By Dustin Evermore, Logan Darklighter, and Mathieu Roy

There must have been a thousand meeting rooms just like this one in the arcology. Each of them would have a long table, about twelve chairs, a large vidscreen, and a handsfree vidphone. In the low-level office employees, or the IT department, the furniture would be mostly functional, and the chairs might not match each other as the employees took chairs from one meeting room to the next; after all, despite what corporate planners thought, it was a rare meeting that had exactly twelve attendees.

In the high-ranking executive areas, of course, there were always exactly twelve chairs, comfortable and high-backed, and they always, always all matched the grain of the table's wood. The task of ensuring that executive meetings took place in an available room with sufficient sitting room doubtlessly employed a fair number of administrative assistants. Moving a chair from one room to another? Unthinkable. Not only would the furniture clash, but the person sitting in the mismatched seat would wonder exactly what this meant for his career, why they needed to add a chair in a hurry to accommodate him... this sort of snub was always only done on purpose.

This room was a bit different. It had twelve chairs, of course, but of those only nine were the typical, standard-issue chair, in a color that marketer must surely describe as "corporate beige," proven by countless studies to be the least distracting tint known to mankind. The three chairs that were left were made of sturdy oak reinforced with steel cores inside their legs and had no wheels. They were the kind designed to support full-body hard shell combat cyborgs and the occasional cyberdroids.

Aasha and Lora arrived at the meeting room, coincidentally at the same time, to find Rhonda Davies' pleasantly bland-looking assistant replicant waiting for them. "Ms. Tempki, Ms. Doubet," said the replicant. "Ms. Davies will be with you shortly. Please be seated. Would you like anything? Tea, coffee maybe?"

"Nothing for me," Aasha replied. "Thank you."

"Coffee. Strong. Two Irish cream, three sugar." Lora replied as she sat down in the far right chair and pulled the one next to her out for Aasha.

The replicant nodded dutifully and left to prepare Lora's cream-with-coffee. Aasha took the reinforced chair that Lora had moved for her. "Now that we've both had a few weeks with Raven," she said as she smoothed her plain white skirt, "how do you think she's adjusting to the changes?"

Lora glanced over at Aasha, "As well as can be expected, I guess. She's doing fine, keeping busy. We did a training session a few days ago, so Raven got to at least get out of the apartment for awhile."

"Good, that's good," replied the young woman. "Her mental health is critical in making responsible choices in the heat of battle. I am glad she has been training, but I think I am going to recommend something more. I've noticed that over time she has become slightly more despondent rather than less and it is beginning to affect how much time she puts into exercise. In addition, we need something for her mind. An idle mind will long for things she cannot have, don't you think?"

Lora had her elbows on table and her chin resting on her laced fingers. She responded neutrally, "And that would be...?"

"I recommend tactical training," Aasha continued. "At her option, perhaps the company would also be willing to extend higher education opportunities for her. A good education will discipline her mind, allowing her to react more efficiently under pressure. Right now, what we have is a very sad woman who feels like a prisoner. What we need is someone who is as sharp as she is powerful. Someone who will be careful, accurate, surgical. Because sooner or later, the company is going to put her to work." She had already emailed the recommendations to Rhonda Davies prior to the meeting and was interested to see how management responded to them. But she also wanted to see what Lora thought of it.

Lora sighed slightly, looking at her reflection in the tabletop distractedly, "Well, tactical training... Higher education, yes, those things would help..."

"Of course, the currently atmosphere in this arcology isn't too well disposed to paying attention to these things. Giving Raven some options is important. Tactical training could take her on a number of useful field trips, including the library."

Aasha folded her hands and looked at them studiously. "Speaking of the atmosphere here, things are definitely getting tense. I've been seeing a nice young man who happens to be involved in the Counter Intrusion division. He says that a couple key people have turned up missing. He's a professional of course, and wouldn't go into details and I wouldn't press him. But that coupled with Davies' lack of punctuality lately makes me wonder if something is up."

Lora nodded slightly, "Mmmm... I heard one of the Puma guards in section 2J had missed their shift. No call, no show. Then they checked the barracks and she wasn't there and she hasn't been seen. I haven't heard about anything else, though." Her mind flashed to Matthew, then to the replicants he was in charge of. Were the Pumas here at S-T lucky enough to have someone who cared for their well being like Matthew?

Aasha looked over at Lora. "Tomorrow Katsura Honda will be with Raven so I think we're both off work for a few hours. I know I don't know you very well, but is there any chance I could ask a favor from you?"

Well, this was a little unexpected... Lora looked more fully over at Aasha and replied, "Well, I guess that depends on what it is. Shoot."

"I uh... I'm getting tired wearing this plain white suit all the time. And I only have one other change of clothes besides this and that's not fit for being social. I'm also new to this city. I'd like to see it a little and if I'm going to spend wages on clothes, I might as well get out of the arcology to do it. But I don't know where to go." She looked hopefully at Lora.

Lora just cocked her head at an angle and arched an eyebrow, with her mouth quirked in a strange expression. She had honestly not been paying more than half her attention to Aasha as she spouted what sounded like bland company-speak. To have her show a fallible human side now caught her off guard.

"You only have..." Now that she looked again, she noticed that, yes, Aasha was wearing the same suit she'd last seen her in.

"...and one other set of... but... that's..." She couldn't help it, she snickered, "Oh you poor..." she barked out a laugh that she cut off with an effort. "I'm sorry, that's not really funny, I guess... It just hit me in a weird way."

Aasha smiled cautiously, a little unsure how to react.

