Jason Stone spied the table and walked quickly across the room toward the gorgeous Asian and her equally attractive American business associate. The booth was semiprivate and the restaurant public, making eavesdropping difficult unless someone had planted a bug. In this particular meeting, however, eavesdroppers were the least of businessman's worries. This time it was about personal business and he intended to move fast enough and hit hard enough it wouldn't matter who found out what he wanted to do. Besides, he seriously doubted the gang of brown arm band-wearing killers had ears this far from their turf. If there was going to be other trouble, he knew the black-haired woman in the armored bodysuit standing behind him was on the lookout.

Stone wanted to present himself as a businessman for this meeting. He wasn't there to impress the ladies with any of his real or imagined battle prowess; he just wanted to cut a deal. He carried no weapons on his person. Instead he had entrusted Sandra with his twin pistols. Still, he was wise enough to wear his armored bodysuit under the finely tailored silk business suit.

Earlier that day, he had regretted having to cut short Sandra and Moira's enjoyment of Hong Kong. His impatience at resolving the problems with the gang and worry that the persistent little bastards would find out where he was combined with the responsibility to Moira hindered his ability to enjoy the free time with Sandra. He knew this thing was making her more and more unhappy and that he was becoming more and more distant from her the longer the personal war lasted. She deserved better and he knew it.

Sandra wasn't too happy with him bringing along Moira. It wasn't just that he was bringing her into a potentially dangerous situation and meeting potentially dangerous people. What bothered her the most was that he had no reason too. In the last few days, she'd managed to hit it off with Sarah J Ferrari, the manager of the building that she and Drake were living in. Surely he could have left her with Sarah, or something to that effect. There was something wrong with this situation, and Sandra didn't like it.

Ling Ling was seated at a booth looking every bit the businesswoman. She was dressed in a black long-sleeved jacket, black trousers, and had on her blue and gold cheong-san with sash. Standing near her was the compact and also attractive Mara Nys. She, too, was in her own style of 'business outfit' consisting of a black bodysuit and an ankle-length black coat. As Stone and company approached, Ling Ling broke out a cigarette and lit up with a well-practiced motion.

"Ms. Li, I presume? I am Jason Stone." Jason watched for the subtle, reflexive moved of the hand that indicates a person accustomed to shaking hands. One who did so at business meetings tended to seem open in their dealings. Half the time they were and half the time they were not. Someone who preferred to deal cautiously tended to avoid personal contact, and Ling Ling was this kind of person. Jason passed on the option to shake hands and skipped to introductions.

"This is my associate, Ms. Blackmore, and my daughter, Moira." He placed a protective hand around the girl's shoulder and guided her toward a seat. "I apologize for the necessity of bringing my daughter here, but the circumstances are severe enough to warrant it for the moment." As he spoke, he carefully helped his daughter remove her coat and hung it up on the booth's accompanying coat and hat post. Before he sat, he placed a plain black briefcase on the table and slid it aside.

"Good evening, Mr. Stone." Ling Ling nodded to Jason, Sandra, and Moira, before indicating the silent woman standing next to her. "This is my associate, Ms. Marta Nys."

"Ms. Stone," said Moira suddenly. It broke Jason's stride immediately.


"I am Ms. Stone," she corrected. She smiled cooly but politely and leaned slightly, honoring their host as she offered her hand.

*Shite!* thought Jason. At that moment he sincerely regretted taking Moira with him to his business meetings lately, but he had to admit it was a perfect imitation of his usual introductory tactic. He wondered if the girl's odd behavior really was a result of her trauma in the past few months, or if it was an example of poor parenting. He decided to watch for Ling Ling's reaction and hoped Ms. Li did not take offense at his daughter.

Pausing to take a slow drag on her cigarette, Ling Ling extended her own hand. "Ms. Stone it is." Her reactions, if any, were unreadable.

She's good, Sandra thought. She'd been trying to get an idea of Ling Ling from her observations, drawing on her police training in interview technique. The Chinese woman wasn't giving anything away here, remaining level throughout, not reacting to Moira's little outburst beyond accepting it.

