Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
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The Recurring Customer Is Always Right

by Sergio "ente per ente" Palumbo

edited by Michele DUTCHER

A Mare Inebrium story
(Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield)

Max the bartender wore his usual dark colors, which matched his black hair, with a whitish jacket thrown on for contrast. He entered the spacious room full of customers, edging his way through the first floor of the crowded Mare Inebrium like a fish going up stream.

On his way to his work station in the bar he passed by two beige aliens who were quietly looking at each other, without gesturing or speaking at all, who were probably using telepathy to pass the time.

A guy at the next table, who was surrounded by three enormous, hairy aliens of unknown origins, began to sip his disgusting aperitif very slowly. The right side of the wall at the end of the room was occupied by a group of tall scaly aliens, known as "deep fish out of water" because they looked like creatures that inhabited oceans on a few planets lost somewhere in the galaxy. They seemed to speak to each other in an unusual way, and they were having a lot of fun doing it, seemingly...

The bartender focused on two of them for a while: the first one, probably the male, bowed and licked the hand-like extremities of the second customer. She appreciated the gesture, as unexpected as it was, and suddenly emitted a soft blue light from inside her neck. The first one smiled to return the gesture, then ended with a laugh that oddly bathed his face in a yellow bioluminescence from beneath the surface of his skin.

Max looked away and continued walking forward, when he caught sight of another weird customer - a massive hoard of branches and leaves with a sizzling hole in the middle, with which it was eating a piece of meat topped with a gray liquid, eaten from a vase-like container. The man moved on, thinking that he had just seen the most unusual mouth on an alien's face, probably, that he had ever laid eyes on before.

Trixie, the good-looking, slim, long-legged waitress with light-brown hair, wearing her customary short skirt, welcomed him hurriedly at the main counter. Even though she looked like a sort of Elf-queen, her blue eyes and wondrous appearance could have gone almost unnoticed among all those beautiful female customers who were presently inside the bar. Anyway, the man had a special affection for her, so all the others could have easily disappeared from the scene before him. Of course it wasn't only her body that Max found attractive.

But tonight the bartender noticed a strange interest in her eyes, and she seemed to be mischievously flirting with someone. "What are you staring at? Someone in particular?" he finally asked her.

"Well, Max, there's a really attractive new customer over there, someone you may not have seen before either, actually."

"Really?" the man said in return, a little surprised. Even though their relationship was usually an open one, this wasn't the typical comment the bartender would have expected from the woman. Then he turned to the left, curious about the guy, but what he saw made him amazed. In fact, for a moment the sight forced him to stop breathing: the bartender tried to keep his surprise hidden, but Trixie noticed it clearly.

"What's up, Max? Do you know him?"

"As it happens, he does resemble somebody I've seen somewhere."

"So, could you introduce him to me?" the woman sneered, just jesting.

Max didn't say anything else, but gave her a strange, tense glance, then moved away.

The guy wore an average outfit, brown in color and seemingly outdated, possibly more appreciated in some nearby sector. Inside any spaceport you would see only a few dressed like this nowadays, as it was becoming out of fashion among the middle-aged travelers. With a slim build, his delicate features were attractive, even though Max couldn't exactly confirm if he was an appealing man - but, according to what his waitress had told him, he must have been, indeed. His hair was perfectly blonde, maybe even too perfect, with a pointed lock in front and some long curls on the side - the face of a doll more than a man's, in a way.

He looked human, clearly, but some peculiar elements like the disproportionate nose and the little gold pupils suggested to the bartender that he really wasn't: most likely, he would turn out to be the result of an interspecies marriage, or something like that.

He behaved like a gracious customer, speaking in an appeasing soft tone to the very few people he came in contact with. His moves were slow and calculated, but at an experienced glance, as the one Max had got so far, he looked like a wise creature taking advantage of the widespread noise and muddle he was immersed in. There was nothing better than the usual chaotic mess of a night of feasting at the Mare Inebrium to help someone blend in.

