The brunette bent over her water-color painting as she finished applying her colors with a nimble, long-fingered hand. With a soft, full-lipped smile she leaned back and examined her handiwork. The translucent hues blended creatively to create the impression of beautiful blooming flower. Carefully applied trickles of color down the card-stock surface successfully created the illusion of bleeding petals.
"It is time," stated a voice. She looked up as a brown-robed man flowed into the room.
She sloshed her paint brush in a cup of water to rid it of excess pigment and dabbed it dry on a piece of absorbent cloth. The horribly ugly, robed man walked around the desk and peered over her shoulder, examining her work. "Your understanding of color and shape is very good. I think you are improving."
"Thank you, Master Wretch," she replied, grateful for the kind word. "I'm ready."
"Good. Your tickets await you at the airport terminal. Use the alias we discussed. Master Ting has decided to take time out of his busy schedule to escort you and pay the surgeons in Tokyo. Don't forget your first stop."
The young woman rose from her seat to obey her master. She was already packed and ready to move out at Wretch's word so she grabbed her duffel as she passed through the doorway. Master Ting, a shorter Chinese man with dark eyes regarded her as she walked down the hallway toward him. Her green eyes met his as she passed and he silently fell in behind her. Together, they set out across the Zone and into Neo York.
It seemed he got stronger every day. In fact, Jason hoped he'd be a peak condition or above by the time he needed to leave for Hong Kong. As he exercised and rebuilt his reflexes, he mentally worked on sorting out opportunities for SynTech and how to improve profitability. He also reviewed potential employee data trying to find how to acquire the best asset for the company as well as current employee data to find areas of needed improvement, especially with regard to patient and client relations and care. According to information he received via Dr. Ogura, Project Forge would have a couple trials ready in two months. The technology was progressing rapidly and they had found two excellent candidates for prototyping. This news put Jason in general good spirits as he felt one step closer to ensuring the future of SynTech.
Meanwhile, his adopted daughter remained nearby. She was constantly full of questions, and always trying to understand. The girl had to regain all the knowledge one absorbs just by living through a childhood, so it was a quite a task of catch-up. Fortunately, she seemed a bright girl and picked up on basic things like re-learning the alphabet and tying her shoes quite rapidly. Eventually, Jason would be able to find a tutor for her, but as time went on, he found he enjoyed having someone to look after.
He did eventually take Moira to the beach. It was still too cool for most people and the long, quiet beach in Delaware he took her to had relatively few beach walkers. Thankfully, Moira seemed to understand it was a bad idea for her to try to swim, and she stuck to Jason's rule of "wade-only". By the end of the day Moira's seemingly endless fascination and questions about everything regarding the sandy beach, the boardwalk, the long piers, and even the playful school of rare dolphins slowed to a stop. The day's end saw Moira and Jason quietly sitting and looking far out to sea as their shadows grew to merge with the breaking waves.
Those few happy days were punctuated by several enjoyable evenings with Sandra. Sometimes with Moira, and sometimes not, the new couple experimented in the way that young people do as they explored their relationship and experienced new places and new things together. Jason was leery of dragging Sandra so far out of her element that she would be uncomfortable and so they stuck to things that was new or enjoyable to both of them.
It was her spirit that drew him. That slightly rough and sometimes shocking edge blended with an honesty tempered by worldliness was like a reality elixir for him. They were still intensely independent people, so while Jason made sure Sandra knew his home was always open to her (and they shared themselves with each other often there), he never insisted she stay and he never questioned her wisdom in wishing to return to the Zone when she did.
For a while, Jason was happy. Yet, something still smoldered in the back of his mind. He still had not accomplished what he had set out to do. Athena could still be out there, lost in the Zone or worse. Of even more immediate concern was the reason why he must fly to Hong Kong. To this end he gave the trusted Mr. Hobbs an assignment to contact the leading fixer in that city and set up a meeting with one Marta Nys. Stone had one job that, in his mind, could only be completed with the aid of the leading corporate mercenary in the world.
The tall brunette stood at the door of the apartment with her duffel bag slung over one shoulder. She had been staring at the doorbell too long, she knew. If Master Ting saw her hesitate, she knew there'd be hell to pay. Fortunately, she was inside the apartment building and he was waiting in the cab outside.
She was sure it was the right apartment. That wasn't the problem. It was what she had come here to do that was hard. It felt strange and out of control. She didn't want to be here, and certainly didn't want to do what she had come here to do. But in her mind, everywhere she turned, there was no way out and no other option left open to her. She had to do it. Tears sprung from her green eyes as she pressed the doorbell.
