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Black Beer

According to its management, the lighting at the Squirming Pelican is designed to promote intimacy. According to its patrons, it allows them to economise on cleaning. At a dim table in a dim corner, illuminated only by the occasional passing hologram, were three figures: Seamus Johannsen, a large man with a red beard and bags under his eyes, lounging; Aniseed Tooradin, a neatly dressed young woman with short, dark hair, sitting in polite attention; Johnson Andrewes, thin, weedy, with fashionable rimless glasses, making a speech.

"Black Beer," Andrewes said.

"It's a myth," said Johannsen, "like that guy Cuchulain who was supposed to have drunk it."

"A legend, perhaps," Andrewes said, conceding nothing. "Something that existed in the past, and probably still exists today, somewhere, if we can find it."

He looked up, his peaky face illuminated by the dancing holograms, ducking as one made a pass at him, cheered on by a bunch of drunks at the next table.

"I've been watching some old films," Andrewes said. Aniseed looked blank. So did Johannsen. "Two dimensional, preordained entertainments," Andrewes explained, "from when they were in colour."

"I don't know how you stand them," Aniseed said. "Seeing the same thing over and over. The story always ending the same way, even if you don't want it to."

"I like them," Andrewes said. He did. He liked the predictability, the larger than life characters that got their comeuppance after spectacular chases in ground vehicles with no guidance systems and no collisional integrity. And he loved the pubs where the villains schemed and the good guys agonised, slurping at huge mugs of black fluid, their upper lips coated in white foam. Compared with them, the Squirming Pelican was a tatty sleazepit and its beer, served in minuscule glasses, a pale mockery of the real thing.

"And in some of them, there's black beer," he added. "Definitely black, with a white layer on top. So it really existed."

"What's it called?" Aniseed asked.

"There seem to be three names. One's untranslatable, but seems to be preceded by an expression of surprise. Another name translates as 'fat' or 'corpulent'..."

"Maybe the white stuff on top is fat," Johannsen suggested.

"... the other name translates as someone who carries luggage."

"Not very credible names for a real drink," Johannsen said.

"But then, nor is what I'm drinking," Aniseed said, lifting her almost empty glass of Elephant to the light.

Andrewes took the hint. It was his round. He picked up the empty glasses and pushed his way to the bar. A gangster hologram in a crumpled suit and a pork pie hat bailed him up and demanded protection money. Andrewes quoted him Clause 1432A, section ii13, the freedom to drink uninterruptedly without let or hindrance. A real gangster would have ignored it, but the hologram followed its program and shuffled sheepishly away. It was entertainment, after all.

There were no bottles behind the bar, just the gigantic red, orange and yellow canisters of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon on the floor, and the blues, greens and greys of the smaller tubes of trace elements on the racks in front of the mirror, their connecting hoses a sea of worms snaking to the synthesisers along the bar.

But there was a barperson. Andrewes had seen an automated self-serve alcoholotorium in one film, promoted at "the latest" and as most trendy, but apparently they hadn't been popular, and hadn't lasted. He could see why, even today, which was surly day, with Horace taking his time as he snarled at the regulars, demanded the correct price in old-fashioned metal coins, and ignored the visitors.

Horace poured three glasses of Mastodon, which wasn't what Andrewes wanted, and inspected each coin with contempt before sweeping it into the cash drawer, where the sensors checked for both provenance and value before signalling success.

"They used to fake things in those old entertainments," Aniseed said as Andrewes sat down. "Even the stunts. So how do you know the black beer wasn't black tea?"

"I don't," Andrewes said, "but I've had a look on the Galactic Web." He used his Searcher to project a list on to the grey table top. "I've found 77 quintillion references."

Aniseed looked sceptical. "If you data mine them, how many of those are independent sources?"

"Over a thousand."

"And how many are beerfan sites? You know how reliable they are."

"Most of them. But not all."

"Travel sites?"

"Some."

"What's the rest?"

"I found a recipe. From a scanned book called 'How to brew better beers'."

"Brew?"

"I think it means 'make'. Some of the beer manufacturers call themselves 'brewers'."

He projected the recipe on to the table.

"Malt. Hops, ..." Aniseed read. "What are they?"

"Plants, I think."

