SYDNEY: FRIDAY 5.50pm.
There were no security guards in the foyer. It was a warning easy to ignore. Even for a man with perfect recall - a wary man who never got involved.
If he'd just backed out of the building, none of it would have happened. He'd never have taken the lift...
...to the floor that wasn't there.
Cloud shrouded the taller city buildings, absorbed the fetid air they expelled, was polluted by fumes from ten thousand crawling cars. Soon rain would drench the streets, make them mirrors of taillights in the night, and the evening's futilities would begin. Not quite six, yet almost dark.
Blake hurried to the building, a tall man in a modish leather coat, sheltering a large envelope under his arm as he moved against the homegoing crowd. He disliked the city now - thrusting people violent with their lives who demanded their space on the pavement, their inner space sour with regrets. His eyes avoided, as always, number plates, faces, signs, trying to limit information that, once received, could never be erased.
The building was still open, foyer deserted, security desk unmanned. Odd, he thought. There was always someone there.
He hurried to the inner core where express lifts served floors thirty-five and up. DFK Investments was on the 40th, a floor above brokers J. L. Wain. He knew the names and floors of all firms here. Information was his plague.
A lift pinged. He entered its cocoon. Padded blankets draped its sides. It cooed, 'Welcome to the Arcon Complex.' He pressed 40, waited for the rush.
His gut was dragged toward his shoes as the lift rocketed to 39. It slowed. He waited for the recorded announcement, 'Floor 40. DFK Investments.'
The message never came. In the archive of his mind, the change jarred.
The doors slid open - to gloom. Not forty or thirty-nine. A dark landscape of computer terminals that looked like a trading floor.
The lift indicator was blank, the lights behind the buttons off. He pressed one. Another. Dead. What was happening here?
The doors slid back together. He prodded buttons.
Blake stabbed the OPEN DOORS button. The doors shuddered and parted again.
> The floor was an expanse, undivided and unlit. Twilight from distant windows made the terminals tombstones in the dusk. He was marooned in this graveyard. He got out, annoyed at losing time. There'd be a fire-stair, but one-way handles could mean a walk to the ground.
The doors closed behind him, cutting off the reassuring light. He walked around the service core.
The door to the stairs wasn't there. The exit and surround had been blocked with welded steel sheet. Sensors were attached to the metal - like the kind on safes in banks.
He hurried back to the lift, reached for the call button. Not there. Just a red square painted on the wall. He touched it. None of this made sense.
The indicator above the door showed that the lift was on the floor above. He heard it swish past down the shaft as the readout changed to 39. It continued to the ground.
He was on a floor that didn't exist!
His shirt felt suddenly damp. He scanned the silhouette of shapes, called, 'Hello?'
The VDUs came on as if the floor were waking up. The fluorescent strips above him pinged, flickered. The office blazed. He saw a woman near the window staring at a screen.
He walked toward her. 'I'm trying to get out of here.'
She didn't look up. She wore a black jumper, black jeans, had narrow hips, strong limbs. Her jumper, pushed back to her elbows, exposed muscles so defined they seemed barely covered by skin. He'd photographed dancers with bodies like hers. Contact prints cascading through his vision, pensive bodies, agile limbs. Images, as random as a loose-paged file, dropped in his brain. Sometimes it came like this, as a lifetime might assail a drowning man. The window that opened in his brain, presenting the past as present, came more often when he was upset. He dragged his mind back, aware the woman had glanced at him, looked away. She had some device on the desk with a cable that connected to the terminal. Its LCD readout had become a numerical blur. An industrial backpack vacuum cleaner lay beside her on the floor, near a rag-stuffed plastic bucket with a duster projecting from one side. But she wasn't the contract cleaner. They didn't wear surgical gloves.
The screen read: ACCESS DENIED. ENTER KEY WITHIN FIFTEEN SECONDS.
He said, 'I got off on the wrong floor and I can't get the lift back.'
She just watched the numbers stream. The box seemed to be feeding in data. Abruptly the readout stopped and he heard small beeps. The screen did a razz, displayed: PRIMARY KEY INVOKED.
