Datafile 004.4

“Did you know?”

“What the fuck are ya talking about Corrine?” Charlie was once again sitting in his stool, Korehammer standing behind him with his arms folded while Caldera paced in front of him, waving her Magnum back and forth in front of his face.

“Did you know?” Caldera’s voice rose with each word.

“I swear to ya, I have no fuckin’ clue what you’re talkin’ about!”

“Did. You. KNOW!” Caldera leveled her Magnum at Charlie’s right temple.

“KNOW WHAT?” Charlie screamed, almost to the point of tears. He rolled the stool back away from Caldera only to hit Korehammer’s legs. He gave him a pleading look, desperate for someone to calm Caldera down, but Korehammer just shrugged his shoulders like he had absolutely nothing to do with the situation.

Suddenly, Caldera was slowly lowering the Magnum, placing it back in the holster. “Well? What do you think?” she asked Korehammer without taking her eyes off Charlie.

He shrugged his shoulders again before responding “He sounds sincere. I think the fat load of crap is telling the truth.”

Charlie looked back and forth from Caldera to Korehammer, a confused expression on his face. “Truth … truth about what?”

Caldera walked over to a workbench that was against the far wall, covered with burned out cybernetics and other odd bits of tech. She grabbed a chair that was sitting next to it and carried it over, placing it directly in front of Charlie. She sat down, leaning forward so her face was only a foot or so away from the ripperdoc. The man was sweating profusely and his eyes continued to dart between her and Korehammer.

“The truth about this eye you implanted in my skull ten years ago. The one designed by BioCyber and obtained for me by some friends at Hachisuka Corp.”

Charlie slowly leaned forward, some of the terror leaving his eyes as the conversation turned to technology, his favorite subject. “You’re fuckin’ with me. You got that from the assbags at Hachisuka?”

“Yes. I used to be a part of the Sutoraiku and I called in some favors to get the tech so I could upgrade my vision.”

A bit of the fear crept back into Charlie’s face. “You … you used to be Sutoraiku?”

Caldera grinned ever so slightly. “Yes Charlie. I was Sutoraiku.”

Charlie leaned back, the back of his head bumping into Korehammer’s stomach. “You never told me any of that.”

“Why would I? You didn’t need to know and I’m not in the habit of spilling my guts to a degenerate lardass like yourself.”

“Fair point.”

Caldera looked Charlie in the eyes and continued. “I was recently told that before the eye was given to me, Hachisuka implanted a bio-tracer in it. So they could keep track of me in case they ever needed me again. Since you are the one who installed the eye, I had to know if you were aware of the bio-tracer when you did it. Because if you were, well, it wasn’t going to go well for you.” Caldera gestured to the corpse of the nameless kid still lying on the floor, a pool of blood congealing around him. Charlie glanced over quickly and then focused on Caldera again.

“I swear to fuckin’ God, I didn’t know shit about any bio-tracer. And if I did I sure as hell would have told you.”

“Really?”

“Fuck yeah! I have a reputation to keep and I’m not gonna let those shitholes at Hachisuka fuck that all up for me.”

Caldera looked up at Korehammer, who nodded his head in agreement. “I believe him.”

Charlie glanced back at him. “Thanks man.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Yes sir.”

Caldera got up and walked toward the gurney that still had blood stains from the teenager now lying on the floor. “So here’s what’s going to happen Charlie. You are going to figure out how to get this bio-tracer out of me, even if it means removing the whole eye and replacing it with something else. You are going to do this free of charge because we’re old friends now and let’s be honest, Korehammer will kill you if you don’t.”

Charlie chanced another look at Korehammer, who was simply nodding his head.

“Okay, but I need to see what I’m dealing with. Bio-tracer tech has come a long way in the last decade. Nowadays they just inject you with nanites and the only way to get rid of them is to do a complete fuckin’ blood exchange.” Charlie got up from the stool and walked over toward the gurney, pulling a filthy rag from his pocket and wiping the blood off before gesturing to Caldera. “Hop on up here sweetheart.”

Caldera stood and walked over to the gurney, giving Korehammer a silent look as she did that said If he tries anything, put a bullet between his eyes. He just nodded, his eyes unreadable behind a pair of mirrorshades.

As Caldera laid down, Charlie grabbed a couple of tools from a cabinet before rolling the stool over and placing it next to the gurney, close to her head. “Close your eyes and keep ’em shut,” he said as he used one of the tools to release the magnetic screws that kept the eye and its housing in place. She heard a soft hiss and then felt the incredibly bizarre sensation of part of her head being lifted from her face.

After a few minutes of feeling Charlie’s fingers probing inside her skull, he whistled softly. “Wow. Those fuckers did not mess around with this thing. The bio-tracer is hardwired into the main memory board of the hardware.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning if I try to remove it, it’ll fry your brain. You’ll suddenly have an awful lot in common with that poor fucker lying on the floor.”

“Shit,” Caldera said softly.

“Can you replace it?” she heard Korehammer ask.

“Replace what?”

“Her eye dumbass. If we can get a new one, can you take that one out and replace it?”

“Hmmm.” Caldera could practically see Charlie scratching his chin as he thought it over. “Yeah, probably. It would take a while to do and the Helix would have to come out too. But it’s doable.”

“Helix?”

“The Helix plasma detonator I implanted in her ample chest when I installed the eye. If I take out the eye it has to go too.”

Caldera heard Korehammer take a few steps in her direction. “You have a goddamn Helix implanted in your chest? Seriously?”

Caldera smiled. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. Plus, given the type of people I’ve been dealing with the last few years, it felt good to know I had a failsafe just in case.”

“Jesus, Corrine.”

The three of them were silent for a moment before Charlie spoke up. “So what are we doing here? Cause even if I ain’t getting paid, I still have a fuckin’ business to run. And the sooner I get you two out of here, the sooner I can resume charging people for my services.”

“Overcharging you mean,” Korehammer said.

“Greatness costs money buddy.”

“Let me make a few calls. See what I can come up with.”

“Wait a sec. Now that I think about it, I may have something in the back that would do the trick. Hold on.” Caldera heard Charlie get up off the stool and walk away, heading toward one on the other rooms in the shop.

A few minutes later she heard a pile of what she had to assume were assorted broken cyber parts crashing to the floor followed by Charlie saying “Fuck” more time than she could count. He returned a short time later, clearly out of breath and frustrated. “Fuckin’ bullshit. I gotta hire someone to clean this shithole up.”

His frustration seemingly vanished as he said “Here ya go. Got this for a client who, unfortunately, didn’t live long enough to use it. I told him not to get involved in a land war in Asia but no, would he listen?”

“Damn,” she heard Korehammer say. “Is this what I think it is?”

“Yep. A Jora-Te Neurobotics E-40S military-grade optic enhancement. It should do everything the one from BioCyber did and a hell of a lot more.”

