So, what do you do when you discover that you’ve just become the laughingstock of the galaxy? Well, you can try doing what I did, but I don’t necessarily recommend it. You see, I went out and got drunk.
Perhaps I should explain.
A few weeks before my partner and I had staged a raid on the Central Treasury of the Elven Empire. Our raid was a success and we cleaned the place out. We managed to escape with our ill-gotten gains and made our way to Xanadu, where an old colleague of ours name of Percy Powell was running an illegal fencing operation out of the back room of a bar called The Flight Line. Our intention was to offer Percy a sufficiently large cut of the proceeds that he would be willing to oversee the conversion of the gold into hard cash in a variety of currencies.
Unfortunately for us the Elven government picked that time to convert their economy from a gold standard to a credit standard, thus rendering our stolen gold worthless. This was done immediately after releasing the details of our raid to the news services, and that is what made us a laughingstock.
You can see why I would want to crawl into a bottle. Niven took the news well. By “well” I mean that he decided it wasn’t worth his while to kill me just then. Instead he left the offices of our intended fence and headed off for parts unknown.
After I finished weeping, I left Percy’s office and went back out to the bar. I dropped onto one of the bar stools and rested my elbows on top of the bar. Michelle, the bartender, placed a flagon of ale in front of me. I reached into my pocket to pay for it but she waved me off. “You look like you could use a drink,” she told me.
“I think that I could use more than one,” I answered. “Have you ever had one of those days?”
Michelle smiled. “I think we all have at one time or another, sweetie.” And then she went off to take care of the rest of her customers.
My brain wanted to turn things over, try to figure out a way out of this mess, but I just didn’t have the energy to allow that to happen. Besides, I wasn’t entirely certain I was going to be happy with the answers I came up with. So I just sat there at the bar and proceeded to get soused.
This was in the middle of the afternoon, just before the evening rush hour. I wasn’t paying attention to a lot of things, but I noticed when Michelle disappeared for a few moments, and the only reason I noticed was because I wanted a drink. When Eric and I had come into the bar and met Michelle, she had been wearing a pair of black stretch pants and a green golf shirt. A black server’s apron, the kind with pockets for money and such, was tied around her waist. When she came back into the room the only thing she was still wearing was the apron.
I learned then that Michelle made it a habit of bringing a change of clothes to work and changing just before the rush hour crowd would come in. She would wear pants when she first came to work but from rush hour on she always wore a dress. This one was knee-length and black, form-fit to her slender body. When I had first laid eyes on her I had pegged her age as somewhere in her mid-thirties. The stretch pants she was wearing showed she had slender legs, but the shirt hung down to her thighs and didn’t show a lot of her body from that point up.
I almost spilled my beer when she came around the corner wearing that dress. Michelle had the body of an eighteen-year old schoolgirl. She saw me staring at her and smiled, did a little twirl for me. “You like?” she asked.
I tried to stammer out a reply, but my mouth stubbornly refused to cooperate with me. Through experimentation I discovered that I retained sufficient motor control to be able to nod my head, so I did, vigorously.
Michelle just giggled at me. “I take it that’s a yes,” she said and poured me another ale.
The rest of my night was divided between Michelle and the conversations taking place at the bar. Michelle introduced me to a lot of her regulars and treated me as if I was a long lost friend. This had the effect of endearing me to the regular crowd almost immediately and caused them to welcome me with open arms, and equally open credit accounts. I don’t think I paid for a single drink that night.
That’s part of the reason I got so drunk, because people just kept lining up pints in front of me and I just kept drinking them. Wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Anyone in their right mind would. There’s no better booze than free booze. The unfortunate thing was that I drank so much that I ended up blacking out.
I came to some uncertain time later and discovered that I was one giant hurt from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Speaking of toes I tried wiggling mine experimentally and discovered that I had sufficient motor control to do so. This was a good thing, for it meant that I hadn’t been that far gone. I remember one time back in my impetuous youth when I had so much to drink that I woke up the next morning and couldn’t move.
I opened my eyes without thinking and realized immediately that it was probably a mistake. I don’t know how high the lights were turned up but they were too damn high for my taste. I threw my arm over my eyes, closed them tight and moaned.
“Oh, good,” a familiar female voice said, “you’re awake. I was beginning to worry.”
I knew the voice was familiar. It certainly sounded familiar. However, my brain was so muddied by the alcohol that it took me several seconds to realize that the voice belonged to Michelle. Oh, my God! I thought to myself. What the hell did I do while I was blacked out?
I sat up and looked around, blinked against the brightness of the lights. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, and that’s when I realized that the lights weren’t all that bright after all, and that the perception that they were was simply another aspect of my hangover. Hangovers are such fun.
And there’s another thing about hangovers that doesn’t appear in any of the sales literature. I sat up so fast that the room started to spin around me and my head fell off. Leastwise it felt as if my head fell off. I think that I managed to catch it in time and screw it back on, because when I opened my eyes again it was still attached. Michelle was sitting on the couch beside me and gently pushing me down onto my back. “Not so fast,” she chided gently. “You’re only going to make it worse.”
