Datafile 002.4

She could barely move. The city streets were overflowing with people, all falling over one another and brushing up against her. She tried to push through them but no one would move. They all just kept walking along like she wasn’t even there.

She turned around and there was the pale man, stalking her. Striding toward her like there was no one around and no reason he should hurry.

She yelled for the people to get out of her way. Pleaded with them to help her. Screamed until her voice was horse and it hurt to breathe, but still they ignored her.

Turning back she saw that the pale man had disappeared, seeming out of thin air. She allowed herself to relax for a brief moment.

The she felt his icy grip on her arm, his broken nails digging into her skin. She twisted around and saw the pale man looking at her. His breath coming out in jagged rasps as he pulled her toward him. He opened his mouth and…

***

Caldera faintly heard muffled talking as she slowly woke from the nightmare and started to regain consciousness. She couldn’t make out specific words, but the tone of the conversation was tense, with one of the men sounding as if he was accusing the other of something.

She realized quickly that she couldn’t move, and the very faint buzzing sound that she could hear underneath the other noise in the room told her why. Caldera was trapped in a stasis field, enveloping her and keeping her totally immobile. If she had to guess the generator for the field was under the chair they had her sitting in.

Caldera slowly opened her eyes. She was in a small room, hardly bigger than storage closet with the only light coming from a fluorescent bulb in the ceiling directly above her. The room had a smell of mold and dust, like it had been closed up for years. She had no clue if she was still in the VR shop or where Ti himself was for that matter as he was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully she was able to use her cybernetic left eye to look around the room despite the fact she couldn’t move her head.

The angry voices were coming from two men, both dressed completely in black standing in the doorway of the small room. One was short, maybe five feet tall with close cropped white hair and wearing sunglasses. The other towered over him by at least a foot and a half and had blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, a hawkish nose and sullen cheeks. Both were pale to the extreme and neither seemed to have any obvious cybertech.

The shorter one Caldera didn’t recognize but the taller of the two had a distinct profile that she would have known anywhere.

The taller man suddenly realized Caldera was awake and shut his partner up with a wave of his hand. He walked over to where Caldera was and looked down at her, his expression filled with hatred.

“Corrinne Caldera. I really didn’t think we would meet again so soon.”

“Tristen. How’s the hand?”

Tristen raised his right hand, on which he was wearing a black glove. He slowly flexed it, making a fist repeatedly before striking Caldera hard with the back of his hand.

“You tell me, but it seems to be getting better.”

Caldera saw stars and felt blood trickling down from her lip as she said “Yep. Looks like it’s healing quite nicely.”

Tristen crouched down, making sure his eyes were at the same level as hers. Caldera was always a bit unnerved by the fact his eyes had no color, just a black orb floating in a sea of white. “You didn’t really think we would lose your scent so easily after what happened in New Pittsburgh, did you?”

Caldera smirked. “A girl can dream, can’t she?”

Tristen hit her in the face again, this time harder. Fortunately when Caldera had her eye replaced Charlie had to reinforce the rest of her skull to handle the extensive cyberware. Tristen wasn’t going to be able to do any real damage no matter how hard he struck her, but damn if it still didn’t hurt.

Tristen stood back up and turned around, looking at the far wall while he lit a cigarette. “I don’t have time for your shit. My superiors want results and they really don’t care how I get them. Despite that, I’m going to ask you nicely just once. I would promise to kill you quickly if you cooperate, but we both know that’s not going to happen. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while now and I’m going to enjoy it.”

He turned and looked at Caldera again, blowing smoke in her face. It had an acrid taste like those awful European cigarettes her commander in Sutoraiku smoked. “Where is it Corrinne?”

“Where’s what?”

Caldera could tell Tristen was starting to lose his patience. He took a menacing step towards her as he threw his cigarette on the floor and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. It left a black smear on the tile as the wisps of smoke dissipated into the stale air.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. We know you made a detour between New Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and we know that’s probably where you stashed it. We just want the exact location so we can retrieve it. Nice and simple.”

Caldera spit blood onto the floor and looked at Tristen. She realized she had to figure some way out of here and soon. Caldera could only play games for so long before things got serious and her life expectancy would go from years to minutes.

However, since she had his attention, Caldera figured she might as well see if she could get some information out of him.

“What does Crimson Light need plastic alloy ammo for Tristen?”

Tristen laughed to himself. “That’s good. Try to change the subject. Figure maybe I’ll discuss the inner workings of our organization with you. Maybe I’ll start monologuing like in some asinine comic book of old and reveal my nefarious plot. Then when you make your escape you’ll have all the information you need to stop me.”

“Well, you do love to hear yourself go on and on.”

“I’m going to really enjoy watching you die.”

“You do realize if you kill me the information dies with me, right?”

Tristen smiled and shook his head, almost as if he was pitying her. “Bitch, there are all kinds of things we can do to you before we kill you.”

As if on cue, the shorter man from before walked back into the room, carrying a small tray covered by a white towel. He placed it on a stand by the door and rolled it over next to Caldera. He removed the towel to reveal a set of old fashioned dental tools, the kind that hadn’t been used for decades. They all looked brand new as the light from overhead gleamed off the silver surfaces. They also looked incredibly sharp.

Caldera could feel herself start to sweat just a bit.

Tristen’s smile grew wider as he spoke. “See, we could do all the traditional things. Beat you within an inch of your life. Stick you in a VR simulation that nightmares are made of. Use a dermal probe that will make your skin feel like it’s on fire and make you wish you could die. Or we could just rip the data right from your brain with a neural Jackhammer drive.”

“But since this is you, I thought we’d go old school. Classic, fun for the whole family torture. Erich here has spent the last hour watching dental vids and now he could use some hands-on experience, if you know what I mean.”

Tristen walked over and put his hands on his knees, bending over so once again his eyes met hers. She could smell his fetid breath and his god-awful cologne as he began to speak.

“I’m really going to enjoy watching this Corrinne. I’ve dreamed of hearing you scream and beg for mercy for years now. You and your ilk are going to wish you had never crossed us.”

Caldera spit in his face, the mixture of blood and saliva landing on his right cheek. Tristen used his gloved index finger to wipe it off and then licked it off his finger, his smile turning into a sneer of hatred. Without taking his eyes off Caldera, he said to Erich “Get started.”

Caldera was becoming acutely aware of the panic starting to set in. Her breathing was becoming more rapid and her vision was blurring. She had to do something but she was clueless as to what exactly that was.

Erich picked up what looked like a metal probe with a long, vicious needle at the end. He roughly put his hand on her chin to pry open her mouth, the flesh of his fingers cold and dry. She tried to pull away but the stasis field made it so Caldera couldn’t move her head enough to avoid what was coming.

The needle was inches from Caldera’s mouth when suddenly, the room was plunged into total darkness.

Shouting quickly erupted from numerous directions. The dark was complete and all-encompassing and Caldera literally couldn’t see her hand, or anything else for that matter, right in front of her face.

Caldera also quickly realized that whatever had turned off the lights also shut down the stasis field that was holding her immobile.

Thanks to the fact that her cybernetic eye was powered by the bioenergy generated by her own body, it was unaffected by whatever caused the loss of power. She quickly activated her eye’s night vision mode and suddenly, everything in the room was crystal clear.

Tristen was standing by the doorway, shouting orders to whoever may be in the hallway while Erich was standing over her, looking around in the darkness with an expression on his face like he was slightly unnerved by the sudden loss of light.

Caldera swiftly grabbed what she hoped was some kind of scalpel and plunged it into Erich neck as she jumped up from the chair. He let lose with a guttural scream while she pushed the blade into his throat as far as it would go.

Not bothering to look back to see what kind of damage she did, Caldera ran for the door. Her Streetmasters had been taken from her when she was captured and who knew where they may have ended up. Unfortunately Caldera didn’t have the time to look for them as she wasn’t about to waste an opportunity like this to escape.

As she approached the door, Caldera grabbed Tristen by the shoulders and drove her knee into his groin with as much force as she could muster. Tristen didn’t make a sound as he crumpled to the floor, a look of intense pain in his eyes. Caldera then smashed his face with the heel of her boot and heard the satisfying sound of his nose breaking.

Serves you right, you bastard. she thought as she went through the doorway.

Still having no clue where she was or what direction to go in to make her escape, Caldera frantically looked up and down the hallway she found herself in. There were a couple of heavily armed clone mercs in each direction, all confused and blinded by the sudden blackout and obviously waiting for instructions from Tristen.

Caldera ran toward the nearest merc and grabbed the Nova 757 Cityhunter heavy handgun he was holding. Since attacking him would do nothing and she had no clue how long the power outage would last, getting into a firefight was the last thing on her mind. She took the gun and made a run for it, heading east down the hallway.

Her footsteps echoing as she ran, the hallway went on for a few hundred feet before Caldera was forced to make a left and then another left. After what felt like forever she finally reached a door marked “Exit” that opened to a set of multi-flight stairs.

Just as Caldera went to open the door, the lights suddenly came back on, momentarily blinding her. She deactivated the night vision mode and chanced a look behind her. She started running up the stairs, taking two at a time.

Caldera was two flights up when she heard the door she had just come through burst open followed by the sound of several heavy sets of footsteps begin climbing the stairs. Caldera looked down the center of the stairwell and saw four mercs making their way towards her, guns drawn.

Caldera put the Cityhunter on auto and let lose with a barrage of bullets, firing indiscriminately. She knew they wouldn’t do any damage but she hoped it may slow them down just enough so she could find a door and get off these stairs.

She ran up another flight and hit the mercs with another hail of gunfire. Caldera repeated this until she finally reached a landing with a door. She hurriedly went to turn the handle but it was locked. Muttering a curse, she fired the Cityhunter at the lock mechanism, blasting it into pieces and opening the door.

She ran into what looked like yet another hallway and headed west, running as fast as she could. Caldera still hadn’t encountered anyone else except her captors and was beginning to wonder exactly where she was.