Aniseed glanced towards the wall, as if to look through it to the concrete, asphalt and bare rock of the planetary surface. "That's not going to be much good, is it? Can't you get the formula?"

Andrewes shook his head. "I've tried, but the manufacturers aren't very cooperative. Commercial in confidence. Even for products they no longer produce."

He projected a letter on to the table.

Dear Mr Andrewes,

Thank you for your enquiry about Black Beer.

We regret to inform you that it is not the policy of this company to supply synthesis algorithms for present or heritage products to third parties.

Yours sincerely,

illegible

Public Relations Manager

"There's a place I can try for you, if you like," Aniseed said.

Andrewes handed her his Searcher. "Show me," he said.

Aniseed handed it back. "It's not like that. It's a traditional library. Hard copy. Writing on plastic, guarded by a dragon who sees it as a personal failure if anyone accesses anything. It may take time."

"How long will it take?"

"Depends how busy she wants to be."

Andrewes looked at his watch. "I don't have long," he said. "I have to leave town."

"Why?"

"Short service leave," Andrewes said. "The auditors told the people at work that I'm becoming indispensable. So they've given me leave, a round the galaxy ticket, and instructions to leave town. So they can learn to do without me."

"Why don't they just sack you?"

Andrewes grinned a diabolical grin. "It's not seen as wise. Historically, it has led to catastrophic failure of key infrastructure at critical junctures. So I'm off to find the holy grail of beer drinkers."

"If it's a holy grail, you'd be better off sitting here writing stories about it, not trekking round the galaxy," Aniseed said. "Wait for me. I'll find it for you."

                              *                                  *                                  *

Aniseed rushed in to the Squirming Pelican just minutes after opening time the next day.

"Where's Andrewes?" she asked.

"Gone," Johannsen said. "On the big trip."

Aniseed hissed. "The stupid idiot. I told him to wait. He's wasting his time. I've got what he needs, right here." She waved a sheet of paper.

Johannsen shrugged. "He'll be back. Just don't lose it in the meantime."

                              *                                  *                                  *

Andrewes' first planet was Dubh Linn, home of the first, and still the most prominent, transgalactic brewery.

The trip to Dubh Linn was pretty uneventful. After his first request to the steward to sip his morning cup of tea, his food remained unpoisoned. His bags were accidentally unloaded on Hines 57, no doubt in the hope that he would leave the ship in an attempt to recover them: a mistake on this most fanatically enthusiastic of all canneries on which the life expectancy of the natives was twenty-five and dropping. He had to change twice: once on Botulinus, where he was arrested for bad breath and spent twenty-four hours in gaol before a gas explosion enabled his escape; and once at Mudball St Peter, where an obliging porter misdirected him onto a ship for True Mecca (where an efficient thought police make even the wish for a drink a capital offence), but panicked by the sight of the flowing robes of the cabin crew, he managed to get off in time.

On reaching Dubh Linn, Andrewes knew that he had struck instant gold. The banner at the spaceport, "Home of Black Beer" said it all.

The mandatory tour of the now disused original brewery flashed by in a haze. The huge vats, large enough to hold a ten storey building, and the huge evaporation pans, stretching to the horizon, where the beer was reduced to powder to be shipped across the galaxy and reconstituted (according to taste) with water, alcohol, paint stripper or concentrated nitric acid, were just detail in the greater scheme.

Eventually they reached the tasting room, the eager crowd jostling for the tiny tasting glasses, handed out one by one from a tiny hatch in the wall.

Andrewes reached the front of the queue, took his glass, and inspected it carefully, the legendary brew twinkling in the overhead light. The look wasn't quite what he'd expected. The black less intense, the white head sparse with bigger bubbles. But maybe that was the small glass.

He sipped it, rolling it around in his mouth. Smooth. Bland. Bit like Elephant.

He took another sip. Very like Elephant.

A third sip. It was Elephant. With black dye.

He approached the tour guide, showed him the glass.

"Is this really Black Beer? The stuff of legend? It tastes like Elephant."

The tour guide almost spat. "It's beer, isn't it? It's black. What more do you want?"

The other tourists looked at him as if he was a freak, then drank appreciatively. It tasted okay to them. And it was free.  

                              *                                  *                                  *

"Anything from Andrewes?" Aniseed asked.

