"Daddy, can I stay with you today?"
Jason looked up from his laptop at Moira. She had been poking half-heartedly at her cereal. Getting her to eat anything was always a chore. "If you eat your breakfast."
Moira sighed. "I'm not hungry."
"You need to keep your energy up. You might not feel hungry, but you know it's bad for you not to eat." He must have explained it a hundred times, and expected to have to tell her a hundred times more. Having a full cyborg body meant her biological parts were reduced to only a brain. Yet, at this young age, it was crucial to keep her mind well-nourished and sharp. Her amnesia meant that she had a lot to relearn and only a healthy mind would give her a chance to become a normal adult.
Moira poked at the cereal a bit more and then took a bite to eat. Jason winked at her and continued catching up on his email and corporate news. Jason sighed to himself, thinking that it had only been twenty minutes since Zenshou had left and it was already too quiet and empty in this house with just he and Moira to occupy the place. Zenshou had needed eat and run, so he had his driver take her to the entrance of the Zone.
"Moira, what do you think of Midori?" Jason asked.
She pushed back her half-eaten bowl of cereal and put her chin on a hand theatrically, as if she needed to think about it. "Hm. I don't know. Is she going to come over a lot?"
"Would that be a problem if I asked her to?"
"Hm," she said again. "She doesn't belong here." She tried to read the look on Jason's face. "If you just want hugs sometimes, I can give you a hug, Dad."
Jason broke into a smile. "Well, I can use all the hugs I can get." He tousled her hair.
"Dad!" she complained, and attempted to reorder her hair.
"You're my daughter and I'm very glad of that. I wouldn't want it any other way. But sometimes an adult needs another adult, too."
Moira digested that bit of information uncomfortably. Desperately she said, "But you could get me a grown-up body! Then you wouldn't need anybody else."
Jason shook his head, "No, you'll always still be my daughter. You don't grow up on the outside, but you still have to grow up on the inside."
Moira let out a frustrated little growl.
"Listen, Moira. Midori can never take the place of my daughter. She can't do that. I'm always still going to need you, too."
Moira looked up at Jason. "Promise?"
"Yes, I promise."
She nodded seriously. "Okay. She can come over then. But I still don't see why you need her here."
Jason wondered how they had gone from asking Moira's opinion to asking Moira's permission. In any case, it seemed that Moira approved for now and he thought it best not to push it, even if he still didn't know what Moira thought of Midori.
A man in a perfectly pressed business suit entered through the kitchen door.
"Good morning, Hobbs."
"Good morning, sir," the newcomer replied. "Have you seen the morning news, yet?"
"No. I take it there's something going on I should know about."
"I would think so, sir."
Moira hopped off her chair. "I'll go turn on the TV!"
Jason attempted to stop her, but the girl laughed and zipped around his outstretched arm and skipped into the other room. Jason shook his head, but smiled in good humor. When Jason and Hobbs arrived in the other room, Moira was already sitting on the floor watching the morning videozine channel, VZN17.
A news jockey was energetically informing the audience the latest breaking news while a scrolling marquee on the bottom of the vid screen indicated, "Tonight on the 5 o'clock expos hour: A missing heiress spotted in a classy Toronto restaurant!"
Jason frowned and looked at Hobbs. "Have they been giving any details yet?"
"No sir. It would appear they are attempting to stir up viewer interest first, in order to reach a larger audience. Shall I assume the worst?"
Jason sighed. "I'm afraid so, Hobbs. I have a board meeting this morning and this little piece of news means I have a lot of work to get done in short order."
"Can we ride in the limo?" asked Moira. She loved the big car with all its little conveniences, especially the tri-vid.
Jason nodded. "Would you mind calling the limo company and ordering a bullet-proof one for the day, Hobbs? I'd like to be picked up in twenty minutes, if they can manage it."
"How come we're not taking ours?" Moira asked of Jason.
Jason gave his daughter a wry look. "Let's just say I have feeling it's going to be one of those days, Moira."
