Datafile 003.5

Korehammer left the restaurant and quickly made his way up to his suite. Looking down at his hands as he waited for the elevator he noticed that they were shaking. The meeting with Gareth had managed to do something that hadn’t happened in decades.

Korehammer was rattled.

To anyone watching that meeting between him and Gareth, they wouldn’t have seen anything that might give Korehammer a reason to pause and rethink his course of action. However, thanks to his chosen profession, he had learned to read people and if he did say so himself, he was very, very good at it.

So Korehammer knew a monster when he saw one.

He had experienced a lot through the years, but had managed to compartmentalize most of it. As a member of the Moss Genetic Systems army Korehammer never questioned what he was told to do: just complete the mission and wait for the next assignment. It was similar with Caldera and their courier business. She lined up the gigs and he went where he was told, never asking too many questions or wondering if what he was doing was the right thing.

The same principle applied to the people Korehammer had dealt with. He didn’t see them as enemies or villains or victims. They were simply in his way and if they had to be removed from the equation to complete a mission, so be it. He felt no guilt about that choice and he was sure if the situation was reversed, they would feel the same way about him. It was just the way it was.

The world they lived in was filled with shades of grey. Life since the War was about survival and you did what you had to do. Right and wrong, good and evil were considered outdated and antiqued concepts that had no place in the real lives that people were living. That rationale made Korehammer very good at what he did and he would never apologize for it.

Gareth though, he was something different. Something sinister. Something, for lack of a better word, evil.

Korehammer knew instinctively from the moment he sat down that Gareth would do whatever he had to do to get his hands on that datachip, no matter what that entailed. And if that was all there was to it, Korehammer could understand and almost respect that.

No, what had really shaken Korehammer was that he knew that Gareth would enjoy it. Enjoy the killing, enjoy the blood that was spilled, enjoy the chaos that would result. It would bring him great pleasure and a likely put a big smile on his face.

The elevator chimed and the operator, this time a girl who couldn’t be older than 20, opened the doors and said something to Korehammer as he exited but he didn’t hear her. His mind was racing. He had to find Caldera and get the full story about what exactly he was now involved in. He had to figure out how to get back to Philadelphia and make a plan to get the datachip to Brooklyn. He knew that thanks to Wynn and Shina-Yasuyan security he was fine as long as he remained in the complex, but he couldn’t stay there forever.

Retirement was officially over. Korehammer was back in the game, whether he wanted to be or not.

***

Korehammer went into the suite and tried to contact Caldera with his NIIC. He hadn’t heard from her since the message he received at Chernova’s apartment and hoped nothing had happened to her since he last saw her. Korehammer cursed as the call went unanswered and eventually went to her messaging system.

“Corrine, it’s me. We need to meet and talk ASAP. I want to know exactly what the hell you have gotten me involved in. This is way more than just some package drop. I need to know everything. The time for your cloak and dagger bullshit is over. I’m deep in this now and I want to know what I’m up against. Get in touch with me as soon as you get this.”

Korehammer then went into the bedroom and got his things together. Most of the clothes he threw down the incinerator shaft, figuring he wouldn’t be needing them anymore. He pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a shirt, threw his weapons into his duffel bag and loaded and activated both of his X-22s. Finally he took the Spawnblade and activated the magnetic sheath that would keep it fixed to his thigh.

He looked in the mirror as he pulled on his black duster and grimaced. Korehammer really thought his days of having to look over his shoulder all the time was finally coming to an end. His paranoia would never go away completely, but the last few months he felt like he could maybe relax, just a little bit.

Then Corrine Caldera came back into his life and everything went to shit in record time. She had better have an excellent explanation for what all this was about on otherwise there would be hell to pay.

Time for one last performance as Chernova before leaving the Shina-Yasuyan and a bright neon target started flashing on his back.

Korehammer spoke to the ceiling. “Call Neomi Wynn.”

Moments later a holoscreen appeared before him, Wynn speaking to him from somewhere on the casino floor. “Mr. Chernova. How did your meeting go this morning?”

“Not well I am afraid, not well at all. It would seem I have made a few enemies while staying here at your beautiful hotel.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time it happened sir. Why do you think I practice on the corporate gun range twice a week?”

Korehammer laughed at that. “I am sure you are a very good shot.”

“I do okay. So, I’m sure you didn’t call me to discuss marksmanship. How can I help you today?”

“Due to … unforeseen circumstances I need to return to Philadelphia as soon as possible. It is a business matter of some importance.”

“Of course sir. I completely understand. I’ll have a car waiting for you at the valet and you can be on your way within the half hour.”

Nyet. I appreciate the offer but I would prefer another option. As you saw last night there are individuals with whom I am having some disagreements with. I would never ask one of your drivers to put their life in danger.”

Wynn put her finger on her chin. “Hmm. Well, we do have a few corporate cars we keep for employee use. There’re nothing fancy but if you prefer to drive yourself for safety reasons you are more than welcome to use one.”

Spasibo. That would be perfect.”

“Okay. I’ll have Parker, your driver from last night, pull one around to the valet.”

“Your understanding through all of this has been remarkable. I will make sure to remember this.”

“I’m just doing my job sir, whatever that may entail. Oh! Before I forget. I wanted to congratulate you on your big win.”

“My big win?”

“The Jovena Rackman fight last night in Vegas. She knocked out Tsaio Lao-Cha in the fourth round. From what I understand Lao-Cha is still in the hospital. Your bet paid out very handsomely.”

Korehammer had completely forgotten about the bets he placed at the sports book. A Rackman win was considered a long shot and he had placed a ridiculously large sum of money that the fight would end in a knockout.

“Well, since you have been so helpful during my visit, you will take half of the winnings as your gratuity.”

For the briefest of moments, Wynn’s jaw went slack. To her credit she recovered quickly and regained her composure. “Sir, that’s very generous but you really don’t need to do that.”

“It is my pleasure. You have been most helpful and a pleasure to deal with lyubov moya. I hope to see you again when I can spend more time here.”

“Of … of course Mr. Chernova. It was nice to meet you too.”

“Until next time dushen’ka.”

Korehammer ended the call before she could continue. He sincerely did hope he could return to the Shina-Yasuyan some day. It wouldn’t until this current situation has been resolved, but it gave him something to look forward to.

He grabbed his duffel bag and headed for the door. He briefly considered swapping out the Chernova NIIC for a different one, but finally decided against it. Gareth and his people seemed to already be aware of at least two of his identities. Changing to a new one could wait until he was back in Philadelphia at one of his safe houses.

Korehammer took the elevator down to the lobby and once he arrived in valet saw Parker standing by a nondescript blue BMW 9018. In its day the sedan was the height of luxury and performance, but it has generally been forgotten in the wake of the newer 9200s.

“Mr. Chernova. Miss Wynn said you would be using one of the corporate cars to go home today. I hope this will be satisfactory.”

Da. This is just fine Parker. Thank you.”

“It’s currently set to autocar but if you want to drive yourself, just use your NIIC to activate the self-driving mode.”

“I think I will drive myself. It has been a while since I was behind the wheel of a car and am afraid I might be, as you say, getting rusty.”

Parker laughed as she opened the door for him and then took his bag and put it in the trunk of the car. Korehammer placed his NIIC over the car’s dashboard control screen and said “Activate self-driving mode.”

“Acknowledged. Drive safely Mr. Chernova,” a female voice replied.

Korehammer pressed the button and the car started up, a low purr coming from the electric engine. While not as efficient as hovertech, Korehammer had to admit he preferred older model cars. While they had stopped using gasoline decades ago, older cars at least seemed to be spiritual descendants of the legendary muscle cars, unlike hovertech which, as far as he was concerned, was the automotive equivalent of synthfood.

“Have a safe trip home Mr. Chernova. Please come visit again so we can have some more fun.”

“You call last night fun?”

“You kidding? Running from armed thugs, a high-speed chase and a shootout? That’s a winner as far as I’m concerned.”

It was Korehammer’s turn to laugh as he shook Parker’s hand before closing the door. “I have left a generous tip as a way to say thank you. Until we see each other again.”

He could see Parker’s huge grin as he pulled out of the valet and headed for the tunnel that would take him to the Atlantic City Expressway. Hopefully the rest of his trip would be uneventful and he could spend the time planning for the whatever was coming down the road.

***

The last time Korehammer has actually driven a car was back when he and Caldera were still working together. It was a job in Ukraine and the car he had driven wasn’t nearly as easy to operate as the BMW. He was making good time and had just passed the Farley Metro Plaza when he noticed them.

To anyone else, they would have thought it was just traffic on the Expressway, but Korehammer knew better. The two hovercars that had been behind him since he left Atlantic City were slowly gaining, one on each side of him. He knew this was likely to happen as soon as he left the protection of the Shina-Yasuyan Complex, he was just hoping to be closer to home when it did.

Korehammer hit the accelerator, trying to get caught up to the cars just ahead of him. If he stayed in a group, it would make their job that much harder. There might be some collateral damage but it couldn’t be helped.

Just as Korehammer was getting close, he saw someone armed with a Militech LR-5 Reaper assault rifle lean out the window of one of the hovercars. He took aim and opened fire just as Korehammer yanked the wheel to the right, the spot where he just was becoming a shredded mess of concrete.

Korehammer floored it, knowing he couldn’t outrun the hovercars but trying his best to give them a harder target to hit by constantly switching lanes. Another blast of gunfire erupted behind him, the glass of the back window shattering as he pulled the wheel to the left.

The mercs continued to fire haphazardly, sending cars spinning out of control as their drivers were killed or hurt. Soon all that was left was Korehammer and the two hovercars racing down the Expressway, the gunmen gaining on him every second.

Korehammer cursed the fact his bag with all his big guns was sitting in the trunk, useless. His X-22s in their holsters would do nothing against the hovercars so all he could do was hope that he could avoid getting hit and make it to the bridge into Philadelphia.

Suddenly he heard sirens and a small smile crossed his lips. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw a New Jersey State Corpsman SWAT hovertank coming up fast. The NJSC were known to not take any shit from anyone and might be able to give Korehammer the time he needed to make his getaway.

