Wang-Spangler was the chef which, with hindsight, might account for various gastric illnesses I’ve suffered from in the past couple of decades.
- Terry "Four Fingers" Johnson, our navigator from just inside the borders of Wales, was the singularly most unlucky person I had and still have ever met. He got his nickname from the number of fingers he possessed. In total. Including one in place of the big toe on his left foot.
- Maria "Eve" Evagova was the only woman aboard. Hailing from one of the Balkan states her task was to look pretty and help to repopulate the Earth should our mission to protect it fail yet we survive. The scalding hot coffee accidentally tipped into her face on the first day of training and the complete sterility that the whole crew experienced in the first few minutes of exposure to the Van Allen radiation belts put paid to all of that so she was assigned as communications officer instead.
- Leo "Texas Tea" Christopher was American and our security/weapons "expert". He actually came from Georgia but was incredibly oily, hence his nickname, and we joked that his face was one large acne spot with outbreaks of skin. That tended to anger him, unsurprisingly, and he would sometimes wave around his pistol, occasionally by the right end, threatening us until we apologised.
And there was me, of course, who also had a nickname which you can assume was "Adonis".
That first day in near-outer space was not as strange or disconcerting as we’d been led to presume it would be. This was largely due to clumsy, one-sided packing in the cargo hold that had put us into a centrifugal, centripetal, or centipedal spin (I always get those three confused; which is the one with a hundred legs again?) accurately simulating Earth’s gravity. If we’d looked out of the solitary portal we might have gotten sick from seeing Earth, the stars, and the numerous other spacecraft up there flying around as if in a washing machine but luckily we’d left it bricked up. We spent those first few hours checking that everything was working (not even close) and learning to adjust to the slowly-diminishing gravitational force. Wang-Spangler discovered – after thirty minutes alone – that the sponge-lined absorbent space trousers we were supposed to wear in the "bathroom" were no match for the extendable hose from the vacuum cleaner. We celebrated this discovery by opening a bottle of champagne. Four Fingers couldn’t hold his flute correctly and spilt half his drink onto the radar, shorting it out. We laughed and punched his kidneys until he lost consciousness.
By day three we were in a state of weightlessness and starting to get used to the various tasks assigned. There were buttons to press, switches to flick, last-second manoeuvres to perform to avoid other vessels, and console edges upon which to affix sponges to stop the spiralling number of head wounds and corneal scratches. We had also learnt that gravy and environmental sensors didn’t mix and started to manually adjust the various gas flows and filtration mechanisms depending on whether the consensus of opinion was we were light-headed through carbon-dioxide poisoning or light-headed through oxygen-poisoning. The portal provided stunning views of aurorae and the only entertainment on board since we’d neglected to think that far ahead.
At the end of that first week Texas Tea went temporarily insane, detached Wang-Spangler from the vacuum cleaner, ejected him from the "bathroom", and tried to barricade himself in instead. I was up front at the time finishing off a mask for Eve to wear so that startled jumps every time she entered a room would reduce and only heard about it afterwards but Four Fingers managed to wedge his left leg in the door of the "bathroom" just as Texas Tea tried to slam it shut. Trapped there he was subject to a terrifying calf and shin attack with a safety razor. After the globules of blood splashing on his face brought Texas Tea back to reality and the situation had been defused we were forced to amputate the hacked limb. That’s when he became known as Three Fingers.
Two days later and the rehearsal for our tribute to Oklahoma! was interrupted by an urgent radio message from a neighbouring spacecraft run by a group calling themselves "The Confederation of West German Butchers". They thought they’d spotted an alien and launched a bowling ball weapon in the general area but it turned out to be a lump of pig gristle on the viewport. However, the bowling ball was on an intercept course with the Marilu Henner and they were awfully sorry. The captain told us all not to panic and to get ready to fire the thrusters when the bowling ball rocketed through the centre of the recently-constructed stage. Three Fingers took the shot full in the face leaving us all aghast. Especially him. As luck would have it the initial puncture point in the ship’s skin was immediately plugged by a hardback copy of Zen And The Art Of Machine Code Programming For The Zilog Z80A Processor that had tried to make a mad dash for freedom out the newly-formed gap, while a sponge on the pressure cooker door prevented what would have been the exit point. Three Fingers, miraculously, had survived albeit with no upper jaw, cheekbone, ear, or eye on the right side of his head. That’s when we started to call him Moonface.
