Corrine 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 Kei-Ju 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 Hachisuka 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 Corrine 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 Kei-Ju 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. Corrine 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 BioCyber 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.”
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 Corrine. 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.