After Moira and he were seated, Jason saw no point in wasting more time on pleasantries. "Ms. Li, as you are aware, I have come to purchase the services of Marta Nys for a mission that I believe no one else in the world is qualified to undertake." His voice was deadpan honest, not deprecating like a common compliment would be.

"I'm not making a particular compliment here. Ms. Nys' reputation for speed, efficiency and ruthlessness are exactly what I need. I can't afford to hire someone who will waste time with useless shows of bravado or excessive, messy use of explosives."

"To understand what has happened, I need to outline for you a couple things. My sister, Athena Stone, went missing about five and half years ago. Since then I had sent several detective agencies after her but the trail always died in the Neo York Zero Zone. About half a year ago, I finally took the matter into my own hands, as I should have from the beginning. In the course of my own investigation, I felt I was getting close as I discovered a recent friend of Athena's. That's when things began to come apart.

"The Zone has a lot of gangs, each with their own turf and rules. Most of the time I was able deal with them. That is, until I ran into a gang which identifies itself only with brown arm bands." At this point he knew he was beginning to lose her. He knew it was beginning to sound like a minor problem with some third-rate, nobody, street gang.

"They are not like normal street gangs. There's something different." Jason leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. He took a deep breath and let it out slow.

"For one thing they have master martial artist. Some kind of Kung Fu master. I'm reasonably sure he's Chinese, but there's a catch. He's been wired. Tight. Cybernetics and guns are not a part of any Kung Fu fighting tradition that I know about, unless it's something cooked up by the Triads here. He's not just fast, either. Fast I can handle with regular muscle. But he's very good and he has..." Jason took a moment to think about it. "Students I think. Armored in a traditional style, but the stuff is tough. I've fought them, and I know what I'm about.

"To make matters worse they are well equipped. All their top guys have modern weaponry, and too many have cyberware. Somehow they're getting funds beyond the normal means. In addition, the gang is growing like you wouldn't believe. Somehow the leadership is absorbing a large number of recruits. I've never seen anything like it. Its territory was mostly out in the wastes, last I knew, but they cruise regularly for recruits.

"Anyway I had a couple run-ins with them. The second time they tried to force me to sign up and damn near blew my brains out when I refused. I barely survived, but that isn't the point. I probably deserved what I got for sticking my neck out for someone else. You don't do that in the Zone and it was a hard lesson to learn."

Sandra shot another sideways glance at him. What's going on here? She asked herself. When she and Drake had met, finding Athena was the most important thing in the world to him. Heck, it seemed to be what was driving him, what was keeping him going. Now all of a sudden, he's acting like it was a stupid thing to do. She thought back over what'd happened to him. He'd lost his other sister recently. If anything, that would make finding his remaining sister more important. She ran all this through her head. So why does he regret going out there in the first place?

"It took me months to recover, even under the best medical care, and I stayed clear of the Zone, sister or no sister, in that time. I would have been satisfied to leave well enough alone from there. However, the brown bands have taken the war to me. They have attempted to assassinate me at my home, place of business, and on the streets of Neo York. They have gunned down my adopted daughter not once but twice! in their attempts to kill me." His anger was beginning to crack his cool monologue and he took another moment to breathe.

Sandra shot a sidelong glance at him, looking slightly worried. She'd expected Drake to get a little emotional here, but not this much. Great. She thought. We could have just blown it there and then. He could have just made a total Idiot of himself in front of them.

"Now they have killed my sister Helen as well. The police blame the attacks on post-civil war terrorists unhappy with my family for its role in the war and passed it off to federal authorities. And they have done nothing.

"This brown band gang seems capable of infiltrating anything, anywhere. They infiltrated my own corporation and used my employees against me so I cannot trust my own security forces. And I suspect the police and federal agency may have also been corrupted in view of their reluctance to investigate.

"The aim of this gang is vague to me. They seem to wish me and my family's complete destruction and nothing less. Now it's time to strike back."

Ling Ling slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke. "Strike back how, Mr. Drake? Opposing them directly?"

"Yes, Ms. Li. That's exactly what I propose. Because they have demonstrated an ability to infiltrate anything I am involved in, they have neutralized my ability to attempt either a covert or massive armed strike against them. I can only trust the people I see right now. I have attempted it once before, when I discovered they had shot down a twelve year old girl. That turned out to be a mistake. I was overconfident and made the mistake of underestimating them. I know I need help, but I also know that I must have made it through their ranks to their leadership before I..."

