by Dustin Evermore & Lisa Hartjes
Time: July

The door clicked closed. It must have been the outside door, because Midori could hear the locks being snapped home, followed by the sound of shoes bouncing to the floor.

"Daddy!" Midori heard the happy cry of Jason's adopted daughter. She must have been nearby when he walked in. Moira's voice became urgent, frightened. She screamed. "Daddy, Daddy!"

~Jason! What's wrong!~ Midori sent as she ran for the front door, prepared for the worst, ready to protect Moira if there was danger.

~Hm, what?~ he asked. He seemed distracted or confused and didn't seem to know how to work the mind link.

Midori found Jason comforting Moira. "It's okay, it's not mine, sweety. I'm okay." Jason stood up and looked with pained eyes toward Midori. It was easy to see what scared Moira. The breast pocket of his suit coat was torn, as was the shoulder nearly ripped free. There was blood on him, too, soaked through the ruined suit. It had spattered his face and dried, although there had been some attempt to brush it away. Dried blood matted his hair. He looked pale as a ghost, and his eyes were large, glassy, and glittering a deep blue. He was in shock.

"Bad day at the office," he explained. "I think I should quit."

"What happened," Midori asked, horrified. Quickly regaining her calm, she took charge of the situation. "Moira, go find Hobbs and tell him that I need his help. Can you do that for me?"

"But..." Moira hesitated.

"Moira, you can move faster than I can," Midori explained softly and urgently. "With my powers, I'm stronger than you are, so if he needs help to move, I'm better equipped to help him with that. No go. Hurry! I'm taking him to our bedroom so he can be more comfortable."

Midori took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom. He followed quietly, like a child.

"Where did this happen, Jason," Midori asked, once he was seated on the edge of the bed. "Do we need to contact security or the authorities?"

"No. SynTech is handling it as an internal matter." He looked up at Midori and stated, "It's not me." He made it sound as if that explained everything. He pushed his fingers through his hair and they caught in the matted blood. He pulled his hand away and stared at it.

"Did you know Anne Hardy quit today? But I don't think the board accepted her resignation. They should. I don't think she's coming back, even after the hospital releases her. Oh, but do they want her back, now!" Jason shook his head grimly.

Jason started to shrug out of his suit coat but Midori grabbed the lapels and kept him from taking it off. "No, Jason. This could be evidence of the attempt on your life."

"Oh, don't worry. I'm okay. I wore my bodysuit underneath. I'm really warm now, though." He still seemed to be a little out of it, and didn't realize that Midori hadn't the slightest idea what he was talking about. "It wasn't me, you see."

"Jason," Midori said, taking his face gently between her hands and turning it so he was looking directly at her, and echoed his name in his mind. "What are you talking about? What happened?"

"The demo. The demo was today. They built a weapon. Project Forge did. They were supposed to build a weapon, but they did it anyway. More profitable that way, you see?" Jason shook his head. "I guess they didn't know that the brain donor had had latent psychic abilities. And nobody knew that Anne Hardy had some minor abilities, too. Not until it happened."

"It was bad, Midori. Very, very bad. SynTech built a cyborg. It was a variant on the Heavy Combat Cyberdroid." Jason stared off into space, as if reading a spec sheet. "120 inches tall. Four thousand four hundred and forty eight points. But it was *conscious*! It knew what it was and it *liked* it! It was... Proud of what it was. I think they rigged its pleasure centers up to activities such as following orders. Normal cyberdroid barely even have a brain. Just a computer, really. This one was beyond that."

Jason shook his head. "Anyway, the demo, for the most part went really well. Mitsumi was there. They ran it through the exercises. Accuracy with weapons, strength, toughness. The thing could go toe to toe with... Anything. That was the point, actually. And it was creative, too. It demonstrated an ability to solve problems in the field test. Then Jacobson and Dr. Ogura dropped the bomb. This model was an esper weapon hunter killer. Every company without an esper would want one. It was designed to withstand even the worst punishment most espers could dish out and keep going. The donor had had some esper talents. They found the subject in the zone, their natural body crippled. They put the brain in and noticed that it reacted and sensed the use of esper power. So they wired the pleasure and aggression centers of its brain up to the action of hurting or killing espers. Anyone with a trace of a talent."

