“Turn the lights down low,
The world’s covered in snow,
There’s no place to go,
So stay right here.”
The lyrics of an old “festive favourite” warmly played out, across the dimly lit & smoky area of The Den.
“Pour yourself a drink,
Wrap yourself in mink,
And in just a blink,
You’ll be full of cheer.”
This song was old, Avicus thought to himself; genuine mink fur hadn’t been available for decades, since all indigenous populations had been hunted to extinction.
“The night’s getting cold,
And we’re getting old,
But let us behold,
The sight of reindeer.”
Reindeer, too, not around anymore, he mused; exactly how old was this song? A partially decorated tree sat in one corner, looking as though half of it had been blasted with sparkling, confetti mix; the other half unadorned, synthetic spruce.
“Better get to sleep quick,
And don’t play no trick,
So that old Saint Nick,
Brings you gifts this year.”
Avicus was feeling very relaxed & pleased with the work they’d all put in, over the past few days. So he was taking some time to enjoy a little R ‘n’ R, before the launch; a bit of “me” time. A little drink, some smokes &, strangely, some old Christmas tunes, that reminded him of a particularly good winter, back at the orphanage. It was likely the only good winter he’d had, back at that rotten place & probably why it stood out so clearly in his mind. Feeling the effects of the past hour’s indulgences, he felt himself pleasantly slipping into a cosy, mid-afternoon nap...
“What the fuck is that racket?”, yelled Mena as she entered the room.
There went his nap, along with the warm, fuzzy feeling he’d just gotten accustomed to.
“A Christmas classic, dear Mena,” he replied, “likely, from well before both our lifetimes.”
“Sounds like a lecherous drunk, trying to entice the listener into bed!”, she had a point. “Not what a girl, or guy for that matter, likely wants for Christmas.” Also true.
“Well, that might be the case, but it brings back fond memories.” Avicus smiled, still slightly drowsy, which made him appear more aloof, than sincere. The look on Mena’s face quickly made him realise that she’d taken that comment in the wrong way.
“Not lecherous enticing, no. Childhood Christmases!”, he exclaimed. There, confusion cleared up. Mena’s eyebrow arched even further than it already had been, a bemused, yet enquiring look in her eyes.
Avicus sighed; why was nothing ever straight cut with this woman? “Look,” he started, feeling abruptly somewhat sober, “there’s nothing insidious or lecherous about anything! Why do you have to try & get to the bottom of everything? I was just trying to relax, after a couple of tiring days of shopping, before we launch tomorrow...”
“Geez, OK, I’m sorry.” Mena didn’t often apologise, making Avicus mildly suspicious. “Obviously, I touched on some childhood trauma, you’d rather not talk about.” Yep, there it was; the one-two delivery of apology, then jab, he was used to from her. He decided to let it slide, preferring to try & salvage something of his down time. Mena collapsed on the couch opposite him, pouring herself a glass of Chateau de Aegaeon & taking a sip. “You know, apart from the music, you’ve actually got it pretty cosy in here. I mean, that tree needs some serious work, but otherwise... You’re right, we deserve this little break.” A genuine smile, this time. Every now & then, despite all the comments, bullshit & sarcasm, he remembered why they had gotten along in the first place. Maybe they could both enjoy this afternoon, without any further hassle.
“The hell is that damn smell?” Then again, maybe not!
“That,” responded Avicus, “is some of 16 Lyrae’s finest product, Brenton, old friend. Care for some?” Avicus proffered the smoke in Brenton’s general direction, which was shifting from side to side, ever so slightly. Likely, he had drunk or smoked a little more than he had meant to...
“Weed?” Brenton questioned, rhetorically. “Weed!” He now stated, admonishingly. “And, don’t tell me... It’s from the cargo we picked up for the Christmas Carrier’s Convoy recently?” He glanced at Mena, holding her glass of wine, on the couch. “As, I suspect, is that wine?”
“Chill out, B!” Mena said, momentarily slipping into stoner parlance. “Besides,” she continued “we got a little extra of everything, for us to enjoy the fruits of our labour.” She took a deliberate sip from her glass, emphasising her comment.
