By Logan Darklighter, Dustin Evermore, Lisa Hartjes, 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 negotiations 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 eminencies 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."

"Dad, how does this look?" Moira twirled, making the long red and black dress flare just a little. The silk shined and sparkled in the light.

"That's a beautiful dress. It looks good on you," said Jason in a tired voice.

"That's what you said about the last three dresses, Dad! Come on, tell me which one you think works best," she insisted.

"You look good in all of them, pumpkin, but I've always been partial to reds and blacks."

Moira stopped moving in the dress and looked at her adopted father. She put a hand on one hip as was becoming her habit when frustrated. "This one or the short one?"

"Uhm," he stalled as he thought about it. That short one really did look good. Too good, in his opinion. Moira's new soft-shell cyborg body about 5'5" tall, but leggy for her size. They hadn't gone overboard on the breasts, much to Jason's relief. They had simulated the body of an 18 year old pretty well, but his daughter had the mind and maturity level of a 16 year old and that left him with some worries about the way she looked. He was concerned about her popularity with the boys.

He looked at the dark-haired, blue-eyed girl and thought about how much she looked like they could really be related. The engineers truly were artists when it had come to sculpting a body for Moira Stone. "I think you should wear the one you have on," he told her.

She squinted up at him and sighed. "This one's too warm. I don't want people to think I don't know it's summer. I'll wear the short one." Jason didn't know why she ever asked him what to wear. He suspected she just wanted what he *didn't* want her to wear so that she could defy him.

Jason sighed and finished tying the bow tie on his tuxedo. The event tonight was to be formal. That meant pretty much similar, boring tuxedos for the men. But it was also an opportunity for women show off their own tastes.

"How are things going in here?" Midori's voice came from the doorway.

She was wearing a black evening gown, its strapless top clinging to her like a second skin. The silk neckline plunged enough to reveal the soft flesh of her breasts, yet invited the eye to imagine what else may lie beneath. The floor length skirt flowed gently down from her hips to swirl gently around her legs. Midori had a midnight black wrap folded over one arm, and a stylish and compact handbag in her right hand.

Midori's hair was pulled up into an elegant style, with a few long curls artfully allowed to escape their confinement to soften the look. Her cosmetics were simple, intensifying the blue of her eyes and enhancing the appearance of all her features.

"Okay," replied Jason as he turned toward her. "Oh! Wow you look good, Midori," he stated insufficiently. His heightened pulse rate and large pupils spoke more about what he thought of the outfit that his words did.

Moira peeked out from her room down the hall and spied Midori. She was struck by the sophisticated, yet very attractive look Midori had achieved. "Grrr!" she exclaimed and headed back to her closet to try again.

"You look pretty good yourself," Midori replied, caressing his mind with an appreciative purr, then glanced down the hallway. "I'll go see how Moira's doing."

She walked towards the girl's bedroom and looked in.

"Having a hard time choosing," Midori asked?

Moira was hopping on one foot as she tried to keep her balance. She had managed to catch her other foot in a dress she had tried to yank off too quickly. "Um," she said, embarrassed. She straightened up and more calmly stepped out of the dress. She was down to a bra and panties but didn't seem bothered by it. Leaning against a dresser, she folded her arms and looked at Midori. "Yeah," she said.

"Would you like to hear the advice that my mother always gave me when trying to choose something to wear for an occasion like this?"

"Sure, yeah."

Midori walked into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. "The first thing she told me was that, if in doubt, wear black. It is simple and elegant. If you don't have black, then the darkest color that you have. If you need to decide on a length, the later in the day the event, the longer the skirt. The season determines what the dress is made of, and what you wear with it, not the length or style.

"I chose this dress because it's simple, and I can wear some body armor underneath it without it being obvious," Midori explained. "With your cybernetic body, that is not a constraint for you."

Moira moved to pick up a dress lying on her bed and showed it to Midori. It was the longer, red and black one she had modeled for her father a short while ago. "Do you think this color suits me?" She looked up at Midori, but not so high as she used to need to do.

Midori nodded. "I remember when you bought it. It's very pretty, and would be perfect for tonight. If you like, I can put your hair up and we can wow your dad." She smiled at Moira.

"Thanks, Midori!" she said with more enthusiasm. She slipped into her dress in short order and sat patiently while Midori worked on her hair.

The trip to the Shiroko-Tshui arcology was a quick and uneventful one. Jason had asked if they could use Midori's Jaguar, mostly because he'd come to admire that car. He'd always traveled in a limo or a fast motorcycle and the Jag was refreshing. S-T parking valets handled finding a spot for the twelve-cylinder dream machine, leaving the trio to find their way to event on Tier 7.

It was to be a corporate dinner, a mixer that would allow the upper echelons of S-T to make contact with and build connections with their counterparts in other corporations. All too often, business success depended on whom you knew. Socializing was one effective way to do it. Shiroko-Tsuhi was a high-profile corporation, and if you were invited to one of their 'dinners', it meant they thought you were important enough that they needed to know you. For Midori Harihatu, it might also mean that they were entertaining thoughts of establishing some sort of contract with HariChem.

But for Jason Stone, the invitation was intriguing in a very different way. He'd received the invitation just after he'd quit SynTech and announced the establishment of SpyCorp. Already, prospective investors were looking to purchase SpyCorp stock, expecting it to be as profitable an investment as SynTech was. However, no public stock had been issued yet, and the business had yet to open. For Jason, invitation to a Shiroko-Tsuhi dinner meant that they either were interested in SpyCorp as a potential outlet for factory-direct sales, or as a potential customer for SpyCorp agents. Or, quite possibly, S-T had other plans altogether.

And for Moira, this was exciting beyond words. After three years of following her adopted father to board meetings, watching him work, and also seeing what he did on his out as a samurai for hire, she had made her decision on what she wanted to do with her life. She hadn't yet figured out how to tell her father she wanted to be a SpyCorp agent, but surely this event was a great first step in making connections that she would need later.

Jason and Midori showed their invitations to the host as they came off the elevator to STNYA (Shiroko-Tsuhi Neo York Arcology) Tier 7 and they were let inside a vast conference room. It was complete with a stage where presentation could be given, but where a band was set up now playing old-time swing music. A variety of guests had already arrived, representing a number of different corporations in various fields of technology.

Midori looked around the conference room at the assembled people and started to put names to the faces. Getting an invitation to one of Shiroko-Tsuhi's dinners was a sign of something important in the works. This was the first time anyone at HariChem had ever received one, and she was more than just a bit curious as to the reason why.

She murmured pleasantries and 'thank you's to people she knew and to their condolences over the death of her family. Not a small few of them noticed the engagement ring on her finger, but none commented on it, as if unsure of what to say.

Midori moved over to one of the side tables with huge platters of hors d'oevures, placed a few on her plate and secured a glass of champagne from a passing server. She walked to a spot a short distance away, near a group of businessmen, and carefully lifted her shields to do a quick scan of the room and the surrounding area. Midori was confident that if her actions were noticed, the contact would be brief enough to only indicate that someone had scanned them, but not where the scan had come from.

Aasha was very pleased with the outfit Lora and she had managed to put together. It was a slinky little black dress, and the way it accentuated her full breasts and bountiful curves made the cyborg look very human. It also suited her present mood perfectly, for she had seen a name on the list of guests she hadn't expected.

The dress was sure to heighten some pulse rates, and if she actually had one, hers would certainly be revealing of her level of stress. The dressed shimmered as if it had nerves of its own in the light, generating a sense of excitement and readiness. It was difficult to conceal a gun in the thing, but an inner-thigh holster was just what she needed. One blessing of the cybernetic body was that the usual chafing from the holster and weapon bothered her far less than when she had been 100% flesh and blood.

She looked around the room and finally spotted the man whose noted presence was the cause of her worry. Jason Stone stood across the room saying some polite greeting to an older Japanese man with graying hair. The fact that her brother was here could either be of use if she managed to get word to him. She knew he believed her to be dead and that she now wore a completely different body than Jason had ever seen. Yet, if she could somehow get word to him she was sure he might be able to help.

A moment later, Aasha couldn't help but notice the pretty blonde with him. "A new girlfriend?" she wondered to herself. Last she knew, he wasn't even dating. Of course, that had been some time ago. Then she spotted her mother's large engagement ring on the woman's finger. She blinked, staring in surprise.

Lora sipped idly at her champagne, people watching and thinking. Aasha had been surprisingly easy to get along with once they were out of the confines of schedule and duty. The shopping trip had gone well and she had even caught herself enjoying it after a while.