Moira sat in the varnished, wooden arm chair playing a card game on Jason's laptop. Meetings were the dullest things Jason did, and board meetings were even drier than the usual, so she usually spent them quietly doing her own thing in a corner of the room. This one, however, didn't remain typical for long. Moira lifted her head to listen when she heard Jason raise his voice.
"Long term profitability of this corporation is a priority for this corporation, and it depends on good client relations, Jeff!" Jason was standing in front of his chair at the head of a polished oak table.
"With all due respect, Mr. Stone, I disagree. It depends on producing a strong public image, and a good line of products. Our highest-paying customers don't give a damn about bed-side manner." Jeff Wringold stressed using the term 'customers' over Jason's preferred 'patients' and 'clients'. "They want the newest, hottest gadgetry on the market to give them an edge on Joe Street Sam, assassins, or just to show off heir wealth."
An elderly woman with gray hair who still had good skin and a handsome face spoke up. "I'm afraid I'll have to back Jason up on this one, Jeff. The rich kids who want the newest and best installed will buy it from anyone who will sell to them. Sustained profitability is won from client loyalty. That is something that must be earned."
At the opposite end of the table from Jason sat a speaker phone through which a Mr. John Hamilton conducted all his business. This mysterious board member never appeared in person as far as Moira had ever seen, yet the other board members often took careful heed of the man's words. Hamilton's disembodied voice floated across the table from the machine. "This is an old argument gentlemen and ladies of the board. And one which we voted on five years ago, if I recall correctly."
Some murmuring of assent, and some sounds of frustration were heard from the other six members of the board.
The box continued, "I suggest that the more important issue at hand is whether the continuing 'Maverick' style of leadership that Mr. Stone has continued to demonstrate is doing damage to the company."
An obese man in his late fifties fingered his unused cigar and cleared his throat. This was often his habit to draw attention to the fact he had something he wanted to say.
Jason eyed the man and sat back down on his chair. "Mr. Swenson?" Jason prompted.
"Yes," he said slowly. He considered Jason carefully through small eyes. "So far you've proven that SynTech can make money and still give preferential treatment to patients and clients. And I recognize the fact that so long as you want to be in control of this corporation, there is little we can do about it. But what if something were to happen to you?"
Moira sensed Jason tense and saw a cold look enter his eyes. She began to worry.
"Now calm down, boy, I'm not threatening you. But look at yourself. In the past six months you've been nearly murdered no less than four times. Word on the grape vine is that you nearly got yourself killed again on another trip to the Zero Zone a few days ago." Hal Swenson shook his head, a gesture that made his weighty jowls sway.
"At this rate, we had better start looking for candidates to replace you. If you want your vision for this company to endure, you had better start taking care of yourself, or start shopping for a successor."
The elderly woman added, "When you adopted your charming daughter, I had hoped you'd settle down a little, Jason."
Jason sighed and sat back. Moira wondered if Jason had been expecting this. "I appreciate your concerns Hal and Beverly." He nodded at the big man and the elderly woman in turn. "Things have changed, however." Jason caught Moira's eye as he looked over.
"I can tell you that threat to my life has passed. I believe it was a plot to use my long-missing sister to control the Stone fortune. That could only be achieved by killing off the rest of the family. The resolution of this conflict took place in the Zero Zone. I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for the fact that the perpetrator, a powerful esper, has been neutralized. And as you know, my sister Athena has been laid to rest."
The fifth member of the board, a young woman not yet thirty with a pretty face and straight, shoulder-length hair, wearing a power suit with a skirt, looked up quickly from her electronic note pad. "My condolences Mr. Stone."
"Thank you, Anne," he replied. Moira remembered Jason remarking once that Anne Hardy was the least active member of the board. She had made her money in some kind of recording label business called Electrum, and still spent most of her energy working on that.
"I'm not going to try to say I know what the future is going to bring, or what will even happen in the near future. The best I can do is say that you have my word that I no longer have any kind of personal vendetta against anyone. I'm not fighting a private war."
Jason continued with SynTech business. "Reports on Project Forge seem favorable right now. If I can direct your attention to the wall screen..." Jason proceeded to provide a long, boring update on the Mitsumi-SynTech project.
