John Danziger scanned the selection on the jukebox. Not bad. Not bad at all. Heavy on the nasty rock. No synthesizers, no cute lyrics, just drums and grit. Exactly the way it should be in a bar like this.
"Buy me a drink?"
He turned around. "You have got to be kidding me."
Devon Adair tugged at her little sweater set and pushed her perfectly styled hair back. "What?"
"This is a drone bar. I didn't hear you come in. You're losin' already. Look at yourself."
The sweater was bad enough, but the demure tailored slacks were worse. They even looked ironed. "You look like a librarian. That's nice for havin' tea with your granny, but not here." He reached up and tapped his gear. "Pause program."
Around them, the bar froze.
She crossed her arms and hiked her chin, the exact way she always did when she was about make his blood pressure go through the roof. Before she could do that, he said quickly, "I'm gonna be a nice guy here and give you a second chance."
She held up a hand, like she was in a board meeting. "I was still on my first chance."
"Nuh-uh, you blew it already. Look, Adair, the bet was that you'd walk into a drone bar--in attire befitting the occasion," he added sarcastically, "have a drink, and play me a game of pool."
"Beat you at pool," she corrected primly.
He rolled his eyes. "Right, that's gonna happen."
"And I thought you said I had to blend in. This is a nice, unobtrusive outfit."
He stared, trying as usual to figure out if she was messing with his head, desperately naive, or just plain crazy. "Maybe on your level, but around here you stick out like a sore thumb. I gotta hear you come in."
Her brows drew together. "What? Should I wear steel-toed boots? Do you need to hear me clonking around?"
"No, wolf whistles. Catcalls. Suggestions that'd make a sex program overload its circuits. Look around you. None of these women are wearing pearl earrings, for God's sake."
She surveyed the frozen scene. "You want me to tart myself up."
He rolled his eyes. "She sees the light. Go back to wardrobe." He tapped his gear again. "Program restart."
The bar sprang to life again, and Devon disappeared. He went back to studying the music selection.
Eden Advance had been living in the biodome for a few weeks now, and the shine had definitely worn off. Plagued by boredom, he and Adair had gotten into one of their more amicable arguments that afternoon. She'd mentioned being surprised at how well he'd filled out a monkey suit at the VR portion of Morgan and Bess's wedding. He'd jumped on her for that. "What? Just because I'm a drone, I can't fit in your polished world?"
"I didn't say anything of the kind. I just said I didn't think it was your kind of thing."
"'Course it wasn't," he said scornfully. "But that doesn't mean I can't make an effort and pretty myself up every now and then."
"And I'm not denying that--"
"Where you couldn't get down and dirty if you tried."
"Excuse me, I can be as dirty as the next person."
The implications of that phrase caught his imagination for a moment, then he shook it off. "No way. No shankin' way. You wouldn't know how. You wouldn't last ten minutes in a drone bar. You'd run out screaming."
Her eyes narrowed. "I would not."
"Care to make a bet on it?"
Her eyebrow quirked. "What kind of bet?"
They'd thrashed out terms over lunch. It was to be totally private. Whoever lost--and John was damn sure it was going to be her--she still had to lead the group. She'd insisted on having a portion you could definitively win or lose, because neither of them felt like bringing a so-called impartial judge into the mix. Solace, for instance, would never let them live it down. Finally, it was to be conducted after the kids were asleep, so they wouldn't be interrupted.
Pearls. Jesus. John rolled his eyes at the ceiling. This was going to be the easiest bet he'd ever won.
Behind him, a chorus of howls, whistles, and "hey, baby, over here" type comments erupted. Apparently, Adair had arrived. He didn't turn around just yet, but took his time about punching in his final music selection.
"Hey, Danziger. Buy me a drink?"
He turned and found himself staring at a tight black scoop-necked top, lightly dusted with glitter, and a devil-red skirt. Down at the other end--way down--were four-inch-heeled sandals that showed off toenails painted to match her skirt.
Hel-lo. Adair has legs. Good ones. Who knew?