Still, she got the sense that there was something... off... about Aasha. It wasn't anything she could put a finger on. The closest she could come to defining anything was the sense that Aasha was holding something back. But that in itself was nothing new in Lora's experience, particularly of late. Low-level paranoia was common in any corporation. Recently it had spiked upwards with the new role of the Esper division and the tension between S-T and DFG.

Still, she wondered if she was being _overly_ paranoid in Aasha's case, though. She seemed more than willing to be friends. And at least she was infinitely more personable than Katsura Honda, the third minder in their group. And Raven seemed to like her these days. Which said a lot.

Looking over in Aasha's direction, Lora admired the dress she had helped pick out. A definite success, there. She noted a few eyes lingering on Aasha from time to time.

And she caught a few admiring her as well. She wished Matthew could be here. Maybe she could go see him later and show off her dress? She'd love to see his face when he saw her in it. She'd picked it up on the shopping trip with Aasha. It was understated compared to Aasha's, and different from Lora's normal style, but she had known she had to try it. It was a sleeveless Chinese dress, with a high, mandarin styled notch collar in deep blue that matched her eyes and pale gold trimming that matched her hair. The dress hugged her curves closely, leaving almost nothing to the imagination, and the skirt was slit up to her hip on the left. When she walked, the white silk lining was revealed. A dragon in gold and silver trim wrapped its way around from back to front with the head of the dragon up high between her breasts. A pair of low open heeled pumps with wrap around straps in white and matching opera styled gloves completed the outfit. Her hair was pulled forward in a loose tail over one shoulder and light make-up and gold earrings completed the look.

Just then Lora felt something, almost like a high pure chord that softly echoed through the room. A gentle breeze in her mind that ebbed and faded before she was fully aware of what it was.

*Was that an esper?*

Lora hadn't paid much attention to her inner sense before. With Raven so close, her signature had pretty much been dominant. Now she realized Raven wasn't the only other esper in the area. She looked over at Raven and caught her eye.

"Did you feel that?"

Raven nodded. "Yes, I did. Someone who's dampening and dropped it for a bit, maybe to get a 'peek' out and find any other espers." She shrugged delicately, worried about popping out of her dress. "I guess that's good. The whole point of me being here is people seeing me, right?"

Raven wore a strapless, electric blue dress; she wasn't sure what the material was, but it was smooth and quite reflective, shimmering in the dim light, reminding her of a becalmed calm lake. The garment was cut low, so low that even wearing it Raven wondered how it could possibly not fall right off her even if she stood still. The way it snugly hugged her figure like a thin sheath might have had something to do with that, of course. She wore earrings and a golden chain decorated with sizable, shiny white gemstones that the stylist had called "active crystals". She wasn't sure what the crystals were, precisely, but they caught and reflected every bit of available light, perhaps even making their own; they winked and gleamed, drawing the eye to her, to her face and to the birth of her cleavage where the pendant hung. Her long, smooth black hair was elaborately coiffured, and a comb, again studded with active crystals, was placed like it held the thing in place, instead of the multitude of carefully concealed hairpins that did the actual work. She also wore high-heeled shoes in matching blue; they were quite a bit higher than Raven felt comfortable with, and between them and the clingy, slit dress that seemed designed to expose her legs with every step, she tried not to walk too much.

The truth was, she might have thought the outfit was quite pretty, if a little daring, but she would have been much happier with it if she had picked it herself. A stylist and a corporate PR person had selected her clothes and jewelry, making clear any deviation was discouraged. The point, it seemed, was to show Raven off, in more ways than one; the more stares she got the more she would be noticed. And of course, there was the management collar, a thin band of featureless metal, prominently displayed among all the skin she was showing. The stylist had actually gone and *polished* the thing with a cloth, casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Raven shivered at the memory.

Midori looked around the room casually in the wake of her quick scan. She had detected two mental signatures, and they were in close proximity to each other. One of them she'd come into contact before, at the Edge of Night.

She saw Raven standing to one side, wearing a dress that made Midori cringe inwardly. Midori felt it was far more appropriate for a party than a business function such as this, but any other thoughts she had about the outfit disappeared when she saw the plain band of metal around Raven's neck.

_What is that,_ Midori thought, moving her eyes to look at Raven's companions. _She wasn't wearing that before. It looks almost like a collar..._ A chill ran up and down her spine when she realized the implications.

She took a step closer to Jason and leaned forward to speak softly in his ear. "Jason, next time you're looking around the room, take a good look at the woman in the blue outfit over there, with the long dark hair. I know her. She's an esper. Tell me if you notice anything strange about what she's wearing."

Jason frowned just slightly as he looked in Raven's direction. She appeared to be wearing a strange form of jewelry, yet as he watched he couldn't help noticing there was no noticeable release. I might have been a stylish accessory for some of the younger crowd in the zone, perhaps with some spikes on it. But for a prominent employee of a powerful megacorporation? It didn't seem right. He also noticed the close proximity of the two women next to Raven. Their demeanor marked them as bodyguards to his practiced eye. Also, the small Indian woman (or was she Pakistani?) seemed to be staring at Midori and he. The situation certainly merited closer attention.

"Why don't we take a closer look?" he told Midori.

Moira, looking far more mature than her father ever expected, even managed to look graceful as she lead Midori and Jason toward the three mysterious women.

The young lady smiled at the strangers. She still wasn't sure what to do in corporate etiquette, but she wasn't afraid to dive right in. "Hello. This is Mr. Jason Stone and Ms. Midori Harihatu," she told them, gesturing first to her father, then to Midori. "I'm Moira Stone. Who do we have the pleasure of meeting this evening?" She looked expectantly toward Raven, Lora and Aasha.

It seemed Aasha was momentarily taken aback, as she stared a Moira. The family resemblance was startling, and she hadn't seen Moira's name on the list Ms. Davies had provided. In fact, she wasn't sure she remembered her brother having a daughter at all. The surprise broke her stride. Meeting her brother, she had been prepared for. Meeting her niece she never met practically full-grown was not something she was ready to take.

Midori watched Moira with a small smile. The girl ws doing well, all things considered. ~I think I'll talk to Jason about teaching Moira about what to do at this kind of function.~

"Um, I'm Aasha. Aasha Tempki," she stammered. She almost forgot to hold out her hand for Jason to take in formal greeting.

Jason smoothly took her hand, his eyes squinting just slightly as he did so. "Pleased to meet you," he said as he withdrew his hand and placed it into his pocket.

Aasha still a little off-balance. "This is..." she murmured as she looked to Raven and Lora to introduce themselves.

Raven glanced curiously at Aasha; the usually unflappable cyborg seemed genuinely off-balance. "I'm Raven Clark," she introduced herself. She extended a hand. "I'm an esper operative for Shiroko-Tsuhi." She quickly looked over the small family (father, mother and child?), trying to figure out what could have sparked their interest in the three women. Their looks might attract attention, it already had, but it wouldn't be what would get an engaged couple to come and meet them. Perhaps they had been pointed their way?

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Clark," Midori replied, taking and shaking Raven's hand with a surprising lack of concern at Raven's announcement of who - and what - she was. "This is the first opportunity I've had to meet an esper who is in the employ of a corporation."

The blonde woman in the Chinese dress (an unusual combination that seemed to work well) shook Midori's hand as well, "I'm Lora Doubet, with S-T security."

"A pleasure," Midori replied with a smile.

Not to be left out, Jason pulled his hand back out of his pocket and shook hands with Raven and Lora in turn as well. "It's pleasure for me to meet you as well, Ms. Doubet." He looked inclusively to Raven, "Ms. Clark."

"It has already been an interesting evening meeting all these people from Shiroko Tsuhi tonight," he continued. "Your company is quite a diverse one."

"Yes!" said Moira brightly. She turned to Lora. "Security can be really interesting sometimes, from what I've read. I bet you have some interesting stories, huh?" She looked at Lora with large, unblinking eyes. A career in security was certainly not what one would expect to talk about in a corporate function like this, but Moira seemed really interested as she looked eagerly at Lora. Jason merely watched his daughter with a faintly embarrassed little smile, but didn't want to try to teach Moira corporate etiquette in public.

Lora smiled at Moira, and answered, "Most of the time you spend in security is pretty boring, but I do have a few good stories to tell."

"Please excuse me for a moment, ladies. I need to attend to some business," Jason said with a wink. He nodded in the direction of the restrooms, and leaned close to kiss Midori on the cheek before he went.

"Something is up," he whispered into her ear. "Try to stay with these three. Back in a minute." Jason stepped away, smiling at his bride to be, and then quickly walked away.

Lora said to Moira, "Is your father the Jason Stone who recently left Syntech to form Spycorp? "

Moira chuckled a little and replied, "Yup, that's my dad."

