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Steve stayed behind in the garage, standing silent guard over the car; without my press pass and invitation, he’d never make it into the party without making a scene, and we didn’t want to do that. Not yet. I was pretty sure there were a lot of scenes in my future. Assuming the senator listened long enough that we could keep on having a future.

It took a second blood test to get out of the garage and into the elevator. The third blood test came as a bit of a surprise; it was required to get out of the elevator. How they expected me to have been exposed to the virus during the ten seconds I’d spent between floors was a mystery to me, but they wouldn’t have spent the money on a testing unit if it hadn’t happened at least once. The elevator doors didn’t open until the light over the door went green, and I spared a moment to wonder what happened when more than one person took the elevator at a time. Then I stepped out into the foyer and into a world that had never known the Rising.

The mystery of the extensive security was solved in an instant, because this huge, lavishly appointed room looked like it was lifted straight from the pre-infection world. No one carried visible weapons or wore protective gear. A few folks had the clear plastic strips over their eyes that signaled the presence of retinal Kellis-Amberlee, but that was it. The place even had picture windows, for God’s sake. It took careful scrutiny to see that they were holograms, looking out over an image of a city too perfect to be real. Maybe that’s how it was once, but I doubt it; corruption’s been with us a lot longer than the living dead.

Even without visible weapons, there was security. A man with a portable bar-code scanner in one hand stopped me not two steps out of the elevator. “Name?”

“Georgia Mason, After the End Times. I’m with the Ryman campaign.” I unclipped my badge, handing it over. He swiped it through his scanner and passed it back, frowning at the display. “You should have me on your list.”

“According to this, Shaun Mason has already checked in with those credentials.”

“If you’ll check your list of associated journalists, you’ll see that we’re both registered as being attached to the Ryman campaign.” I didn’t bother trying to win him over with my scintillating wit. He had the look of a natural bureaucrat, and that sort of person almost never yields from the stated outline of their job.

“Please wait while I access the list.” He made a seemingly careless gesture with one hand. Only seemingly careless; I could see four people in the crowd who were now looking in our direction, and none of them was holding a drink or laughing. If four of the guards on duty were being that blatant, the math of professional security meant there were four more who weren’t.

The scanning unit beeped as it connected to the wireless network and queried the files available on the press corps cleared for entrance. Eventually, it stopped beeping, and the officious little man’s frown deepened.

“Your credentials are in order,” he said, sounding as if the very fact that I hadn’t lied was inconveniencing him. “You may proceed.”

“Thank you.” The watchers had melted into the crowd now that they were sure I wasn’t gate-crashing. I clipped the badge back to my chest, putting several feet between myself and the man with the scanner before reaching up to tap my ear cuff. “Shaun,” I muttered, quietly.

There was a pause, the transmitter beeping to signal that it was making a connection. Then Shaun’s voice, close by and startled: “Hey, George. I figured you’d be neck-deep in site reviews by now. What gives?”

“Remember the punch line I forgot yesterday?” I asked, scanning the crowd as I moved toward what I presumed was the entrance to the main dining hall. “The really funny one?”

Shaun’s surprise faded, replaced by wariness. “Yeah, I remember that one. Did you figure out the rest of the joke?”

“Uh-huh, I did. Some friends of mine found it online. Where are you?”

“We’re at the podium. Senator Ryman’s shaking hands. What’s the punch line?”

“It’ll be funnier if I tell you in person. How do I get to the podium?”

“Straight through the big doors and head for the back of the hall.”

“Got it. Georgia out.” I tapped the ear cuff, killing the connection, and walked on.

Shaun and Rick were a few feet to the left of the crowd of people the senator was glad-handing his way through. They’d paid for the privilege of meeting the man being predicted as our next president, and they were by God going to meet him, even if it was only for the few seconds it took to shake a hand and share a smile. On those few seconds are presidencies made. Here, behind the believable “safety” of a double-checked guest list and that guest list’s triple-checked infection status, old-school politicians felt free to revert to their old habits, pressing the flesh like it had never gone out of style. You could tell the ones who were genuinely young from the ones who’d had all the plastic surgery and regenerative treatments money could buy, because the young ones were the ones looking nauseated by all the human contact around them. They hadn’t grown up in this political culture. They just had to live with it until they became the old men at the top of the hill.

The senator didn’t look uncomfortable at all. The man was in his element, all toothy smiles and bits of practical wisdom sliced down to sound-bite size in case one of the nearby reporters was broadcasting on an open band. He’d known to do that sort of thing long before we joined his campaign, but having a constant press entourage had forced him to master the art. He was good. Given enough time, he’d be great.

Shaun was watching for my arrival, his shoulders set at the angle that meant he was tenser than hell and trying to hide it. They relaxed slightly as he saw me cutting through the crowd, and he nodded for me to approach. I shook my head, mouthing ‘Where’s Tate?’