"He made it to Dubh Linn," Johannsen said. "But I don't know if he had any luck. The last half of the message is instant spam."

                              *                                  *                                  *

Burton is the home of Morton's, the galaxy's premier boutique brewery. A fiercely independent family company, it has resisted endless takeover attempts, vicious price cutting and dirty tricks from the big galactic brewers. The latest rumours said that the brewery was not doing well. A sudden drop in production. Some products becoming unavailable. Andrewes knew that those stories were lies. Mischief circulated by competitors. He knew that here, he must find Black Beer.

Morton's brewery stands at the head of picturesque valley, an elegant mix of stone, steel and plastic arranged in a square around a landscaped courtyard featuring a circular lake with a raised bank and a central island.

Andrewes' guide around the brewery was Patrice Morton, an elegant young man with a long face and an overwhelming desire to please.

He took Andrewes through a series of new steel sheds, with bubbling vats and dripping pipes. "This is our research laboratory," Morton said. "We are attempting to reproduce the traditional flavours that made our product so famous." He took Andrewes across the courtyard to an electronics plant. "When a beverage is ready," Morton said, "we do a final analysis and create the synthesiser chips." He gave Andrewes a clear bubbly liquid that he called lemonade, and an amber beer called pilsner.

"These are still experimental," he said.

Andrewes asked about Black Beer.

Morton shook his head apologetically. "We haven't got to that yet," he said.

Andrewes was puzzled. He glanced at the leaflet that he had been given, that extolled a long and distinguished history. He was sure it mentioned Black Beer.

"I thought that you'd been making it for hundreds of years," he said.

Morton's face lengthened. "Yes, we had been," he said. He pointed through the window, towards the lake. "Our plant was there," he said. "We lost so much when the meteorite hit."

                              *                                  *                                  *

"Anything more from Andrewes?" Aniseed asked.

Johannsen shook his head. "I got one word. Wotan. Then the spammers hit."

"So that's where he must be."

"There's three thousand eight hundred and ninety two planets with Wotan in them in this galaxy alone. I'm guessing Wotan 39, Wotan Parva or Wotan Immemorial. But I've no idea why he'd be on any of them."

                              *                                  *                                  *

Andrewes was on Wotan Fred, capital of the 52nd Sector. Not that he wanted to be. It had no beer. For that matter it had no people. Just acres of monumental architecture. And five squabbling planning authorities, which was why the people had left. But it was the only way to Craun.

Andrewes knew that Craun would be difficult. The site he'd found on the Galactic Web described it as a "reservoir of traditional customs and artefacts", but added that the population were "secretive" and that "perseverance was needed" if the more interesting of these were to be revealed. An anonymous correspondent for BeerWeb claimed that their best beers were kept "under the counter" for favoured customers, but did not say whether they had managed to taste them.

Andrewes got there on a tramp freighter with almost no cargo and precisely one passenger.

The spaceport on Craun was dingy and almost deserted.   A customs man searched his one remaining bag, more for something to do than anything else.   An enormous poster dominated the spaceport. Its caption read Your Benevolent Autocrat Loves You All, but the peeling paper revealed fragments of five different faces.

He tried to buy a map, without success, and finally settled for directions to the nearest hotel.

As he left the terminal, one of the space ship crew was explaining something to the customs man, pointing at him as he did so.

His plans for the afternoon were ruined when he found that the pubs were shut. But after a two hour battle with the hotel clerk, who wasn't sure whether they were allowed to take guests, let alone foreign guests, whether they had to be in pairs called Smith (Craun is in one of the more backward parts of the galaxy), and whether the Cockroach Waiver Form had to be filled in in triplicate or sextuplicate, he set out to begin his research on Black Beer.

The nearest pub was called the Railway Hotel. As far as Andrewes knew, Craun had never had a railway (the terrain was far too steep). It had now opened. It was a dingy pub with brown tiles, grey linoleum, and nowhere to sit. The three others within sight looked no better.

He leaned against the bar and tried to make conversation, but with no success.   The locals left a two metre semicircle around him, which they would not cross even to go to the lavatory.

