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 dim 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, he 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 used by corporate armies.” 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.”

He 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 cigarettes. 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-27 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-27 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. He 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, 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 Hachisuka 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-27 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 he 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 and 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 he 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 guests 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 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. It 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-27 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 at a sports book.

“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 Hachisuka 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 masked 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?”

“Hachisuka 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 Horizon, 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 and 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 assault 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 a Hachisuka 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 BioCyber 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 Hachisuka 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 Hachisuka 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 Hachisuka 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 Hachisuka 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 Hachisuka 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.”

Datafile 002.4

She could barely move. The city streets were overflowing with people, all falling over one another and brushing up against her. She tried to push through them but no one would move. They all just kept walking along like she wasn’t even there.

She turned around and there was the Pale Man, stalking her. Striding toward her like there was no one around and no reason he should hurry.

She yelled for the people to get out of her way. Pleaded with them to help her. Screamed until her voice was horse and it hurt to breathe, but still they ignored her.

Turning back she saw that the Pale Man had disappeared, seeming out of thin air. She allowed herself to relax for a brief moment.

The she felt his icy grip on her arm, his broken nails digging into her skin. She twisted around and saw the Pale Man looking at her. His breath coming out in jagged rasps as he pulled her toward him. He opened his mouth and…

***

Caldera faintly heard muffled talking as she slowly woke from the nightmare and started to regain consciousness. She couldn’t make out specific words, but the tone of the conversation was tense, with one of the men sounding as if he was accusing the other of something.

She realized quickly that she couldn’t move, and the very faint buzzing sound that she could hear underneath the other noise in the room told her why. Caldera was trapped in a stasis field, enveloping her and keeping her totally immobile. If she had to guess the generator for the field was under the chair they had her sitting in.

Caldera slowly opened her eyes. She was in a small room, hardly bigger than storage closet with the only light coming from a fluorescent bulb in the ceiling directly above her. The room had a smell of mold and dust, like it had been closed up for years. She had no clue if she was still in the VR shop or where Ti himself was for that matter as he was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully she was able to use her cybernetic left eye to look around the room despite the fact she couldn’t move her head.

The angry voices were coming from two men, both dressed completely in black standing in the doorway of the small room. One was short, maybe five feet tall with close cropped white hair and wearing sunglasses. The other towered over him by at least a foot and a half and had blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, a hawkish nose and sullen cheeks. Both were pale to the extreme and neither seemed to have any obvious cybernetic enhancements.

The shorter one Caldera didn’t recognize but the taller of the two had a distinct profile that she would have known anywhere.

The taller man suddenly realized Caldera was awake and shut his partner up with a wave of his hand. He walked over to where Caldera was and looked down at her, his expression filled with hatred.

“Corrine Caldera. I really didn’t think we would meet again so soon.”

“Tristen. How’s the hand?”

Tristen raised his right hand, on which he was wearing a black glove. He slowly flexed it before striking Caldera hard with the back of his hand.

“You tell me, but it seems to be getting better.”

Caldera saw stars and felt blood trickling down from her lip as she said “Yep. Looks like it’s healing quite nicely.”

Tristen crouched down, making sure his eyes were at the same level as hers. Caldera was always a bit unnerved by the fact his eyes had no color, just a black orb floating in a sea of white. “You didn’t really think we would lose your scent so easily after what happened in New Pittsburgh, did you?”

Caldera smirked. “A girl can dream, can’t she?”

Tristen hit her in the face again, this time harder. Fortunately when Caldera had her eye replaced Charlie had to reinforce the rest of her skull to handle the extensive cyberware. Tristen wasn’t going to be able to do any real damage no matter how hard he struck her, but damn if it still didn’t hurt.

Tristen stood back up and turned around, looking at the far wall while he lit a cigarette. “I don’t have time for your shit. My superiors want results and they really don’t care how I get them. Despite that, I’m going to ask you nicely just once. I would promise to kill you quickly if you cooperate, but we both know that’s not going to happen. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while now and I’m going to enjoy it.”

He turned and looked at Caldera again, blowing smoke in her face. It had an acrid taste like those awful European cigarettes her squad mate in Sutoraiku smoked. “Where is it Corrine?”

“Where’s what?”

Caldera could tell Tristen was starting to lose his patience. He took a menacing step towards her as he threw his cigarette on the floor and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. It left a black smear on the tile as the wisps of smoke dissipated into the stale air.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. We know you made a detour between New Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and we know that’s probably where you stashed it. We just want the exact location so we can retrieve it. Nice and simple.”