"That was a pretty big step. Your father is very brave."

"He used to be braver. Now he worries too much. He says he's got more to loose than he used to. Plus, did you hear about the this new product demonstration Syntech had last month?"

She didn't really wait to see if Lora had or not; she was in a chatty mood and when she was like that it was difficult to get her to stop. "Well it went all nuts and stuff and started killing *everything* and it even attacked Anne Hardy and Dad! 'Course I don't really care for Anne very much. It rammed a rifle *right through* her 'cause I don't why, but I heard Daddy say she was a 'minor latent' and that's what it does! Dad must have been *really* mad because he came home from work that day all bloody and messed up, which really scared me, and said he couldn't block SynTech from making these monsters anymore. And so he quit. But I think something should be done about this, don't you? I think he's doing something, but I don't know what.

"Wow..." Lora blinked, trying to mentally catch up, "Yeah... That's a really good reason for quitting..."

Raven shuddered at the girl's candid description of what must have been a gruesome event. Not a whiff had appeared on the news of it—which was not surprising, as Syntech would keep something like that carefully under wraps.

"Say, Lora, do you do any freelance work? Because Spycorp is looking to do business with free agents. It's really cool 'cause you don't have to be anybody's employee or anything and you get jobs. It's just like a fixer type deal, only with Spycorp you get discounts on gear, plus warranties and stuff. Also, I had this idea about setting up some cool stuff for free agents who choose to do business with Spycorp, but I can't say because it's secret." She beamed with pride at this last comment.

"Moira," Midori said softly, putting her hand on the girl's shoulder as she leaned forward to whisper in the girl's ear. "It should really be up to your father about how much of that information is made public."

"I'm sorry, Midori," said Moira with a wilted texture to her voice. Most girls her age would have blushed at the error, but her face remained exactly the same color as normal.

"That's all right, Moira," Midori replied softly. "It's our fault, actually. You've never been to one of these functions before, so you couldn't have known."

Lora didn't hear what Midori said to Moira, but she could guess. Chuckling, she tried to relieve the tension of a potential faux paux, "Don't worry, we'll keep it quiet until your father is willing to go public with this. We're... not really in a position to take advantage of that information anyway."

Raven winced inwardly at that comment. She, Lora and Aasha might not be in a position to take advantage of the information, but the people listening in to her at all times just might find it easier to find a use for the knowledge—a use that was likely to put Stone in trouble.

Midori flashed Lora a quick look of thanks, and straightened up. "What exactly are your duties for S-T, if you are permitted to discuss them," Midori asked.

Lora glanced at Raven uncomfortably for a brief moment, then said, "Currently I'm part of a team providing security for Raven. As Shiroku-Tsuhi's most powerful esper talent, the company is highly protective of her. Aasha and I are part of a special division within the Esper Supervision department that provides physical security for her."

Aasha nodded in support of Lora's explanation. "That's exactly correct. In factó" she cut herself short, gaze shifting to someone behind Midori. She smiled politely and nodded formally, "Ah, Mr. Stone."

Jason stopped just to the left and behind Midori and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Ms. Tempki," he returned. Midori turned toward him and he looked her intently in the eye as he inclined his head slightly. He wanted her to open the mind link.

~Keep touching me,~ Midori sent quickly. ~We have to keep this quick, as both Doubet and Clarke can detect this.~

Lora and Raven noticed a faint tingle at the edge of their perception. Someone was using esper powers, but they were dampening. The sensation was far too vague to be able to locate the source of the activity.

~Midori, love, I think we have a problem. There's an allegation that my sister Helen may not be dead. When we shook hands, Ms. Tempki slipped me a piece of paper and I just went to read it. She says that she's my sister in a cyborg body. She says she's under cover and wants my help. Can you set up telepathic communication to include her? I need to find out if she's playing me or if this is for real.~

~Are you sure? If I do that, I have to stop dampening, and anyone who can detect espers will "see" me.~

Raven frowned slightly and glanced meaningfully at Lora. Whoever the unknown esper was, he was close, and doing something—something small—but he was very keen on not being discovered. Lora nodded at Raven, letting her know that she had felt it too.

~Yes. Who all in the room do we need to worry about detecting it? I think it will be okay if Raven detects it because I'm going to ask Aasha one question and then we'll need to include her as well because I don't want this conversation overheard.~

~Doubet and Clarke are the only people I detected with signatures. There might be other espers out there, or perhaps devices to detect esper activity.~

Midori and Jason were looking at each other, as if deeply in love and unwilling to look away from time to time. Jason slipped his arm around her waist and, still smiling, turned his attention back to the others.

~Jason, I'd really rather not expose myself here, not in an S-T stronghold. They may consider it to be an attack. Could we set a meeting up elsewhere.~

~Between myself and their esper weapon's security officer? I think that would be worse, dear. Please?~ A trace of anxiety appear to cross Jason's face. ~I don't want to meet with this Aasha person in private somewhere. I think she's lying and doing that would be exactly what she wants.~

Moira hid her face from her father and Midori by looking at Lora. She rolled her eyes as if saying 'good grief those two can be *so* pathetic' and grinned. "So Lora," she said. "Security must be really tight to need it at S-T's own function?" she said like it was a question. "But that's okay by me because then I get to meet you guys."

"Same here," Lora chuckled a bit. The girl's excitement was truly contagious.

The little whirlwind turned to Raven, finally letting up on Ms. Doubet. "Raven, that's a really cool necklace. I don't mean to be impolite or anything," she stole a quick glance at Midori, but barged on ahead anyway. "But how does a person find one of those? I think it's really neat 'cause not only does it look good, but it's thick enough that I bet you could hide all kinds of cool stuff in there. Not that you would, of course!" she added hurriedly. "I'm just saying that um..." She suddenly realized that she might have been insulting just then and looked for a way to remove the foot from her mouth. "I mean you look really pretty tonight. With the jewelry and all it really kind of lights up the room and..." she stumbled again. /Great,/ she thought. /Now it sounds like I'm hitting on a girl./ She wanted to slap her own forehead in self-disgust and barely restrained the impulse.

Raven chuckled with a bemused smile. "Thanks a lot," she said, trying to formulate a response to the torrent of compliments—one of them aimed at the collar, no less. She decided to respond in kind. "That's a very nice dress you're wearing, too. The color suits you very well. Who did your hair? It's very pretty." The young woman's innocent prattle had even managed to lift her spirits somewhat.

"Thank you Raven," she said graciously and with enthusiasm. "Midori did it. She's pretty good at it."

"Thank you, Moira," Midori said with a smile. "I have to agree with Moira about the plain necklace is quite unusual. Does it hold some special significance for you?" She paused for a moment. "It is just that it is so much at odds with the rest of your outfit. The cunning way the clasp is hidden is remarkable."

Lora looked rather uncomfortable all of a sudden, opening her mouth as if to say something, then stopped, as if realizing she'd be interrupting and looked at Raven with an almost imperceptible shrug, as if to say, 'Up to you'.

"Oh," Raven said with a bitter half-smile, "just something to help the company monitor and protect its precious esper asset, you see. They wouldn't want to lose me, after all."

Lora and Raven suddenly felt as if a bomb went off in their minds, rattling their psychic senses. A strong burst of psychic power, colored with anger and outrage washed over them, but it was quickly brought back under control, and its point of origin was Midori Harihatu.

Startled by the outburst, Raven gathered her own Power, pulling it into a ball and in a split-second forming it into the defensive shapes that she would need should Midori start to use the Power she'd herself gathered. As Midori's signature immediately shrunk back down to insignificance again, Raven blinked once or twice from the surprise, then slowly let the Power flow out of her, looking askance at Midori. *Looks like we found our esper...*

Lora reeled for a moment, blinking, but managed to recover before any of the other patrons around them noticed anything amiss. The burst of power had been so brief that she'd hardly had time to feel any real pain before it was all over. The CEO of HariChem was not only an esper talent, she was a telepath! That had become blatantly clear, even though Lora had never personally experienced that type of esper signature before.

Jason frowned when Raven described the purpose of the collar. ~Midori, this explains the last half of Aasha's note. She said she wanted help breaking Raven out! I don't understand what we've stumbled onto here, or what games are being played but I think we'd better find out. Can you link us? I suggest you talking to Raven first, letting her know we are sympathetic with her situation but need some verification as to what's going on. Then if you would, link me with Aasha so I can uncover her lie. We'll get to the bottom of this quickly and if it's the trap I expect then we can put an end to it real fast.~ He paused, then proceeded carefully, ~But if it isn't, if these people are being honest with us...~ He didn't need to finish. He never refused help to someone who needed it and Midori knew it. ~Then in that case we might have to carry the conversation telepathically, but split up physically so we won't draw too much attention.~

~Raven's not going to be willing to make a link with me, someone she doesn't know from Eve. Making a link with another esper is only done with someone you feel you can trust, because attacks can be fed along the link, and they're much harder to defend against. She might also consider any attempt to contact her telepathically, or for that matter, any use of an epser power, as an attack and things could get ugly. It's... a very delicate situation.