Caldera turned a corner and ran headfirst into two more mercs, who apparently had been waiting for her. One tried to grab her arm but Caldera managed to duck out of the way, backing up the way she had come. When she turned to make an escape, she saw that the four mercs from the stairwell had emerged from the bullet-riddled doorway.

One of the mercs put his hand to his ear and said “We have her sir. What do you want us to do?”

After a moment he looked at the others and said “Tristen wants her alive. He has something special planned.”

She watched as the mercs closed in on her from both directions and quickly assessed her options.

There were no windows or other doorways, so escape was impossible. She checked the clip on the Cityhunter and saw that it was almost empty, so even if she could do some damage to these goons she couldn’t take them all down. There was one option left but it wasn’t something Caldera wanted to think about.

When Charlie installed her cybernetic eye, Caldera had him include a failsafe mechanism in case she ever got into a situation just like this. A situation where taking out as many of your enemies as possible was preferable over capture.

At the same time Caldera contacted her old friends in Sutoraiku to get the cyberware to replace her eye, she had them include a Helix plasma detonator. The small but powerful explosive was manufactured by Arasaka and was still a popular option for corporate military armies the world over.

Caldera had Charlie implant the Helix in her chest, with the ability to arm and detonate it linked to her eye. All it took was a simple thought to reroute the necessary energy from her eye to the bomb and them boom. No more mercs, no more hallway.

No more Caldera.

It wasn’t the way Caldera wanted to go out, but it was better than being captured and turned over to that sadist Tristen. She just hoped Korehammer would forgive her.

Caldera looked up and down the hallway and saw that the mercs were closing in but taking their time, not sure what she would do. They obviously didn’t want to risk her getting away again and having to deal with Tristen.

She closed her human eye, said goodbye to Korehammer and prepared to set off the Helix.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the hallway was abruptly filled with the deafening sound of gunfire. The sound reverberated off the walls and Caldera ducked down, shielding her head with her arms as bullets flew past her in both directions. She heard the mercs crying out and falling to the ground one after another as the gunfire stopped almost as quickly as it began.

Caldera stood up and looked around. The hallway was filled with smoke and the smell of spent bullet casings, the walls riddled with holes. But what really shocked her was the fact all six mercs were dead or dying, one with half his skull missing and another with a massive hole in his chest.

“What the fuck…”

“C’mon now Corrinne. You know I don’t like it when you use language like that.”

Caldera turned to where she heard the male voice coming from. Now that the smoke had begun to clear she noticed the two people at each end of the hall, all wearing dark grey fatigues, kevlar vests and combat helmets that covered their entire faces. Each was armed with a Imgram MAC 14 submachine gun as well as various other weapons and supplies.

But what really grabbed Caldera’s attention was what each had printed on the sleeve of their fatigues. The Japanese kanji were difficult to read from this distance, but Caldera knew them so well she would have recognized what it said from across a crowded street.

Dawn Before Death.

The rallying cry of Sutoraiku.

The man who had spoken stepped forward and removed his face mask and helmet, revealing his Japanese features and short black hair that had a touch of grey at the temples. He had a metal patch affixed over where his right eye should have been and stood a good three inched taller than Caldera.

Caldera looked at him, mouth open, not sure if what she was seeing could be real.

“Akira? Akira Ito?”

“Hello Caldera.”

“It can’t be you. I saw you die. You died right in front of me.”

“Yes you did. And now I’m back and we need to get out of here. As they say in the movies, come with me if you want to live.”

Datafile 002.3

Caldera looked at Genovese with a blank stare for a moment before the weight of his statement hit her like a fist to the face.

“Clones?”

“Yep. I’m not sure who these guys are clones of exactly because the strands have some very odd properties to them, almost like it’s a mix of the DNA of several subjects, but I have zero doubt that these two men are clones.”

Caldera was still confused. “Wait. Wait. If they’re clones how come they don’t look exactly the same?”

Genovese went over to the holoscreens showing the two DNA strands and pointed at one particular section. “Whoever did the cloning is a real artist. He managed to make small, almost imperceptible changes in the strands that make them similar, but not identical. It’s why if you look at their features they could be brothers or even cousins. But that’s not the best part.”

“I’m not sure I would call any of this ‘the best part’”

Genovese looked at her apologetically. “Sorry. Genetics and cloning have always been a hobby of mine. This is fascinating stuff on a level that you don’t see every day.”

“Uh-huh.” Caldera was far from convinced.

“Anyway, as I was saying. Not only did the person responsible make subtle changes to give the clones individual looks, he also made changes to their brains to enhance certain features. I’m guessing when this one here got shot in the head he didn’t even flinch?”

Genovese was gesturing toward the merc Korehammer had tagged with his Sternmeyer at the diner. A shot that should have taken the clone’s head off instead barely left a mark and did nothing but annoy him.

Caldera looked at Genovese out of the corner of her eye and considered her options. She needed this information desperately but at the same time didn’t want to put him in any danger. The more Genovese knew the more likely he could become a target and once she left it was impossible to protect him.

In the end Caldera decided her need for this data outweighed any concern she had for Genovese’s safety. That may have been cold as ice, but the world she lived in now necessitated tough decisions every day.

After a pause Caldera said “Yes. Both of them seemed impervious to any harm. Like they were wearing invisible armor.”

Genovese grinned, getting excited again. “That’s because the pain centers in both their brains have been heavily altered. Neither of them would feel it if you shot them point blank in the head with a Nomad .44 Magnum revolver. Combine that with skin that has been augmented to be practically unbreakable along with enhanced speed and strength and you have the perfect merc.”

Caldera was starting to feel sick, a cold pit filling up her stomach.

“But I thought cloning like this wasn’t possible? The corporations tried creating clone armies during the War and it was a huge fiasco.”

“I guess someone went back to the drawing board and solved the issues with the cloning process to make them more stable. I mean, there are elements in the DNA that I just can’t identify, so whoever did this must have had access to some cutting edge tech, stuff we haven’t seen yet.”

“Show me.”

Genovese used his hand to move the DNA strand around on the holoscreen until he came to a point where the molecules glowed a deep red, completely unlike the ones before and after them in the chain. “See there? I’ve never seen DNA like that before anywhere. If I had to bet money I’d say that’s where the enhanced physical attributes are coming from.”

Genovese paused when he saw that Caldera had gone ghostly white. “Hey. You okay? You don’t look so good.”

Caldera regained her composure and smiled at him. “Sorry. Just a lot to take in. Guess I just ran across the wrong mercs on the wrong day.” She paused. “Does anyone else know about what you discovered?”

“Of course. I put it all in the report I filled yesterday. They aren’t exactly sure what it all means, but the file is on the server and should go public by tomorrow.”

Caldera closed her eyes tight, realizing that there was nothing she could do for him. Caldera would bet anything that by this time tomorrow the report will have disappeared, along with the bodies of the two mercs and anyone who came in contact with that file.

Which, unfortunately, included Genovese.

Caldera opened her eyes and looked at him, racking her brain trying to figure out if there was anything she could do to help.

“Hunter.” she began. “Do you have any relatives in another part of the country?”

He looked at her with a quizzical look before he answered “Um, yeah. I have an aunt and uncle who live down south in Carolina.”

“Okay. Can you do me a favor and not ask why? Just trust that I know what I’m talking about?”

Genovese’s look went from questioning to scared so fast it took Caldera aback. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it up, inhaling the smoke deeply.

Without waiting for an answer, Caldera continued. “Go home, right now. Pack a bag and leave town. Head down to Carolina and stay with your aunt and uncle for a while. And if you can, figure out some way to mask your NIIC. There is black market tech that can do that. Go there and wait until I contact you. Okay? Can you do that?”

Genovese continued to look at Caldera and she could tell he was deciding if he should trust her, trying to settle on what he should do.

Finally he gestured over toward the two bodies and said “This is some serious shit, huh?”

“Very serious shit.”

“Like on a scale of one to ten of serious shit, what would you rate it?”

“A fifteen.”

“That is indeed some serious shit.”

Genovese walked over to the desk and opened the top drawer, removing an Astra Style-6 handgun as well as a small black box that had a cable running to an attached datapad. Genovese typed a few commands on the datapad and then put it, the box and the handgun in the backpack he had hanging over the back of the desk chair.

Caldera looked on in wonder. “What was all that about?”

“NIIC dampening tech. Invested in it a few years after you disappeared. Figured with the kind of stuff you and Korehammer were into, someone might come around asking questions someday. Thought it might be a good idea to be able to go off the grid.”

Genovese then went to the holoscreens and input more commands. Within seconds the screens deactivated and he pulled a datachip from the reader that sat on top of the desk.

Genovese slung the backpack over his shoulder and handed Caldera the datachip. “That has copies of everything I had about the two clones. The report I filed, all the medical info, the DNA strands, the works. I also sent copies to your NIIC just to be safe. All the data is in the process of being wiped from the servers here thanks to a worm I installed just after I got hired. Should take a few hours, but everything will be gone by morning.”

Caldera quickly realized it may be time to reappraise her opinion of her friend.

“Hunter Genovese. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Hey. What does Korehammer always say?”

“A little paranoia goes a long way.”

“Exactly. Now let’s get the hell out of here. I have a bus ticket to buy.”

***

Caldera went with Genovese to his apartment so he could pack a few things and then to the bus station. She thought it was the least she could do seeing as she was asking this guy to upend his entire life on nothing but her word. Caldera gave him a long hug and a kiss on the cheek before he got on the bus, which noticeably brightened his mood.

As the bus pulled away, Caldera gave Genovese a twenty percent chance of still being alive by this time tomorrow. The people who will be on his trail are merciless and have vast resources at their disposal, but she was impressed with how he handled himself. Maybe he has a chance.