As soon as he did so, choosing a corner at the far end of the left wall, the bartender went to the table where the man sat alone quietly. The customer was sipping a luxury smoky drink he had already paid for, that came originally from a place called `Orange Steamy Planet', if Max remembered correctly.

The man just stared at him for a while, incredulous. Max never forgot a customer's face, it had always been a sort of secret ability of his. And the bartender was sure he had already seen him, once, some years ago. He could even tell you the exact date, as he would never forget that day! Truly Max remembered him. He knew he had seen this man before, and was confused by why his woman had said this was the first time she had noticed this guy. Very strange indeed - unless the waitress hadn't been on duty in the spacebar the last time he came in.It was possible, actually, as he didn't remember her presence at the Mare Inebrium that night, so perhaps that was why.

As he came nearer, the customer's eyes moved away from the point he was apparently looking at, an unspecified portion of his table, and glanced at the approaching bartender in silence.

"May I have a seat?" were the first words Max said while standing in front of the customer, with a certain composure.

"Of course, why not?" he replied, in an imperturbable way. "Don't you own this place, after all? You're pretty famous on this planet, so it would be my pleasure."

"I know you, I'm sure of it."

"So what?" the customer said, indifferently.

"I know you because I killed you!"

"Oh, yeah, that's what you mean.I do remember, well, we all remember that, actually."

"All of you?" the bartender inquired further.

"Yes, all of us.but I can assure you that you didn't kill me."

"How is that possible? You should be dead right now!"

"But I'm not."

"Actually, I must confess that I didn't want to kill you," Max continued, his voice a little embarrassed. "That night I only noticed you because you were going around the bar suspiciously, staring at me several times from afar with a strange look. I thought you were a delinquent or one of those fabled Immortal Hunters I had heard about before."

"Do you mean the people kidnapping some of your kind to experiment on your bodies, just to discover your biological secrets?"

"Exactly. And when I found you that night waiting just outside, while I was on the run trying to escape from four unknown armed individuals who were chasing me, probably to kidnap me, I thought you were just one of them!"

The blonde guy didn't say anything.

"I easily got rid of those four, by my methods, without killing them, then I turned around and saw you, apparently taking something out of your jacket, so I acted on reflex, without thinking. I expected you were going to shoot me so I fired a laser burst against you first."

"As I said, you didn't kill me."

"But I saw your body suddenly disappear in an incredible way! That weapon killed you, or you are a twin brother of the man that was killed that day. I acknowledge that I didn't want to kill you, but it did happen, I remember everything perfectly."

"As I told you a moment ago, you didn't kill me. Or better - you didn't kill any of us. To put it simply, your laser burst heavily damaged my body so it would have been too difficult to repair it. In fact we chose to let it go and made it dissolve completely in front of you in order to leave no trace behind. Anyway, my memory was downloaded into this new body of mine."

"So you didn't die.but what are you, then? A cyborg, a robot? Why did you stay there that night in the open? What's your name?"

"I'm called... (a few long unpronounceable sounds came out of his mouth, like a soft warble).

"Ok, whatever," Max agreed. "Answer the rest of my questions."

"I was working as an Examiner. You're right, those four were there just in order to kidnap you, but you beat them, so you reacted well. Anyway, just thinking of how you fired against me, maybe you did overreact.I'm a living being, but the way we save our memories from one body of ours to another is a secret method that I can't tell you anything about, of course. But I can assure you I'm the same guy you did meet that night by chance, more or less."

"So, what are you exactly?"

"Well, we are travelers, in a way."

"And why did you come here back then and why did you come back now?"

"Because of your kind, the Immortals."

"So, that's why! I was aware from that night you weren't a member of that group who wanted to kidnap me. Before I brought those four to The Reever, I made sure to force them to tell me everything they knew, and I can get all I want out from someone when I have to: they confessed there were only four of them in their team, not a fifth man. So you were there as an outsider, you weren't in on their crime, certainly."

"Correct," he stated.

"Anyway, if you aren't one of those who were trying to kidnap Immortals for the desires of some rich men, and didn't help their unpleasant experiments, why were you there that night? Why were you looking for me?"

