"Blimey Al!" I exclaimed. "That was your exit card!"
"I know," she said, sounding both annoyed and surprised at herself.
"I thought you wanted out! What on Earth was going through your mind?"
Al shook her head.
"To be honest, I'm not entirely sure," she said, grabbing my arm and pulling me down the corridor. We had so little time before she was due to depart.
"I knew it was my way out but ..." she paused and heaved a sigh. "When Bryant said you'd been enrolled into this Cadet Development Program thing, I was fuming with envy. Why the hell should you get yet another break? What was so special about you? Why did I never get any breaks? It was all sour grapes and I knew it, but it didn't stop me feeling that way."
As we rounded the corner to Al's quarters, we found Luke and Midas waiting for us. She growled with Klingon impatience. There was so little time before her shuttle would take her away and we needed to talk. With our futures so heavily intertwined, I needed to know her plans, and it seemed that she was equally eager to discuss them with me.
Al ignored the pair and went inside while I spoke to the guys. I gave them a quick overview as they needed to realise we had less than two hours to get Al packed, and then I sent them on their way.
"Girl talk!" exclaimed Al as the door shut behind me. It had been the only thing I could think of to get rid of them without causing offence, but I didn't answer her. Al's quarters were still in complete turmoil. I'd forgotten about that.
Al was racing around the room, sifting through the debris for ... well, uniform, I think. It was hard to tell with all the mess.
I struggled to find my voice.
"Yes, I know, but I needed to get rid of them. As it is, they're rounding everybody up to see you off in the shuttle bay, so come on ... you were telling me about your sour grapes."
"What? Oh. Yes. Well, then he offered me the same thing. I was going to tell him to shove it. That was my first instinct because that's what I'd normally do." She was talking at Warp Nine.
"—It's what I've always done, and then your little voice started chirruping inside my hand like an annoying, squeaky little mouse! Raktajino or Earl Gray! ... You can never be at peace with yourself, not as long as you deny who you are ... The Earhart could be your opportunity too."
Despite her whingeing impression of me, I couldn't help but smile. I'd had no idea I'd had such an impact upon her.
"—And I thought what the hell! My whole life, I've amounted to very little because I never had a chance. I was screwed from the moment I was born ... and then suddenly ..."
Al stopped moving and shut up. Her gaze fixed upon a point beyond normal vision.
"... I was being offered exactly that. For all the wrong reasons, of course. That ... P'Tok ... wanted me to refuse! But I thought, no, bugger you mate. I'm staying!" She was back up to full speed again and ranted for another ten minutes at least. I was waiting for her to draw breath. I never knew someone could talk for that long without breathing, but Al seemed to manage it as she ran back and forth selecting items at random and hurling them into a holdall.
"What are you smiling at?" she suddenly demanded.
I couldn't help it. I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
"I was just wondering why your packing what you are? You've just thrown the remains of a book in your bag!"
Al glared at me and then at her holdall. Sure enough, on top of the motley collection she had hurled in there was the front cover of an old book and its first few pages. She sighed heavily.
"See. There I go again. Can't even pack a bag right!"
I walked over to the holdall and upended it.
"And how am I going to get this lot sorted out before I go?" she asked, indicating the room. "Bryant'll kill me when he sees what I've done here."
"Don't worry about it—"
"How can I not worry about it? I've got less than an hour now!"
"AL! SHUT UP!" I screamed at her.
She froze, glaring at me, her lip twisting into a sneer.
"I'll get this sorted out," I promised her. "I'll get everyone to help me and it'll be cleaned up before I go. In the meantime, let's pack what you need. What is it with books anyway? Who has books anymore?"
Al slumped onto the bed as I folded some of her clothes.
"Oh, bloody hell, Jen. Why am I such a misfit?"
"You're not a misfit—"
"Yes, I am. Rutter's right ... misfit. Neither Klingon nor Human."
I sat beside her.
"Is that why you hate your Klingon side so much? Because without it you could be just one thing ... all Human?"
