Al is a softly-spoken fellow who seems to enjoy quietly bucking trends. I can't tell whether this is because he genuinely believes that everyone else is incorrect about something, or because he just wants to see if he can, but either way, if there's a different path to be trodden somewhere, you can bet Al's already halfway down it.
The dolphin that was seemingly purchased purely to annoy Lori has - somehow - been turned into a multi-million credit enterprise. It has been outfitted with sumptuous rooms, a galley (serving fresh, not reconstituted, food) and every possible luxury you can imagine. My room aboard The Pearl Diver is furnished with every item you'd expect to see in a Terrestrial hotel room, a fully-fitted self-cleaning bathroom, even soft, fluffy towels and a deep, cosy bathrobe. The decor is dark and muted, soft silks and velvets in forest green and deep, midnight blues and the entire room is designed to pull your focus to the window which takes up the whole wall.
The window can be used either as a giant viewscreen (which can show anything from old Earth movies to landscape scenes to brief educational courses on almost any subject), an info and communication panel or as a colour-augmented view of what's outside at that very moment. I spend a long time looking at Space through different lenses, playing around with non-visual light filters, "non-Doppler" viewers and eventually settle on a setting that gently brightens and augments the various cosmic wonders that stream past my "porthole".
Each night we are aboard, we are served an exquisite, freshly prepared (though I have no idea by whom) meal which is planned according to a broad theme and which can range from finger buffets to hours-long Romanesque feasts. Dawg frequently joins us for these meals, making no secret of his delight when "Spiced Stews and Sundries from the 20th Century" is the theme of the night.
The Pearl Diver also features a spa, a bar, a zero-grav workout room and an automated tailors which can produce bespoke clothing in any style and made from almost any fabric in a handful hours. I indulge myself in there a few times, making various experimental outfits that grow increasingly risquee, dabble in underwear for a while and even turn out a fairly decent approximation of Kharma's Shirt Against Humanity. Eventually I settle for a series of tight, soft leggings, vests and wraps which feel far more comfortable and appropriate in this curious environment than the coldly clinging flight-suit that is - after a few days - consigned to a pile on an arm chair.
After the first few days of solitude, where I emerge from my stateroom only to eat and swim in the spa (and fuck around with the clothes thing), I find I am slowly unwinding. It is becoming easier to deal with my thoughts - or to even have them - and I find I am increasingly curious about Al (and this ludicrous vessel) who, until now, has been mostly a quiet enigma, easily overshadowed by his teammates. Eventually, on an evening when I am particularly missing the Vulture, I do not return to my room after a meal (whose theme was Post-Earth First Settlement Classics from the 31st Century - each course inspired by a different system settled; each dish served with a little informative card about the recipe's history) but, instead, pad along the carpeted corridor to the flight deck, to where I find Al in a fully-reclining leather chair, cigar in one hand, can of beer in the other.
"Evening, Socks," he says quietly, his Old-London accent softer and more gentle than Karma's, "Was wondering when you'd make your way up here. Take a seat, fancy a drink? Here - get a blanket from the rack next to the door; sometimes gets chilly in here."
I shake my head - still needing a moment or two extra to process every new luxury aboard this ship - chuckle a little and grab a blue-and-red tartan blanket from the indicated rack. It is like the one my mother would wrap around me when I grew tired as a kid on the Tourist Trap runs. It is enormously comforting, smells vaguely of expensive, floral detergent, and I tug it around my shoulders before sliding into a large leather armchair opposite Al's.
"This vessel, Al... seriously, what the fuck?"
Al smiles, reaches for a beer, opens it, and passes it to me. I suck the small head of froth from the top while I wait for him to gather himself to answer.
"What you need to understand, Socks, is that there is more than one way to skin a cat. It strikes me that the rest of the A-Team work far too hard for their riches. Why go to all that bother when you can live like this and make a fortune with your feet up, beer in hand, belly full of good, good food?"
I ponder the point for a moment, a companionable silence settling between us as we sip our drinks and Al waits for me to reply. "Because," I finally offer, "This isn't interesting."
