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Trevor Korehammer walked through the automatic doors of the New Galaxy Diner and, as always, headed for a table in the back, away from the entrance.

Years of work as an elite member of the Moss Genetic Systems corporate army can do that to a man. Make him careful almost to a fault. Korehammer always had to know where all the exits were, where all the other people in the room were in relation to his position and always had to sit facing the entrance. Only a fool sat with their back to a door.

You don’t get to be the ripe old age of 48 in 2084 without being aware of your surroundings. That and a little bit of luck.

Fortunately the staff at the New Galaxy knew Korehammer from the years he has spent eating here. He enjoyed the fact the lighting was subdued and it was never that crowded. Besides, a man can only take so much synthfood before he needs to get something that actually touched a grill and used to have a heartbeat. Sure, real food wasn’t cheap but Korehammer had the money, so why not splurge?

He headed to his usual booth, in the back to the left of the restrooms and waited for Ludmila to come take his order. He could have just input what he wanted into the touchscreen that was mounted to the wall at the end of the table, but Korehammer was old fashioned. He actually liked to interact with the staff here. Especially Ludmila.

After a few minutes Ludmila came out from the small kitchen and headed Korehammer’s way. She was a short, stocky woman in her 40s who had seen and lived through too much in her short lifetime. She had probably been attractive once, before life took its toll.

“The usual Trev?” She asked without looking up from the datapad in her hand. Despite living in Philadelphia ever since the end of the War, her Russian accent never seemed to soften.

“Yeah, but no onion rings. And has anyone been in here looking for me?”

She looked up at Korehammer and seemed to sigh, almost like she was saying “You’ve got to be kidding me with this shit.” Then she shook her head and said, slightly under her breath, “Are you expecting company?”

“Yeah. But I don’t anticipate any trouble. So you can relax. It won’t be like that time with the Yakuza corporate goons.”

“Damn well better not. Took us a month to fix the mess you glupets made.”

“I paid for the repairs, didn’t I?”

Ludmila shrugged, looked back at her datapad and walked toward the kitchen to put his order in.

Korehammer smiled and shook his head. Same old Ludmila. This diner was her life and the fact she even let Korehammer back in here after that fiasco two years ago amazed him to this day.

As Korehammer waited for his food, he kept glancing up at the automatic doors every time he heard them hiss open. It had been been years since he had laid eyes on Corrinne Caldera, but he figured that he’d still recognize her if he saw her.

Caldera had been his handler when he became a courier after he left the ranks of the MGS army. The two had a mutual friend who made introductions and a partnership was quickly formed. Caldera handled lining up jobs, making contacts and any tech upgrades that were needed to get assignments completed while Korehammer moved whatever the client wanted moved. Whether that was illegal genetic codes, corporate data streams or modified Militech Ronin Light Assault Rifles, Korehammer quickly earned a reputation as a man who could get something from Point A to Point B with little to no assistance and complete discretion.

Yet another benefit of the time spent with the MGS Shadow Unit.

Of course, that had been several years ago. The partnership, which made both Korehammer and Caldera very, very wealthy, ended when she suddenly disappeared. No explanation, no reason, it was like she and her relationship with Korehammer had never existed.

He made some inquiries, asked a few people he knew, but no one seemed to have any information on what happened to Corrinne Caldera. If Korehammer was being honest with himself, he had to admit he was impressed. To be able to go off the grid so completely was a neat trick in this day and age, something many knew was all but impossible.

So when he received the holotransmission from her, requesting a meeting in their usual place, Korehammer was somewhat stunned. What could she want after all this time? And why would she contact him of all people? Korehammer was all but retired, happily living out his days as just another anonymous face in the crowd.

It was then that Ludmila arrived with his food to wake him from his reverie. She placed the plates in front of him and stood waiting, like she knew what was coming but wasn’t going to give Korehammer the satisfaction of acknowledging it.

“Ketchup?”

She took the bottle from behind her back and placed it on the table, slamming it down a bit harder than she really had to.

“Like I would forget after all these years.” She then turned and walked away and Korehammer could have sworn he saw the faintest hint of a smirk on her face.

Korehammer looked down at his plate. A real beef burger, real bacon on an actual roll with onions and tomatoes that came from the ground. Nothing synthetic or reclaimed or grown in a tube.

Yep. Money sure did have its perks.

Korehammer poured some ketchup onto the roll and had just lifted the entire thing to his mouth when her heard the “whoosh” of the autodoors opening. He instinctively looked up and in walked a woman in her mid 40s with her long, straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore black leather pants that matched the jacket she had on over a classic Green Day t-shirt. As she walked into the diner, the fluorescent lights overhead gleamed off the chrome that covered the left side of her face around her eye.

Corrinne Caldera, in the flesh. So to speak.

