The chime that sounded as the elevator doors opened was distinctly mechanical sounding, not the obviously electronic beep that most elevators used. Either someone had made an effort to digitally simulate the sound of an old elevator chime, or a real bell was being used.

Joe decided that the former was more likely. The elevator car was rather old looking but certainly not nearly as old as the building, and the automated system that had accepted his credstick and granted him access to the elevator had been modern enough.

His presence there had been a spur of the moment decision. He had been on his way home following a job interview. It was the end of the business day, and foot traffic on the sidewalks had been heavy enough to become annoying. Stepping inside the building to get out of the crowd, he had found himself in a large lobby. The walls were lined with what looked like real marble, and the wood trim was dark with age. In front of one wall was a marble desk with a touch screen information kiosk atop it, and behind the desk on the wall was an enormous old brass bas-relief with a depiction of the building above the words "Empire State".

The Empire State Building had seen better days. Due to mark its centennial in a year's time, there had been discussions about some sort of celebration, but there didn't seem to be much popular interest in it. The lobby had been nearly unpopulated, and though clean, was looking just a bit shabby about the edges.

In the year Joe was born, every day there were typically long lines of tourists waiting to ride the elevator that he was about to get on, but those crowds had dwindled away over the years. People speculated that the building of all the massive arcologies in the area had diminished the reverence that the building had engendered, or perhaps in an era of instant gratification, the rewards of looking down from atop the skyscraper weren't considered worth the investment in time.

Or, Joe thought idly, perhaps the building had simply become too old for most people to be interested in.

In any case, there was only one other person waiting to get on the elevator, and preoccupied with his thoughts of the interview he had just completed, and his plans for the next day, he paid her little notice other than to allow her to precede him into the elevator car.

The doors closed behind them, and the car began to rise, steadily gaining speed as it ascended toward the eighty sixth floor.

The elevator smelled old. Literally millions of people had ridden it before him, and their accumulated scent had infused the very walls of the elevator. Speakers in the ceiling produced aimless ambient pseudoclassical music.

In the manner of elevator riders since the day of their invention, Joe gazed fixedly at the indicator (which was, in another extravagant anachronism, an analog dial whose pointer appeared to be wrought iron) showing the car's progress toward their destination. His gray long coat hung open; it had been a cool, blustery day, but the coat had been worn more to protect his tailored dark blue three piece suit from street grime than for warmth.

The car had reached approximately the halfway point in its journey when it came to a sudden, shuddering, and disturbingly noisy stop. The lights briefly dimmed and flickered but returned to normal.

The halt was so abrupt that Joe's feet actually left the floor, his big arms flailing about in an effort to keep from tumbling. He managed to come back down on his feet, narrowly avoiding a fall.

The woman with him, however, was not so lucky. She fell with a cry, thudding against the car wall before sliding down to the floor, her arms wrapped tightly across her stomach.

Joe pivoted toward the sound, his eyes widening as he became aware of the woman's predicament. As soon as he had his feet under him, he stepped toward her and hovered over her uncertainly. "Miss?" he asked, his voice tentative; he found himself wishing that he'd paid more attention during the first aid training that he had been exposed to.

It appeared to Joe that the woman was suffering from some sort of injury. Her face was pale, and she was breathing in short gasps. A shame really, as she was extremely attractive. Tall as well, although he estimated that he was at least half a foot taller.

The woman looked up at him. With an expression Joe couldn't read, she extended one hand toward him.

Her intent was obvious, and Joe took her hand in his right hand.

He'd expected that he'd have to pull her off the floor, but her grip was surprisingly strong. Despite her injury, she managed to do most of the work in getting herself to her feet; Joe could feel powerful muscles in her arm and shoulder working as she used his hand to lift herself into a standing position.

Once she had her feet under her and seemed stable enough to stand on her own, Joe released her hand, and surreptitiously took a long look at her.

He put her height at around five-ten, with a broad-shouldered, slim-waisted physique. Long legs, and long black hair, frosted slightly with lavender. She had a pretty face, and dark eyes, and he thought he'd seen her, or someone a lot like her, somewhere before. Dressed in low boots, white hose, a black knee-length skirt, black blouse, and a long red coat, she presented a striking image, one that seemed to have been carefully put together in order to have the maximum effect.