"Aah," replies Al, "Maybe not at the moment. But imagine some over-paying hoity-toity Federation Admiral loosening his tongue over a very long, drug-spiced meal after having every imaginable whim and fancy met, and things liven up a bit."
"That's what this is about? This whole ship?"
Al shrugs and sips his beer. "Nah," he finally murmurs, "This ship was to piss Lori off. Now I'm going to annoy him even more by turning a hefty profit in it. 2 VIPs at a time, Edge-of-the-Bubble cruises, several million credits each for a few days work. And then..." he smiles at me and raises his can in my direction - I reciprocate the gesture - before finishing, "Then it's a rather pleasant place to call home and spend time relaxing with the Team."
"Well, in that you're not wrong," I concede, as we fall quiet again and watch the stars pin-prick, bloom, grow and shoot past us as we travel.
"You're alright, Socks," he says eventually. It's a quietly-made observation yet it startles me a little.
"I'm not sure I am, Al," I reply.
"No more or less fucked up than the rest of us," he says, "You just haven't learned how to wear it yet, that's all." He turns to face me, the leather seat creaking as he shifts, "You've got to know what you're doing it for. When you've got that, you'll have cracked it."
I clear my throat as if to reply, but find I have no real response to this. I turn Al's words over in my mind a few times, as if gently probing something new and potentially threatening, and as I consider his words, images bloom like the stars around us - my parents, my Dad's shuttle, Nari - growing, becoming a blinding focal point and then shooting out of view. For a moment I feel utterly grief-stricken as my internal montage continues, but there is a truth to the observation that somehow tugs me through it to a point of clarity: All is not yet lost. The now-lost focal points of my life are not all there is to it; as with the stars that race past us as we travel, there will be new focal points, more bright moments that will bloom before me: Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong direction. Now my internal imagery is filled with the faces of my A-Team crewmates, of Not-Dave and other people I have met. They are still ahead of and around me, and my course, surely, lies in their direction?
I cannot communicate any of this to Al who sits, quietly sipping his beer, still watching me. I am surprised to realise there are tears rolling down my cheeks which I scrape away with shaking hands. Al nods and turns his gaze forwards while I pull myself up in the chair and clear my throat, regathering myself enough to ask, "So, anyway, where the fuck you two taking me?"
"That's an interesting question," replies Al. "It's Dawg's idea, really. I just fancied coming along."
I've heard about Dawg's previous expeditions - his ability to get lost in space, on planets, around suns, even in space port facilities and bars is legendary. The notion of being press-ganged into one makes me smile (and reassures me that my previous epiphany was, indeed, correct). "Where does he think he's going?" I ask.
"Commander Dudley Dawg thinks he knows where he can find Jameson's Ship."
"Fuck off... the Jameson?"
"Vanished in action, saved us from the Thargoids, history lesson, legendary Jameson?"
Al reaches for another beer, passing me one before opening his and saluting me, "Happy new beer, Socks."
"Happy new beer, Al," I murmur, raising my can before taking a swig. "How did Dawg come about this supposed location?"
"Intercepted some kind of hi-level data transfer somewhere. Didn't realise what it was until he went to sell it on and had a quick look at what it was before he named his price."
"Well, shit..." This, I think, is pretty cool. Al nods.
"How long til we get there?"
"Dawg reckons maybe three more days. Then we'll have to scan and run about on the surface a bit."
I nod, completely happy with the notion of three days of post-epiphany thinking in sumptuous surroundings. We lapse into comfortable silence after that, murmuring only to greet each new beer or request another one. Eventually, and for the first time in weeks, I feel actually sleepy. I finish my beer and carefully line it up with the other empty tins along Al's dash (5 in all) and rise to my feet.
"Thanks for this, Al."
"Any time, Socks. You off?"
"Sleep well, mate."
"You know," I reply, "I think I just might."
Then, fuck me, I fall onto my ridiculous bed and fall asleep for a full 24 hours.
"Drink fast, die young"