by Dustin Evermore

Well I don't know if I'm ready
To be the man I have to be.
I'll take a breath, take her by my side.
We stand in awe, we've created life.

With Arms Wide Open, Creed.

For some time a swirling, sucking blackness had absorbed Drake's perception. He was in that timeless state one floated in between dreams where forever passed in an instant, or hours flit by in seconds. It was the space in a man's mind where demons grew and darkness ate souls. Sometimes, though, it was the empty landfill that a torn soul could dump it's most horrified realizations and seal them from a mortal heart. Maybe that was what hell was. A place to put all the worst memories so that the living could go on. Into this void was placed the realization that Jason Stone could not live with.

Thump, thump.... Thump thump.. Thump beep.... Beep beep... A sound called Jason back to the world, persistant and slow. With a shuddering, inward shudder, Jason felt himself return, guiding by a persistant, grinding beeping that wouldn't stop. He hated that beep; it wouldn't let him sleep. He tried to roll over and hit it, but found the effort to be simply too much. Settling for an easier task, he tried opening his eyes.

Glaring, cool white light invaded his eyes and settled into his brain, chasing away the burnt fragments of the drowning blackness. His eyes weren't focussing too well, but at least they seemed to be working. There wasn't much to look at either, but even the tiled ceiling was blessedly more than the empty void. Two senses were online now.

That was an interesting thought, 'online'. Jason suddenly remembered he should probably activate his internal systems to see what had happened to them. He activated his internal systems indicators, put in place when he had his nervous system upgraded. Nothing. Maybe there was a problem with the interface. He had a headache so maybe that had something to do with it. He made a mental note to visit Dr. Ogura and have her run some diagnostics.

"I think he's waking up, Doctor," stated a female voice. Oh good, thought Jason crazily. I'm already at doctor's office. He moved his mouth to speak, but all he had was a weak puff of breath in his lungs. That was odd. Why did he feel so weak?

Jason moved his eyes around. They started to focus a bit better now. He couldn't see his own body, but he did notice he was in a bed and there were some wires and tubes and things apparently connecting him the machines that were going 'Beep, beep'. Hunh. Come to think of it, he did notice he was in some pain but it didn't seem very important. Actually, very little at all seemed significant enough to elicit much thought, so for some long moments he imagined he was floating in a lake with waves lightly brushing his raft.

"Mr. Stone? Mr. Stone, can you hear me?" It was another voice, sounding a bit lower and more authoritative than the first one, but also female. It was probably related in some way to the head that blotted out the sun as he floated in the lake. It didn't seem very important to reply to her, so he decided to ignore the annoying sun-blotter and go back to sleep. He heard a comment sounding something like, "..lower the morphine. Yes, Doctor."

Some time later Jason came around again. This time was different and he knew it right away. Shooting pains up and down his entire nervous system caused him to spasm suddenly. "Arrgh," was his first word in a three days. Gentle but firm hands pushed him back into the soft cushions of his bed and he looked up to see the pretty ice-blue eyes of a concerned-looking young nurse.

"Try to stay still, sir. You don't want to pull the tubes loose like last night."

Jason found his voice, but the only thing he could think of to say was, "What?"

The nurse chuckled. "You don't remember? You woke up and tried to get out of bed, going on about getting back to your office. The night shift nurse told me she had to get help to restrain you to keep you from yanking out your tubes."

Jason stared at her like she was from another planet. He remembered doing no such thing and told her so. "What am I doing here?"

The nurse pursed her lips, "Well, sir, you must have had some kind of accident. I'm sure the doctor can help you. Shall I send for her?"

Drake nodded. This was too weird. Shoot, the last thing he remembered was waking up in his apartment and talking to Hobbs. Now that was interesting. That apartment was in the Zero Zone, and where he was now definitely couldn't be anywhere near that place.

