I looked on with shock. All of a sudden, I had been forgotten. The guards both had their guns outstretch. Their target was Rocko.
“Release the chaplain Rocko,” one of the guards made a half step forward.
“Not a chance in Hell. Now drop your weapons or I’ll slit the chaplain’s throat.”
Several of the other prisoners were moving toward the back of the room where the guards and I were standing, just in front of the door.
“Have you got a shot?” The guard furthest from me asked his companion.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Then take it.”
Without thinking I lunged forward and tackled the closest guard from behind. Another prisoner grabbed him from the front. I yanked the gun from his hands. It was instinct and I immediately regretted it. I was already skating on thin ice after decking the chaplain moments ago. This wasn’t going to do me any good.
“Well done Boyd. You keep them him covered.” Rocko turned his attention to the other guard who was still armed. “Now you call your people. You get someone in here who can negotiate with me.”
“What do you want Rocko?”
“I want justice.”
“Yeah sure ’cause you’re innocent right? Everyone in here is innocent and wants to be set free. It ‘aint happening. You belong in here and you’re not convincing anyone otherwise.”
“I’m not after justice for me. I beat Sergeant Matheson half to death. I don’t deny it. He got what he had coming. This is about my little brother.” He began to raise his voice. “Now call a negotiator!”
I looked down at the gun in my hands. I had to separate myself from all of this. “Sorry, Rocko, but I can’t do this.”
“What are you talking about Boyd?” the mad man screamed.
“You do what you gotta do Lad, but I have to stay out of this one.” I removed the clip from the gun and threw it across the room. Then, ensuring that there was no bullet in the chamber, I thrust the empty gun back into the hands of its owner.”
Several prisoners started toward me, their faces contorted in angry scowls.
“Listen” I said with raised voice. “This is between Rocko and the Staff. It’s best we all stay out of it. It’ll go easier for all of us.”
“Leave him be,” Rocko called out. “This is not about him. Boyd is nothin’.” He turned his attention back toward the guards. “Now drop your weapons, get the radio and call someone.”
“That’s not necessary Rocko,” the guard replied. “This room is under surveillance. Someone will already be on their way.”
“Then let’s just sit tight until he gets here.”
* * *
Just as the guard had promised, we only had to wait a minute or two before we heard a loud knock on the door.
“I’m here to negotiate,” muffled voice said from the other side. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” Rocko screamed. “You get in here.”
The door opened slowly and a tall man in civilian getup strode cautiously in.
“How are you doing Rocko?”
“I’ll be just fine once my demands are met.”
The man began to move in Rocko’s direction.
“I’m Dave. They sent me in to talk.”
“Good. Here it is then. I want you to go to the secure archives of the ESS Gagarin. Find the bridge recorder from June Fifteenth 2112.”
“That’s an unusual request for a prisoner whose holding a knife to a man’s throat. What are you hoping to get from this Rocko?”
“You’ll find evidence that my little brother was wrongfully convicted of killing two hundred civilians.”
“I can understand that. If my brother had been punished for something he didn’t do I’d be pretty upset too, but I can tell you right now that nothing is going to happen while you’re threatening a man’s life. You let the chaplain go and we’ll talk about it.”
“Not on your life Simon. I let him go and you dump me straight into solitary and throw away the key. I’ll never get any justice for my brother. No the chaplain stays with me until I get some satisfaction.”
Simon took a long slow breath. “Well if that’s your final word. I’ll take your request to my superiors but I don’t think they’ll go for it. Trust me, your best option is to give up the hostage.”
“I said no,” Rocko screamed, the twitching of his right arm causing a trickle of Mike’s blood to form around the edge of his knife. “Go and deliver my message.”
Simon nodded, turned on his heal and headed out the door.”
“He’s right you know,” the guard who was still armed said. “They’ll never give you what you want while you have Mike. This room is equipped with Gas. They can pump this whole place full of an aneasthetic that acts so quick you’ll be unconscious before you can even smell it. We’ll all go out together. By the time we wake up this’ll all be over.”
“You think I’m stupid don’t you,” Rocko said. “You think I don’t know that. Hell if I can get a knife smuggled in here in a Christmas gift you don’t think I can take care of the gas pumps?”
“We’ll just see then won’t we.”
The guard relaxed his stance. He must have known that he could not get a decent shot of Rocko without risking Mike’s life, and the minute he tried to move into another position he’ d get mobbed by the other inmates. He lowered his gun but kept it firmly in his hand.
The waiting game had begun.