It was a bleak and nauseating moment. We’d only just got used to Eve’s permanent markered grin and now Moonface was hopping around the ship with his head flopping left and right. We’d run out of bandages during the pre-sponge days of our flight but I hit upon the idea of stopping the excessive bleeding by embedding the bowling ball in his face; it was, after all, exactly the right shape.
There we were, a sorry bunch: maniacally-staring Eve, bulbous, lacquered Moonface, Moustachio, Texas Tea, and myself, with just the sound of the vacuum on full power from the "bathroom" to indicate that Wang-Spangler was dealing with the crisis in his own way. Those of us not physically disfigured looked at each other, nodded once, and silently decided to abort the mission and go home. At that same instant there was a dull thump from behind the door none of us wanted to open followed immediately by silence. The Marilu Henner rocked slightly. I don’t know whether Wang-Spangler switched the cleaner to ‘Blow’ on purpose but he hadn’t seemed suicidal.
We were depressed and becoming more so from the smell emanating from behind the closed-and-never-to-be-opened door when I realised the wiring from the control panel that controlled the descent thrusters had passed through the panelling that had been hit by the bowling ball. The captain couldn’t take it anymore and said he was going to manually fire the rockets. I’m not sure why he decided to crawl down the vent to the engine room – perhaps we’d lost more oxygen in the accident than we’d realised – nor why he stripped naked and greased himself down on Texas Tea’s hair – the vents were large enough to walk down – and I’m not certain why Eve thought it best to meet him down there since she knew nothing about the propulsion systems. It is fairly clear that she startled him though and that’s why he accidentally jettisoned the pair of them to a blood-boiling death.
That just left the escape parachutes – of which there were two – and the three of us. Texas Tea suggested Rock – Paper – Scissors but I pointed out that was unfair to Moonface who always chose scissors for obvious reasons. I needn’t have bothered though because Moonface suddenly started to sob through his one good eye and, through a series of grunts and pointing indicated that he couldn’t face returning to Earth in his state and would wait for us to arrange a rescue. I think we all knew that there would be no rescue but the solemn, touching, Bruckheimer moment was spoiled by Texas Tea leaping up, floating down the cabin with the two parachutes in his arms, thrusting one at me, and yelling "Let’s get outta here before those crazy German bastards think we fired the cap’n at them and shoot back!"
We escaped in our heat- and pressure-resistant polyester spacesuits and fell to Earth, quickly at first so that the Marilu Henner shrunk and vanished rapidly, and then slowing and glowing as the thicker atmosphere began to test the workmanship of Taiwan’s finest sweatshops. It was quiet and beautiful looking at the curvature of the Earth gradually flattening out and there was a momentary flash above and to the right that might have been a silent explosion. Maybe the Germans had been startled by Eve too. And maybe Moonface had slumped forward and hit his head on the auto-destruct knob. There’s no way to tell for sure now but I’ve always referred to him as Clumsy Oaf since.
At the first opportunity Texas Tea deployed his parachute while I decided to enjoy the feeling of freefall for a little while longer. He gave the thumbs up as I hurtled past him and seconds later died in a barrage of ball bearings, car alloys, bricks, and stuffed animals ejected by various companies’ circling craft. I felt calmer knowing that it was his parachute that I had drawn the giant alien motif on during a period of boredom and enjoyed the rest of the ride down to solid ground.
Back on Earth, just a few miles from company headquarters as it turned out, I lay in the midst of a small grass fire started by my searingly hot suit and tried to breathe in standard gravity for the first time in over a week. I vowed never to venture into space again and waited for company directors Thetan, Hubbard, and Force to turn up in their Mini Cooper. Sadly it was hit by a bowling ball meteorite at several times the speed of sound and I ended up recovering alone and making my own way back home on the night bus.