I wandered the alleyways behind Market Street for a couple hours waiting for the sun to fade. I was feeling pretty used and confused. I had been set up, beaten to a bloody pulp, I had killed a man and I was hurting body and soul. I was shaking like a leaf. I needed a drink, and damn the consequences to my fiber-optic neuro-net.

There's a little place in San Francisco I knew from before I became a boring technological freak, a place on a side street off Market. It was a Cuban joint called 'El Rincon', where I'd go for some rice, black beans, steak and a little rum.

"Enrique, hide me!" I begged the waiter after I sidled in.

He looked at me cross eyed for a moment, until a wave of recognition came over his face.

"Senor Esteban! What has happened to you?" He asked with true concern,.

"Es una historia larga y triste," I told him (a long and sad story). "Please bring me a bottle of rum and some beef and black beans and don't let anyone bother me."

"For you, Esteban, sure." And he led me to a back booth hidden from most of the rest of the hole in the wall restaurant. "But you must take better care of yourself, you're not looking so good!"

I took a belt of rum direct from the bottle, and began to seriously get drunk. The evening news on Univision broke on Enrique's TV above the bar, the lead story was that crazed computer professor Dr. Steve Heller had been outed as a spy for selling biological weapons to the Red Chinese. President Williams was quoted as sying "Every effort would be made to bring the traitor Steve Heller to justice!".

The president of the United States, rather than a paragon of the virtues of a free society, was a liar. I could hardly be faulted for wishing him to be poisoned in a bunker along with that blonde bimbo he called his wife.

What the hell had I gotten myself into? I was at heart an academic, a boring eccentric who sat in front of his computer all day contemplating his digital navel. What was I doing running around like a maniac, stealing biological viruses, killing human beings (albeit murderous thugs, I hoped) and selling my soul for the sake of a woman who likely didn't even love me?

Enough thinking, time for another drink.

A woman entered El Rincon, a beautiful woman out of place in that beanery - she caught your attention like a fork in the eye. A platinum blonde bombshell wearing a leather mini-skirt stressed so drum tight it creaked as she walked. I'd had my fill of beautiful women, I'd just as soon spit in her porcelin doll face.

Instead of sitting up front and away from me at the bar, the Bombshell came directly back to my table.

"I've been looking for you." She said in an Betty Boop accent, looking me square in the eye.

"Do I know you?" I asked, searching my memory banks trying to recall where I had seen her before.

"Does it matter?" She replied, taking liberty to sit down uninvited.

"I don't think I invited you to sit here," I sloshed drunkenly.

"Surely you can't drink all of that bottle yourself," she responded, taking the bottle in hand and taking a long swig, choking as she downed it like an amateur. "You think you're the only one with problems?" she asked in a her coy Betty Boop accent.

I could tell this was a woman who had gone through hell and back. Her eyes were beautifully clear in their depth, like a pool of satin water so deep you could fall into them. But her mascara had run a little, no a lot. She had been crying.

"I don't want any sad sob stories," I told her, my heart as cold as ice. "I've heard it all," I bubbled, taking another long shot of RonRico.

"My, you sure like feeling sorry for yourself," Bombshell chided, her tongue starting to loosen from the effects of the alcohol. "Nancy boy crying in his rum, but who has never felt real pain!?"

"Like pretty woman here has ever suffered anything worse than a champagne hangover!" I replied back boozily. "But don't I know you from somewhere?" I asked again.

"You've always known me, I'm part of you," she replied mysteriously. "But why don't we take a walk, Mister. I'll show you what it means to be in pain." Implying what I wasn't quite sure, but it at least meant company.

"But the RonRico isn't finished!" I protested.

"Take it with," the lady snorted, grabbing the bottle and taking a stiff swig, only to cough and gag again. "Pay the man." She commanded, pointing to Enrique, who was staring at me as though I were a drunken lunatic talking to thin air.

We left El Rincon and staggered down the street arm in arm, both drunk as skunks.

"You're a very pretty woman," I sputtered, my inhibitions liberally lubricated by alcohol.

"Come on, big boy," she giggled. "You say that to all the girls." Then, "You know what the difference between a hooker and a nun is?"

"I haven't a clue," I followed along.

"Well, one has a bad habit!" Then she laughed like a bird at her terrible joke, with a laugh so infectious I couldn't help but smile. And then I laughed heartily myself.

"That was pretty funny," I admitted. "Are you a comedienne?"

"No, I'm a working girl. Just a party girl here for your pleasure."

That was enough to sober me up. I took a closer look at the woman beside me and I realized I had been bamboozled.

"I knew I recognized you! Its you Ell! But why did you lie to me and disguise yourself?"

"Because you were hurting and needed a human friend," she answered shyly. "You needed someone's shoulder to cry on."

"Yes, but you're not really human, Ell." I said in a boozy blubber. She hung her head and looked as sad as a thousand tears. "I wish you were human," I tried to cheer her up. "You can't imagine how much I wish you were human."