And hips, and boobs, and all sorts of other things God had made to bring joy to the hearts of men. He managed to lift his eyes above her shoulders, and saw that while her makeup was a little heavier to match the outfit, her hair still looked like a picture out of a flash beauty salon and--damn--no earrings. He'd sort of been looking forward to seeing her hair all teased and poufy, with huge gold hoops peeking through. Oh, well . . . couldn't have everything.
Her hands were on those hips, one red-tipped finger tapping impatiently. "Will this do?"
He reached out and plucked the sleeve of her shirt. "Silk, Adair? And that skirt's probably real leather, am I right?"
"So what if it is?"
He rolled his eyes. Trust Adair to have the best of the best even when she was being cheap. "Get serious. Not in the quad."
"Fine, the materials aren't quite accurate. But do I look tarty enough?"
He lifted one shoulder and let it fall. "You'll do."
"Fine. Buy me a drink."
"Since you ask so sweetly," he drawled, and led the way to the bar. "Two beers," he said to the bartender. "My tab."
"How do you know I want a beer?" she asked, seating herself with extreme care on the wobbly stool.
"You probably wouldn't want whatever cocktail this guy can come up with," he said, and handed her one of the heavy mugs, foaming over at the top, that arrived in front of them. "Cheers," he said, taking a swig.
She looked warily at the smudged plastic and the amber liquid inside.
"What's wrong? Chicken?" he taunted. "It's just beer."
She took a cautious sip and paused, eyes widening.
John grinned, enjoying himself immensely. "Spit or swallow, Adair. Make up your mind."
She glared daggers and swallowed. "God," she said.
"Yep. One step up from antifreeze." He took another swig. "Damn, I have missed this."
She looked at her beer with distaste. "Do I have to drink the whole thing?"
"What? You wanna hurt my feelings? Every last little drop, lady. Or you can forfeit right now, if you want?"
She gritted her teeth, then took another fast gulp and coughed. "So--" she said, eyes watering. "Do you come here often?"
"Used to, about ten years ago. This was my neighborhood bar." Over in the corner, something crashed. "Which should tell you something about my neighborhood."
She looked over her shoulder as a shoving match broke out. "You haven't programmed a bar fight in this, have you?"
Now why hadn't he thought of that? He indulged in a momentary fantasy of Adair dodging airborne bar stools, but shook his head. "Nah. We still gotta play that game of pool, and none of the tables are open yet." He pulled a bowl of pretzels toward them. "Have a few."
"Um. Thanks." She took a handful, then looked around. "Are there any napkins?"
Napkins? "Just eat 'em out of the bowl. Or drop 'em on the bar."
"That might be hazardous to my health." She opted for the former.
"What hazardous? No germs in VR. Besides, True used to eat Cheerios off this bar, and she pulled through."
She practically spit out her pretzel. "You brought your child to a bar? This bar?"
"Relax, I only put beer in her bottle on special occasions." She still looked like she wanted to report him to Child Services, so he said, "She was fine. Seriously. I was with her every second and we were long home by the time it got really wild. It may look rough, but nobody once laid a finger on her. They knew I'd lay a lot more'n a finger on them if they did."
"Couldn't you have arranged for childcare?"
"Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how much evening care costs? I was already paying through the nose for half-decent daycare."
She straightened up. Amazing how even when she was showing off more of her skin than he'd ever seen before, she could still look like the Chairman of the Board. "Now wait, Danziger. I know the companies you worked for were required by law to provide daycare. I was one of them, remember?"
Who the hell put the stop payment on this woman's reality check? "All they were required to provide," he said patiently, "was a robot that could change a diaper, hold a bottle, and provide a limited number of comforting functions. Very limited." She still looked skeptical, so he elaborated. "I one time walked into the company nursery on my lunch, and found True screaming her head off while the robot sat around and hummed. Off-key. Probably why she was screaming in the first place. I had to leave her there for another week until I found a daycare that I could afford. See, unlike some people, I didn't have pots of money to hire a twenty-four-seven real human nanny."