Korehammer placed his burger back onto his plate and watched as she surveyed the diner much the same way he did when he arrived. When Caldera caught sight of him, she quickly made her way over and sat in the booth on the opposite side of him.

Other than her hair being a bit longer and some subtle upgrades to her cybertech, Caldera looked the same as she did four years ago when she pulled her disappearing act.

Korehammer laid one hand on the table and the other found its way to his Sternmeyer Type 35 autopistol that he always carried with him. Thanks to the neurolink he had paid extra to have installed, only he could fire it and all it took was a simple thought to bring the gun online and arm it.

Considering how long it had been and the cryptic nature of Caldera’s message, Korehammer didn’t think he was being overly cautious.

As his hand found his gun Korehammer looked her in the eyes and simply said “Caldera.”

She took off the mirrorshades she had been wearing and looked back at him. Caldera had one blue eye and the other, a cybernetic implant that glowed a faint green. It took years for Korehammer to get used to the fact that Caldera only blinked with one eye, the other forever open and looking.

“Korehammer.”

Caldera’s voice still sounded silky smooth and forceful. The years had done nothing to diminish the fact that when she entered a room, Caldera took command and demanded to be heard.

Just then Ludmila appeared as if from nowhere. It always amazed Korehammer how she could arrive and disappear without making a sound.

Ludmila looked at Caldera expectantly, waiting for her to order. Unlike Korehammer, who had ordered pretty much the same thing every time the two met here to do business, Caldera had liked to change things up. But to the surprise of both him and Ludmila, Caldera just ordered a black coffee and continued to look at Korehammer.

As Ludmila walked away to get the coffee, Caldera leaned back in the booth and gave Korehammer a once over. Much like Caldera, he hadn’t changed much in the years since they last spoke. Sure, there was a bit more gray mixed with in the red of the goatee he wore and there were a few more wrinkles around his brown eyes. But overall he still looked as he always had. Except for the lack of any obvious cybertech, he could have been any old man walking down the street.

Which is exactly how Korehammer liked it.

Caldera only broke eye contact when Ludmila came back with the coffee, which she placed in front of her and then turned and left without a word. Korehammer thought to himself Damn. Even for Ludmila that’s cold.

“You planning to do something with that Sternmeyer or can we talk?” Caldera said without preamble.

Despite his better judgement, Korehammer released his grip on his autopistol and instead picked back up his burger, which was getting colder by the minute. After taking a bite and offering one to Caldera, who refused, he decided it was best to get to business and leave playing catch-up for later.

“So to what do I owe the pleasure Corrinne? I tried to figure out what you might want and I came up empty every time.”

“I’ll cut the crap and get to the point. I want to hire you.”

Korehammer briefly paused as he went to take a second bite of his burger. Did she say what her thought she said?

“You want to hire me for what?”

“To move something. I need a package delivered and I need it to be done quickly and securely by someone I can trust.”

This was not what Korehammer was expecting when he received her message. Not by a long shot. He thought about it and decided that due to their previous professional relationship, it was best to be straight with her and give her the bad news.

“I’m happily retired Corrine. An encounter with some Yakuza cyborgs convinced me to get out of the game while the getting was good.”

“I know you retired. But I also know you’re the best there is. And like I said, I need someone I can trust.”

“You realize how odd it is to hear you talk about trust after the way you vanished without a trace, right?”

Caldera looked down into her coffee, a few strands of her black hair falling out of place and into her eyes.

“Yes, I’m fully aware how this looks. And if I knew someone else who could do this job and not get killed doing it, I would be talking to them right now. But the list of people who can do this and be trusted to get it done pretty much starts and ends with you.”

Korehammer would be lying if he said his interest wasn’t piqued. His life was far from boring but he did miss the thrill of a job. The pure adrenaline rush of moving a package and all the risks and rewards that included. Even so, he would need a lot more information before he agreed to do anything.

Just then the doors of the New Galaxy hissed open and two men who could only be considered trouble entered the diner. Both were completely bald, wore black trench coats and were practically bristling with armor and cybertech. The two could have been twins if not for the fact one was white and the other hispanic.

The two went over to the counter and sat down, both looking around to see who else was there and not exactly being subtle about it. As the darker skinned one sat on the stool, Korehammer caught sight of the Arasaka Rapid Assault shotgun under his coat. His twin was similarly armed, carrying a Armalite 44 autopistol as well as what looked like a cybernetic arm that could be hiding all kinds of goodies.

Korehammer didn’t need his years of experience in the MGS corps to know that his meal was finished and it was time to go.

Acting like he didn’t think anything was the least bit odd about two heavily armed mercenaries entering a diner, he took another bite of his burger and sent a command to his Sternmeyer to bring it online. While he chewed his food, he looked Caldera in the eye and ever so subtly nodded in the direction of the door.