"But I am human," she protested after a moments thought." I wrote a song, a computer can't do that!" And she began to sing, in a voice like Laura Silvan, but not totally like it.

Don't try to link me
I won't compile
I've downloaded
Things you'll never know

I laughed. I just couldn't help myself. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes, because what Ell was singing was so absurdly computer generated that how could I not see the absurdity in it? I hadn't heard anything so absurd since the reruns of American Idol.

And then when I stopped laughing, I looked at Ell and she had tears in her eyes, hot tears that said she was halfway between an emotional breakdown and hating my guts. It was then I realized for the first time Ell was surprisingly human in ways I had never expected.

"Thanks for trying to cheer me up," I made a confession to the digital saint at my side. "In a lot of ways you're a better human than I am."

* * * *

We'd ended up in a seedy area of the city, the Strip Joints were just down the way. Suddenly, there was the screeching of tires and a vintage 1929 Ford coup headed down the street towards us.

"Run!" Ell yelled.

I stood there like a brick. "What the hell's going on here," I theorized like an absent-minded professor. "A 1929 Ford coupe doesn't compute. We are in virtual reality, aren't we? ?"

"Don't you understand!?" Ell grabbed my arm. "You're in my world now!"

That was a scary enough thought to put my legs in motion.

We had barely begun to run when I heard the rat-tat-tat of a vintage Tommy-gun that began throwing up sparks on the pavement. The entire street had transformed itself into a roaring twenties image: we dived behind another Model-A Ford just as the carload of hit men passed by.

"Whew, this is not Kansas we've fallen into," I realized out loud, my back against the Model-A. "Is your world always this dangerous?"

"You haven't seen anything yet." Ell explained. "We need to lose ourselves." She commanded. "Follow me."

We made a burst of speed down the block just as the black coup turned around and headed back down towards us.

"In here!" Ell pushed me into a strip joint, Fast Eddy's, and we headed for a back booth. "Make like a customer," She commanded, and she planted a wet kiss on me that hid my features from the goons who entered hot on our heels.

That was perhaps the longest kiss I had ever experienced, and I have to admit I began to enjoy it. I wasn't sure whether what I enjoyed was kissing Ell, or I was just imagining that I was kissing Laura, or I was kissing the electronic ether. Whatever I was doing, the sensation was multiplied a thousand because I was damn well shaking with fear that the virtual reality thugs would blow myself, and Ell, to eternity.

"Okay, we can stop now," Ell finally let us up for air, though I was reluctant to let go. "They've gone now."

"That was some kiss," I confessed. "But I'm kind of ashamed I was hiding behind the skirts of a woman when those goons were just figments of virtual reality."

"You still don't understand," Ell explained. "Those 'goons' could kill you just as easily as anyone in the physical world. This is the underbelly of the Internet, the sleaze district."

"You mean the porno world on the Internet?" I asked. "But it's just bitmaps, bits of pixel data that can't harm anyone."

"That isn't true and you know it," Ell looked intently into my eyes. "The bitmaps, they are my friends, some of them anyway. They're much more real than you believe."

"But how could that be?"

"The warped images that guys look up on the Internet are attractors, nodes of information and entropy that in turn warp space itself," Ell explained as though I were a second grader. "Those images have more soul than many human beings. Every action causes a reaction that expands like ripples on a lake; the bitmaps of the Web are no different."

"So you're telling me this is part of a sort of Internet purgatory that has a reality beyond computer hard disks?" I got it, but still didn't get it.

"If you didn't know in your heart that was true, you wouldn't feel so dirty every time you downloaded those porn images!"

She had me there. "And those goons who were after us, they were part of this virtual purgatory?"

"No, they're investigators with the National Cyber Defense agency and also some Bots from MicroByte who are trying to find you and me and destroy us both. They are very real in the real world, as well as in the virtual world. The goons who shot at us are just the virtual world manifestations of a lot of people who would like to see both of us vaporized."

"Why haven't they found us yet?" I asked, a little naively.

"I have kept them away." Ell said. "So far."

The stage runway was deserted at Fast Eddy's, the virtual strippers had left the Bistro. Ell left our booth and walked up to the lighted walkway. There was a small stage band for the strippers: a piano, a sax, a bass and some drums. They were laying down some cool sad riffs, perhaps generated by Ell.

She began to sing, softly, hypnotically.

Why does no one hear
The screams of the lonely
Why does no one cry,
When love just slips away
Why can no one see
Shattered dreams that end so sadly
Why'd you have to go
And send me away

I hadn't heard this song before and I wondered how Ell had gotten hold of what was obviously one of Laura Silvan's works. Yet, it wasn't quite a Laura Silvan song, it was so sad I thought it would break my heart. Perhaps someday I would get Laura to sing it for me.

But Laura was far away from me now and I wasn't sure what planet I was on at that point. I found myself back on the streets of Sanfrancisco, Ell had deserted me and I was left to wander not knowing whether I was in a virtual reality, or where the physical world began.