The noise level in the damp, gloomy cave that passed for a bar was beginning to give Davis a headache. It had been more than four hours now since the shuttle-hop had been 'temporarily' delayed for minor repairs. "Damn these primitive Banzantians," he muttered as he scanned the seemingly endless sea of off-white oversized faces filling the bar.
Banzantia had been very lucky to be brought into the Alliance. These days, a backwards world with no technological advances to contribute was hardly even noticed let alone considered for membership. But certain needs often warrant certain illogical actions. Obviously, the planet's near proximity to some very important military and civilian shipping lanes along with its attractiveness as a vantage point to spy on the neighboring galactic horde did more to influence the decision of acceptance than the charm and intelligence of the global inhabitants.
In short, the hairless wide-eyed little runts made terrible company. Then again, not much more could be said for his drunken companion. "Maxie," Davis said as he shook his sleeping friend. "Come on, wake up already! They'll be calling us for the shuttle any minute."
"I wouldn't count on that, boy," the large dark humanoid said from his position behind the bar. "The last time the Hopper needed so-called 'minor' repairs, the stragglers were cooped up in this port for ten days."
"Christ, you're not joking, are you?"
"Wish I were, boy, but there's no telling when the ship may ever be space-worthy again. Especially with a staff of these slimy little rodents swarming all over it. It may take longer than last time this time."
Davis grunted and buried his head in his hands as he absorbed this bit of news. "Do you think we should look into some rooming then?"
"HA! You'd be right foolish to do it," the bartender laughed and walked away.
Davis grabbed an ice cube from his drink, held it in his hands until it melted somewhat and then slapped some water on his sleeping friend's face. Max came out of his alcohol-induced slumber quite abruptly and, for the first time, Tad Davis realized that the ice in his drink was green. "What the hell is this anyway?"
"What?" Max Brohm drawled as he rubbed his eyes and Davis assured him it was nothing. "How long I been out?"
"Not long, at least I don't think so," Davis replied, not knowing himself just when his friend had fallen asleep at the stained and sticky bar. "But the shuttle's still out of order."
"Dammit," Brohm said and leaned back on the stool to get a better view of the locals. "Jeeesus, but they are ugly."
"Yeah, I've noticed," Davis said and motioned for the bartender to fill up their empty glasses. The dark man approached with an accusing look on his massive facial features. "Haven't you young ones had a little too much already? It wouldn't do for two young humans to go stumbling out of my bar when I shouldn't have been serving you in the first place."
"Who the hell are you kidding, buddy," Davis smirked. "We shuttle hoppers are the only business this hole has to speak of. Christ, you don't have but this one shuttle port anyway. Who in their right mind would force you to stop making money on a younger spender?"
The bartender eyed Davis dubiously for several seconds before breaking out into a genuinely huge grin. "I can't argue with you there, boy. Who ever said that humans have their brains in arrears?" He burst out laughing and, even though Davis wasn't sure he liked that last remark, he found himself smiling just the same. "I like you, boy, and your friend there. This round here is on the house."
"What's the catch?" Max piped in immediately.
"Pah, everything must have a catch with you humans, there is no catch! Just enjoy it while it's here!"
"Thanks," Davis said and drank down half of the foggy blue liquid in one gulp. "Say, what's to do around here, you know, to pass the time?"
"Passing time is easy, boy," the bartender said and leaned on the counter in front of them. "But if it's entertainment you want, you are already in one of Banzantia's hot nightspots. It just happens to be a slow night."
"Slow," Davis blurted. "I can hardly hear myself think in this pit!"
"Yes, the Banzantians are a noisy lot. I usually get a greater mix of species in here but, if you remember, several hundred boarders rode the earlier shuttle to the moon base just before your ill-fated flight was canceled. With that ship went half the fun of this place. All I have in here now is a smattering of you hoppers, a bunch of these awfully white little moles and good old Purple."
"Hey, there isn't one damn thing in here that's any other color but drab, what the hell are you talking about purple?" Max asked with somewhat of a slur.
