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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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 repulsers 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.
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.
“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.”
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.”