A strange look crossed Jason's face, as if haunted by a memory he wasn't sure was really there. Although it lasted less than a second, one who knew Jason well could see something more.

He's hiding something, Sandra thought. She knew that look, she'd seen it often enough back in the 'old days' of her police work. I just want to know what the hell it is.

"This is what I want. I want to hire Ms. Nys to help me make a final strike against this gang. To ensure they will not recover, I must eliminate the leadership and all the core membership. These people are fanatics willing to die for their leader so unless we smash them totally, the problem will continue to exist."

"Us," corrected Sandra. "I'm a part of this."

Jason looked up at Sandra glad for her affirmation and support. With a grim smile he nodded.

He felt he had said enough to show the gravity of the situation. "So here's the deal. I want Marta Nys on this. I'll be going in with her, but my safety isn't in the contract and is not to be Ms. Nys' problem. Therefore, against the possibility I do not return, payment will be in advance. In addition, I will fund all expenses for equipment and travel." Jason reached over and opened the briefcase, slowly and deliberately so that Marta could see. He pulled a laptop out and opened it up. He turned it toward Ling Ling.

"The amount is listed at the top. If it is acceptable, then you may enter the account number you wish it to be deposited and the routing number. I'm heading back to Neo York in a couple days. Should your client choose to take this job, I'll know it when the money is deposited." Jason knew Ling Ling was a professional and that Marta Nys was no two-bit street sam. They were as professional as any corper and Jason wanted to treat them as respectfully as he would any colleague. If the two women chose to take the $250 grand and run, then he would have purchased the knowledge that Nys was not a woman he wanted fighting at his side, which was far cheaper than finding out the hard way. On the other hand, having the money sitting there in front of them for a day or two would be as good as any persuasive argument he could come up with.

Outside a storm raged, sending the wind whipping through the tall concrete, steel, and glass canyons of Hong Kong, while the rain fell in thick sheets to hammer the ground below. Inside, however, all was still and quiet, with the only sound being the occasional soft sigh of pleasure and murmured word or two.

Outside the sky was a roiling mass of gray and black clouds, and the air was dark, while inside it was brighter, the scattering of candles providing a dim, but warm, source of illumination.

Outside it was cold, the icy rain driven by a wind that eagerly sucked the heat from anyone foolish enough to leave the safety of a building. Inside, it was pleasantly warm, as the tangle of clothing on the floor indicated.

Ling Ling and Marta knelt together on the spacious bed, arms entwined about each other, exchanging slow, sensuous kisses. They were dressed only in their hair, which fell in a glossy black curtain past each woman's waist, forming a virtual tent between them and the rest of the world. They moved back and forth as one, pausing for a kiss here, a caress there. Their lovemaking was slow and languid, not from weariness, but because they had no great desire to hurry.

So they touched, stroked, licked, nuzzled, and kissed, their lips brushing against each other's bodies. Occasionally one or the other would gasp, or moan, or perhaps utter a word or two of encouragement. But mostly, they were content to explore one another, and not ruin the moment with needless dialogue.

As Ling Ling ran her hands over her lover's well-muscled body, she occasionally encountered thin ridges of scar tissue. Not the scars of cybersurgery, those were so faint as to be invisible in this light, but the scars of battle. It was physical proof of the dangerous life her lover led, and Ling Ling found them slightly fascinating. She follow each one with her finger, tracing them over Marta's back or biceps, or along the curve of the thigh. Marta didn't have very many—she was very good at what she did, and her internal cyberware made her even better, but the ones that were there each marked a moment of extreme violence, where lives hung in the balance. Or so Marta said.

There had been fewer scars on Marta's body when Ling Ling had first seen her nude. That had been in San Francisco several years ago. Ling Ling had been in town on business, and she'd hired Marta to be her bodyguard. At the time, Marta had certainly looked the part, showing up dressed in formfitting black body armor and a long black coat. She had followed Ling Ling everywhere, even into the spacious Japanese bath, explaining that an assassin could hide anywhere, and what did Ling Ling want? To be safe, or mildly embarrassed? Of course, Marta had stripped as well, the bath was more than big enough, and Ling Ling had ended up with a clear view at what the street samurai looked like under all her gear.