The bartender was taken aback, a shocked expression smeared across his rather large face. "Just how long have you two been here on Banzantia?"
"Only as long as we've been in this stinking cave," Davis said and gulped down some more blue goop. "We came in on the transfer and decided to hop on up to the moon base before we caught a liner out to the Milkyway."
"Ahh, now I understand," the bartender smiled and sat down, or came as close to sitting down as his debilitated body was able to. "What I have here in my little 'cave,' as you so succinctly put it, is one of the rarest of all space oddities currently in the known universe. Please direct your optical devices to the small booth in the very back of the room there, off to the left just a little bit, do you see it?"
"There's gotta be thirty booths back there," Davis said, more than a little confused.
"Of course, boy, but how many of them are empty?"
Davis squinted hard through the smoke and the dim lights before he noticed one very small booth in the far left corner. It was empty except for somewhat of a shimmering effect. "I can't see squat, buddy," Brohm said and quickly faded back into slumber. Davis watched as his friend's head lolled to one side and the ever-present snoring began and thought to himself how much of a neck ache Max would have once he woke up if he slept like that for any length of time.
"LOOK THERE!" The bartender shouted and Davis whipped back around to face the booth. "There he is, there's my Purple."
Davis squinted harder and suddenly, through the thick smoke and dim light, the form of a man shimmered into view at the same empty booth he had been looking at before. "What in the hell is that? Some kind of mirror trick? A hologram?"
"I'm afraid it's nothing as elaborate as all that," the bartender said and pointed in the shimmering man's direction. "That there is Cameron Hayes, more permanently known in these parts as Purple."
"You mean that's a man, a human man?"
"On the nose, boy, he is as human as you and your sleeping drunk friend."
"So where is the shimmer coming from? Is there a force field around him or what?"
"No, no force field," the bartender laughed. "What you are seeing is a living, breathing, time-space anomaly. A genuine inconsistency with all that modern theoreticians and quantum physicists have been studying and teaching for centuries. A man who can be seen physically but essentially is not there."
Davis turned back to face the bartender, very confused over the man's statements. "Do you mind translating that, friend?"
"No, not at all. What it means is that good old Purple Hayes has been traveling through a seemingly endless space-time warp for the past forty-three cyc...uh...let's see, in your terms, twelve Earth years, almost thirteen. And all of that time he has spent shimmering, as you say, in my back-left booth. It has made my bar quite famous in this quadrant."
Davis turned back to the vision at the back of the bar. No one else seemed to notice the shimmering man in the corner. It seemed all the other patrons of the bar were ignorant to its presence. "Can they see him?"
"As sure as day, boy, but they are all regulars. Like I said, all the tourist-types left on the earlier hop."
Davis leaned forward for a better look and for the first time noticed the face...the face... the bitterly haunting look on the poor bastard's face. As if every moment of its dreaded existence was an eternity in suffering and despair. Davis ripped his eyes from the hellish vision and shook his head to clear it, his breath coming in ragged gasps. His body suddenly seemed to be shaking uncontrollably and his skin was crawling.
"Yes, he is real, boy. He is at once there and not there. He is a fleeting soul, unable to rest yet terrified at what lies ahead. Some say Purple is a ghost of sorts, but me, I know better."
"Why is that?" Davis rasped.
"Because I was here when he first wandered in. When he was still a solid man. I have worked over this slab of bar for what in your terms would be eighteen years and in all that time I have never seen anything as ghastly and condemning as what has become of my old friend."
"What exactly happened to him? What caused his face to look so...so...crazy?"
"Crazy, yes, insanity has claimed him for some time now," the bartender sighed and rose higher in the same position. "Cameron Hayes was part of a scientific team sent to Banzantia in the days before the Alliance had accepted this world into its little realm. You see, boy, this world was fodder for the Alliance. Banzantia was used by the government for all types of experiments and studies, the kind that were still illegal on worlds within jurisdiction of the Alliance. Experiments that would have caused explosiveness, hysteria and massive protestation across the galaxies if their contents had been found out by the public sector. Only in complete secrecy and on a world far remote from Alliance borders could such scientific studies be wrought out. It was one of these experiments that resulted in that horrific vision floating at the back of my bar."
Tad Davis stood from his barstool and took one cautious step closer to the hazy vision floating at the back of the dark cavernous room. "What's happening to him?"
The dark form of the bartender loomed at him from around the counter and guided him closer to Cameron Hayes. "Well, that is somewhat hard to explain for a simple layman such as myself, but against all vanity I must try. If not for myself then at least for you, my small human friend. Let's see, where to begin, where to begin..."
"Try the beginning," Davis rasped.
"Yes, quite an idea, that, boy," the bartender grinned and clamped a hand down on Davis' back, pushing him along ever so slowly. "Some say it started in Aspalonti, a great forgotten city on the eastern bank, and yet some say the research camp was right here in PortCity, a few miles from this 'cave' where you set foot now."
"I should have known a bartender would make a grand issue out of this," Davis said and looked up at the shadowy form. "Just cut out the juicy details and fill me in on this guy. Would you do that for me?"
Suddenly the bartender's grin went from one of faint humor to one of incensed anger. "You want it straight, boy, then that's how you get it!" The voice boomed throughout the natural confines of the underground bar. "Look there! Look upon what you heathens have unleashed upon the universe! Cast your eyes on Cameron Hayes and weep for us all till the very fabric of creation rips from its foundations and condemns every last one of us to eternal HELL!!!" Hands gripped Davis with vise-like pressure and picked the young man from his feet, propelling him at a sickening pace across the sticky floor and to within inches of the flickering face...that poor tortured face...
"Watch it! Soak it in! It is the folly of your race, the ultimate sin against nature and all that is just! LOOK! Peer into those unseeing fathomless eyes and tell me what you see!!! What do you see, boy? SPEAK, DAMN YOU!!!"
Davis met the hard stone floor in a rush that knocked the air from his lungs. Sweat was flowing freely now, soaking his clothes and light jacket within seconds. His face was inches, NO, centimeters from the man's face. Those pitiful eyes staring straight through him as though he himself were the ghost. The horror, the intensity of the pain was vibrating from the man in waves. Davis was racked by sudden nausea and retched the stinking blue goop all over the barroom floor. His lips were trembling, his skin cool and clammy as he slowly rose from the floor and met the fury showing in the bartender's face.
"Do you know just what you have been witness to this day, boy?"
Davis shook his head and wiped the dribble from his chin. "I have no frigging idea."
"Just as I thought," the gargantuan form said and slid down on his knees to peer through the film that was Cameron 'Purple' Hayes. "They do not teach their youth this dreaded part of their history, they wish it to disappear, as if not mentioning the deed will wipe it from existence. Well, I think you deserve a proper history lesson, boy, right here and now, in my damn bar!"
Strong hands seized Davis by the chin and thrust him toward the hazy figure. "Cameron Hayes was a superman, the first of the genetically altered super beings who were supposed to provide the answers to all of the galaxy's problems and the means with which to implement those answers. Mind altering experiments were done, to Purple as well as dozens of other volunteers. Men and women who wanted to be somebody, anybody, even if it meant sacrificing all that they were to get to that level! And the vultures swooped down on them swiftly and mercilessly. Thank the GODS that some were spared and died quickly after their alterations. Others lingered on for what in your terms would be years, three or more...before succumbing to finality! All but Purple. No, Cameron Hayes was the only 'promising' one of the bunch. THE ONE, at least that's what they all thought. The initial results showed fantastic advances in the thought processing centers of his brain. His IQ rose dramatically over a two year period. He was performing amazing mathematical calculations in his head faster than the most progressive computer systems on the planet and those nearby. He was, in all aspects, the first artificially produced SUPERMIND! The missing link! The answer to all their questions.
"And suddenly, Cameron Hayes found himself teetering on the brink of fanaticism! He was much too good for them, their minds too feeble, their thoughts too slow, their intelligence primitive. How could he ever relate to those animals? Nevertheless, they tried to hold him captive, they demanded that he perform for them, they demanded he pay back their hospitality, after all, they had created him!"
After several seconds of eerie silence, Davis turned to face the bartender and said, "And then?"
"Then, yes, then..." the bartender shook his head in dismay, clearly hurting from this painful reliving experience. "Purple Hayes began to show his immense powers, his control of pyrotechnics, telepathy, telekinesis, his ability to reach down into the very depths of his tormentor's minds and flush out all that was themselves. He killed them at will, in unspeakable ways. He burnt down their facilities, their priceless equipment and their laboratories! He brought massive tectonic quakes upon this very spot and entire cities crumbled to dust. He, Cameron 'Purple' Hayes, was the most feared thing on Banzantia and with very good reason. Yet all of this lasted for less than three weeks before the aftereffects began to show themselves. Purple's brain began to mutate. You see, boy, it was the same with all the others, except it took somewhat longer to show up in Purple.
"Of course, he wasn't called Purple then, no, just Lord Master Hayes...and now, look upon him lad, he is nothing but a frightened shell..."
Davis felt a peculiar sensation as he listened to this strange man's story. As if just letting somebody tell it was helping Cameron Hayes more than anything else ever had. "Why did you start calling him Purple?" He rasped through parched lips and clenched teeth.
"Because, boy, Cameron Hayes lives in an asylum now," the bartender sighed. "His mind ultimately mutated into an access-way into other dimensions. The gene altering material in his bloodstream had run its course and left vast cellular radioactive deposits in the lobes of his brain. The material continued to mutate even after four times its predicted half-life had passed. It was at this time that he began to 'Shift' as we call it. One moment, there he was, next moment, nothing! Thin air! A direct thoroughfare into other dimensions. At first, there were only sixteen dimensions, all on different planes of existence, that he could describe. In less than a year, that number jumped to seventy-three! After four years of study...they stopped counting at four-hundred-and-twenty-three-thousand. His mind was a blur and he was passing through them at the rate of eighteen-thousand per second. His absences in 'Shiftime' would only be twenty-two to twenty-three seconds, but we quickly learned that anything in his path once he returned to our plane was totally dematerialized, becoming only atoms spread across the void.
"In all essence, he was clearly insane. He knew this and there was nothing he nor any other sentient being in the known universe could do to stop his headlong plunge into the constant unknown. This was when he came to this bar. This was when he finally came to rest at this back booth. This is where the rest of his harried existence will be played out. In a flickering curtain of dust, the stuff of time and space! This, boy, is virtual unreality! This is what is left of a very valiant and yet stupid individual! A man who played his hand at being GOD and lost in the largest way! We call him Purple, boy, because it goes with his name and what he is experiencing. His mind is opening gateways into other dimensions so fast that he hardly ever 'Shifts' anymore. No, he is almost always there now, present as a ghost of a man, a spirit in limbo, caged to this place! Traveling at several times the speed of light through faces and places he can not even begin to understand. That lonely look on his face is one not only of wanton desire to leave this rock but also one of great DESPAIR! What you see before you is a man traveling through the birth and death of the cosmos thousands of times per second, a man who witnesses all this with ultimate confusion and fear. A man, or what is left of one, who fears fear itself. He is scared and he lives this life in a purple haze...everything around him is neither here nor there, all of it just a blur, a glimpse of what could be, what has been and what is coming...
"In short, boy, Purple is the only suitable name we could think of to call this thing you see before you. And the haze he walks through will never end until he is released from his torture, until his spiritual self gives up, until there is nothing left to see. Some say this will never be and some say he could 'Shift' out forever at any second. Me, I don't believe in anything except this man's struggle with reality itself..." And with those words, the bartender slumped to the floor and silently wept.
Slowly, the small white creatures who had been silent throughout the bartender's oration began to resume their conversations in gibberish Davis could neither understand nor cared to. Glancing across the room to the counter top, he saw Max Brohm had switched positions and was now sprawled atop the counter; various glasses were on their sides oozing their contents into his shirt sleeves. Davis raised an arm and wiped the sweat from his forehead and vomit from his lips. His head was swirling and he cursed the day he ever set foot on Banzantia.
"You're one of them, aren't you?" He asked the bartender but received no response. "You can feel all he feels, can't you? You perceive his thoughts, don't you? You are a mutant just like him, only the radiation altered your physical cell structure and not your brain cells, right?"
The dark form slowly raised his head and looked at Davis square in the eyes. "Only half, boy, the radiation did affect my brain cells. It tuned me in to his frequency. I used to be able to shut it out, boy, when it first began. But since then, it has become...quite difficult."
"Then why don't you leave this place, get as far away from him as you can?"
"Ahh," the bartender sighed. "A question I have asked myself many thousands of times over. An answer that has eluded me from the day Purple Hayes stepped foot in this bar. I was only a waiter back then, an ugly mutated being. But soon the owner was forced away by the sickening presence of Cameron Hayes and I was able to purchase this 'cave' for a hundred-thousand flat. I have made that price back hundreds of times since I took over and, although I feel I could walk away from all this tomorrow or today, something stronger keeps me here. Something linked to my old friend Purple."
Davis lapsed into awe-inspired silence then for what he would later decide must have been hours, just watching the flickering points of light that made up Purple Hayes. The confusion he was feeling seemed to permeate his very innards, it was as if he doubted his own existence, his own memories, his own past. For, after learning about this poor tortured soul, could anything he had ever experienced be more real than the living hell that was the life of Cameron Hayes at this very moment? Could his entire life, the entire history of all that ever was be contained in just a flick of this man's eye? Could virtually all of time and space be centered on this one tortured individual, a human being several billion lightyears from his place of origin? Could everything that had ever happened, infinity at its grandest, be witnessed several thousand times over by the genetically mutated cells that crowded the skull of Cameron Hayes? All of reality and physical existence in a nutshell, seen through the eyes of a certified murderer and lunatic?
The answer hit him then, full-force, like a rock! The sheer folly of it made him burst out in laughter. The patrons of the bar once again lapsed into silence and the bartender stared at him in shock. "Don't you see? Don't you know what this is all about? The answer is so simple!" And Tad Davis had never been so sure about something in all of his life. The key to his understanding not only himself but his very existence had been buried in the story of this one unique person. For that, he owed Hayes a debt he could never repay. All at once, the answers that had evaded his comprehension these many years were at his fingertips and he couldn't be happier.
Looking down at the bartender, he pointed toward the flickering form occupying the booth and said, "You never told anyone else this story, did you?"
The misshapen man cleared the wetness from his eyes and glanced sorrowfully at what was left of the man in the booth. "Of course, I've been telling that story for years."
"But not like this, not in the way you just told it to me, not truthfully and complete, so very complete as to leave nothing out? Have you?"
"Well...no...I guess I never have told it in quite this way, and just why all of this has come rambling out of me I do not understand."
"Not to worry, sir," Davis said and extended a hand to help the bartender to his feet. "It did not come from you but through him. He needed to tell it just as much as you did. You were only a vehicle."
"What are you saying, boy?"
"I'm saying that I have heard you, I have heard all that you have told me and I have thought long and hard about it. I have listened to words in your voice and heard them in his. And I have come to a conclusion, my friend." Davis knelt then and stared hard into the eyes of Cameron Hayes and said, "I believe you and I believe in you..."
The bartender watched in disbelief as the eyes of the man shimmering in the booth turned to face the boy and the words "THANK YOU" played across Cameron's lips. A moment later, the shimmering form flashed brilliantly in an instant of intense white light and then vanished forever.
Davis stood then and turned to face the bartender. Taking a deep breath, a smile creased the dark figure's face and he extended his hand in a gesture of gratitude. "How did you do it, boy? What did you do?"
"I released him, someone had to," Davis replied and walked over to the still sleeping Max Brohm. Hauling his drunken friend to his feet, he looked over to the bartender and said, "By the way...that thank you was for the both of us, not just for me."
A tear crept slowly down the bartender's cheek as he watched the retreating forms of the two humans disappear through the doors of his bar and vanish into the fog of PortCity.