Even if they had talked to him, it was hard to know what to say. He couldn't say "Nice day", because he wasn't sure whether smog at roof-top level was good weather or bad weather.   The beer was sour and watery (he had seen no sign of anything even vaguely black), so he couldn't compliment them on that. Anything else he tried to say was greeted with a glare.

He tried the three other pubs with equal success, so he decided to stick to the Railway.

Very soon, he got the feeling that he was being watched.   As he walked along the street, there were footsteps behind him, but if he looked back, there was nobody, although once he thought he saw a figure ducking back around a corner.

His telephone was tapped.   Each time he telephoned the space port to find out the right time, there was an extra click and the volume dropped. Every day, his belongings were searched, and his pencils stood carefully on end in random patterns.

Every time he counted the fly-spots on the ceiling, there seemed to be one more.

Finally, after a week, the barman at the Railway Hotel spoke to him.

"You a stranger here, mate?" he asked.

"I'm on holiday," Andrewes said.

The barman guffawed.   "Carm off it, mate.   Nobody holidays on Craun. Come to think of it, the word's probably subversive."

Andrewes grinned. "I'm writing a book on beers of the Galaxy," he told him. "I'm doing the field work for it. "

"Good on yer, mate," he said, thumping him on the back.   "What do yer think of ours?"

"Not bad," Andrewes said cautiously.   "Bit on the thin side, perhaps."

The barman winked.   "'Horrible, isn't it?   Three governments ago, they shot the brewers, every man of 'em. Went high tech. Synthesisers." He gestured behind the bar. "The beer just hasn't been the same since."   His face assumed a melancholy expression.   "It used to be real thick and black," he said.

A chill ran up Andrewes' spine. "Then there's no Black Beer," he said in a hushed voice.

The barman shook his head. "Not a drop," he said, slamming the door on Andrewes' hopes.

He wiped the bar with a dirty cloth.

"Tell you what there is, though," the barman said in a "storytelling" voice, "There's a camp in a dark, dank valley with no name, right near here. They keep the terrorists there. No charge, no trial. Some of them've been there three generations. And most of them are there because they asked for the drink you just asked for. 'Cos it's what the terrorists drink. We've seen it. On the fillums." His voice echoed with doom. He looked up at the fly specks on the ceiling. "You'd better go. Now. Before they find out what you just said."

                              *                                  *                                  *

It was almost noon, but it was gloomy in the steaming jungle, the mud of the narrow track squelching underfoot, the screaming whine of the insects blotting out the sound of Andrewes' steps. He was alone. His guide had left him at the river, five days ago, saying "You can't miss it."

Andrewes was on Mato Grosso, and within reach of his goal. Or was it his last hope? A remote community of the far side of a remote planet.

On forty three planets, his carefully acquired visas hadn't worked. It seemed, the bigger and more colourful the visa, the less chance he had of being let in. Careful explanations of his mission cut no ice. Nor did heartfelt aspirations to see obscure cultural artefacts. Instead, little men in big uniforms had turned him away, loading him on to the next space ship out, often not even in the right direction.

The smudgy stamps supplied by twenty seven planets had worked every time, though on nineteen occasions he'd been told politely "You won't find it here," and on all twenty seven he hadn't.

On Floss, they'd dispensed with beer altogether. A sickly sweet pink liquid that "the kids really go for" was the only output from the synthesisers.

"Do you have any of the old chips?" Andrewes had asked on his last thirteen planets, more in hope than anticipation. He had been told "No". They were all returned to the suppliers. "They charge us a rental fee, otherwise, even if we don't use them." And the suppliers were the big beer companies, Elephant, Cheetah, McOuagadougou, so there was no joy there.

But Mato Grosso, it was different, or so he thought. There was a rush of joy as the immigration official said, rather apologetically, "It's not real big here, but I think you're right -- they still do it at Khorasm."

A hypersonic flight across half the planet to a port city at the mouth of a great river. But the promised fast ferry was a burned out hulk, pulled up on the river bank.

"It wrecked the river banks," the ticket agent said. "But no worries. We'll honour your ticket." He pointed to a battered brown bus, its roof a sea of solar panels. "You'll need to get that up to Halfway. The regular ferry goes from there."

Andrewes had his misgivings. The fast ferry was supposed to take a week. How long would this take? But it was his last chance. A remote, traditional community, the Galactic Web said, that still did everything the old way. Grew plants, even, if the Web was right.