The body had been lean and compact, with well-defined muscle tone. The breasts were round and firm, the waist slender, and the hair an inky black mass that fell to the waist. There had been a scattering of scars, mostly minor injuries from knives, swords, and cyberblades.

Marta had given Ling Ling's body a more thorough visual examination, taking in the large, lush breasts, the curve of her hips, and the glossy black of her own silky tresses, which fell to her waist and a bit beyond. When asked, Marta had quite candidly admitted that she would be more than happy to do more than guard Ling Ling's body. She wanted to touch and taste it... if Ling Ling would let her.

Ling Ling had never really considered taking another woman as a lover, and she still wasn't sure why she had allowed Marta to seduce her in that secluded bath. It had been an enlightening and pleasurable experience, heightened by Marta's obvious skill and expertise. In the end, the two had fallen asleep in each other's arms on the deck that ringed the tub. Marta had awoken her employer the next morning with another round of lovemaking, and by the time the week was out, Ling Ling had made her decision, and hired Marta to be her full-time bodyguard.

"Wo ai ni," she whispered into Marta's ear.

"Ngo oi lei," Marta responded with a smile.

"Not bad." Ling Ling gave her partner an appreciative kiss, "Your Cantonese is getting better."

"I have a good teacher." With a sudden sigh, Marta leaned back and then fell onto the bed, one arm cast dramatically across her brow. "Ling Ling, what did I ever do to deserve you?"

The question took Ling Ling by surprise. This was a side of Marta she rarely saw. Normally, Marta was full of life and energy, concerned only with the here and now, and never seemed to dwell on such rhetorical questions. "Deserve me?"

"Yes." Rolling onto her side, Marta reached out with one arm to stroke Ling Ling's thigh. "You're beautiful, exotic... you put up with me..." She grinned at that, returning to the more carefree attitude Ling Ling was both familiar and comfortable with.

"I could say the same about you." Ling Ling settled herself along side of her bedmate. "I have, as my bodyguard and lover, one of the most capable solo operatives on the planet. You are beautiful to look at, a pleasure to talk to, and never, ever, boring."

"Oh, so the inscrutable Ling Ling craves excitement, eh?" Marta pushed Ling Ling onto her back and then rolled on top, silencing Ling Ling's startled cry with a kiss. After a few long moments, Marta finally pulled free. "Shall I excite you some more?"

Ling Ling's return kiss was all the answer Marta needed.

Laying by her lover's side, Ling Ling slowly traced a path along Marta's body with one pointed fingernail. She started low, along the curve of the thigh, and gradually made her way across the flat, sculpted expanse of Marta's stomach. Reaching the crest of one firm breast, she circled the nipple, feeling Marta twitch slightly, and before dropping down into the shallow valley between Marta's breasts.

"Well?" Ling Ling asked idly.

"Well what?" Lying on her back amid the tangle of sheets, Marta felt content. The last thing she needed was to answer questions.

"Are you going to take the offer?"

"Oh..." Marta sighed and then gasped. Ling Ling had replaced the fingernail with her lips. "I... I think so. It's a nice offer... a lot of money."

"Which we could use. But..."

"But what?"

"I just hope it won't end up like that last op you went on."

Marta laughed. "Don't worry, Ling Ling. I won't be playing nursemaid to a loudmouthed esper bitch this time around. These people are professionals. You have nothing to worry about."

"Mmmm..." Ling Ling raised her head, "I hope so. But I'll worry anyway."

Reaching over, Marta slid one arm under Ling Ling's supple waist and then pulled the other woman on top of her. "Worry later, enjoy now while it lasts."

The meeting was over so Jason and Sandra had returned to the apartment. The first thing Jason did was to sit Moira down in front of the entertainment center and head to vid phone and open a secure connection home.

"I'll be right with you Sandra. I just gotta make a quick call." He pulled up a chair and made the call from the dining room.

Sandra waited until he was out of the room, before following him. Something had been bothering her about the night's events. Drake had changed, somehow. Now, she had the horrible feeling that he was up to something. She quietly listened by the doorway as Drake made the call.