“This isn’t cheap tech to come by.”

“You can say that again. Lucky for you, the dumb fucker paid for it in advance.”

Caldera spoke up. “And you’re just going to give it to me?”

“Well, you and your partner here were nice enough not to blow my fuckin’ head off. So there’s that. Plus I feel like I owe you. I’m the one who installed the original chrome, I feel responsible for not takin’ a closer look at it before I put in in ya.”

“You keep talking like that and your reputation is going to take a hit. It almost sounds like you care.”

“Shut the fuck up Corrine.”

“She’s right.” Caldera heard Korehammer say. “Before you know it your clients are going to think you actually give a shit about them.”

“Never gonna fuckin’ happen. If you tell anybody I’ll deny it.”

Caldera heard Korehammer laugh, for the first time it what felt like a very long time.

“So how long is this going to take?”

“Eight hours minimum. Putting in the E-40S is simple, even with all the flesh I’m gonna have to grow and graft on. The complicated part is takin’ out the old tech and the Helix.”

“Then I guess you better get started.”

Caldera turned her head toward where she heard Korehammer’s voice. “You should go get some rest. Come back later when Charlie’s done.”

She could almost hear Korehammer shaking his head. “No way. If you think I trust this fat piece of shit any farther than I can throw him, you’re got a touch of psychosis. I’m going to sit right here and make sure our friend does exactly what he’s supposed to.”

“Thanks for the love Korehammer.” Caldera heard Charlie say as she felt him press a hypospray against her neck and heard the telltale hiss as he administered the anesthesia.

***

The forest was quiet. No birds, no motion, just fog and darkness as far as she could see. The trees seemed to go on forever above her as she wandered, trying to find a way out and back into the sunlight.

She heard a rustle of branches behind her and quickly turned to see what caused it. When she saw nothing she kept going, quickening her step ever so slightly. The fog seemed to be deepening, she could almost feel it on her skin, cold and damp, like it was trying to envelop her and steal her away.

She heard another noise behind her, this time closer. She broke into a run, branches brushing against her cheeks, cutting her bare legs and arms. The chill felt like it was seeping into her bones as it became harder to breathe, the air feeling like daggers in her chest every time she took in a breath.

She turned her head to look behind her as she ran, to see if he was there. She saw nothing but fog and mist but ran faster anyway, sure he was there somewhere, watching her, following her.

Suddenly he dropped out of the tree branches above her, landing mere feet in front of her. The Pale Man, his skin sallow and grey, his eyes sunken in, his white hair falling to his shoulders as he reached out to her.

She couldn’t stop her momentum in time and ran into his arms. He squeezed her tight, his embrace like iron, his skin cold. She struggled to get away but it was useless. She tried to scream but no sound came out of her mouth, just a cloud of vapor that disappeared as fast as it had formed.

The Pale Man leaned forward, his face inches from hers. He opened his mouth, his cracked swollen tongue licking his lips as he said “You must find the Shadow Parliament. It is your only hope.”

The words came out in a whisper. She wasn’t sure she heard him. She looked into his eyes, black pools that seemed to go on endlessly. “Wha … what?”

The Shadow Parliament,” he said again, barely audible to her ears. “You must find the Shadow Parliament. It is your only hope.”

I … I don’t understand. What is the Shadow Parliament?”

Suddenly the Pale Man began to scream. It seemed to come from everywhere at once and intensified by the moment. When he let go of her she covered her ears but it didn’t help. The scream got louder and louder until she thought her head would split in two …

***

Caldera’s eyes flew open. Her breathing was coming in quick gasps as she looked around, remembering where she was and why. She tried to sit up and a sudden pain in her chest made her stop and lay back down. She reached down and felt with her fingers, finding a small bandage that covered where Charlie had cut into her chest to get out the Helix.

She turned her head on the gurney and saw Korehammer was still here, just as promised. He was sleeping in a chair, his feet propped up on some kind of hovercar engine assembly. He was snoring ever so slightly, his chest rising and falling as she watched.

Caldera thought back to the dream, trying to remember as much as possible before it disappeared forever. The Pale Man had finally spoken. After all these years of the similar dreams that would all end the same way, he had finally said something to her. But what is the Shadow Parliament? And what did it have to do with her? Was it just something from her subconscious that had been dredged up because of everything she had been through the last few days? Or was it something more? Was someone trying to tell her something?

It didn’t matter. The dream and whatever information it was trying to convey would have to wait. Caldera tried to sit up again, slower this time and managed to get her legs over the edge of the gurney. She didn’t make any attempt to stand since she didn’t want a repeat of what had happened last time she was here, but instead reached up to her face.

Where she expected to feel cold chrome and metal instead she felt warm flesh. She also realized she could feel the air as it blew over her left cheek and temple and that for the first time in ten years, when she blinked she was blinking with both eyes. It was a bit disorientating and not what she was expecting.

“Well, well, well, sleeping fuckin’ beauty has awoken at last.”

Caldera turned to see Charlie walk into the room. He had a big smile on his face as he wiped his hands with a dirty rag. “How are ya feelin’ sweetheart?”

“Fine, I guess. How long did the operation take?”

“Over nine hours. Removing the old tech was a bitch and a half. Took me fuckin’ forever. And then I had to crack your chest to get the damn Helix out. Made me wish I hadn’t done such a great job of installing it in the first place.” He sighed. “But once that was done putting in the new eye was a snap. Even with all the skin and bone I had to grow and graft on to your face.”

“Where is the old eye?”

“Over there.” Charlie pointed to the table at the rear of the room. “I have the old eye and the Helix all hooked up to a bioenergy generator. I figured you and Korehammer wouldn’t want Hachisuka to know you removed it so I have it running off that for now.”

“Good thinking.”

“Turns out you’re not as dumb as you look.” Korehammer said from where he was sitting. Caldera turned and saw he was looking at the two of them, his arms folded and his feet still propped up.

“Thanks for sticking around.”

“Not a problem.”

Caldera looked down at the floor, not sure how to ask the next question. “How do I look?”

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Korehammer got up with a grunt and walked over to the table where the Helix was. He picked something up and then walked to where Caldera was sitting and handed it to her.

Caldera never considered herself a vain person. Replacing her eye and covering the left side of her face with metal was a choice she made and she would do it again. However, she would be lying if she said she didn’t care at all how she looked now that it had been removed and replaced with something else.

She held the mirror up and took a good look at her new face.

“Holy shit …”

Datafile 004.3

Caldera ordered an autocar as she and Korehammer walked out of the Hachisuka CritCare Unit. It had started raining and since Korehammer was still not one hundred percent, she decided it was the best way to get where they were going.

