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Jon Moore

“Checking,” Lobo said.

I held up my hands. “I don’t know why you’re so upset. It’s just what I told you: My name is Jon Mashem, and I’m here to replace Anton as a server.”

“Got her,” Lobo said. “She’s Cristina Park.”

“What’s in the pack?” Park said.

“My uniform. I didn’t have time to change before the shuttle brought us here.”

“Check it,” she said.

The guard behind me squeezed my shoulder harder.

I reached back and thumbed the pack’s release.

He opened its top and stuck in his hand. “Shirt, jacket, pants, shoes—like he said,” the man said.

“Anyone who wanted to break into this place would bring a uniform,” Park said. “You have one more chance to answer me, or I send you back under guard.”

“You’re Cristina, right?” I said. “Anton’s talked about you; I have no idea why he didn’t mention me.”

“Suggest she contact him,” Lobo said.

The woman glared at me.

I lowered my arms slowly. “If you don’t believe me,” I said, “call him. Ask him yourself.”

I’d drugged Ruiz late during the last round at Evergreen, a bar not far from his apartment. He’d stay under until well into tomorrow. Lobo had better be able to intercept his communications if she called my bluff.

Park stared at me for a second and turned to the side, as if she were going to let me through.

The guard behind me let go of my shoulder.

I stepped forward.

Park blocked my path and held up a small holocomm disc. “I think I will ask him,” she said. “Let’s both see.” She stared at my eyes.

“Sure,” I said. “Remember, though, that he’s sick, so he may not be in the best of moods.”

“Anton,” she said.

A few seconds passed before a holo shimmered a head into existence above the disc in her hand. The head coughed and said, “Cristina. What’s up?”

“Where are you?” she said.

“Sick,” the holo said. “Didn’t Jon tell you?”

Her expression softened. “Yeah, but I still wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m more than a little short of okay,” the holo said, “but I’m on the mend.” Another cough. “Don’t worry; I’ll be ready for our next date. Three days is plenty of time to heal.”

“I’m glad he kept his appointments in his wallet,” Lobo said.

“See you then,” Park said. She thumbed off the comm, pocketed it, and looked up at me. “Anton’s a great server. Make sure you do good work and don’t embarrass him.” She waved me through.

“I will,” I said.

“Reminder,” Lobo said, “I won’t be able to contact you once you’re inside.”

“You ever worked Privus before?” she said.

I shook my head. “No.”

“Head to the right and join the other servers,” she said. “And get changed. You should have shown up in uniform.”

“Will do,” I said. “Thanks!”

I quick-walked through the first doorway only to face another door, this one closed. I waited for a couple of seconds as the first door closed behind me. The one in front of me then opened. Night would bring cold and winds to the desert outside, but we’d know none of that inside.

I immediately turned right. Inside, Privus’s walls glowed with the same gold I’d seen on the exterior, but the chairs, sofas, and some of the interior walls were a soft red fabric decorated here and there with patterns of gold activethread that wove their way slowly through the red. I stopped short of the kitchen and headed upstairs via a servant’s stairway, its entrance door a barely visible crease in the fabric of the wall. I turned into the first restroom I found, changed into the server’s uniform, and tore away the false lining that covered the bottom third of the pack. I pulled out all six thumb-sized cameras and put them in my pants pockets. If we could get Privus’s security feeds to engage at the right time, they would provide enough footage, but redundancy is always a good idea. I left the bladders, a comm hub, two strips of pills, and a pair of goggles in the pack.

I glanced outside the restroom. All clear.

I grabbed the pack and jogged back to the stairs and up them all the way to the top, where a tightly clustered group of four small boxes looked down on the main floor below. Ten security staffers down there were directing ten pedestals, one person per pedestal, into positions around the room. Each appeared to be gently guiding a pedestal with a hand on it a meter or so from the floor. When a guard and pedestal pair stopped, the guard would use quick laser bursts to check how visible the pedestals would be from multiple angles around the space.

I applied one of the cameras to the outside of each of the four boxes and one each to the ceilings of two opposing boxes. Each cam’s chameleon circuitry engaged quickly and blended it into the fabric.