Moira could care less about such things. Instead she watched the other board members. Jeff looked fidgety. Of course, he always fidgets, like he had to go to the restroom all the time. Ms. Beverly Campbell was boring, too. She always looked interested in business. Hal Swenson was funny to watch, sometimes. He kept making these weird little noises and shifted in his chair. Maybe he had a tummy ache. Of course, the little box that represented Hamilton wasn't even worth a look. Sing Chan wasn't even here today.
That left Anne Hardy. She always had her nose stuck in her electronic note pad, reading about something. Except when Jason's back was turned, that is. Then Anne was always staring at his butt or back, or whatever. Moira didn't much like her. While Jason had his back to the group, Anne was again staring.
Nobody noticed the angry pout Moira had on her face as she sat in her chair in the corner of the room. If anyone had, they would have chuckled at her and made her even more furious. Another unfortunate side effect of her cyborg body was that she really did look even cuter when she was angry.
Moira brought up Jason's email program and created a new message. She didn't have to know Anne's email address; just typing in Anne Hardy in the recipient line was all the program needed to link it to the correct address. She typed her message quickly.
//TO: Anne Hardy
//FROM: Jason Stone
//Subject: Go Away.
Daddy already has a girlfriend, and she has much better breasts than you and she owns a company, too. So you better stop looking at my Dad's butt.
Moira clicked SEND.
Anne was just taking a sip of coffee, and looking over at Jason as he gave his update when her electronic note pad flashed a New Mail light at her. She touched the screen and the message appeared.
Anne instantly choked on her coffee and turned beet red.
Jason stopped mid-sentence and turned around. "Are you okay?"
Anne nodded and dabbed coffee off her note pad and front of her blouse. While Jason returned to his presentation, Anne looked back at Moira, who gave her the most cutting stare she could muster.
Jason was saying something about Dr. Ogura, whom Moira knew was Jason's friend and doctor. "According to the projections the doctor provided, Project Forge is on track to having a field demonstration by the end of the week. I will be dropping by the Forge facilities to take a tour and if Jacobson and Ogura can convince me they are ready, I'll invite Mitsumi to the demonstration."
"I'd like to take that tour with you, if you don't mind," rumbled Hal.
"Um," Anne glanced worriedly at Moira as Jason turned his attention to her. "I would like to see, too. I find the concept of finding the perfect merger of man and machine to be absolutely stimulating." That hadn't come out right at all.
Jason blinked and looked at her with a quizzical expression. Anne blushed again and leaned over her electronic notepad again, hiding her face. Jason hadn't missed the looked Anne had given Moira and couldn't help feeling curious about what the problem was.
The Hamilton-box spoke up again. "I would like to see a report on the progress of Project Forge. Would you mind emailing me a copy, Mr. Stone?"
"Certainly. I'll make out a report and send it to all the board members by noon tomorrow. Is there any further business?" The board was silent. "Then I'll see you next week. Enjoy your weekend, ladies and gentlemen."
There were formal wishes of good will and the meeting room quickly cleared out until only Moira and Jason were left. Jason stood organizing a few papers a moment, while Moira pulled shut the laptop and walked over to her father.
"Here you are, Dad." She handed him the small computer.
"Thank you Moira."
"Are we going to go to that Forge place now?"
"Yes. Let me make a couple of calls from my office first."
Jason dropped the papers and the computer into a brief case and the two were soon on their way to Jason's office. "Moira, did you say something to Anne Hardy today?"
"Nope," Moira replied with certainty. She had emailed Anne and that was different.
"Why was she looking at you, then?"
"Why was she looking at you?" Moira retorted.
They had arrived at the door to Jason's office and he held it open for his daughter. Closing the door behind him, Jason asked, "What do you mean, she was looking at me?"
"She was looking at you," Moira repeated. "She was looking at your butt and stuff. Kind of like how Chocolate Monster looks at brownies on Sunflower Street." The Chocolate Monster was a blue-furred muppet with oversized plastic eyes on a children's show that Moira had seen a few times. "I think she wants to be your girlfriend."