After some debate, they had decided that heading to her room at The Dolphin Motel was probably their best option. It was registered under a false identity and in The Plex, it was always easier to disappear than anywhere else in the city. In addition, it turned out that Korehammer’s drop box wasn’t that far from The Dolphin so they could take some time to decompress and get their bearings.

Ten minutes later Caldera was using her NIIC to open the door to her room. As they walked in they were welcomed by the primal moaning of the sex worker and her latest client next door. Korehammer gave Caldera a questioning look and she simply shrugged her shoulders, which apparently was enough of an answer for him.

Korehammer sat down heavily in the chair by the window, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. Caldera glanced over at him as she took off her jacket and threw it on the bed. “You okay?”

“I will be. Just need a few minutes. That fight on the Expressway took a toll. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“That goes for both of us.”

Korehammer opened his eyes, looking at Caldera with a grim expression. “Well, that’s why I was happily semi-retired until you came back into my life.”

Caldera looked at the floor, unable to meet his gaze. “Korehammer, listen I …”

Korehammer waved his hand in an attempt to silence her. “It’s not important right now. I just need to know one thing. When you vanished four years ago, was it because of this? The whole fight against the vampires thing?”

Caldera hesitated, not sure how much of the truth she wanted to share. “The short answer is yes. Remember that op in Buenos Aires for ThetaCom? The one where they wanted you to retrieve some spliced gene codes and bring them to Chicago?”

“Yeah. That job turned into a total shitshow. And when I got back, you were gone.”

“That’s because the truth about what was going on in the world had been shown to me. That was when I learned about the vampires and what they had been doing for thousands of years. How they had hurt people, destroyed families and caused more pain then you or I could imagine.”

It was then Caldera realized her hands were clenched into fists, so tight that her knuckles were turning white. She opened her hands, slowly flexing her fingers to get the circulation going again. Even though it had been four years, just thinking about the events that had opened her eyes made all the anger and fury come right back to the surface.

“I swore then I would do whatever I had to in order to end their threat and make the world better. I wasn’t going to let them get away with thinking of humanity as just food. You know what they call humans?”

“No.”

“Bloodbags. That’s what they call us. That’s how they see us.” Caldera looked away from Korehammer and tried to calm herself.

Korehammer leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbow on his knees. “Yeah, but what caused all this emotion and rage? I thought I knew you pretty well, Corrine. It’s not like you to just go off on some kind of holy crusade without a damn good reason.”

Caldera’s shoulders slumped as she sat on the edge of the bed, her hands in her lap. It had been so long since she had been able to talk to anyone about this. She was just too exhausted to put up a front and deny any of it anymore.

“They got my brother,” she said almost under her breath.

Korehammer shook his head in disbelief. “Your brother? Your twin Connor? Corrine, you told me he died. That he was killed in some back alley by a gang after he played a gig in a bar. Hell, that must have been over twenty years ago by now.”

“Yeah. Twenty-one to be exact. After he died was when I ran off and joined the Hachisuka Corporate Army. With Connor gone I didn’t see any point in anything anymore.”

“So what are you telling me? That vampires are the ones who killed him?”

Caldera slowly turned to look Korehammer in the eye. “Sort of. Vampires are the ones who attacked him. But they didn’t kill him, not the way you’re thinking of. No, they turned him.”

“Turned him into what?”

“A vampire.”

Korehammer’s jaw went slack as he looked at Caldera. She could tell he didn’t believe a word that was coming out of her mouth. Unfortunately that didn’t make it any less true.

“While you were in Buenos Aires I received a message that someone wanted to meet me at the Rosewood, that dive bar in the southern part of The Plex? I would have ignored it if it didn’t include some information that only a handful of people would know. I got there, ordered a drink and waited. A half hour later Connor walked in.

“He still looks almost exactly like he did the last time I saw him twenty years ago. Long black hair, high cheekbones, square jaw. The only difference is the deathly pale skin. I was in shock. I was sure someone was fucking with me, playing some kind of incredibly cruel joke. But then he walked over, sat down next to me and started talking. Told me how he had been turned by the bloodsuckers. How he had been keeping tabs on me all these years. How much he missed me.”

Caldera paused, shaking her head slightly before continuing. “Then Connor gave me a warning. He told me that the vampires are planning for war with humanity. They want to take over, no more working from the shadows, no more living in secret. He said he had tried to be a voice of reason but as far as the other bloodsuckers are concerned he’s nothing more than a child.

“He was warning me because he didn’t want me to get hurt. Said he knew about our courier business and said I should take my money, buy a cabin somewhere in the mountains and hide. Humanity didn’t have a chance and he didn’t want to see me become someone’s dinner or worse, be turned into an abomination like him.”

Caldera stood, wrapping her arms around herself and then started pacing by the side of the bed. “Once he left I started doing some research and learned the truth for myself. About the vampires, how they had influenced the course of world events and what they were planning. I also learned about the DawnSword and …”

Korehammer held up his hand. “Wait. The Dawn what now?”

“The DawnSword. The resistance movement that fights the vampires. They’ve been around for almost as long as the bloodsuckers, trying to keep humans safe and oblivious to the secret war raging around them. There are cells all over the world, working independently of each other so that no one member can endanger the whole group.

“After seeing Connor and what they had done to him, I couldn’t just go on like nothing had happened. I had to fight them, get some kind of justice. So I searched for the DawnSword and once I found them, I joined. I wanted to keep you uninvolved so I didn’t tell you. I just went off the grid and figured I’d never see you again. I thought it would be better that way.”

Caldera walked over and put her hand on Korehammer’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you.”

Korehammer shrugged with indifference. “It wouldn’t have mattered. I would have told you that you’re crazy and laughed as you left.”

Caldera looked down and met Korehammer’s eyes with a slight smile on her lips. “Right.”

“So what changed that you felt the need to reach out to me for help?”

“With the new tactics being used by the vampires and the threat of open conflict looming, the DawnSword has decided to organize and share resources. That’s how we learned about the nanotech being developed by Omega-Kagi. Everything was going according tp plan until New Pittsburgh, when everything went to shit. We had no choice but to ditch the chip to keep it safe. We found Zechiel, convinced him to take it with him to Atlantic City and then split up since we knew we were being followed by the bloodsuckers. And that’s where you entered the story.”

“Thanks for that.” Korehammer said under his breath.

“Again, I’m sorry.”

Korehammer looked up at her. “Don’t be. Retirement wasn’t suiting me that well anyway. And if there’s a war coming with undead vampires, I guess this is better than getting my neck pierced.”

“Korehammer …”

He stood, cutting her off. “So what’s the plan? We get the datachip from the dropbox and then head for Brooklyn?”

“Right. Mattix runs the DawnSword cell that operates out of New York. We give the chip to him and then await further instructions.”

“Really? From what I read Mattix didn’t seem like the revolutionary type, much less the kind who would be a leader.”

