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“Um, thanks?” I looked from Becks—who was being shown her own clean test unit—to the concierge, not bothering to conceal my confusion. “What happens now?”

“Now you enter. A valet will take your van”—he paused as my hands tightened on the wheel—“or not, as you prefer. Your party is waiting for you in the lobby.” He stepped back. His partner did the same, and the gates in front of us swung slowly open.

Becks put a hand over mine. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve heard of this place.”

“So?”

“So I wouldn’t have if my mother hadn’t stayed here. You need so many zeroes in your bank account to get in that there are presidents who never stayed here.” Becks pulled her hand away. “They believe in discretion above pretty much all else. Now let’s go.”

“You’re the boss.” I started the engine.

Becks smirked. “I like the sound of that.”

“Yeah, thought you might.”

Getting past the valet without ceding the keys was easier than I’d expected. Every place I’d ever seen that was even remotely like this had been staffed by people who were so desperate for tips that they’d do anything to guarantee them—as long as “anything” didn’t involve coming close enough to actually touch another human being. There’s a commonly held belief that people who work in the hospitality industry are less paranoid about strangers than the rest of us. I’d almost been able to buy it, until I stayed in a few hotels and saw how careful the staff was to avoid touching the guests. It was almost funny, except for the part where it was so damn sad.

George theorized once that the people who worked in hospitality were even more afraid of other human beings than the average man on the street. “This way they never get attached to anyone,” she’d said. “People come and go. They don’t stay long enough to become anything but names on a ledger. There’s no sense of loss when there’s nothing to lose.”

The Agora was disturbingly different. The valet’s smile when I said I’d rather park myself seemed sincere, and the garage maintained for self-park vehicles was large, spacious, and well lit, with emergency doors located every fifteen feet along the walls. The bellhop who opened the hotel’s main door for us was also smiling, and kept smiling even when it became apparent that our days on the road didn’t leave us exactly minty fresh. And neither of them held out a hand for a tip.

“This is weird,” I muttered to Becks, once I was sure we were far enough past the guy for my comment to go unheard.

“This is wealth,” she replied, and slapped her palm flat on the test sensor that would open the airlock separating the outer ring of the hotel from the main lobby. I did the same. The doors swished open a second later, allowing us both to step through.

“Welcome, Mr. Mason. Welcome, Miss Atherton,” said a polite female voice. “The Agora recommends that you make use of our lavish guest facilities. A hot bath has already been drawn in your rooms. We’re glad that you’re here.” The door on the other side of the airlock slid open, and the main lobby was revealed for the first time.

Now that’s just overkill, commented George.

“You took the words right out of my mouth,” I said, and followed Becks out of the airlock.

The Agora lobby was decorated in shades of white and blue. It looked like the interior of the world’s most expensive glacier. A piano was tucked away into one corner, half blocked from view by tall plants with broad green leaves and trumpet-shaped blue flowers. The sound of the unseen pianist’s playing echoed through the room, soft enough not to be distracting, yet somehow unpredictable enough to make it clear that there was a live person at the keys. The front desk was set just to the side of a curved flight of stairs leading to the second floor.

Maggie and Mahir were standing near the center of the lobby, talking quietly. They looked around when the airlock door slid shut behind us. “Shaun! Becks!” exclaimed Maggie, the volume of her voice seeming inappropriate in this overly rarified atmosphere. “You made it!” She started toward us at a trot, Mahir following behind somewhat more slowly.

“Uh, yeah. We did,” I said, transferring my staring to Maggie. “You look…”

“Like the heir to Garcia Pharmaceuticals,” she said, and smiled. “You like?”

“Uh…”

Maggie was wearing a tailored blazer over a white lace shirt, no bra, and pants that could have been applied with a spray can. Maybe they were—they’ve been doing some incredible things with memory polymers in the last few years, and I know canned clothing was one of the things being worked on. Her normally curly, normally braided brown hair was both loose and straight, falling down her back like it had developed its own private gravity. Again, maybe it had. The ways of the obscenely rich are alien to me. Her makeup was elaborate enough that I was certain she hadn’t done it herself.

At least she was still wearing sensible shoes, rather than teetering on a pair of impractically high heels. I’ve heard them called “fuck-me pumps” in some of the pre-Rising media. These days, we call them “get-you-killed heels.” I think it’s a little more appropriate.

“It’s Shaun, Maggie, and you’re a girl,” said Becks, coming to my rescue. “He has no idea what the safe answer is, and so he’s going to vapor lock until you change the subject. Hi. It’s good to see you. You look wonderful.” She stepped forward, sweeping the head of the After the End Times Fictionals into a hug, which Maggie gladly returned.

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