It wasn't her appearance, though, that had Joe's attention; in an age where body alteration could produce almost any appearance desired, anyone with enough money (or was willing to engage in some other form of barter) could come to possess a magnificent face and physique. Joe had had the pleasure of meeting a number of extremely pretty ladies here and there during his career. But this woman had strength, and even though she was injured, she projected a sense of gracefulness. Her straightforwardness in flaunting her good looks also had a certain appeal.

He became still, giving the woman a chance to collect herself.

Placing one hand on the wall of the car, the woman took a deep breath, and winced slightly. "Thank you," she managed, her color returning slowly.

Joe smiled. "You're welcome," he replied easily. He studied her face closely. "Are you okay?" he asked, sounding concerned.

"Industrial accident. I'll be all right." Her voice sounded better, although Joe had to wonder what sort of "industry" the woman worked in. As a mercenary, most women he'd seen who dressed like this where nothing more than high-priced prostitutes, which wasn't always a bad thing.

"If you say so," Joe replied. It was obvious that he was skeptical of her claim, but rather than press the matter, he changed the subject. "Maybe introductions are in order. I'm Joe Virgil."

"Be--Barbara. Barbara Jensen."

Joe grinned. "Nice to meet you, even under these circumstances," he said, studying her face. He had the odd impression that he knew her from somewhere. He had a hard time believing that he'd forget meeting someone who looked like her.

Barbara managed a small smile, "I've been in worse situations."

Joe didn't doubt that; he assumed that she was thinking about the circumstances surrounding her injury. He was more concerned about the fact that the cab hadn't moved in a while. "They are taking their sweet time about it," he muttered. Deciding to do something, he located a small, unlabeled panel underneath the elevator's controls and swung it open.

Expecting to find an emergency phone, he instead found a largely empty space with a couple of buttons installed there. A small sign on the inside of the panel gave an assortment of instructions, including:

In case of emergency, press the red button or call 555-555-0120.

Suspecting that pressing the button would result in the sounding of an annoyingly loud alarm, Joe pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number.

After a couple of rings, he heard, "Empire State Building. Operations." The speaker was male, and sounded like a teenager.

"Hello. One of your elevators is stuck, and I'm in it."

There was a pause. "Okay. Could you, uhmmm, tell me the details?"

After Joe described the circumstances that had led to his and Barbara's predicament, the operations person paused, and then said, a bit mournfully, "Okay, this has happened before. We've been having a problem with our building's control system. It sometimes thinks there's some sort of emergency and locks the brakes on an elevator. You're perfectly safe. We just need to get a technician on site to correct the problem." A pause, then hesitantly, "It shouldn't take more than an hour."

"Shouldn't take more than an hour," Joe repeated in reply. He hadn't raised his voice, but Barbara could see that he was vastly annoyed.

"I'm sorry, sir. We don't have a technician here in the building." The young man sounded like he was reading from a script. "Of course, we'll refund the money for your elevator ticket."

"How generous," Joe replied, his voice dripping sarcasm. Then, realizing that the young man couldn't possibly be responsible for their trouble, he replied in a more normal tone, "We'd both really thank you for getting us out of here as soon as you can."

"I'll get right on it. Thank you for your patience."

Joe grunted an acknowledgement, then gave the young man his cell phone number and hung up. He looked ruefully at Barbara, and related what he had been told. "Looks like we should try to get comfortable," he added.

"I see." Glancing around the elevator, Barbara finally settled for sitting down against the far wall.

Joe sat down on the floor. He glanced at the opened panel, took another look at the instructions to see if he'd missed anything, noticed the red emergency button, and what was next to it.

Joe blinked, and then grinned. Next to the button was an old-style data port, presumably used to run diagnostics on the elevator.

"Then again," he said, "maybe we don't have to wait after all."

He opened his coat, loosened his tie, and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt. As he slipped his flesh hand under his collar, he looked at Barbara, about to explain what he was about to do. However, she didn't seem all that interested in what he was doing; her expression was a mask and he was unable to read how she was feeling. Deciding that she didn't seem likely to panic, he shrugged slightly and went on with what he was doing.