~I know you want to help her, and I do too, but we need to take this slowly.~

"If you'll excuse me," Midori said, slipping out of Jason's embrace. "I need to powder my nose."

Jason turned and watched her walk away, a look that was plainly disturbed and unhappy crossing his face. He was frustrated that she not only refused to set up a link with Aasha or Raven, but she seemed to be acting oddly as well. It he decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. So certain was he that Aasha Tempki was a liar that he was willing to blow whatever 'cover' she thought she had to conceal.

Jason reached into a suit coat pocket and withdrew two business cards and a pen and then wrote something on the back of each of them. "I know you two ladies are currently find yourselves gainfully employed, but should you ever decide to go freelance, I'd like you to consider Spycorp." He handed each of the security women a card. "If you are interested, please call me... Immediately," he smiled widely.

*Immediately?* Raven thought. Her confusion was clear on her face. *He wants to offer them a freelance job on the spot? Isn't that a bit... rude?* She shook her head slightly. *And what is he hoping for? He's _got_ to know that an esper weapon's bodyguards are going to be deeply tied to the corp to ensure loyalty. Something's up.*

Aasha was disappointed. The way her brother was looking at her made it pretty clear he didn't believe her. She idly played with the business card a moment, wondering what to do next and staring absently at the number Jason had written on the back. Realization dawned when she realized he had not given a phone number, but a code pattern for encrypted transmission! She'd completely forgotten her brother had a coded transmitter cybernetically installed. And bless S-T's efficient little heart, but they had installed one in her body as well. Hurriedly, she opened a link.

~Jason?~ she sent, excitement and hope coloring her query.

Jason had already been waiting on the indicated frequency. He wasn't interested in wasting time on pleasantries or games, however. While he excused himself and went to refresh his drink, he responded, ~What happened the night of April 27, 2020?~

~What?~ Aasha responded in surprise. ~April-- I borrowed Dad's Jag to go to a post-prom party that night but didn't tell him. An angry ex-boyfriend took his anger out on the car when I was at the party, scratching it up, breaking off the mirrors and windshield wipers. I was so scared Dad was going ground me for a year! But I called you and we took the car to the body shop.~ She chuckled at the memory. ~You had get the mechanics out of bed and get it fixed by noon on Saturday or Dad would find out. But they did it and nobody ever found out. Nobody but you and I.~

Jason froze, mouth agape in surprise just as he changed his glass for a full one. Someone bumped into him and he dropped the glass. It shattered with a crash and several heads turned to stare. "Ehóexcuse me," Jason mumbled. Servers scrambled to clean up the mess as he stood dazed for a moment.

"Hey buddy, you okay?" asked a middle-aged executive.

Jason wasn't paying much attention, though. He muttered, "I need to sit down," and the gentleman pointed out some stuffed chairs standing near a wall. As Jason made his way over to them, he sent, ~Helen? You're Helen? They told me you had to be dead. How?~

~They tell me I should have. But they were able to save my brain. The government has excellent health insurance, you know.~ There was almost a chuckle behind the thought.

~And now you're under cover?~ Jason asked.

~Sorry...~ Lora sent, ~I'm still not used to sending without even subvocalizing. Had to figure out how to work it without moving my jaw.~ She was looking over at Aasha from her position by Raven. ~I realized that the number on the card Mr. Stone gave me was an encrypted line. He obviously wants to talk in private. What do you think he wants?"

Aasha was surprised Jason had also given the frequency to Lora. Had Jason already blown her cover to Lora? But with the situation as it was, how would she ever get Raven out without the help of one of the minders anyway? She thought back on Lora's reactions to Raven's virtual imprisonment and their friendship. Lora would be far more likely to be of a mind to help than anyone else. It was a huge risk, but she was running out of time. She wasn't sure how long she could maintain the cover without the painkillers being discovered.

~Lora,~ sent Aasha. ~I slipped Mr. Stone some information when we shook hands and I don't think he believed me. He does now.~ Lora heard some clicks as Aasha said, ~Jason, Lora's online. Switch her on, will you?~

Jason opened the link to Miss Doubet and she answered, ~Mr. Stone? This must be very important for you to talk to us in private like this. I'm curious why you would take the risk?~

The voice that came across was hesitant, as if a thousand different thoughts were coming through his mind and he had to pick which ones to send. ~Lora. I'm sorry, Helen. Aasha. Shit. Helen, you better tell her. If Lora isn't going to go along, then we're going to have to find another way. Legal maybe.~

Lora noticed that it was Aasha responding to the name, 'Helen'. ~Lora,~ she sent, ~Jason Stone is my brother. My real name is Helen and I've been sent here to gather intelligence and act as damage control for the UNA government. I'm here to protect the innocent civilians that are going to get crushed when S-T erupts into full-blown civil war.~

The surprise must have shown on Lora's face, because Raven nudged her and asked, "What is it?"

Lora absently said, "Hold on Raven, I'm talking to... Aasha. Hang on a sec..."

Raven gave Lora a "what the hell is going on?" look, but she shrugged and turned to Jason—who stood about with daze—and Moira. "So Moira," she said awkwardly, not sure how to react to her two minders suddenly deciding on a private chat. "Tell me about yourself. Where are you studying?"

"Oh, mostly just at home. I have a tutor." The girl seemed oblivious anything was going on, or at least she didn't show any outward signs of knowing it. She continued to talk about her studies for a while.

~You're his sister... and... a government agent? How'd you get past the security background checks...? Wait... that's _her_ body for real, isn't it?~

~Since I was already a cyborg, they just switched my brain for Aasha's. Perfect disguise, no? ~

~I'd say so!~ Lora agreed. She wondered what had happened to the original Aasha and decided it didn't bear thinking about. She hoped they had found another shell to put her in and not just discarded her.

~Anyway, I've altered my mission parameters. The most dangerous weapon that S-T has and is likely to use is Raven. Lora, if Raven is a UNA citizen, and I believe she is, then what they have done to her is illegal. It's kidnapping, and forcing her to do things against her will by threatening slavery or indentured servitude is extortion. And with your help and Jason's, I'm going to put a stop to it. Will you help us?~

Lora mulled that over. Could she be lying? Could this be an elaborate loyalty test? But no... It couldn't be that. How could S-T involve Jason Stone, former head of Syntech and now Spycorp, in a deception like that? It was impossible. And his actions had seemed honest. Rash, but honest. Her intuition told her that Helen was telling the truth.

The UNA government - or at least one part of it - had committed an inside agent to uncovering corruption in the S-T corporate structure. But what kind of back-up were they willing to give Aa... no... Helen? Were they willing to go all the way with this? Maybe... She had to know... She had to know how much to commit. She wanted to help her friend any way possible. She couldn't do anything from the inside except ease Raven's isolation. This could be the chance she had been looking for, out of the blue. But the cost if they failed...

~Why Jason and myself? Why not just call in your agency if you think you've got the proof to stop this?~

~The reason I'm asking Jason and you to help is because by getting Raven out, I'll blow my cover. My boss doesn't want that. In fact, I was told to stay under cover at all costs. If Raven used her power and it threatened the lives or security of the UNA or its citizens, I've been charged to put Raven down. I'm licensed to kill in the name of national security.

~But, I'm not going to do that. I've got to get Raven out of here and I have to do it before things get out of control between Shiroku-Tsuhi and Daitokuji. I think that if we do that and get rid of that damned collar, Raven will help us stop or free S-T's other esper weapons. Then, we get to work proving Raven's citizenship and legal protection under the laws of the UNA instead of Japan.

~What do you say, Lora? Will you help?~ Aasha, or rather Helen, sounded nervous. And well she should be. If Lora was against her, all it would take was a second for her to alert security and bring an end to Aasha's plans.