Unfortunately for both them and him, the mercs were more than prepared. Someone came crawling out of a moon roof of one of the hovercars armed with an Arasaka 2-RVK “Peacekeeper” Grenade Launcher. Before Korehammer knew what was happening the merc fired and the hovertank exploded in a ball of fire and smoke, disappearing in the distance as Korehammer and the hovercars sped on.

Korehammer’s eyes went wide as he again looked in his mirror to see the merc now taking aim at him with the grenade launcher. He tried his best to swerve and make himself a difficult target, but he knew that it was hopeless.

“Shit …” Korehammer said as his world exploded around him.

***

The ringing in his ears was the only sensation Korehammer could feel as he tried to open his eyes. The smoke and heat made seeing anything impossible as he attempted to push himself off the hot asphalt. He could feel that his right arm was broken and his forehead felt warm and sticky.

Korehammer knew that jumping out of the moving car, especially at that speed was a desperate thing to do but he didn’t have a lot of other options. He crawled away from the wreckage as he tried to get one of the X-22s out of the holster. He knew the drivers of those hovercars would be here any second and he had to be as ready as he could. He painfully got to his feet, a low scream escaping his lips as he put his weight on his left leg. Probably broken, worry about it later.

The car was engulfed in flames as Korehammer staggered toward the trunk, trying to figure out how he was going to get inside when he felt someone grip his shoulder and throw him across the road. He hit the plastisteel guardrail hard, knocking the wind out of him as he sagged to the ground, his X-22 flying in the opposite direction.

Korehammer sat there, back against the guardrail with blood running into his eyes as he saw someone get out of one of the hovercars. He wiped his hand across his face to clear his vision as they got closer. Once Korehammer realized who it was, he muttered a curse under his breath.

“Not having a great day, are we asshole?”

It was Felicia, the woman from the night before. The same one who had apologized at the meeting with Gareth. Still dressed all in black with mirrorshades covering her eyes and skin as pale as moonlight.

Korehammer looked up at her. “To be honest? I’ve had better.”

“Didn’t I tell you I was going to teach you all about pain?” As she said it she put the heel of her boot on Korehammer’s broken leg. He could feel the bones grinding together as he stifled a scream.

“Aw, that hurt?” Felicia pressed down harder.

Korehammer let out a cry of agony as she continued to apply pressure. The last time he had felt pain like this was when he had his hand replaced. It was not a sensation he had wanted to ever relive.

Felicia crouched down, her mirrorshades even with his eyes and her face inches from his. Her breath reeked of a smell like rotten eggs. “You know what? I like you. You have spunk for an old infirm fuck. You could be useful to us later on. I think I’m going to keep you.”

Another woman, dressed the same as Felicia looked suddenly alarmed. “Felicia, what are you doing? We’re supposed to retrieve the package and kill this guy. That’s it.”

“Shut the fuck up Trish. I know what I’m doing. Besides, I haven’t had lunch yet.”

“This is a bad idea Felicia.”

“I said shut the fuck up!”

Korehammer had no clue what was going on but he knew it wasn’t good whatever it was. He was helpless to stop Felicia as she came closer, opening her mouth wide as she did. It was then that Korehammer got a really good look at her face and realized something.

Jesus Christ, are those fangs? he thought to himself as he felt her lips on his neck.

Datafile 003.4

Korehammer made his way up to his room, still in something of a daze after the way the evening turned out. He had heard rumors about the casinos in Atlantic City and the lengths they would go to in order to ensure privacy and security for the ultra-wealthy who came to visit, but this was ridiculous. Korehammer had shown up on their doorstep with a hovervan filled with armed mercenaries on his tail and everyone seemed unfazed.

If nothing else, Miss Wynn had earned her gratuity and then some.

The elevator opened and Korehammer got out, let himself into his suite and sat in the first chair he could find. He looked up at the ceiling and let a long breath escape his lips. He was going to be 50 in a few years and while that was far from old, it was too old to be running around getting into gunfights with unstoppable mercs and wannabe goths.

Korehammer got up and removed his X-22 from the holster and put it on the table by the kitchen, followed by the small box that contained the two datachips and the burned out Chameleon Mask. He felt a slight pang of guilt when he saw it, thinking of Vanya and how maybe she deserved a better fate.

He shook his head ruefully. “Damn. I am getting old,” he said aloud as he walked into one of the bedrooms. It was almost midnight and he had been awake for what felt like forever. His muscles ached and his head was throbbing thanks to having to maintain the Chernova persona for an extended period of time. He took a long vibro-shower and tried to get the stink of Cheetahs off of him before crawling into bed. Within moments he was asleep, the Spawnblade under his pillow.

***

Korehammer was stirred awake by the sound of the door chime, which had been going off for the last few minutes. He asked what time it was and was told it was five after nine in the morning. It was then that he remembered asking Wynn for a pot of coffee to be delivered at nine.

He got out of bed and pulled on a robe as he walked over to the double doors. Korehammer hadn’t even opened them all the way before a young man came bustling in, pushing a small hovercart with a pot of steaming coffee on it as well as a covered tray.

“Mr. Chernova? I have your coffee for you sir.”

Spasibo. And your name is?”

“Ezra sir.” He took both the coffee and the tray off the cart and placed them on the table where Korehammer had left his gun, the datachips and the Chameleon Mask the night before. To Ezra’s credit, he didn’t even flinch when he saw them.

“Miss Wynn asked me to bring up an assortment of pastries for you. She thought you might enjoy them with your coffee.”

“If you do not mind a question, where is the coffee from?”

“It’s a combination of beans from India and Brazil sir. The beans were flown in fresh this morning and ground right before your coffee was brewed.”

Korehammer nodded his head. He had been accused of being a “coffee snob” before and it never really bothered him. While his late, lamented Mr. Coffee was far from fancy, he used it with coffee ground from some of the most exotic and expensive beans you could get. As far as he was concerned, coffee was not something you trifled with.

“Thank you Ezra. That will be all.”

“Of course sir. If you need or want anything else, just ask.” With that Ezra left the suite just as quickly as he had arrived.

Korehammer poured himself a cup of coffee and after determining that it was up to his standards, picked up the small box that contained the two datachips and removed both. He turned them over in his hand and saw that they were essentially identical, the only noticeable difference is that one had an access code printed on it. He activated the suite’s neural interface display and inserted the one with the code into the reader.

A holoscreen appeared in the air in front of him and once he input the access code the screen began scrolling information for an account held by the National Cryptobank of NeoTokyo. It included a balance of one million credits to be paid to Trevor Korehammer upon the release of the funds by one Elon Mattix.

According to Zechiel, Mattix was the person Korehammer was supposed to locate in Brooklyn. Once he found him and gave him the other datachip, he would get paid and he could finally go back into retirement.

Not that Korehammer needed the money. He lived a relatively simple life and didn’t exactly want for much of anything. The issue for him was that once he took a job, he had to see it through to completion. Korehammer wasn’t a fan of loose ends as they could come back and bite you when you’re least expecting it.

Looking at the neural interface he said aloud “Search. Elon Mattix.”

“Searching…”

The screen that appeared before him told Korehammer that Mattix was a seemingly unremarkable 29-year-old who owned a tattoo parlor called The Auditory Eye, just as Zechiel had said. From the picture he was bald, white, surly-looking and had some kind of cybernetic eye augmentation. He was also covered in bright neon tattoos, had been arrested numerous times and was a former low-level member of Codex, the gang that ran most of the crime in Brooklyn.

“Lovely. You need to start hanging out with a better class of people Corrine.”

Korehammer waved the holoscreen closed and then picked up the second datachip. He inserted it into the neural interface where the first one had been and a screen winked into existence in front of him. Unfortunately, Korehammer could see that all the information on the chip was heavily encrypted, just as he was expecting. If he had the time and the right chopware he could probably break the encryption, but it wasn’t something he could do here. Or, if he was being honest, the desire.

Korehammer was quickly realizing the less he knew about all this, the better. He was just a courier and wanted to keep it that way. This job had already cost him more than he had bargained for.

He took the datachip out of the interface and placed both of them back in the small box. He was about to take it into the bedroom when a voice said “Mr. Chernova. You have an incoming call from Miss Wynn.”

No doubt she wanted to discuss the events of last night. “Put it through, thank you.”

“You’re very welcome sir.”

Korehammer smiled as a holoscreen appeared in front of him filled with the image of Wynn. The fatigues and handgun were all gone, replaced by a ponytail and a green pant suit with a white blouse. “Mr. Chernova. I hope you slept well and the coffee was to your liking?”

Da. I almost feel human again.”

“I’m glad sir. I was calling to inform you that someone has asked to meet you for breakfast. He said the two of you had business to discuss?”

Korehammer’s senses went on high alert. No one should know he was here and even if they did, as far as he knew he didn’t have business with anyone.

“Did this person say who they were?”

“No sir. They just asked if you could meet them in Angelo’s Cafe at ten this morning. He would have done so himself but the Shina-Yasuyan has strict rules about giving out room information so he asked me if I could relay the message.”

When Korehammer hesitated, Wynn continued. “They told me that it had to do with a business proposition and that it could benefit both you and a Corrine Caldera greatly. They said you would know what they are talking about?”

The datachips. Of course. He should have known this wasn’t going to end with the events of last night. Whoever wanted them was going to keep coming after him and wasn’t going to stop. But why talk to him here, in the hotel? Why not come after him once he left or back in Philadelphia? They had to know the Shina-Yasuyan would never allow a gunfight to break out while they were on the premises.

Taking that into consideration, Korehammer figured this was probably the safest place on the East Coast to have this meeting. If he was lucky, maybe he could get some much needed information about just what the hell he had gotten involved in.

Korehammer nodded his head to the holoscreen. “If you could pass along to this individual that I will be happy to meet them for breakfast, you would have my thanks. I will be there precisely at ten.”

“I will pass the message along Mr. Chernova.” Wynn hesitated before continuing. “Do you want me to have security standing by?”

Korehammer thought for a moment. “Yes, that would be fine.”

