The familiar chimes of the bar welcomed me in, going from the humid, claustrophobic air from outside to the gentle cold of the dingy, around-the-corner spot that I always found myself heading to after work. Those red seats that you’d find at a diner, and the polished wooden countertop that was kept so clean that you could practically see your reflection on it. Maroon walls with heavily tinted windows, shelves lined with empty, antique liquor bottles, and a vintage jukebox was playing electric tunes.
“Welcome to Tilo’s - Oh, hi, honey! Work ended a little late, didn’t it?” A chipper, sweet voice called, and I cocked my head. “I can hear the gears turning from here, you know. We have cameras hooked up in this bar, silly! Put two and two together - me being an Arintel, and all - and you conclude that my brain waves are wirelessly connected to the security system!”
“How would I come to that conclusion unless I was genuinely concerned about how you could see me, Fether?” I sighed, taking my usual seat at the counter - right in the center, with three seats on either side of me.
Fether came into view, fluffy, dark orange hair and rosy skin and busty beyond belief. I sometimes wondered how she was even physically capable of buttoning her work shirt up all the way even though it looked so tight. At least her skirt and leggings were fine.
“Oh, please. I can read your face easier than you could comprehend Shakespeare, honey,” Fether winked and chuckled, before moving to make me a drink. “Regular tonight? Or are you willing to try something new?”
I took a moment to analyze Fether - she’s caught me doing it so many times that even she realizes it before I do - and I start with her eyes. They’re looking away from me, but the sharp, steely look in Fether’s stormy eyes never cease to intimidate me. She was a kind Arintel, sure - her personality and the way she acts shows it as such - but the bright, cheerfulness of her entire nature stops at her eyes. Like happiness and emotions are physically incapable of reaching them.
The easiest way to tell Arintels apart from humans are their limbs: Our elbows are their, to quote Fether, “Weird ball and two pipes.” The tendons are easily visible and built differently. Arintel are, in my eyes, artificial humans constructed to assist those who had trouble making it past birth. Or those who wanted to have children, but wanted an alternative. The creation of Arintel used to be illegal back in ‘38, as the woman who created them was a fugitive on the run from the law. Of course, illegal was - and still is - Bherghat’s middle name, so those who wanted Arintel of their own got them off of the black market. The businesses of Bherghat adjusted with the new way to make a profit, and created institutions that could help Arintel grow past their initial stopping point, which is, approximately, the age of fourteen.
Of course, there are still Arintel who haven’t made the transition and look like teenagers when, in reality, they’re in their late twenties or thirties. Fether told me that she initially didn’t want to have to go through the transition - she was scared of changing someway other than just physique-wise. In her exact words, she was afraid of losing something that made her who she was.
“Honey,” Fether knocked me out of my own mind, and my eyes focused again. Her smile was genuine, humorous. Even though it still didn’t reach her eyes. “Did you hear what I asked, or were you gone long before that?”
“Oh, sorry. I’ll go for the regular today, Fether. Light on the alcohol, though - I have a meeting tomorrow morning,” I sighed, letting my arms and head rest on the countertop, humming as the cool, smooth surface met my warm body.
“Work’s really got you that riled up, hm?” Orange hair bounced as Fether walked around the bar, grabbing different liquids that all looked the same to me. “Usually, you’d be all, ‘Meeting, schmeeting! Give me all the alcohol you’ve got, Fether!”
“I have never said that before in my life.”
“You sure? People say lots of amusing things when they’re drunk, regardless of whether or not they actually remember it. Just earlier today, another Arintel came in and talked about how one of her clients yelled her ear off - literally! She was so tired of hearing that man talk that she just ripped off her ears and told him to get out if all he was going to do was complain. I hope she comes back again; she said that she really liked the atmosphere of this dingy old place.” I watched Fether pour a multitude of liquids together, each measured by eye. “You’ve been coming here for three years straight, right, honey?”
“I thought it was four,” I responded, eyebrows scrunching up as I voiced my blatant confusion. “Does that pretty brain of yours keep track of when people come and go, too? I’d assume that were the case.”
“Mm, I usually keep track when Tilo reminds me, or someone suspicious looking comes in. But I think you interested me, so I cataloged when you came in. Since it was three years ago…” Fether trailed off, muttering to herself while still mixing my drink.
I sat back up, watching with keen interest. “You sure that going through your database while mixing drinks is a good idea?”
“Oh, I do it all the time. It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of multitasking. Besides, being connected to - aha!” Fether stated triumphantly, cutting herself off. “Seventeenth of October, 2143. Since today is the fifteenth of August, that makes it -”
“Three years,” I interrupted, “Going on four.”
“To be specific, three years, nine months, and thirty days. Approximately,” Fether winked, finishing blending my drink and immediately going to pour it in a glass with a large chunk of ice already in it. “Here’s your drink, honey. That’ll be twenty-six.”
“I’m surprised inflation hasn’t affected alcohol that heavily,” I muttered, adding a quick “cheers” before knocking the glass on the countertop, then drowning every last drop of liquid that there was. Fether, rather than stating her worry, just sighed, before refilling my glass.
“That bad, huh, honey?” She murmured, resting her arms on the countertop. “You want to talk about it?”
