The dark-eyed man felt somewhat uncomfortable as he undressed, aware that Vermillion’s eyes watched directly behind him.

      The young female Strider stood at attention in the center of the bedroom, right hand gripping her cypher blade as usual. She had followed him back to his apartment after the meeting, hovering on the rooftops to avoid civilian contact. Secrecy remained a foremost priority to the organization.

      As he took off the last of his civilian clothes, however, Hunter felt he didn’t have any more secrets left to hide.

      “Hiryu has four objectives in his assignment.” Vermillion recited the mission briefing in a stoic, mechanical way typical of young Striders. “All deal with the military weapons developer, GeissTech Weapons Systems. In the past this company supplied the richest nations with state-of-the-art military hardware. Recently GeissTech had a falling out with its buyers and now struggles to get its products on the market.”

      She paused to watch the now nude Hunter retrieve a heavy storage trunk from the closet. In it lay his own unique Strider attire. Jet-black gi and mask, dark red body armor and gauntlets, and a single metallic belt. In an almost ritualistic manner, the dark-eyed man began to dress.

      Vermillion continued. “We have received reports that GeissTech has developed a new type of armament, one that has never been made known to its former buyers. A prototype MechFrame is now complete and ready for mass production. The threat is that due to its financial troubles, GeissTech has entered contracts to supply these MechFrames to rogue nations. You know what that means, Strider Hunter. With such powerful belligerent technology, these nations can destabilize the entire planet and could possibly lead to a fourth world war. Therefore, Strider Hiryu has been sent to destroy this company and the MechFrame before mass production begins.”

      Hunter finished dressing, then faced the young woman with only his eyes revealed behind the mask. Vermillion couldn’t help but feel a little impressed; the dark-eyed man very much resembled the ninja of old, her ancestors.

      “This mission comes from the highest authority?” he asked.

      “From the Director himself. He is a prudent and old enough man to see threats before they materialize, we all know that.”

      Hunter nodded. A last reach into the trunk revealed his sole weapon, a short cypher blade he had named “Striker.” With unnatural grace, he slid the polished blade into the belt behind his back.

      “What are the objectives?”

      Vermillion held out a console image inducer, which displayed holographic surveillance photos as she spoke. “Objective One: Hiryu will infiltrate GeissTech headquarters in Seattle, U.S.A. and eliminate Bernard Vyson, executive president and chief administrative officer. Male, age 45, divorced, surrounded by personal guards. Vyson is the man directly handling the contracts and negotiations with rogue nations. Once he is eliminated it will be impossible for the company to exist.

      “Objective Two: Hiryu will destroy all information concerning the MechFrame project. This will also occur at GeissTech headquarters, in storage databases located in secured vaults.

      “Objective Three: Hiryu will infiltrate the subterranean MechFrame development facility in Virginia, U.S.A and destroy the MechFrame prototype. Name is short for ‘mechanized exoframe.’ Designed as personal armament battle suits, these machines are more efficient and destructive than conventional military hardware. Standing twenty-feet tall, protected by composite armor layers, heavily armed with GeissTech’s most advanced weapons systems, limited flight capability. The key is that these machines are highly mobile; a mere dozen MechFrames could lay waste to an entire city in a single day. Weakness is the pilot operating chamber—neutralize the soldier inside, and the MechFrame is incapacitated. Hiryu will also eliminate Emory Miller, Chandra Singh, and Toyotomi Higashi, the three engineers who designed the MechFrame.”

      As he memorized the faces, the dark-eyed man felt anxious for the first time in a long time. Vermillion’s image inducer hadn’t shown a surveillance photo of the MechFrame itself, only a blueprint design. This meant only one thing: the Striders had no idea what the actual prototype was really capable of. He had always felt uneasy about going into a mission with only partial information; he wondered about young Hiryu’s reaction during his own briefing.

      “And the last objective?”

      “Objective Four: Hiryu will infiltrate the vacation home—in Marseilles, France—of the founder of GeissTech, Edmund Geiss, and eliminate him. Male, age 52, married. A once-brilliant businessman who has since fallen from grace. The house is lightly guarded and should pose no serious threat. Geiss’ immediate family will also be eliminated: Zoe his wife, female, age 29; and last Zachary, his son, age 7. Confirm all three deaths, and you may make your final report to Vice Director Matic. It is now four hours before Hiryu begins his mission.”

      Vermillion finished speaking and handed him the image inducer to keep.

      The dark-eyed man took it and quickly slid it onto his belt. The anxiety from before suddenly intensified, if briefly. Something did not feel right about killing the young boy. True, he had never wavered on his own assassination missions, which had indeed included small children. Perhaps it was because he was older now and less cynical. He had an assignment to complete, and he would. But he wondered what raw emotions young Strider Hiryu would feel after he killed his first child…

      Suddenly irritated at himself, Hunter shook his mind out of the gloom. When did he ever let thoughts like that intrude? “All right then. Thanks for the briefing. Are you coming with me?”

      “I will be close. Although he never mentioned it, Vice Director Matic also wanted me to accompany you so that I would learn your methods. I am training to be your replacement.”

      “Is that so?” A small laugh escaped him. He hadn’t known the young woman for long, but Hunter could see that she would be perfect for the position. Monitoring required absolute objectivity and the complete control of emotions. The Code of Monitors required one to be only an observer, never a participant, even if the fellow Strider being monitored was in trouble. He himself had seen many well-trained yet inexperienced Striders meet their death in battle, but the code of his position as Monitor prevented him from doing anything to help. In a way, being a Monitor made him feel cold and heartless, much like the gods of man who allowed the bleak world to fall into disorder.

      He took one last glance at his apartment, a reminder that soon he would be a civilian. Cluttered with junk, possessions in disarray, broken windows, stifling air pierced by the rain falling outside. His life never looked so hopeless.

      “Makes me want to reconsider my retirement,” he chuckled aloud. Silence in his apartment told him that he was now alone.

      Vermillion had vanished before he knew it. She was good.

      His mind clear, Strider Hunter leapt out of the window and into the rainy night cityscape.