“You’d be surprised what fighting bloodsuckers for years can bring out in a person.”

“Anyway, what kind of instructions?”

“There’s chatter that some of leaders of the bigger cells are going to have a meeting, figure out some kind of strategy going forward. There’s also the issue that there’s a traitor somewhere in the DawnSword.”

Korehammer walked over to where Caldera had placed the duffel bag on the small table by the window. “Fine. I suggest we crash for a few hours while we have the chance. It’ll take at least that long for Ito to reach NeoTokyo and discover he’s been had.” He then reached into the bag and brought out the Stasis Cradle.

Caldera watched as Korehammer went through the process of removing the Malcolm Chernova NIIC from his wrist and replacing it with his own. She always found it a bit disquieting, watching as a man she knew better than most become someone else.

As he placed the Chernova NIIC in its slot in the Cradle, he glanced at Caldera. “Thanks to you, Malcolm Chernova is officially dead. When we have some down time I’ll have to go through the reams of paperwork to kill him and transfer all his money and property to his brother.”

Caldera tilted her head slightly in a questioning look. “He had a brother?”

“No, but he will by the time I’m done.”

Korehammer sat back down in the chair, pulling the small plastic coffee table over and propping his feet up on it. “You take the bed. I’ll be fine here.”

“Korehammer, you’re injured. You take the bed.”

“No thanks. You’ll lord it over me forever. Not gonna happen.”

Caldera went into the bathroom and changed her shirt, pulling on a vintage Morphide t-shirt from the band’s European Tour in 2027 and a fresh pair of jeans. She went back out, ready to explain to Korehammer why he should take the bed when she saw he was already fast asleep.

She pulled the blanket off the bed and threw it over him. As she laid down and closed her eyes, Caldera hoped against hope that her sleep would be dream free.

***

Caldera woke with a start at the gentle prodding of Korehammer, who was nudging her with his hand. “Time to get up. We have to get moving.”

“How long was I out?”

“Couple hours. You kept muttering to yourself but I figured it was better to just let you rest.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” she said as she tried to rub the sleep from her eyes.

“The drop box is just a few blocks from here. We can pick it up and then figure out how we’re going to get to Brooklyn.”

Caldera shook her head. “We have to make a stop first after we get the datachip. There’s something I need to take care of.”

Korehammer gave her an incredulous look. “Are you kidding?”

“it’s important. Take my word for it.”

“Yeah. I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

Caldera gave him a grim smile as she pulled on her leather jacket and made sure her Magnums were loaded and ready. Korehammer did the same, reloading both X-27 handguns and throwing the duffel bag over his shoulder.

They walked out of Caldera’s room and into the dark of the evening. The rain had stopped and the neon of the signs could be seen reflected in the puddles of water in the street. Caldera always liked it right after it rained. Everything felt cleaner, like the persistent filth of the city had been beaten back, if only temporarily.

They turned left, heading West on Oregon Ave. In fifteen minutes they arrived at one of the many capsule motels that littered The Plex. This one was called the Sunrise and it rose into the air like a monolith, rooms the size of coffins stacked one on top of another. They were cheap, even cheaper than the place Caldera was staying and usually offered drop boxes for people without a permanent address, which included most of the visitors to The Plex.

They walked into the lobby, which was shabby and smelled like mold. Korehammer gave the woman behind the desk a curt nod as he walked past, and had it returned.

“You know each other?” Caldera asked.

“Like I told you, I’ve used this box before. No one asks questions here and no one would bother to answer if someone did.”

They walked into a small room which was lined with drop boxes, each with a number and a NIIC reader attached to the wall beside it. Korehammer walked over to a box with 601 written in faded white numbers on it and waved his NIIC over the reader. The box softly ejected a few inches from the wall with a low beep. Korehammer pulled it out the rest of the way and placed it on the small table that stood in the center of the room. He lifted the cover off and there inside Caldera could see a small package addressed to the Sunrise.

Korehammer took it out and opened it, revealing the datachip inside. Caldera let out an involuntary sigh of relief as she saw it.

“What? You didn’t trust me?”

“It’s not that. I’m just glad to have optics on it again.”

“That’s great. I’m happy for you,” he said as he shoved the box into the bag on his shoulder. “Now what’s this errand you feel so compelled to run?”

“C’mon. Let’s grab an autocar and I’ll tell you on the way.”

***

A few minutes later Korehammer and Caldera were standing on Dickinson Street in front of Charlie’s Chop Shop. It was late but the shop was still open, the neon sign blinking “Open” repeatedly as they walked inside.

The two walked around the piles of chrome, tech and hovercar parts and then heard a noise from the back of the shop.

“I’m with a fuckin’ client, so you can either wait or come back tomorrow. I don’t give a dead dog’s dick either way.”

Caldera walked over to the front door and locked it, then motioned with her head for Korehammer to follow her as she drew one of her Magnums from the holster. They walked down a short dimly lit hallway that smelled of dust and oil and found Charlie in the same room in which he had worked on Caldera a few days before.

Sitting on the edge of the table was a young kid, no more than sixteen, a piece of plastic between his teeth. Charlie was working on some kind of tattoo which was causing the kid obvious pain as he bared down on the plastic and was covered in a sheen of sweat.

The kid looked up and saw Korehammer and Caldera, his eyes widening as he also saw the Magnum Caldera was carrying. He grunted something around the plastic, which caused Charlie to stop whatever it was he was doing. “I told you numbnuts, you have to stay the perfectly fuckin’ still or I’m going to screw …” he then turned and saw Caldera and Korehammer in the doorway.

“Caldera! What the flyin’ fuck are you doin’ here? And Trevor Korehammer! I’ll be fucked!”

Charlie’s smile quickly faded as he saw the gun in Caldera’s hand. “Oh fuck me. This isn’t a social visit, is it?”

“What do you think fat ass?”

“Junior, I think you better get the fuck out of here. Me and these two have some business to discuss.”

The kid took the piece of plastic out of his mouth and looked down at his arm. “But you only finished half the tat! What the hell am I supposed to do with this shit?”

Before Caldera could stop him, Korehammer had pulled out his X-27 and fired two shots into the kid’s head. Bits of skull sprayed all over the wall as he slumped over and fell off the table, a pool of blood quickly forming under him.

“Jesus fucking monkey Christ!” Charlie screamed, jumping off the stool he was sitting on, sending it rolling in the other direction. “What the fuckin’ hell was that about?”

Caldera looked at Korehammer and he just looked back at her. “What? We couldn’t take the chance the squib wouldn’t rat on us anyway. Two problems solved. You’re welcome.”

Caldera just shook her head as she looked back at Charlie, who was standing with his arms covering his head.