Jason swallowed loudly. "The Mitsumi people were impressed. They want to put more money in the project. I didn't like it of course, and told them I did not approve of this direction. Anne asked me to wait on that decision. Go down there and take a close look for ourselves, she said." Jason shook his head.

"So anyway, the Mitsumi reps and the others went on their merry way and we went down to the demonstration floor to check it out for ourselves. There was a security team on hand. Thirty heavily armed men and women, but it wasn't enough. When Anne and I got close, the thing went insane on us. It attacked with everything it had."

Jason put his hands to its face. "It was laughing as it slaughtered everyone between it and Anne and I. It was... Giddy." Jason looked green, like he was going to vomit.

"It pulled people's head apart, shot limb off, squeezed their brains into pudding and it simply loved doing it. I grabbed Anne and we ran. I had one small pistol strapped to my ankle, but I knew it would be stupid to try to use that against the thing. SynTech Sec was opening up with assault rifles and it wasn't even slowed down."

Jason drew a shaking breath. "It caught us eventually. We were lucky; it had used up all it's ammo in the demo and then slaughtering the security people. It picked up a rifle and *stabbed* Anne with it! It didn't even have a sharp point on it, but it stabbed her anyway! A couple times. It paused then and sort of *convulsed*. Like it was having an orgasm just for hurting Anne."

"I remember Anne screaming. I don't know what I was doing. I must have grabbed her and ran for it again. More security came pouring in then, one of them was carrying some kind of rocket launcher."

"Anyway, I went back on the floor of the demo room after it was over. It looked like slaughtering floor, but it wasn't for animals. I understand 39 people were killed, fifteen more injured. A lot of the bodies weren't even identifiable anymore. And there it stood. It was just standing there in the middle, surrounded by technicians, burnt, beat up, but still more or less in one piece. But it was like it was turned off or something. Or maybe someone injured its brain. I didn't care."

"Anne went the the hospital. She'll live. I called an emergency board meeting and told them I was going to shut down Project Forge and dismantle it for good. They opposed me. Every last stinking board member defied me. They said that to breach the contract with Mitsumi now would be a civil offense and they could go to court. They said that whatever problem I have with it, the fact was that it would sell, and it would be big for SynTech. They said that what I wanted would ruin SynTech, and that they'd oppose every move I made from here on out. Harrison tabled his vote."

"I don't want to be a part of this, Midori. This is wrong. This is going to end with a lot of people getting hurt, and I can't stop it from my current position as CEO. I'm going to resign. And then I'm going to dump my stock. It will hurt SynTech pretty bad; they'll have to cut programs. And I'm going to approach all the techs I brought on board in my stay as CEO and offer them a job in my new company."

Jason sighed and leaned against the bed post. He wanted to sleep but it seemed like a bad idea at the moment. "I'm going to ask Anne Hardy if she wants in on the new company, too. She's got money and connections that we could use, too."

Midori's face was as pale as a sheet, and she had sunk unsteadily to the edge of the bed. "Dear god," she whispered, her voice fading out. "Jason, we have to find some way to prevent that... thing from going to market. If it does, I'm dead. Every esper in the world is dead, as well as everyone around them." She swallowed almost convulsively. "We've got to destroy that prototype, and all the plans, data storage. Everything. We can't let it get out." Midori turned to look at Jason.

"What happened to it? Where is the prototype?" A sudden look of hope filled Midori's eyes. "I think I might know a way. If we destroy the prototype, it may give us enough time..."

Jason looked Midori in the eyes. "Midori? No. No way. If you are thinking about going after it in any way, shape or form, just forget about it right now. If that thing is turned on, or whatever it is, when you get near, the jig is up. No, this is a job for standard, good old fashioned espionage. You want to destroy plans, steal company secrets? Then you get an infiltration expert."

She didn't look like she was going to let it go. Jason took hold of her arms, gently but firmly. "NO Midori! Absolutely NO espers! You've got to understand what I've been saying. This is an *esper* hunter killer cyberdroid who is intelligent and self-aware. You don't kill the predator with its prey." Jason searched her face looking for some sign she would take him seriously.

"How about an esper that's at least twice as powerful as Shion Nys," Midori whispered.

