Today's Reading

She wove her way past the wreckage of last night's rushed takeout and padded into the bathroom. She'd been too tired to scrub off every last bit of greasepaint the night before: now she made good. By the time she finished fixing the oversight, someone else was banging on the bathroom door with steadily increasing desperation.

Rita opened the door and found herself nose to nose with Julie. "Hey," Julie squeaked angrily: "gangway!"

Rita sidestepped and the bathroom door slammed behind her. Sharing three to a suite was one thing, but three to a bathroom was something else.

"Sleep well?" Rita asked, trying to keep her tone light. Deb paused her brushing long enough to glare and shake her head, then went back to untangling. Rita turned to the coffeepot: she'd refilled the water jug last night before hitting the sack, a preparation that stood her in good stead this morning.

While the coffeemaker was burbling, she laid out her costume for inspection. There were no catastrophic stains: good. The nanotech fabric treatment might keep it smelling fresh for weeks, but couldn't work miracles. All it would take was one drunk conference delegate with a glass of red wine to ruin her costume and put her out of a job. "One more day," she muttered to herself. "Just one more day." The implants in her right arm itched momentarily, making a muscle twitch.

"Looking forward to getting home?" Julie asked behind her.

Rita tensed. "Yeah," she admitted. "And to getting these fucking things out."

"They itch like scabies," Julie said thoughtlessly, and a moment later: "A kid brought that to the summer camp I was at one year. Didn't go there again."

Rita gave in to the impulse to rub furiously at the inside of her left arm, then made herself stop. If she'd known what this gig would come with she wouldn't have bothered. Clive had worked them like dogs all week; she hadn't even had time to check Facebook, much less go for a walk and log some geocaches—her hobby. It was wake, eat, work, sleep all the time.

"I think Clive said he closed a five-implant deal with a German games company yesterday. That's a five-grand  commission between us, right? If he gets the export licenses."

You needed an export license to send any kind of high-tech kit out of Fortress USA these days: it was optimistic to expect to be allowed to sell the implants to Germany. Julie invariably looked on the bright side of things. It probably explained why she'd tried to become an archaeologist, before the bottom fell out of the profession. Not that Rita was in any position to throw stones. She nodded, not wanting to burst Julie's bubble. Just over twelve hundred bucks would vanish into her student loan account like a bucket of water into a polluted reservoir. She made herself smile: "Let's go break a leg. Maybe Clive can sell another bunch?"

Through the bathroom door, the sound of a toilet flushing.

"Like, yeah. Whatevs. Wire me up."

They drank coffee in the predawn gloom, three mid-twenties acting temps sharing a cheap motel suite just off I-5. Then they helped each other into their demo outfits, first strapping on the battery packs and inductive chargers, then testing their implants before pulling on their costumes and taking turns applying their makeup. Finally they were ready to head to the Waterfront trade center. Rita drove, an Indian princess in sari and coronet, her passengers a sixties schoolmarm in beehive and butterfly glasses and a time-traveling Martian debutante in silver boots and shoulder pads.

She didn't know it yet, but it would be the last normal workday of her career.

*   *   *

When they hit the queue to the exhibitor entrance, the Indian princess ran into an unexpected obstacle: Homeland Security had decided to come calling.

When they arrived they found a crowd of casual-Friday techies, salesmen, and suited women with conservative hairdos backed up in front of a security checkpoint that hadn't been there the day before. Rita found herself corralled between crowd control barriers patrolled by local cops and DHS heavies in dull black body armor. A couple of small missile-carrying quadrotor drones buzzed overhead like angry hornets, scattering the seagulls.

"ID checkpoint!" called one of the officers, pacing along the side of the queue, watching through mirrored goggles with professional disinterest: "ID checkpoint!

Everybody have your ID card and conference badge ready for inspection."

"Oh shit," whispered Deborah, clutching her handbag. She began to rummage through it. "Coulda sworn it was in 
here—"
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