Caldera put Genovese out of her mind. There was nothing more she could do for him. She had to focus on the task at hand and right now that was finding this Xu Ti and getting some intel on this bullet Charlie pried out of her shoulder.

Before she did that though, Caldera decided to head back to her hotel. There was no way she wanted to confront Ti with this sling hampering her mobility and ability to defend herself if it came to that. Caldera figured she’d take a nap, grab a shower and a change of clothes. Then she would be refreshed and ready to have a nice little conversation about munitions.

***

When Caldera woke it was already dark, with a full moon shinning down from a cloudless sky. She changed into a vintage Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, made sure her Streetmasters were loaded and headed out the door.

Thanks to her NIIC Caldera had learned that Xu Ti’s VR shop was at 22nd and Watkins and was called The Pleasure Mansion. One of countless virtual reality porn shops in The Plex, they gave people who couldn’t afford a VR rig of their own a place to live out every depraved fantasy they could conjure up. From the reviews, it seemed Ti’s had a very loyal base of customers because they raved about how the shop was clean, discreet and for a price could give the client whatever they wanted.

Caldera called an autocar and gave the address. She was hoping that since it was still relatively early in the evening that it wouldn’t be that crowded. Best case scenario was that Caldera could get the information she needed and be in and out.

The autocar pulled up to the front entrance a few minutes later. As Caldera stepped out she saw that this Xu Ti must have gone to the same marketing firm as Charlie, because the front of the shop was a blinding display of neon and blinking lights, letting you know with little doubt that you had arrived at The Pleasure Mansion.

The shop was located in a two-story building that looked like it may have been original from before the War. The second story facade was taken up almost entirely by the letters that made up The Pleasure Mansion’s name, going from red to pink to purple in rapid succession. The front windows advertised the latest VR experiences you could enjoy as well as the hourly rates for a private or couples booth.

Inside the place was incredibly dim, sterile and a touch claustrophobic. There was a small area selling VR chips and a counter but little else, with most of the business apparently taking place behind a large polysteel door that Caldera guessed could only be accessed by someone buzzing you in.

Sitting behind the counter was a small Chinese man in his thirties wearing a old school Phillies baseball cap, a blue t-shirt and jeans. He had on a pair of glasses and much like Charlie’s, they had a thin cable going from the frames into a small port at his temple.

As Caldera entered he looked up from the datapad he was reading and put a big smile on his face. “Welcome to The Pleasure Mansion. What fantasy did you want to enjoy today?”

Caldera didn’t have the time or desire to play games with Ti, so she pulled the bullet from out of her jacket and placed in on the counter in front of him.

“I was wondering what you could tell me about this.”

Ti looked down at the bullet and without missing a beat said “Lady, this is a VR shop, not a gun store. Take your bullet and head down the street. I don’t got time for this crap.”

Before Ti had finished speaking Caldera had grabbed his head and slammed it down on the counter, so hard it knocked over a display of flavored condoms. At the same time she took out one of her Streetmasters and leveled it at his right cheek.

Caldera would have to remember to compliment the work Charlie did. Her right arm was indeed noticeably faster and stronger than it was before.

“Let’s not fuck around today Xu. I’m a very busy woman and I know you run black market and experimental weapons out of here. All I’m looking for is some information. You give it to me, I’ll gladly reimburse you for your time and leave you alive. What do you say?”

When Ti hesitated to answer she violently jammed the barrel of her Streetmaster into his cheek and heard the distinct sound of a tooth cracking.

Ti had had enough. “Fine! Fine! Just let me up and I’ll help you.”

Caldera let him up and he rubbed his cheek, spitting blood onto the floor. He pressed a button behind the counter and the large door emitted a loud buzzing sound and unlocked. Ti pushed it open and indicated that Caldera should follow him.

She followed Ti down a long corridor that had numbered red doors every few feet on either side. As they walked Caldera heard the distinct sounds of both men and women enjoying themselves from a number of the suites, similar to the sounds that came from her neighbor’s room at the hotel.

When they reached the end of the hall they stood facing a door that had the words “Utility Closet” printed on it. Ti used his NIIC to unlock the door and inside were some brooms, a couple mops and box filled with spare VR rig parts.

Ti went into the closet and stood facing the back wall, signaling that Caldera should follow him in and close the door behind her. As she pulled the door closed, Ti took out the small datapad he had been reading when Caldera came in and punched a code into it. Suddenly the rear wall of the closet rose into the ceiling, revealing another room beyond.

The room was cramped, but big enough for a handful of people to stand around comfortably. It felt more confining than it was because the walls were lined with rows and rows all types of munitions. Caldera saw handguns like Colt Enforcement Sidearms and Gonca-Taurus pistols to more serious weapons like Dover GA-1112 autoguns and heavy M-99 EVAWs. There were also all kinds of grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and an assortment of exotic arms specifically designed for use with enhanced cyberware. There were even a handful of guns that Caldera couldn’t even identify.

Ti was looking at Caldera as she took in the impressive collection. “I do all my arms business in here, not in the shop. Safer that way. There was no reason to break my damn tooth. Charlie told me you may be coming around.”

“Ah. Sorry about that. Been a long couple days.”

“Whatever. Let me see that bullet.”

Caldera handed over the bullet and Ti took it and help it up to the light, giving it a cursory examination. Once he finished he handed it back to her and said “Yep. That’s Osiris Systems for sure. I didn’t think they had put these in the field yet.”

“What is it?”

“New type of bullet. Made of a super dense plastic alloy. Harder than polysteel but a heck of a lot lighter. Charlie said he dug this out of your shoulder?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you’re lucky. Either the guy firing this didn’t have it in the right type of gun or this particular bullet is defective. Because this should have tore your arm clean off and then just kept on going like it went through paper.”

Caldera counted her blessings and filed that away as a very lucky break. “And you said these aren’t available to the public yet?”

Ti shrugged his shoulders. “As far as I knew, they never were going to be. The word on the street was that Osiris was contracted to design these for one specific client.”

Caldera was pretty sure she already knew the answer, but had to ask. “And that would be?”

“I don’t know all the details, but the name I heard being thrown around was Crimson Light, whatever the hell that is.”

Caldera’s head was spinning. First augmented clones and now Crimson Light using specially designed ammunition. Things were moving fast, faster than they were prepared for.

As Caldera was trying to get her thoughts together, she heard something rolling on the floor. She looked down and saw a small black metal ball stop between her and Ti and start to make a faint hissing sound.

She whipped her head around to see two men in black standing at the end of the hallway. Both were armed and had their faces covered by gas masks.

God damn it. Was the last thought she had before Caldera fell to the floor unconscious.

Datafile 002.2

All the trees in the seemingly endless forest were dead or dying and dried leaves crunched under her feet as she ran. She quickly glanced behind her and saw no sign of him.

After what seemed like an eternity of running, she had finally lost the pale man.

Everything was a muted grey and a bitter cold wind blew nonstop, stinging her exposed hands and face. Out of breath, she put her hands on her knees and tried to calm down and control her breathing. She looked at the ground and closed her eyes, trying to remember where she was but no answers came to her.

She opened them again and watched as her breath formed clouds of vapor in the air. Finally, it seemed the worst was over.

She straightened up and turned around, thinking she would go back the way she came to find a way home. Instead, less than a foot in front of her, was the pale man.

Before she could react, he grabbed her by the throat and threw her to the ground. She didn’t know what was happening and suddenly he was on top of her, pinning her arms to the cold ground and making escape impossible.

The pale man leaned down toward her face, his foul smelling breath filling her nose and making it hard to breathe. He came closer and closer until his face was just inches from hers. He opened his mouth to speak and…

***

Caldera woke with a start, bolting upright on the gurney and instantly regretting it as pain lanced through her entire right arm. The discomfort wiped away the last of the effects of the anesthesia and Caldera quickly remembered where she was and why.

She swung her legs around and awkwardly got herself into a sitting position on the edge of the gurney. Caldera’s right arm was immobile thanks to some kind of sling that was keeping it pressed against her chest, so her balance was slightly off as she tried to stand.

The next thing Caldera knew, she was sprawled facedown on the frigid metal floor with the taste of dust and cigar ash filling her mouth.

“What. The. Fuck!” Charlie screamed from another part of the shop, followed by the sound of his heavy footsteps quickly approaching.

“What the fuck are ya tryin’ to do, huh? I just fixed that damn arm, you tryin’ to fuck it up again already?” he said as he helped Caldera get back into a sitting position on the gurney.

“I thought it would be okay.” Caldera said sheepishly as her head continued to spin.

“You thought it would be okay.” Charlie said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “You’ve been out for twelve hours sweetheart. Fixing the damage took a hell of a lot longer than I figured.”

“Twelve hours?” Caldera repeated, not bothering to hide the shock in her voice.

“Fuck yeah. Your collarbone was shattered and most of the muscles around it were shredded to shit. Plus it took fuckin’ forever to find the bullet and get it the fuck out. I had to replace the bones with chrome and grow synthetic muscle to restore what you lost. But on the plus side, your right arm is gonna be a hell of a lot faster and stronger than it used to be.”

Caldera was still trying to grasp the fact she had been out of commission for twelve hours when Charlie started digging around in the pocket of his filthy apron. “Oh yeah. A present for ya.”

Caldera held out her hand and Charlie dropped into it what looked to be an fully intact bullet, presumably the one that was until recently lodged in her shoulder. She held it up between her thumb and index finger to get a better look and quickly came to a heart-stopping realization.

Thanks to her time with the Arasaka army and Sutoraiku, Caldera had a fairly extensive knowledge of firearms and how to use them. And after working with Korehammer and learning from him for nine additional years, she would bet anything there was not a weapon or type of ammunition that she couldn’t identify.

Today that would be a bet Caldera would have lost.

The bullet was made of some kind of black metallic substance, but it didn’t feel like metal. The surface was too smooth and there were no markings from when the bullet was shot out of the merc’s gun. At the very least there should have been some kind of damage when it became embedded in the bone of her shoulder. Instead, it looked like it had just come out of the box good as new.