He pulled the end of a data cable out from under his collar. With the ease of an effort well practiced, he connected the cable to the datajack behind his left ear. Servomotors in the datajack whined faintly as they gripped the cable connector firmly, forming a seal that enhanced the integrity of the data that would be traveling to and from his mind.

Then, there was a click from his left hand, the artificial one. The covering on the left pinky finger parted, revealing a connector for another data cable. He grabbed the connector with his right hand, extended the cable, and connected it to the elevator's data port.

He slid around to position himself in a corner of the elevator, folding his legs together tailor-style, and then arranged himself so that he wouldn't fall over.

He smiled confidently at Barbara. "Just relax. I should have us going again in a minute." With that, he lowered his head, and became very still; externally, in any case. Internally, it was very different, as the important part of him, his mind, left his body and entered another place.

With a shake of her head, Barbara gave Joe a slight smile and closed her eyes, taking the time to rest quietly.

Joe's avatar looked around. Having dealt with simple control systems before, he wasn't surprised to find that instead of the richly detailed illusion of greater cyberspace, he found himself in what appeared to be a wire-frame mockup of a small room. A control panel was set on one wall. A doorway to the rest of cyberspace was set in another wall, but even if Joe had had any interest in going elsewhere at the moment, he knew that attempting to use that interface to access the net would be much like trying to use a fire hose spliced with a straw.

Joe stepped over to the control panel, effortlessly evading the feeble security on the system. The elevator's controls were fairly simple in function; a few switches, buttons, and dials. He had dealt with similar controls on a number of occasions. Studying the controls and the displays, he planned out the details on how to proceed.

Once he had a plan of action, he jacked out.

Looking up at Barbara, he said, "You may want to brace yourself. The elevator is going to lurch a little, nowhere near as bad as when we got stuck, though. We'll be out of here in a couple of minutes."

He again became still. Moments later, Barbara could hear the elevator's motor activating. After that, she heard a loud clunk, and the elevator lurched slightly, and then resumed its ascent.

Joe became aware of the world again, and grinned triumphantly at Barbara, who nodded in return. He spent the next minute disconnecting cables from the elevator and his neck and returning his clothing to the state it had been in before.

Then he made another phone call. "Don't know what you did," he said when the operations man answered, "but we're moving again. Thanks." He grinned merrily at Barbara and winked.

When the elevator reached the top and the doors opened to reveal the observation level, Joe turned to Barbara and said, "Maybe we should stick together. You know, just so that we can be sure that when you're ready to go, you'll make it all the way back down." He smiled, not trying to fool her for a second with regard to his motivations.

"Well..." Barbara paused for a moment, apparently mulling over the offer in her mind. "Sure, she replied, "I'm new around here anyway and could use a native guide."

Joe blinked, and then grinned.

"I must be more adaptable than I thought," he said happily, as he stretched an arm across the doorway to hold the elevator's doors open for Barbara, "if I have people thinking I'm a native Neo Yorker. I only moved here a few weeks ago myself."

"Oh, I see." Barbara gave him a slight smile. "How do you like it so far?"

"I like it a lot," Joe replied, pleased at the fact that she'd asked. "Busy place, lots of things happening. It's like you never know when you'll meet someone new and interesting," and he bowed slightly to her with a smile, "or when you might spot an opportunity that might change your life if you go for it."

The central area of the observation deck was walled in nearly entirely by floor to ceiling windows. The floor was beige linoleum and the ceiling gray acoustic tiles. The space looked as old as the rest of the building, well maintained but worn. The most noticeable feature was the large gift shop, which sold souvenirs with the image of the building pictured prominently on them: T-shirts, coffee cups, and other tourist junk. From the way the young woman at the counter appeared to be nearly dozing off, it was apparent that business was not brisk.

There were only a few people in the area. A tourist family looking around, and a couple of men in business suits holding a conversation. There was no sign of security; Joe assumed that there were cameras hidden about.

He led Barbara out to the outdoor deck that surrounded the indoor area. Here the floor was plain concrete, and looked weathered in addition to being old and worn. There were other people here and there but the space was far from crowded.

Joe looked up; there were clouds up above, but nearly blue sky was visible between them. The air pollution was thinner up here, nearly invisible, only enough to make the area around him seem very slightly out of focus.