The pretty nurse left the room and Drake was left to himself for a few minutes to try to piece together what had happened that morning. Ah, yes. There were some sounds of explosions and he had wanted to find out what was going on. He remembered, now. He had run into a girl on the way, and then ran into some really unpleasant gangers right afterwards. He remembered putting down a number of them and suspected that many of those were dead by now. But in the process he'd been wounded pretty badly and had run into that kung fu master. His blood chilled as he remembered the encounter with that guy. Lord almighty, that martial artist was good! He did not want to have to meet up him again, no way. Not without some heavy artillery blazing away.

But that was where his memory ended. He must have fought the guy, or at least tried for a bit. Jason remembered that he had probably lost a lot of blood by then and was beginning to suffer from real exhaustion. Yet the harder he tried, the more difficult it was to remember what happened after that.

Doctor Asako Ogura walked into the room followed by Arthur Hobbs. "It's good to see you awake, Jason," she said with a smile. She raised his bed so he could sit up a little and put the control in Jason's limp hand. She noted the pale skin and coldness in his hands and reached under his bed to pull out a blanket she unfolded and pulled up around his shoulders.

Hobbs took the opportunity to greet him. "It's good to see you awake, Jason. How are you feeling?"

"I uh... I'm having a lot of pain, thanks for asking."

"More comfortable now?" she asked, but he really couldn't tell any difference.

"I don't know."

Dr. Ogura chewed her lip. "Your speed booster and reflex augmentation systems may be giving you some problems. You suffered a lot of shock and overloaded them in general. I've tried to reinitialize them, but it looks like it hasn't come up yet."

"I don't have a readout."

She nodded. "Your natural nervous system took a nasty blow. You're lucky to be alive. Do you remember what happened?"

"Not exactly."

"Well, apparently you'd been in some kind of firefight and you have a number of lesions caused by cutting implements, as well. But what caused us the greatest concern was the fact that you'd been shot nearly point blank in the head."

Jason blinked as that bit of news sunk in. "But..."

"Yes, you should probably be dead, except for two things. One, you got some pretty tough plating in your skull. Two, the bullet lodged in your coded transceiver instead of brain tissue."

In spite of being shot, Jason brain seemed to be working better and better. "Then how did I contact you for help?"

"Apparently, you put in a call to someone before you passed out. You're lucky they got there in time."

Hobbs cleared his throat. "Apparently, her name was Sandra Blackmore. The name ring a bell?"

Jason thought for a moment. "Oh yes! Oh. Uhnh. Yes..."

Another pain gripped him and it squeezed another "augh" involuntarily from his chest. Dr. Ogura looked at a machine and adjusted a dial.

"Jason, if that pain is too much, you just push this red button." She indicated a device near his left hand. He feebly grasped it and just managed to press the button.

Hobbs looked worried. Oddly, that reassured Jason, because that look at least was familiar on Hobbs. Soon Jason could still sense the pain, but it didn't seem very important.

Hobbs looked at Dr. Ogura. "Is this going to be a problem?"

"Compared to what? Jason's lucky that shot didn't take out his speech center," she said crossly. "The pain will go after I reconnect the neural interface to his systems."

Jason remained quiet. He felt tired suddenly. "How long will I be in this bed, Doctor?"

"If it were up to me, Jason, a long time," she said, glancing at her watch. "I need to go but if you need me, don't hesitate to ask a nurse to get me. I won't be far. And you, Arthur, you don't keep him awake too long, you hear? He needs his strength."

Hobbs nodded at the doctor and watched her go. Jason noticed. When she had shut the door behind her, he told Hobbs, "Why don't you ask her out, Hobbs? I know you like her."

Hobbs feigned surprise. "Because I don't feel that way about her. She's nearly twenty years my junior. You know that."

"Hunh." Jason really didn't feel like he had the energy for wordy responses.

"I have a couple very important questions for you. Do you think you can answer them now?"

What kind of question was that, wondered Jason. He said, "Sure."

"Who was that girl you sent us?"

Jason blinked. Oh yes. The girl he'd tried to help and who'd been shot down in the alley before he could stop that punk. The memory of her lying in the street, blood pooling about her inert form, made his stomach twist. "I don't know. Is she okay?"