Jason couldn't help but laugh. Moira stood there frowning and wondering what was so funny. "Well, Anne can't be my girlfriend. She's married."
"That means she promised a boyfriend to always be with him," Jason tried to explain.
"I don't think she's going to keep that promise," Moira judged. She was probably right.
"Well, don't worry about it, Moira. I'm not interested in spending time with someone who breaks that kind of promise. Give me a moment Moira, I need to make some calls."
Moira sighed and wandered around the office, looking at a few of Jason's sculptures He liked little stone carvings of birds in flight, and their intricate workmanship fascinated Moira, too. A few moments later, Jason put down the phone. Arrangements for the tour had been made.
Jason and Moira sat in the back of the armored limo. Anne Hardy and Hal Swenson were going to meet them at the Project Forge facilities, along with Mr. Jacobson and Dr. Ogura. Moira seemed especially fidgety this morning.
Finally, Moira decided to get something off her mind.
"Daddy, do you like Midori?"
"Sure I do."
"Are you going to be married to her?"
Jason figured Moira would be asking these kinds of questions sooner or later. "Not at the moment, Moira. I only just met her this week."
Moira took that in. Then she laid it on him. "I told her you said you liked her better than anyone you knew before."
Jason's jaw dropped. "You WHAT!? I never said that!"
"Well, it's true anyway, isn't it?"
Jason didn't know what to say at first. "That's not the point, Moira!"
Moira began to sniffle. It was a reflex, really, since she could have no tears. Her voice was broken and shaky before Jason's anger. "But, but you're you when she's there," she said in a small voice.
Jason looked at Moira, dumb-founded.
"Well, you were acting all weird and scary and then you sent me away and I didn't think I'd see you again and then I came home and she was there but I just wanted it to be you and me." It came out in a rush, cramped between sniffles. "But then I realized that you were acting like you again and she wasn't just staying there because she wanted something from you. I wanted to say something that would make her come back.
"Don't be mad," Moira said, sobbing.
Jason sighed, and gave her a hug. "Okay, Moira, I won't be mad anymore. I see why you did it, but you're just going to have to trust me to handle this one. Okay?"
Moira nodded and hugged him back. The rest of the ride was silent.
Jason and Moira left the limo, walked to the front entrance of the the research facility, and made their way through the security check. Jason, having never been in this new building before, referred to the directory before finding what he was looking for.
Jason, daughter still in tow, lead the way to the first level meeting room. Once inside he helped Moira remove her jacket and hang it up, then he turned his attention to the four people already seated at the meeting table.
"Anne, Hal," he nodded as he acknowledged the board members. "Good morning Dr. Ogura and Mr. Jacobson." He greeted the two with a handshake. "Thank you for putting up with such short notice. I've been very curious to see how things were coming. Your reports lately have been quite encouraging and I'm glad you have chosen to take time out of your busy schedules to show me around." Jason smiled politely. In fact, they really had little other choice if the boss wanted something, but he always made an effort to make his employees feel appreciated.
Jacobson shook Jason's hand after Dr. Ogura. "Our pleasure, Mr. Stone. We had thought we could begin with a tour of the testing facilities."
"That sounds fine."
Dr. Ogura asked cautiously, "Will Miss Stone be accompanying us?"
Jason caught the tone of her voice. "No. If this meeting room is available, she will remain here."
"It will be free for the rest of the day," the doctor reported.
Moira frowned, disliking the idea of having to sit around a boring meeting room. "Can I play on your laptop?" she asked.
"Sure." Jason put the briefcase on the table was about to work the combination locks.
"I can do it!" said Moira. In a flash, she had the locks open and and the laptop out. When did she learn the combination? Jason wondered. But he smiled approvingly as he watched her retrieve the computer. Perceptive girl. Yet, he decided he'd have to get better locks, perhaps ones with a fingerprint key.
Jason and the rest soon filed out of the room, leaving Moira to her own means for the time being. She looked around and noticed a data jack cluster in the center of the table, normally meant to be used to access data from remote storage or to allow business people to quickly exchange files. She pulled out one of the retracting cables connected to a jack and looked at the connector on the end.