Jason shook his head. "That would increase the level of destruction and lives lost. Just because people work for SynTech, that doesn't mean they deserve to die." Jason let go of Midori. "Wait a minute. Who's twice as powerful as Shion Nys? You mean Ran?"

Midori shook her head. "No. I mean any esper could possibly be twice as powerful as Shion Nys, or perhaps more." She took an unsteady breath. "I had hoped that I might be able to squash the research, or keep it from being used, but I don't think that's an option anymore." She closed her eyes and centered herself, bringing her emotions back under control. "HariChem," Midori explained in a whisper so soft that Jason could barely hear it, "has finished developing a drug that will amplify the esper talents of any esper that takes it, and there are no signs that there is a limit to how high the boosting can go." She paused. "It's ready to go to the market as we speak, but I put it on hold indefinitely, given recent events."

Jason furrowed his brow. "Side effects?"

"I'm not sure," Midori replied honestly. "The report I saw was a precis prepared for my father. It said that side effects were negligible on their test subjects, but theorize that there may be incidences of mental instability on inadequately prepared subjects, whatever that means. I haven't had a chance to see the full lab reports." She looked at Jason. "They seem to think, however, that the possibility of that is negligible."

"Jesus." Jason shook his head. "You suppose someone found out about this?"

"They'd have to have. There'd be no other reason for them to do what they did," Midori replied. "Someone has been trying for the past six months to take over HariChem through legal channels, and had been resorting to veiled threats before my family was murdered. The last one was twelve hours before the attack. Someone wanted me dead so they could get a hold of my stock, and thus control of HariChem. The military contracts we have aren't lucrative enough for that kind of money to be spent on trying to kill me, so it has to be that drug, and the derivatives and side research."

"We'll get them, love." Jason began to struggle out of his suit again. "Well, I'm going to quit. The real work is just about to begin." He looked at Midori almost as if he expected her to challenge his decision.

"What are you going to do," Midori asked softly. Jason could see that there was something bothering her, and she was beginning to retreat behind the wall she had built, the one she called her "working face".

"What are you going to do," Midori asked softly. Jason could see that there was something bothering her, and she was beginning to retreat behind the wall she had built, the one she called her "working face".

"Build a new company, one more up my alley." Jason gave Midori a hard look. "Midori?" he whispered. "What is it? What's on your mind?"

"What if we can't stop it," Midori replied. "You saw what it did to Anne. What happens if one of those things goes rogue while on a mission? If what you said is true about it getting its pleasure centers stimulated when it kills, do you really think that it would willing stop once it has started? That thing is a death sentence to all espers, not just ones who are owned by corps. I have to do something..."

"Of course we don't want that to happen. I still think this is something to be handled through normal channels," he told her. "Personally, I think we'd have the best results using our contacts and to hire good agents and have them sabotage the project. It's the only way to be sure."

Midori nodded absently, then stood and began to help Jason out of the tattered suit. "So what kind of business would be more up your alley," she asked.

"I'm thinking of a business aimed at serving the needs of street sams, mercenaries, espionage agents, and spies." Finally free of the suit, Jason then started working on the buttons to his stained, dark blue shirt. "I know what's needed, can hire excellent engineers, and have a solid financial base to build from. In fact, I intend to take as many of the engineers I recruited for SynTech over the past eight years as I can. We could build custom pieces, provide warranty service, emergency service, and membership with us, provided they have a solid reputation. The company can act as a middle man to provide members with security of identity, but take practically none of the cut. We'd make money on the sale and support of our custom equipment." Midori peeled the sticky, bloody shirt off him while Jason struggled out of it. She could see he had indeed worn his body armor underneath and it was nicked and gouged, but not penetrated.

Midori's hand reached out and traced the pattern of the damage on the armor. "How can you live like this," she whispered.

Jason chuckled softly. "I'm Jason Stone. I don't have any other life." He gave her a rueful grin. "I think I've stepped on too many toes in my time to ever enjoy a peaceful life. There are always going to be people who want to see me dead or hurt, especially after what I'm going to do to SynTech. I'm not going to get away from it, so I might as well learn to live with it."

Jason sat on the bed again and began pulling off his pants. "It's bad, isn't it?"

Midori was silent as she looked again at the ruined clothing, the damaged body armor, and blood dried and matted in his hair. An expression of sadness crossed her face, and she nodded.

