Chapter 6 – Drinks

Paperwork is evil. It truly is. And as much of a novelty as the mind probe proved to be, everything descended into a messy tangle of paperwork once the dream ended.

If you thought that we'd have finished the mind probe when we'd woken up, you'd be sadly mistaken. There was, of course, the issue of briefing the chemist on just what he'd dreamed about. And then there was the question of helping him to interpret the dream's contents – there couldn't possibly be such a thing as a Kekule structure for a complex polymer, for instance, and so the ring-shaped molecule he'd toyed with in his dream was clearly something to do with the concept of resonance, but which was somehow applicable to polymers.

Confused already? Good, then you know exactly what I had to go through right after the mind probe.

And there was the paperwork which I'd mentioned earlier, of course. We were given a stack of documents to fill out and sign, some of which were quite bizarre. Fortunately, Zachary handled most of it, and guided me through the parts which I needed to finish.

By the time we were done with the interpretation of the probe's results and the paperwork, it was already sometime past four in the afternoon. Mercifully, we were given the rest of the day – just under an hour, really – off.

xxx

"... And why are we going to the industrial district, again?" I asked Zachary sleepily, as we got off the train a few stops before getting home. "I don't know about you, but I could really use a nap right now."

"Nonsense!" he huffed, waving a hand dismissively at me. "Today was your first complete mind probe, and you did admirably in it. Frankly, I was surprised at how much you could tell him when we were interpreting the dream – most newbies forget half their shit by the time they exit the dreamscape."

Dreamscape. Now that was a pleasant enough term for the imaginary realm in which we'd seen the chemist doing his thing. "I'm sure it's just beginner's luck."

"Modest, too. The ladies will love you, that's for sure!"

"Oh, put a lid on it, would you? Where are we going, anyway?"

Zachary blinked in confusion for a moment without even stopping in his tracks, and replied, "Ah, that. We, my dear, are going for a drink!"

I frowned at him. "At five in the evening?"

"Well, it's happy hour in our usual bar!" he declared happily. "And of course, in the great tradition of all workplaces, the first job well done always calls for a drink!"

"You," I shook my head, "are insane."

"Very incredibly, awesomely, and sexily so. Now, there's the bar! Hopefully the others will be here soon," Zachary all but sang, gesturing towards a shady-looking bar tucked into an alley between two ancient apartment blocks. Seriously, those buildings looked like they'd been built a century ago, if the complete absence of paint and solid red bricks were any indication.

We walked up to the bar's front door, which was made of what looked like bulletproof glass, tinted completely black. Smart of the proprietor, if you stopped to think of it, really – he would be able to see whoever it was that was at the door, and yet they'd be unable to see into the bar. There could have been a shotgun aimed at the door for all a visitor knew, since all they'd see as they approached the door was their own reflection.

Zachary pushed the door open – causing a bell to chime cheerfully somewhere else in the bar – and sauntered into the bar. I followed him into the dimly-lit establishment, noticing how all of its patrons had looked up as we'd entered the place. Just for a second, though – they had all returned to whatever it was they had been doing within a blink of an eye of us crossing the threshold.

I was a little startled when I saw that there actually was a shotgun mounted on the ceiling and aimed at the door. Looks like I wasn't the only paranoid person around town, these days.

"Oi, Pops!" Zachary called out as he hopped onto one of the bar stools. "The usual for me!"

"Is that you, Zachary?" a nasally voice sounded out from behind a towering rack of liquor bottles. "Or am I hearing things again?"

"Damn it, Pops, just give me my usual!" he hollered back, grinning all the while. "Pick your poison, dude."

"Hmm, I think I'll just have a cranberry juice," I told him, feeling a little out of place – drinking had never really been a favourite pastime of mine.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Zachary scoffed, before turning back towards where the bartender's voice had come from. "Pops, make that two of the usual!"

"I don't think I should be drinking, now –"

"Can it, dude! Neither of us is driving, and the beds in the detention cells aren't too bad for sleeping off a hangover, really. No probes are scheduled for tomorrow, so all's cool."

I just sat there on my bar stool, feeling a tad overwhelmed by his over-the-top behaviour, as I had been for the last couple of weeks. Really, how did you handle someone like Zachary Harding?

The bell connected to the door chimed again, and I briefly turned around to see who the bar's newest visitors were. As it turned out, they were none other than the triplets from applied neurology – three men with pageboy haircuts who were identical save for their neckties, which were black, white, and absent, respectively. To my knowledge, they were also employees at applied neurology, though their specific jobs were still a mystery to me.

"Zachary," nodded Black Tie, as the three of them came to a stop right behind us, standing in a perfectly straight line.

"Good to see you here," added White Tie, taking off his sunglasses and keeping them in the pocket of his blue suit.

"How did the rookie's probe go?" asked No Tie, as he looked around the bar. "Shall we get a table?"