Still holding the slug in the air, Caldera looked at Charlie and asked “Have you ever seen a bullet like this?”

“Fuck no. I saved it because I was gonna ask you the same thing. I had a hell of a time yanking it outta you.”

“Have you ever seen anything similar?”

“Closest I’ve ever seen to shit like that is from a company called Osiris Systems. Ukrainian outfit known for pushing the envelope and doing some real outside the lines shit. Last I heard, they were working on some kind of ammo that could hit a polysteel wall and stay in one piece. Imagine what that shit could do hitting a fuckin’ human body. But that was last year and I heard they were still working the kinks out.”

“You know anyone who could tell me for certain if this is Osiris tech?”

“What the fuck do you care? It’s outta your shoulder now.”

“Because I’m hoping it can give me a lead on where the merc who shot me with it came from.” Caldera decided to leave out the part about the two mercs being apparently invulnerable. No reason to tell Charlie the whole truth and possibly endanger him.

Charlie scratched his head while looking at the ceiling, as if the act of thinking was much more challenging for him than it should be. The he suddenly snapped his fingers and said “Xu Ti. Chinese guy who runs a VR shop couple blocks away. Also deals in high-end black market weapons and ammo. He might be able to tell ya.”

Caldera stood up and looked around for her shirt and jacket, saying to Charlie “How long do I have to stay in this sling?”

“Another twenty-four hours. Just till everything heals up and the new chrome adapts to your physiology.”

“So how much do I owe you?”

Charlie grabbed a datapad off a nearby desk as Caldera struggled to get her shirt and jacket on over the sling. He tapped the screen a few times and handed it to Caldera.

She looked down at the screen and then back up at Charlie, an incredulous look on her face.

“Seriously?” she said.

“Fuck yeah. What, you think I shut down the shop so I could fix your fucking shoulder out of the goodness of my heart? Or I’m gonna just give you the new chrome and tissue maybe for old times sake? This shit costs credits. Lots of them.”

Caldera put the datapad down on the desk and waved her NIIC over it, paying the bill. Luckily NIICs were always placed in a person’s left wrist, so at least the sling wouldn’t get in the way in that regard.

“Highway robbery if you ask me.”

“No one did sweet cheeks.” Charlie said with a grin.

Charlie picked back up the datapad and slipped it into the pocket of his apron. “Pleasure doing business with you again Corrinne. Make sure you stop by if you ever get another bullet stuck inside you.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks Charlie.”

“No problem darling.”

Caldera left the shop and went out into the early morning air. It was just after seven and yet incredibly, The Plex was teeming with people. The rain had stopped for once and the sun was shinning brightly in the sky. Caldera took her mirrorshades out of the pocket of her jacket and slipped them on her face, heading east on Dickinson.

Before Caldera went and talked to this Xu Ti, she needed to head to the coroner’s office to check in with her contact there. Even though it had been four years, she knew Hunter Genovese still worked for the medical examiner and if she was fortunate, the small crush he had on her won’t have faded with time.

The bodies of the mercs should still be at the coroner’s office on ice and Caldera had some questions she needed answers to. Like why they didn’t seem to feel pain and why they were apparently using top of the line experimental munitions.

But first, Caldera needed to get some food. It had been days since she had eaten anything and at this point even synthfood sounded good.

***

In the first months after Comcast Systems had purchased Philadelphia, they had reorganized what was left of the city government to make it more productive and, according to them, useful. The megacorp made all the decisions but couldn’t be bothered with the day to day minutia of running a major American city. All the former city politicians became employees of Comcast Systems and as such could be fired and hired according to their whim of their boss. Free elections were a thing of the past but, on the other hand, over the decades Philadelphia had become one of the best run and most profitable cities on the East Coast.

One of the first things Comcast did was build the Philadelphia Governance Centre, a 50-story building that took up an entire city block of West Philadelphia, just on the other side of the Schuylkill River from City Center. The imposing glass and steel structure housed all the various government offices that kept Philadelphia running under one roof, including the Philadelphia Coroner’s Office, also known as The Slab.

Caldera had the autocar drop her off a block away on Walnut Street, getting out and looking up at the massive building. She had no desire to use her NIIC to get inside since that would create a record of her being there, something she wished to avoid. Which meant she had to hope that her old contact at The Slab could get her in and out without anyone noticing.

Before Caldera had disappeared, Hunter Genovese had made no effort to hide the fact he had a crush on her, even going so far as to ask her out once. Unfortunately for both of them he had made the mistake of asking in front of Korehammer and it did not go well for either of them. The jokes came fast and furious for months to the point where Caldera had to tell him to back off. To Genovese, that she stood up for him to her partner only endeared Caldera to him more.

Caldera used her NIIC to place the call, hoping his private number was still the same. After a few seconds a disheveled looking man in his mid-thirties appeared on a holoscreen, blonde hair all over the place and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Genovese’s eye’s widened when he saw who it was.

“Holy crap. Corrinne? Is that really you?”

“Hi Hunter. Long time no see.”

“You can say that again. How have you been?”

“Good.” Caldera wanted to avoid wasting time with small talk and cut him off when she saw him getting ready to ask another question. “Listen. I need some help. Are those two guys who died at District 14 headquarters while in custody still in a drawer?”

Genovese looked over his shoulder at a screen behind him and then answered “Yup. Still here. Finished the autopsy on the second one a couple hours ago. Some seriously weird crap with that pair.”

Caldera exhaled in relief. “Those two are the reason I’m in this sling. Can you get me inside so I can ask you a few questions and maybe get some information?”

“No problem. Is Korehammer with you?”

“No, just me this time.”

Genovese’s smile widened just a bit. “Okay. Just head toward the main entrance. I’ll meet you outside in five minutes.”

Caldera walked down the block toward Spruce Street where the entrance to Centre was and waited. Good to his word, Genovese walked out the glass doors a few minutes later and immediately caught sight of her.

Caldera had to admit that Hunter Genovese was still one impressive specimen. Almost six feet tall, blue eyes, long blond hair and a chiseled body he obviously worked hard to maintain. He walked over and gave her an enthusiastic hug while asking what the heck happened to her arm.

“I’ll explain once we’re inside. Can you get me in without me using my NIIC?”

Genovese looked over and winked. “No problem. Just go along with whatever I say.”

Caldera rolled her eyes and hoped Genovese knew what he was doing.

***

Ten minutes later the two of them were in an elevator, heading five floors underground to The Slab.

“Did you really have to kiss me?”

“Hey. I had to make it look authentic, didn’t I? How else was I going to convince security you were just my girlfriend here to go to lunch?”

“Amazing that they just took you at your word like that. No NIIC, no identification, nothing.”

“They trust me. Besides, I know you’re not here to cause trouble so no harm, no foul.”

Caldera hoped he still felt that way once all was said and done.

Genovese used his NIIC to unlock a large metal door and then typed a few commands into the terminal to the right of the NIIC reader.

“Okay. The security cameras are off and the NIIC sensors have been deactivated. We have about twenty minutes before security gets suspicious and send someone down here to investigate.”

Genovese opened the heavy door and motioned for Caldera to go first. He followed, closing the door behind him. There was a chill in the air and Caldera could see her breath as she exhaled. She was suddenly reminded of the nightmare she was having when she woke from the anesthesia. It sent a shiver down her spine that she tried her best to hide.

The room was windowless and essentially a long rectangle with rows and rows of freezer drawers on either side, five high and each with a barcode just above the handle. In the center of the room were four steel tables each with a tray stand next to it filled with medical tools. The third table had what looked like a body on it, covered by a sheet.

Genovese walked over to the table and pulled the sheet away from the body, exposing the corpse’s face.

“This the guy who shot up your shoulder?”

Caldera looked down at the blank expression on the merc’s face. What annoyed her more than anything was how damn calm he looked, like death had been a relief instead of something to be feared.

“Yeah. That’s him. What did he die of?”

“At first I didn’t have a clue. Even after the autopsy I was still stumped. There was no cause of death that I could see. It was as if his body just shut down like an off switch had been flipped. So then I autopsied his partner and got the same result. No evident cause of death.”

“You mentioned there was something weird.”

“Oh yeah. Big time. Come over here and take a look at this.”

They walked over to a small desk where Genovese said “Show DNA samples for Subject 237-A and Subject 238-R”

Immediately two holoscreens appeared, both showing a recreation of a slowly rotating DNA strand.

Genovese looked over at Caldera and said “What do you see?”

“Two DNA strands. Any first grader would know that.”

“See anything unusual about them?”

“Your the medical examiner, not me.”

He pointed at the two screens and said “Everyone’s DNA is unique, more so that a fingerprint. It’s why the government extracts a sample when a NIIC is installed in every newborn. It can identify you more concretely than anything else we have at our disposal.”

“And your point?” Caldera was getting a bit impatient.

“Neither of these two were in the DNA database. They both had NIICs, but their DNA isn’t on record anywhere.”

“But that’s not possible, is it?”

Caldera could tell Genovese was getting more excited the more he talked. “That’s what I thought. So I took a deeper look at their DNA strands and noticed something that shouldn’t be possible. For all intents and purposes their DNA is the exactly the same.”

“But you said everyone’s DNA is unique.”

“It is. So there’s only one explanation.” Genovese paused for a moment. “These two are clones.”

Datafile 002.1

Corrinne Caldera walked out of the PCPD District 14 headquarters not really sure where she was going to go. It had been a brutally long few hours, between being arrested and having to spend hours in a cell. Luckily Caldera was still very well connected and knew a judge who owed her a favor. Less than a hour after the call was made, she was out and walking the streets of Philadelphia once again.

Caldera winced as she tried to move her right arm. One of the mercs had managed to tag her when her back was turned to make sure Korehammer got out of the New Galaxy Diner alive. She was able to convince the cops that she was fine and didn’t need to go to the hospital, but there was more damage to her shoulder than she let on. It was going to take a specialist to repair the injury.