"It's kind of nice to see the sky again," he remarked casually to Barbara. "Not that I'm claustrophobic or anything, but it's been an adjustment living here."

"You should see Mega-Tokyo," was Barbara's response.

Joe grinned. "I was there once," he said, "but it was six years ago, and I can't honestly say I saw the place. The company didn't want to spend Mega-Tokyo prices for a place for us to sleep, so it was fly in, do the job, fly out." It didn't help from a tourist's perspective that the entire expedition occurred in the wee hours of the morning, but Joe didn't consider that an important part of the narrative. "Cheap S.O.B.'s," he went on good-naturedly, "which is why I don't work for them anymore. I'd've liked to get a better look around. I hear it's a fun little town."

Barbara raised an eyebrow at the word "fun." "Depends on your definition of fun I guess."

"True enough," Joe replied, chuckling. His manner suggested that he had a rather unusual definition of fun, and that he knew something of what Barbara's comment hinted at.

He stepped out to the edge of the deck. All around the deck, there was a waist-high wall surmounted by a fence of interlocking bars of steel that stretched four meters up. The bars had gleamed once, but time and rain-borne chemicals had stained the fence black. The bars were far enough apart to peer between but the gaps were too small for even a small child to slip through.

Below and around them, Neo York looked like an alien techno-nightmare landscape. The streets were nearly invisible, hidden among the tall, closely packed buildings. Satellite dishes and solar power receptors covered nearly every available inch of roof space, further cluttering the view. Smog veiled the view in a reddish-brown haze; faraway buildings looked like they were being depicted in an old, faded photograph. The view rippled in the heat rising from the densely populated city.

Joe escorted Barbara on a walk following the edge of the observation deck, gazing at various points of interest.

The horizon was only intermittently visible, as they were surrounded by Neo York's numerous titanic arcologies. Many of them were taller than the building that Joe was standing atop; what was much more apparent was how much wider the arcologies were. Many of the corporate arcologies were shaped like pyramids or cones; others were stepped structures. The Empire State Building, once considered one of the technological wonders of the world, now looked frail and insubstantial by comparison.

Flying between and above the buildings were an assortment of aircraft; helicopters, VTOL planes, and vectored thrust craft flitted here and there in what initially appeared to be a confused jumble, patterns becoming apparent only after a bit of study. Some of the aircraft hovered close to the big arcologies, looking like gnats next to the enormous buildings they serviced.

The view of the river was completely cut off; the river's location could be inferred only from a long gap in the rooftops. The dome that covered most of Central Park looked like a gigantic drop of oily water spattered in the middle of the city.

Joe looked over at the dark-haired beauty standing next to him, and watched the blustery, cool breeze do attractive things with her long hair. He was torn; part of him wanted to ask her about herself just to see what kind of story she'd make up; he hadn't missed the fact that "Barbara" had obviously given him a false name. The other part enjoyed the idea of being with a "woman of mystery" with secrets to keep.

"I imagine the night view must be something and a half," he said, deciding to stick with small talk for the moment.

"Especially from the top of an arcology." Barbara pointed to the peak of the Shiroko-Tsuhi tower, just visible between rows of soaring apartment complexes. "It becomes a sea of lights... Almost pretty in it's own way."

'Spoken like someone who's been there,' Joe thought but did not say. The inference was there to be drawn; Barbara either was (or had been) a corporate VIP, or had a friend who was. 'Curiouser and curiouser.'

"A city at night reminds me of cyberspace, a little," Joe replied. "All the sights are more abstract, and defined by the lights." His tone implied that he found the comparison a favorable one.

He looked at Barbara. "You said, 'almost pretty'. What sort of view would you prefer?"

A long pause was the response to Joe's question, as Barbara considered her answer. "The sea shore I think. I hear it nice up around Maine and Newfoundland."

Joe blinked; he hadn't thought Barbara would be interested in something so rural. Then he smiled, and said, "That sounds nice. I suppose I'd lean more toward a cabin in the woods somewhere, though, if I wanted to relax and get back to nature."

"I don't want to get back to nature so much as go somewhere that isn't so crowded." Barbara paused, and looked out over the cityspace before them. "Somewhere that isn't here."