“Consider it done sir.”

With that Wynn ended the call. Korehammer went into the bedroom, picked out some suitable clothes for a business meeting and made sure both of his X-22 handguns were loaded and activated. He then headed for the elevator and prepared for what could be a very interesting morning.

***

Angelo’s Cafe was located on the twentieth floor of the tower Korehammer was staying in and when you walked in, you couldn’t help but think of old world Italy. It was no doubt the kind of restaurant that could be found all over in the days before the War but is now almost exclusively the domain of the rich and powerful. The floors were made of real wood while the tables had actual linen tablecloths and napkins. The smells coming from the kitchen made Korehammer smile almost immediately as he walked through the doors into the dimly lit dinning area.

Korehammer noticed immediately that there was no one else in the entire restaurant. All the tables were empty and the servers were all gone except for a few scattered here and there. As he made his way further into the restaurant, he almost unconsciously noted where all the exits were and the best route to go if he had to leave in a hurry.

A short balding man with a noticeable paunch walked up to him. He was visibly sweating and seemed incredibly nervous, his eyes darting back and forth between Korehammer and the back of the dinning area. Something told Korehammer that this was the proprietor and he wasn’t that excited to be having this meeting occurring in his restaurant.

“Are … are you Mr. Chernova?” He had a slight Italian accent to go with a deep, resonate voice.

Da. And you are Angelo?”

“Yes. Could you follow me please?”

“Of course.”

Angelo led Korehammer to the rear of the dining room to a small table in the far corner where sat a man smoking a cigarette. He was muscular, barrel-chested with wide shoulders and wearing a dark grey suit with a matching tie and black shirt. His skin was pale, his features were chiseled and his straight white hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

Off to one side was a woman that Korehammer recognized instantly. She was the same woman from the night before and she didn’t look happy. She stood with her hands behind her back and didn’t react in any way that Korehammer could notice when he entered the room.

The man at the table gestured for Korehammer to sit. “Mr. Chernova. Would you please join me? We have much to discuss.” His voice was deep but not as deep as Korehammer was expecting.

Korehammer pulled a chair out and sat, resting his hands on the table as the man put the cigarette out in an ashtray that was in front of him. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage tovarich. You know my name but I am unfamiliar with yours.”

The man smiled. “My name is Gareth. Would you prefer for me to continue to call you Mr. Chernova, or would you like me to use your other name, Mr. Korehammer?”

Korehammer didn’t react. There was little use in lying but there was no advantage to giving away information either. “Mr. Chernova will be fine.”

“As you wish.” Gareth reached into his jacket and pulled out a silver cigarette case, pulling one out and lighting it.

“First, I wish to apologize for my associate and the events of last night. She was perhaps a bit overzealous in her pursuit of you and someone could have gotten hurt or killed. That was never our intention and something that should never have happened.” He then waved over to the woman, who walked stiffly to the edge of the table.

“Felicia, do you have something you would like to say to Mr. Chernova?”

Through gritted teeth she said “You have my apologies about what happened at the club. I’m sorry.”

Korehammer gave her a disinterested look, as if it meant absolutely nothing to him one way or another. He then turned back to Gareth. “Apology accepted. Now what is it you wanted to talk to me about? I have a busy day of gambling ahead of me and do not have time to waste.”

Gareth grinned. “Right to the point. I can respect that.” He took a drag of his cigarette before continuing. “You have something that belongs to us. We want it back. We will do what we have to do in order to get the datachip from you. You can either profit from this or you can make this whole affair more tedious than it has to be. It doesn’t matter to us either way but rest assured we will get what we want one way or another.

“It is my understanding that you are to be very well compensated for your retrieval of the item so I thought we could treat this as a business deal like civilized men. Whatever you are to be paid for the datachip we will pay you five times that amount. We can transfer the credits right here, right now and put this entire matter behind us. It’s up to you.”

Korehammer looked at Gareth. He couldn’t see his eyes thanks to the mirrorshades he was wearing but he already knew that he was lying. The minute they had the datachip Korehammer would end up dead in a ditch somewhere along the Atlantic City Expressway. Of that he was certain.

Not for the first time, Korehammer wondered exactly what Caldera had gotten herself involved with over the last few years. After speaking with this Gareth, he knew now that even after he got the datachip to Brooklyn, Korehammer wasn’t going to be able to wash his hands of all this and walk away. These were serious people, the kind you didn’t fuck with and now he was hip deep in whatever this was right along with Caldera.

Korehammer knew now that his retirement and his life as he knew it was effectively over.

When Korehammer finally spoke, he did so in measured tones. “Mr. Gareth, while your offer is very generous, I will have to decline. You and I both know that there is no way you can let me live at this point, not with all that I know. So I will take my chances and keep the datachip on my person.”

He then decided to see if he could provoke a reaction. “Who knows, maybe there is another group who will pay me more for it?”

Gareth’s eyebrows arched as he stabbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. “I thought we could act like gentlemen and keep the bloodshed to a minimum. Obviously I was mistaken.” He then rose from his seat, Felicia instantly by his side.

“Just remember Mr. Chernova. What happens next is on you. The loss of life, the destruction, it all could have been avoided. Have a pleasant day.”

“Did you even know her name?”

Gareth stopped and turned to look at Korehammer, who was still seated at the table. “Excuse me?”

He had abandoned the charade of Chernova, speaking now as Trevor Korehammer. “When your people slit the throat of the waitress and left her to bleed to death in my apartment. Did any of them even learn her name?”

Gareth had a bored expression on his face. “I’m sure I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

Korehammer rose from the table and walked over to Gareth. He was taller than Korehammer, but not by much. “Her name was Ludmila and of all the people in this pathetic excuse for a world, she was the closest thing to family I had. When you killed her you made this personal.

“Now normally I don’t let things like that cloud my judgement because we’re all professionals. Things happen that can’t be avoided. However, as far as I’m concerned you crossed a line. So realize that what’s to come, the blood and death, isn’t on me or what happened here today. It’s because you killed a defenseless waitress to send a message. That isn’t the act of a gentleman, it’s the act of a savage. What happens next is on you.”

Korehammer turned and walked out of the cafe, his mind already planning for what was to come.

Datafile 003.3

The room was small, barely the size of Korehammer’s old bedroom in The Plex. There was almost no light, with what little there was coming from light strips in the ceiling. The wall opposite the door they had just walked through was just one huge couch that was made from some artificial fiber that appeared to almost glow in the low light. Other than that, the only other contents of the room was a synthstation, presumably for drinks, and a holoscreen that was playing some vintage porn film.

For a club that was supposed to be considered upscale, Korehammer thought the private rooms were a bit shabby.

That said, Korehammer realized that might be exactly how the ultra-wealthy who frequent Cheetahs like it. An environment that made the dirty and kinky activities they took part in all the more salacious and thrilling. It was a mindset Korehammer didn’t quite understand, for which he was eternally thankful.

The moment he and Vanya were in the room, she pushed him down onto the couch, a playful look in her eyes. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“From that?” he said as he pointed toward the synthstation. “Nyet. I will wait until we have finished our … private date and then return to my Tsarskaya.”

“If that’s what you want.” she said as she walked over to the synthstation and asked for a Moonblast. The drink appeared and she took a sip, grimacing as she did. “These things always add too much Delta.”

Vanya put the drink down and then turned her full attention to him. She slowly walked over, swinging her hips and running her finger over her lips. Before Korehammer knew what was happening, she was straddling him, her hands on his face.

“So. Mr. Chernova. Do you like what you see?”

Korehammer let a small smile cross his features. “Da. What is there not to like?”

She bent over and spoke so softly into his ear he could barely hear her. “Because I can be whatever you want me to be. I can be anything that will make you happy. And I was told to do everything I can to make you happy.”

She sat up and looked in Korehammer’s eyes. “Would you like me to maybe be someone more exotic? More … unusual?”

Vanya reached behind her head to the base of her skull and Korehammer heard a soft beep. Abruptly Vanya’s entire body began to shimmer and seconds later, her features had become Middle Eastern. Her hair was suddenly long and jet-black, her skin was several shades darker and she had a Bindi on her forehead.

“Or maybe you would like to something a bit darker? Maybe you have a bit of the jungle fever?”

Korehammer heard another beep and Vanya was now a Black woman. Her skin was a caramel color and hair was braided with green highlights.”

Korehammer’s mouth was hanging slightly open. “That’s a Chameleon Mask you’re using. How did you get your hands on technology like that? It’s ridiculously rare and I always thought it was strictly for use by corporate armies and the like.” He was in such shock that he let his Chernova persona slip a bit and his speech patterns took on a much more Korehammer-like tone.

Vanya’s body shimmered once again and she returned to her original form. She bent over and purred into his ear. “Let’s not talk about that right now. Don’t you think we have better things we could be doing?”

Korehammer quickly recovered. “You are right.”

Korehammer reached behind her head and found the small Chameleon Mask control panel. With a thought he released an electrical charge through the fingers of his artificial hand, enough to short out the Mask and send Vanya into a fit of spasms. As she crumpled to the floor, her features changed one after another, cycling through all the appearances stored in the device. Finally she passed out, the electrical surge too much for her body to take.

Korehammer looked down and for the first time saw the real Vanya. She was a woman in her early 50s with dirty blonde hair, a cybernetic leg and at best average looks. The Chameleon Mask was smoking from the base of her skull as her body jolted every so often.

He bent over and looked at the control panel. It was ruined, but might be able to be salvaged. At the very least Korehammer thought he might be able to reverse engineer the technology, add it to his bag of tricks.

The problem was that a Chameleon Mask was wired directly into the user’s nervous system. Once it was grafted on, it couldn’t be removed without killing them.

Korehammer dragged Vanya to the NIIC reader beside the door, waved her wrist over it and heard the door unlock. He then yanked the Mask from the base of Vanya’s skull. A few sparks flew as she spasmed one last time and then was still.

“Sorry. Can’t have any witnesses and I will get a lot more use out of this than a JoyGirl like you ever will.”