Caldera’s current problem, beyond that her shoulder still hurt like hell, was that the wound had bled almost nonstop, soaking her classic Green Day shirt with blood.

Getting shot she could deal with, but this was a classic Green Day tour shirt from 2009. They just didn’t make them like this anymore. Finding a replacement was going to be both expensive and next to impossible.

As Caldera passed one the buildings she caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the glass. Her shoulder length hair was a mess, completely knotted up and the ponytail long gone. She took off her mirrorshades and saw that she looked just as tried as she felt. Caldera had also somehow split her lip but had no memory of how it had happened.

She put the mirrorshades back on and kept walking down Chestnut Street, heading east. It would have been easier to get an autocar, but Caldera wanted to walk. The fresh air felt good and it was helping to clear her head.

The fact that the two mercs were both dead didn’t surprise her all that much. Knowing who they worked for and how their employers dealt with failure, it was probably the most humane thing that could have happened. Even so, the way the two had died was odd to the extreme. It was like they just made a decision to stop living and that was it. No sign of foul play, no wounds, nothing.

What concerned Caldera more was the fact both seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, invulnerable. The one thug had shrugged off the bullets from Korehammer’s Sternmeyer like they were nothing and her own Dai Lung Streetmasters also had little to no effect.

Caldera hadn’t noticed any kind of armor on either of them and except for the cybernetic arm on the one, neither had any cyberware she could discern.

Which meant this was something new. Something dangerous that could have implications for the future of the conflict.

Caldera needed answers and she needed them now. With Korehammer hopefully on his way to Atlantic City, that meant it was up to her to get them. She had an idea where to start, but that would have to wait. As the pain in Caldera’s shoulder flared up again, she realized there were other pressing matters that needed her attention.

At the thought of Korehammer, she realized he was probably worried sick about her. Okay, maybe “worried sick” was a bit of an exaggeration, but Caldera had no doubt he would be wondering what happened to her after the debacle at the New Galaxy.

The problem was that Caldera had no clue where Korehammer might be. Years of working together had given her some insight into how he operates, but this was nothing like the usual gigs they took back then. That and it had been four years. A lot can change in that amount of time.

Caldera figured that the first thing Korehammer would do is get his hands of the Stasis Cradle and the NIICs inside. There was no way he would ride into Atlantic City as Trevor Korehammer, so that meant he would be looking to swap out his NIIC for something that could make the job go a bit smoother.

Atlantic City meant money, and if money was involved, then you could be sure that Malcolm Chernova would not be far behind.

Caldera had to admit that the idea of using multiple NIICs was pure genius. When Korehammer came to her with the idea shortly after they met and set up their new venture, she thought he was out of his mind. Caldera was certain there was no way it could be done.

Korehammer had proven her wrong. The tech had made moving items incredibly easy and most of the time could be done without a shot being fired. Caldera considered it a point of pride that she was the only other person on the planet who knew about the Cradle and Korehammer’s other seven identities. She had worked hard to continue earning Korehammer’s trust after that and just hoped she wasn’t pushing it too far asking him to take this particular job.

Much like Korehammer, Caldera had spent years as a soldier, fighting on behalf of the Arasaka Conglomerate around the world. Caldera quickly rose in the ranks and soon found herself indoctrinated into their elite black ops squad, Sutoraiku.

As part of Sutoraiku, Caldera had been a member of a group where if you didn’t trust the other soldiers in the squad, it usually meant someone was going to die. So she understood the level of trust Korehammer had placed in her. Caldera took it very seriously, which is why vanishing into the wind four years ago had been so tough to do.

Caldera felt water running down her face and quickly realized it had started to rain again. Using her NIIC, she ordered a autocar and once it arrived a few minutes later, directed it to take her to South 6th Street and Oregon Avenue.

The place she was staying was called The Dolphin Motel, deep in the heart of The Plex. It was a single-story motel that charged by the hour and was popular with the streetwalkers and drug pushers for doing business away from prying eyes.

It was also perfect if you were trying to keep a low profile and stay off the grid as much as possible.

Caldera stepped over what she assumed was another junkie passed out on Skar as she walked down the hallway to her room. She used her NIIC to open the door and went inside, closing and locking it behind her. From the sounds coming from the other side of the thin wall they shared, the sex worker next door had company again.

Fifth time in three days. You have to admire her work ethic. Caldera thought to herself.

Caldera walked over to where she had left her still partially packed bag and grabbed a long slim cable with optic interface leads at either end. She then left her room and headed for the lobby, where she saw the old man who had checked her in a week ago. He looked like he was still smoking the same cigar as he was then and watching what appeared to be the latest episode of Taking It To The Edge.

She nodded as she passed him and headed for the public holotransmission booth on the other side of the room. Caldera opened the door to the unit and stepped inside, which brought the emitter online immediately.

Caldera inserted one end of the optic cable to the back of the emitter and the other end into the port located at her left temple. In addition to allowing her to encrypt the message she was about to send, the tech also enabled her to reroute it through hundreds of holotransmission stations across the city. No one would be able to trace where the message came from or where it was going.

A optic cable might be a bit low tech and old school in a world connected wirelessly, but it was one hundred percent secure, which made all the difference to Caldera.

She used her NIIC to input the number to The Embassy and once connected, began her message to Korehammer.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Corrinne Caldera.”

Caldera just hoped she knew Korehammer as well as she thought she did.

Once she had finished, Caldera returned to her room and laid down on the bed. She was completely exhausted and asleep in moments despite the loud moans of pleasure coming from next door.

***

The pale man was coming after her again.

He was chasing her, running after her and no matter what she did, she couldn’t outrun him. She kept looking for a place to hide but the long hallway had no doors, no windows, just miles of grey walls on either side.

She chanced a look behind her and saw the pale man was gaining, getting closer, his thin fingers grasping at her hair. She tried to run faster but couldn’t. It was getting hard to breathe.

Then the pale man had her. His hands were around her throat, tightening their grip, cutting off her air. She tried to scream but no sound came out. He turned her around and she looked into the pale man’s eyes. Deep wells of ebony black that seemed to go on forever.

The pale man licked his cracked lips and looked down at her, bending over and bringing his mouth to her ear. His breath was hot on her skin as he waited a moment and then said…

***

Caldera woke up screaming.

One of her Dai Lung Streetmasters was in her hand as Caldera bolted upright in the bed. She looked around, her cybernetic eye glowing a bright emerald and rapidly realized it was just the dream again. The same dream she had been having for months now.

Caldera closed her eyes and tried to get her breathing under control. The nightmares were coming more frequently now so she was getting fairly adept at regaining her composure and calming down once she woke up and realized what was happening.

She could still feel the breath of the pale man on her neck, still see him smile as he began to speak. But just like every other time, the dream ended before he could say anything.

It was making Caldera a bit crazy.

She looked out the single window and saw that is was already early evening. The sun had gone down and the city was beginning to light up, the cold fluorescent glow of the streetlamps shinning circles of hope on the rain slicked sidewalks.

As Caldera got out of bed she gasped as pain lanced through her shoulder and arm. The gunshot wound needed to be looked at and soon. The problem was that it wasn’t like Caldera could just waltz into the local hospital and get it treated. That would lead to questions she wasn’t willing to answer. That meant going to the underground and finding someone who could repair the damage and not interrogate her about how it happened.

There was only one guy in Philadelphia Caldera trusted who could be counted on to do just that. She just hoped he was still in business after all this time.

Caldera grabbed a quick vibro-shower and changed her clothes. She decided on another classic tee, this time a Pantera 2019 U.S. Tour t-shirt. Her jacket was ruined so she threw it in the reclamation chute and, as she walked down the hallway, took the leather jacket that the passed out junkie in the hall was wearing. After all, it wasn’t like he was going to miss it and Caldera loved the look.

She called an autocar and instructed it to take her to 21st and Dickinson Street. While riding in the back she checked her Streetmasters to make sure they were loaded and ready. One thing Korehammer had taught her over the years was that a little paranoia went a long way.

The autocar pulled up to the corner and Caldera got out. She looked up and saw that yes, Charlie was indeed still in business. The neon letters of “Charlie’s Chop Shop” blinked in various colors over the entrance to the storefront.

Charlie never was a fan of subtlety. Caldera thought to herself as she went inside.

If you didn’t know it when you first entered Charlie’s Chop Shop, you could be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t a shop at all but a place machines went to die. Piles of cyberware were stacked everywhere along with bits and pieces of just about anything else that you could think of. Caldera had to carefully navigate around what appeared to be a pile of cybernetic body parts and then what she could have sworn was an autocar engine. Various other forms of cybernetic limbs hanged from the ceiling in a scene that can only be described as very macabre.

“Hold on one fuckin’ minute. I’ll be right with ya.” came a disembodied voice from somewhere in the back of the shop.

Caldera stopped and looked around. It seemed like the place hadn’t changed at all in the ten years since the last time she was here. The best way she could describe it was then was “organized chaos” and it looked like the same phrase still applied.

Caldera heard what sounded like a pile of metal and chrome crashing to the floor followed by someone screaming the word “Fuck!” at the top of his lungs. A minute later a short, bald man with a large gut and a cybernetic leg that looked to be at least 20 years old came out from the back. He was wiping his hands on a oily rag as he said “So. What can I…”

When he saw Caldera he stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth hanging open and the cigar he had been smoking in danger of falling to the filthy floor.

“Well I’ll be a fucking dog-humping cockwaffle. Corrinne Caldera. It’s been fucking forever.”

“Hello Charlie. It has been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Fuck yeah! I haven’t seen you since I put that eye in. How’s that been working out for ya?”

“Great. I still miss my real one, but this one has saved my ass more than once.”

