Wayward Reward

 

‘Welcome to Oxford Street’s Jolly’s, Albie and Domino Beetle.’ The outdated door mic crackled the greeting but the list of specials was consumed by static.

‘How embarrassing,’ mumbled Domino.

Albie pretended not to hear his daughter and stood straighter as she tucked her head low to avoid being seen with him. Just Ignore It – his most recent tactic to help smooth out their weekends was the best he’d come up with so far. Today it was proving more successful than trying to settle her complaints about no VBowl this week or no sweets today or your friend Megan can’t have a sleepover at the new unit. Anyway, it wasn’t his bloody fault. It was Sandra who had decided Domino couldn’t take her friends to her Dad’s unit. Edict number three in the growing list that The Bitch was compiling to ensure his daughter would grow to hate him.

Rule number one: no sweets on weekends (September’s little gift). Rule number two: all homework to be completed by Saturday lunchtime (as if just being together wasn’t difficult enough). How had Albie managed to stick with that woman for almost nine years? She’d sucked the strength out of him, that was how. Fine. Six more weeks and Sandra’s word was law. After that, no more. End of.

The ceiling tile flashed green at the far corner of the mega café. A table had become free.

‘Let’s sit over there, shall we?’ said Albie, inserting a cheerfully high tone into his voice. They headed towards it, Albie leading the way past the crowded tables.

‘Da-ad, this is boring,’ said Domino.

Albie’s message in icon flashed in his left lens. He hesitated a moment then walked on, it would be rude to check his messages now, this was a retro café, after all. He could do it tonight after Domino had gone to bed. A thrill ran up his back at the thought of logging on and seeing the wall-sized calendar with one, glowing, orange box: January 7th 2051 – six weeks to go. When the day finally arrived, he wouldn’t wait until morning. At exactly 12.01 am, he would email his application for majority custody of Domino.

At last, with his job promotion and the new home unit, he had a chance to get his daughter away from Sandra and her arsehole boyfriend, along with all the crap he had brought the their unit when he moved in: Vlife 18 (renowned for turning teeners into zombies who spend more energy concocting virtual lives instead of living their own; Shagger Shorts (that was over thirteen’s only, but Albie had overheard Domino boasting that she watched it); and Fly on Bob’s Wall – the most addictive, mindless drivel in the history of the universe.

When she came to live with him, they could get back to proper infotainment: following the livetime progress of the last colony of penguins – actual penguins! Space chatting live with astronaut students on Station K – right from Albie’s little unit in Kensington Lower – amazing! Domino used to think things like that were amazing to, and she would again.

Domino huffed as she slumped down into her chair. ‘Why couldn’t we go to the VBowl like you promised?’

Jesus Christ, VBowl, again. Albie hung his sunshield over the back of his chair. Why was it that, as soon as a kid hit their doubles, the very day they turned ten, VBowl became more important than oxygen?

‘Love, we discussed this on the hypertram coming down,’ said Albie. ‘Everything at the technohive is so expensive, especially VBowl, I just can’t do it this week.’

Domino mumbled something under her breath and stared at the exit. She kept her sunshield on. Albie chewed his nails. It was obvious she was trying to goad him but Saturdays were too precious to waste on petty etiquettes so he let her sweat in her reflective cloak; let her blow her nose in public.

‘Do you think they still serve those choc burgers you like?’ Technically, Sandra could not class that as a sweet.

A disgusted hmff. ‘I hate choc burgers, they’re for kids and they make you fat.’ Domino chewed harder on her indigo slim-a-gum. She adjusted her tongue and blew a small indigo bubble that popped harmoniously.

‘You really should take it easy with that stuff,’ said Albie. ‘You’re too thin as it is and it’s not cheap.’

‘That’s all you care about isn’t it? Credit.’ Domino shook her head slowly and flared her nostrils just like her mother. ‘Mum says you’re not cred cut at all.’ She swung her legs and kicked at the central leg beneath the table. ‘She says that if you can manage the rent for that that sub-pent unit then you have enough to wrist up more maintenance.’