“I need to ask you some questions Charlie. And if you don’t have the right answers, it’s going to take all the chrome in this shithole to put you back together.”

Datafile 004.2

“A vampire?”

“Yes.”

“This isn’t the best time to be fucking with my head Corrine.”

Korehammer coughed, blood mixing with the spittle that flew out of his mouth. If Caldera had to guess, he likely had a few cracked ribs to go with the broken leg and arm that Toyoko was doing her best to tend to.

“I realize that Korehammer. We can talk about all this later. Right now we need to get you some medical attention. Ito’s team …”

“Ito? As in Akira Ito? The boyfriend you said was six feet under?”

Caldera sighed. This was going to be more complicated than she had anticipated. “Yes. We have a lot to discuss. But not now. We need to get moving.”

“Bullshit! I want some answers and I want them now. What the hell …”

Korehammer’s head lolled to one side as he lost consciousness, his entire body going limp and sliding off the guardrail.

“Korehammer!” Caldera yelled as she grabbed his shoulders, shaking him to try and wake him up.

“Relax.” Toyoko said as she held up a hypospray. “I gave him something to put him under. We need to get in the air and don’t have time for this shit right now.”

As much as Caldera hated to admit it, she was right. They needed to move before more clercs arrived to say nothing of the New Jersey State Corp. There was only so long they could keep a Sutoraiku assault ship parked on the Expressway before it drew unwanted attention.

Ito looked over at Castiglione and Mayuzai. “You two, help get Korehammer onto the ship. Tell Charade we need to be airborne ASAP.”

Caldera then looked over at the woman who was seconds away from taking a bite out of Korehammer’s throat a few minutes ago. She was still on the ground, rolling back and forth in excruciating pain from losing both her knees to Caldera’s new Magnums. “What about her?”

“What about her?” Ito said as he walked over and fired several shots from his Kingston 722 Spitfire revolver into her head. The back of the woman’s skull exploded, brain and blood spraying all over the asphalt.

“Good enough for me.” Caldera said as she turned toward the direction where the assault ship was slowing rising from the ground.

Suddenly, she turned back to where Korehammer had been, a concerned expression on her face. “Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a second woman?”

“Yeah. She managed to pull a disappearing act as soon as we opened fire on the clercs. Best we can figure she may have hijacked a car and made for Philly.”

“That’s … unfortunate.”

“I wouldn’t worry. We can catch up to her later. Charade should have a visual we can use to ID her on the database once we get to Philadelphia.”

“Is that where we’re going?”

Ito nodded. “Hachisuka has state of the art medical facilities there. Your friend is pretty messed up and they should be able to patch him up, good as new. It’s the least we can do since you helped us accomplish our mission.” Ito then gestured to the duffle bag Caldera was still holding. “I assume the package is in there?”

Caldera gripped the bag a bit tighter. “Not sure. Korehammer didn’t say before Toyoko put him under. And if it is I wouldn’t recommend trying to open this bag without Korehammer there.”

“Why is that?”

Caldera smiled ever so slightly. “Last one who tried to open something of Korehammer’s without his permission ended up as a smear on the side of a building.”

“Point taken.”

Caldera’s hair began to fly in every direction as the assault ship approached and hovered above them, the roar of the repulsar emitters deafening. It lowered to the ground, the ramp opening to allow her and Ito on board. Once inside, the ship rose quickly into the sky, turning West and heading toward Philadelphia.

***

An hour later, Caldera, Ito and Toyoko sat in a small waiting area on the seventeenth floor of the Hachisuka regional headquarters in the Center City zone of Philadelphia. Ito was talking to someone in New York, explaining why they had brought Korehammer, a non-Hachisuka employee, to a secure medical facility. Usually Ito just had to say it was “Sutoraiku buisness” and that would be enough to placate most suits, but this one was being difficult.

“I don’t give a crap if you think it’s ‘highly unusual’ or not. He needed immediate medical attention or he was going to die. Korehammer dies, we don’t complete our assignment. And if that happens, there are going to be people way above your pay grade pissed off. Ito out.” With that, he closed the holoscreen.

“What was up his ass?” Toyoko asked as Ito returned to where she and Caldera were sitting.

“Who the hell knows.” he said before looking at Caldera. “Any word on Korehammer?”

“Not yet. I was going to …”

Just then the double doors at the end of the hallway opened and a man in black scrubs walked out, removing a surgical cap as he did. He was wearing a pair of smart glasses, a opticable running to the back of his skull.

“Commander Ito?”

Caldera rose from her seat as Ito turned and answered. “Yes?”

The doctor walked over and shook Ito’s hand. “Dr. Grippen. Hachisuka CritCare Unit. Been a while since we’ve seen one of you Sutoraiku units in these parts.”

“I’m sure doctor. How is Mr. Korehammer?”

“He’ll be fine. The bones are all reset and mending as we speak. He punctured a lung so we had to repair that as well, but overall he’s in good shape. Give it another hour or so and you can all get out of here.”

Caldera spoke up as the doctor turned to leave. “Can I go see him?”

“Sure. End of the hall, Room 103.”

Caldera turned to Ito. “Let me go talk to him first before you ask about the package. I need to explain a few things to him and it’s best done in private.”

Ito narrowed his eyes at her before saying “Fine. You have ten minutes.”

“Thanks.”

Caldera followed the departing doctor down the hallway to where the post-op rooms were located. She quickly found Room 103 and a dozing Korehammer. The room was large and sterile, with a couch, tables, chairs and even a synthstation. A handful of holoscreens at the head of the bed showed his vitals while his clothes, weapons and the duffle bag were all neatly stacked on a table near the window.

Caldera walked over to the side of the bed and gently placed her hand on his arm, giving it a squeeze. Before she knew what was happening, Korehammer had pulled her down onto the bed and put her in a headlock. A Cypherblade had appeared from under the blanket and was now resting gently against her throat.

“So. Back with your friends in the Sutoraiku I see.”

Caldera, for her part, wasn’t at all surprised by his reaction to her presence. Given everything that had happened in the last few days, she had it coming.

“Korehammer, relax. It’s not what you think.”

“And then that vampire bullshit on the Expressway. What do you think I am, some kind of moron?”

“Like I told you then, we have a lot to discuss. If you would decompress for a second and get the blade off my neck, I can explain. But we don’t have much time.”

Korehammer hesitated and then released his grip on her, letting her straighten up and stand by the edge of the bed.

“Thanks.”

“Start explaining. What the fuck is going on?”

“Okay. First, I’m not back with the Sutoraiku. They were after the package and since they couldn’t trace you as Chernova, they came after me. It just made more sense to work with them than against them.”

“By the package you mean the datachip?”

“Yeah. I take it that it’s in the bag?”

“Yes.”

“Good. We can’t let Ito and his team take it. Hachisuka will do Lord knows what with the information that’s on it. It’s too important to let fall into a the hands of a megacorp.”