“Good to hear. Still proud as hell of that one. Thing of beauty. That eye was state of the art from Biotechnica a decade ago. Still can’t figure out how you got your hands on it. Not like that kinda gear comes through The Plex all that often.”

Caldera could have told him how she called in some favors from her old friends in Sutoraiku who had the necessary connections to obtain the eye and get it to her. But why take away the air of mystery between them?

“Yeah well, thanks again for installing it.”

“Anytime sweet cheeks. So what brings you to the Chop Shop? Cause I doubt you came here just to chat with me about old times.”

Caldera took off her jacket and pulled her t-shirt up to show the gunshot wound. It wasn’t bleeding but the area around the wound was an angry red and the pain was coming almost nonstop now.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ…” Charlie said in wonder.

“I’m pretty sure the bullet is still in there, lodged in my collarbone.”

“When did this happen?”

“Two nights ago at a diner. Couple of guys didn’t agree with my menu choices.”

“And the rollers didn’t insist you go to the fuckin’ hospital?”

“I convinced the cops it was just a scratch that looked way worse than it was. Going to the hospital wasn’t an option. Otherwise I’d be there and not here.”

“Good point.”

Charlie walked over and grabbed Caldera’s shoulder, pulling the smart glasses that had been resting on top of his head down to his eyes. Caldera could see the small cable running from the side of the frames that ended at the port located on his temple, very similar to the one Caldera had.

As Charlie moved her arm and shoulder around, Caldera tried not to wince, but the pain was getting more intense by the second.

“Oh man the fuck up. Can’t expect me to fix this shit if I can’t see what the fuck I’m dealing with, can you?”

Caldera just bit her lip and tried her best to deal with the burning sensation coming from her shoulder.

“Okay. Come on in the back. I can fix that right up. Most of the bone is shattered beyond fuckin’ recognition so I might need to replace some of it with chrome. Should take just a couple hours.” Charlie went over to the front door and locked it, switching the flashing “open” sign to “closed.”

“You got the creds to pay for this?”

Caldera looked at him with one eyebrow raised and a smirk on her face. “What do you think?”

“Right. Stupid question.”

Once they got into the back of the shop, Caldera went over to the gurney and sat down, lying her jacket and t-shirt over the back of a chair that was covered with VR chips. Charlie sat heavily on a stool and after grabbing something from a small metal table, rolled over to the side of the bed. He was holding a hypospray in one hand and said “Alright sweets. Go ahead and lie down.”

Caldera laid down and Charlie placed the hypospray against her neck. She heard the soft hiss and felt the slight pressure against her skin as he injected her with the anesthesia that would put her under for the duration of the surgery.

“No worries Corrinne. You’ll be fuckin’ good as new when you wake up.”

“I better be.”

The last thing Caldera heard as she drifted off was the sound of Charlie laughing.

Datafile 001.5

Malcolm Chernova was a Russian immigrant who came to America in his late teens, part of the large influx of Russian wealth that flooded the country in the 2050s. His parents worked for Supova Technology Unlimited, a small firm that handled the exporting of cyberware parts around the world. As he grew into adulthood, Chernova went to the best schools, knew all the right people and was politically connected to the point that he was practically untouchable.

After Chernova’s parents were killed while flying back to Moscow, he sold all his shares in Supova Tech, which had over the years became the leading distributor of neural booster implants on the planet. The sale made Chernova wealthy beyond the comprehension of most regular people and he spent his time traveling the world, going from party to party and leaving a string of broken hearts in his wake.

Or at least, that’s what Korehammer wanted everyone to believe.

If anyone did any digging, they would find a electronic paper trail to back everything up. Birth and death credentials, records for the sale of the Supova stock and travel itineraries for Chernova’s many trips abroad. There were even medical records to explain the scar that ran down the right side of his face; a ski accident in the Swiss alps when he was in his early twenties.

Korehammer was brought back to the present day when the young kid returned and said there were only two messages for Chernova. He had them sent directly to the apartment holo unit and asked if there was anything else he could do to help him. Korehammer smiled and said no, transferred the kid 50 credits for his trouble and walked toward the elevators to head up to his suite.

Korehammer had realized early on that to keep up the appearance of his multiple identities it would take a little bit of work and a lot of money. He purchased the apartment in The Embassy with cash shortly after the building opened and had made sure the management knew he would be using it infrequently due to his extensive traveling. If this was The Plex, you could be sure that it would have been broken into multiple times already and gutted of every item of any value.

However, seeing as this was City Center and Chernova was a upstanding, if a bit eccentric, multimillionaire, Korehammer didn’t have to worry about that happening. He could leave a dead body in his apartment and it would still be there whenever he returned.

Another of the perks of having more money than you know what to do with.

Korehammer entered the elevator and swiped his NIIC over the reader to the left of the door. It automatically took him to the 28th floor where his apartment was located. Unlike his former living accommodations in The Plex, his home at The Embassy was a lavish suite of four rooms with massive windows that gave him a spectacular view of Rittenhouse Square.

Of course, money couldn’t entirely take away the slight sense of paranoia that Korehammer liked to think helped keep him alive. As he entered the apartment, he said out loud “Deactivate Surveillance Protocol Alpha. Code Beta-Beta-Twelve.”

After a slight pause a voice said “Code accepted. Welcome home Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face. He couldn’t believe what had happened over the course of the last 24 hours. He went from a happily retired ex-corporate soldier and courier to being hip deep into something he still couldn’t entirely understand. However, that didn’t change the fact he told Caldera he would get whatever was in Atlantic City to whoever he was supposed to get it to.

Once he finished in the bathroom, Korehammer went over to his small desk that was against the wall in the living area. He activated the holo emitter so he could watch the messages Chernova had received since his last time here.

The first was months old and from a woman whose name Korehammer didn’t even remember. He had met her the last time he had gone to Neo Vegas on business. She worked at one of the many strip clubs in the city and Korehammer had stupidly given her his real contact info.

Too much Jack Daniels can make even the most distrustful man careless.

The second message was only 12 hours old and was encrypted, both of which Korehammer thought was incredibly odd. The encoding meant only Malcolm Chernova could watch the transmission since only his NIIC could break the encryption. Korehammer thought about it for a minute and couldn’t think of anyone who would send a harmless flake like Chernova an encrypted message.

Unless…

Korehammer used his NIIC and after a few moments the message, now with the encoding gone, began to play.

It was from Corrinne Caldera.

She looked like she had been through the ringer. Caldera’s right arm looked like it was limp at her side and her Green Day t-shirt was covered in blood, most likely her own. Her hair was all over the place and she had a dark circle under her one human eye, which meant she hadn’t slept at all yet.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Corrinne Caldera. We met last year at the Burning Sphere Festival in Nevada. We have a mutual friend and I was hoping you could get a message to him.”

“Could you please let him know I am all right. We ran into some trouble the other night and I was taken in by the PCPD as were our two acquaintances. They decided to keep me there for the night, obstinately for my own safety, despite my protests otherwise.”

“The two friends are gone. Both were found dead in their cells hours after they were brought in. It wasn’t a suicide however. The cops told me that It was as if their bodies just stopped functioning, like a switch had been flipped and the two just died. I’m hoping to get more information from a friend at the coroner tomorrow. If I find out anything I’ll let him know.”

“If you could also tell our friend that I appreciate what he’s doing and hopefully, I can meet him in a few days.”

“Thanks again Mr. Chernova. Have a good evening.”

With that, the holotransmission ended.

Korehammer watched the entire message a second time, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything and tried to understand what this all meant.

First, he was happy and incredibly relieved that Caldera was okay. Korehammer had been so busy watching out for his own ass he hadn’t had time to think about what befell her. The shoulder injury looked bad but she knew plenty of booster docs who could fix her right up without any problem.

What really got Korehammer’s mind racing was what she had said about the pair of mercs that had opened fire on them.

Both were dead? And no one seemed to have any clue from what? That in and of itself sent up a number of red flags but when you combine that with the fact both seemed pretty much invulnerable and alarm bells really started to go off.

Korehammer wondered if the same fate had come to pass for the two he had run into on the magrail. All four of the mercs looked like they could have been brothers or cousins at the very least. Was it some kind of new cyberware? Maybe a new nanotech virus that hadn’t made it down to the rest of the population yet? And if it was, did that mean some kind of government or megacorp was involved in all this?

Korehammer shook his head, which was spinning from all this new data.

What the fuck have I gotten myself into? He thought to himself, probably not for the last time.

After thinking about it for a few minutes, Korehammer made a decision. Given what was going on and the lack of information he had, the best thing he could do was get to Atlantic City, get the package and deliver it as quickly as possible. He cared about Caldera but this whole state of affairs was rapidly spiraling out of control. Korehammer knew from experience that he needed to extract himself from this situation as fast as possible, if not sooner.

Korehammer went into the bedroom, which was just as sparsely furnished as the rest of the apartment. He walked past the bed to the opposite wall and looked to the ceiling.

“Open Ordnance Cache Two. Code Sigma-Delta-Seven.”

A small panel opened in the wall and a voice said “Submit to retinal scan. You have fifteen seconds to comply before counter measures are initiated.”

Korehammer leaned forward and his eye was scanned by the computer. A minute later the disembodied voice returned and said “Identity confirmed. Have a good day.”

Slowly the bulk of the wall opened to reveal a shallow space about two feet deep and five feet wide. Inside were a variety of heavy and medium assault rifles, ammunition and an assortment of knives and other weapons.

When Korehammer had purchased the apartment, he had brought in his own crew to make some very specific modifications. He knew that his place in The Plex was impossible to make secure so he decided to load his other safe houses with everything he would need if things went to hell. And since each was tied to a different NIIC, it was almost out of the question for anyone to trace them back to him.

The guys he had brought in did some excellent work. The alcove was invisible to almost every kind of scan and there was even space inside to hide if it came to that. It was a shame Korehammer had to kill both of them to make one hundred percent certain it remained a secret.