The trip took longer than his wildest nightmares.

A seven day ride in the solar powered bus, lumbering along potholed roads past forests of tree stumps at half speed under overcast skies, arriving at the Great River port two days after the monthly ferry had left; two weeks on a hired boat, also solar powered, until the jungle canopy closed over the narrowing river and it could go no further; a week in a canoe, until the fast-flowing current was more than four strong men could handle; then legs, and a heavy pack.

But now, the jungle was thinning. There was light ahead, a brilliant glare of reflected light that lit up the sky.

He stepped out from under the trees, shielding his eyes, on to a hillside overlooking a brand new stainless steel city stretching to the horizon. In the distance, the trail of a spaceship taking off.

                              *                                  *                                  *

"Isn't Andrewes back yet?"

Johannsen shook his head. "He should be. My guess is that he's found it and is stinking drunk on some remote asteroid."

"No messages?"

"Just the usual spam."

                              *                                  *                                  *

It was Welcome, Stranger day at the Squirming Pelican, the day Andrewes returned, so he was served first. A leaner, meaner Andrewes with rumpled clothes and rumpled face. Horace accepted his random collection of alien coins without a murmur, though at a distinctly discounted exchange rate. Andrewes made a mental note to watch his change for the next few months, to guard against recycling.

He thumped down at a table next to Johannsen, who remained silent, knowing any word would be the wrong one.

"Black Beer's extinct," Andrewes said. "Totally extinct. The manufacturers pretend. Brand names like Black Panther, Night Rituals. Licorice milk shakes. But none of it's the real thing. And they're happy about it! Look at what they sent me when I had a go at them on the way back."

He projected a letter.

Dear Mr Andrewes,

Thank you for your recent communication regarding our current product range.

You will appreciate that the extinction, as you call it, of beers is an unfortunate commercial reality. The evolution and refinement of taste provides an ongoing catalyst for the continuous improvement of our product to produce new and better brands, which, of necessity, supersede older, no longer popular, product. With any such "extinction", it is inevitable that some elements of the  associated culture will be lost. To attempt to recreate an extinct beer is a mockery, because it is an artefact without a culture.

We appreciate your interest in our product, but would like to suggest that a full exploration of the rich variety of our current product would be a more satisfying exercise of your enthusiasm.

Yours sincerely,

illegible

Sector Sales Deputy Vice Manager

Johannsen read and nodded sympathetically.

"Time for Plan B," Andrewes said.

"Which is?"

"Find the discarded chips."

"What if they were reprogrammable? Or recyclable?"

"So what? Some will still get chucked away. The only question is, where?"

"That's easy," Johannsen said. "Joe's."

When Aniseed came in ten minutes later, they were gone.

 "Damn," she said.

                              *                                  *                                  *

Joe's junkyard is a huge rotating disk, two light years across, high above the galactic plane. Fleets of spaceships, mothballed for an upturn that never comes, hang beside planet-sized excavators, broken down washing machines and the debris of discarded libraries.

Joe is small, neat and chirpy, talking endlessly as he presides over his empire from a plastic shack.

"Chips. Sure. They're here." He drew a mud map with a light pen. "Synthesiser chips are easy. There's a special key. Guarantees the outputs are fit for human consumption. Product type's coded in. Sell you a sorter if you need one." He drew another mud map. "They're over here. Chippolator's the best. Does a million chips a second."

They collected a sorter on the way to the chip field. Andrewes had checked the catalogues. The latest did a hundred times the rate, but was a thousand times the price.

 The ship drifted slowly, a cloud of silicon midges brushing past, bouncing and swirling. A small pile of chips built up in the hopper.

"Can we try them?" Andrewes asked.

Johannsen pointed to the test bench beside the airlock -- a mini laboratory, sealed behind glass, whose main job was testing alien atmospheres, liquids and solids. He clipped a chip into the laboratory's synthesiser and directed its output to a beaker on the bench.

A black fluid flowed slowly from the synthesiser, swirling gently into the waiting beaker. White bubbles formed on the surface, then broke. A test needle dropped, sucked up some fluid. A flurry of letters and numbers scrolled across a screen, then a red light lit up, the screen flashed and an alarm started a raucous "barp, barp".