“I don’t think that it’s possible for it to get any worse,” I complained.
Michelle chuckled as she placed a cold cloth on my forehead.
It took a moment for my vision to clear completely, and when it did I looked around, took stock of my surroundings. I was laying on the couch in the living room of what appeared to be a fairly posh middle-class apartment. There was a fairly modern entertainment center along the far wall, and a large and well-stocked book case beside it. Michelle was sitting on the couch beside me, fussing over me like a parent with a sick child. The dress she had been wearing the night before had gone the way of the dodo and she was now wearing a bulky old sweat suit that covered her completely and did nothing for her figure.
“How long have I been out?” I wondered.
Michelle shrugged. “Oh, about eighteen hours,” she said offhandedly.
I felt my eyes go wide. “Eighteen hours!” I repeated. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Michelle just smiled. “I talked to Percy a few hours ago and he called someone in to relieve me,” she explained. “I didn’t want you to wake up alone.”
Some people are just good at encouraging you to feel guilty, and it isn’t because they intentionally mean to do it, it’s just that they’re so damn kind that they start reminding you of all the ways in which you don’t quite measure up. Michelle was one of those people. She didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, yet she had taken the day off of work to nurse me through a hangover when she would have been well within her rights to leave me sprawled in a gutter to fend for myself. Now that’s kindness. Guilt trip, leg one. “That was awfully kind of you,” I told her. “I hope I wasn’t too much trouble for you.”
Michelle’s smile grew mischievous. “You weren’t too much trouble,” she told me. “You only tried to help me out of my dress three times. Most guys average at least five.”
Guilt trip, leg two. “Oh, hell, I am so sorry,” I said.
Michelle reached out and rested her hand against my cheek. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “I’m not mad, and it was actually quite amusing. Besides, if I was mad do you really think that you would have woken up on my couch?”
I had to admit that she had a point. I took her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you for taking care of me,” I told her. “I owe you one.”
Michelle leaned over me and kissed my cheek. “No, you don’t,” she said.
We sat there and talked for a few minutes until I decided that I might just be ready to get up and face the world. I was a little bit wobbly but Michelle was beside me to steady me. I stood there leaning on her with one arm around her shoulders, and even with her wearing that bulky old sweat suit I still saw her in that dress she had been wearing the night before, and I was acutely aware of her presence next to me. I started to wish that the circumstances were different, that I wasn’t just some charity case she had taken home with her.
Michelle fed me a soberall, which helped push aside the effects of the hangover. Then she decided that I needed some solid food in my belly, so she made me sit at the dining room table and forbade me from helping her while she made a hearty dinner for us. She wouldn’t let me help her with the cleanup either, which made me feel a little guiltier because I discovered very quickly that she was a gourmet-quality cook. She did let me thank her, though, and when I told her that it was probably time for me to go she walked me to the door. She gave me a tight hug before I left and told me that she hoped I would stick around Xanadu for a while. I told her that the odds were in favor of it, and in the back of my head I was thinking that the hug definitely qualified as an incentive to stay.
It took a little bit for me to get my bearings, but I eventually made it back to the port and found the docking bay where Eric and I had grounded the Moonshadow. Because of our most recent escapade I had registered her as the Wayfarer when we had grounded, but she was still the Moonshadow to me.
I stumbled up the boarding ramp and entered the code sequence that would open the main hatch for me. The hatch swung open, and I stepped aboard and closed the hatch behind me. I went aft to where Eric and I had our small staterooms and saw that Eric’s bags were packed and sitting on the deck beside his door.
The door was open, so I leaned in. Eric was sitting on his bunk, resting his elbows on his knees and looking pensive. “Are you leaving?” I asked him.
Eric started. I don’t think he had realized that I was back aboard yet. Then he recovered himself and nodded. “I think it’s time that you and I went our separate ways for a while,” he explained.
I nodded slowly. Given the outcome of the Elven Treasury theft it was easy to understand how Eric might be embarrassed to be associated with me. “Where will you go?” I asked.
“I’ve been hired on as a navigator for a migrant transport,” he explained. “She’s the Helena, bound for Corbantis via Coventry, and she jumps out tomorrow morning.”
I grimaced. “If you want to go, I’m not going to stop you,” I told him. “You’re a big boy now, and you’re capable of making your own decisions. But why don’t you hold off on that for a while, at least until I can get another copilot.”
Eric looked up at me and cocked his head. “And what exactly would that accomplish?” he demanded. “Do you have any idea at all what you’re going to do next, where you’re going to go? There’s not a single civilized system in the Federation that wants us anywhere near them, and who can blame them? The Elves have done such a good job of slagging us after the Treasury theft that we’re both going to have to change our names just to get by, and you want me to stick around long enough for you to hire on a new copilot? You’ll be lucky if the local port authority lets you lift off, and if they do they’ll never let you come back. So what are you going to do?”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk