A Comp at the Twilight Club

“Do you miss it?”

Steve looked up at his bartender, averting his gaze from the empty beer mug he’d fixated upon for some time. “What do you think I’m missing?” Steve asked, sending his response not through his beak, but through his mind.

There were two ways this Twilight Club bartender could define the word “it” in this situation. If this was a well-informed and experienced construct, “it” would refer to the events– and good-byes– that led to Steve’s current alcoholic melancholy. With his glance, Steve could tell that this bartending entity wasn’t so well-aged. The skin was too clean and too plasticy. It wasn’t freshly-cured and straight out of the alchemist’s mold– it takes time to “program” one of these pods to perform public-facing tasks like serving drinks and chatting up patrons for bigger tips– but the artifice was still obvious. Given this was a less-trafficked Twilight Club location, that could be due to less wear and tear, but that would also mean less chances for this model to be in the know.

This was definitely a fresh homunculus working the Reno Twilight Club, and that meant it was referring not to Steve’s experiences, but to his origins.

“Down there. Do you miss being away from down there?” The bartender pointed down with his left hand as he placed a new pint of beer in front of Steve. “And I don’t mean Australia, mate.” The homunculus added in a painfully awkward accent to that line, sounding more like Schwarzenegger than Paul Hogan. “Hell. Do you miss Hell, Mr. Imp?”

Steve huffed as he downed his fresh beer in a single gulp. “When was the last time you remember seeing one of me in here? And he doesn’t count.” Steve said as he pointed at the barstool marked “reserved” at the end of the counter.

The bartender briefly paused cleaning the glass in his hand, its eyes rolling back a bit. A true sign that this model was still learning the ropes of accessing its preprogrammed memories. “It seems I only know you’re an imp through other means.”

“Exactly, buddy!” Steve said as he slapped down both his flippers on the countertop. “Imps rarely get to “miss” Hell, or whatever it’s branding itself as now, because going places that let you get to miss it is usually impossible. If any of us get summoned, it’s usually by accident. When someone like me shows up, it isn’t because some human picked me from the menu. At best an imp is like a stray cat roaming into your yard. But usually we’re more like that roach or rat you caught in your garbage can. We get zapped, slammed, shot, and sliced in order to help get the demon guy they really want! And when we end up back “down there,” we get right back to toiling and suffering because everyone else is bigger, meaner, stronger, and smarter than us. So, no, Steve here doesn’t miss Hell one bit!”

“Apologies, Steve.” The homunculus stuttered slightly before saying the imp’s name, a hiccup in its memory processing. Not only was this a fairly fresh hunk of flesh, it was also a bit buggy. Steve knew Reno was mostly an also-ran Las Vegas, but even this sloppiness surprised him. Something felt off.

“Nevermind the help,” interjected a deep voice from behind Steve. “We here in Reno aren’t exactly known for anything stimulating beyond actual stimulants. And I don’t think you’re here for that, are you?”

A fairly unassuming figure sat down on the stool next to Steve. He wore a tan, ill-fitting suit, the pants too large for the man’s stubby legs and his jacket too tight for his rotund body. Steve’s been around enough humans to know this isn’t an out of the ordinary shape for one of the Earth Apes, but his shape was also too similar to his own. Steve got used to being called a “penguin” by his human friends, but this man seemed to fit that description just as well, despite his lack of feathers and beak.

“You smell like middle management,” Steve said to his unwanted company.

The man smiled, revealing jagged, uneven teeth. “Once upon a time. Like how you were fodder and chum before you hit the lottery. Now I’m a different sort of management. By the way, barkeep, comp this one’s tab.” The homunculus nodded and scribbled runes unfamiliar to Steve on his tab.

Steve sighed and looked the man square in the eyes. “Hey buddy, I just want to drink and be sad tonight. And maybe tomorrow night, too. Can the offer wait until I’m no longer here and some other lackey has to give it to me? Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it from you.”

“I won’t get offended at that, because I know what’s down. Shit’s shitty. Feels like Hell on Earth. Depression. We got stuff for that if you want some. As hard or as soft as you want. Comped, of course, for family. Or close enough any of us will ever get.

Steve took a deep breath and cleared his mind. Quite literally. The breath he took was something he learned from a friend he could likely never see again. She told Steve that it only grants you a moment of reprieve chronologically-speaking, but that this moment would feel like an eternity, then feel like nothing, and in that eternity nothing will matter. There was no guarantee that you would find the epiphany you’re looking for in that reprieve, but at least you’ll feel better when you have to make a decision you don’t want to make.

“Fine,” Steve said before downing his pint in one gulp, “Lay it on me, buddy.”

“Open offer. From the bosses. Not my current ones. Our prior ones. You go back. You get amenities. Get your name in The Book. The Book, damn you. Your kind finally gets representation on the inside. If that’s what you want. They can always create something new. Summoning rights to all the various levels allowed. You won’t be here like you are now, but you’ll actually get called.”

“So I’d get everything the ones who tormented me had, and I’d get to do that to them for as long as all this stuff exists? I’d get comeuppance? I’d get power?”

“That’s the deal they told me. Everything they’d think you’d want.”

Steve scoffed. “Even if it was all true, buddy, and I don’t believe it for a second, I want none of that.”

With Steve’s rejection, the homunculus dropped the glass it was cleaning, flew into the air, and dove towards Steve– its arms transformed into sleek, glowing stilettos. Steve braced himself for what was coming, but as the blades were scant inches away from his beak, the man uttered one word in their native tongue.

It doesn’t have a precise translation into any human language, but the gist of it feels like being dismissed by someone who never really acknowledged your very existence until that moment– a verbal batting away of a fly that was never there but whose proposed existence created the possibility of annoyance. It was less of a stopping word and more a word of rejection. It was a word Steve was all too familiar with. The homunculus crumbled in place, breaking down into its various composite materials and liquids, and creating a rather large mess on the Twilight Club’s floor.

“Figured as much,” the man said as he stepped over the prismatic ooze. “I had to dig through the user manuals to find that one. Knew one of those bastards would hack one of the units to off you if you said no. Will be a pain to get him replaced. He was my best one. Damn. Well. Call it another comp. Saving your life, that is.”

“Thanks, buddy. I still wanna drink tonight, but I think I might not be so sad for a minute.”

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