"I'm not a member of the group called `The Immortals' Hunters', or the other group called `The Retrievers', that much is certain."

"What?" Max said.

"You must not have known that there are several groups trying to kidnap some of your kind. I can see that now." The customer sneered. "But I can guarantee I'm not one of those anyway."

"But you acted in connection with their presence on the field that time, you can't deny it! Why did you do that?"

"Actually, believe me, it only happened by chance. I've nothing to do with them, I can assure you of that."

"So you are here for vengeance."

"Actually, I'm not angry about that and I'm not here to get back at you, or I'd have already made my move. But this is not the case, certainly."

"How may I be sure about that? As far as I know, you entered my bar, sat at this table and just kept waiting for me to come over to you. Now what?"

"Actually, I was not looking for you tonight. Simply I, or better we, are studying you: your bar, your lifestyle and so on."

"Do you plan to buy the whole franchise, maybe?" Max spoke ironically, making a sour face.

"No," the one replied. "This is a perfect place for study: a place where you can find all these species of aliens dealing with others and having a lot of fun at night. You can see them as they really are - what they're really like!"

"So you are a kind of watcher.why?"

"You'll discover the truth eventually, over a course of centuries, perhaps, given your very long lifespan. Actually, our watch is very long too, no one else would even notice it."

"But why did you come here.?"

"We came just to collect data, and have a good drink, of course! I am particularly fond of some bottles of old Scottish liquor of yours, along with other unusual drinks."

"Data, you said?" the Immortal urged him.

"Yes, just let me explain this: do you know a place called Earth? It's a little bluish planet on the far outskirts of this galaxy, but if you know even a little about its past history, you should be aware that many centuries ago there was a bloody war going on there, with many countries fighting each other. Just before an invasion, one faction, the Allied Troops who were quartered on a large island, needed some info about the guarded coasts of the land laying on the opposite side of the sea. The place was called Normandy, if I remember correctly, and it was occupied by some warlike intruders at that time."

"Normandy? You mean, like the Republic of New Normandy or Normandy, a local region on that planet?"

"That one!"

"So what?"

"Well, it happened that the Allied lacked some important data about the coast to be invaded. Anyway, as the assault had to be effective and there could be no mistakes, they asked for photos taken during holidays or postcards from the locals living in the occupied land -- who were still on their side -- to be sent via some secret channels, meant to be used exclusively for the upcoming landing battle. They wanted to deploy everything in the right areas and study the plan with all the details. The Allied Troops received hundreds of photos from people along that coast in return."

Max kept listening to all that, without replying this time.

"The same happened on many other planets that were undergoing an historical period similar to the human WWII on Earth. Useful ideas are always welcomed I suppose, and put into action again and again in different moments and places, indeed."

"If you say so."

"For example, on a world positioned in the far space sector 7667 some wealthy men wanted to perfectly recreate a once-green planet - in a virtual mode. As they were not allowed to land there to study it, because of a past war involving the two opposite species, they hacked the biocular cyber-devices of the inhabitants living on the surface, in every region, in order to collect data and have a very complete view of all the sites they wanted to know everything about."

"You are here just to take photos of my bar? - of Bethdish? Are you some kind of scout? Do you plan to invade this side of the galaxy? You'll be disappointed, because we are very capable of defending ourselves, as you've already probably discovered. Besides, if you came here to take millions and millions of interactive photos and holo-videos, you have to be really immortal, too, or you and your kind are millions of people, too, ready to accomplish such a task."

"We do not plan any invasion, be certain of that. And, yes, we are a sort of scout, in a way.but very different from everything you could think of." The customer paused, then added, "And we are multitudes, indeed."

"And why did you come here, then?" Max insisted. He was very curious, obviously.

"Yes, as I told you, I --or better we-- came here to gather some info about your world, your system, your galaxy and so on. As for me, my task is trying to fully comprehend what I'm experiencing at present."

"Which is what exactly?"

