31 January 2014

"Hugo and the Velvet Singularity"

Every Friday, the awesome Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge on his blog, where he will come up with story prompts and readers of his blog will endeavor to come up with a 1000-2000 word short story to match it. I tried one last week that didn’t quite work out, more’s the pity. This week’s challenge, however, hit me right where I live--booze.

Wendig’s challenge: Come up with a fictional drink recipe, include the name of the drink in your title, and list the ingredients in the story itself. I was already working on a story with a fictional liquor in it, so I borrowed that for my story, tossed in a little Spider Robinson, and got the following. Hope you like it. :)

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“Hugo and the Velvet Singularity”

Part of the challenge of running the Nexus Bar And Grill is riding herd on the timelost bastards who work for you. They think because they’re from a century or three ahead of you, you won’t know about a certain con, or that because their historical period precedes yours they have seniority over you. Someone’s always running a game. And if they aren’t, they’re convinced they can run the place better than you. Or worse, they should be your partner. Those are worse, because those are the ones who mean well. And we all know what road that paves.

Hugo was one of those Via Infierna types. Nice enough guy. He slipped here from 20th century Chicago, after a stint in Vegas as a bouncer at one club and a mixologist in the other. It was the latter which led to my hiring him; I’d just lost my best bartender, and shifts needed to be covered. I threw Hugo behind the bar, gave him a copy of Robert’s Rules of Drink Orders, and let the Multiverse have its way with him. After he got the fainting spells behind him (those Dark Dimension boys and their non-Euclidean cocktails are a pain in the ass), he was my best employee. Then he started campaigning for partnership.

I don’t have a partner and never will again (ask me to tell you that story after a couple dozen drinks so I can laugh in your face and say no); for whatever reason that attracts every doofus and his venture capitalist cousin, and inspires them to apply for a position that isn’t open. Whatever. You need patience for this job and that I’ve got. I just laugh in their faces and say no. They say I’m a fool, I could be making millions off the place if I played my cards right. But I’m nobody’s fool, I don’t need millions, and I’m more of a roulette player anyway. How gently I break all that to someone depends on how much I like them.

I really liked Hugo. Everybody did; he was a friendly guy, joked with the regulars and made newcomers feel welcome, and turned the Nexus into something it hadn’t been for a while: a star attraction. We got word of mouth and mentions in the travel guides. Hugo was mentioned by name twice.  Maybe some of that went to his head, maybe not; he never discussed it with me. All I know is one day he started doing his own thing. Ordering different booze. Creating his own drinks.

To his credit, he was subtle about it. And I probably would have let it go if I’d tumbled to what he was doing with the booze--provided it was just the booze. We were making more money; I had no issue ponying up for better product. But when the night owls and the morning hawks started asking for drinks I’d never heard of and didn’t know how to make, like a “Purple Banana-Tini?”

Well. Charm and a mention or two in the trades only went so far. I called him into my office when his next shift was over.

“Something wrong?” he asked. He ran a tousling hand through his hair and tried to straighten his Hawaiian shirt, which sprang back into a wrinkled state seconds later. The guy was in a constant state of rumple.

“Tell me,” I said from behind my desk, “how you mix a Long Beach Waverider.”

His eyes got bigger and he glanced at his shoes for a second. “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘oh.’ Hugo, you can’t invent new drinks without telling me. Period. You know why?”

“Because you’re the boss?”

“Partly. Primarily it’s because there’s stuff in this bar you can’t mix, under any circumstances.”

“I don’t understand,” he said. Something in his eyes said he didn’t want to, either.

“What happens if you give gin to a Denobulan?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“My point exactly,” I replied. “I gave you that copy of Robert’s; go back and read it again, particularly the ‘What To Avoid’ chapter in the back that everyone ignores because they think they’re smart. You learned the basics well enough. Now go back in and learn the hard stuff.”

He glared at me for a second; it was clear he didn’t want to listen. Then he surprised me by nodding. “All right, I will.”

“Good. When you’re done we can talk about your inventions. Some of them aren’t bad.”

That surprised him. He nodded again, turned to leave, then looked over his shoulder at me from the doorway.

“What does happen if you give gin to a Denobulan?”

I smiled. “There used to be a joint across the street that would serve anything to anybody. One day they did it.”

“And?”

“I’m still finding splinters in the facade,” I replied.

He stayed in the doorway a moment longer, then left--a little wiser and more than a little paler.

***

I shouldn’t have encouraged him. But he was smart and eager to please and holy shit, those Purple Banana-Tinis sold like hotcakes. So I made him learn everything about multidimensional mixology--the chemistry of it, the alchemy of it, the reason you used graphite shavings on a Dark Reaper and cinnamon sprinkles on a Red Death, and how each made them taste different even though every other ingredient was the same. And he was a quick study, I’ll give him that. Before long Hugo was an expert; his inventions started taking on a special air. When he came up with a new cocktail now, a drink like the Killer Shrew, or the Bang-A-Rang, it was an event. Everyone wanted to try them . . . which meant his coming up with as many species-specific variations as he could. And the more he made, the more we sold. And the more we sold, the more I saw the glint in his eye, the one that said, “Hey, maybe I should be making more of the decisions around here . . . “

One day, after his new creation (the Walloping Websnapper, still a huge seller) set new sales records for the bar, he made his move and told me he wanted to buy his way into partnership.