"I wonder what this does?" she said to herself.
She climbed on top of the meeting table and sat cross-legged upon it with the computer in her lap. Then she plugged the cable into the laptop. A moment later, the computer had started up and waited at window which read, "PROJECT FORGE. Login ID & Password?" Moira typed in 'jstone' and hit the tab key. She thought for a moment, then smiled to herself as she remembered what her father's password was and typed it in.
Doctor Ogura lead the group through Project Forge. Much of what she had to show was highly technical and of more interest to engineers than corporate officials. However, Jason did hear and see what he wanted. The Project was on track and although Mitsumi had not sent any designer or trademark genetic information for testing, that was expected. They did deliver their part of the deal, which at this stage consisted mostly of specialized equipment for the forced growth of replicants or clones.
However, Mitsumi had been seeming reluctant to share expert personnel with the Project. This was an important step, since talented DNA engineers were not easy to come by. For now, the Project was able to proceed using DNA from the most successful of the volunteer cases. Perfection and refinement would not be possible until Mitsumi sent in the experts.
However, volunteers brought in from the Neo York Zero Zone had proven to be ideal test subjects. Many of them already had cyberware, reducing the likelihood of cyber rejection in any of the tests. Some of them were very well adapted to the use of cyberware, and that was exactly what Forge was looking for.
Dr. Ogura informed Jason and the other board members that a demonstration with a prototype code-named SP1, could be arranged for the end of the following week.
They were at the end of the tour and on their way back when Anne Hardy spoke up. "Dr. Ogura, will these replicants be self-aware?"
"Making sure the cyborg replicants are in good health and condition is my responsibility. That's more Mr. Jacobson's area."
Jacobson responded, "I'm glad you asked Ms. Hardy. That's an issue that concerned us all from the start. The problem with replicants is that, too often, they begin to think they are human and should have human rights."
Jason glanced at him sharply, but Jacobson continued calmly.
"The solution, of course, is to deny them independent thought. Cyborg replicants like these are being built for highly specialized purposes, with the ultimate goal of finding the perfect biological to cybernetic match. They are being designed to be controlled by expert computer systems, not true intelligence. They will be able to adapt and learn, but their ability to act independently will be severely limited. We do not expect them to have any sense of 'self' as you or I know it, and therefore can't be considered truly intelligent."
Anne looked disgusted. "You're trying to play God."
Jacobson looked at her with a glint in his eye. "No, Ms. Hardy. Mitsumi and corporations like her are playing god. At SynTech, we merely improve upon the design. As our slogan indicates, we are simply 'Making a Better You'."
Hal Swenson made throat-clearing noises. "Who cares? Mitsumi and the rest are making flesh dolls. What I see here is a real, honest-to-goodness tool for humankind. If Mr. Stone's projections are correct, there is going to be a large market for these... Whatever-you-call-its."
"Perhaps you'd agree to wait until the demonstration to make your opinion, Ms. Hardy?"
She looked doubtful, but nodded stiffly with a single motion.
Jason looked thoughtful. I had initiated this project to forge an alliance with another powerful mega-corporation in order to ensure defense and profitability. I had wanted to build a better product, but does it mean we must build a quasi-human 'thing'? What would Midori think? He stopped himself. I must be tired. What I choose to do isn't Midori's business, he told himself. Yet, however he thought about it, he couldn't escape the fact that her opinion did matter to him.
"Thank you for your time Doctor Ogura, Mr. Jacobson. I'm afraid I'm going to have to take my leave now, but I do look forward to the demonstration next week. If you can send me details as to what the demonstration will cover, I would appreciate it."
Once more in the limousine, Moira and Jason were driven away from the Project Forge facility. Moira still seemed quite absorbed with whatever she was doing on his laptop, and that made Jason curious.
"What do you have there, kiddo?"
"Oh, just a game," she replied
"Which is that?"
"It's a mystery. I found it on the net."
Jason decided to contact Hobbs via his cybernetic coded transceiver. Hobbs answered his call after a moment.