* * *
I began to pace the rec room nervously. Less than an hour ago I had been an angry man full of aggression. Now, all I wanted was to be back in my cell minding my own business. I had allowed myself to believe that because I’d made one bad mistake, I was now one of the bad guys, and my path was firmly set. Witnessing Rocko’s behaviour tonight had shaken me up. I wasn’t like him. I didn’t want to become like him. There was still good in me and I would force it back to the surface. At that moment I determined to change my attitude. I would be rehabilitated. Somehow, I’d find a way to redeem myself. I would have to survive tonight first though. This was turning out to be one lousy Christmas Eve.
We didn’t have to wait long before the staff tried to gas the room as the guard had warned. I heard the tell-tale click click click that indicated a change in the environmental systems. I instinctively held me breath – though I knew it wouldn’t help. Sooner or later I’d have to take in some air and the moment I did the gas would claim me. Might as well get it over and done with, I thought. I took in a deep breath. Nothing happened. I realised that nobody else had fallen unconscious either. Something was wrong.
I looked over a Rocko. He was smiling. “So much for your gas buddy.”
“What did you do?” another inmate named Jackson asked.
“I have a friend on the outside who works maintenance on this facility sometimes. He sabotaged the ventilation system. The pipes are sealed. They’re not getting any gas in here. Maybe now they’ll start taking me seriously.
“Don’t count on it,” one of the guards said.
* * *
The mood in the rec room remained tense after the failed attempt to gas us unconscious. I couldn’t help but wonder what the next move would be. Surely the staff were out there thinking through a way to end this. They would never make deals with Rocko, not while he had a hostage.
I paced the room, back and forth. Eventually I made my way toward Rocko. He still held the knife firmly at Mike’s throat. I was impressed that his arm hadn’t tired yet. Mike’s face was covered in perspiration. If I wasn’t mistaken, there was also the evidence of a few years under his eyes. Mike wasn’t a military officer, he was just a prison chaplain. He probably hadn’t been trained to deal with this kind of situation.
“Sorry for hitting you before,” I said weakly to the chaplain. “It was a mistake.”
“Don’t mention it,” Mike rasped. There was almost a little forced humour in his voice.
I turned my focus up to Rocko’s face. “And I’m sorry about the whole gun thing before. I just didn’t want to be involved. You understand right Rocko?”
The big man nodded. “No hard feelings. It doesn’t make any difference.”
“You do realise that they won’t hesitate to kill you if given the chance right.”
“I don’t care. It aint’ about me anymore Boyd. I’m doing this for my kid brother. That’s it.”
“So what’s the deal with your brother anyway?”
“Hayden was a junior gunnery officer on the Gregarin. Real promising career ahead of him too. They were out doing war exercises out past Jupitor. It was serious stuff with live ammunition. Some civilian ships strayed into the clash zone. Their own stupid fault but they were there. Sergeant Metheson was XO of the ship. He was running the exercise and he gave my brother to coordinates to fire. Hayden entered them correctly, but they were wrong. When he fired the torpedo, it destroyed the civilian ship, killing three hundred people.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was unthinkable.
“Matheson had been drinking the night before. I was working security on the same ship. I’d seen him hit the booze when he thought no one was watching. Anyway, Matheson gave Hayden the wrong numbers. The disaster was his fault, not Hayden’s. He framed my little brother; falsified reports, made the odd threat. He even modified the bridge logs to make it look like he’d given the correct coordinates.
The computer Tech. on the ship, Lieutenant Fiona Donaldson figured it out. She tried to explain it in Hayden’s trial, but Matheson got to her too. He made up this whole story of how she’d made a pass at him. He’d turned her down so she was out to get him – a jilted lover wanting revenge. She was a good woman and he destroyed her reputation.”
“So that’s when you beat the hell out of him.”
“Yeah. Maybe I should have kept my cool and tried to get justice for Hayden – but I was so angry. He got what he deserved.”
“Really? Did he deserve to die? Would Hayden have been proud of that?”
Rocko shrugged. “I dunno.”
“And what about this? What would Hayden think about his big brother taking an innocent preacher hostage. I can’t imagine this is what he wants.”
“He deserves to be set free.”
“And how is this going to accomplish that Rocko?”
“Every ship has backup files that can’t be sabotaged. Matheson pulled such a number on everybody that they never thought it necessary to check them, but I know if they look they’ll find the evidence that will prove my brother’s innocence.”
I shrugged. “Well I just hope you don’t get us all killed trying to get it found.”
* * *
My conversation with Rocko had left me feeling cold. I understood the feelings that were motivating what he was doing – but it was wrong. It wouldn’t help. This siege had to end. The staff wouldn’t put up with it much longer. It felt like we’d been awake all night. I looked up up at the clock on the wall. It was after midnight – so it was Christmas day. Certainly this would be one that I’d never forget.