Albie ran his finger across the microbar implant in his left wrist. He concentrated pressure on the corners of the thin rectangle and felt a wave of irresistible disgust. It was like picking a scab. He pushed harder.

Domino chewed. There was no point in trying to explain it to her, he’d learned that the hard way. It would all get back to Sandra, mutated and then regurgitated to bite him in the arse on one of Sandra’s mid-week blogs.

It wasn’t Domino’s fault, she was just a kid. Her mother and that mercenary lawyer had fixed the maintenance payments high enough for a plastic surgeon, not an aftercare nurse.

‘Love, don’t be difficult, eh? Let’s make the best of our afternoon.’ Albie ran his fingers over the view button on his shirt pocket and considered clicking a vidpic of Domino, she always used to pull funny faces and giggle for vidpics before he and Sandra prem-separated. But he took one look at her sulky expression and straightened his collar instead.

Albie pretended not to watch Domino. She had her chin stuck out the way she did when she was cross and was clicking through every muzvid on the table, not stopping to hear the songs, just making sure he understood that they were all old and that old was boring, like him. Kids. Right now, all she cared about was seeing other kids at the technohive, playing VBowl, and eating slimsnax with them. In a word: funtime. But thanks to his bloodsucking ex, what did his little princess have to look forward to on the weekends? Cappuccino and cake with an old man. He looked down at the table. Even the muzvid cycle that spanned the centre ring was showing last month’s programme and if Albie knew that, you could bet a ten-year-old did.

Domino did not look up when she spoke, her eyes now scanning the shopping channels. ‘Mum said that if I don’t get funtime today, I don’t have to see you every weekend anymore. She says that what you pay her is pathetic.’

‘That’s it.’ Albie slammed his fist against the plastic tabletop screen. The couple on the next table turned and stared momentarily. Albie lowered his voice. ‘My seeing you is not a transaction, Domino. Your mother has no right to say – ’

‘And she said that because I’m ten you have to start giving me pocket cred too.’ She fiddled with her watch and switched the opti strands woven into her hair from lilac to iridescent green. ‘I have expenses too you know, Dad.’

Albie could feel his whole body weakening and they hadn’t even ordered yet. What had happened to his sweet little girl? Only last year she had cuddled and kissed him when he collected her on Saturday mornings and wailed in the elevator when he had to take her back to her mother’s bigger, more modern unit. At least Albie’s new unit was as good as – no, better than – Sandra’s. Okay, so there was no communal vegetable garden, but he had freejumpers diving off the roof and right past his ninetieth floor window every Sunday morning. That had to beat home-grown carrots.

‘Let’s start again, shall we?’ said Albie. ‘Take a look at the menu, sweetheart. See what you’d like to order.’ He swiped his wrist across the sensor at the centre of the table and confirmed his ID: Name: Albus Beetle; DOB: 10th December 2009; POB: CO8, UK, Earth.

Once confirmed, the blond vidwaitress on the tabletop screen turned around to face them. Her head was almost as large as the table and she looked like a mid-ager because the plastic screen was old and scratched up.

‘Hi, welcome to Jolly’s Mega Café, home of cake and coffee,’ it said. ‘And, yes, at retro Jolly’s we really do provide Actual Waiting. Please select from the photolist below and Jolly Julia will real-up your order in a Jolly jiffy!’

The vidwaitress oohed and ahhed as they selected their drinks. Albie tapped the mute square but it didn’t seem to be working. Typical. He selected a midi expresso. The cakes on screen looked well made and they weren’t expensive – nothing in here was – but he had lost his appetite. Domino chose a double cafe-nist and a traditional style, sugar-n-fat free Olde European cheesecake with fruit flavour cuboids.

‘Since we’re in this dump, you might as well eat,’ said Domino. ‘You’re the one who needs building up, not me.’