Korehammer turned toward the door and opened it just enough to see the hallway beyond. A young man was heading into a room with one of the male dancers but other than that it was empty. He walked out, closed the door and then walked over to the room next door. Looking up he saw that the light strip was now green. Finally I catch a break. he thought to himself.

He cautiously opened the door and looked inside. The room was identical to the one he just left, even down to the color of the couch. He walked over and reached his hand between first set of cushions, finding nothing. The smell of old cigarettes and strong perfume assaulted his nose as he went to the next set. He reached his hand in and within moments found something.

Korehammer pulled out a box no bigger than a pack of Coffin Nails. At the push of the small button along the side it popped open, revealing the contents.

The box had two datachips inside. One was marked with what looked like an account number and Korehammer assumed this would give him access to his payment for taking on this assignment. The other had no markings whatsoever. From all appearances it just looked like an ordinary datachip that you could find anywhere.

“There better be something incredibly valuable stored on this Corrine.” he muttered under his breath as he stood up and placed the box in his pocket.

As he did, a scream pierced the silence, coming from downstairs. Then he heard another and the sounds of shouting. When he exited the room and went to the spiral staircase, he saw that a group of men had entered the club, each armed with a FN-RAL Heavy Assault Rifle. However, that wasn’t what made Korehammer curse under his breath.

First, he immediately realized that the men carrying the heavy arms reminded him an awful lot of the two mercs who had blown the hell out of the New Galaxy Diner. Bald, large, armed to the teeth and oozing with chrome.

While that was bad enough, it was the pair of pale, skinny would-be Goths dressed all in black that concerned him more. If he wasn’t mistaken, they were the same two who had been looking for Zechiel at the Senshō. That could only mean they had found his cyber fight loving friend and gotten everything they wanted out of him.

All of which meant that Korehammer was in trouble.

By now other patrons who had been enjoying the company of the JoyBoys and Girls of Cheetahs were beginning to emerge from their rooms as well. Everyone looked confused and not entirely sure what was happening. Which Korehammer thought he might be able to use to his advantage.

He raised his NIIC to his mouth and called his driver, telling her to be waiting for him outside the club as soon as she could.

“Is there a problem sir?” she asked before he ended the conversation.

“Yes. We may have to get back to the Shina-Yasuyan is a hurry.”

“I’ll take care of it sir. And here I was afraid it was going to be a boring evening.”

Korehammer wasn’t sure what to make of that last statement as he hung up and pulled his X-22 handgun from the holster. Just like his Sternmeyer, the gun was useless unless he mentally unlocked it. As he did, he checked to make sure it had a full clip and then walked to the edge of the staircase.

“It’s a raid! Everyone run for it!” he screamed as loud as he could and then started to fire wildly at the ceiling.

Korehammer was well aware that high roller clubs such as Cheetahs didn’t get raided, especially in Atlantic City where the local police is run by whichever casino megacorp owned the zone. However, he was counting on the fact that wasn’t common knowledge to the type of people who came here.

Sure enough, as soon as the customers heard the gunfire, it was a mad dash to the exit. They trampled over one another, screaming and trying to get out of the perceived line of fire. Dancers ran half naked while the bartenders grabbed the money off the bar and tried run toward the double doors. Meanwhile, the mercs and the pair in black tried their best to stop people and maintain control, but the chaos was all-consuming.

Korehammer managed to get to the spiral staircase first and quickly made his way down, waving his X-22 in the face of anyone who got in his way. By the time he was on the first floor, he had a clear line of sight to the exit and figured he was home free.

That changed when he looked across the bar and saw the woman from the sports book look in his direction. “That’s him! That’s the one Zechiel said came looking for him! Stop him!”

One of the mercs opened fire, the rounds from his Heavy Assault Rifle shattering the mirrors that lined the walls behind him. Korehammer jumped over the bar as glass and mirror shards fell around him. He quickly stood up and fired several rounds, hitting the merc in the shoulder and arm and doing no damage whatsoever.

What the fuck are these guys made of for Christ’s sake? He thought to himself as he ducked behind the bar again.

More rounds came flying towards him, taking large chunks of the bar with them. Korehammer had to think of something soon or there wouldn’t be much of a bar left to provide any cover. He peered over the edge and saw the woman in mirrorshades moving toward the back of the club with mercs in tow while the man and the merc who had first opened fire slowly moved toward the front. They obviously planned to flank him and cut off any attempt to escape.

Korehammer knew this was no time for anything fancy, so he figured since the mercs couldn’t be hurt it was time to see if that also applied to their bosses.

He jumped up and started running toward the entrance, somehow avoiding the shots from the mercs as they fired indiscriminately in his direction. While running, he took aim at the man in black and opened fire, getting five rounds off before the first hit the mark.

The man’s head burst in a haze of red and exploding flesh. Korehammer got lucky and the mass of blood and bone ended up flying into the face of the merc who had been following right on his boss’s heels. It momentarily blinded him, sending the soldier to the floor trying to wipe the gore from his face.

Korehammer didn’t waste the opportunity. He was out the door and into the still night air as fast as he could. He ran through the crowd that had gathered made up of club goers, dancers in various states of undress and people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking for his ride.

He spotted her just across the street, waving her arm with the rear door to the limo open. Korehammer dashed for the car just as the mercs and the remaining goth wannabe came streaming out the doorway, opening fire through the crowd attempting to get to him.

Bodies flew everywhere as rounds from the FN-RALs tore through flesh and chrome. The night air was soon filled with screams and the road became slick with blood as they continued to fire, trying to hit Korehammer.

Korehammer jumped into the back seat of the car and slammed the door shut as he screamed at the girl behind the wheel “DRIVE!”

The driver had an oddly calm look on her face as she said “You got it sir.” and slammed her foot on the accelerator. The car moved like it was shot out of a gun, throwing Korehammer into the back of the seat as he heard the tires squeal under them.

He was able to look out the back window and he saw the woman giving orders, her and the mercs running toward a large hovervan and climbing inside. Soon they were in pursuit of Korehammer and his driver as the raced toward Ohio Avenue and the tunnel that would take them back to the Shina-Yasuyan.

In no time they were entering the connector tunnel with the hovervan still in close pursuit. Korehammer thought they might be okay until the rear window of the limousine was shattered by gunfire. Covered in glass Korehammer fired back though he knew his shots would be ineffective from this distance.

The limo careened out of the tunnel as it headed toward the Shina-Yasuyan, tires screaming as the driver rounded a corner and headed for the valet entrance where she had picked him up. When they got there, the van was right behind them and Korehammer jumped out with his gun at the ready, hoping his driver had some kind of weapon on her.

Turns out he didn’t need to worry. When the hovervan came to a stop and the mercs got out followed by their mirrorshade wearing superior, guns at the ready, all Korehammer could hear was the clicking and hum of weapons being primed to fire.

He looked around and saw at least 25 members of the Shina-Yasuyan Casino Complex Police Force spread out in a semicircle around the valet entrance to the building. Large barricades had been erected and all the glass windows and doors had been covered with polysteel plates. There was even an Arasaka Riot-10 APC with its large main pulse canon aimed squarely at the hovervan.

While all of that should have been enough to make Korehammer question his sanity, it was the sight of Neomi Wynn in a flack jacket and fatigues and holding a Beretta M99-H that put the whole situation over the top.

When she spoke to the mercs, Wynn sounded nothing like the casino host who had welcomed him here just a few hours ago.

“Gentlemen. This man is a guest of the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex. We don’t take very kindly to one of our guests being chased through the streets by thugs such as you, especially when you are coming from another city zone. Think very carefully before you make your next decision. We are more than willing to let you be on your way, or this can get very ugly, very quickly for you.”

In what was becoming a theme when it came to Wynn, Korehammer was impressed.

The woman pointed to Korehammer. “That bastard has something that belongs to us! We’re not leaving until we get it back.”

“Then we’re all in for a long night.” Wynn gestured to the Riot-10 and Korehmmer could hear the pulse cannon come to life with a soft thrumming sound.

The woman looked around, taking stock of the situation and realizing it was a no-win situation for her and her men. She waved her arm, motioning for the mercs to get back in the hovervan. Before she got in, she looked directly at Korehammer. “This isn’t over asshole. We know what you look like and it’s only a matter of time until we find you again. Then you’re going to learn what pain is really all about.”

“I am sure.” he replied.

Moments later the hovervan pulled away for the valet, racing back toward the tunnel and out of that particular zone of Atlantic City.

Wynn approached Korehammer, a genuine look of concern of her face. “Are you all right Mr. Chernova?”

Da. I am fine Miss Wynn. Just a bit shaken up.” He quickly put his X-22 back in its holster as the members of the police force began to relax and take down the barricades.

“When young Parker here called and said we should be ready for trouble I became concerned. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

“Do you go to this amount of trouble for all your guests?”

“I told you Mr. Chernova. We want to make a good first impression. No guest of the Shina-Yasuyan will ever come to any harm on my watch.”

“You don’t want to know what that was all about?”

Wynn shook her head. “The privacy of our guests is of paramount importance to us. What you do while here is none of our business. We like to think any good relationship should be based on trust Mr. Chernova.”

“I see.”

Korehammer walked over to the car, where the driver was looking over the damage done by the mercs. “Miss Wynn says your name is Parker?”

She turned and looked at him with a smile. “Yes sir.”

Spasibo. I never would have made it back here alive without your help. I owe you.”

“Think nothing of it sir. I’m actually kind of glad it happened.”

Korehammer looked at her questioningly. “Why is that?”

“I was getting bored. Plus it’s been a week since I was in a high-speed chase and I was afraid I was getting rusty.”

Datafile 003.2

“You … you’re the courier?”

Most of the blood had left Zechiel’s face as he looked at Korehammer. With his mouth hanging open and the look of sheer terror in his eyes, Korehammer was certain that this man did not live the kind of life he or Caldera was used to. Zechiel was just a common collar who liked to bet on the cyber fights and tried to get through life unnoticed.

How he came into the orbit of Caldera and became mixed up in whatever it was that she was involved with were questions for another day. Right now Korehammer just wanted to get the package and get it to where it had to go.