“Well, if that’s the case, I could use a drink at least.” Brenton headed to the bar & poured himself a glass of Indi Bourbon. “I’ve just spent the last couple of hours checking the cargo manifest & securing everything in the ship’s hold.” He knocked it back, savouring the taste, then poured another. “Somebody’s got to do some work around here!”
“If by work,” Mena reproached, “you mean massacring that poor thing...” She nodded in the direction of the tree.
“I think it looks...” Brenton paused, searching for a suitable adjective.
“Gaudy?” offered Avicus.
“Apocalyptic?” suggested Mena.
“Festive.” Brenton finished, scowling at them both. “Besides, neither of you would have bothered.”
“Don’t see the point, my man. We’re leaving tomorrow & won’t be back here for over a month.” Avicus said, finishing his glass of bourbon. “Pour us another, whilst you’re there.” He waved his glass in the air, waiting for Brenton to fill it again.
“I think you’ve had quite enough. Especially, as you need to have a clear head to fly the ship tomorrow, unless you’re expecting me to take care of that too.” Brenton caved to the look Avicus was giving him &, reluctantly, poured another slug of bourbon into the waiting glass. “Anyhow, we’re taking that tree with us.” Avicus & Mena groaned in unison.
In truth, the shopping trip had gone reasonably well. Except for a few unexpectedly lengthy super-cruise jaunts, thanks to a lack of foresight on Avicus’ part, they’d completed the task with only one attempted interdiction. Considering the cargo they’d been hauling, that was quite a surprise! All the items they’d had on their list had been available & they’d even enjoyed an evening of fine food, drink & some, rather questionable dancing, on Amutria in the Arouca system. It certainly hadn’t been the headache that all three of them were expecting it to be & they had all gotten along without any arguments, for once; which usually meant that there was one brewing. Brenton had even agreed not to put any of his music on, Mena had held her tongue, for the most part, & Avicus had managed to fly without so much as a scrape put on the new, Tactical White paintjob he’d had the newly christened Saturnalian Sleigh decked out in.
As he sat in the cockpit, completing the pre-flight checks, Avicus tried to remind himself of this, whilst also questioning why he’d drunk & smoked so much the previous evening; he never remembered not to mix. As much as he hated to admit, Brenton might have had a point when he suggested getting an early night. Then again, he might have just been looking for an excuse to depart for his quarters, when Mena suggested Christmas karaoke. Drunk, neither of them could hold a tune &, in all honesty, Avicus couldn’t remember ever hearing her sing well. Mena’s voice, good or bad, real or imaginary, was the last in a long list of sounds he could do without in his head right now. Between the screech of his alarm rudely awakening him only a few hours prior & the noise of the busy docking bay, every other sound seemed amplified, as if specifically tuned & adjusted to make his already pounding headache cause him more suffering. Added to that, Brenton had made breakfast that morning &, try as he might, Avicus couldn’t get the taste of greasy, slightly burnt offerings, which he’d been told were “Truffled Aepyornis Eggs-on-Toast”, out of his mouth. How did you even make eggs that greasy? Reminding him of the smell that had accompanied his alarm call, brought another wave of nausea, which he fought off, before knocking back a couple more pills with a, now cold, coffee, in a desperate effort to combat the hangover. Not only was he already tired of the headache & constant threat of vomit, but he couldn’t allow Brenton or Mena to see him this way. Especially not Brenton, he wouldn’t let him live it down for days, the self-righteous sod! Just as the meds were having an effect on his ailments, the intercom came to life with a loud burst of static!
“What fresh hell is this?” Avicus moaned, before hitting the button to respond. “Yes? Avicus here. Who is this & what do you want?”
“Well, that’s no way to speak to a friend!” Came the reply. “Besides, Avi, you invited me to join you on this trip, or did you have too much to drink last night & forget?”
Despite the fog still clouding his thoughts, he recognised the voice at once. He’d met John Grant a few months back, during an exploration expedition they’d both signed up to & they’d hit it off instantly. Since then, though they’d both been busy with their own endeavours, they’d stayed in touch, when time would allow, but barely been able to meet up with each other. Avicus had thought that by suggesting they join the convoy to Colonia together, they might get that opportunity. That, & it would give him an option to jump ship, if relations between his own crew wore on him too much. Grant, who was also a seasoned pilot, like him, ran his own business, Grant Survey, so they had plenty in common to talk about, when they did get a chance to chat over a cigar & a drink or three.