“... I shouldn’t. It’s just a petty work issue.” But God, do I want to talk about it. Fether raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Tilo is the only other person here, and he’s in his office. Harvaji took off today for a family emergency. Honey, I’ve known you for three years, and I know that if something from work is really getting under your skin, then you’ll be bursting at the seams if you don’t vent out your frustrations. So!” Fether grinned lopsidedly, placing her head over top of her intertwined hands. “What happened?”
I didn’t respond for a few seconds, and only noticed that I’d spaced out and was analyzing Fether again when she tapped my hand - just once, lightly - and I was shaken out of my stupor for the second time in the span of… probably an hour. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. Take your time.” Fether tapped my hand again - three times instead of just the one - then started walking around the bar, cleaning glasses and humming with the music playing from the jukebox.
“Are you connected to the jukebox as well?” I blurted without thinking, and Fether giggled. “I mean, since you’re connected to the cameras and the security system, as well as, like, practically the entirety of the bar -”
“Yes, I am. I choose the songs that are going to play, but sometimes I change them to fit the mood better. I don’t think you were here when this happened, but two clients got into an argument about… something, I don’t remember what - and I changed the music to something a little more intense, and those idiots went for it. Tilo had to stop them from getting into a full-on fistfight at the bar. I think he knew that it was partially my fault that it escalated, but I was laughing so hard that he couldn’t really be mad at me.”
“I feel like I’d be a lot less stressed if I worked in an environment like this if I'm honest. Sure, there are going to be those days where life is shit, and some asshole is going to come in and ruin the day, but I’d prefer one or two days ruined per week over every Goddamn day shattered to pieces. All because some moron thought it would be a good idea to print copies of his report and not realize that he’d chosen one-hundred copies of his forty-two-page report and not the standard ten. Then the printer ran out of paper, and I was the one who got an earful from my manager because I was the one who was at the printer, waiting for my report draft to get finished. The newbie who made the mistake didn’t get jack shit. I took all of it, and when I tried to defend myself because my name obviously wasn’t on the four-thousand-two-hundred pages of pure malarky, but my manager wasn’t having it.
“And just yesterday I’d gone in for an interview with a lot of the higher-ups to show them why I was qualified to get a raise. ‘I’ve worked here for two years and have already gotten much praise for my quality and quantity of work, and I feel like I could be doing much more than writing reports and sitting at a cubicle all day. If I get a raise, blah blah blah.’” I finished my second drink and slid the glass to where Fether was standing. “And one of the head honchos walked up to me after I finished my whole speech about why I should get a raise and told me that I was doing a great job and that he would do everything in his ability to try and convince his peers to get me that raise.
“That put me on cloud nine, because it meant that those above me were actually acknowledging my work, and not just being thrown in the trash or just being used as low-quality toilet paper for some entitled jerkwad’s ass! My manager was unimpressed, sure, because she thinks that I try to kiss her ass specifically for a raise, but that couldn’t be more opposite of what I do. I treat her with respect, but if she accuses me of something that I didn’t do, then I’ll tell it to her straight!
“Then look where that got me. I’ve been worried about it ever since she threatened me with telling the higher-ups about my apparent ‘childish mistake.’ I need this raise, or I’m not gonna be able to pay the bills. I’ve got a dog to take care of, too! The hell am I supposed to do when all my spare change goes to feeding him instead of myself?”
Fether stared at me for a moment, hands frozen in the middle of cleaning a glass. “Do you work on weekends?”
“No, why?” As soon as the word ‘no’ was uttered, Fether’s eyes sparkled. A chill ran up my spine because the last time I saw that same look was when the very same orange-haired bartender invited me to Tilo’s Christmas party and that was equally both good and bad. “Fether, if this is going where I think it is -”
“Just hear me out, okay? Please. This is killing two birds with one stone, honey.” Fether pushed her bottom lip out to give me the world’s cutest puppy face, and I could feel my heart melting because dammit, Fether is cute and I like dogs. “Fine,” I grumbled, praying that my scowl was hiding any indication of what I actually thought about Fether’s puppy face.
“Yes! Okay, so, since you don’t work on weekends, and hypothetically if you don’t get that raise, then you can work here part-time! On the weekends. Tilo already adores you, and if you work the night shift, then you and I will get to hang out the entire day! Although you probably won’t be - well, how do you think you would do with mixing drinks?”
“If you, Tilo, or Harvaji showed me the ropes, then I’d probably be good to go. Although, you’re one of the only bars left that still uses the old way of mixing drinks,” I pointed out. “And are you sure you don’t want me working here just so you’d be able to see me more often?”
“Well, sure, that might have to do something with it, but the only downside to working here would be that you’d have less free time! And besides, you and I both know that you tend to play games in your spare time rather than actually be productive. I’ve been to your apartment before, honey. And something else to think about, too - if rent ever becomes too much of a problem, I have a spare bedroom at my house that no one has taken, yet. I can assure you that it’d be a much better living space than where you live right now,” Fether smiled. “Just say the word, and I’ll hold that room for you so you can think about it, alright? Pierre would also love to have a dog again.”
“I’ll… think about it,” I decided on saying.
Fether’s jump of joy made me chuckle.