She stiffened slightly and began to key in numbers from a pad. The screen flashed through a series of plans. It continued until 130 plans, filled with words, figures, insets, had been through. He knew how many there were, even at that subliminal speed. It stopped and text came up: INDIVIDUAL SCANNING DENIED then PRINTOUT/DOWNLOAD REQUIRES SECONDARY KEY. ENTER WITHIN 30 SECONDS.
Her fingers attacked the keyboard. The screen scrolled figures in a blur. His eyes didn't waver until the four columns had gone through.
The message repeated: PRINTOUT/DOWNLOAD REQUIRES SECONDARY KEY. 30 MINUS 10 SEC ELAPSED.
A countdown to the time lock? Her eyes were fixed on the screen.
30 MINUS 20 SEC.
It wasn't going to work.
She lifted the cleaner, shrugged into the harness, took the hose in her left hand, stared back at the screen without hope.
30 MINUS 30 SEC. KEY-IN TIME EXCEEDED. ACCESS DENIED. SECURITY ALERTED. MANDATORY SYSTEM SHUTDOWN. Beeps went off across the room and he heard a distant alarm.
He said, 'No banana?'
She didn't blink.
She pulled one hose extension from the cleaner. From the centre of the remaining pipe a metal probe projected, like the tongue of a mechanical snake. She felt behind her and opened a panel on what appeared to be the cleaner barrel, exposing a toggle switch and LED light that were clearly not factory installed. She flicked the switch. The light came on. He heard the faintest hum.
For the first time she looked directly at him. She had the eyes of a war-conditioned youth. They dismissed him as irrelevant. 'Stay behind me if you want to reproduce.'
She moved along an aisle, directing the probe at the equipment in the room. He kept his distance, not wanting to cook. 'What about the security alert?'
'Security's not alert. It's unconscious.' Slight accent. Hard to pick.
He followed her, absorbing everything - the positioning of pencils in a mug, the unusual phones with their extended displays, the pattern and tones of the carpet, the high tread on her black rubber heels, the ballet of her every movement indelibly recorded - turns, bends, steps...
She scanned the entire floor systematically, making sweeps with the cleaner wand. The alarm stopped when they reached half way. Again silence and the dead, muffled air.
She swung the pipe to each side like an acolyte with incense. He watched her. 'What is this place?'
She didn't answer for some time. 'They can read your life off those screens.' A toneless statement from some private hell.
'So you're slaying Big Brother?'
Again, the chasm between the answer and the question. 'This floor's a terminal with a dedicated line.'
'So why not do it to the mainframe?'
'Me and what battalion?'
The workstations blinked out in sections until all screens were blank, as if blown. When they'd circled the core, she switched the contraption off and replaced the decoy fittings.
'If you can't wipe stuff, why wreck a terminal?'
She uncoupled the box-like device, placed it in the bucket, covered it with rags. She removed her gloves with a snap and stuffed them in her jeans. She lifted the bucket, adjusted her harness, became a cleaner, someone to disregard.
He followed her to the lift. 'Can you let me out of here now?' He was still clutching the trannies - the ones he'd promised his client for tonight.
She reached into the bucket and pulled out something dirty-green - an automatic scratched around the barrel. She pointed it at his thigh.
'Bloody hell.' His lunch turned to liquid.
'Back up - or I drill your leg.'
He reversed two steps from the lift door. 'Look, I'm nothing to do with this.'
She pulled a blank smartcard from her pocket, touched it to the square on the wall. Far off, he heard a lift start up. Blood pounding in his chest, he held up the stiffened envelope. 'I was just delivering this upstairs. The lift dumped me and I couldn't get it back.'
Her eyes moved to his face but the gun still pointed directly at his thigh. 'You don't have to convince me. Hard men don't yell out, "Hello".'
His became acutely aware of his leg as if it were pleading for protection. 'So why can't I go down?'
'If they've run a desk check you'll get zapped.'
'I could get zapped here.'
'Down there, you'll stop a burst.'
He couldn't take his eyes off the gun. The hole in the end looked like a tunnel. 'So how do I get out?' Sweat ran down the back of his shirt.