“What exactly is on the damn thing? I took a look but it’s all heavily encrypted.”

Caldera sighed. “You really want to know?”

Korehammer raised his voice, the veins in his neck beginning to bulge. “What do you think? I’ve been chased, shot at and beaten up for this fucking thing! After a little meeting I had in Atlantic City with some other folks who were very interested in the chip, I realized I can’t go back to my life as I knew it. I’m in this now Corrine.”

Caldera gave him a questioning look. “A meeting? With who?”

“That bitch who tried to take a bite out of my neck for one. And some prick named Gareth who, if I’m being honest with you, spooked the shit out of me.”

Caldera closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with her hand. She should have known he would get involved. There’s just too much at stake for them.

“What’s on the datachip Corrine?”

Caldera put her hands on her hips, trying to think of the easiest, quickest way to explain this. “Okay. But you have to take everything I say as the truth for now and not question.”

Korehammer nodded.

“The woman who almost bit you is, as I said, a vampire.” Korehammer opened his mouth to say something but Caldera waved him off. “Vampires have existed for thousands of years, hiding among us all that time. They are immortal and have the patience to play the long game when it comes to dealing with humanity. They run some of the biggest megacorps and have been responsible for some of the greatest tragedies to befall mankind.”

Korehammer almost smirked. “Such as?”

“The War for one.”

Korehammer’s eyes went wide for a second, the smirk disappearing. “They were responsible for the Coronavirus?”

“No, that was nature. But all the unrest after the pandemic? The mistrust? The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that swept the planet in its wake? They caused and fomented most of it and used it as an excuse to encourage open conflict on a global scale.

“The problem was that things got out of hand and bigger than they could control pretty fast. They went into hiding soon after the first shots were fired and figured they would wait to see who came out the winner. As you know, there really wasn’t one once it was all over. Regardless, they still got what they wanted for the most part. The human race was now easier to control and they used the megacorps that emerged from the War to do it.”

Korehammer shook his head with a skeptical expression on his face. “Okay. Okay. Let’s say I believe you. What does all this have to do with a single datachip?”

Caldera folded her arms as she continued. “Over the last few years the situation has changed. The vampires have been getting more aggressive, more overt in their activities. It’s almost like they aren’t happy just pulling the strings from behind the curtain anymore. They want to be front and center and in the spotlight. They’ve been building up their armies and ordnance. The clercs are just the latest example.”

“Clercs?”

“The unstoppable soldiers who have been after the both of us for the last week. They’re clones.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“No.” Korehammer tried to ask another question but Caldera shut him down with a shake of her head. “Anyway, one of the biggest issues facing the vampires is that fact they can’t use any cybernetics. If you’re a bloodsucker, you can’t enhance yourself with chrome of any kind. The cybertech needs living tissue to bond with and if you’ve been turned, you don’t have any.

“On the datachip are design schematics for a new nanotech that will enable the vampires to use cybernetics. I don’t claim to understand the science of it but somehow it will allow them to graft cybertech onto their bodies just like anyone else. Imagine a vampire, already super strong with enhanced senses and healing abilities, taking it up to another level. There would be no stopping them if it came to open conflict, which is looking inevitable.”

“So how the hell did you get the specs?”

“We had someone on the inside at the corporation that developed the nanotech, Omega-Kagi Optinational. She managed to copy the specs onto that datachip and then erase all traces of it from their database as well as the web. That chip holds the only copy and since she also flatlined the scientists who developed it, it can’t be replicated.”

“Can’t wait to meet her.”

“Good luck. She was killed a week later. They found her thanks to a traitor in our ranks.”

“The Sutoraiku?”

“No. The resistance. The ones who are fighting the vampires in secret. There are cells everywhere.”

“And how exactly did you get involved?”

“That’s a story for another time.”

Korehammer sat with his arms folded, looking at Caldera with a mixture of disbelief and shock. She wasn’t sure what would happen next, if she was being honest with herself. Korehammer had no reason to believe anything she just said with just her word to go on. Was it enough that he would agree to help her?

Caldera heard a gentle tap on the door and turned to see Ito standing there, Toyoko a few feet behind him. She noticed that Toyoko had her hand on the grip of her Stroyer M-32 handgun, which was still in the holster for the time being. Obviously Ito’s patience had come to an end and he was ready to wrap up this part of the mission.

“Mr. Korehammer. I believe you have the parcel that we are looking for?”

Korehammer swung his feet off the bed, getting himself into a sitting position. Caldera noticed that his expression was blank, giving nothing away as to what he was going to do.

“That I do Commander. However, I was due a considerable fee for retrieving the package. I’m not sure I want to give that up to help you out.”

Toyoko took a step forward, a snarl on her lips as her M-32 halfway left its holster. Ito put his arm out to stop her, never taking his eyes off Korehammer. “How much was the fee?”

“One million credits.”

“Would two million be enough for you to feel compensated for your time and trouble?”

Korehammer grinned. “I believe that would do the trick.”

“Can I see the package first?”

Korehammer stood and walked to the table with the duffle bag. Once he input a code on his NIIC that disarmed the protective countermeasures, he reached in and took out the small box with the datachip.

Caldera quickly realized there was nothing she could do. Korehammer had made his decision and that was that. She would have to figure out how to track Ito and his team and somehow, someway, get the chip back.

Ito had activated a small holoscreen with his NIIC and after a few moments said “Okay Mr. Korehammer. Two million credits have been transferred to your account. If you’ll give me the package, we will be on our way.”

Korehammer handed it over, Caldera feeling a pang of hurt as he did so. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

Ito nodded as he took the box and carefully put it in a pocket in his flak jacket. He then turned to Toyoko and said “Get the team ready. We leave ASAP.”

As Toyoko walked away, Ito looked at Caldera. “It was good to see you again Corrine. I still owe you some answers so I hope this won’t be the last time we talk. Maybe once this mission is over we can get together, have a drink for old times sake.”

“Yes. Old times sake.” Caldera said, each word dripping with ice.

Ito nodded and then was gone, heading to the assault ship to take the chip to NeoTokyo.

As soon as Ito was gone, Caldera watched as Korehammer suddenly started to get dressed with a sense of urgency. “Give me a hand. Some of these wounds still hurt like a son of a bitch.”

“What’s your rush? You gave the chip to Ito and Hachisuka. It’s over.”

“No, I gave a chip to Ito and Hachisuka. And when they discover it contains nothing but information for a National Cryptobank account, they are going to be really pissed off.”

Caldera’s mouth hung open for a second. “What?”

“When I finally got my hands on it, the box had two chips inside. The one with the nanotech schematics and another with the information on the one million fee I was owed. I just gave your old boyfriend the second one.”

