I can feel the adrenaline hit me like a drug. Pupils and arteries dilate, non-essential internal functions slow down or stop completely, my hands ball into fists at my side. We’re starting to draw attention from the other patrons, sharks sensing blood. Conncomms come out, ocular implants begin recording, internet connections are established. Something funny and fucked up is about to happen, and it has to be recorded for posterity, for eternity.
My lips curl back in a snarl. Fangs are bared. Part of me wants this. Part of me really wants this, has always wanted it, some dumb atavism left over from when our ancestors devoured each other to survive. This kid’s strong, young, just dumb enough not to back down, but I’m not so old yet that I can’t go toe-to-toe with him. He’s doing the wrong part of the dance, too. Still beating his chest and wanting to work with his hands, not realizing that we’re close enough that I could smash my forehead into his face, tear into his nose with my teeth, drive my knee into his groin with the force of a comet crashing to Earth.
He wants champagne. He wants restitution. He wants recompense.
I want to hurt someone.
But he’s just a dumb kid trying to prove to himself and his friends that he’s as tough as he thinks he is, that he can run farther, lift bigger, drink harder, and fuck better than anyone else. I get that. I was like that, once, before proving how great I was became less important to me and just enjoying myself became a worthy goal in and of itself. Hell, sometimes I still am like that. Not that long ago, maybe a year, maybe more, maybe less, I would have stood up from my chair and smashed my beer bottle against the side of his head. We would have fought like apes, screaming and snarling and each desperately trying to beat the other into submission.
But I’m not in the mood for that tonight. I’m tired. I’m hungover. My nervous and cardiovascular and respiratory systems are about twelve hours away from calling a general strike. I’m too old for this shit, and I’m not even ten years older than these kids.
And they outnumber me. I’d give myself better than even odds against any of them, but I don’t like my chances when it’s three-against-one. The only thing left to do is play the bravado card. Why not? It’s served me well so far.
“Get. Your fucking. Hand off me,” I say through clenched teeth. The kid’s expression doesn’t change, which is at once disheartening and reassuring: disheartening that I didn’t intimidate him, reassuring that he’s not quite ready to escalate the conflict. I raise my left arm, catch him in the elbow, knock his own arm away, and we just stare at each other. “I don’t have your champagne, junior, and I’m not about to buy you another bottle. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I took it. I really am. It was a stupid, senseless, shitty thing to do. You and your buddies didn’t deserve it. And you didn’t deserve the humiliation you got after. But I can’t do anything more to make this right. If the apology’s not good enough, then I guess just throw the first punch and we’ll settle this that way.”
He says nothing. Just stares me down like some kind of stupid animal. This must be what it’s like to stare down a ram, I think. A boar. Some mammal that’s flipping a coin in its brain trying to decide whether or not it’s worth it to just lower its skull and charge.
I sigh. I turn my back. I sit down and stare at my empty bottle, consider ordering another one.
He throws the first punch at the back of my skull.
* * *
It’s a testament to the sociality of human nature and the efficiency of the bar’s security team that things were end as quickly as they do. The kid and his friends only get in a couple of good shots, pelting my head and my torso with their fists, before some good Samaritans grab them and pull them off me, before some irritated bouncers bonk them in their faces. And if I’m being perfectly honest, the kid and his friends probably don’t want to murder me so much as teach me a lesson. That lesson might have put me in the hospital, but Hell, isn’t that better than the morgue?
I stumble out of the bar, a coupon good for one (and only one!) free drink courtesy of the management in my hand, the other locked in position over my heart, where the vial of beast is. It survived the altercation (which is more than I can say for my Conncomm,) and the only thing I want to do now is get back to the Libretto, take the Beast, and sink into bed.
The scream of sirens comes often as I walk the streets of the Meadows. The noises always belong to ambulances, never to security, never police. The “night” sky is black as tar, black as coffee, black as the void, as the Beast. The streetlights and billboards make the valleys between the skyscrapers as bright as day, but when you look up, it’s full dark, no stars.