Zachary had apparently not noticed their entry or approach, and so their voices caused him to jump a little. "Yan, Yin, and Yun! Always a pleasure to meet you three here!"

"Stow it," White Tie said curtly.

"There is a table there," pointed out No Tie.

"Why don't we all take it, then?" asked Black Tie, as he ran a comb through his hair.

Zachary got up, and I followed suit. We went with the triplets to the table No Tie had spotted, which turned out to be near the jukebox, just as the hulking machine starting playing an oddly catchy version of that Romanian song everyone had been so crazy about in the twenty-first century. The five of us took our seats at the table, and the triplets almost immediately rounded on me.

"First probe today, we heard," White Tie said pleasantly, giving me a flat stare.

"And someone's apparently good at his job," continued Black Tie, as he drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

"And we're not talking about Zachary," finished No Tie, as he raised a hand to flag down a waitress.

The three of them gave me curious looks, all at the same time. It had an eerie effect, to say the least, what with three pairs of emotionless eyes all pointing in my direction simultaneously. Finding myself quite unable to articulate a proper response, I settled for returning their stares, one at a time – as much as I would have liked to stare down all three of them at once, I lacked compound eyes, alas. Luckily, the bartender came up to the table with our drinks just as the handicap staring match was about to enter its second round.

"Alright, lads!" he drawled, as he started unloading his tray onto the table. "Here we go... two Screwdrivers, one Black Russian, a White Russian, and an Irish Coffee. Anything else I can get you?"

Black Tie offered him a jaunty salute. "No thanks, Pops."

"Maybe a bowl of peanuts, though?" No Tie asked politely.

"And a second would be good," White Tie added.

"You guys," said Pops the bartender, shuddering a little, "need to stop doing that mind-reading shit. It's creepy as fuck."

"Apologies."

"It's just the way we are."

"Have a nice day, Pops."

As soon as Pops headed back to the bar, the three of them turned back to staring at me. The most I could do was to give them a bewildered look, before settling for a loss in the great stare-off and reaching for my Screwdriver – why Zachary had chosen that for me, I didn't know. At least it didn't have any bubbles in it, nor did any of the other drinks at the table, for the matter.

"And...," said No Tie softly.

"It appears that...," Black Tie continued.

"We win," finished White Tie triumphantly.

As one, they turned to face Zachary, and smirked at him. "You lose, my good man."

"All right, all right," he grumbled, making a shooing gesture at them. "First round's on me today, then."

He thumped me on the back, and sighed dramatically. "Did you really have to lose? At this rate, no one's going to beat them at a staring match."

"They've got six eyes between them," I said, even as I rolled my own eyes. "And you never said anything about a staring match!"

"Peanuts!" announced Pops as he reappeared at our table with two bowls of the fried treats. "Have a good time, lads!"

If there was one thing that seemed to be for sure thus far, it was that Pops had excellent timing.

xxx

We ended up having dinner at the bar, which was surprisingly good despite the place's rundown appearance. The drinks were just as good – don't take my word for it, though – and the music was relaxing in an outdated, cheery sort of way. Somehow, the jukebox seemed to have been stocked only with tunes dating up until somewhere about twenty-ten, and so some really old stuff ended up being played during our meal.

The company I had for dinner wasn't too bad, either. For all their apparent creepiness, the triplets turned out to be a source of good conversation, their solid demeanours balancing out Zachary's hyperactive nature. As it turned out, Black Tie was Yan, White Tie was Yin, and No Tie was Yun, although they admitted to occasionally switching the neckties around to get around their timetables.

Inevitably, I suppose, the topic of discussion went back to our work.

"So why were you so eager to get out at the end, Zachary?" I asked him as I skewered a fish ball with my fork.

"Eh?" he asked, halfway through twirling some noodles around his fork. "Say what say where say when?"

"In the mind probe just now," I reminded him, as I bit into the fish ball. "Near the end, you were all bothered about me not getting out of it fast enough."

Yun answered, "Mental fallacy."

"Not something you want to get stuck in," Yan said, nodding.

"Some very nasty stuff," agreed Yin.

Zachary cocked his head in their general direction. "What they said. Getting into a mind is a little easier than getting out, so if you linger while exiting, it could catch on to your presence and trigger the red lights. No biggie, really."

"Sudden coma's a biggie," deadpanned the triplets in unison. "Didn't you warn him about it?"

"Oh, alright," Zachary said, shrugging. "So perhaps he might have ended up going into a coma, or maybe I forgot to mention some things. No point in panicking him before his first trip into the dreamscape, anyway."

"You," I said, pointing my fork at him threateningly, "are a sick, sick bastard."

"That he is!" chorused the triplets, nodding in agreement.

"I could have gone into a coma!" I said, torn between awe and horror.

Zachary merely raised an eyebrow, and stuck his tongue out at us. "Sucks to be you."

"How juvenile," I remarked, causing the triplets to let out identical snorts into their food.

