You can find some of the best advice known to man in my establishment.
You can find some of the best liquor up in here, too.
The regulars funnel in, followed by this kid. He’s looking all glum so I give him the time of day.
“It’s nineteen hundred hours,” I say, “and you’re in like an android set on auto-pilot for the bar, so spit it out, what ails you?”
He folds onto the stool where he’ll spend the rest of the evening and unloads.
“I’ve got this condition, Doc. I need a remedy.”
I’ve already got him one poured so I push it in front of him and don’t ask for the credits. He looks like he could do with one on the house.
“That’s the finest liver oil around, baby. One glassful to be taken neat under strict barman supervision.”
It’s a sick old world out there so we like to lighten the tone when we can: liver oil’s a funny kinda name for this sweet golden liquor they’re all drinking now.
The kid tips up his glass and down it goes.
Of course it’s only us barmen who know the true origin of the drink’s name. The Premier’s address only this week mentioned addiction, an epidemic, a long-term, concerted campaign. Hogwash. It’s all front, a fake crusade. Sure, the health bills are piling up, but not half as fast as the credits in their coffers. Places like mine killing the system? We’re all that’s keeping the damn thing lubricated.
So the kid’s sat there, sliding on down with the rest of them, and despite the freebie he’s still looking troubled. “You know how they say we change?” he says. “Our cells regenerate until every seven years we’re a whole new animal. You heard that?”
“I hear a lot of things.”
“Well I got it bad. For me it’s not seven years, it’s more like seven hours. I’m not the same person from one day to the next. You think I’m wise cracking? I’m serious! I look in the mirror and I’ve got this haircut, or these clothes, and it’s not me. So I change it all, then the next day it’s changed all over again and that’s not me, neither. I got photo evidence, man! Here, look.”
He hands me some snaps that could be six different people. The kid’s right, he’s got it bad.
“It’s my mind, too. One day I love this music, the next I don’t even know the words. I go for a job and when they sit me down for an interview I can’t think why I’m there. This morning I wake up with a guy and a doll in my bed and I don’t know which one of them I’m supposed to be there with. I’m on perma-regenerate, man, it’s driving me nuts!”
Yep, I’ve seen cases before but none quite like this. I’ve heard them called Chameleons. I twiddle my machine-waxed moustache as I wonder if there’s a way to make this next bit stick. I doubt it. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer my two credits’ worth.
“You want a short term fix?” He nods like a Parkinson’s case. “Get one more liver oil down you, then go back to your pod and take it easy. It’ll take the edge off for a day or two, keep you stable, keep you sane, if a little blue. But then you’re back to square one.”
“Really? You serious mister, it’ll really work?”
“Sure, kid. Only don’t overdo it. Your condition’s one that you’ll grow out of. You’ll smooth out in time, you’ll find your direction and you’ll quit changing. You gotta trust me on this. You see him over there?” While I pour the kid another glass he follows my eyes to a hollow little man with white hair and lines under his lines. His drinking hand shakes so much that he’s tied a sling around his neck so he can winch it up with the other hand and not spill so much. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic. “He’s forty-two. He overdid it. You say you don’t know who you are from one day to the next? That guy got cured alright, he doesn’t change, but now he doesn’t know who he is from one second to the next. Took the edge off so much he doesn’t know where the edge is no more. Use the oil wisely, kid. Be patient. It’ll wear off.”
The kid sips his new drink and contemplates.
He scans the room of factory drones, typists, pod technicians, plumbers, cleaners, shelf stackers, road sweeps, failed artists, the unemployed, the little guy with the sling. All heads in hands and little lines for mouths.
He scratches his palm like he’s trying to get a reading.
Then he makes the rest of his drink disappear and slams down the empty glass.
“Fill her up,” he says.
Van Zeller flings short stories out into the web in the hope one or two of them stick, saying, “If you’re reading this, I guess this one did.”