"No, it's because my plonker of a father—the Klingon—got himself a nice honourable death before I was two years old. My mother, on the other hand—the Human—well ... she's dead, so I got landed with Aunt Edith."
"At least you had someone."
"Oh stop being such a bloody optimist. She was an old age pensioner who lived in a remote farmstead in the mountains of Oveda Prime with nineteen cats and a cockatiel named Rodney. I was eight years old before I saw another two-legged being."
"Oveda Prime has the largest number and variety of birds of any known planet. Birds have only two legs," I chirped.
The look Al gave me was deadly, but soon melted into a smirk as she playfully hurled the remains of the book at me.
"And she didn't do technology. No on-line education for me," Al huffed. "My schooling was by books that were at least a hundred years out of date."
"So what you're saying is, if your Klingon father hadn't died, you might have had a better chance in life?"
"So, it's his fault."
"You should forget about being a Cultural Advisor. Psychiatry's more up your street."
"Nah. How people think is interesting, but I've got too many hang-ups of my own."
Al scowled furiously at me, dubious that I had any baggage.
"Seriously, Al. We all have our problems. Look at Ensign Rutter."
"He's had it all. Both parents were there for him and undoubtedly helped to pave the way, and being successful admirals, I'm sure those pavings were hefty ones. No expense would have been spared for his comfort or education, and look what a twit he is! Bryant summed it up. He's a xenophobe. How does a xenophobe get through the Academy? Pound to a penny, if it were you or I, no way would we have got through the first year. And does he have any real friends?"
Al sniffed deeply. "True, but it just seems that life has been so unfair for me ... until now."
We both beamed a huge smile at each other.
"So what are you planning?" I asked.
Al slapped her hands on her thighs, rose and swept a uniform up from the floor.
"You had your fairy-godmother in Jarrod," she said as she folded the uniform. "Maybe T'Roc is mine. I'm seizing this opportunity. I'm going to go with the Marines, and I'll try to hone this Klingon temper into something useful for a change."
"I think you've made the right decision under the circumstances."
"Well, the Marines! I wouldn't fancy that at all."
"I'd rather have the Marines than Rutter."
"We're both saddled with Rutter."
"Yes, but for the first three months, you have him all to yourself!"
Oh bugger, I thought, but there was no time to dwell upon it.
We had Al's bag packed and left the chaos of her quarters behind shortly afterwards. When we reached the shuttle bay, we found quite a crowd of people waiting for us: the whole of the Games Club plus a few others beside. I saw Al swallow hard. She had not expected this many people and I could see that it moved her, but she wasn't going to show it. She thrust out her chin and cricked her neck before she stepped forward to greet them.
As I watched them saying their farewells, I saw them with different eyes. Ensign Rutter had called us misfits and perhaps we were an unusual bunch, but not in a bad way.
Midas was part Human and part Vulcan. He stood back and let everybody say their goodbyes with the dignity of a Vulcan, but when it came to his turn to say farewell, he embraced Al warmly and she let him. I wondered about his history and parents too.
Tez was there as well, and suddenly it struck me that he was far too jolly for a Tellarite. By nature, Tellarites are argumentative individuals seeking conflict and the upper hand via snide remarks. What was his story then?
Each and every one of us were such unique individuals, fascinatingly so.
Perhaps Al was right. Maybe psychology was more my forte, but then, to understand someone's psychology you had to understand their culture.
I shook myself back into the present as Al stood before me again.
"Cadet Johnson!" a voice boomed out across the bay. We turned. A Marine stood by a shuttle. He was tall with rugged features and wore his dark uniform well. He didn't smile but his face was not unfriendly. No doubt he had heard all about us. Perhaps we amused him.
"Yes sir," shouted Al proudly. She stood to attention and saluted him.
"At ease soldier," he grinned.
With a distinct spring in her step, Al disappeared with him into the shuttle and a few minutes later, she was gone. I stood and stared at the closed shuttle bay doors for a while.
"Come on," said Luke. "I believe we have a big mess to clean up."