"Sure. Why not? I can help out. What can it hurt?"

"Thanks, Lora," she said with relief. "I promise to not to try to be too much of a bore. But I really do appreciate the uh... the guidance and company. I feel a little guilty though, since Rav--" she stopped cutting herself off conspicuously. Suddenly she felt paranoid that she might show too much sympathy for their psi-powered charge and she was did not want to be reassigned somewhere. "Since not everyone gets to go out as much as they'd like," she finally finished.

"Sure thing." Lora nodded. Maybe I'm not the only one sympathetic to Raven's situation here after all. "I know the feeling all too well, myself."

Aasha chuckled at that. "Will you be available after the meeting?"

Lora nodded, "Sure thing."

The big, warm smile that spread over Aasha's face made it easy to forget she was cyborg. Her large brown eyes were still expressive when she wanted them to be and she was clearly happy that Lora was willing to spend the time.

With a glance at her watch, she commented, "I wonder where Ms. Davies went." She eyed the conference room phone, wondering if it would pay to page her office.

Apparently it would not, because a harried and tired-looking Rhonda Davies made her appearance there as if on cue, closing the door behind her as she swooped into the room.

The frazzled executive tossed a sheaf of papers on the meeting table in an uncharacteristically frustrated gesture and wearily took her seat at the head of the table. "I apologize for being so late," said Davies. "There was a large meeting involving all the security-related executives of the Neo York site, and between Daitokuji finally starting to make their move and these recent murders there was a lot of concerns to address." She looked Aasha, then Lora in the eye. "Speaking of which, I do not have to remind you of the importance of your charge, and how tempting a target she presents in these troubled times. I know you are all ever-vigilant, and thus there is no need to ask you to reinforce your watchfulness given this period of heightened danger." She smiled. "And don't forget that you yourselves may be perceived as valuable assets by those who would wish to hurt the company, regardless of the consequences to other people. You may wish to ensure additional protection for yourselves as well."

Aasha nodded, accepting the information with a worried expression. "To get to this company's best-protected assets, Daitokuji may be likely to use some of its best operatives and weapons. Do you have a report on this we can study and an analysis of likely vectors of attack?"

Lora looked on with a worried expression flickering across her perfect features, "I wasn't aware that relations between S-T and Daitokuji had gotten so bad... Have negotiations broken down or reached an impasse to the point that violence is being considered?"

"Shiroko-Tsuhi does not believe so, but there are disappearances to account for," Rhonda Davies said. "They could be anything, but in the current climate hostile action from Daitokuji cannot be ruled out. It could also be a rival corporation who knows of the troubles and is trying to capitalize, or even entirely unrelated." She spoke the last dubiously, as if the possibility was unlikely.

Lora drummed her fingers on the table a moment in furious thought. Then she said carefully, "I feel obligated to remind you that my contract with Daitokuji technically leaves my status as a Shiroko-Tsuhi operative at their discretion. My employment is with S-T, but the... assets that I represent... are owned by DFG. This could pose legal problems to say the least."

"These and similar issues are being worked out by our lawyers and Daitokuji's," said Davies. "Both sides are... uninterested... in any conflicts of interest in their employees, and negotitations are taking place to reduce the number of personnel with dual loyalties for both sides as much as possible." She smiled thinly. "In the event that the corporations deem it in their best interest to part ways this groundwork will help speed matters up considerably."

Aasha was determined to get her tactical information and pressed the issue. "But Ms. Davies, does that report I asked for exist?"

"My apologies, Ms. Tempki," said Davies. "Our specialists are compiling all available information, and I will make sure it is provided to you. It will be on a need-to-know basis, of course, but I think you will find all your questions appropriately answered."

Aasha wasn't happy but she knew that was the best answer she was going To get. "Will we be increasing security for Raven still further? Or perhaps we can somehow find a way for S-T in general to appear less tense about the situation?"

"We've designed the security around our esper assets to be on a constant state of full alert, trouble or no, therefore there is little need to increase the measures," Davies said. "I'm sure you'll agree that the security in place is quite extensive. Adding more, especially hastily, may cause all sorts of trouble—confusion in our officers, rebellion from Raven, chain of command issues..."

Aasha nodded, inwardly happy that the security would not change. Yet, she kept her face impassive.

"As for your second question, this brings us to the reason I called in this meeting..." Davies added, with a touch of impatience in her voice. "Shiroko-Tsuhi is holding its sixth annual Symposium on Pharmaceutical Development. There are science workshops, of course, but what concerns us is an opening gala on Thursday. The keynote address will be given by Daitokuji's chief of operations, a gesture that is sure to show the world the success of our merger. Various Shiroko-Tsuhi and Daitokuji executives will be on the guest list, as well as a sizable number of delegation from other corporations." Davies paused to bring attention to her next sentence, "You two will be on the guest list, as well as Raven."

Lora said carefully, "I take it that we are there to protect the chief of operations and other functionaries as part of covert security?" To herself, Lora entertained the thought that another reason Raven was to be there was to show her off to the other corporate execs.

"Yes, that is one of the reasons you will be there, but it is by and large very secondary. Given the amount of security involved in such an event, it is rare that extractions are attempted at them, though it does happen. We thought Raven might like to be out of her quarters for a party—and it will give her the chance to meet various corporate eminences as well."

"Is there any chance I might be able to see the guest list ahead of time?"

"I will provide it to you," said Davies, "but it will be incomplete as not all delegations have confirmed their exact attendance. I will update it for you as more confirmations come in."

Aasha nodded. "Thank you, Ms. Davies."

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