"I mean, maybe you don't want to live like that. All I can say is that I will always try to keep you and Moira safe and that I will always try to be close by, whatever happens." He looked at his fiancÈ. "Can you live like this? With me?"

"I don't know," Midori answered honestly. "I want to be with you more than almost anything else, but I don't know if I can live the rest of my life feeling like I'm under siege. I understand that there are risks with what we do - otherwise we wouldn't need bodyguards or other personal defense systems. But..." She paused for a moment. "You seem at times to go out of your way to find danger, or to get it to find you. When you had Helen around, that was one thing. She was an adult with a life of her own. She didn't depend on you. Moira does. As your heir apparent, she's already in a measure of danger. But if you go out and deliberately antagonize people...." She let her voice trail off.

Jason smiled and shook his head. "I'm not deliberately antagonizing anyone. I'm trying to do the right thing. I could just walk away from SynTech and let them build their esper killers. But could you really expect me to be happy with that? I certainly don't think you would be. There are bad guys and good guys out there. And there are the regular people in between. The regular people are the ones the good guys are trying to protect. They are also the ones that get stepped on by the bad guys. I want to wear the white hat, because I have an opportunity to be the good guy. I think that's pretty rare these days."

Jason finished getting out of his ruined suit and began peeling down the bodysuit. "I want you and Moira to be proud of me, whatever happens. Do you really want me to try to just walk away from all of this when I know people are going to get hurt if I don't do something?"

"You know I don't," Midori replied with a frown. "But that doesn't mean setting yourself up as a target. Your dumping the SynTech stock, followed by raiding their employee base is going to make some people very angry with you. Do you have to do it in one fell swoop? Couldn't you space out the acquisition of those people over the period of a couple of months, starting with those engineers who are vital to the project?"

"And what about the upgrades for Moira? Might they not refuse to do it, or are you going to hire away the people who will be doing that kind of work as well?"

"That's the really bad news. Dr. Ogura didn't make it out. I understand they worked on her for two hours, but she was too far gone. I can still get an upgrade for Moira from someone else. I just don't trust SynTech anymore. They were going to have to build her a body from scratch anyway, so I don't think it makes a difference who does the work, so long as it's done right. I was considering hiring Shiroko-Tsuhi to do it. They've got a solid reputation."

The couple were interrupted by polite knocking on the bedroom door.

"Come in," Midori said, turning her head to see who it was.

Hobbs swept into the room bearing some hot, damp towels, hydrogen peroxide, cotton swaps, and a plethora of other first aid supplies. He was trailed by a curious and worried young lady.

Jason waved away the first aid kit. "It's okay, Hobbs. I wasn't injured other than a few bruises."

"As you say, sir. Shall I have your things removed from the office?"

Jason stared at Hobbs. "I haven't said anything about that to you."

"I'm afraid that there is already a rumor sweeping the company that you threatened to tender your resignation. They also say that Anne Hardy is trying to sell all her stock in SynTech. Would you care for some bourbon?"

That sounds like a really good idea. But Jason was still trying to sort things out in his head. "Maybe later, Hobbs."

"Daddy? Did you get the bad guy?" Moira asked.

"No. They got away with it for now."

Moira looked down at her hands. She wasn't sure this was a good time, but she had to know. It was too important to her. "Does this mean... I won't be able to see Dr. Ogura about the upgrade?"

"Dr. Ogura is dead, kiddo. Her own creation murdered her." That was probably not the best way to handle that question, and Jason immediately regretted saying that. Moira started to cry.

"Come here, you." Jason picked the sobbing girl up and sat her on the edge of the bed with him. "We've got a deal, you and I. You'll still get that upgrade and it's still going to be very soon."

Moira continued to cry. "But Dr. Ogura was really nice! It's not fair!"

"I know it's not fair." He gave her a hug and held her.

Midori quietly left the room, signaling Hobbs to follow her, then closed the door behind them. "They need some time. If you don't mind putting that stuff away again, I'll speak to the cook about putting a tray together, and delaying supper for a while."

Moira thought about it, and her sobbing eased. She hugged Jason back and buried her face in his chest. "What are you going to do now?"

"I'll probably leave SynTech. But we really are still going to get that upgrade for you."

Moira nodded, but remained quiet. She stayed there in her father's protective arms for a while, until she fell asleep.

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