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“Hello, Shaun,” said the pleasant voice of the Agora. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I said, hauling my shirt off over my head. “Where do you want me to put my clothes?”

A hatch slid open in one wall. I hadn’t even been able to see the outline of it in the tile. “Please place your clothes in the opening to your left. I promise they will not be damaged in any way by the cleaning process. We are only interested in your comfort and well-being.”

“Great.” I finished stripping before shoving my clothes, shoes and all, through the hatch. I held up my pistol. “What do you want done with the weapons?”

“Please place them in the same location. They will be separated out before the cleansing process begins.”

“Right.” I wasn’t happy with that answer. I didn’t see another way. Automated sterilization systems can get mean when they feel like protocol is being violated, and no matter how nice the Agora was programmed to be, refusing to give up my weapons would qualify as violating protocol. I placed them in the opening with everything else, barely pulling my hand back before the hatch slammed closed again.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Shaun,” said the Agora. “Please move to the center of the room and close your eyes. Sterilization will commence once you are in the correct position.”

“On it,” I said. I moved to position myself directly over the drain, closed my eyes, and tilted my face toward the ceiling. The water turned on a second later, raining down on me from what felt like half a dozen differently angled jets. I didn’t open my eyes to find out.

Sterilization follows the same basic protocols no matter where you are or how high class a place pretends to be. First they boil you, then they bleach you, then they boil you again. If the powers that be could get away with dipping us all in lye, they’d probably do it, just to be able to say that one more layer of “safety” had been slapped on. The Agora was nicer about it than it technically had to be; the hot water lasted almost thirty seconds, followed by eight seconds of bleach, and then a citrus-scented foam that oozed down from more jets in the ceiling. Sterilization and a shower.

Twice, the Agora instructed me to change positions or turn, letting the bleach, hot water, and cleansing foam cover every part of me. The hot water jets were repeated three times; the bleach was only repeated once. Guess I was dirtier than I was potentially diseased.

Finally, the water turned off, and the Agora said, “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Didn’t you say that, like, five minutes ago?” I opened my eyes. The door in front of me was open, revealing an antechamber that looked like the locker room of a really upscale gym.

“My range of programmed responses is wide, but sometimes, repetition is inevitable,” said the Agora patiently. “If you would like to register a complaint—”

“That’s okay,” I said, cutting the hotel off midsentence. “Thanks for the scrub. Do I get pants in the next room?”

“Yes, Shaun,” said the Agora.

“Awesome,” I said, and proceeded on. The “pants” were drawstring cotton, purple with the Agora logo over the hip, like they were advertising a high school pep team. The bathrobe that went with them was a few shades darker, with the same logo. I pulled everything on, checked to be sure the ties were tight, and stepped out the door in the far wall.

George was waiting in the hall, tugging anxiously at the sleeves of her own bathrobe. Her feet were bare, the legs of her sweatpants pooling over their tops, and her sunglasses were gone. Without a medical condition to make them mandatory, she could have them confiscated at every sterilization checkpoint we encountered. Another EMT was standing nearby, using that weird gift that some people in service industries seem to possess, and basically blending into the furniture.

I ignored her, focusing on George. “Hey,” I said. “All clean?”

“All clean.” She sighed, giving up on tugging her sleeves into place. “Do you think that after we see how Maggie’s doing, we can get me a can of Coke?”

“We can get you a gallon of Coke,” I said.

“Good.” She looked to the EMT. “Where to now?”

“This way,” said the EMT. She started down the hallway and we followed, only lagging by a few steps. The hall ended at a pair of sliding glass doors, which opened to reveal a small but well-appointed hospital waiting room. There was even an admissions desk, with a woman sitting behind it, tapping away at her computer.

“The Masons are here for Miss Garcia,” called the EMT, as she led us past the desk. The other woman nodded, looking up with a smile. Her fingers kept moving the whole time, and her eyes snapped quickly back to the screen.

“Do you get many medical emergencies here?” asked George.

“The Agora is proud to provide hospital services to our guests, both past and present,” said the EMT. “We have patients most days, seeing our private doctors. It offers a guarantee of privacy and discretion that is unfortunately not present in many more public hospitals.”

“Better care for rich people, right?” I said. “Figures.”

George didn’t say anything. She just looked thoughtfully around as we followed the EMT past a row of unlabeled doors, finally pausing at one that looked like all the others.

“A moment, please,” said the EMT, and pushed the door open, vanishing inside. Only a few seconds passed before she pushed the door open again, this time holding it to let us through. “Miss Garcia will see you now.”

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