At the time Korehammer thought maybe he was being a bit paranoid. Turns out there is no such thing.

Korehammer grabbed a large grey duffel bag and filled it with what he thought he may need over the next few days. His CCMMC Qi-15 shotgun, the Towa Type-99 assault rifle, a Excalibur taser nightstick and his Mystic Tech Spawnblade. Just like with his Sternmeyer, each weapon was linked to the neural implant in his skull that made it so Korehammer was the only one who could use them.

For a minute Korehammer thought maybe he was overdoing it and then he remembered those mercs and how they had shrugged off his shots at the diner.

He grabbed a pair of Federated Arms X-22 handguns, threw them in and then zipped up the duffel bag.

Once he was done packing, Korehammer entered the kitchen to make something to eat. He never did get to enjoy his burger so it had been quite a while since he had last put anything in his stomach. While his apartment included a top of the line synthstation, the fried eggs and potatoes he made were still a flavorless mess on a plate. However, Korehammer found he was so hungry he didn’t really care.

Once he was finished, Korehammer used his NIIC to place a call to Renna Drayton, his casino services rep at the Solar Garden Hotel and Casino in Philadelphia. One of the perks of being Chernova was that in order to keep the ruse alive, on occasion Korehammer had to go to one of the city’s exclusive casino complexes for a few days. He would place bets for outrageous amounts of credits, drink nonstop and basically enjoy the hell out of himself, leaving the impression of a devil may care millionaire without a concern in the world.

As a result, every casino in the city had tried to get Chernova to come to their gaming house to gamble. Korehammer had even received offers from the Omnicrom a few times, which he found incredibly ironic. He had settled on the Solar Garden because they left Korehammer alone and never asked a lot of questions. After two visits they had assigned Korehammer a casino rep of his very own to cater to his every need and want.

Renna Drayton was in her mid-twenties, blonde, incredibly fit and had everything a man Korehammer’s age would normally find very attractive. She would flirt with him from the moment he arrived at the casino and Korehammer would always act like he was enjoying every minute of it.

However, if Korehammer was being honest with himself, he thought she was a bit boring and one-dimensional.

After a moment or two, a holoscreen materialized in the air and Drayton’s mouth broke into a huge smile when she saw him.

“Mr. Chernova! How are you doing? It feels like forever since we last saw you at the Solar Garden.”

“I’m doing well Renna. How are you?”

“I’m great sir. So what can I help you with today? Were you planning to come by for a visit? Should I have your usual suite prepared?”

Korehammer shook his head. “Nyet. Not today. I’m calling to ask a favor.”

Drayton had a questioning look on her face for a split second before her smile returned. “Sure thing sir. What did you need?”

“I need to know if you can make arrangements for me to stay at the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex in Atlantic City.”

Drayton’s questioning look returned and this time stayed put for a second or two. “The Shina-Yasuyan? In Atlantic City? Why would you want to go there?”

Korehammer sighed ever so slightly, giving the impression he was becoming irritated with all the questions. “For personal business. Do you know a rep there who can help me?”

Drayton got the message loud and clear. She cleared her throat and the professional demeanor returned. “Sure thing Mr. Chernova. Just give me a minute and I’ll patch you through to a friend of mine who works there.”

The screen went blank as Drayton put Korehammer on hold and attempted to contact whoever it was that she knew at the Shina-Yasuyan.

Korehammer could have made the arrangements himself or just arrived in Atlantic City unannounced and likely been taken care of without any issue. Chernova’s reputation usually preceded him no matter what casino he went to. Yet by having Drayton help him, it would make thing a bit easier and help the legend of Malcolm Chernova grow.

It was a win/win for everyone.

Just then the holoscreen reactivated and it was filled by a new face. She had auburn hair pulled back in a tight bun, fair skin, green eyes and the whitest teeth Korehammer had ever seen.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. My name is Neomi Wynn and I’m a host here at the Shina-Yasuyan. Miss Drayton explained to me that you wish to visit us?”

Da. That is correct.”

“Well we’d be happy to see you sir. Miss Drayton spoke very highly of you and said we should do everything in our power to make you happy. When did you want to come down sir?”

“Tonight if possible.”

Drayton must have spoke at length about the amount of money Chernova spent while gambling because Wynn didn’t even bat an eye at his request. “Of course sir. Did you want us to send a car to pick you up or did you make other arrangements?”

“A car would be lovely.”

“No problem at all Mr. Chernova. We can have someone there in twenty minutes to pick you up.”

“Excellent. I’ve heard a lot about the Shina-Yasuyan and I’m looking forward to seeing if it lives up to the legends.”

“We’ll try our best sir. We’ll see you in an hour or so Mr. Chernova.”

“Thank you. Dasvidaniya.”

“Goodbye sir.”

Korehammer broke the connection and went back into the bedroom. He grabbed a second duffel bag and threw in some shirts and pants, not really looking at what he was packing, as well as the satchel containing the Stasis Cradle. He then changed into clothes more suitable for a millionaire on a last minute trip to Atlantic City and took both bags into the living area.

Korehammer decided to leave the neurobinary VR chip Caldera had given him here. If things went south there was no way he wanted any of this to be connected to her more so than it already was.

As he placed the chip in the drawer of the desk, he said “I don’t know what you’ve gotten me into Corrinne, but this is it. I’m going to get whatever the hell this is to whoever you want me to get it to and then I’m out. Done. Finito. No more. I’m sorry but you’re on your own.”

After a few minutes Korehammer received a call that his car was waiting for him downstairs. He looked up at the ceiling and said “Activate Surveillance Protocol Beta. Code Upsilon-Delta-Three.”

The computer voice relied “Code accepted. Have a nice day Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer left his apartment, got on the elevator and went downstairs. He hoped by this time tomorrow, this whole situation was over and done with and Korehammer could get back to being retired.

He hoped.

Datafile 001.4

Korehammer got the few belongings he had together and walked out of his room at the Omnicrom. He waved his NIIC over the reader next to the door and the voice of the Omnicrom MCP softly intoned “Have a nice day sir.”

He took the elevator down to the lobby and exited onto Passyunk Ave. Even at this relatively early time of the evening it was crowded with people, all looking for something even they probably couldn’t articulate. Korehammer decided taking the magrail would just be asking for trouble, so he used his NIIC to order a cab.

The self-driving autocar arrived a few minutes later and Korehammer climbed into the back. He waved his NIIC over the terminal and said “Home.” The car automatically accessed the address and deducted the cost of the trip from his account. He was quickly on his way, heading west on Passyunk toward Broad Street.

Traffic was worse than normal and it took almost 20 minutes to get to 16th and West Shunk Street, the location of the apartment building where Korehammer lived. What used to be a block of individual row homes before the War was now a featureless 10-story structure that provided shelter for just about anyone who had the money for the rent. The entire Plex was made up of buildings just like it, built by Comcast Systems after they bought the city to deal with the homeless population. While the number of homeless in Philadelphia has dropped to almost nothing in the last few decades, everyone would agree that what made the city unique was lost in the process.

He had the autocar drop him off a few blocks from his building, fully expecting there to be more mercs waiting for him. However, after casing the surrounding area for a full ten minutes, Korehammer concluded there were no goons to be found, which made him even more suspicious than he already was.

Korehammer never used an elevator if he could help it. Something about being in an enclosed space like that made him uneasy. So he took the stairs to the fifth floor and then made a right, heading toward his small one bedroom apartment. He was about fifteen feet from his door when he slowed and then stopped altogether.

Korehammer had learned a long time ago to trust his intuition. Listening to his gut had saved his ass on more than one occasion and it was speaking to him again as he stood in the hallway. He pulled out his Sternmeyer and activated it, slowly creeping along the wall towards the door of his apartment.

The NIIC reader that he used to open the door looked fine, with the small red light blinking every few seconds, indicating that the door was currently locked. For most residents that would have been enough to reassure them seeing as no one but the person who lived there could use the NIIC reader to open the door.

But Trevor Korehammer wasn’t most people.

Korehammer moved as quietly as possible, easing toward his door, his Sternmeyer out and online. He was fully expecting trouble but hoping against hope that he was wrong.

He reached out with his left hand and waved his NIIC over the reader. A low chime sounded and as the light went from red to green the door slid open, revealing the dark interior of Korehammer’s home.

Korehammer stepped inside, quickly sweeping his Sternmeyer left to right, covering the living room and small kitchen. As his door slid shut, the room was plunged into darkness and the only thing he could hear was the sound of his own breathing. He slowly walked down the short hallway past the bathroom, which was also dark and empty, toward the door to his bedroom. As he approached it slid open automatically, revealing the room inside.

Unlike the rest of the apartment, his bedroom was bathed in light. The overhead fluorescent bulb was lit and it illuminated the entire room. Korehammer did a quick check and could see that no one was here.

However, someone had definitely been in his apartment.

He came to this conclusion thanks to two telling signs. First, Korehammer never left any lights on in his apartment. It was an old trick he had learned from a friend in the Moss Genetic Systems army. Odds were if someone broke into your home and was stupid enough to turn on a light, they wouldn’t think to turn it off before they left.

And second, Ludmila was laying on his bed with her throat slashed ear to ear, blood pooling under her body and running onto the floor.

“Motherfucker…” Korehammer cursed softly to himself.

He walked over and saw that whomever had cut her throat had obviously enjoyed their work. They had practically severed Ludmila’s head from her neck and Korehammer could tell it was likely done with a Kendachi Monoknife, but one that was a bit longer than standard.

Korehammer looked down at Ludmila and shook his head, getting angrier with himself by the second. This was exactly why he had decided to leave the business and get out of the game altogether. It seemed like as he got older, he was saying goodbye to more and more people that meant something to him and it had gotten to be too much. Korehammer didn’t exactly have a large circle of friends to begin with, so when he found someone he liked, he didn’t want to see something happen to them because of him.

Which is precisely what had happened to Ludmila.