‘No, I’m fine, I had a big breakfast,’ Albie lied. Anyway, the bill was already sixty creds and he would use up another five on the hypertram home. Domino stayed silent but Albie could feel her glaring at him, could feel her disgust. He cringed at how he had changed in the last two years – what must he look like to her? When she was little, he’d been so healthy and strong; bulked up from all the work at the gym and the odd injection of Henni Birmingham’s Grand Oids. But Henni’s gear didn’t come cheap and now Albie’s arms were withered down to average. To make matters worse, his curly brown hair was half gone already – a combination of Oid withdrawal and stress. He lifted his cap a centimetre and smoothed down his remaining hair.

‘Even Lamara’s dad got some Ad-hair when his own fell out,’ said Domino. ‘At least if you got some you wouldn’t have to wear that stupid hat.’

Albie pulled at the peak of his 2046 Vball cap. ‘I’ll sort it out,’ he said. ‘I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, what with arranging the move to a new unit and everything.’

The waitress’ hoverpumps were on silent and Albie didn’t notice she was there until she lowered her glass-effect tray to eye level. She smiled at each of them equally, and flashed the ruby-sim teethjewels embedded in her canines.

‘Hi, I’m Julia, here’s your order, Domino and Albie. We hope you have funtime at Jolly’s.’

After Julia had reeled-off she placed their drinks and the pink streaked cheesecake on the table. She minimized her tray and selected a muzvid – ‘for ultimate funtime!’- smiled yet again and left.

Albie watched, surreptitiously, as Domino autopsied her cake, then he got on with squeezing Sucrite Lite into his coffee. A few seconds passed in silence when, to Albie’s huge embarrassment, Domino tapped the assistance required icon and called out so everyone around them could hear. ‘Oh, Julia?’ she said.

Albie dropped the sachet into his cup, burning his fingers as he tried to rescue it between snatching looks at the other diners. Everyone within earshot was staring at them.

‘Domino, what the hell are you doing?’ he hissed. ‘The waitress is half way to her station, you can’t call her back now.’

Domino pouted. ‘But Daddy, I want cream on my cheesecake.’

Albie cringed as Julia, now only half smiling, renegotiated the scores of tables between them and her station.

He leaned forward. ‘Domino Beetle, you know damned well to order everything, everything you want, before the waitress comes over, even your mother’s taught you that much.’

‘Mum doesn’t like it if you’re mean to me,’ said Domino. She crossed her arms. ‘It’s not fair, you won’t even let me have cream on my pudding.’ She raised her forearm in front of her eyes and sniffed loudly.

Julia arrived at their table and tapped the centre of her tiny tray which then bloomed to full circumference and stopped flashing red in synch with the ceiling light for their table. ‘Is there something I forgot to bring this lovely young lady when I waited your table?’

Domino lowered her arm and glared, dry eyed, at Albie. ‘Well, Julia, it’s just that my Dad forgot to order cream for my cheesecake.’

‘Oh.’ Julia fiddled with her tangerine, nineties apron pocket for a moment then wagged her finger. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘But you’re not quite thirteen yet, am I right?’ She glanced at Albie and he nodded to confirm. ‘So, just this once, we’ll say that you were sure you had selected cream on your order but the table didn’t register correctly. Maybe your hands were a little cold, Hun. The sensors on these things are always acting up.’ She banged on the table to make the point that it must be the table’s fault and winked at Domino. ‘I’ll go get your cream.’

As the waitress moved off, Albie leaned low over the tabletop. ‘Don’t you ever, ever put me in that position again, young lady,’ he said through his teeth and wiped the sweat from his neck.

‘I’m not a little kid anymore, Dad. I bet when I’m not here you ask for extras all the time.’ Domino stuffed a fruit cube dripping with strawberry flavoured goo into her mouth.

‘Don’t be obscene. I do no such thing,’ said Albie.

How much did – how much could – a ten-year-old know about extras? He cursed himself for agreeing to separate before Domino’s thirteenth birthday. Prem-seps were renowned for being problematic to the child. Maybe if they had stuck it out until she was officially a young adult, she wouldn’t be so obnoxious now. It was all their fault. All his fault for caving in to Sandra’s impatience.