I’d been thinking about the environmental systems. I’d been an engineer’s mate on a starship for a good portion of my career. The environmental systems in this prison were not so dissimilar to those on a battleship. The simplest most obvious way that Rocko’s friends may have sabotaged the system would have been to close the manual valves on the pipes into this room. I surmised that if I shut down the primary air intake, the computer would try to automatically release all other pipes, re-routing to compensate. It was a safety feature. The computer had the ability to release even those valves that had been closed manually under those conditions. It might take the staff hours to find the offending valve, but the computer would do it straight away.
Once the pipes were open, they’d be able to pump their sleeping gas into the rec room and end the situation.
I began pacing the room again. I didn’t want to draw attention to what I was attempting. I slowly circled toward the environmental control embedded in the wall. I stood in front of the pipe with my back to the wall. Discreetly, I reached back and began to turn the dial that would close the pipe and trigger the emergency response. It was a long-shot and not really very logically thought out – after all if it were this simple the staff would surely have figured out a way to do it themselves by now – but it was the best I could come up with. The dial was turned. It was done.
I continued pacing the room – waiting.
About thirty seconds later, I heard the clack-clack-clack again. I could hear the rush of air coming from the vents in the ceiling. This was it. I took a small breath and fell to the floor.
* * *
When I awoke I was back in my cell. The guards must have spent all night dragging unconscious inmates from the rec room to their beds. I was worried that the other prisoners would blame me for what happened. It was possible that someone had noticed me near the environmental systems. Nobody said anything, but I was sure some of them suspected. It didn’t matter.
Nobody saw Rocko for a week after the incident. He’d been sent into solitary confinement.”
I spent my days after that in contemplation. I’d been impacted in a strong way by the experience, but I wasn’t quite sure how. I knew I needed to respond in some way, but I couldn’t figure out how.
About two weeks after Christmas Eve I had another visitor. He was brought to my cell. I was surprised to see that it was Mike – the chaplain.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. It seemed a stupid way to start the conversation but I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m fine. Rocko didn’t do me any permanent harm.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I wanted to come and thank you for talking to him. I think you almost got through to him you know. You’re a natural. Perhaps when you get out of here you should think about becoming a counsellor. You’re good at talking to people.”
I laughed. “Not exactly my scene Lad.”
Mike smiled back at me. “Oh,” he said. “I almost forgot. After the incident was over I did some checking. We managed to get the backup files that Rocko was talking about. He was right – they proved his brother’s innocence. Hayden was released two days ago.”
“That’s brilliant,” I said. “But I’m a little surprised. You didn’t have to do that. You didn’t owe Rocko any favours. Why, after all he did to you, did you go out of your way to help him?”
Mike shrugged. “I guess it was the spirit of Christmas.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mike looked at me with seriousness in his eyes. “I’ll explain it to you, if you promise not to hit me this time.”
I laughed – a little guiltily. “You have my word chaplain.”
“Well, it’s like this. I see all people as valuable. I believe that God loves all of us, including the ones in jail. He sent his own son to suffer and die on earth for us as a Christmas gift. If God considered Rocko worth dying for, then how could I value him any less?”
I nodded thoughtfully.
“Anyway, I’ve got places to go. I just wanted to say Hi. See you around Cameron.”
The chaplain walked away from my cell. I had more to think about than ever.
* * *
The room was silent as Boyd finished speaking. It seemed that everybody had been quite taken with his tale.
“Anyway,” he said. “I should be doing more working and less talking. I didn’t mean to go off on such a tangent.”
“No, don’t apologise,” Laura said. “It was quite a story.”
“So, that was when you decided to become a military chaplain?” Neal asked.
“Oh no Lad. That was just the first step of a very long journey to faith for me. I did make a personal commitment to God while I was still on the inside though. After I was released I made the decision that I wanted to earn my commission back and serve as a chaplain. There were a lot of officers out there who just needed somebody to understand what they were going through. People like Rocko. People like me. I wanted to be the support to others that I’d never had.”
Boyd took a sip of water. He’d been talking far too much tonight. He surveyed the pile of decorations they had made. The work had gone very well. “I think we should be proud of ourselves. Look at all of this.”
Neal stood. “I think I need a break. I’m going to get some fresh air.”
“Good idea,” Cameron said. “I’ll join you.”
Together they left the room, descended the wooden stairs and wandered out into the night. The sky was clear and the stars were bright.
“You know it’s after midnight now don’t you Cameron.” Neal said, looking at his watch.
“Yes, I suppose it must be. Merry Christmas Neal.”
The man smiled. “Merry Christmas Cameron.”