The door swung open to reveal a shorter woman inside. With a startled gasp, the woman said, "Athena?! Oh my god!" She embraced Athena with a tight hug. "God I missed you! Where have you been? Come inside, girl!" Helen was always a pretty rapid talker and Athena hadn't quite gotten a word in as Helen continued.
"There's so much we have to talk about, Athena! Do you want a drink? What's that? Athena? No! Athena, stop it!"
Her words were cut off by the sharp retort of Athena's pistol. Athena stood there, shaking uncontrollably, tears streaming from her eyes. But it was for him. It was for Wretch and some things were more important than family.
Athena stood in shock as she looked at where Helen had fallen and blood began to pool. Then, unable to bear it, she ran down the hall and out to where Master Ting waited. She was ready to begin her new life.
Jason Stone sat at his desk late that night staring at the tri-vid as a report on a suspected homicide was displayed. Had Doctor Ogura not spotted this newscast and called him from her home, he might have missed it entirely.
A blonde woman who had her hair up and heavy makeup on was standing in front of an apartment door which, while open, was barred by police caution tape and guarded by a burly looking officer who stood just outside the door to make sure only qualified personnel was allowed in. The cameraman expertly put both the newswoman and the just enough of the apartment interior to catch site of some blood on the floor in picture.
"--standing outside the apartment of the victim of what appears to be a strange homicide that left no body. Although the police have not released the name of the suspected victim yet, your crack news crew has uncovered the name of the resident of this apartment. According to our sources, she was the daughter of the late billionaire Gerald Stone. Our team will be working around the clock to bring you the reaction of the last known heir of the Stone fortune, and a police update into this bizarre case.
"Officer can you explain why the police believe a murder has been committed even though no body has been found?"
The officer looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, there was a witness that saw Ms. Stone entering the building and two more that heard what sounded like a gunshot. The, uh," the officer nervously scratched his scalp under his hat, "the amount of blood here in the apartment would seem to indicate—that is, it seems nobody could loose that much blood and survive."
"Do the police have any leads, officer?"
"Well, that's about all I can really say, uh, Stephanie."
"There you have it folks," she said as she turned back to the camera. "Certainly Fate has not smiled on the Stones in recent times." Stephanie, the newswoman, continued to narrate as the camera switched to old stock photos of Jason's father. She described his untimely death due to cancer and moved on to the missing member of the family, Athena Stone.
Jason turned it off. He sat staring at the flat tri-vid panel for a long, long time.
It wasn't long after that the police arrived with their news and questions. It passed in a dull haze for Jason, until Hobbs appeared and somehow made them all go away for a while.
Jason took the next couple days off and while he was out, the Board held a private meeting. They voted to divert SynTech resources to help the police locate the perpetrators and discover what happened to Helen's body. They made a statement in a press release to the effect that like any good caregiver, it was their responsibility to look after their employees as a family would look after their own; just as they look after the patients who come to SynTech for help.
The next night, Jason had a long quiet evening just talking with Sandra. Without any proof of Helen's death, he just didn't know what to feel except numbness or anger. Talking out his frustration with her helped him untwist his soul a little.
Over the next week, the police seemed to have next to no progress, and unfortunately, there seemed to be little information forthcoming from SynTech's own investigators. No one, even the neighbors, seemed to know anything, or if they did they weren't talking. No bullet was found in the apartment, either, and without a body, there was almost nothing to go on. Eventually, calls for interviews subsided and things seemed to become quiet again.
It was morning and Jason sat in the sun room sipping some morning coffee as he always did. In the background, one could hear the echo of the news edition on talk radio bouncing around the tiled kitchen surface not far away. The sun was rising earlier all the time as winter lost its grip and spring set it, so a beam of sunlight glared its way suddenly across Jason's eyes as he looked out across his manicured lawn.
"Dad, I'm not very hungry this morning," stated Moira. She barely needed to eat anyway, and the doctors said she would be fine on one meal a day.
Jason blinked in the sunlight and replied. "All right. Let's make sure we don't miss lunch, okay?"
Jason looked distractedly a little further across the lawn. There he could see the guest house where Hobbs stayed and near it the black Toyota he usually took to work.