"Since the day you shot one of my versions, my superiors changed my duties for awhile." The gold pupils of the customer stared at him.

"So, aren't you an Examiner anymore?" the bartender persisted.

"Actually, I still am, but my task is different nowadays. I'm trying to learn everything I can about your aperitifs, the liquors and wines your lovely customers buy and savor in your bar."

"Uhm.Well, you'll find a lot of food for your mind inside this bar." Max laughed at him.

"Don't you believe me now?"

"You see, the fact is that I already believed you were dead once and you were not, in reality. So, why should I believe anything you say at present?"

"But it's the truth," the one said, in his usual soft, calm tone.

Then Max asked the individual: "And what about the others like you, spread here and there across the whole galaxy in order to collect data and look at our many worlds...?"

"Maybe when we have taken enough info, the moment we've examined all we are interested in, then we'll officially offer you an invitation to join the Otherverse Federation we are a part of. Therefore, you'll have an offer you would be unwise to refuse in the end."

"When do you think that might happen.?" the bartender frowned, looking wary and uncertain.

"Our research can last for many centuries, and we don't move forward until we're completely ready, of course."

"Well, if I were a common human, that is a short-lived being, maybe I wouldn't be worried, because when your kind eventually decides to act I would already be defunct. But as I'm an Immortal, this could be a problem for me."

"Well, I can't tell you everything, you know. However, be certain we'll meet again."

"Just to take some more interactive photos, perhaps?"

"And to have a drink at this lively bar, indeed!"

"Well, if you are a multitude and you have to take millions of holo-videos and gather data from several places like this space bar, you'll have to eat and drink so as not to attract too much attention. And then you'll have to pay a very expensive bill, for sure," Max said, trying to make fun of him. The customer didn't say anything, he simply smiled.

"So,what can I give you to drink this time?" the Immortal asked in the end.

"Another luxury smoky drink from `Orange Steamy Planet' would be fine for now."

"Ok, it's coming. I'll choose a bottle from a very good year, regardless of expense, given the kind of guest you are." Max smirked then.

"Maybe I'll pay that on account."

"What do you mean? You've already paid your first drink."

"You'll understand someday, and you'll understand then. When the others who follow their own plan, which is exactly opposite to how we do business, come from the EndlessVerse they will introduce themselves and make you an offer to force you to join their bloody alliance, and you'll have to choose sides."

"When will they come?"

"Oh, I don't know, but they will, sooner or later."

Max just thought: what a place this is, full of Time Travelers, delinquents, politicians, merchants, wealthy and famous people and now also these ones from the OtherVerse and EndlessVerse. You never get tired of being here, that's for certain!

"You can make yourself at home, but I'll keep an eye on you, be sure, watcher."

"Examiner, please."

"Whatever. Cheers, come on now, enjoy!" And Max savored the same smoky drink he offered his strange customer.

"Next time it will be me offering you a drink."

"The recurring customer is always right," the bartender said.

Max considered that such an individual made him nervous anyway. Maybe he had made a stupid mistake when he had fired at him that night, but at times the way he was behaving in front of him just made the bartender want to try killing him again.Jesting apart, given the unpredictable result of the first attempt, he knew that would be useless.

Better to sit down and share a drink with him for the time being. Maybe, with the passing of years, he would even become likeable in some ways. With that visitor possessing the unusual skill to come around again and again, even if unexpected or when Max thought it would be impossible, the right thing to do seemed to be kind to him. After all, he might even become a good customer of his bar, who knows, by spending a lot of money.

Without offending that old saying that went this way:`A man who pays his bills on time is soon forgotten!'


© 2012 Sergio Palumbo

Bio: Sergio (a.k.a. "ente per ente" in the Forum) has accumulated an impressive list of North American publication credits (growing at an enviable pace), and was the winner of the September 2011 Forum Flash Challenge. His most recent non-Challenge appearance in Aphelion was the shaggy (cloned) dog story, Metaphase: Fluffy I, II and III in the August 2012 edition.

E-mail: Sergio Palumbo (Humans: remove spaces from address!)