The elderly man looked up in the display as he accepted the connection and recognized Jason's face. {"Yes, sir?"} asked the old man.

"I would like you to make some preparations. I have decided that time is absolutely of the essence. As soon as a deal has been struck here, I will be moving out."

{"I see,"} said the gray haired man. {"Then you will not be coming back to headquarters for some time?"}

"Very unlikely. You're going to have to make the preparations I was going to make personally. I'd like you to put all of SynTech's security forces on high alert effective tomorrow at noon. The board stated their support of me and my family in this crisis and it's time for them to put their money where their mouths are."

{"Will you... be ordering some kind of strike, sir?"}

"No. At least, I certainly hope not. But I don't like to leave anything to chance."

The older man shifted his weight and sat back somewhat from the phone's camera. {"Do you anticipate a problem with your current... plans?"}

"I don't know. I'm beginning to believe that I-- that we might not succeed. If that's the case I'll want two extraction teams ready."

Hobbs did the math. {"Only two, sir?"}

Jason's eyes were intense and did not acknowledge the question. "In the event of failure, I'll send you coordinates and then I want you to unleash everything we've got. How is Project Forge proceeding?"

Jason's personal assistant seemed to be stunned by Jason's orders and it was a moment before he answered. {"I haven't, that is to say I am not aware of the status of the latest experiments, sir."}

"Then find out from Jacobson. If they have something ready for the field, then in the event I give the call, it will be a chance for them to test it, live."

The old man's face paled visibly. {"Mr. Stone. Jason! This can't be necessary. You don't have to--"}

Jason cut the connection. He knew that whatever reservations Hobbs had, Hobbs would still do it because he still believed in Jason Stone. He sat and stared at the monitor for a few minutes, lost in his own thoughts. These people were murdering his family, and he still didn't know why. But what if he did know? Who's fault would it ultimately be if his own darkest nightmare was true? What could he do if it was really himself that was at the root of everything and ultimately the cause of his own destruction?

Sandra waited a moment and then entered from outside. "Drake, we need to talk."

Drake looked over at her as she approached. He couldn't help feeling rotten.

"Look, Drake, when I agreed to help you in this, I did it on the basis of complete trust. I wouldn't keep anything from you, you wouldn't keep anything from me," she began, harshly. "There's a couple of things from tonight that's bothering me, and I need to know."

Jason nodded. He had hoped she hadn't noticed, but now understood that it was folly. "I'm going to make sure that whatever happens, this isn't going to turn into a suicide run for you and Marta." He stated it simply and honestly.

Then his eyes drifted down and sadness covered his face like dark blanket. "I don't want you to get hurt by the hand of my enemies." He rubbed his face with his hands and then lifted them away, staring at them as if they were not his own.

"If you or Marta are seriously hurt, I am responsible. And the fact that I am still head of a medical corporation puts me in position to do something about it. So if you both are too injured to go on, I will order your extractions and I'll follow it up with an all-out strike, if necessary."

He looked back up at her. His eyes betrayed the presence of a personal demon and it was riding him hard. It seemed that he wanted to say more, but felt too ashamed or too foolish to let it out.

"Drake, I want you to be honest. Are you hiding something from me?" She stared into his eyes. "Tonight it sounded like you were hiding something. I want to know what's going on here," she continued before he could reply. "When we met, finding Athena was the most important thing in the world to you. Now you act like going ito the Zone was one big mistake and what Athena did was her own fault."

At her last statement, he looked really wounded. He struggled between striking back and taking the risk of looking like a fool if he told her what he was thinking. Yet, he made his decision. It was better to look a fool than loose a friend. "I've been having bad dreams. I know how dumb that sounds. But I keep reliving the moment when they shot me. When I should have been executed. I remember looking up at the face of the one who pulled the trigger. Every time it's the same. It's my face." He clenched his fist and the opened it. "I think I'm losing my mind," he said practically in a whisper. "What if this whole thing about them trying to kill off my family and me is some horrible mind-job? What if they already got to me and I don't even know it? What if I'm walking into a trap I set for myself!?"

He was scared. He was really scared and he was afraid to show it.