“Yes. Caldera said you had something for me? And instructions on where I was taking it?”

Zechiel swallowed hard, glancing around as he picked up the cigarette that had fallen out of his mouth. “Um, that … that might be a problem.”

Korehammer sighed. He just knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as he had hoped. “What do you mean?”

“Look, I didn’t want to ditch it, all right? But I thought I was being followed. Those people don’t fuck around and I figured if I stashed it somewhere safe, it would be better than getting caught.”

Korehammer looked down at the floor and shook his head. If Zechiel was being followed, and there was every possibility that he was, there was a good chance they would find him. He didn’t see anything to be suspicious of currently, but that could change at any second. He finally decided that it would be best for the two of them to have this conversation in a more private setting.

“Come with me.”

Korehammer got up and indicated that Zechiel should follow him. He was hesitant at first but once he saw that Korehammer wasn’t going to take no for an answer, he finally got up and shuffled after him.

The two men took the elevator up to the private suite that Tindal had made available to Korehammer. He gestured to one of the large cushioned chairs and told Zechiel to have a seat.

“Can I get you something to drink? You look like you could use it.”

“A … a gut punch on the rocks.”

“Sure.”

Korehammer walked over to the bar and made the drink. While he did he glanced out the glass doors to the sports book below and noticed a pair of new arrivals that stood out like sore thumbs. Both were extremely pale and wearing all black with mirrorshades. That would have been odd enough but the fact neither had a drink in front of them or was watching any of the events on the holoscreens meant they were here for a reason other than to place a bet.

Korehammer handed Zechiel his drink and sat in the chair next to him. “You need to relax. You’re safe here. This suite is as secure as it gets. One of the perks of being a high roller.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Zechiel sat straighter in his chair and drew a lighter out his pocket. With shaking hands he lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He blew the smoke out of his nose and closed his eyes.

“I’m not part of the conflict, you know. I’m just doing this as a favor to Corrine. I owed her big time.”

Conflict? What the hell was Zechiel talking about? Didn’t matter. He would add it to the list of questions he had for Caldera once he saw her again. “That so?”

“Yeah. I was in deep with some bad people. I was going to die of concrete poisoning if I didn’t come up with the credits I owed them.” He took another drag off his cigarette. “To this day I don’t know why but Corrine got me square again. Told me I owed her a favor and someday she would come to collect. I said fine. I mean, what choice did I have?”

“None.”

“Exactly.”

Zechiel reached into his pocket and brought out a pack of Coffin Nails cigarettes, lighting a new one with the butt of the one he had just finished. He offered the pack to Korehammer but he waved it off.

“So, Quinton, let’s try to focus. Where did you stash the package?”

Zechiel sighed and glanced at the floor. “In the Caesars Zone there’s a strip club called Cheetahs. Been there forever. Up in the private area where there’s no surveillance, it’s stashed between the cushions in the third room on the left.”

“And it’s safe there for now?”

“Yeah, it should be. I was planning to go back later to get it but now that you’re here I don’t have to. Which is fine by me.”

“And where was I supposed to be taking this parcel once I retrieve it?”

“New York. The Brooklyn Zone. There’s a tattoo shop there called The Auditory Eye. Ask for a guy named Mattix. The place is a front for Corrine’s people. They’ll know what to do with it from there.”

Zechiel blew air out his mouth, his relief almost palpable. He probably thought his role in this affair was now done and he could get on with his life. Korehammer really hoped that was an option as he stole another glace at the glass doors. The pair in black were more than likely still down there, waiting to see if Zechiel showed up at his favorite sports book.

Korehammer wasn’t happy about what was going to happen next, but it was unavoidable. He liked Zechiel and thought he was a decent enough guy. He likely wouldn’t live to see the dawn but hopefully it would give Korehammer enough time to get to this Cheetahs, get the package and be on his merry way.

Korehammer stood, reaching his hand out to Zechiel. He didn’t stand but took it, his hand clammy and wet with sweat.

“Thank you for the information Mr. Zechiel. I will let Corrine know you were most helpful.”

“That’s it? I thought there would be some kind of reward or fee or something.”

Korehammer smiled. “Once I get to Cheetahs and retrieve the package, I’ll make sure you get a little something for your efforts. Say, 25,000 credits? How does that sound?”

Zechiel eyes went wide again but this time from unadulterated joy rather than fear. He was smiling ear to ear as Korehammer spoke. “Now, I think it would be best if you made yourself scarce for a while. Stay in big crowds and go play some VR roulette or something. If you are being followed, this is the first place they’re going to look.”

“Right, right.”

Korehammer looked up toward the ceiling. “Mr. Tindal, could you come to my suite please?”

Moments later Tindal was at the door, datapad at the ready. “Yes sir. What can I do for you?”

“Do you have a another exit from this floor that leads back to the casino?”

Tindal glanced at Zechiel before saying “Yes sir. We have a service elevator at the end of the hallway that goes down to the first floor.”

“Could you take my friend here and show him the way? He wants to mix things up and play some table games but doesn’t want to use the main entrance of the Senshō. Trying to avoid being seen by the wife.”

When Tindal seemed to hesitate, Korehammer said “I would consider it a personal favor. And I always repay my debts. Very generously”

Tindal nodded. “Of course. Did you need anything else?”

Nyet. That is all.”

“Excellent sir.” Tindal then looked at Zechiel. “If you’ll follow me I can show you the way to the service elevator.”

Zechiel glanced briefly at Korehammer before allowing himself to be led away. Once the door closed he looked down through the glass doors and saw the man and woman were still at the bar, waiting. He hoped that if Zechiel listened and stayed in the open, it would give him enough time to get to Cheetahs and retrieve the package. If not, things could get very interesting later this evening.

Before he left the suite, he placed a number of bets on the cyber fights that were just getting started in Vegas. It took valuable time but was necessary in order to keep the Chernova identity as genuine as possible. He placed one rather large bet on the Jovena Rackman fight. He didn’t care what Zechiel said, that woman could kick some serious ass.

With that done, he used his NIIC to place a call to Neomi Wynn. He figured he could go into Cheetahs with guns blazing or he could try doing this the easy way.

“Mr. Chernova. What can I do for you?”

“What can you tell me about a club called Cheetahs?”

“It’s a duel-gender exotics club about three blocks away from the Caesars Casino Megaplex. Very popular with high rollers and the like. Were you planning to make a trip there?”

Da. I was considering it. Sleep is not forthcoming and I could use a distraction.”

“Of course sir. If you walk over to valet, I’ll have a car waiting to take you there. Would you like me to call ahead and arrange for bottle service for you? I know one of the VIP hostesses there and she would be more than happy to accommodate you.”

“That would be lovely.”

“When you get there, just ask for Miss Nyx Wynter. She will take very good care of you. Enjoy yourself Mr. Chernova. ”

“I will try. You have my thanks dushen’ka.”

Wynn blushed ever so slightly again before the holoscreen winked out.

Korehammer walked to valet and found that the same car as the one that brought him to Atlantic City was waiting for him. The driver, this time a young Black woman with a cybernetic left hand, opened the door so he could get in.

Fifteen minutes later they pulled up to the front of Cheetahs, a three-story building made entirely of reflective chrome and pulsing neon. A massive holoscreen took up most of the front of the building, flashing ads for what they called the “Cheetahs Experience” and whatever mixer was playing the music that night. Outside the main entrance a line snaked around the corner, made up of people waiting to get in who probably never would.

The car pulled right up to the entrance, drawing the attention of everyone in the long line. The driver got out and opened the door for Korehammer with a bit more flourish than would be normal. She told him to just call when he wanted to be picked up and then drove off.

Korehammer walked up to the double doors and was immediately stopped by the incredibly large muscleboy standing there. It was obvious from just looking at him he was mostly chrome and grafts, which is probably a good thing with a job like this.

“Can I help you?” The bouncer sounded bored, like he was on his third shift and had no desire to deal with some infirm who thought he was just going to walk right in.

Da. My name is Malcolm Chernova. I’m supposed to ask for a Nyx Wynter. She will be expecting me.”

The muscleboy turned his head and spoke into his NIIC, and within moments had an entirely new attitude regarding Korehammer. “Sorry about the wait sir.” he said as he pulled one of the doors open and gestured for Korehammer to enter.

The moment he walked into the club his felt as if his senses were under assault. The air was think with the smells of smoke and sex while his ears had to deal with the constant thumping of bad techno music. Holoscreens along the walls played a variety of either sporting events or rocker vids that no one could hear.

The majority of Cheetahs was made up of a large rectangular bar that took up almost the entire center of the room. Bartenders ran back and forth serving drinks as dancers, both male and female, writhed on stages and swung from poles attached to the ceiling. Some were walking around, trying to convince patrons that their lives would not be complete unless they chose to enjoy some alone time with them.

As Korehammer stood taking in the scene, a woman with long pink hair and fingernails to match walked up to him. She had a heart-shaped face with prominent cheekbones and full lips that glowed a neon red. She was older than most of the dancers but had obviously had a number of procedures done to minimize the effect time was having on her.

“You’re Mr. Chernova?” Her voice was soft but seemed to carry over the music without any problem.

Da. And you are Miss Wynter.”

“That’s correct sir. If you’ll follow me I’ll show you to your private booth where you’ll be able to relax and enjoy everything Cheetahs has to offer.”

Korehammer followed her towards the back of the club where a number of booths were located. Each gave unimpeded views of the show going on at the bar and had a holoscreen as well as a VR rig. Several of the dancers were already eyeing him up, thinking that they had found their sugar daddy for the evening.

Korehammer also noticed that in the far corner was a spiral staircase being guarded by two more muscleboys, similar to the one at the doors. Above the staircase in bright green neon were the words “The Sparkle Lounge” and as he watched, a male dancer was heading upstairs with an older couple, the three laughing like they had known each other forever.

“Here we are Mr. Chernova. Just input what you would like to drink into the datapad and one of our girls will bring it right over. Unless, of course you would prefer one of the boys?”

“A girl will be fine Miss Wynter. Spasibo.”