Lora was silent for a long moment. Looking around the room, and out the windows to the arcology towers and the Neo York skyline beyond, she thought to herself, *All I've known since I've left the zone is the corporation. At one time, I felt like I owed them for saving my life - owed them an obligation of service. And maybe that was true. But I don't feel that anymore. I did my best for them and they lied to me from the beginning. I was never anything but a slave to them. They dressed it up nice, but that's what it really was. I just didn't want to fight it because I was afraid of changing my life. I thought I could deal with "the devil I knew". I couldn't get angry with them for my own sake, oh no... They had to hurt and enslave a friend for me to face up to what I knew I had to do.* She sighed inwardly. *And even now, there's a bargain I have to make before I can commit myself. What does that say about me?*

She was silent long enough that Helen began to wonder if she was on another channel calling in security on their heads. Then she broke her silence.

~Helen, if you and your agency are willing to go all the way with this, then I'm with you. I have no personal loyalty anymore to S-T or Daitokuji. I want to help Raven in any way possible. This situation can't be allowed to stand. I only want one thing from you and Mr. Stone in return for my help.~

A relieved Helen sent, ~Yes?~

~Daitokuji, and by extension Shiroko-Tsuhi, have me in a complicated contractual situation that renders me an indenture in everything but name. I want my own freedom. Legally, with no strings attached. I want to be able to walk out of here and not be beholden to S-T or DFG for any debt or obligation. Can you arrange that? At the very least, can you arrange to have the UNA buy out my indenture?~

Helen hesitated. ~I'm not sure,~ she said slowly.

Jason broke in. ~May I ask how much they have you in for, Ms. Doubet?~

~Almost fourteen million.~

~Hm. That's not pocket change. But I think I can swing that. You guys work out the when of Raven's, er, release and I think I can arrange for an anonymous transfer to an account you name the early morning that same day. I'll provide an extra 20% beyond your named amount because I'm certain they'll tack on closing fees, extra maintenance costs, anything they can to try to thwart you legally.~ Jason thought for a moment. ~Damn. That's a lot of money. Tell you what, can you and I make a verbal deal to make us even?~

~It depends, I guess. What are you offering?~

~I'd like you to seriously consider staying in the business as a free agent and think about taking some jobs my company will offer you. Oh, and whether you take any particular jobs for SpyCorp is up to you on a case by case basis,~ he added hurriedly. ~I'm not thinking of doing this for you as any kind of charity, Ms. Doubet. This is an investment I wish to make because I think a person with the training and experience you must have working for Shiroku-Tsuhi could do a lot of good as a free agent. A lot of good.~

~I'll... consider it...~ Lora's "voice" sounded thoughtful. ~We can cross that bridge later though. Right now, how do you propose to plan for this extraction? And how do we communicate? Aasha and I can tell you just how tight the security around Raven is. That collar she wears, for example, is a tracking device. It can drug her into unconsciousness if she leaves the arcology without permission. It also has microphones in it that transmits anything said to monitors. Don't talk to her out loud if you're interested in keeping secrets from S-T. It also has a taser that discharges right into her freaking spine.~

~I think my sister is the expert in that area. What do you want us to do Helen?~

Helen responded, ~I've already made contact with Raven. She knows roughly who I am and she knows that I want to get her out of here. I came up with a code to use. Raven's a smart girl; she figured it out pretty fast. So I think we can actually time things to coincide with Lora's or my shift. At first I thought we could convince Raven to do a teleport to someplace where we could use a laser scalpel to cut the thing off, but that may not be the best idea. ST would be instantly alerted and send out a retrieval team to pick her up. If they use another esper weapon with teleportation ability, then Lora and I could end up in a pretty bad situation, while Raven would be retrieved.

~No, in order to be certain of success, we need to have the security people monitoring Raven distracted. Either we need to break into their systems, distract them, or just take them out.~

~I presume this is where you want me to come in?~ asked Jason.


~Security systems and reprogramming is not my strong suit, sis. It's your's.~

~I realize that. But I think you may know some people who can get by them. Don't you?~ She said it more like a statement than a question.


~And I've read the file on you. You can get in.~

~I have a file?~

~Anyone who may be dangerous has a file, Jason. Anyone.~

~So you're saying that a predetermined time, you want me or someone I trust to break into ST and distract or scramble the security monitors. I'm going to need detailed plans, Helen. But let's pretend I might go along with this mad scheme. What will you and Lora be doing at that time?~

~We're going to knock Raven out.~

~What!?~ Lora exclaimed.

Helen explained, ~If security thinks that Raven tried something and we had to knock her out, they may be more likely to think things are under control. We'll have to set a precedence, however. I'm going to have to convince Raven to throw a convincing fit a couple times before the extraction date. That way it won't be seen as being out of character when we have to knock her out the day of the escape. Then Lora and I do what we do best. We break through ST the old fashioned way. If you, Jason, can have a van ready and stocked with first aid kits and laser scalpels, we'll make quick work of the collar and get her out. We'll keep moving until Raven is up to working her magic again, then maybe see about getting to a safe house. I'll have to contact my bosses at that point.~

Jason paused, hesitating to agree to the dangerous plan.

~Actually,~ Lora said, sipping her champagne and pretending to listen to Raven and Moira to keep up appearances, ~I can help with spoofing the security. I've worked it longer from the inside than you, Helen. I 've been trained on the S-T intra-net in some basic counter-intrusion measures, and I know some places to subvert it. I've got some mid level clearance, and I've got a fast data-jack input system. I could make things much easier for a hacker from the outside by being the inside person. I can 'open the door' for the Trojan Horse.~

Jason leaned back and slouched comfortably in the chair. No one had bothered him as he sat by himself yet, but he wondered what was taking Midori so long in the restroom. ~An inside job will vastly simplify things for me, Lora. SpyCorp is brand new, meaning I have only one agent that's signed on who might be able to help, but I think I can help here personally.~

~Hey are you really up to this, bro? Last I heard, someone was gunning for you,~ asked Helen. ~And they'd made contact a few times.~ Helen had always been over-competitive when it came to her brother, always having to follow behind because she was younger, but trying to best him whenever she could. They were grown-ups now, not little kids, but still she couldn't help baiting him a little bit.

~Yeah. Top shape,~ he assured her with a hint of a laugh echoing through the com link.

~Okay. You better not get the last known living member of the Stone family in a war with Shiroku-Tsuhi, Jason.~

~Yeah, yeah, I know what I'm doing little sis.~

~I hate when you call me that.~

Jason's only response was another merry laugh. ~Say, in case S-T manages to give chase, I want to stash extra equipment for you two. Name your favorite toys and I'll make sure there's a package waiting for you at each key location.~

~Well now,~ Lora said, with an amused tone, ~My favorite toys, eh? I don't suppose you could spring for some .50 caliber and Earthshaker ammo would you? More seriously, we need something to cut or break the collar at the first stop. I could break it myself, but I don't want to risk injury to Raven. A set of large bolt cutters might do it. Or that laser scalpel you mentioned...~

Midori refastened and smoothed down her dress, feeling better now after finishing her business and freshening up. As she turned the lock on the door, preparing to leave, she felt a familiar and unwelcome sensation begin to overcome her. No, not now...

She found herself in a white, windowless, featureless hall. Guards lay dead outside a single room door at one end. Elevator doors stood at the other end.

Two forms were running. Lights were flashing on and off as if in alarm or power outage. A third form was being carried.

A long spike appeared, obscuring the view of the running forms. There were flashes of red with impressions of someone mentally suffering extreme pain.

The scene changed to some time much later, and Midori could see the three, now out of danger, split up. One was undoubtedly Lora Doubet, the other, the figure that was carried, Raven. The third was a woman of perhaps 5 and half feet tall, short brown hair who was concealing much pain, but it was strange, shadowy, and something that has been there a long time, like an old wound. She did not tell the others, and watched the other two leave, but then she collapsed on the ground, eyes staring and glassy, yet Midori sensed that her mind was still there. Shadowy figures wearing tattered clothing climbed through crumbling buildings and crept toward the fallen woman.

Right then, Raven felt another surge in psionic energy. Along with the strangest feeling, as if her surroundings were shifting, but it wasn't her own senses she was feeling it through. She swayed ever so slightly, then got a hold of herself as the feeling passed. The signature was still there in the background. It wasn't going away or being damped this time, though the power was at a low level. Somehow she knew it was coming from Midori again. She looked over at Lora, who returned her questioning gaze with one of her own. She was feeling it as well.

Raven stepped over to Lora and Aasha and said, "One of you needs to come with me to the restroom if I need to go, right?"

Lora nodded, "Right. I'll go with you." The slight nod and the expression in her eyes told Raven that Lora had the same thought she had. "Wait a moment, please."

Over the link, Lora said to Aasha and Jason, ~There's something you should both know. Raven and I can both sense Midori is an esper. And right now, she's doing something... strange... There's not a lot of power being used. But it feels weird. Raven and I are going to the ladies room to check on her.~

Jason suddenly half stood. ~What?~ He immediately attempted to use the mind link Midori had established.