I should have said no. Six months before I would have said no. But six months before I hadn’t been riding high on the best quarterly results the bar had ever had, and I guess I was feeling cocky.

“All right, smartass,” I said. “I’ll tell you what. You’re so good at adapting your drinks for everybody--let’s see you do the opposite. Create a drink, a single drink, that everyone can have. Do that and I’ll make you a full partner in the business.”

His mouth set in a determined line, and he said, “Deal.”

Nothing happened for six months, and I had almost forgotten about my offer. Sometimes Hugo would seem a bit ragged around the edges or would turn up for his shift unshaven and with dark half-circles under his eyes, but he chalked that up to a touch of insomnia and I believed him. In the main life at the Nexus went on as it had.

One night it was clear Hugo was very happy about something. He couldn’t stop smiling, and there was a twinkle in his eye I wasn’t entirely sure I trusted. But as he didn’t say anything about it to me, I didn’t bring it up with him.

When his shift was over and the place was empty but for the owls, he took me aside. “I’ve done it, Joe. Done it.”

“Done what,” I started to say--and then remembered my words from half a year ago. I never thought he’d actually be able to pull it off; I was intrigued in spite of myself.

“Okay,” I said, “show me.”

He took me behind the bar, where he put a double old fashioned glass on its battle-scarred surface. He placed a shaker next to it. Next, he started grabbing bottles so fast I could barely follow him.

“I came up with this last night,” he said. “Worked it out on paper, double-checked it three times, mixed it at home . . . and it works! Here, let me show you. You take two fingers of Fenarian whiskey--”

“Unpalatable to anyone but a Fenarian,” I said.

Unless you mix it with Galadorian bitters,” he said. “After which anyone can drink it. Now hush and let me work. Add a jigger of the bitters, then two jiggers of spiced D-rum. Gotta be Captain Solor’s D-rum, by the way. It has the right molecule chain. Take a bottle of vermouth, wave it at the shaker for effect. Then add three jiggers of Chimaeran fung.”

“Fung?” I said. “Holy shit. Hugo, that stuff is unpredictable as hell. It doesn’t even taste the same way between sips!”

“Even so, chemically it works.” he pulled the stopper off the white ceramic bottle, and a tendril of green vapor rose from its mouth. Hugo nodded to it as a gesture of respect, and gently poured the fung into the shaker with the rest of the ingredients. I kept expecting the damn thing to boil over or shoot out sparks or give birth to an eldtritch horror or something, but it just sat there. I was impressed.

Hugo was not done. “And finally . . . one drop of grenadine.”

He tipped the bottle over the shaker, and allowed one blood-red tear of syrup to fall into the shaker. He capped the shaker and shook it, as professionally as I’ve ever seen him mix a drink. I realized I was so excited I wasn’t breathing.

He put the shaker down, reached under the bar into the cooler, and pulled out a scoop of ice, which he slid into the glass. Then he lifted the cap from the shaker, unleashing the most ambrosial aroma I have ever smelled in my life. And from the shaker he poured a glorious amber fluid.

Hugo grinned. “I give you . . . the Velvet Singularity, the universal cocktail.”

“Damn,” I said. “I am truly impressed.”

“All it needs is a finishing touch,” Hugo added. He reached under the bar again, and pulled out a bright red maraschino cherry, which he dropped into the glass.

The liquid in the glass started to smoke and bubble.

“Nice effect, huh?” He said. “Have a sip.”

I eyed the glass, and the smoke coming from it, and made what I still think is the smartest and most cowardly decision I ever made.

“Your drink,” I said. “You have the honor.”

He grinned. “I know, it looks scary, but it’s fine. Here, I’ll show you.”

He stepped up to the bar, picked up the glass, and took a huge gulp.

His eyes went wide, and he dropped the glass. It shattered on the floor. Hugo clutched his throat, and began to scream. A dark green rill of vapor escaped his mouth. I was already reaching for the phone as he collapsed to the floor, and a green glow enveloped his body.

***

It was the fung.

It’s like sake--there are a dozen different regional varieties, and each of them has a different flavor, effect, and chemical composition. The brand we carry at the bar isn’t the same as the stuff Hugo had at home. And the difference was enough to cause Hugo’s Velvet Singularity to . . . react badly.

Hugo’s all right; we got him to the medbots in time. But the damage had been done. The fung and the exotic liquors and who knows, maybe even the stupid cherry, were enough to radically alter the fabric of his very existence. Time is weird here in the Nexus. And if you mess yourself up badly enough, weird things will happen to you.

Hugo is five years old now--a bright, inquisitive, wonderful five year old. So I adopted him--figured I owed him that much.

Besides, he’s got a full partnership in the Nexus waiting for him when he grows up. I’d hate to lose track of him.

5 comments:

  1. Great story Jay! Love the world you built and the very specific rules you had establish for drinks. Good twist ending with the adoption :)

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    1. Thanks AJ! I was pleased with the way everything turned out, and with what I was able to do in the word count I had available to me. I had a blast writing it too, which I think comes across in the finished story. It's got an impish tone I quite like. I might go back to that world for another story at some point. It seems like the kind of place where stories happen. :)

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  2. I like your bizarre brain. I'll pass on the fung.

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    1. Thanks, I like my brain too. Hope Dr. Frankenstein lets me keep this one. ;)

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  3. Ah, great story. "Euraka, I've found it." Hmm, no, I don't think you did, son.

    At least the narrator's going to let him have the bar when he's older. That's nice of him.

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