Caldera shook her head, realization dawning on her. “The banking chip.”

“Exactly.”

“So where are the schematics?”

“I mailed them.”

“You what?” she exclaimed.

“I have a secure drop box I use for occasions just like this. It should already be there waiting for us here in Philly. From there we can figure out what our next move is.”

“Our next move?”

“I told you. I’m in this now. I don’t know if I buy all that shit about vampires, but I do know that I trust you about as much as any human being on this planet. If you say this is important, than it is.”

Caldera hesitated as she helped him put on his shirt. “Thanks Trevor.”

“Don’t thank me yet. There’s still a good chance we’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

Datafile 004.1

She floated in the warm water, feeling it splash against her body as she bobbed up and down. She didn’t quite know where she was or how she got there, but she did know that she finally felt safe. After what felt like forever, the stench and decay of the Pale Man was nowhere to be seen.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the star-filled night. The full moon cast everything around her in a bright glow that was difficult to describe. It was like the pain and terror of the last months (years?) had just vanished. She was at peace, the water helping to take away the stress that had felt overwhelming at times.

She heard something from her right and turned her head to take a look. She thought it was probably just a fish or maybe a frog as the water started to bubble, becoming more intense by the second.

It was then she heard a low continuous moan of pain. It slowly became louder as the water started to thrash like something was drowning and couldn’t save themselves. She began to swim towards the disturbance, thinking that maybe she could help.

Just as she started to feel the foam from the water hit her face he exploded from the depths, a guttural scream escaping his lips like sheet metal being torn in half. She covered her ears and felt the terror begin to overwhelm her as she saw the Pale Man standing above the water, pointing at her, the never-ending scream shattering her psyche.

Water started to fill her lungs as she turned and tried to swim away in a panic. She began to cough, a sensation like knives being stabbed into her neck every time she did. The light from the moon began to falter as her vision began to dim.

Suddenly she felt the cold fingers of the Pale Man’s hand around her throat. He pulled her from the water and dangled her there in front of him. Her toes brushed the water as he brought her closer. She tried to pull his hands from around her throat but they wouldn’t move, like they were steel bands slowly closing around her neck.

She opened her eyes and saw the Pale Man there right in front of her. The sockets where his eyes should have been dark as midnight, his cheeks sunken and teeth rotten. He opened his mouth, the fetid stink of his breath hitting her in the face …

***

Caldera woke with a start, a scream on her lips as her eyes flung open. The only thing that stopped the outcry was the gentle pressure on her shoulder from Ito’s hand. She looked over and saw him there, sitting next to her, a look of worry on his face.

It took a moment for Caldera to remember everything that had happened. The rescue from Tristan, the revelation that Ito was alive, rejoining the Sutoraiku, albeit temporarily. She was still disorientated as she fiercely rubbed her eyes to rid herself of the last vestiges of the dream.

“You okay?” Ito asked gently.

“Uh-huh. I’ll be alright.”

“Still having those dreams, huh?”

Caldera looked over at him again and let out a long breath. “Yeah.”

“They haven’t been getting any better?”

“No. If anything they’ve become more frequent. When I was a little girl I would have them maybe once every few months. Then they started happening more and more. It feels like now that I see that bastard every time I close my goddamned eyes.”

“The Pale Man?”

Caldera looked down at the floor of the transport ship, hesitating before she answered. “Yeah.”

Ito squeezed her shoulder. “I wish I could do something to help.”

“It’s fine. Maybe once all this is finished I can take some time and try to figure out just what the hell is going on.”

Just then a member of Ito’s strike team, the one called Castiglione, walked up to them. “Boss. Charade says she has something you need to see up front.”

“Got it.” He stood and started to walk toward the cockpit. As he did he spoke to Castiglione. “Outfit our guest here with some armaments. If I remember she is fond of the Kei-Ju Streetmaster. I think we may have something she will like.”

Castiglione went over to a large wall unit filled with ordnance, most of which Caldera recognized from either her time with the Sutoraiku or thanks to Korehammer. However, what Castiglione offered to her when he returned made her breath catch in her throat.

“This is a pair of Valkova MPK-8 Magnum II handguns. Since you’re used to the Streetmasters these should be a nice upgrade. Clip holds 110 rounds, built-in sound suppression. They’ve already been retro fitted to accept the new ammo that we use to stop the clercs. Just use your NIIC to initiate the neurolink and you’re good to go.”

Caldera turned the guns over in her hands, admiring the workmanship. “These are state of the art. I heard rumors but didn’t know they were on the market.”

“They’re not,” Ito said as he walked over. “Valkova agreed to let Hachisuka take them out for a test drive before making them available to the public. Like anyone will be able to afford them.”

Caldera placed her wrist with her NIIC to a small node located on the bottom of the grip of one of the MPK-8s. Within moments the neurolink was established making her the only person who could use the gun. She them repeated the process with the handgun’s twin.

“Speaking of ammo,” Caldera said looking at Ito. “where did you get ammunition that could take out those clercs?”

“It was provided to us by Hachisuka. We lost a lot of good people to those invulnerable bastards so when they said they had a solution that could stop them, we didn’t ask questions. We were just thankful to have something to use against them.”

“Can I see the ammo?”

“Sure.” Ito pulled his own gun out of his holster and ejected a round from the chamber, handing it to Caldera.

As soon as Ito handed her the bullet Caldera knew what it was and who had manufactured it. All of which just made her want to ask more questions that she was sure Ito didn’t have answers for.

“This is Osiris Systems work, isn’t it?” she said as she held up the bullet.

Castiglione took it from her, nodding his head. “Yeah, now that you mention it, this does look like their handiwork. Hachisuka was pretty tight lipped about the details of where these came from but this is definitely Osiris work.” He gave Caldera a sidelong glance. “Good eye.”

“Thanks.”

“How did you know that?” asked Ito, a suspicious tone in his voice.

“I told you before, I have my sources.”

Before she had to answer any more questions, Caldera thought it best to change the subject. “So, what’s the sitrep?”

Ito glanced at Charade as he answered. “No sign of this Zechiel you mentioned. He’s either gone dark or he’s dead. Given the situation I’m thinking the latter.”

Caldera swore as she looked at the floor. Without Zechiel there was no way to find out where Korehammer was or even if he had made it to Atlantic City.

It was only then that she realized that someone had tried to contact her while she was asleep. With the nightmare and then the revelation about Sutoraiku using ammunition made for Crimson Light, she had completely missed it.

She excused herself from Ito and Castiglione and went to the back of the transport ship where she could have some privacy. She opened a small holoscreen and saw Korehammer’s face, agitated and yet excited at the same time.

“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.”

Caldera tried to call Korehammer but got nothing. However, if he did get to Atlantic City and was using his Malcom Chernova identity, it could be possible to track him, if she gave the neuro-signal to Ito and his people.