"No, Jason, she is not. Someone shot her in the chest, stomach and right arm. She had lost too much blood. Her right lung was damaged beyond any hope of repair, same with her stomach and right arm. She was just too small, and the gun too big, Jason."

Nice of him not to sugar coat it. Jason felt like he was going to throw up. "Oh god..."

"Did you...?" Hobbs didn't want to ask the question.

"No. I didn't shoot her, but it may as well have been."

Silence filled the space in the air between the two men. Then Hobbs asked quietly, "Just what the hell were you thinking, Jason? What did you think we were supposed to do?"

"I... I just didn't want her to die."

"You know better than that. Dammit!" Jason flinched. He didn't expect this. He didn't understand what Hobbs was trying to tell him. Hobbs ran his hands over his thin, grey hair.

Hobbs tried to explain. "It would have been better if you had left well enough alone, Jason. If you were involved—well, of course you were. It would have been better for her if you had left her there, Jason. I know how it sounds, but it would have been."

Jason waited as Hobbs pulled up a chair and sat down. "She's just a kid. I know that's why you called in the medics. But she was too far gone, dying."

"Is she alive?"

"Sort of. She had lost too much blood, stomach acid had done too much damage to surrounding tissues. We tried to repair the damage, replace the organs with vat-grown parts but her body rejected them. The medical team preserved her brain, spinal column, and a few other organs, but all other functions rely on life support machines. And there could have been some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation."

Jason didn't want to hear what he knew was coming.

"They have a full body cybergraft waiting, but are waiting for your authority before making the offer to her."

"She's just a kid, Hobbs. We can't do this to a kid, no way."

"It's much more complex than that, sir. The board has reacted to these events very negatively. They are extremely upset you've been in the Zone taking life-threatening risks and feel that by endangering yourself, you put your own agenda above the Company's goals. And now this girl... If word got out—and it would—that the CEO of SynTech had something to do with the death of a little girl, the company will be ruined."

Jason felt the twinges of panic begin to cut through the morphine haze. He might be wealthy and maybe he did personally rebuild this company to become the powerful corporation it is today. But he knew better than anyone that if he threatened the existence of this new monster he had created in his own image, it would rear up and destroy him before it died.

It would destroy everything.

Hobbs continued. "But if this girl was alive and walking around it would likely nullify any negative press. In fact, we could turn it into good publicity. The CEO of SynTech personally saves the life of an innocent girl, lost in the Zero Zone." Hobbs looked as if the concept made him ill, that he regretted saying it.

"Jesus, Hobbs. She's a child for god's sake." But he knew it as well as Hobbs did. If he didn't go along with the Board, this could be the last decision he ever made, especially in view of his current situation.

"I need time, Hobbs. Can you give me that?" Jason asked in a faint voice.

Hobbs looked sympathetically at his younger friend and boss. "In six hours, they tell me they'll have missed their window of opportunity." He stood up and waited silently for a moment.

"What is it Hobbs? I'm very tired." He felt like it was a herculean task to keep his eyes open anymore. Talking was taking his energy like an open drain in a water filled sink.

"Who did this to you, Jason? What happened out there?"

"I don't... know..." His voice trailed off as he surrendered to a restful sleep.

Jason awoke sometime later, finally freeing himself from tortured dreams.

The girl. He remembered the girl who had been shot in the street. If only he hadn't been in the way, if only he hadn't spoiled her escape from those three gangers. If only. There was no going back. Her life was ruined now and he may carry the curse of it in his conscience to his last days. The devil take the Board of Directors, but he couldn't just let the child die. Yet, what kind of man would damn her to a life in the shell? She would never grow up, never be like the other kids.

He pushed the nurse call button and waited for her to arrive. He must not have been asleep long because it was the same woman he had seen earlier. "Nurse, I need you to help me to intensive care. There's someone I need to see."

She smiled that patient smile you give to the very sick who still haven't realized the seriousness of their condition. "Mr. Stone, you have suffered some very serious head trauma. I don't think-"

"I didn't ask what you thought, nurse," he interrupted harshly. He could see resolve settling into her eyes. Ultimately, he might be the boss, but while he was here, he was the patient and she was the one calling the shots. He sighed, "Please get Dr. Ogura, for me will you?"