She bit her lip. "She wasn't."
"Wasn't what? A real human? Pull the other one."
"She wasn't twenty-four-seven," she said. "I had Uly on my own in the evenings and weekends. I didn't want to be a figurehead mom."
"Yeah, well, being a figurehead dad wasn't ever an option for me."
She ran her finger around the lip of her mug and didn't say anything.
He picked up a pretzel and started breaking it into pieces. "Wasn't tryin' to make you feel guilty, Adair. That's just the way it was." He tossed the pieces on the bar. "If it makes it any better, we moved out of this neighborhood when she was three."
She managed to smile. "What? You wanted to leave here? Whatever for?"
"Well," he drawled, relieved that the tricky moment was past, "I heard the schools weren't that great. Besides, I lucked out big-time."
"What happened? Did you win the lottery?"
"Near enough." He paused, then decided to let her in on the rest of it. "The phrase 'real people, real caring' ring any bells?"
Her brow furrowed for a moment, then comprehension dawned. "Oh. Well. PR came up with that particular catchphrase, not me."
"Whoever came up with the phrase, the program was the biggest news in the quad for awhile. Adair Enterprises replacing all their employee daycares' robots with real people? And not just real people--trained real people. GED's and everything. Just like the good profit daycares. No sixteen-year-old stoners lookin' after our kids." A pleased little smile was creeping across her face, so he added, "We all figured it was a PR move to make you look good for awhile, and you'd phase the robots back in eventually."
"Well, it wasn't," she snapped.
He cut her off. "Just tellin' you what we thought. Besides, we didn't care why, we were gonna take it and run. Every drone with a family wanted a job with AE, and I was lucky enough to get one. Gave me some breathing room, let me lay in some savings for the thin times, and built up my rep so when the job ended, I could get the better pay at the next one. Plus, by that time, True was big enough to tag along."
"Glad I could help." She managed another sip. "It took me a year and a half to push that through my board of directors," she said reflectively. "And the stockholders--god, I thought there was going to be a coup. They hated it. But I'd just had Uly, and well--"
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. I figured that out after we got here and I saw you with the kid. Realized all that stuff in the news chips about your newfound dedication to infant and child welfare wasn't just PR shit. You did good there, Adair."
"Careful, Danziger, you'll turn my head with all this sweet talk."
"That'll be the day. You want another beer?"
She looked at her emptied mug in surprise. Probably waiting for the stomach cramps to hit. "I'll pass, thanks. Look, I think a pool table just opened up." She climbed off the stool, tottering some on her stilts.
He caught her arm to steady her. "If you land on your butt, you lose."
"That was never stipulated," she said, and teetered off toward the pool tables.
Leaning a hip against the pool table--probably to take some of the weight off those shoes--she studied the cues like Julia poring over some new and weird plant. He took one glance and picked two out. "Here," he said, handing her the shorter one. "That should work for you."
"Thanks," she said, hefting it.
"So . . . do you know how to play nine-ball?"
"I used to be pretty good at holo-billiards when I was in college," she said brightly.
He rolled his eyes and went over the rules for nine-ball, wishing she would stop fiddling with her cue like that. "--and when you sink the nine-ball, you win the game, no matter what's left on the table. Got it?"
She considered. "So--I have to hit the lowest-numbered ball first on each round."
"But that's not necessarily the ball that has to go in."
She tapped her fingers lightly on the synthetic-wood shaft. "I think I've got it," she said.
"Need a practice game first?"
"I'll muddle through somehow."
"It's your funeral. Tell you what, I'll cut you some slack and let you break."
"What a gentleman."
He took the diamond off the wall and arranged the balls carefully inside it before lifting the frame away. "She's all yours. Remember, you have to pocket one on the break--"
"--or make four balls hit the rail," she finished, chalking her cue. "I was listening, Danziger."
"For a change."
