Joe Virgil looked around with wary interest as he walked through the doorway of 93 Underground. He took in his surroundings with a glance—the spacious, well lit interior, the eclectic furnishings, the even more eclectic patronage. He glanced at the band playing a hard-edged dance piece, and the dancers moving to the music. Then he spotted his quarry and grinned.

"Check your weapons?" he heard. He looked over at the young woman manning a booth near the doorway. Though she was smiling politely, he knew it wasn't a request, and the big guy with the full complement of cyberlimbs standing nearby seemed entirely ready to enforce the issue.

Nodding, he opened his jacket, displaying the Desert Eagle .50 he wore in a shoulder holster. Keeping his jacket held open so that the young woman could see what he was doing, he extracted the massive handgun from the holster, and offered it to her butt-end first. Then he unsheathed the heavy combat knife he wore at his belt and passed it to her hilt first. Her smile became warmer in response to his uncommonly gracious manner.

Accepting his claim check, he began walking across the room. He was a big man in his mid-twenties, about two meters tall, thick in the chest, limbs, and neck. He was fair skinned and blue eyed, with the coloring of a blonde although his buzz-cut hair was hidden under a gunmetal grey cap. Neither the cap nor his short hair hid the data jack installed behind his left ear. The cap matched his jacket and pants, the outfit looked well worn and hard used, though clean. His face had an open, honest quality to it, but the way he moved and the manner in which he kept an eye on what was going on around him made it clear that he was far from na”ve. His left hand was an attention-getter; obviously artificial, it had been lacquered black and polished until it gleamed.

His approach was noticed by a group of six hard-eyed people dressed in the same manner that he was, though their jackets and caps bore an insignia that Joe's didn't. They stood up. "Asset!" one of them called out to him.

"Hey, K-dub," Joe called back, grinning. They smiled back in response and there ensued a barrage of greetings and hearty handshakes. They returned to the table and sat down.

"So," Joe asked, "why'd you want to meet here?"

That got him a laugh from one of the men, a shorter fellow with swarthy features nicknamed Coffee. "I suppose you'd prefer a nice safe corporate bar."

Joe suggested something improbable Coffee could do with his nice safe corporate bar; there was laughter all around.

"I heard good things about the waitresses here," another one of the men said.

"You heard right," K-dub said, admiring a shapely synthetic passing by with a tray of drinks.

Badger, the lone woman in the group, shook her head with a tolerant smile.

"Kind of reminds me of that place in Manila," Joe said reminiscently.

"Rosa's!" several of the others chorused, grinning.

"That was a great two weeks," a tall, slender man nicknamed Scythe said.

"And we all left broke," Coffee said, far from displeased at the memory.

They fell into a conversation, swapping stories about their long association. They told tales of battles won and lost, and the good times in between. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of beer consumed.

"So," Joe eventually asked, "how long are you in town?"

A momentary pause, then Roger, who'd been quieter than the others, said, "Probably just overnight." Not whispered, but spoken quietly enough that it wouldn't be overheard by anyone not at the table.

Joe nodded. The momentary pause had been more than enough of a reminder that he was no longer a member of the guild. He knew better than to ask anything about what they were up to or where they were going.

"So, how about you?" K-dub asked. "Enjoying the cushy corporate life?"

Joe laughed. "Still weighing offers. Doing a bit of freelancing until I get the deal I want."

"What do you think of Neo York?"

"Beats the living hell out of Guatemala," Joe replied, grinning.

Another round of laughter.

"How's my replacement doing?" Joe asked.

The others issued a chorus of groans.

Joe frowned. "That bad?"

Coffee sighed. "Asset, I officially take back every single gripe I ever made about how you move in the field. That guy is the biggest lard-ass in history."

"He's fine once we get him inserted," Badger went on, "but he's got no instincts in the field. We have to shepherd him all the way in."

"I bet the guy gets lost in the crapper," K-dub muttered. "He's going to get himself, or one of us, killed sooner or later."

Joe shook his head. "I told the Commander that it works better to train a grunt to be a nethead than to try to train a nethead to be a grunt. Most of the netheads I've seen just don't have the instincts for it."

Roger made a sound of disgust. "Yeah, but he says it's faster the way he did it." Mimicking the commander's authoritarian tone, he added, "And I trust you gentlemen will be able to cover him while he learns the ways of the field."

There was a round of sour laughter.

K-dub looked at Joe. "Aw, Asset, why didn't you re-up?"

Joe looked back at the other man. "Because they wouldn't pay me enough."

The others slowly nodded in solemn understanding.

Joe smiled. "They're not paying you guys enough, either."

There were smiles all around, and they brought their beer mugs together in a toast.

The next morning, Joe sat in the living room of a minimally furnished cheap apartment, cradled by a battered old recliner.

He had completed his morning workout and had showered, and was clothed only in black briefs. His body was in superb condition, prodigiously muscular, carrying no excess fat. His smooth fair skin was marred here and there by scars—bullet wounds over his left thigh and right hip, slashes across his right bicep and along his right forearm. His left arm was a jarring contrast to the rest of him, the cyberware mechanism covered in black lacquer.

His body was completely relaxed, and he stared at nothing vacantly. A small panel in the upper shoulder of the cyberarm had been opened, and a cable ran from the opening into the datajack behind Joe's left ear. The tip of the cyberhand's index finger had opened, and another cable ran from there to the apartment's data port.

Joe was utterly still; for the important part of him was elsewhere... cyberspace, where he floated amid arrays of light, substance without mass. Enormous structures staked out corporate claims in this alternate plane, great edifices meant to intimidate, to be an expression of corporate power.

Joe was not intimidated, though. This was his world, and he was in his office. His icon appeared as a man looking much like himself in a perfectly tailored three piece suit. His icon's hair was longer and slicked back, and he sported mirrorshades.

He had no adventure planned for today, he simply was doing his daily reading, scanning through the extensive matrix of data that he had retrieved, taking it in at mind numbing speed and sifting out the parts he found interesting with expert skill.

A blue light flashed in his vision, signaling that he had received a message. He completed his data sifting, then turned his attention to the email message.

He didn't immediately recognize the corporate logo in the message's header, but with a casual effort he found the name of the corporation and all public data associated with it.

"Interesting," he thought, and read the letter. It was not long, but he was smiling by the time he had finished it.

"An invitation for a job interview at Shiroko-Tsuhi," he thought. "Not bad, not bad. Always nice to have more players in the bidding war..."

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