“I’m sorry.” was all he could bring himself to say.

Whoever did this was sending a message: “Don’t fuck with us.” Obviously they knew who Korehammer was, where he lived and that he was involved somehow with whatever Caldera had going on. That meant he had a big target on his back and any sane man would probably head off to a tropical island and hide.

Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t an option anymore. Aside from the fact they had attacked Caldera and tried to assassinate him, they had killed Korehammer’s favorite waitress, the only woman who knew he liked ketchup on his burgers.

They made this personal.

Putting the grisly scene out of his mind, Korehammer realized he needed to get out of here and fast. While he didn’t expect whoever did this to come back, there was no reason to stick around. This apartment had been compromised and was no longer of any use to him.

Korehammer went over to his closet and quickly emptied it, throwing the contents all over the room. Once he was finished, he knelt down and placed his right hand flat on the floor of the small closet. Where his hand made contact it started to glow a faint green and eventually a voice said “Scan accepted.” Korehammer removed his hand and slowly a section of the floor opened to reveal a space underneath and inside was a small metal case. He reached in, took out the case and then walked out of the bedroom and into the living area.

Korehammer placed the metal case on the table he used for eating and typed a 12-digit code into the screen that was fixed to the top. He heard a satisfying “click” and the case popped open. He looked down and lifted the lid the rest of the way, his face illuminated by a soft orange glow.

Inside were seven NIICs, each taking up one of eight slots on a computer board in the interior of the case. One slot was empty and each remaining circuit glowed with the same faint orange light that had become ubiquitous with the NIIC over the decades.

It turned out the Psidev Corporation had been right. It was in fact hopeless to try and hack a NIIC. Korehammer had spent a number of months and an ungodly amount of credits to find this out the hard way when he started his courier business. He knew that in order to move the things his clients wanted moved and to do it without getting caught, leaving a functioning NIIC in his wrist was not going to work. Korehammer needed to figure out some way to neutralize the damn thing.

Thanks to his connections and time in the MGS army, Korehammer knew some of the best hackers on the planet. People who could get into some of the most secure datastreams in the world without anyone being the wiser. Yet even they couldn’t crack whatever Psidev had done to make the NIIC software impossible to hack into.

Once he gave up on the idea of trying to hack the NIIC, Korehammer decided to think his way around the problem. After a few weeks, it dawned on him; if he couldn’t neutralize the NIIC, maybe he could use the tech to his advantage.

One concession Psidev had made to the initial design to keep the civil rights lawyers at bay was to program the NIIC to erase all an individual’s information when they died. Within minutes of a person’s death, all the data on a NIIC was deleted and irretrievably lost. Since the burial of dead bodies had been outlawed, the NIIC itself would then be destroyed when the corpse was vaporized, leaving no information behind.

Luckily Korehammer knew someone who worked in the city morgue who owed him a favor. Sure, digging NIICs out of the wrists of corpses wasn’t exactly a fun way to spend an evening, but once done Korehammer had seven blank NIICs to show for his work. Thanks to Psidev never thinking anyone would want to do something with a inert NIIC, figuring out how to input new information onto the circuit was surprisingly easy.

In short order Korehammer had taken the seven NIICs and created seven new identities, each one serving a specific purpose. The hackers who had no luck getting into the NIIC itself had no problem breaking into the government’s secure NIIC database and uploading all the information Korehammer had provided.

Next he and Caldera had to find someone who could create the tech needed to make the rest of Korehammer’s plan work. Who they found was Darwin Rhyne, a mafia-paid booster doc who worked with the underground cyberfighting circuit on the side. He had a reputation for thinking outside the box and being one of the best cybertechs on the East Coast.

Eventually Rhyne came up with the idea to remove Korehammer’s entire left hand and supplant it with a cybernetic replacement, one that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. The idea was that way Korehammer could swap out the NIIC in his wrist for whatever the situation called for and could even become someone else when he needed to.

The only problem was that in order to get the NIIC out of Korehammer’s wrist and into the new cybernetic housing, Rhyne would have to cut off the hand while Korehammer was not only awake, but without any type of sedative or painkiller. According to Rhyne, the fear was that the NIIC would sense it was being removed and would alert the authorities, so it would have to stay in the living tissue of the wrist until the new cybernetic hand was attached to Korehammer and online.

That said, Rhyne had a reputation among booster docs for having a bit of a sadistic streak. It’s entirely possible he wanted to cut off Korehammer’s hand without the aid of any anesthesia just for the fun of it.

Regardless, the pain was something the likes of which Korehammer had never experienced before. Rhyne used a laser scalpel to remove the hand, which cauterized the stump immediately but did nothing to stop the searing white hot pain from almost causing Korehammer to black out. During the entire procedure, Rhyne had a small smile on his face that seemed to grow the more Korehammer screamed.

Once the operation was finished, Rhyne placed the hand in stasis, where it would remain until he was ready to move Korehammer’s original NIIC into it’s new home. Four excruciatingly painful hours later, it was finally done and Korehammer had a new cybernetic hand that looked almost exactly like the original.

All Korehammer had to do was press on the fleshy part of his hand where the thumb connected to his palm and a small panel would slide open on his wrist. Similar to popping out a VR chip, all he needed to do was apply pressure and the NIIC would release from its housing and could be replaced by another.

In effect, now Korehammer could become any one of eight different identities. Over the years, the cyberware had proven invaluable and worth every credit he had to pay Rhyne. It was what made him so good at his job as a courier. Why shoot your way out of a situation when you could simply wave your NIIC and walk out without a shot being fired?

Rhyne had also built and designed the case that stored the extra NIICs when they weren’t being used. He called it a Stasis Cradle and each NIIC had a specific slot where it would be kept. When the NIIC was placed in the slot, it would then send out a continuous false datastream that, if anyone happened to look, would show that Korehammer was still on the move and using his NIIC as normal.

The tech had paid for itself several times over and all it cost Korehammer was his left hand. Not a bad deal at all.

Now that Korehammer had the Cradle and knew that whoever had broken into his apartment didn’t know about the NIICs, it was time to go. He pressed the base of his thumb and the housing opened to reveal his NIIC, glowing orange just as it should. He gently pressed down on it and once it released, Korehammer pulled it out and slid it into the empty slot in the case. He then took a different one and placed it into the empty housing, pressing down until it locked into place. He once again pressed on his thumb and the panel slid shut, leaving no indication to the naked eye that Korehammer had a cybernetic hand.

There was always a moment of disorientation whenever her changed the NIIC and adopted a different identity. A whole new set of data flooded his brain and it took a second for his mind to adapt. Thankfully over the years he had gotten used to it and the mental confusion only lasted a few minutes.

Korehammer grabbed a satchel that was laying on the couch and put the Cradle inside. He then went to the bedroom again and changed his clothes, stuffing his still bloody jacket into the satchel and replacing it with a black duster. Last he went to the nightstand and emptied the top drawer of every bit of ammunition he had for the Sternmeyer.

Before he left the room he looked over at Ludmila once again and exhaled softly. Korehammer still couldn’t believe she was gone, and in such a unnecessarily violent way. She deserved better.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get the fucking bastards that did this to you.” he said.

Korehammer looked around the apartment for the last time. He had lived here a number of years, longer then he should have if he was being honest with himself. It sure wasn’t fancy, but it was home and he was going to miss it.

He looked up at the ceiling and said “Activate Purge Protocol Delta. Fifteen minute delay. Activation code Zero-Zero-Beta.”

A disembodied male voice replied “Code accepted.”

He exited his apartment and on his way to the stairs, reached out and pulled down the fire alarm. Instantly the hallways darkened as emergency lights came on and you could hear a robotic voice saying over speakers “Do not panic. There is an emergency situation. Please evacuate the building.” The voice said it over and over as people began to fill the hallways and head for the stairwells.

Given the high turnover of the place and the type of renters it attracted, most of the occupants were probably out, asleep or high on some kind of drug. Korehammer watched from across the street as the residents who were left streamed out into the early evening air, wondering what the hell was going on.

Satisfied Korehammer had done what he could, he walked away from his home, heading north on 16th Street. Once he was about two blocks away, he heard and felt the explosion as his apartment went up in a fireball of C-6 Flatfire plastique and thermite. The rest of the building was quickly consumed by the blaze and within minutes there would never be any indication that Trevor Korehammer had ever lived there.

As Korehammer walked down the street, he was certain of just one thing. He sure was going to miss that Mr. Coffee.

***

Korehammer used his NIIC to order a second autocar, which picked him up minutes later as emergency vehicles sped past toward his old apartment building. Just as he had done before when he left the Omnicrom, he waved his NIIC over the reader in the back and said “Home.” to the car, which then proceeded to drive north toward City Center.

Now that he had his stash of spare NIICs, he could go to one of his other safehouses in the city and not have to worry about anyone getting the drop on him. Once the NIICs had been reprogramed and then reactivated, they had the same security protocols of any other NIIC in the world. That is to say, they were completely unhackable and as secure as it got.

The autocar drove north on Broad until it got to Walnut Street and made a left, heading west. The car came to a stop in front of a 32-story luxury complex at 22nd and Walnut called The Embassy. Korehammer got out and walked into the lobby of the building, which included a mix of retail stores and apartments as well as one of the best restaurants in the state. It was the type of commercial enterprise that catered to the rich and well-connected of Philadelphia and not the kind of place where you would normally find someone like Korehammer.

At the desk was a young kid who couldn’t be any more that 20, skinny and wearing glasses. Korehammer didn’t remember ever seeing him before but since it had been several months since his last visit here, that wasn’t all that surprising.

As Korehammer walked up to the desk, the kid looked up from whatever it was that he was using to pass the time and said “Can I help you sir?”

“Yes. I’d like to pick up whatever messages might have been left for me.” Korehammer said with just a hint of a Russian accent.

“Sure thing. Your name?”

“Chernova. Malcolm Chernova”