The link was still there, but it opened up to.... nothing. No, not nothing. He could sense she was there, yet she wasn't at the same time. It was as if some kind of barrier had been thrown up, cutting Midori off from the rest of the world. Jason stood up, afraid that something terrible must have happened to Midori.

With conspicuous timing, Moira cast a quick, worried glance toward her father for a moment.

At that moment, Aasha sent across the communications link, ~Jason, you can't go running into a women's restroom. You've already committed yourself to a pretty risky mission, so you may as well start trusting them now. Raven's very good, and if it's esper trouble, you couldn't ask for a more trustworthy person.~

Jason wasn't quite convinced. ~I can't... Hear her, Helen." Still, the executive hesitated. He suddenly had visions of trying to explain what was going on to a pair of S-T security guards as he got thrown out of the place under accusations of being a pervert. ~I'll wait a few minutes.~

~See that you do, brother.~

Raven's mentioning the restroom made Moira recall that Midori still had not returned from the restroom. "Hey," she said, suddenly distracted. "Raven, have you seen Midori come out yet?"

Raven shook her head. "No, I don't think I have."

"We better check on her, huh? Hate to think she fell in or something!" she chuckled nervously. To her, Midori had always been a pillar of solid calm that nothing touched or could upset. That was quite a different person than Jason perceived, but it was the only side of Midori she knew. It worried her that Midori was gone so long.

Aasha replied, "I'm going to check around and send any faces not on the guest list to security. Give them something to do." She moved off to make a circuit of the area.

Moira led the way chatting as she went. "You know, this place is really pretty nice. I guess you guys have seen a lot of it, though, but it's really new to me. Dad used to take me around to the office and stuff at SynTech a lot but 'course he doesn't work there any more.

"But it was really weird because in the executive suites, there'd be like this woman who just stood around all day waiting to for someone to go to the restroom. Then she'd hand out towels and whatever, but I didn't like it much because she always wanted to talk when I was trying to go and then I couldn't go! I guess she was bored. Oh!" Moira stopped chatting as she got to the door with the symbol for women on it. "This must be it." She stepped in and held the door for the other two ladies.

The restroom was thankfully empty apart for the one the three women had come to see.

Midori looked as if she were a picture in a photograph. Caught in the middle of opening the stall door, her hand was still curved around the handle. Her eyes were locked on the large mirror opposite her in a sightless stare, face an emotionless mask, except her lips were slightly parted as if about to say something.

Raven carefully approached Midori, feeling the low exertion of her Power strongly at this close range. She reached out and touched her cheek—it was cold to the touch. "I... I'm not sure what's happening," she said. "Some sort of brainburn, maybe, except that usually that's more of a spike than a continuous thing." She closed her eyes and used that inner sense she had for the Power, trying to figure out what was happening.

Lora looked at Midori and Raven, trying to figure out if there was anything she could do to help. Her own internal sense echoed what Raven was talking about. But there seemed to be even less she could do about it.

Then realized with a start, The collar! Oh... SHIT!!! The collar would be recording whatever they said...

"Raven," She said, carefully choosing her words, "Respect Midori's privacy as much as possible." Then she reached out and tapped Raven's collar with a fingernail so that Raven felt it.

Raven cringed thinking about how much she'd already revealed, but there was nothing to do about it now. "I'm not sure what to do," Raven said. "We could try to shake her awake or jostle her out of it." She figured that the amount of power Midori was using wasn't enough to really hurt her if it went out of control, but she couldn't say that out loud, nor could she be sure of it.

Moira stared at the three women. "Midori?" The girl tried failingly to get the esper's attention. "I don't understand what you mean, Raven. Is she sick with a fever? Maybe I should get Daddy." Moira looked worried.

Midori let out a gasp, as if she'd been holding her breath for a long time and stumbled slightly, but caught herself before her knees bent very much. She raised her hand to her head and closed her eyes with a soft moan. After a moment she straightened up and reopened her eyes, fully composed as if nothing unusual and happened.

When she saw the three women, she hid her surprise well. "Is everything okay, Moira," she said when she saw the look of concern on the young woman's face.

"You tell me. You were, like, stuck or something. Not moving. Raven thinks maybe you have some kind of fever? Are you feeling right?"

There was a pause and just as Midori was beginning to reply, Lora put an arm around both Raven and Moira and turned them to the exit, interjecting in a voice that was slightly louder than necessary...

"Why of *course* she's all right!"

Moira could have resisted Lora if she had thought to dig in her heels, but the older woman had caught her completely off-balance and by surprise, "Eerk? B..But.." Raven started to object, "But Lora..." and got run roughshod right to the door, the strength in the woman's arms an irresistible force.

"Now why don't you go out there and tell Mr. Stone that she's JUST FINE okay? Midori just needs some air and everyone is crowding her to death in here she'll be out in a minutedon'tworryshe'llwithyoutoenjoythepartyandwe'llallhavealaughaboutit all LATER!" She finished by shoving them out the door and throwing the old fashioned deadbolt and spinning around and placing her back to the door.

"Phew!" Lora sighed heavily, leaning against the door with her arms crossed under her breasts, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. Midori stood there, watching Lora with a curious look in her eyes.

Holding up a finger in a "wait-one-moment" gesture, Lora said quickly in a low voice. "Before you ask me about anything, contact Jason _privately_, if you know what I mean and I think you do. He'll vouch for me, Aasha, and Raven. We _all_ have to talk _now_. But privately. And I mean _privately_." Her pointed expression saying what she didn't want to risk verbally.

"Your trustworthiness is not an issue, Ms. Doubet," Midori replied just as softly as she opened the link she shared with Jason and sent a gentle "knock" through it, "but rather mine, from Raven's point of view. She is unlikely to want to speak with me, in _private_. I am, after all, the CEO of a corporation that is in competition with S-T in a few areas." The last sentence Midori said sounded to Lora as if they had been added simply for the benefit of anyone who might be able to overhear the conversation.

~Sweety? Are you okay? All the women went in the restroom and it sounded like there was trouble. You didn't answer when I tried to call.~ Jason's mental voice sounded as nervous and concerned as if he'd been standing next to her, whispering urgently into her ear.

~I'm sorry to have worried you, Jason. I'm fine. Something... happened.~ There was a brief pause. ~What did your sister look like before she took on Aasha's identity?~

~My sister? Oh. Brown hair. Average height, brown eyes. Why do you ask?~

~Does this look like her?~ Midori picked out one of the images from her vision that did not show the brown haired woman in distress, and sent it to him in a flash.

~Yes, that's what she used to look like. Before she was shot. Now, of course she looks like Aasha. Did you see an old picture of her or something?~

~Or something,~ Midori replied. ~Ask her if she plans to get a body with her own appearance before she tries to spring Raven. If she says yes, tell her I will help her, Dubet and Clark, and that I will open a link between all of us, if she can convince Clarke to allow me to do so.~

~Okay.~ He had questions, but decided that it was very likely Midori would explain later. Jason returned to the open link he had with Aasha and Lora and relayed her question.

Aasha/Helen responded quickly. ~No. It would be too big of a risk for me to try to get in here without being Aasha. But... Jason when I think of myself, I think of me, Helen, not this woman whose body we commandeered. I'm not sure if that's the answer you were looking for. I'll see if I can get Raven to trust lowering her guard for Midori.~

~In any case,~ Lora added, ~We need to be able to talk to Raven and let her in on things. And we can't talk to her at all with that collar in place. Not normally, at any rate. But we can if Miss Harihatu can link us telepathically. I'm willing to let her do this. So let her know, will you?~

Outside the washroom, Raven looked at Moira with a confused expression on her face. Something was definitely up, and she was dying to know—but she was NOT dying to let her watchers find out what it was. Raven sighed. Left out of the loop. It was irrational, but she felt so *isolated*, despite always having someone around and someone listening in—or perhaps, just because of it. "So..." she ventured.

"Yeah, that was pretty weird, huh? Guess they wanted privacy. But Daddy looks like he calmed down so stuff must be okay. They are so close sometimes, I wonder if they share the same heartbeat. I guess people who are in love are like that. Don't you think, Raven?"

"'Course I wouldn't know," the girl continued. It was a wonder she ever actually drew a breathe between her words. Then again... Maybe she didn't. "They just got a secret link, really. Daddy says all really smart execs should have one. Being connected is important, he says, and really, it's just a small little gadget to have installed."

Raven sighed. "I guess I should go see Aasha," Raven said. Lora had been very obvious in there and she hoped that she wouldn't get into trouble—especially for leaving her charge without a watcher.

