Great! I’ll send you the details. Just a heads-up, my parents and brother will be there too. It’s kind of a family thing, Avery added, and Watt could almost hear the caution in her tone. Well, he didn’t care if he had to charm Avery’s grandparents and cousins and the guy who cut her hair. He was going to be Avery Fuller’s date.
“What things do you hear?” Derrick asked, having fought his way through the crowds to join them.
“Watt asked me for girl advice, but I refuse to get involved. Honestly, I feel sorry for whoever his next victim is,” Cynthia explained, with mock solemnity.
“He came to you for advice?” Derrick scoffed. “Is this about Avery? Wow,” he said, turning to Watt, “you must be more desperate than I realized.”
“Actually,” Watt interrupted, “she just invited me to an event. The University Club fall gala.” He tried not to sound smug, but he couldn’t help it. He’d done the impossible, and gotten Avery Fuller to ask him out. He felt like doing a victory dance.
“The University Club? Who is this girl?” Cynthia sounded skeptical.
“She’s a highlier,” Derrick volunteered, as if that explained everything.
Watt nodded, but he wasn’t really listening. He pulled up Avery’s message and instructed Nadia to help with a witty but confident reply. Sounds great, he began. And—
“You know the University Club is formal,” Cynthia went on. “You probably need a tux.”
Watt looked up sharply at that. “I need a tux? Are you sure?” Now he really needed that bonus payment from Leda. He’d never bought a tux, but he knew enough to know they weren’t cheap.
He looked back at his contacts, about to finish the message—and realized in a panic that the words he’d spoken had just been sent to Avery: sounds great, and I need a tux, are you sure?
What the hell, Nadia? You knew I didn’t mean for that to go to Avery, he thought at her, furious.
You were in message-composing mode, Nadia replied. Perhaps if you upgrade me, I will be better able to intuit unspoken intentions. He thought she sounded sarcastic. Stupid recursive algorithms. He should have just programmed her with linear logic the way most quants had been, before the ban.
Watt squirmed, wondering how he could damage control this, but Avery had already replied. Yeah, it’s black tie. I can help you shop for a tux. I know exactly where to go!
“You definitely need a tux at University Club,” Cynthia was saying.
Derrick laughed. “Where the hell are you going to get the money for a tux?”
“He can rent one, you moron. There’s a rental place on this floor. On the east side, I think,” Cynthia added, trying to be helpful.
But Watt was focused on his reply to Avery. It’s okay. Mine just got red wine spilled on it at my last event.
Well, if you end up needing a new one, I’m happy to go with you this week.
Watt was about to protest again, trying to hide his embarrassment, his complete inexperience with formal events and really her whole world in general. But Nadia chimed in before he could think of a reply. I hacked the store records where Avery usually shops, Nadia volunteered, sounding almost apologetic. It doesn’t seem that she’s gone with anyone but her brother in the past. I calculate this as a good sign, that she’s offering to take you there?
I’m still annoyed with you, Watt replied. But Nadia was right. What was he thinking, turning down a chance to spend time with Avery, no matter where it was? Okay … I may take you up on that after all, he flickered to Avery.
“I’m not renting,” he said, in answer to Derrick’s question. He’d finally gotten his chance with Avery, and he wanted to do it right. “I’ve got some money saved. It’ll be fine.”
“I just hope this girl is worth it.” Cynthia looked curiously at Watt.
“And you said you didn’t want to get involved,” Watt teased, purposefully dodging the question. Of course Avery was worth it.
Derrick laughed. “Are we still studying calculus at your place tonight?” he asked Cynthia, who nodded. They normally had a rotating study schedule during midterms week, though they rarely came to Watt’s place anymore, because the twins were too loud and disruptive.
“Can’t,” Watt said. He loved hanging out with his friends, but he didn’t actually need the study time. He wanted to focus on the Atlas thing instead so he could hopefully collect payment from Leda before tux shopping.
“But my mom already made your favorite cookies!” Cynthia protested as Watt waved good-bye.
* * *
Back at home, Watt grabbed a bag of cheesy popcorn from the pantry, then settled at his desk and pulled up his view screen. “Nadia,” he said aloud, “we need to hack the Fullers’ home system. Now.”
“You want to joint-hack?” Nadia asked, sounding almost excited, if that were possible. The longer he spent with Nadia in his head, the more he attributed human emotions to her, Watt thought.
“Yeah. Let’s do it.” It had been a while since he and Nadia had needed to hack something together. Most of the time Nadia was faster on her own, without his interference. But every now and then, when a system was especially complicated—usually the idiosyncratic ones, the ones that had been coded by insanely creative human designers—they were better off together.