Albie spooned the sachet from his coffee and held his mug to his bottom lip, blowing steam as he studied Domino. His little girl still had some of her milk teeth. Her chest was still flat (even Sandra wouldn’t stoop to a pert bra for a ten-year-old), and, despite all her hard talk, his little Domino was only trying to deal with all the damage the prem-sep had caused. Perhaps, if he tried to speak to her like a growing, intelligent girl, they could re-connect. It was worth a try.

Albie tried to sound casual. ‘What d’ya think about extras then, Domino? Is it the right thing to do to waitresses and waiters; to shop staff? Was society right to have replaced credit tips and bonuses with non-cred rewards? Is KindKorp really kind?’ There, now he was talking to her like she was an adult. He sipped his coffee and waited.

Domino halted the spoonful of cheesecake halfway to her open mouth and her eyes darted from side to side. She shrugged, blushing. ‘It’s, it’s just good for business, makes things…viable, you know.’

Albie nodded. That’s what they said on the late night Slox ads. Word for word. What was Sandra doing, letting their daughter stay up after eleven at night?

Domino continued with her cheesecake and echoed the advert between mouthfuls. ‘Like, when you’ve made KindKorp some extra credit and the re-ward system kicks in,’ she said. ‘You know, Slox gloves give squeeze-wards; Slox collars give warm-wards – that must feel lovely on your neck, all cuddly and warm.’ Her eyes darted up at him and away. ‘And for the really adventurous employee, buzz-wards now come with upgrades.’

‘Buzz-wards? Bloody upgrades?’ Albie fought to keep his expression neutral. The upgrade advert was broadcast long after midnight and they didn’t learn that stuff at school until they were twelve.

‘Hello, again.’ Julia was forcefully jolly. ‘And here’s the cream the table didn’t register the first time, Domino.’ She placed a glass bowl full of whipped synthcream on the table and smiled some more.

Albie had almost forgotten that she was going to come back and Domino’s cake was already three quarters eaten. ‘Oh, thanks, Julia. Sorry about that, didn’t mean to make you do more than you ought.’

Julia hung around but Albie was wrapped up in what Domino had just said and took little notice. What the hell was Sandra up to? Why had she let their little girl find out about buzz-wards? Sex education was one thing, but teaching kids the perversities of 2050’s post-anti Capitalist culture was completely unacceptable. He would make sure that Sandra was in no doubt about his convictions on that, and no mistake … soon.

‘Ahem.’ Julia shuffled.

‘Julia,’ said Domino. ‘I believe my Dad wanted a little something extra.’

Albie turned to his daughter, expecting to see a cute, mischievous smile. Instead, she glared. It was the look of an opponent. He was being tested. She wanted him to order extras and she was daring him to defy her, daring him not to give her funtime, daring him to risk losing the only days of the week he got to see her.

Julia cleared her throat. ‘Well, he most certainly is over thirteen, isn’t he, Domino?’

‘Oh, most certainly,’ said Domino.

Her voice softer, but her tone raised at least a third, Julia spoke with her hands clasped together. She looked absurdly prim. ‘So, we have a full bar of drinks on offer here at Jolly’s.’

Albie shook his head.

‘Go on, Dad, you promised me funtime, and I want you to order an extra.’

The way Domino said that word made him cringe.

Julia fidgeted. ‘Or, rather than drinks, for the less frivolous we have a delish selection of Europastries for you to choose from.’

Domino clanged her spoon onto the table and it was obvious she hadn’t even aimed for the plate. She clenched her jaw tight and glared at Albie.

Albie swallowed. He hadn’t teased a buzz for a waitress in years and he wasn’t a sixteen-year-old kid trying to impress his mates now. He studied Julia, wondering what kind of Slox she was wearing. Obviously it wasn’t Glox or Nex, she wasn’t wearing gloves or a high, thick collar, so it had to be Brax or Knix. He glanced at her chest for telltale signs of a Brax’s thickened nipple disks and was almost grateful when Julia leaned over and whispered in his ear that she was wearing both Brax and Knix, adding that the reward was much more … effective that way.