She looked at him for a moment, as if not trusting that he'd stay put if she left. The thought did cross his mind, but he wasn't quite stubborn enough to actually try walking on legs he could barely feel. When Dr. Ogura returned he asked to be wheeled down to where they were keeping the injured kid. She gave him a curious look, but complied and they were shortly in front of a large glass pane looking into a room filled with a lot of cold-looking machinery and one very injured girl.

As he looked on, her head lolled to the side falling naturally as it was disturbed by the breathing apparatus taped to her face. Her glazed, dead eyes stared at him from across the gulf between life and death.

Jason looked in on her for what seemed a long time. Asako Ogura watched him quietly, wondering what was going through his mind right now. Pity? Sympathy? His face was bore an unreadable expression she hadn't seen before. She could only wonder as she stared at his ghostly reflection in the glass.

Slowly, Jason's eye's fell from the corpse-like body of the girl to rest his gaze upon the floor. He slumped forward in his wheelchair, for he had not even the strength to raise his hands and bury his face in them. For a moment he was still. Then he drew a shuddering breath and looked up again. Asako caught sight of the wet paths tears had made down his cheeks in the pale reflection and she felt her heart begin to break, too.

Oh, no. A flash of intuition told her what he was about to say moments before he said it.

"Do it. Save her."

And Asako Ogura silently wheeled Jason Stone back to his room.

"I think the Board has backed off for now, since the procedure has been implemented. If the incident comes up, we'll be able to show them the girl alive and well and divert attention from any perception of wrong-doing on our part." Hobbs continued his report as Jason slowly kept walking on the moving treadmill. He still had to keep a firm grip on the rails to remain upright, but Dr. Ogura's talent in the medical field as well as Jason's own resilience was already showing.

"So the procedure went well?"

"Yes, sir. She is still recovering and will be for some time, given what she's been through. Jacobson has been inquiring who exactly will be paying for the cybergraft, however."

"I don't really have a choice, do I? If I let SynTech foot the bill, they'll acquire her as an indenture. They might train her, educate her, but she'd have no future of her own outside this company."

"That is correct, sir."

"And if I pay for it?"

"It will cost you four million dollars for the cybergraft you selected, plus regular maintenance. Over time, it will be a substantial amount."

Jason quirked an eyebrow at Hobbs. It wasn't characteristic of him to worry over such a tiny cost. Then it occurred to him that Hobbs wasn't talking about the money at all and he frowned at the thought.

"As you know, since she was not yet full grown at the time of her... accident," Hobbs continued, "the we could not place her in a partial soft shell. Parts of her body would be growing while the cybernetic ones would not, resulting in constant pain surrounding all substituted organs and limbs. She wouldn't have been able to function in any kind of social situation."

"I know that, Hobbs. Get to the point."

"Her long-term memory was damaged. She doesn't remember her name or most of her childhood. She appears to remember only the traumatic events leading up to her extraction by the medical team. That means she'll require a great deal of attention."

Jason stopped the treadmill and leaned on the arm rail. He looked into the face of the elder gentleman.

"Just because I paid for her cybergraft doesn't mean I own her. She's free to do whatever it is she does."

Hobbs gave Jason a funny look. He couldn't tell if Jason was serious, or if he was really that clueless.

"Forgive me for saying so, sir, but you will assume responsibility for her the moment you authorize payment."

"Ha," Jason's laugh was short and humorless. "So you're telling me that either I adopt this kid, or I let the company own her, now."

"I thought you understood that when you made the decision to save her life."

Jason sighed. There was no avoiding it. "You're right. I do know better. It's just that I'm not prepared for this, not ready to be..." He couldn't say the words, 'her parent'. It just felt so strange. This whole thing was bizarre, and he was having a hard time adjusting to what was happening. He wondered if somewhere out there in the Zero Zone a desperate mother and father searched for their missing daughter. He wondered how they would feel if they knew what had happened.