She leaned over the table, and he tilted his head to get a better view down her shirt. All part of the drone bar experience, he assured himself. If you had boobs in a place like this, you should expect to get them stared at. Although she didn't seem to notice.
It took him several seconds to realize that she'd broken, legally, and taken her first shot, but missed the pocket. "Aw," he said. "Too bad. My turn." He considered the table, thought about trying to sink the nine-ball, but decided against it. First things first, and besides, he was having too much fun to end this now. He dropped the one in a pocket easily, then got a little fancy, bounced the two off the rail, and sank that. But knocking the two into the five proved his undoing, and he gave up the table semi-gracefully.
She made so many wobbly circuits of the table, pausing occasionally to chew her bottom lip and narrow her eyes, that he said, "Hey, while we're young here. Would you take a shot?"
"Just . . . considering my strategy," she said absently, but picked up the chalk.
"Strategy? You've never played nine-ball in your life and you've got a strategy?"
"Don't forget billiards," she reminded him, adjusting her cue very slightly.
"Oh, right. Billiards," he scoffed. "Ever heard of mastering the basics?" He couldn't help noticing, however, that she sank the two as sweetly as he'd ever seen.
"The basics are exactly the same," she said, rechalking her cue with a little squeaking sound. "When you get right down to it, any billiards-style game is all a matter of geometry and physics." She got the three ball, chalked her cue again, and circled the table. "Tell me, what's your strategy?" She used the four to bump the seven ball in.
"To get from point A to point B before I try for C. It always works."
"Hmm." Lining up a complicated shot, she tried for the nine, shooting too fast. It thwacked against theedge of the pocket, shot out again, and rolled to the middle of the table. She frowned. "Don't you ever look at point Z?"
"Sure. When I'm at point Y. See, your problem," John said, looking around for the chalk, "is that you're so busy staring at Z that you trip over A."
She set the cue aside and leaned on the table. "Some people would call that planning ahead."
"Some people don't have to worry about all the little points."
She scowled, crossing her arms under her breasts, pushing them together and up slightly. Definitely real. Even the best synth-flesh, God bless it, just didn't move like that.
He miscalculated by a fraction of an inch. The cue ball slid past the four and bounced off the the rail.
"That's a foul, isn't it?" she asked, straightening up and reaching for her cue. "My turn, I believe."
He surveyed the table. He was fine, he comforted himself. No problems. It would take a shankin' miracle for Adair to hit the four at the nine to sink it. She'd go for the safe shot if she was smart, probably the six since it was pretty close to the pocket anyway.
"Maybe," she said, reaching for the chalk, "I'll try it your way for once, John. A to B to C."
He raised his brows at her. "I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself or anything."
She gave him a sideways look and bent to the table. Unlike her previous turn, she seemed to know exactly what to do this time. With a sharp movement of her cue, she sent the cue ball rocketing into the four, which shot down the table, bounced off the rail, and smacked into the five. "A." The five, catching momentum from the four, zipped off at an angle, kissed the nine, and spun to a halt. "B."
The nine ball sailed with the gentle majesty of a really well-tuned freighter across the table, paused on the lip of the pocket, and with almost ladylike grace, dropped in. "And C."
John's mouth fell open.
Devon leaned on her pool cue, beaming. "That's game."
She tapped her gear, and disappeared from VR. He followed her back into real life. She stood, arms crossed, bundled in the layers and layers of winter clothing they'd been wearing for weeks now. He missed the little black top already. "I win. Pay up."
With a growl, he dug in his pocket and slapped a bar of chocolate into her hand.
"Thank you," she said sweetly. "And--I think I forgot to mention one last strategic element in any billiards-style game."
"What's that?" he asked grumpily.
"Distracting your male opponent with a good look down your shirt every now and then." She spun on her heel and made for the passageway, her laughter floating back to him.
John stood dumbfounded, then began to grin. Sure, he'd lost. But he'd gotten an eyeful of 100 pure Devon, no additives or preservatives. Several eyefuls, in fact.
As far as he was concerned, it was a pretty fair trade.