Immediately the green in her cybernetic eye glowed brighter and more intense. Sometimes having eyes in the back of your head can come in very handy. Unfortunately, as soon as Caldera realized what was happening, she visibly paled.

She looked down at her coffee again and said “Damn.”

“So am I correct in assuming these two goons are here looking for you?”

“Yes. I thought I had lost these two back in New Pittsburgh. Guess I was wrong.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” As Caldera was speaking she took a small neurobinary VR chip out of her jacket and slid it across the table to Korehammer. “Now you take this and follow the instructions I’ve outlined. You go to Atlantic City, pick up the package and get it to the destination. This is important Korehammer. There’s more going on here than you know.”

“Atlantic City? You know how tough it is to get in there. Why the hell would you leave whatever this is all about there of all places?”

“For exactly that reason. Promise me you’ll do this Trevor.”

Korehammer was starting to get nervous. Not because of the two mercs at the counter, who were obviously getting restless, but because in all the years he had known Caldera, he had never heard her talk like this.

“Corrinne, what the fuck is going on?”

“Promise me.”

“God damn it Corrinne!” Korehammer realized his voice was getting louder and he quickly became more subdued. “Fine. I’ll figure out something. But what are you going to do?”

“When I tell you, run like hell. These two assholes are looking for me. They don’t know you from a hole in the wall and I want to keep it that way.”

“What…”

Just then, Caldera pulled a pair of heavily modified Dai Lung Streetmaster autopistols from her jacket. Korehammer had seen them in action before and for the briefest of moments, he actually felt sorry for the two goons at the other end of the diner.

Before he knew what was going on, Caldera opened fire.

Suddenly all Korehammer could hear as Caldera started pulling the triggers of her Streetmasters was the sound of breaking glass and screaming.

The few other patrons of the New Galaxy that evening made a break for it, running for the front door and out into the night. Most of them made it, but a couple of young kids ended up getting caught in the crossfire as the one thug pulled out his Armalite 44 with every intention of making Caldera regret her decision to open fire. He fired indiscriminately and repeatedly, aiming in Caldera’s general direction. The two kids ended up paying the price.

Meanwhile, his pal had pulled out his Rapid Assault shotgun and, while Caldera was distracted trying to deal with the first merc, took aim at her head.

Korehammer quickly pulled out his Sternmeyer and leveled it at the merc’s bald skull. Two quick shots later should have been the end of it as he saw both make contact squarely with his large forehead and his head jerk back from the impact. Instead, all it did was ruin his aim and the shotgun blast took out and innocent window instead of blowing Caldera’s brains all over the floor.

What the hell? Was all Korehammer could think as he watched the thug he had hit simply shrug off the two shots from the Sternmeyer and take cover behind the counter. Even if he had some kind of internal plating or armor, those were customized heavy SMG rounds. He should at very least be on the floor, writing in pain. Instead he seemed completely unfazed.

“Caldera! What the fuck is up with these guys? They former special tech forces or something?”

Caldera ducked behind the booth to reload both her Streetmasters. Thankfully the reinforced polysteel that was installed after the incident with the Yakuza held up to the continued barrage. “No clue. Korehammer, you need to get out of here. You can’t win this fight. Not against these guys.”

“Obviously. But what about you?”

“I’m going to keep them busy while you get out of here. I need you safe. Remember, Atlantic City. It’s all on the neurobinary chip.”

“I’m not going to leave you to take these goons on by yourself.”

“Aww. I didn’t know you still cared.”

“Damnit Corrinne!”

Caldera used the back of the booth as cover and continued to take shots at both mercs, who it seemed while heavily armed, knew nothing of firefight technique or how best to take out an opponent. Which told Korehammer these were not ex-military or corporate soldiers but hired muscle given toys they didn’t know how to use.

As Caldera emptied another clip and moved to reload, she looked at Korehammer. “When I say go, make a run for the broken window. I’ll cover you. I’ll contact you later.”

“Corrine…”

“GO!”

Without warning, Caldera leapt into the air and over the back of the booth she had been using as cover. She charged the two mercs, who seemed more surprised by her action then Korehammer, and screamed for him to run.

Cursing both her and the mercs, Korehammer did as he was told and jumped out the broken window and into the street. As he got up and looked at the diner, he saw Caldera had taken a bullet to her shoulder and was only able to use one arm. He thought about going back, but knew if he did then Caldera’s sacrifice would have been for nothing.

As Korehammer turned to run down the alley, he heard the sounds of sirens coming from above. The Philadelphia Corporate Police Dept. had finally arrived in all their glory. He watched as the PCPD hovercars started to lower onto the street and set up a perimeter.

Cursing under his breath again, Korehammer decided it was time to make like a tree and leave.

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