They were on the side of the deck facing in the direction of the crumbling ruin that was the Zero Zone. Joe didn't seem terribly interested in the Zone; his gaze had been drawn mostly to the various corporate arcologies.

"Oh, okay," Joe replied. "For me, that's a long time off. I've got a lot of things I want to accomplish before I could start thinking about anything like that."

"Yes..." The voice was tinged with audible sadness and regret. "A long time."

Joe looked over at her as she gazed out over the city, and studied her profile intently. Caught by the gentle sadness in her manner, he wondered what had been done to her to make her want to leave her life behind. There was an awkward silence as Joe tried unsuccessfully to figure out a way to get her to open up to him without prying. It was rare for Joe to find himself tongue-tied; the experience was frustrating for him.

Without looking at him, Barbara took him off the hook. "So, tell me about yourself. What exactly do you do?"

Joe grinned; Barbara had sensed that he was one of his own favorite subjects. "I'm a combat netrunner," he replied.

Barbara puzzled over that for a bit. "I'm not familiar with the term."

Joe nodded. "There aren't many of us. Basically, it refers to a netrunner whose primary method of operation is to be inserted at the site where the system or network to be accessed is, do his thing directly to the system, and get out without being caught. The method is effective for systems or networks that are buried in ICE or aren't connected to the net at all. And all it takes is a netrunner who knows how to work with a combat team to get into a site without getting shot excessively."

"Like yourself."

Joe chuckled. "Like me."

"How'd you get into that line of work?" Barbara seemed genuinely curious now.

"Well, the whole story goes back to when I was sixteen and looking for work. Despite my tremendous multifaceted potential, people turned out to be only interested in my because I had a strong back and was willing to allow myself to be shot at for money."

"You became a mercenary." Barbara deadpanned.

Joe was pleased at Barbara's quick thinking. "Right in one. After a couple of years, I hooked up with a company that specialized in inserting a combat netrunner into a targeted site. I'd always been talented with computers, so soon I started learning the ropes from the company's netrunner. Eventually I took over from him."

"Sounds like a hard life."

"Aw, it hasn't been so bad. I've been all over the place, I've hooked up with people I like, and I've had all sorts of interesting experiences. For example..."

Joe launched into the first of a series of stories. Even after eliminating the ones featuring brutal violence, direct sexual references, and crude language, he still had quite a repertoire, and he told them very well, with a comedian's timing. His stories were laden with rough camaraderie and mercenary cynicism, but still managed to be human. Trying to draw Barbara's attention to allow her to forget her own problems, he even threw in a couple of stories that ended with Joe having egg on his own face.

As he walked with her around the periphery of the observation deck and told story after story, the sun began to near the western horizon. The air began to cool a bit as the sun's rays angled through air stained the color of burgundy. Below, as the deep canyons of the city's streets began to fall into shadow, Neo York's myriad lights began to flicker into life.

"...so then the lady said, "Enjoy your oysters," and got up and left." Joe chuckled at the memory.

After a moment, Barbara observed, "You're no longer with your company."

Joe nodded. "I decided that there was nothing more that I could accomplish with them."

"That must be a nice option to have. What are you doing now?"

"Deciding which corporation is going to compensate me handsomely for my services," he replied confidently. "The corps are where the really interesting stuff is happening."

Barbara didn't respond to that, prefering to stare out at the cityscape. She seemed to be glowing in the ruddy light of the setting sun.

Joe took a deep breath, and then gazed directly at her. "You know," he said, working up the nerve to say something he wasn't sure he should, "somewhere along about the time that you changed your mind about which name you were going to give me, I figured that you weren't inclined to have me poke my nose into your business, and I'm sorry, but I get the feeling that you have some troubles." He tried to meet her gaze. "Could there be some kind of help I might be able to give you?"

Barbara looked back at him. "I need to be going," she said. "Please excuse me."

Joe sighed. "I've enjoyed talking with you."

Barbara turned away and headed toward the elevator.

"Hey," Joe said.

Barbara turned around to look at him.

"You change your mind, just send me a message on the net."

"Where should I send it?"

A smile of sheer confidence slowly crossed Joe's face. "Anywhere. I'll find it. And then I'll find you."

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