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Jon Moore

A minute into my approach, Privus began its ascent. The most exclusive, private gallery on Studio, Privus was itself a piece of art that spent its non-working hours under the surface of the sand. Only the wealthy could afford to rent it.

The ground trembled and non-existent birds sang in warning, Privus’s invisible speakers filling the air beautifully.

I dropped to the sand as men emerged from the three ships to watch the show.

First to appear above ground was the hundred-and-fifty-meter-wide shell that protected the gallery proper. The pieces of it rose slowly and separately, the first meter taking a full five seconds, and then each following meter, the same. An egg-shaped shell of shimmering metal, it caught the fading sunlight and threw back, with a little help from its own lights, a brighter light in dazzling, shimmering rainbows that made me shake my head in admiration even though I’d studied half a dozen holos of Privus. At the same time, the birdsongs gave way to roaring waterfalls that made the sand falling off the shell seem like water.

Once ten meters of shell were visible, I stood and headed around the gallery toward the back of the ships.

On cue, the two catering ships were landing fifty meters behind the three that had brought the guests. Privus’ rise played loudly enough to cover much of the approach sounds of the hired help.

I was closing on those ships as Privus’s shell reached its peak of thirty meters and paused. Drumbeats wove a background to the waterfalls, which diminished in intensity as the drums gained volume. When the water sounds had vanished entirely, the drums picked up pace and held for a few seconds, the beat powerful in the desert night.

A single voice, wordless but clearly a human voice hitting a high note above the drums, spiked the air. The drums stopped suddenly. The voice held the note.

I felt myself holding my breath and forced myself to breathe as I ran.

Another voice joined the first. A section of the shell broke free, a roughly triangular piece of metal standing apart from the rest.

Another voice merged with the first two. A section on the other side from the first separated from the shell.

Another voice, another new section.

When what had been the shell was now a circle of metal spikes, a dark hulking mass became visible between and inside them. The voices began singing a wordless tune as the spikes slowly withdrew into the sand.

The top of the structure inside the shell burst into a fierce white light. The light moved down the structure in time with the vanishing spikes, leaving behind a building outlined in soft gold and glowing from within, its less bright lights still clearly visible against the ever darkening sky. The round, tapered gallery slowly took form, its glass exterior clear enough to show the gold seating areas inside it. Built for crowds to enjoy art and shows in its center, Privus featured box seats scattered around the upper levels of its interior. As the tips of the spikes disappeared under the sand, the open floor glowed in gold outline.

Most of the men standing outside the ships applauded. Many of the caterers joined them for a second before a few men at the front of the group signaled them to be quiet; the clients did not want to hear from the help. I shared the urge to applaud but kept moving to the rear of the catering vessels.

The singing voices stopped suddenly. The drums returned. Whistles and violins joined them. A second, outer shell grew in sections from the ground, each section composed of a clear, circular beam that rose and then bent inward until the beams had cleared the top of the gallery and bent slowly toward one another. They connected above the center of the gallery and locked together.

The catering ships rose into the air and headed away.

Bells rang as sections of thin mesh shot from beam to beam, linking them in a semi-transparent silver halo that in seconds completely enveloped the gallery. The thin wires and the slight current buzzing through them blocked all electronic transmissions going in or out of the gallery; once inside, your business was strictly your business. The gold lights soaked through and complemented the silver of the mesh in a constant reminder that you were in the presence of wealth.

I reached the rear of the caterers and moved closer to the group. No one was looking in my direction, so I joined the men watching the show.

The music held a single long note and then stopped.

The gallery glowed inside its electronic protector, a priceless egg safe inside a metallic cup that ran five meters deep into the sand. The Privus advertising holos had been free with their facts, because they could afford to be; the gallery was as secure against electronic incursion as it could be. Physical insurance was the renter’s problem, and an enormous deposit made sure you took that problem seriously.

A man separated from the client group and motioned them all back to their ships.

We waited until they were all inside, no doubt enjoying refreshments until we were ready to serve them in the gallery.

As soon as the last of the three ships sealed all the paying guests inside, a tall, wide man with golden skin almost the color of the gallery started barking orders. “Single file through security, station heads and drink masters first, then cooks, then the rest of you lot. Once inside, run to your station heads. We need drinks ready to serve in twenty, and they don’t like to wait. Move it!”

I hung back so I was last in line. I counted fifty-one staff ahead of me, just what Lobo had learned from breaking into the catering company’s databases. He was right; I should always trust him to do his job.

“Nice show,” Lobo said over the comm, “though almost certainly more impressive from your vantage than mine. Are you ready for this? You could still back out.”

“Good to go here,” I said. I bent in a small cough and took out my contact.

Lobo sighed. “Good to go.”

When my turn came, the two security people barely looked at me as one thrust a pair of retina-checking glasses at me while another looked for my name on a small display in her right hand.

The glasses beeped their approval, and the guard began packing them up.

As I stepped forward, the woman with the display held up her hand.

“Not so fast,” she said. “You’re not Ruiz.”

We’d prepared for this, so I answered without hesitation. “Never claimed to be. He felt sick and couldn’t make it. I cleared the security check last week, so he told me about it. I asked for the work. They gave it to me.” I shrugged. “Simple as that.”

She stared at me. “You a friend of his?”

“Friend enough,” I said, “for Anton to pass on a chance at work he couldn’t do.”

She grabbed the other guard and, without taking her eyes off me, whispered to him.

He circled behind me as she said, “Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been seeing Anton for almost a year, and he never mentioned any,” she glanced at the display for a second, “Jon Mashem.”

The other guard put a hand on my right shoulder.

“Exactly who are you,” she said, “and why are you here?”

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