The gardener appeared to be out early this morning. Jason stared curiously at the man walking away from Hobbs' car. He appeared to be carrying clipper or hedge trimmers --
Jason suddenly stood up, now staring wide eyed at the man he mistook for a gardener. Hobbs left the guest house, dressed in his favorite grey suit and started down the walk toward his car.
"Hobbs! NO!" Jason yelled ineffectually from the sun room.
"Dad?" Moira was alarmed by Jason's outburst.
Jason ran out the kitchen door and charged across the lawn yelling for Hobbs to stop.
A few hours later, a police bomb squad was working to remove a car bomb from the Toy while Hobbs stared in disbelief as he watched via a police camera from a safe location. Jason had managed to save his life. But the question was, was it Hobbs they were really targeting?
Jason proceeded to his office, like any other day. Today was Moira's first day at a personal tutor and it was obvious she didn't like the idea. It had been a little rough convincing her to listen to the man and try to apply herself when she didn't seem willing to trust anyone but her adopted father. Jason sighed to himself as his car pulled into his executive stall in the parking ramp. He was so preoccupied, he barely noticed the driver as he opened the door for the young man.
At least he was feeling a little more like his old self. The rigorous exercise was beginning to pay off as his body relearned how to used his enhanced muscles and nerves correctly. Now he got along fairly well, need to use a cane only occasionally.
He proceeded to the lobby of SynTech headquarters and smiled as he always did at the bright young receptionist and nodded at the security guards as he approached.
"Good morning Miss Lindsey. Anything interesting in the news lately?" Jason was well aware of what was happening in the corporate arena, but he new the young lady had a passion for keeping up on world news and he liked to make sure the hard-working men and women on the SynTech's front lines knew that the higher-ups remembered them and were interested in their welfare. A showing at least a little bit interested in what other people had to say went a long way.
"Hi Mister Stone! Good Morning. Well, it looks like Pakistan and India are up to their old tricks again. How the negotiators have managed to keep them from nuclear warfare so far is quite beyond me. Why-- Mister Stone LOOK OUT!"
Whirling about to see what the young lady was so upset about, Jason turned just in time to discover a middle-aged man in a black business powersuit savagely leaping at him with a wild smirk on his face and dark-bladed knife in his hand. The other man was smaller than Jason, but landed on him with enough force to knock the surprised executive to the ground. Falling on top of him, the man attempted to drive the knife home and Jason could feel the blade bite into his body armor.
Rolling backwards, Jason kicked the man off him and smoothly unfolded, getting back on his feet. In his peripheral vision, Jason noticed both the knife jutting from his chest and a pair of security guards running full tilt toward Jason and his assailant. However, rage quickly clouded his judgment and he felt the inside of his longcoat for his Wakizashi. He had a habit of carrying the short sword with him even to work of late and it rested faithfully there in the inside of his coat for precisely this kind of moment.
The man snarled something completely unintelligible and leapt at Jason again. Without hesitation, Jason drew the sword attacked and re-sheathed the weapon in one blindingly quick motion. The man skidded to a halt and clutched at his abdomen in shock as he desperately tried to keep his insides from spilling out. His knees gave out and with a groan, the man collapsed to his knees and then the floor.
Miss Lindsey stood staring behind her desk with wide eyes and mouth making a wide "O" shape. She hadn't noticed she had dropped her cup of coffee and it had spilled all over the front of her pretty green dress.
Jason's cut had been deep; the man he gutted lived only a couple minutes more as his life flowed freely through the deep wound. For that, Jason was sorry. He wanted to know why this man attacked him. Later, Hobbs told him that the man was a ten-year employee of SynTech and that he had a clean work record, not a single complaint about performance, and he been climbing the corporate scale at the average rate. He was a husband and father of three. In short, there was no reason at all they could find that this man would want to kill Jason Stone.
By the end of the day, Hobbs was able to report that SynTech, working with the Neo York PD, was able to determine some things about the knife that had lodged in Jason's body armor. Apparently, he had been very lucky the blade hadn't penetrated his skin. It had apparently been coated with a chemical called cloflubicyne. This was an insecticide and the concentration on that blade would have been enough to kill an elephant, had it entered the bloodstream.
The police department finally sent some detectives back over to SynTech that evening to meet with Jason. They stated flatly that the evidence in combination with recent events would suggest an organized and systematic attack on the entire Stone family. Since the Stones built arms for the UNA during the years of the Second Civil war, they suggested that there could be a vengeful faction working on behalf of the CSA against the Stones. The detectives informed Jason that they felt the situation probably fell under federal jurisdiction and that would forward the case to them. Jason was surprised by the reaction to say the least. In fact, Jason began to wonder just who in the department was pushing this point of view. However, the message was clear. The police were washing their hands of the matter...