Most of the general population was blissfully unaware that a unique neuro-signal given off by the NIIC was how the government and megacorps were able to trace the location of anyone to anywhere on the planet. The legality of doing so was questionable at best so most corporations kept the information to themselves and only used it when necessary.

Obviously all Sutoraiku teams and their assigned netrunner had access to the information on how to do it. Since Ito and his people were looking for Korehammer and not Chernova, it hadn’t worked. Giving Chernova’s neuro-signal to Charade to trace meant that identity would have to be burned and couldn’t be used again. She decided it was a risk she would have to take and deal with Korehammer later.

She made her way towards the front of the ship with Ito and Castiglione giving each other a questioning look as they followed her. There Caldera found Charade piloting while talking with Toyoko and the other member of Ito’s team, a woman named Mayuzai.

Toyoko looked over with disdain as Caldera entered the cockpit area. “Well. Look who finally decided to wake up and earn her keep.”

Caldera pulled one of her new Magnums from the holster on her hip and aimed it directly at Toyoko’s head. “Don’t fuck with me. Not right now. I’m a little busy doing your job.”

She then turned to Charade. “Did you try to track the neuro-signal of Trevor Korehammer?”

The netrunner didn’t even turn her head when she answered. “Of course. We got nothing. He obviously has some kind of suppression tech.” The echo effect of the cyborg’s voice still sent shivers down Caldera’s spine.

The Stasis Cradle. she thought to herself. Amazing piece of tech.

“Fine. Look for this one instead.” Caldera used her NIIC to send the data on Chernova’s neuro-signal directly into Charade’s mainframe. After a minute of the netrunner typing commands onto small holoscreens in front of her she said “I have a lock. He’s on the Expressway.”

Caldera turned to look at Ito with a small smile on her face.

“You mind telling me just what the hell is going on?”

“It’s a long story. But if Korehammer got the package then he must be on his way back to Philadelphia with it.”

“I wouldn’t bet on him making it if I were you.”

Ito looked at Charade. “What do you mean?”

“If this is him that I’m tracking, then he is currently involved in a firefight on the Expressway with two other vehicles. He’s leaving quite the trail of carnage behind him and I put his chances of survival at 238 to one.”

“How far are we?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Get us there in three. Everyone, gear up and get ready.”

Ito gave Caldera a knowing grin. “Looks like you’ll be able to give those Magnums a proper breaking in sooner than you expected.”

***

Soon the assault ship was cruising over the Atlantic City Expressway, running in stealth mode with no lights and a cloak engaged. Even without the neuro-signal being given off by Korehammer’s NIIC, he would have been easy for them to find. The trail of burning cars and destruction left in his wake was pretty obvious.

Ito and Caldera sat in the cockpit, watching as Charade guided the vessel towards the sedan that was leading the chase. The two hovercars were close behind, firing their weapons every time they thought they had a shot.

Without taking his eyes off the holoscreen in front of him Ito asked “What’s the ETA when we can overtake the sedan?”

“Thirty seconds.”

“Good. As soon as we can …”

The rest of his sentence was cut off by the exploding police hovertank they were flying almost directly over. The blast rocked the assault ship and sent it careening toward the asphalt, barely missing a pair of hoverbikes that had swerved to avoid the explosion.

“Boss! I have repulsar feedback on the left emitter! I’m going to have to set us down now otherwise we may have a problem.”

“Do it.”

Charade set the ship down directly on the road, shutting the cloak off as she did. The sudden appearance of an Hachisuka Corporate Army assault ship in the middle of the Atlantic City Expressway sent cars flying in every direction as drivers tried to avoid crashing into it.

Just as Caldera and Ito’s Sutoraiku team emerged from the rear of the ship, they heard a second explosion not far from where they were. A fireball was rising into the sky from the approximate position where Charade had said Korehammer’s sedan was.

“Shit. Move people!”

The group broke into a run, quickly closing the distance between themselves and what was left of Korehammer’s car. They watched as a female dressed in all black tossed him like a doll across the expressway into one of the guardrails.

As they approached, Caldera could hear someone speaking but couldn’t make out the words over the noise of the burning car. She saw at least one more woman, dressed the same as the one who had thrown Korehammer as well as four of the clercs, each armed with Reaper assault rifles. They were all standing in a rough semicircle around Korehammer and the first female, watching.

Suddenly Caldera noticed the woman began to bend over, her mouth open like she was going to take a bite out of Korehammer’s throat.

“NO!” she screamed as she drew both of the Magnums and opened fire, spraying the entire area with bullets as she sprinted toward her former partner.

“Caldera!” Ito said as he went after her, the rest of the team opening fire on the clercs, who were taken by surprise. They barely had time to raise their weapons before falling to the ground in puddles of their own blood.

The woman who had been bent over Korehammer looked up in surprise as Caldera tackled her, ramming her into the guardrail. The woman threw Caldera off her, more agitated than hurt, and pulled her own weapon from the inside of her jacket. However, Caldera was faster, firing both Magnums at the woman’s legs, reducing both her knees to little more than a bloody mist. The woman screamed and dropped her gun, falling to the ground and grabbing both legs.

Caldera went over to Korehammer, checking his neck to make sure it was okay. She didn’t see any indication of any kind of puncture wound and thanked God she had been in time. As she did, Korehammer reached and grabbed her arm weakly.

She looked him in the eye. “It’s okay. We’re here. You’re fine. We’ll get you all fixed up.”

Korehammer said through gritted teeth “The trunk of the car. The Cradle and the datachip. You need to get them before they’re damaged.”

Caldera looked over to where what was left of the BMW stood. She raced over and pried open the trunk, which was heavily damaged and immediately she found what she was looking for. A nondescript duffle bag that had both the Cradle and the small box that she assumed contained the datachip.

By the time she returned to Korehammer’s side Ito and Toyoko had joined her, both attempting to tend to his injuries. The rest of the squad had taken up a defensive perimeter as they waited for Charade to fix the repulsar emitter and come get them.

“I got it. It’s safe,” she said as she crouched down by his side.

Korehammer reached over and grabbed her by the collar, pulling her toward him so that her face was inches from him. “What. The. Fuck! Have you gotten me involved in Caldera?”

“You deserve an explanation.”

“You think so? That woman had fangs! Fucking fangs!”

“I know. I’ll explain everything as soon as we EVAC the area.”

“No! You’ll explain now. What the hell is going on?” Korehammer grimaced as Toyoko used a hypospray to give him a painkiller.

Caldera and Ito shared a look, and he said “He deserves to know. Tell him.”

Caldera closed her eyes for a second and then looked at Korehammer. “That woman? The one with the fangs who was going to bite you?”

“Yeah?”

Caldera sighed. “She’s a vampire.”