“Great. If you need anything else feel free to let me know. Have a good time Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer looked over the drink menu on the datapad and ordered a bottle of Tsarskaya vodka and an iced glass. Most bars served synthentic versions of alcohol because they were a lot cheaper and the majority of the population really didn’t care. They just wanted to get drunk fast and forget about their lives. The fact Cheetahs had the genuine article was surprising.

Five minutes later a young girl walked over to Korehammer’s booth with the vodka on a tray along with two glasses. She couldn’t have been any more than five feet tall with short hair cut into a bob that was the same shade of blue as her eyes. She had a stunning hourglass figure and was wearing very little to cover it.

“Your Tsarskaya sir.” Her voice had a slight Spanish accent, but Korehammer couldn’t quite place from where.

“Thank you. But I think you brought one too many glasses with you.”

She fluttered her eyelashes as she said “I was hoping you might want some company. It would be a shame to drink such an expensive beverage and not be able share.”

“You do have a point my dear. Please, sit.” Korehammer gestured to the empty space in the booth next to him.

The girl sat down and opened the bottle, pouring herself and Korehammer a drink.

“My name is Vanya. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. A toast then. To new friendships.” The two drank and Vanya refilled both glasses.

Korehammer had to admit that if the situation was different, he would be more than willing to spend some time with this girl. Unfortunately, time was something he didn’t have a tremendous amount of. He needed to get the package and get out of here before Zechiel was found by the pair from the Senshō and cracked under questioning.

Luckily it seemed that Vanya wasn’t interested in wasting time either. Korehammer felt her breath in his ear as her hand found its way into his lap.

“So, Mr. Chernova. I was told to try my best to make you as happy as humanly possible. Would you like to go upstairs to the lounge and have some fun? I promise you won’t go away disappointed.”

“I’m sure I won’t my dear. I was just thinking the same thing.”

“The what are we waiting for?”

Vanya took Korehammer’s hand and gently pulled him out of the booth. Still holding his hand she led him toward the spiral staircase and the Sparkle Lounge above. The two muscleboys didn’t even bat an eye as they walked past.

Once they reached the top, it opened onto a long hallway lined with wood doors on either side, each with a NIIC reader mounted to the wall next to it. They all had a light strip mounted above them, some glowing red while the majority of them glowed green. The sounds coming from inside the ones that were red Korehammer could only describe as intense.

Unfortunately, one of those was the third door on the left.

Why can’t anything be easy on this damn assignment? Korehammer thought to himself as Vanya led him down the hallway.

Thankfully the room right next to the one he needed to get into was open. Korehammer stopped in front of it and pulled Vanya toward him.

“How about this one?” He said, pointing to the door.

“Are you sure? I have a regular room I always use. I think you’ll like it much better.”

Nyet. I am very superstitious and my gut tells me this is the room for us. I always follow my gut. It’s how I made my millions.”

At the mention of how much money he had, Vanya became much more agreeable. With a smile she walked over to the NIIC reader and waved her wrist over it. The light strip above the door went from green to red and Korehammer followed her into the room.

Datafile 003.1

Much like every major city in America once the War had come to its inevitable conclusion, Atlantic City was left a shell of its former self. Most of the buildings were bombed out wrecks, disease ran rampant and violence was the order of the day. For years thick smoke mixed with the constant mist coming in off the Atlantic Ocean, creating a muddy soot-like substance that seemed to cover everything and everyone.

Finally, after months of negotiations, Aethon Global Unlimited came in and purchased the entire city. However, unlike Comcast Systems, they had no desire to remake Atlantic City into their headquarters. Instead they arrived with fleets of demolition equipment and hundreds of AGU corporate military units to clear the entire city of everything that was still there. The remains of buildings were razed to the ground and what was left of the population was forcibly removed, given one-way tickets to wherever they wanted to go.

After a year Atlantic City was a blank slate. Aethon carved it up into six sections and sold each off to the highest bidder, making billions. The city would no longer have a mayor or any type of central government. Rather each corporation would control their zone how they saw fit, with decisions for the city as a whole being made in boardrooms instead of by voters.

Shina-Yasuyan Multinational purchased the entire Marina District and built what was at the time the largest casino ever seen in the world. The entire casino, including restaurants, entertainment and the like, are housed in a single domed structure the size of several football fields. The dome itself, which is translucent and at times so clear it appears like nothing is above you except sky, has been repeatedly named as one of the new wonders of the globe.

The Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex also includes a large residential area where employees can live as well as four 122-story wedge-shaped towers that surround the dome at equidistant points. The Complex has its own police force, medical facility and is accessible via magrail, car or boat. The neon lights and videos that play on the sides of the towers can be seen for miles in every direction. It is a city within a city that towers over everything else like a small sun.

Korehammer got his first good look at the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex as the limousine emerged from the tunnel that connected the Marina to the Atlantic City Expressway. He had been to Atlantic City many times as Malcolm Chernova, but had never had a reason to go to the Shina-Yasuyan.

He had to admit that he was impressed.

It had taken a little over an hour to make the trip and he did his best to play the part of a bored millionaire playboy for the sake of his driver. The man had barely said two words the entire time and it had unnerved Korehammer a little bit. Usually people tried to talk him up when he was Chernova and the silence had made him suspicious.

However, given that was Korehammer’s natural state, he was willing to let it go for now.

The limo pulled into the valet area of one of the massive towers that housed the hotel portion of the complex. The driveway was large enough to fit seven cars side by side and was busier than Korehammer thought it would be at this time in the middle of the week. Valets rushed to and from, carrying bags and seeing to the needs of new arrivals.

The limo came to a stop directly in front of the main entrance, in a space that was obviously reserved for special guest of the Shina-Yasuyan. Korehammer continued to play his part and waited for one of the valets, a young woman with pink curls and freckles to open the door of the limo for him. Normally he hated all the pomp and circumstance that went along with being a ridiculously wealthy man. However, Korehammer knew it was a necessary evil that in the long run could help get this job done faster and get him back to being retired.

Korehammer got out of the car and the valet held out a NIIC reader. Korehammer dutifully waved his wrist over the device and it softly chimed. The young girl looked down and said “Welcome to the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex Mr. Chernova. Would you follow me please?”

Spasibo. And you are?”

“My name is Melody sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You as well.”

Korehammer followed her through the large glass doors and into the vast lobby of the hotel. The first thing Korehammer noticed was that the floor was made of glass and that there was water running underneath his feet. He looked up and saw that the entire rear wall of the lobby was a fully functional waterfall that was at least four stories high. The water changed color, going from blue to green to crimson as he watched. At the base of the waterfall were a number of concierge desks where guests were checking in and marveling at their surroundings.

The rest of the lobby was brightly lit, with holovideos advertising the many delights the Shina-Yasuyan had to offer. It made the Solar Garden Hotel Casino back in Philadelphia seem like a backroom dice game by comparison.

Standing by a marble column was Neomi Wynn, who was smiling at him with her impossibly white teeth. She was shorter than Korehammer had thought, with a gymnasts body and her hair down around her shoulders. As he and Melody approached her grin widened and he thought he may go blind from the whiteness of her teeth.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. I’m Neomi Wynn. It’s a pleasure to meet you face to face.”

“It is very nice to meet you as well Miss Wynn.”

“Please sir, call me Neomi. My hope is that this will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

“Of course Neomi. Is my room ready?”

“Yes sir. We have you in one of the Imperial Dynasty villas. Normally we reserve them for special friends of the Shina-Yasuyan but we made an exception for you. We want to ensure to make a good first impression.”

Spasibo. I hope they live up to their reputation.”

“Oh they will sir.” Wynn then looked down at the holopad in her hand and said “Your bags have already been taken up so if you’ll follow me I can take you to your villa and you can get some rest. I’m sure you’re tired from the trip.”

Da. That would be wonderful.”

Wynn extended her hand to the right of the waterfall where an elevator waited. She explained that these elevators were strictly for the use of those staying in the Imperial Dynasty villas and other high roller guests of the casino. A young man who couldn’t be older than 19 waited for them to enter the elevator car and then closed the doors behind them. Wynn simply said “Floor 121 please.” and the elevator quickly began to ascend.

In moments the car came to a stop and the doors opened to a small hallway that had only a single set of double doors. From what Korehammer could tell they were made of actual wood and not the synthetic material you saw almost everywhere else. Wynn gestured to the NIIC reader that was mounted on a small pedestal to the right of the doors. Korehammer dutifully waved his left wrist over the reader and was rewarded with a female voice saying “Thank you Mr. Chernova. I hope you enjoy your stay with us here at the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex.”

Wynn swung open the doors with a flourish and revealed what lay beyond. As Korehammer looked around, Wynn explained that this particular Imperial Dynasty villa included four bedrooms, a kitchen with a pantry stocked with real food (Korehammer didn’t even see a synthstation anywhere.) as well as a pool table, a holoscreen that took up an entire wall and a balcony that overlooked the harbor.

Once again, Korehammer had to admit he was impressed.

Korehammer noticed his bags on the floor in the master suite. Good to know no one had tried to tamper with them. It would have been unfortunate if the DRZ DetonCard he had rigged in the bags had exploded and taken half the building with it.

Wynn was waiting for him by the doors when he had finished his brief tour. “Is everything to your liking Mr. Chernova?”

“It is all very impressive.”

“So glad to hear it sir. Did you need anything else before I leave you for the evening?”

Da. The sports book at the casino. It is open 24 hours I assume?”

“Yes sir. You can also place bets from the holoscreen in the living area if you wish.”

“Good, good. Also, could you make sure that a pot of coffee is sent up tomorrow precisely at at nine? I am a creature of habit and need my kofe first thing in the morning to function.”

“Of course sir. Anything else?”

Korehammer smiled. “No, that will be all. Thank you dushen’ka. You have been most helpful.” Wynn blushed every so slightly as she turned and left the villa.

Once he heard the click of the door closing, Korehammer looked up at the ceiling. “Please lock the doors and set so that I am the only one allowed to enter. No exceptions.”

