The Beast, Pt. 64 (Chapter 17j)

I’m grateful for the bouncer showing us to our table. Without him, we’d probably still be standing there at the door, uncertain of what to do and where to go. Now, instead of standing around slackjawed at the door, we can sit anxiously at a table. It’s much easier to look cool and disinterested when sitting around as opposed to when standing around. Standing around doing nothing just makes you look confused.

We arrive at our destination, a circular table surrounded by a plush leather booth. There are already glasses, a crystal pitcher full of water, a charcuterie plate, a cheese plate, a fruit plate, a decanter of brown liquor, of clear liquor, of something that’s alternately blue and green, depending on how the light hits it. And there are women.

Three of them, a brunette, a blonde and a redhead, perfect skin, perfect complexions, smiles on their faces like they’ve been waiting all night for us. They look at us, wave us over, gesture for us to sit. What can we do but oblige?

“This is just to get you started, gentlemen,” the bouncer intones, his voice surprisingly even and pleasant given that he looks like he could take a gorilla in a fistfight. “If there’s anything else you need, one of our staff will be happy to help you at a moment’s notice.”

We nod. He leaves. We talk with the girls, and they tell us about their lives. The redhead’s an artist, the brunette a writer, the blonde a dancer. They are remarkably similar, all charming and witty and beautiful. But more than that, the conversation flows easily and naturally. We talk about art. We talk about work. We talk about pop culture. They share similar interests and hobbies, as if they were shades of the same person. And for me and my friends’ parts, we’re doing a good job being interesting without being self-aggrandizing, being passionate without being forceful, charming without sleazy. It’s as if hormones and mood-altering substances aren’t even a factor, a state I’m so utterly unused to dealing with when it comes to interacting with other people that it’s downright novel.

This whole experience is novel, in fact. Like everything I’ve ever wanted out of a bar or a club. No pretense, no endgame, no dance. Just sit down, here, have a drink, talk to these interesting people. If you make a deep spiritual connection, that’s great. If you fuck, that’s great. If you never see each other again, that’s great. For a couple hours you got out of the house and had a stimulating conversation; everything else is just a bonus. Everything else is superfluous.

How did we get here, I wonder. More dumb luck? This place, which I don’t even know the name of, cut a deal with the Libretto to funnel customers their way? Did the chefs perform some kind of a psychological evaluation on us and suggest that the hotel cater to a group of nerds that could be kind of cool in the right light, but desperately wish they were cooler? Hell, for that matter, did the car?

The brunette says something to me. I blink in surprise, shake my head, smile sheepishly as they tease me. “Sorry. Lost in thought. What was the question?”

“You’ll have to forgive him,” Papa Chub says. “He does that sometimes.”

“It’s nerves,” Googe adds. “Self-medication. So sad.”

I frown, but I shrug it off and the conversation moves on. A few minutes later, Erb nudges me in the ribs, taps his Conncomm in his pocket. I glance down at my own, read the message there.

“Did you slip us something?”

I subvocate at the thing, let it translate my thoughts into words. “What are you talking about?”

“Look at the women.”

“Yeah. They’re gorgeous.”

“No, look at them.”

I glance up. They’re gorgeous, their outfits and jewelery coordinated with each other and with their own individual color schemes. It reminds me of something, but I’msure what. Fashion shows and magazines, maybe. I slide the Conncomm away, go back to talking, le my eyes occasionally linger on the women as I try to figure out what their appearances reminded me of. And then it hits me.

Similar behavior. Similar personalities. Similar tics and habits and gestures. Different colors and names, but so many similarities. Like the human equivalent of a game or a program where the developer had been lazy and had just copy-pasted extant material to create something new. A slight tweak to the AI here, a palette swap there, and no one will ever know the difference.

These women are identical. Their faces, their bodies, their personalities. Everything but their clothes and their accessories. They’re machines.


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