“The answer to both those questions is, of course!” he joked. “Good to hear you, buddy. Glad you could make it.” They talked briefly, discussing the events of the past few days spent collecting rare goods from various stations & decided they would indeed catch up properly, at some point on the convoy. With a few things for them each to do, before launch, they finished their brief chat, just as Brenton & Mena entered the cockpit.
“Anyone we know?” questioned Brenton.
“John Grant, from Grant Survey. You remember me telling you that I asked him to join us, right?” answered Avicus.
“Was that before or after you two started impersonating strangled cats about to be flushed out an airlock, last night?” Brenton smiled, pleased with his own analogy.
“Before, smart-ass, & I would suggest that only one of us sounded like a strangled cat.” Mena took her drunken karaoke seriously & didn’t like to have her vocal stylings criticised!
“Whatever! Still would have sounded better from the other side of an airlock!” Brenton was pushing his luck.
“That a threat or an offer, ‘cause you’re always welcome to step outside at any point on this trip, B.” Mena had also had enough so far this morning, partially due to her own hangover, only less slightly horrific than Avicus’. “Besides, JG’s a sweetheart. Always polite, to me at least. I’m glad we’ll have company on this trip.” She finished.
Brenton agreed, “Yeah, got no problem with him coming along, as long as he doesn’t encourage you to shirk your pilot duties, leaving me at the helm for most of the journey.” He said, levelling his eyes at Avicus.
“Trust me, we’ve both got plenty of things to be getting on with on our own ships. Besides, you’re a terrible pilot, B, & I fear that leaving you & C,” he glanced at Mena, who still wasn’t amused at being called C to their respective A & B – she wasn’t – “ would only cause me further problems.”
“Really?” Brenton snorted. “I don’t even know why she’s coming along. It’s not like we need her for anything during the trip.” He was really pushing his luck today, Avicus had seen Mena explode over much less.
“I’m coming,” Mena retorted, “because I’ve never been to Colonia before & I deserve a Christmas break as much as either of you, if not more so.” She had a look on her face that belied the polite response she’d given Brenton. One that made him think again of airlocks, only this time with him on the other side. He smiled & sat back in his seat, ending the exchange. Mena did the same, also with a smile, though of satisfaction at having put Brenton in his place, again.
“Anyhow,” Avicus interjected, “pre-flight checks are complete & we’ve got the “Go” from Flight Control for launch. You both ready?”
Both Brenton & Mena strapped themselves into their seats & confirmed they were. Avicus hailed Grant on the intercom, who sounded like he was dealing with his own crew issues, and they coordinated the final stages of launch. Flight Control, as protocol dictated, gave them a farewell, as the pad clamps retracted with their familiar “clunk-hiss” duet of sounds. With a few deft movements of the flight stick, the ice-white Type 10, laden with all manner of gifts & rare goods, left the pad & aligned itself with the station’s access corridor, ready to begin the journey to Colonia. Throttling up, to exit the slot, he heard a loud noise in the crew quarters behind him, as the ship lurched forward.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Erm,” said Brenton, reluctantly, “I may have forgotten to secure the Christmas tree.”
Avicus & Mena groaned in unison, which seemed to happen a lot. This was going to be longer a voyage than it likely should have been & Avicus was glad he would be able to escape to Grant’s ship, so that he wouldn’t have to endure his crewmate’s company for the whole distance. As the Saturnalian Sleigh left Budrys Installation, they were joined by Grant’s Cutter, The Countess, & they both paused outside the station, before angling themselves at the first of many systems on their route. With a roar of her engines & a blue glow blazing out from behind her, the Defender slowly picked up speed, as its COVAS counted down to engage the FSD. Stars rushed past the cockpit, like snowflakes in a blizzard, before the ship & her crew disappeared from Karbon local space, on her way to Colonia.
Shades! A hungover pilot's best defence against the bright lights of a station docking bay.
The Countess & Saturnalian Sleigh leaving Budrys Installation on the first leg of CCC4.