‘Would you like me to fetch some pastries?’ said Julia.

She waited. Albie noticed one of the security guards looking their way. Julia wasn’t about to leave unless he made her a definite offer. Another wasted trip for a waitress couldn’t be so easily covered up and Time’n Mo was rife in places like this. It didn’t allow for wasted extras – it would be her credits that crashed out, not his, if he didn’t wrist up. Either that, or he and the burly security guard would have a little conversation.

Albie hesitated. He could say it was all a silly mistake and that he didn’t want an extra, instead, offering to pay for the time Domino had kept Julia at their table. Domino. She would whine to her mother, maybe even cry at the door. At the very least, she would complain that she’d been bored and that Dad never did what she wanted. Her mother would stop her from coming at weekends, he just knew it. Domino was tapping her fingers on the table screen, creating purple finger flashes and inadvertently changing the speed of the muzvid.

‘Okay, I suppose we could have some pastries, if that’s okay with you, Julia.’ At least if he asked her, if he didn’t just force her to take the reward from a nipple tweaking Brax or clit-stimulating Knix … Christ, who was he fooling?

Julia would go to the bakery and be back before you knew it but all her smiles and winks made Albie feel even more uncomfortable. Poor cow was probably raised watching Shagger, probably didn’t know any better, but he did. Why couldn’t KindKorp just bring back credit tipping? Since they’d been credjacked by SloxKorp, Take the Credit with Re-wards had quickly become their new slogan. SloxKorp had a lot to answer for.

Julia described the pastries on her tray as warm and fruity and gave him another wink. Albie ordered three, boxed, just to get the ordeal over and done with. Maybe Domino could give them to Sandra, he certainly couldn’t stomach them.

‘You need to wrist up, Dad,’ said Domino, grinning widely and barely able to sit still in her seat.

Julia was waiting, her wrist bared and the fluorescent barcode visible beneath her skin.

‘I need to scan you for the extra now’ she said, tapping her thigh with her free hand.

‘Oh, of course, I’m sorry.’ Albie hitched up the sleeve of his shirt so Julia could scan the credit.

She sighed with relief. ‘Great, it’s been a pleasure to wait on you both, please come to Jolly’s again soon.’

As she collected the empty cups and pink-smeared plate, Julia paused for a second or two and sighed deeply. The only sign that her clitoris was being vibrated and her nipples tweaked were that her eyelids fluttered and she breathed a little deeper. It was momentary, then she carried on working right through the rest of the buzz-ward. She had to, or it would cancel out and they would dock her wages for the trouble.

Albie told himself to look away but he couldn’t. Julia left their table space, swaying a little on her hoverboots. Albie ground his teeth. He didn’t see the seeds of destruction sprouting up any time soon, just more ways to con the workers, now they’d let it get so that the accounts department and Time’n Mo stole their very sensations.

As Albie stood up to leave, Domino giggled. Her wide eyes were still locked on Julia who was now serving at another table.

‘Oh, Dad, what did you do to her?’ she said, her hand half in front of her face. ‘Did it … hurt?’

For a moment, Albie’s voice caught in his throat. How to define hurt?

‘No, love, not exactly.’

They walked outside and pulled their cloaks tight against the burning November sun. It was almost two-thirty in the afternoon and the hypertram lights flashed red on the few carriages that were not yet full of weekenders.

As they headed towards the tracks, Domino’s face was bright and excited. She looked happier than Albie had seen her in months.

‘So, I did get funtime today, after all,’ she said, hooking her arm around her dad’s. ‘Mum will be glad.’

Albie smiled. ‘I’ll arrange for us to go to the technohive next Saturday, okay?’

‘Tops,’ said Domino. ‘And afterwards can we go back to Jolly’s? Pleeease, Dad?’ She tugged playfully on his arm.

Albie gulped. Five weekends to go. ‘Sure, we’ll come again.’ He hugged her to his side. ‘I love you, Domino, you’re my princess.’

Domino popped another slim-a-gum into her mouth. ‘Uh huh, you too, Dad.’

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