'You weren't supposed to get in.' she shrugged. 'Ring the police.'
'On wrecked phones?'
'I won't have got them all. Wait ten minutes before you ring.'
'I like to breathe.'
'And I'll get lumbered for what you've done.'
'They'll know you're a stray. You'll survive.'
'So I'm supposed to help you get away?'
'If you want to know how to use the phones...'
'I've used a phone before.'
'Not like these.'
'Okay.' He flashed his palms at her - submissive body language. 'Ten minutes.' Despite his fright, his photographer's eye, from long habit, registered her pose - legs slightly apart, the gun an extension of her hand, the rough canvas of the shrouded lift behind...
She said, 'They're digital vocorders. To switch to duplex crypto mode you insert a smart card, enter a PIN. Or they could be network keyed. They're designed for use on ISDN - but these don't use that network so you'll get out.'
The padded box opened behind her. She lifted the bucket, backed into the lift. 'There are five modes. Clear speech, authentication, speech encrypted, clear data, data encrypted. Find one that's up, then fiddle with the buttons. When you get clear speech mode you can use it on a normal line.' The gun pointed at his thigh until the closing doors severed the threat.
He slumped into the nearest chair, wet with sweat beneath the leather coat. Jeez. She could have shot him. Now she'd fed him to the wolves.
He waited like a threatened animal. Four minutes. Five.
Finally he searched for a phone. The first fifty were dead. He wondered what kind of device could do so much damage so fast. High-intensity radio frequency? It had to be classified equipment.
He lifted handsets, pressed buttons until he found a phone he could use. A button prompted the words: CLEAR SPEECH. He dialled 000 and asked for police.
He told them what had happened without mentioning the woman. The thing was confusing enough. The operator transferred him to a detective and he repeated the story again. The detective said, 'Your name is Blake?'
'Driver's licence number?'
'Why do you want my...'
'Verification. Licence number please?'
He gave it.
'All right, Mr Blake. Be there soon.'
'I haven't told you where I am yet.'
'We know where you are.' It was a threat.
It took them thirteen and a half minutes. It was nothing like he'd expected.
He'd expected uniformed cops with the standard intimidating swagger cooked up by academy instructors, seasoned by arrogance developed on the job - thick waisted bovine men, belts heavy with the functional black Glocks, two 15-round clips, Bendix-King walkie-talkies, baton, handcuff pouch...
As the lift opened, the dogs came first. He was deafened by growls as they leapt. One, all eyes and teeth, dragged him down by his right arm. He felt raw pain as the other clamped his ankle, bit.
On his way down, he saw men diving from the lift. Sub-machine-guns - fat, dirty-black. Red beams of laser sights. They hit the carpet. Rolled apart. A yell. More leapt out covering their flanks.
The next pair stayed behind the doorframes, cross-angled weapons trained on each quadrant.
They wore black coveralls, balaclavas - eyes and noses white blobs. Packages on left shoulders strapped to slug-stopping woven mesh.
As he hit the floor, a command. Dogs pulled back. A boot on his spine. His face was flat against carpet, his arm twisted back.
The team had spread into the room. Clinks of equipment as they moved. Dogs panting around the floor.
He tried to reach his savaged ankle. 'Oh, Jeez.'
'Shut your face.' The man pinning him almost dislocated his arm.
He lay there for perhaps a minute until someone yelled, 'Secure.'
His arm was released. He sat up. Assault rifle flashguards in his face. This wasn't the Armed Hold-up Squad. Who were they?
He grasped his ankle, rocked. Blood on his hand. His coat sleeve was ripped but had saved his arm. His other arm felt torn off. The dogs, leashed now, panted hot breath, cocked their heads, ears high.
He painfully got up.
'Arms spread on the desk. Do it.'
He did it. They kicked his feet apart - kicked the injured leg. He winced.
They frisked him, took his wallet, felt inside his pockets, taking everything. He tried to turn, was shoved back.
'Maintain the position.'
He didn't move.
Someone drawled, 'You're lucky to be alive.'