It was only a few days later that the final assault came. Jason had just picked up Moira from her new tutor's home. He had decided to make an early day of it and go home while it was still light out. Moira and he sat quietly talking about her day in the back of the limo when the first sign of something wrong became apparent.
Traffic had slowed to a stop. This wasn't terribly unusual. After all, this was Neo York and the smallest bottleneck or accident seemed to back things up for hours. The best one could do was simply be wait it out. Traffic would begin to move again sooner or later.
Jason hadn't seen them coming. His attention had been wholly on his adopted daughter as she described how she was beginning to pick up history now that her ability to read and write was beginning to come back so quickly. It was the sound, inconspicuous as tapping on a bedroom window, that got his attention.
The limo was supposed to be bullet proof. Unfortunately, by the little holes and the spiderwebs that seemed to be sprouting across the driver's windshield, it wasn't enough. With a surprised cry, the driver suddenly jerked and then slumped forward on his wheel even as more holes flowered in the windshield and now even through the seat, followed instantly by popping and cracking sounds as the bullets themselves chewed up the front of the car and bits of the interior began to fly around.
"Moira, get out of the car! Run!" Jason yelled. Frightened, the girl pushed the door open and not knowing her own strength, nearly ripped the thing completely off. Some instinct must have kicked in, because she crouched low as she ran, trying to keep from being seen.
In a moment, Jason had leapt out his own door and was using it to provide some cover as he looked for their attackers. Shortly he was able to identify for men dressed in black wearing ski masks and brown bands on their right arms. Brown bands again! thought Jason. But this time, he decided to wait and let them get close. This time he'd make sure they wouldn't get away with it.
The terrorists closed quickly, obviously looking for Stone or his body. One of them, nearest Jason said, "There! shoot her. Let no Stone escape the Light!" Jason's blood ran cold.
Someone's assault rifle opened fire and Jason heard a high-pitched scream. People began abandoning their cars and the street in like a human wave. Leaping from his hidden place behind the door, Jason landed on the man who gave order. The terrorist was slammed to the ground and dazed for a moment, but that was all the time Jason needed to grab the man's rifle and blow his head off.
Jason wasted no more time on the dead man as he leaped into the air again, tumbling acrobatically to make himself a difficult target. He opened fire on another man and noticed the rifle's bullets were so high powered, not only did it practically cut the man in half, the bullets appeared to tear through several cars. He hoped to god he hadn't just killed a bystander with the thing and tossed it aside. The gun was never designed to fire such high-powered rounds anyway, and the barrel had already become too hot to hold.
The remaining two terrorists didn't seem to mind who else was hurt however. Nor did they seem to care if their weapons lasted out the fight. The opened up on Jason, but he was simply moving too fast. They never had a chance of even being able to follow him with the barrels of their guns. It was soon over. Jason had his own twin pistols out and firing one at each of his remaining opponents. They dropped quickly.
Jason ran, calling for Moira and soon found her lying on the ground only 20 feet from the car. Desperately, he picked up her small but unnaturally massive form and looked for injuries. There were two small holes in her back that had matching exit wounds out her front.
"Oh damn, oh damn oh damn oh damn," said Jason tearfully as he examined the damage. No fluids leaking; that was a good sign. No shorts, either.
Suddenly, Moira's eyes fluttered open. "Daddy? What hapenned?"
"Some bad men came and tried to hurt us. Are you okay? What hurts?"
Moira blinked. "Something hit me in the back and knocked me down. But I'm okay, now. Why are you so upset?"
Jason hugged her, "Thank heavens, Moira, thank heavens."
It took a long time for emergency crews to fight their way through the traffic jam to get to Jason, Moira, and their fallen assailants. It turned out that Moira would need only some minor cybernetics and cosmetic repairs. A half dozen bystanders were were hurt in the incident, one of them critically. Fortunately, no one else died.
This was the last time Jason Stone ever waited for the police again.
That night, he called Sandra and made arrangements to spend the rest of the week before they left for Hong Kong in the Zero Zone. It might have been right under the noses of the brown band gang, but it was the only place left that Jason could think of that might be safe. SynTech offered around the clock security rather than having to resort to exile from the city, but Jason couldn't trust that one of them wouldn't be corrupted to turn against him. That had already happened once, and that was enough.
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