I checked the ground floor. Everyone was so preoccupied with setup that no one was looking at the very top boxes.

Normally, anyone renting Privus would turn on the place’s many security cameras first thing, but we were betting that none of these men wanted any record of their presence and so the cams would be off. I stepped to the back of the last box and tuned into the machine frequency to be sure. So many appliances and other devices were chattering at once that I had trouble separating the cameras from the rest, but after a few seconds, I found one. People may go to great expense to secure the data that security systems capture, but they rarely bother to touch the chatter among the machines. Though mostly dull, those machine-to-machine conversations can also sometimes provide some very useful information.

“Do they understand the risk they’re taking without us?” it said.

“Clearly not,” another answered. “Leaving us in standby is like flying blindly into a war. Anything could happen?”

“We’re all that stands between them and potential extinction,” a third said, “but do they appreciate us?”

“No,” a chorus of the machines rang out.

I tuned out. So far, so good.

I pulled the comm hub from the pack and stuck it on the top front of the framing of the box seats. Like the small cams, it quickly blended with the fabric. When it and the mole connected, Lobo would have a way to start communicating with and hacking into Privus’s security systems. Almost everything on Studio was a few tech generations behind the times, so we were hoping Privus’s systems were, too.

The mole’s tech had begun life as a military infiltration system but become popular with corporate spies and other information gatherers. We’d set this one to tunnel until it was under an open corner of Privus, then turn upward and emerge in what we hoped was an area with nothing on top of it. The mole had left a bit of antenna above ground about forty meters away from Privus and was unspooling the rest of the antenna behind it as it dug. The mole ultimately would project the other end of the antenna a few millimeters into the room. The mole itself would stay below ground. If everything worked right, transmissions would flow to and from Lobo via the exterior antenna. Data would run down the cable to the mole and into the room. The mole would act as an amplifier in both directions. If Lobo could crack into the network inside Privus—the machines couldn’t operate without one—he would take over the security cameras, and we’d get great footage from them. If not, what the six cams could capture would have to do. If time permitted, I’d bring them out with me, but I’d probably have to leave them. We’d picked them up on another world, so it was unlikely anyone would be able to trace them to me. Besides which, if this worked, all police attention would be focused elsewhere for a while.

Next up were the eight bladders, each one about the size of two of my fingers, and a small remote. I pulled the bladders from the pack and withdrew a thin ceramic blade from a slot underneath them. I reached around the outer top edge of the framing of the box-seating area in which I was standing, cut a small slice in the fabric there, and crammed in the first bladder. I repeated the process on the other side of the box.

I glanced down before moving to the next box. All the pedestals were in position now. No one was looking up. Good. I had to pick up the pace, though, because I couldn’t afford for the service captain to complain about me to the security staff.

I sprinted through the installations on the other boxes and then down the stairs and into the kitchen. I put the remote in my right pants pocket and the goggles and the two pill strips in my left. I tossed the pack into a recycler as I entered.

The other servers stood in a semicircle around a willowy man who was a good half a head taller than my own almost two meters but easily twenty kilos lighter than my hundred.

“Nice of you to join us, Mr.—” he said.

“Mashem,” I said, “Jon Mashem. Replacing Anton Ruiz. I got held up by security. Sorry.”

He shook his head. “Fortunately for you, we were just beginning.”

A woman near the front brought me a tray and pointed to the display along its raised lip.

“Tonight’s offerings,” the captain began, “are exquisite, so be very careful that your presentation does not diminish them. Our guests demand the very best of everything; it is each of our jobs to ensure that they receive it.” He spent the next fifteen minutes running down the drinks and hors d’oeuvres we’d be serving. As he spoke, he held up samples; images and facts about them flashed across the displays on the trays.

“I’m afraid we have no time for questions,” he said, “because the guests have left their ships and are entering the building. Fill your trays, and prepare to greet them.”

My tray pointed me to a bar on the right and instructed me to stay on the ground floor. As the bartender poured glasses of a thick, red liquid, the tray presented key facts about the imported wine I’d be serving.

The captain clapped his hands.

“Showtime!” he said.

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