Raven turned to look and suddenly Aasha was at her elbow. Aasha gave her a reassuring smile and a private wink. "Hors d'oeuvres?" she asked. She presented some kind of paste-splashed crackers with an olive on top on a small plate in one hand and a glass of some kind of red wine with her other. "Might as well enjoy the appetizers. The company will just toss out what isn't used, and it's such a waste?"

Raven picked up one of the crackers. She wanted to scream *What's going on?* to Aasha, but she knew she couldn't. She almost felt like the world was playing some private joke at her expense. "They look pretty tasty. They're probably ridiculously expensive, too." She tossed it into her mouth.

Moira eyed the wine. "Wow. You guys are so lucky." The teen was utterly oblivious to the irony.

"I better not drink," Raven said, "I can't hold any alcohol."

"Yeah, me neither," agreed Moira. "Dad says I'm not old enough. Plus, we had this argument like last month, where he wanted me to get this poison filter thing, but I said I didn't want it, but he said that was just foolish. Then I got mad and I said, 'Hey, this is my body! I can do what I want' and then he said fine I win. Only I didn't really. The doctors said that because my body mass is only a fraction what it should be even for a girl my age and I don't have a working liver and stuff, that it would only take a single shot of something even passingly poisonous like alcohol and I would be dead, just like that! Still. I won the argument, though. I'm getting a poison filter next month anyway, but it's because I changed my mind, not 'cause Dad told me to."

"Getting drunk's overrated anyway—you laugh a bit and do silly things but the next day you wake up feeling stupid and with an awful headache," Raven said. "Of course, somehow that never stops you from doing it the next time..."

Raven noticed a scribbled message in the napkin—"trust Hahiratu. Wink?" She looked puzzledly at Aasha as she wiping her lip with the napkin, trying to relay her confusion. She wasn't sure exactly what the message meant, but if Aasha was asking her opinion she was not inclined to trust Midori Harihatu—or pretty much anyone, what with so much happening around her that she knew nothing about. She handed Aasha the napkin back.

Lora and Midori walked out of the hallway where the restrooms were, quietly chatting. Lora made eye contact with Raven and smiled.

Aasha looked up at the tall esper and added a smile of her own to Lora's. "Getting drunk also makes you vulnerable." She turned to Moira and spoke directly to the girl. "You really have to be able to trust the people you are with. If you don't you can be humiliated or even hurt if the wrong types of people are around and they are of a mind to take advantage of the situation. Personally, I think that loss of self-control that comes with abusing alcohol like that is dangerous. As a bodyguard, of course, I would never allow something like that. Too unprofessional."

Moira nodded and looked thoughtful. It was easy to something was happening behind those bright, shiny eyes, but what would remain a mystery.

Midori walked over to one of the refreshment tables and got herself a drink, then started to wander in the direction of Jason, stopping to chat with other guests she knew as she encountered them.

"Trust is an important thing to have between people who desire a personal *or* business arrangement, don't you think Ms. Stone?" Aasha, failing to get through to Raven as she had hoped, decided to try a different direction.

"Um. Yeah, that makes sense," said the girl, furrowing her brows.

"At what point do you begin to trust, Ms. Stone? Do you think it is enough if a close associate recommends the person in question? Or must their own actions be the determining factor?"

"Well. Uh. I guess if, like, my Dad or Midori or somebody said someone was trustworthy, I wouldn't have even thought twice about it. But I'm not really old enough to sign legally binding stuff and make agreements and things yet." Moira's eyes widened slightly as she realized suddenly where Aasha was going. Then something sly passed behind her eyes.

"Oh," Moira continued. "I get it. You are making a point, right? You're saying that a person needs to be careful who they talk to, unless they are given a good reason to trust them." She looked embarrassed, but the expression seemed only skin deep. "And since my Dad hasn't told me to trust anybody here, yet, I need to watch what I say. If he *had* said I should feel free to talk any way I want in front of you guys, then it would be okay. I get it."

She fidgeted and wrung her hands and looked around. "I'm sorry. But thanks, Ms. Gó Ms. Tempki. And I'm still glad I got to meet all of you." The girl gave a hesitant smile and turned to walk away.

Aasha wondered if it had been worth it. She wondered if Raven had gotten the message?

Raven narrowed her eyes at Aasha, understanding that the last bit of conversation had occurred for her benefit—curse that pickup in the collar, it made communication so damned complicated. So Aasha wanted Raven to trust Midori Harihatu—no doubt a result of that radio conversation they'd be having. Well, sure... But why would it be important? She'd barely spoken with the woman, and Lora had all but tossed her out of the washroom earlier. Something was up. Raven looked Aasha in the eyes and winked once, but her face made it clear she was none too sure about what was going on.

Jason stood up as he saw his lovely fiancé approach. Smiling, he extended his arm for her to take.

Midori smiled and curved her long, elegant fingers around the suit-clad muscles of his arm.

"We really ought to make some kind of official announcement about our engagement," she said softly. "Every single executive here has seen the ring and is trying to figure out what is going on. It's also going to affect the stock prices of HariChem, likely adversely, if we let them speculate too long."

Jason's quiet smile turned into an even bigger grin. "You knew that announcing it would really make my evening, didn't you?" He gave her a quick, affectionate squeeze. "I'll let the maitre' d know we'd like to have it announced formally tonight."

"I didn't mean here and now," Midori protested quietly. "It's not correct to do it here."

Jason stopped short. "Oh? You don't think so?" He looked around, trying not to seem disappointed. "They'll probably decide we're trying to elope, if we wait too long," muttered quietly. Then he moved into compromise mode. "Okay, if not here, tonight, then by the end of the week I'd like to have it announced."

"That sounds fine," Midori replied. "It's just that you don't make this kind of personal announcement at a business function, especially one like this, where we are guests. It's... rude." Midori finished, hoping Jason would understand what she was trying to explain. She knew that he wasn't used to the subtleties and maneuvering behind corporate announcements and politics.

Jason chuckled just a touch evilly. "Oh, I can think of one or two very good reasons why we should anyway, but you're right. Both of those reasons would be... Rude to our host." He suddenly found it difficult to care about being rude to S-T given the kind of horrid little games they play with their employees, but he saw also that he didn't care to be thought of as a manipulative barbarian in front of the other suits at the occasion.

He paused to look at a painting hung on a wall, and switched on his internal comms. ~Helen?~

~You really should call me Aasha here, to avoid mistakes later.~

He mentally tried to switch mental gears, but it was hard to let go of his sister's identity now that he'd just found her again. He double-checked to make sure that Lora Doubet could hear as well before he continued. ~Fine. Aasha. Has Raven received the message?~

~As well as she's is going to, I think. She knows that I want her to trust Midori, but she can't know what Midori is going to try. I think we're just going to have to risk it or don't do it at all.~

Jason didn't reply immediately. Instead, he sent a silent message to Midori, informing her that Raven was as ready as she was ever going to be.

Midori sent Jason an acknowledging touch, and slowly began to lift the dampening shields she habitually kept in place, so as not to alarm Raven. Once she was at full power, she sent a gentle probe to Raven, mentally "knocking" at the edge of the other esper's mind.

Raven glanced curiously at Midori when she let up her dampening—and nearly jumped up in surprise when she felt Midori's gentle mental knock. *Ick. So that's why she wanted me to trust Midori.* Raven took a deep breath then, deciding to trust Aasha and Lora (who would have warned her of anything untoward), she cracked open her mental door for Midori—and then had the fleeting thought that the telepath might be able to *force* her minders to tell Raven to trust her. *Too late now...* she thought nervously, hoping she wouldn't need to find out if her Power provided her with any mental defenses.

~I appreciate the trust, Ms. Clark,~ Midori sent after establishing the link. ~I have never willingly opened my shields to an esper I had did not implicitly trust before either. There is a matter of great importance, however, which needs to be discussed that must not be done so it can be overheard by those monitoring your collar.~

Raven could "hear" the mental hesitation and almost hidden sensation of disgust and anger in the last word Midori said. ~I was asked to act as a focal point for a mental conversation between yourself, your two guardians, and Jason Stone, with the topic being how to get rid of that device you wear and get you to safety, away from the... situation you are in with S-T. Are you willing to participate in this conversation?~

*Well, duh*, Raven thought, then she blanked her mind, not sure if that would have gone over the link. ~I'll be glad to, especially if it gives me a chance to find out what people have been discussing over my head~, she sent, with a rueful tint to her thoughts. She fidgeted nervously—this whole thing was more than a little spooky.

