I take a deep breath and adjust my beard. It’s a bad look for me. Another deep breath. Keep breathing. It’s my bartending apprentice night in the Old Earth Speakeasy, and I’m human. Patrons are either humans remembering a scorched planet they never knew or non-terrestrial species with a fetish. Should be easy. I pull out the scrunchie holding my top-knot and restyle it. Tonight’s theme is 2010s, and I look the part. Beard, man-bun, flannel shirt, fake tattoos, and a Google Glass.
On the shuttle over I’m reciting recipes under my breath, stopping when the bar comes into view. It’s a giant wagon wheel, trundling through space. The rotation creates artificial gravity, but makes flair bartending difficult. I aced the Coriolis Effect in bartending school, but what if I forget? I’ll never graduate if tonight ends with me hurling a liquor bottle at someone’s head when it’s supposed to go over my shoulder.
We dock with the bar, everyone files out, and I swallow hard, willing my chest to expand. Inside bodies heave, retro earth music doesn’t quite drown out the cacophony of murmurs. Two slime-like organisms soak in tubs of margarita, quietly bubbling and absorbing the liquid through their skin. They always leave a ring around the tubs; dishwashers hate them. Everyone here speaks Neo-English, it’s part of the act. There’s a burlesque show up on the stage, and all the staff are human. They once tried out robots, and the place nearly went bankrupt from the resulting furor. Now everyone’s 100% Earth stock. No hybrids, thanks.
The shift leader tells me orders are received via Google Glass, and little else. We’re
mixology cadets; we’re adaptable and versatile. The first rounds go smoothly for me, and my confidence grows. Then something that’s more sentient tentacle than anything else orders a snarzel.
That means handling zellic acid, which means protective gear for me. Zellic acid is a mild barbiturate for these tentacles, and a strong psychoactive drug for humans. But I mix the drink and deliver it to the customer without getting any on me.
I’m sweating, from stress over handling zellic acid and wearing stifling flannel, so I step in the back to splash some water on my face. Wiping the water from my face with my hands, I jump back into the trenches.
I spend twenty minutes mixing drinks while a scientist the size of a pint glass tells me about the time machine he’s building to return to earth and meet humans. I’m human, I remind him. No no, he means real humans. Excuse me.
His words finally slur into gibberish, his head slumps down, and I take a quiet moment to wipe down the bar. Something is wrong. My bar cloth is sandpaper that curls around my hand and threatens to swallow it. Bits of the bar are flying off as I drag the rough material across the wood, they sail peacefully through the atmosphere. That means the gravity system is failing! I latch onto the taps for dear life. They’re attached to pipes that go down below the bar. They’re not going anywhere. Hurriedly, I slap down the sandpaper threatening to escape, and press it to my chest.
A loud rumbling quakes through me, and I look up to see a burly red Yurian peering down at me. Concern constricts the ten eyes all focusing on me.
“Give me a martini.”
I shake my head firmly.
“We don’t have any lids!” I hiss.
“No, but the gravity is off and your drink is going to…”
I trail off, gaze and words following my hand as it waffles through the air. The shift leader approaches. His thick beard is pulsating, heaving and deflating with life. I am transfixed. I think he’s speaking, but all I hear is the crackling sound of his beard writhing on his face.
“What?” I scream, to be heard over his beard.
He grabs my shirt and lifts me to him. I clutch my sandpaper to my chest tighter still,
comforted in the grate against my fingertips. I massage it gently, watching him through heavy lidded eyes. His mouth moves in grotesque ellipticals.
“It’s really hot in here, aren’t you hot?” I wheeze. “You’re soooo hooooot…”
I move my face centimeters from his so he can hear me, but jerk back with a cry as his moustache tendrils grow and grasp for me. I move one hand to start pulling desperately at my clothes. I frown at it. That isn’t my hand. The tattoos on my skin swim, wiggling along under my arm hairs, which rise and fall with each breath. I whimper, and try to rub the tattoos off with the sandpaper. My skin flakes off like the bar did, splinters of it flying across the bar. They land with a splat on the supervisor’s face. Sweat roils across my face, across the ruined bar a Noan in bad human drag tells me she’ll pay to lick my sweat. Her gruesome fangs, exposed by a lack of lips and framed in lipstick, clack deafeningly at me. I start mopping the sweat with my sandpaper, falling in love with the feel of it on my cheek. I moan a little, closing my eyes against the harsh colours and distorted music.
Spongy hands clamp my arms and I am floating, up up up, through the bar to the kitchen. There’s pressure on my eyes and the lids are opened, ocean waves crash into them and I moan, wiggle, try to move.
The table flies up to meet me with a sharp intake of breath that I realise is mine. Everything stops swirling, the sound reverts, sandpaper blossoms into bar cloth. My shirt is missing, I’m partially erect, the shift leader looks furious. He’s holding a bottle of eye drops. The label says zellic acid reversal.
I am no longer enrolled in bartending school.