Sandra took this in for a minute. Obviously he was a little shaken up about his near-death experience and his sister's death. It was understandable. The thing was, he seemed to be taking what happened to him personally, as if he somehow bought it on himself, or whoever it was had known it was him. Sandra thought it over, before continuing.

"And another thing, what's with bringing Moira to this damned meeting? We could have left her with the building manager. I'm on good enough terms with her."

He looked a little surprised. "I didn't know you felt the manager was that trustworthy," he stated simply. "I'm still afraid to let her out of my sight because I'm worried someone will try to kill her because she's a Stone now." He was knocked too much off his center to be able to deal effectively with her anger so he placed the ball in her court. "Do you think she will be safe here while we go to the Zone in Neo York?"

"I'm not sure about that. I think we'd have to take her back to NY with us." Sandra replied. "I don't think Sarah could look after a child full time." Mora's health was a concern to her. Initially put off by Moira's sudden appearance and her odd manner, she'd grown rather fond of the child since she'd been with Drake. Which made what she had to say a bit harder. "I think we should take her back to NY, maybe leave her with Hobbs or something. I just don't think it would be right to leave her here." Or to drag her into any more potentially lethal situations, she added mentally.

Jason needed a drink. No, he needed to get very, very drunk. Tomorrow was adding up to be a rough day. He headed to the kitchen to find something strong to drink.

Sandra sat down in front of the phone. Right now, she needed someone to talk to, and Drake wasn't providing that option. After a few thoughts, a name did come to her mind. Would she be up at this time of night? Sandra asked herself. Might as well see. She dialed the number on the phone, and waited for the other end to pick up. After a while, a blue-skinned woman's face appeared on the monitor, clearly unimpressed at this interruption.

"Who is it?" the woman asked, clearly tired.

"It's Sandra here."

"Oh, yeah. You," she replied. "What have you done now, stuffed more undergarments in your drains?"

Sandra sniggered in reply. That made her feel better for some strange reason. "No. I just needed to ask you something."

There was a pause. "Is this related to building maintenance?"


"It's not about my skin again, is it?"


"All right, you've got me."

"Sarah, have you ever done anything and then afterwards begun to wonder if it was such a good idea. I mean really, really wonder if doing something completely different was the much better option, even if it wasn't obvious at the time?"

There was a long pause. "Yes. Waking up some mornings."

Sandra laughed. "Ahhh... thanks."

"For what?" Sarah asked, a confused look on her face.

"Putting things in perspective," Sandra replied.

"Right. Well, next time your perspective needs sorting out, just call out my name any time of day or night and I'll be there to answer seemingly pointless questions." Sarah was dripping obvious sarcasm.

"Look, I'm sorry to have bothered you. I'm just having relationship troubles, that's all."

"Is this the guy who removes your swimsuit with his teeth?"

"Ah..." Sandra blushed. "Yeah."

"I don't think I want to know what the trouble is then," Sarah replied.

"Thanks." Sandra sniggered. "Sorry to bother you."

"Right. Well, I'm going to try to get back to sleep. Good night." Sarah hung up. Sandra put down the phone and sat back. "I'm asking the landlord for advice," she said to herself. "I'm in trouble now."

Taking a step away from Ling Ling, Marta paused, one hand still gripping the other woman's fingers. A moment later she pulled her lover into a tight embrace, cutting off Ling Ling's cry of surprise with a passionate kiss. Ling Ling, for her part, was initially startled by Marta's rather overt display of affection, but quickly relaxed, wrapping her arms around Marta and pulling her closer. The two shared their kiss for some time, before finally breaking free with a gasp.

Sandra merely quirked an eyebrow at the display, while Drake shifted his feet and debated telling them to hurry up.

A second kiss cut short Drake's attempt to mention they were on a tight schedule, while the third made Sandra roll her eyes and mentally question the wisdom of hiring Marta, reputation or not. Idly she wondered at the possibility of getting the current exhibition of oral gratification on digital video, and how much Alan Davies would pay for it.

Pulling apart, Marta and Ling Ling stood quiet for a moment, apparently unwilling to be separated.

"Be careful," the fixer whispered.

"I will."

"Don't get shot this time."

"I won't."

"Come back to me."

"I will. I promise."

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