"We like this one," they said, nodding in a perfectly synchronised manner that sent shivers down my spine.

I leaned in and whispered into Zachary's ear, even as the triplets started eating again. "Are they always like that? It's freaky."

"Beats me how they do it, but they do," he shrugged. "Must be some triplet telepathy, or something like that."

"... You seriously expect me to believe that?" I huffed disdainfully. "Mind probing with electrodes is questionable enough, but telepathy's pushing it, Zachary."

He offered me a smirk. "Believe what you will, but this world's a much more interesting place than you give it credit for being, dude."

"Stop calling me that!"

"What, dude?"

"That!"

"... Just what is your problem, anyway?"

The triplets gave me a pointed look, and shook their heads. "Weirdo."

For some reason, their declaration of me being weird served as a cue for silence at our table. We turned back to our respective meals, and ate in peace for a short while. This was helped by Pops' bar being a rather peaceful for a place that served liquor.

It was not helped, though, by the fact that Yan's meal seemed to be moving on his plate.

"What is that?" I asked him, feeling a mixture of curiosity and disgust as I watched him cutting up the pulsating red mass of flesh on his plate.

"Eh?" he looked up, and noticed what had drawn my attention. "Oh, this."

"Supposed to be a fresh heart," commented Yin.

"From a cow, though how they keep it beating is beyond us," added Yun.

I must have made a face, because the three of them broke out into laughter, even as Yan started nibbling on the oozing red meat. Mildly desperate to divert my attention towards something less disturbing than the thought of Yan devouring some long-dead animal's heart, I ended up turning to Zachary for a distraction.

"You said it was easier to enter a mind than to leave it," I said, recalling something he had just mentioned. "Care to elaborate?"

He leaned back in his seat, and sipped his drink. "Well... the mind's not really a book that you can read, you know? So trying to pull things out of it is quite difficult."

"But planting stuff is easy," said Yan, dabbing at his mouth with a piece of tissue paper.

"Like a seed, really," mused Yin.

"Just get an idea into someone's head, and it'll propagate a chain reaction on its own," added Yun with a nod. "Whether it sets in and takes hold... now that's a different story altogether."

That made sense, at least. "I see..."

Zachary squinted into his glass. "You'll get used to all this abstract shit soon enough. Now, is it me, or is there a lipstick stain on my glass?"

xxx

If there was one thing I learned that evening, it was that bar food could be surprisingly tasty if you knew where to look. Of course, the possibility of me getting food poisoning from said food was also very real, but as the old saying went, you could always close one eye. And at least the bar looked clean enough, if you didn't make the grave mistake of using its toilets.

Pops the bartender also seemed friendly enough. However, the fact that he had mounted an actual, loaded shotgun on the ceiling and pointed it at his front door made me have second thoughts about whether he was actually a homicidal maniac in disguise. It also made me wonder if he was quietly poisoning customers who irritated him.

Yes, my mind tends to go to dangerous places if left unwatched while under the influence of alcohol. Put the blame on Zachary for that, would you? That bastard and his Screwdrivers made sure that I was barely capable of making it onto the train without stumbling off the platform.

At least he'd had the decency to help me get back to my apartment.

"I don't think I'll be going drinking again anytime soon," I muttered, as I stumbled up to the door of my apartment, with Zachary propping me up from the side. "This headache just sucks."

"We'll need to work on that alcohol tolerance of yours, then!" the bugger cheerfully replied, as he slapped me on the back, nearly sending me head-first into my own front door. "Trust me when I say that you can always beat alcohol, be it in terms of addiction, allergies, or intolerance!"

All I could do was to nod numbly as I unlocked my front door and stepped into the darkness of my apartment. The darkness was soothing, particularly given that my head felt like a gang of bull elephants were having a rowdy bachelor party in it, strippers and techno music included. Then there was the fact that I was usually asleep by eleven, and that the time was presently somewhere past midnight.

"Goodnight, Zachary," I mumbled, as I leaned on my door and decided to not switch the lights on. "See you tomorrow, alright?"

"See you around, then!" he said happily, in a voice that was probably loud enough to have woken up half of the residents on the floor. Instead of heading for the elevator that would take him down to the lobby, though, he opted for the stairs which led to the railway station, instead.

As much as I had a throbbing headache, seeing him going off in that direction was enough to pique my interest.

"Going somewhere, Zachary?"

"Eh?" he turned around, and waved at me. "Nah, just going for a stroll for a while. Got to love taking walks at night, when the world's half asleep!"

"You," I said slowly, blinking my heavy-feeling eyes, "are nuts."

"The best sort, dude! Go to sleep!" he chirped, as he spun about on his heel and practically pranced through the doorway and down the stairs to the train station.

I just stood there for a few minutes, feeling completely and utterly lost. Only after a particularly nasty throbbing sensation started in my head did I finally retreat into the calming darkness of my apartment and shut the door.

For the first time in years, I slept without dreaming.