"Poison," Johannsen said, He pressed a button to flush the compartment, then fitted a new chip.

A red liquid fizzed and bubbled from the synthesiser. Then a lime green sludge. A black ooze. A colourless, still liquid.

The ship's communicator beeped. Johannsen ducked to view the message. "We've got to stop," he said. "Joe says we're venting corrosives."

Andrewes was overwhelmed by a gust of anger. "So what? Tell him where to go. This is urgent!"

Johannsen shook his head. "It's his junk. We shouldn't wreck it for him. We'll collect as many chips as we can, then test them at home."

                              *                                  *                                  *

It was cheery day at the Squirming Pelican, Horace with an undertaker's smile and the holograms performing an impromptu song and dance.

Andrewes wasn't cheerful. Of ten thousand carefully selected chips, not one had yielded black beer. Only two had yielded a product fit for human consumption, and that had been water. Johannsen's theory was radiation damage, Andrewes' that the chips were sabotaged by the manufacturers before dumping. He sipped at a substitute (Elephant) and thought it might be time to go back to work.

Aniseed swirled in, sat down, thrust a piece of paper at him. "I've been looking for you," she said.

"I've been away," Andrewes said.

Aniseed tapped the paper. "Read it," she said.

Andrewes glanced at it. "It's a formula," he said.

"Black Beer. Planetary food regulations. Manufacturers have to lodge it before they can sell anything. It's from the Parliamentary Library. Thousands of years of old records. If you hadn't pissed off, I'd have given it to you months ago."

The holograms looked on in amazement as Andrewes raised his arms in a rousing victory cheer.

                              *                      *                      *

A black fluid flowed slowly from the synthesiser, settling as a cloudy brownish liquid in the glass. The flow stopped. Slowly, the liquid began to separate, tiny bubbles rising to the top, forming a layer of pure gleaming white above a clear black body.

The test needle dipped in. They waited. The analyser beeped. A green light came on.

Johannsen opened the cabinet, lifted the glass out, handed it to Andrewes.

"You're the expert," he said.

Andrewes looked that the glass for a moment, his face set.

Aniseed leaned forward urgently. "Try it!" she said.

Andrewes sipped, expressionless, the white layer forming a moustache on his upper lip. He sipped again, his face still set.

"What's it like?" Aniseed said insistently.

Andrewes made a face. "It's bitter," he said, "and it's got a burned taste."

"What do you expect? It's black. With food, black means burnt," Aniseed said. She took the glass and sipped. Her mouth twisted into a rictus grin. "Yuk!"

Johannsen took the glass, sipped, and shook his head. "Not exactly nectar," he said.

Andrewes looked accusingly at Aniseed. "Are you sure it's the right formula?"

Aniseed was scornful. "Course it is. They test the damn things for compliance." She pointed to the paper. "There's the stamps."

"Do they taste it?"

Aniseed nodded.

"Are they competent to taste it?"

Aniseed's temper flared. "Of course they are. They're experts. They can even tell Elephant from Mastodon, which is more than you can."

Johannsen frowned. "Maybe the brewers are right," he said slowly. "Tastes do change."

Aniseed nodded, abstractedly. She'd remembered something about the films. The long drawn out initiation rites, where boys, faces rigid, learned to become men by drinking the beer.

"I think there may be more to it than that," she began. Her voice tailed off as Andrewes sipped again in hope, then moved to tip the rest of the glass away.

"You mustn't do that!" Aniseed's voice became sharp. "You don't tip a holy grail down the sink."

She moved, so that the light was behind her head, like a halo, her arms outstretched in an inverted V, palms of her hands forward, commanding, exhorting.

"The bitterness in the taste, the ashes in your mouth, are a message," she said, "that you are not yet worthy. You must undertake penance, mortification. You must eschew the Elephant, cease the Cheetah, abandon the Mastodon, spurn the McOuagadougou and devote yourself, unsparingly, to this one, sacred, brew. And only then, when you are cleansed, will the taste change, and become nectar."

Andrewes blinked, then sipped, reluctantly.

"How long will that take?" he asked.

"Until you reach harmony with the universe," Aniseed said.

 

Copyright D.W. Walker, 2004


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