The same female voice from before said “Acknowledged Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer went over to his bags and quickly checked on the weapons and ammunition her had brought with him as well as the Stasis Cradle. Satisfied they were fine, he opened the second duffle bag and brought out a small slate grey plastic box. He took it into the living area and attached it to the villa’s neural interface display via an optic cable and waved his NIIC over it.

A robotic voice said “Stealth system active.” and just like that, Korehammer knew he could use the neural interface display and not have to worry about anyone sticking their nose where it didn’t belong. It was ancient tech by any standard, but it still worked flawlessly and made sure there was no record anywhere of what he was looking for.

Korehammer waved his NIIC over the neural interface and was greeted once again by the same female voice. “How can I help you?”

“Is a Quinton Zechiel currently staying at the Shina-Yasuyan?”

“Yes sir.”

“Where can he be found?”

“Mr. Zechiel can be located at the Senshō Sports Parlor. Would you like for me to contact him for you?”

Nyet. That will be all.”

Korehammer looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was almost ten in the evening. That meant that the cyber fights in Vegas would just be getting started and Zechiel would be getting ready to place his first bets of the night.

Seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a new friend.

Korehammer went into the bedroom, took a quick vibro-shower and changed his clothes. He slid one of the X-22 handguns into a holster at the small of his back, just in case. He didn’t expect trouble but Malcolm Chernova was licensed to carry a large array of weapons, so better safe than sorry.

He walked out of the villa and waved his NIIC over the reader next to the door. He heard the locks engage and the voice said “Enjoy your evening and good luck Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer found it a bit disquieting that he was starting to find that voice appealing.

He called the elevator and it opened seconds later. The same young man was operating it and asked where he wanted to go. Korehammer said the Senshō Sports Parlor before he knew it, they were on their way.

A few minutes later Korehammer got his first look at the Shina-Yasuyan casino and it was almost overwhelming. Sound seemed to come from every direction and holoscreens screamed for attention. He could see what seemed like miles of slot machines, heard screams of victory and defeat from the virtual table games and saw the neon glow of at least seven different bars. Yet above all this controlled chaos was a cloudless night sky filled with stars and a bright full moon. The juxtaposition was jarring but provided a welcome escape from the sensory overload of the casino.

Korehammer asked a cocktail waitress where the sports book was and was told to follow her, she would take him there personally. He figured that Wynn had put the word out that a new high roller was in the building and that everyone should keep their eyes out.

Soon Korehammer was walking into the Senshō Sports Parlor, where you could bet on any sport taking place anywhere in the world. The cavernous room was filled with large padded chairs where betters could sit and watch the results of the games in real time. Each had a small holoscreen that a person could access or you could watch one of the many massive screens that took up one entire side of the room. The sports book also had private suites on a second floor where high rollers could sit and watch games without having to deal with the common masses.

The moment Korehammer entered the room he was approached by a tall, dark-skinned man with dreads and glasses. He wore a dark grey suit and tie with a white shirt and had a datapad cradled in one arm.

“Mr. Chernova I presume?”

He had to give Wynn credit. The woman was very good at her job.

Da. And you are?”

“My name is Thaddeus Tindal sir. I’m one of the people who run the Senshō. Neomi mentioned you might be stopping by.”

“Yes. I’m afraid sleep eluded me this evening. I thought I might come and see if the Senshō was worthy of all the amazing things I’ve heard about it.”

“Of course sir. If you will follow me I’ll show you to one of our private suites.”

“Suite” didn’t quite do the room Tindal ushered Korehammer into justice. He figured it was at least twice the size of his old apartment in The Plex and almost as luxurious as his villa here at the Shina-Yasuyan. It included several large padded chairs, a bar and two large holoscreens. The one wall was entirely made of glass and had a sliding door that could be opened to the main room down below.

Tindal cleared his throat to get Korehammer’s attention as he walked around the suite. “Neomi set up a generous line of credit for you to use during your stay here. If you’ll just scan your NIIC on this datapad I can get the account online for you.”

Korehammer did as he was asked and moments later her received a message on his NIIC that the account was active and how much credit the casino was extending to him. The amount was more than generous and a bit over the top, but it didn’t really matter. Maybe on a future trip he would see if he could put a dent in the house’s bottom line, but not this time. He had business to take care of.

“Did you need anything else sir? A drink? Something to eat? Some… company perhaps?”

Korehammer smiled at him. “Spasibo but no. I think I’ll just watch the previews of tonight’s cyber fights and start to spend some of the casino’s money.”

“Excellent sir. Good luck and if you change your mind, just let me know.”

Tindal left the suite and Korehammer heard the door close behind him as he walked over to the sliding glass doors. He pulled them open and the sounds and smells of the main floor washed over him. He used his NIIC to pull up an image of Quinton Zechiel on a holoscreen and looked out over the parlor.

It didn’t take long to find Zechiel. He was sitting in one of the large padded chairs, a holoscreen in front of him showing the cyber fight previews. He had an unlit cigarette dangling out of his mouth and a drink in one hand, a sheen of sweat visible on his forehead even from this distance.

From what Korehammer had seen, Zechiel was into the Shina-Yasuyan for big credits. Bigger than even a highly paid corporate attorney could reasonably afford. That was definitely something Korehammer could use to his advantage.

Korehammer left the suite and took the stairs down to the first floor. He walked over to where Zechiel was sitting and took a seat a few chairs away from him. Within moments a waitress appeared to see if he needed a drink and Korehammer ordered a vodka and tonic on the rocks.

After a few minutes he gestured towards the holoscreen in front of Zechiel. “Who do you like in tonight’s fights tovarishch?”

Without looking over Zechiel said “Tobias Zavaleta is looking like a sure thing. He just had a complete systems upgrade and is fighting London McLaren, who hasn’t won shit in months. That’s where I’d put my money if that’s what your asking.”

“Interesting. But what about Jovena Rackman? I heard she just had a nanite bone lace and skin weave done. Should make her a pretty difficult opponent.”

Zechiel snorted. “Rackman? She’s a bum. Couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper bag. Woman’s got no skills. Karla Carrick is going to kick the snot out of her.”

Korehammer could see why Zechiel was into the casino for so much. He had no objectivity to his betting and simply went with his gut. That was never a good combination when betting.

“What about Corrine Caldera? What do you think about her?”

The still unlit cigarette fell from Zechiel’s mouth and hit the floor, not that he noticed. He slowly turned his head to look at Korehammer, the sweat on his forehead seeming to increase tenfold.

Korehammer let a small smile cross his lips. “I believe you have something for me?”

Datafile 002.5

Caldera stood rock still, blinking and trying to come to terms with the fact that Akira Ito was right in front of her, leading a Sutoraiku assault team. Rescuing her from certain torture and death at the hands of Tristen and his lieutenants.

How? How is this possible? It was the only coherent thought running through her mind. Caldera couldn’t think straight, couldn’t even hear Ito as he said that they had to get moving. That Tristen had more mercs in the building and they had to disappear.

The only thing that Caldera could think about was the last time she had seen Ito, on the day he had died.

Their Sutoraiku team had been sent to Hong Kong to steal data on a new form of cyberware that had been developed by a rival corporation. Cutting edge tech that would make the small firm a major player in the world of cybernetics. Caldera remembered thinking it seemed like overkill to send in the Sutoraiku, but she wasn’t paid to question, just complete whatever task was put in front of her.

So when it became evident from the moment the op started that someone knew they were coming, Caldera was far from shocked. Two team members died before they even entered the building and another three as they attempted to retreat and regroup on the roof.

Caldera could still picture Ito as he threw her onto the transport. Where Ito’s right eye should have been was just a mass of blood and burnt flesh while his arm and shoulder looked like they had been put through a shredder. She wasn’t much better, her leg shattered and blood pouring out of a gunshot would to her stomach.

Ito had turned and started laying down covering fire, trying to give the transport ship a chance to get away. She had reached her hand out, screaming at him to grab her arm and let her help him onboard. Then her world went white.

The entire roof exploded, sending death and fire screaming in every direction. The transport barely managed to escape, losing one engine while being thrown away from the blast. It was only thanks to the pilot being neurally jacked into ship that he was able react quick enough to save them.

There was only one other survivor from that op. When they returned to Arasaka headquarters in NeoTokyo there were many, many questions and no answers. Six months later Caldera walked away from the Sutoraiku, unable to get the image of Ito being consumed by fire as the roof collapsed out of her mind.

It was all Caldera could think about now as Ito gripped her arm and dragged her after the rest of the assault squad. She didn’t resist as he pushed her along a dim hallway, two of the squad in front and two in the rear with Ito walking alongside her in the middle.

Finally Caldera snapped out of it, feeling like she was awakening from a deep sleep. She stopped where she was, turned to look at Ito and hit him with a uppercut that knocked him against the wall of the hallway, knocking him to the ground.

“Sixteen years you’ve been alive? Sixteen fucking years and you didn’t find me to tell me? You fucking bastard!” Caldera lashed out with her boot, viciously kicking Ito in the ribs. She knew that thanks to the kevlar jacket he was wearing she couldn’t do any real harm, but it still felt incredibly good.

Caldera bent over to hit him again when someone grabbed her arm from behind. She spun around to find one of the squad, a woman, face still covered by her combat helmet, starring at her. She turned to look down at Ito and when she spoke, her voice sounded as if it was coming through a speaker.

“Is this really worth all this trouble? It might be easier to just stun her and carry her out of here.”

Caldera yanked her arm out of the soldier’s grip and turned to face this unknown woman.

“Try it and I’ll tear your arm off and shove it someplace you wouldn’t like.”

“Enough!”

Both turned to look at Ito as he got himself up off the floor and glared at the two of them. “We don’t have time for this. They’re going to find our location any minute. We need to evac out of here and sort through all this other crap later. Toyoko, take the rest of the team and scout up ahead a bit. I need to have a word with Caldera.”

It was impossible to know what Toyoko thought of the orders due to the mask covering her face, but like any member of Sutoraiku, she didn’t question them. With a wave of her hand the rest of the squad formed up on her and they moved further down the hallway.