"Hobbs, I was wondering if you might take Moira to the zoo? She hasn't been to one yet, and--"
"No, sir," Hobbs repeated. "Not until you tell us both what is going on. I know you well enough to know that you'd take her yourself unless there was a problem. You broke that child's heart when you went after those ruffians and left us behind. She really has a keen mind and she knew you were getting into serious trouble. Maybe I'm getting old, Jason, but my heart just can't stand to see Moira upset like that again."
"My intent wasn't to hurt anybody, Arthur. I was trying to protect you both."
"I know." Silence filled quiet moments as Hobbs refused to back down this time.
Finally, Jason gave in. "All right. Meet me in front of the office building and I'll tell you what's happening."
It wasn't long before their limo pulled up in front of the office building that was SynTech corporate headquarters. Arthur Hobbs was waiting for them on the corner as the armored limo rolled to a stop.
Hobbs got in the car and sat back across from Jason and Moira as the car began moving again. Jason hit the intercom button. "Just cruise around the area for a little bit, driver." The driver touched his hat in acknowledgment and Jason flipped the intercom switch off again.
Hobbs folded his hands and laid them neatly on his lap. "Has this anything to do with Midori Harihatu, Jason?"
Moira looked up from the laptop and closed the machine's lid. That name got her attention.
"I guessed you'd figure out who that was in the house last night."
"Midori Harihatu, whose family was so recently brutally massacred. She was the only survivor and until now her whereabouts where unknown," affirmed Hobbs.
Moira asked, "Her mommy and daddy were killed?"
Jason nodded. "I'm afraid so, kiddo. She's been hiding from the ones who did it ever since."
"Until she found you," finished Hobbs.
"That's right. Midori is special--"
"Because she can read minds?" interrupted Moira.
"How did you know?" Jason shook his head. He decided he'd better start keeping a better eye on that kid. "Well, yes. She can do a lot more, too. She can sometimes even see things before they happen, although she doesn't have direct control over that ability."
"Jason," Hobbs began, "I know you've had a hard time this year." Moira's face was full of questions as she looked from Hobbs to Jason, but she held her tongue. "But are you sure you are doing this for the right reasons?" Hobbs looked at Moira with a trace of worry and sighed. "You aren't trying to get in over your head again on purpose, are you? What happened with your sister wasn't your fault."
There was a long, quiet pause. Moira asked, "Daddy, are you okay?" There were a dozen questions on her face, but she only wanted to hear one thing and that was that Jason would be fine.
Jason spoke slowly, "At first, perhaps I wanted to do it for the wrong reasons." He caught Hobbs eye, and felt certain he knew what Jason meant. "But then I realized I really like her being around. I want to see where it goes, and I want to see her find some kind of resolution for what happened to her family. The truth is, she saved my life, but I want to help her because I believe I can and because I think that helping her will make me happy."
Hobbs seemed satisfied with that answer. Moira snuck an arm around him and gave Jason a hug.
"Try not to worry," Jason told his daughter. "Go with Hobbs to the zoo and enjoy yourself for a little while. I'll catch up with you as soon as I can." He returned the girl's hug.
Jason had dropped Hobbs and Moira off at the zoo and settled back for the long ride home. He flipped open his laptop and was perusing his messages when he decided he needed to stop and refer to a message he sent earlier. That was when he noticed the latest message sent, which showed up right at the top of the list.
It was the message Moira had sent to Anne Hardy, and when he read it, Jason's eyes widened in surprise. As he thought about it, he broke into a hearty belly-laugh.
It took some effort, but mostly the strain was in the waiting. Jason returned to his home and dismissed the rented armored limo. He had immediately set about cleaning his weapons, planted clips of extra pistol ammunition in strategic position around the house and grounds, and made sure that all of his vehicles were gassed and ready to go. In case the Black Company, or whoever else was sent after Midori and he, cut them off from the garage, he even wheeled a motorcycle into the kitchen and parked it there. Better safe than sorry. Finally, he had double-checked all the security systems to be sure they were on the highest alert possible.
All that was left to do was wait.
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