~I completely understand,~ Midori sent back. ~The whole situation is rather disconcerting. Now, I'm going to set up the links with the others. It should only take a moment.~

Midori opened the link with Jason. ~I've established contact with Ms. Clark. Let the others know what to expect when I contact them, then I'll go ahead and finish setting everything up.~

Jason did so, and the others braced themselves. He noticed idly that Moira was talking to a waiter, apparently convincing him to give her just a tiny slice of some kind of dessert. A boy of about her age had noticed Moira and was trying to make his way over to her, but she hadn't noticed his approach yet. He smiled to himself, and mentally wished his daughter good luck.

Lora was surprised at the gentleness of Midori's mental "touch" and the lack of feedback with her own crippled talent. She'd been expecting some sort of discomfort, given her sensitivity to other esper powers. ~Maybe I only get feedback from the physical esper abilities?~

~I am glad that you are not experiencing any discomfort,~ Midori replied through the link, her mental "voice" warm and gentle. ~First contact is always a bit tricky, and I wanted to make sure you weren't too unsettled by it.~

~Is everyone, uh, listening?~ Jason put in. ~Raven? Can you hear us?~

~Yes~, came Raven's mental voice, and though she expressed herself softly, it nevertheless carried the thunderous rumbling of a barely contained storm. ~This is a little bit odd.~

~It is, for sure,~ stated Aasha. ~Raven, I'm glad we could include you. And Midori, this is really impressive work. We should talk some time. Especially, if that ring on your finger means what I think it does. Anyway, Raven, we needed a more open way of communicating. And I'm glad you were able to trust us this far. I'm going to have to ask you to trust even farther, though. These people, Jason Stone and Midori Harihatu as well as myself and Lora want to help you get out of this nightmare situation. We want to break you free of this company, and Jason has even offered to help Lora out of her contract. I won't lie; there are a lot of good reasons why we all want to help. But right now, the most important reason is because what they are doing to you is wrong.~

~At this point~, Raven sent, ~I wasn't going to look too closely at the motivations of anyone who was going to help me.~

~I guess it's natural to have your doubts, Raven. I certainly have mine. But this is the best opportunity we have, you and me. I'm glad we can finally "talk" to each other openly without having to worry about being listened in on.~

Jason sent his thoughts again. ~I think that Helen has a plan.~

~Helen?~ Raven's looming-thunder mental voice was tinged with curiosity.

~That's me,~ came a reply from the person that sounded like Aasha. ~Aasha is the person whose role I took, but in fact my name is Helen Green. Helen Stone is my birth name, of course. Jason is my brother. And yes, I've got a plan. First I have got to get a handle on some of the security measures they've taken as far as surveillance. To this end, I've been friendly with a certain executive and I think I'll be able to use the situation to get the access I need. Once I'm in position to cause some confusion among the security people, we can make our move. Raven, I'll probably have to hit you with the knockout drug in your collar. The reason is that if, during the escape, they try to use the collar to deliver pain to stop you, you won't feel it. They can shock you all they want and it won't matter. Lora and I will get you through security to the first check point. Jason's going to set that up and have tools ready for us, and maybe some adrenaline shots. We'll remove that collar there and bring you around. Then you may be able to move us all to a secondary location, but if you can't we'll get to a vehicle and transport ourselves. I expect S-T to send all the espers they can to try to track you down and collect you, so by the time we make the second check point, I'm hoping the adrenaline have you back in action and at full power, but we'll have to see.

~There's a lot more to this, especially cracking security and fighting our way out of S-T, but what I just told you is the general gist of what I'm thinking. Once we are free, it will be up to you what you want to do. If you come with me, I'll take you in to the Agency. They'll provide political asylum if you ask for it, since you are legally a citizen of Japan, at least until we can establish that you are a naturalized American. As an added bonus, they might offer you a job, too. One where you will *not* have to wear collars like an animal, and where you will a hero to your nation.~

~But I have a stiff time limit. Maybe a month and that's all I've got, I think.~

~What does that mean?~ asked Jason, but Helen did not answer him.

~Helen,~ Midori said, her mental voice a whisper. ~None of the others can hear what I am saying to you now. I'm afraid this is a rather... personal question. Are you suffering from some kind of disabling disease that affects your nervous system, even though you are in a cybershell? One that causes you extreme pain?~

There was a pause. ~Who is hearing me right now?~

~Just me,~ Midori replied. ~I have you in a separate... channel, for lack of a better way to describe it.~

~Yes, Midori, I am suffering a mild form of cyber rejection. It is incurable in my current state and manifests as crippling pain from every human system that I have lost. Which is all of them. The only way to maintain myself is through regular medication, but as with all pain meds, it has a high addiction factor and I build up a tolerance. This means that sooner or later it will begin affecting my judgment or I will simply be unable to function anymore. My boss will have to extract me. They say they can then send me through a procedure to 'dry out' and start me on a new medication. It isn't a very good solution and one I don't have a lot of faith in. But while I am here, I've got to do everything I can to make things better for people. And I don't need Jason to flip out over this. It won't help.~

Aasha paused, taking a mental breath. ~So. I've only got a couple months at most to accomplish this mission, maybe less. It's very difficult for me to judge how I'm doing, but that's why I have a handler I must regularly report to. It will be her decision if and when I've got to be extracted.~

Midori was silent for a moment. ~Thank you for being honest with me about it, and Jason will not hear about your condition from me. I only asked because, well, you'll need to be careful during the extraction, whenever it happens.~ There was another pause, and Helen could sense Midori was weighing something in her mind.

~You're probably wondering how I know about the pain you're under. I'm not an empath, though I could be,~ Midori said, not explaining what she meant. ~One of my gifts is precognition. Now, don't get your hopes up. I have absolutely no control over it. It has a mind of its own, so to speak, turning off and on as it chooses. It's how I came to be with your brother, and how I learned about the pain you're in.

~I "saw" a scene in the future, one that could be part of the extraction, and you collapsed from the pain. Your current batch of pain killers either isn't as effective as they expected, or something happened and you were unable to take your next dose at the appropriate time.~

Aasha felt cold. Something about the plain, factual way Midori presented the tidbit made her tend to take it at face value. Yet, what could she do? Should she take a double dose just before the extraction attempt? Or would that in itself overload her brain and cause her to pass out from overdose? Would the excitement cause her to burn through her regular dose too fast? Trying to stop and take an extra dose in the middle of the extraction was not likely to work out too well. All these questions burned through her mind rapidly as she tried to come up with a reply. ~I see,~ she ended up saying. ~I'll be careful. Try not to worry about it, though. I'm a professional, trained to adapt to rapidly changing situations. I'm sure I'll find a way to make certain this mission succeeds.~ She wished she was a certain as she made herself sound.

~Success means you getting out in one piece too,~ Midori added softly. ~I'm going back to an open link now,~ she said.

~You seem to have a basic plan in place, with jobs for almost everyone,~ Midori said to everyone. ~How long will it take to get the specifics in place and set it all in motion?~

~What happened there, Ms. Harihatu?~ Raven sent. She was slowly eating a handful of hors d'oeuvres, smiling and nodding to anyone who passed by, but thankfully everyone seemed to busy with their own personal deals and no one chose to engage her in conversation. ~I think I dropped off the link or something, for a bit.~

~I apologize,~ Midori replied. ~I needed to speak privately with Aasha. It is possible for everyone to speak to each other now, without my intervention. Think of me as a kind of central switchboard. I am also experienced in carrying on several distinct and separate conversations at once through the mental links.~

It was mightily convenient in the current situation, but Raven, although she felt like she was being ungrateful, couldn't help but feel a bit unnerved by the thought of using Midori, whom she barely knew, as a "switchboard". Best to keep private thoughts, well, private—but it would do quite well for the task at hand, however. ~What are you guys doing about Johnny?~ Raven queried.

~Who's Johnny?~ asked Helen.

~Johnny the Wrench~, Raven elaborated. ~Johnathan Carstairs. He's my friend from the Zone—they transferred him somewhere, I don't know where, so they could use him against me if I was starting to get rowdy.~

~Shit, they've stooped to blackmail, too?~ Helen said with passion. ~That's going to make things a bit more complicated. It's going to need a second team. I'd prefer to get him out before we staged your escape.~

~I don't have many people I can devote to this from Spycorp,~ said Jason. ~But one of them has described herself as a hacker, information specialist. If you can get her some kind of inside access, she might be able to track down Johnny's location. Then we can plan to get him out.~

Helen thought about it a bit and then asked. ~This okay with you, Raven?~

~That works. They probably have him rigged so they can get to him quickly if I bolt or something so your second team'll need to be careful. Careful, too, he's not very bright, so don't try subtle hints with him.~

Jason replied, ~Got it.~

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