Once they were gone Ito turned and looked at Caldera, a mixture of sympathy and frustration in his eyes. “Feel better? Jesus, you almost took my head off with that punch.”

“You owe me an explanation.”

“You’re right. I do. And you’ll get one, I promise. But we need to get out of here. If more of those clercs show up we’re going to have all kinds of problems.”

“Clercs?”

“Those new clone soldiers they’ve created. Last time we ran into them Steiger called them clercs and the name stuck.”

“So you know they’re clones?”

“Yeah.”

“Who else knows?”

“Arasaka figured it out two months ago when we captured one of them after a op down in Mexico. They’ve kept it quiet. Need to know information.”

Ito blinked and shook his head, looking at Caldera. “Wait. You know about the clones? How?”

Caldera smiled. “I have my sources.”

“Damn. You’re good as ever.”

“I know.” Caldera’s smile vanished as she realized something. “If you know about the clones then you know they can’t be hurt. Or so I thought. How’d you take them all down?”

“Look. I’ll explain everything once we’re out of here. We have a transport waiting and we need to be on it ASAP.”

As if on cue to prove Ito’s point, six clercs came streaming out of a doorway at the other end of the hall, each armed with FN-RAL Heavy Assault Rifles. The two in the lead opened fire the minute they saw Ito and Caldera, shooting indiscriminately in their general direction.

Ito fired back with his Imgram, tagging one of the clercs in the chest and another in the leg. Both fell to the ground, temporarily blocking the doorway and stopping the rest of their squad from advancing on the pair.

Ito looked at Caldera and screamed “GO!” pointing in the direction the rest of the Sutoraiku team had gone. Knowing this wasn’t the time for a debate, Caldera ran down the hallway toward the door that led to the stairwell. Ito was right behind her, firing his weapon at the clercs as he ran.

Just as they reached the door leading to the stairs it burst open. Toyoko and another member of the squad suddenly appeared, almost running Caldera over as they emerged into the hall. They had backtracked after hearing the gunfire to assist their leader and make sure the mission objective wasn’t harmed. Toyoko fired in the direction of the clercs while telling her squad mate, a man named Castiglione, to grab Ito and Caldera and get them to the roof.

Castiglione grabbed Caldera’s upper right arm tightly and practically dragged her up the stairs, giving her a yank whenever he didn’t feel she was moving fast enough. She understood why he was being so insistent, but her arm was still sore from the procedure Charlie had performed and it was starting to hurt.

Thankfully they reached the top withing a few minutes. Castiglione kicked the door open with his foot and shoved Caldera through, followed by Ito. It was the first time she had had a chance to look at Ito since the firefight began so she was stunned to see blood staining the sleeve of his left arm.

“Jesus Ito! When did you get hit?”

Ito looked at his arm the same was you may look at a tear in your shirt. “It’s nothing. One of the clercs tagged me when they burst into the hallway.” Turning his attention away from her, he looked over at his squad mate. “Castiglione. What’s the E.T.A. on our ride out of here?”

“Two minutes sir.”

Caldera took in the scene around them. It was nighttime and the roof was wet, like it had just stopped raining. The air had the smell of the city, but it seemed cleaner somehow, like the rain had washed some of the filth out of it. She figured they were somewhere in The Plex, possibly down in the old sports district. In the distance she could see the glow of neon and holosigns and hear the constant shuffle of the city.

Caldera walked over to the edge of the roof and looked down. She immediately regretted that decision. They were at least 20 stories up and it made her dizzy just thinking about it. All the ops and missions she had been on throughout her life and she still had a problem with heights. Unbelievable.

Two other members of the Sutoraiku assault team came running through the door onto the roof, closing it behind them. Ito looked over and said “What happened to Jenkins?”

Toyoko looked right at Caldera as she said “He didn’t make it. Clerc nailed him and he covered for us while we made out getaway.” She then walked over to Caldera and stood just inches away from her. “I hope you’re worth it.”

Before Caldera could respond her head was filled with the sound of repulsar engines as a Sutoraiku jump ship seemed to appear out of nowhere. It hovered over them for a moment before dropping down and landing on the roof. The bay door toward the rear opened and out walked a woman who Caldera assumed was the pilot.

She didn’t have a helmet on like the rest of the squad so Caldera could see that she had a smooth chrome cap that covered the entire top and back of her skull as well as her forehead and eyes. Her skin was dark and she wore a simplified version of combat gear worn by the rest of the squad. If Caldera had to guess, this would be the team’s netrunner but this was more advanced than anything she had ever seen.

She looked at Ito after assessing the group and said “Where the hell is Jenkins?” Her voice had a strange echo effect that Caldera found chilling.

Ito sighed before he spoke. “He bought it Charade. Get us out of here and put us in stealth mode as soon as we’re all onboard. We have clercs on our tail.”

“On it.”

Charade walked back into the jump ship as the rest of the squad and Caldera clambered inside. She found it comforting somehow that the interior of a Sutoraiku transport had changed very little since she had left. It was a large rectangular shell with four seats lining the walls on either side and dim light strips running the length of the ceiling.

Caldera watched as Charade settled into a large chair in the cockpit of the ship. She inserted a pair of cables directly into her head, one at her left temple and the other where her right eye should have been. The woman’s shoulders seemed to relax and her head nodded forward as she interfaced with the mainframe and became one with the ship.

With her fingers steepled in front of her, Charade closed the rear bay door as the repulsars fired and the ship left the roof. Gunfire from the clercs who had emerged from the hallway deflected harmlessly off the outer shielding and soon the rooftop was left in the distance.

Caldera sat down heavily in one of the seats, which was as hard and unforgiving as she remembered. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, holding the breath for a moment as she tried to process everything that had just happened. She felt someone sit next to her and looked over to see Ito staring at her.

“You okay?”

Caldera exhaled and looked at him before saying “Yeah. I’ll be alright. What about you? How’s the arm?”

“Fine. Looks a lot worse than it actually is.”

Caldera had been on the run for months. Close call after close call, cheating death over and over. The work she was doing was important and she knew it was worth it, but it took a toll. She was exhausted emotionally as well as physically. Later, she realized that was probably the only reason the next words came out of her mouth.

“I’ve missed you.”

Ito looked down at the floor and Caldera could swear that he was blushing.

“Same here.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Seriously?”

Both Caldera and Ito turned to see Toyoko looking at them. She had removed her helmet to reveal an unruly mop of blonde hair, green eyes, high cheekbones and a chin with a dimple in it. Caldera’s initial reaction was that she looked more like the star of some VR porn fantasy than an Arasaka corporate soldier.

Caldera glared at her. “Keep it up slag. I will end you right here and now.”

Ito put a hand on Caldera’s shoulder. “Not now Caldera. There’s too much on the line here.” Ito turned and looked at Toyoko. “That goes for you too. Do a munitions check and make sure everyone is locked and loaded. We’re not finished yet.”

Toyoko looked at Caldera before walking off with a curt “Yes sir.”

Caldera once again looked at Ito. “Where are we going? And how the hell did you find me?”

Ito looked at the floor and then at Caldera, obviously weighing how much information he should share with the former Sutoraiku. A look or resolution crossed his features and she could tell a decision had been made.

“First off, finding you was easy. That eye from Biotechnica that you called in some favors to get almost a decade ago?”

Slowly Caldera’s hand involuntarily went to her eye. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

“Afraid so. Some top level suits at Arasaka found out about it and had a bio-tracer added to the firmware before it was sent to you. In a way you can’t blame them. You were one of the best soldiers they ever had. They wanted to be able to keep tabs on you.”

A bio-tracer. All this time she thought she was being so careful, trying to stay in the shadows so she wouldn’t put anyone in danger and it turns out Arasaka could have found her anytime they wanted. Did Charlie know when he installed it? She would have to ask him and If he did, there would be hell to pay.

Dealing with the ramifications of this revelation would have to wait however. Caldera had more questions that needed answers.

“So why is a Sutoraiku strike team after me anyway?”

“You know damn well why Caldera.” Ito hesitated a moment. “Where is it?”

Caldera looked at him. “Where’s what?”

Ito’s voice rose a fraction. “Don’t play stupid with me Caldera. Just don’t. I lost a good man rescuing your ass from Tristen and his friends. Don’t waste my time. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Caldera took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling of the jump ship. She did know what he was talking about. And the same way he had taken a leap of faith telling her about the bio-tracer, maybe it was time to take a leap of her own.

“It’s in Atlantic City. One of our agents, Quinton Zechiel, stashed it somewhere in the city but I don’t know exactly where. We felt it was safer that way.”

Ito nodded and raised his hand to his mouth, speaking into his NIIC. “Charade? Set course for Atlantic City. Full stealth mode, bio and electronic suppression systems at full.”

“Done.”

Looking back at Caldera, Ito said “Thank you.” and sat back in his seat, removing his jacket and shirt to start tending to the gunshot would in his arm.

But Caldera had more questions. “Wait. We’re going to Atlantic City? Why? What does Arasaka want with the package?”

“I don’t know. We don’t even know what this thing is we’re after. You more than most know how the company operates. We were just told to find you, get the package and bring it back to Arasaka headquarters in NeoTokyo.”

“And you’re taking me with you?”

“Yes. We know you had a meeting with your old associate Trevor Korehammer so we figured you sent him to retrieve it. Unfortunately he went off the grid so we couldn’t trace him and do this the easy way. That meant Plan B, which was you.”

Caldera quickly realized she couldn’t let Arasaka get their hands on what was hidden in Atlantic City. They would take something that could turn the tide in the conflict and reengineer it into some kind of new weapon, or worse sell it to the highest bidder. There was no way she could let that happen.

As much as Caldera hated to admit it, she was stuck with Ito and his squad for the duration. She had to ensure that Korehammer was able to complete his mission and get out of Atlantic City. The best way to do that was to stay with Ito and do what she could on this end.

Caldera leaned back in her seat and folded her arms. “So I guess I’m back in the Sutoraiku.”

Ito was wrapping his wound in anesthetic tape and stopped to look at her. “It appears that way. Welcome home.”