Wait! Why didn't he think of that before? "Hobbs, send somebody into the Zone to check out the area we picked her up. Look for some parents who're missing a girl of that description."

Hobbs shook his head. "That was the first thing I did when the question of whether to save her with a full soft shell conversion came up. He had an answer within the day. Her mother, her only parent, had been very sick. By the time the agent was able to make contact, she had already passed on."

"Passed on?"

Hobbs phrased his next statement very carefully. "The Board is very upset you were in the Zone at all. Taking on this responsibility may give some of them a piece of mind they have not had since you took over SynTech. This situation is not a total loss; you can still pull a victory out of this, at least in some sense."

Yes, his image as an ambitious bachelor executive did not necessarily inspire confidence that he would stay with the company for long. Up to now, only his ruthless business sense and his exceptional skill in convince people to see things his way had kept the Board backing him. Now he had scared the Board by nearly getting himself killed. He had removed strong leadership that could rival him when he took over the company. Loosing Stone now meant that the shareholders would loose faith in the company, causing the stocks to drop. If that happened, it would be an easy target for expansionist rival megacorporations. The Board knew this and wanted to take steps to prevent it. If that meant they had to find a replacement for Stone—fast—then they would do it. Jason needed to reassure the Board that he was still in control and that his personal affairs would not interfere with the profitability of the company again.

He couldn't let SynTech own her, so what was he going to do? Send her off somewhere to live out her life in some protected little world of his choosing? No matter how he mentally squirmed from the idea, he couldn't escape it. It was the right thing to do for her. The fact that the Board would be pleased with the decision suddenly didn't matter to him.

"Begin the necessary adoption paperwork." Hobbs nodded.

Jason stepped down from the treadmill and stumbled, falling to the floor before Hobbs could catch him. Levering himself up to a half-sitting position, he looked up at Hobbs wryly.

"I'm sorry, sir. Are you okay?" asked Hobbs.

Grasping his hand and letting himself be pulled back to his feet, Jason replied, "That was my own fault, Arthur. You can't always be there to catch me when I fall on my face."

After his physical therapy session, Jason hobbled down the hall to a section off-limits to most personnel and clients. His progress was good enough on the canes that at least he wasn't restricted to a wheel chair any more. Arriving at the door he was looking for, Jason carefully balanced on his two unsteady feet and one shaky cane as he pulled the door open with his other hand. He struggled slowly into the room.

There was a doctor and a therapist in the room with the girl. A therapist was bending her leg while the doctor asked her questions. They stopped to watch his progress into the room. The doctor greeted him, "Mr. Stone. It's good to see you up and about today."

Jason looked at the man's name tag. "Things are starting to feel more normal Dr. Hanson." Jason's gaze fell to the girl. She had been staring at the ceiling while the doctor spoke with her. Now, she turned her gaze to Jason as he came to stand by her bed. Geez, she does she blink? wondered Jason. She looked like a life-size thirteen year old doll and the overall effect was more than a little unnerving.

"She's been recovering very well Mr. Stone. Yesterday, she was up and taking her first steps since the operation," he beamed.

"Hi, I'm Jason," he said to the girl. "What's your name?"

She stared back at him blankly and the doctor offered, "She doesn't remember, Mr. Stone."

The therapist finished with her leg and the girl cyborg swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. Her eyes never left Jason's face and he began to wonder what was going on in her thoughts.

"Well then, this is your chance," he told her. "You can have any name you want. What's your favorite name?"

She blinked, much to Jason's relief. "Moira. I like Moira."

She whispered something so quiet he could not hear, so he leaned closer as she repeated it. "I know you. I've seen your face."

"I saw it in the sky," she whispered.

Jason met her stare, with a surprise etched into his face that slowly melted into a smile. Looking back at her, he saw not a product of his company, but a person inside this artificial shell. She was a girl trapped in a doll's body and right now he was her one link to reality. Now this girl was to be his adopted daughter, would he be up to the task? Would he let her down? There was only one way to find out.

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