Caldera spit blood onto the floor and looked at Tristen. She realized she had to figure some way out of here and soon. She could only play games for so long before things got serious and her life expectancy would go from years to minutes.

However, since she had his attention, Caldera figured she might as well see if she could get some information out of him.

“What does Crimson Light need plastic alloy ammo for Tristen?”

Tristen laughed to himself. “That’s good. Try to change the subject. Figure maybe I’ll discuss the inner workings of our organization with you. Maybe I’ll start monologuing like in some asinine comic book of old and reveal my nefarious plot. Then when you make your escape you’ll have all the information you need to stop me.”

“Well, you do love to hear yourself go on and on.”

“I’m going to really enjoy watching you die.”

“You do realize if you kill me the information dies with me, right?”

Tristen smiled and shook his head, almost as if he was pitying her. “Bitch, there are all kinds of things we can do to you before we kill you.”

As if on cue, the shorter man from before walked back into the room, carrying a small tray covered by a white towel. He placed it on a stand by the door and rolled it over next to Caldera. He removed the towel to reveal a set of old fashioned dental tools, the kind that hadn’t been used for decades. They all looked brand new as the light from overhead gleamed off the silver surfaces. They also looked incredibly sharp.

Caldera could feel herself start to sweat just a bit.

Tristen’s smile grew wider as he spoke. “See, we could do all the traditional things. Beat you within an inch of your life. Stick you in a VR simulation that nightmares are made of. Use a dermal probe that will make your skin feel like it’s on fire and make you wish you could die. Or we could just rip the data right from your brain with a neural Jackhammer drive.

“But since this is you, I thought we’d go old school. Classic, fun for the whole family torture. Erich here has spent the last hour watching dental vids and now he could use some hands-on experience, if you know what I mean.”

Tristen walked over and put his hands on his knees, bending over so once again his eyes met hers. She could smell his fetid breath and his god-awful cologne as he began to speak.

“I’m really going to enjoy watching this Corrinne. I’ve dreamed of hearing you scream and beg for mercy for years now. You and your ilk are going to wish you had never crossed us.”

Caldera spit in his face, the mixture of blood and saliva landing on his right cheek. Tristen used his gloved index finger to wipe it off and then licked it off his finger, his smile turning into a sneer of hatred. Without taking his eyes off Caldera, he said to Erich “Get started.”

Caldera was becoming acutely aware of the panic starting to set in. Her breathing was becoming more rapid and her vision was blurring. She had to do something but she was clueless as to what exactly that was.

Erich picked up what looked like a metal probe with a long, vicious needle at the end. He roughly put his hand on her chin to pry open her mouth, the flesh of his fingers cold and dry. She tried to pull away but the stasis field made it so Caldera couldn’t move her head enough to avoid what was coming.

The needle was inches from Caldera’s mouth when suddenly, the room was plunged into total darkness.

Shouting quickly erupted from numerous directions. The dark was complete and all-encompassing and Caldera literally couldn’t see her hand, or anything else for that matter, right in front of her face. She also quickly realized that whatever had turned off the lights also shut down the stasis field that was holding her immobile.

Thanks to the fact that her cybernetic eye was powered by the bioenergy generated by her own body, it was unaffected by whatever caused the loss of power. She quickly activated her eye’s night vision mode and suddenly, everything in the room was crystal clear.

Tristen was standing by the doorway, shouting orders to whoever may be in the hallway while Erich was standing over her, looking around in the darkness with an expression on his face like he was slightly unnerved by the sudden loss of light.

Caldera swiftly grabbed what she hoped was some kind of scalpel and plunged it into Erich neck as she jumped up from the chair. He let lose with a guttural scream while she pushed the blade into his throat as far as it would go.

Not bothering to look back to see what kind of damage she did, Caldera ran for the door. Her Streetmasters had been taken from her when she was captured and who knew where they may have ended up. Unfortunately Caldera didn’t have the time to look for them as she wasn’t about to waste an opportunity like this to escape.

As she approached the door, Caldera grabbed Tristen by the shoulders and drove her knee into his groin with as much force as she could muster. Tristen didn’t make a sound as he crumpled to the floor, a look of intense pain in his eyes. Caldera then smashed his face with the heel of her boot and heard the satisfying sound of his nose breaking.

Serves you right, you bastard. she thought as she went through the doorway.

Still having no clue where she was or what direction to go in to make her escape, Caldera frantically looked up and down the hallway she found herself in. There were a couple of heavily armed clone mercs in each direction, all confused and blinded by the sudden blackout and obviously waiting for instructions from Tristen.

Caldera ran toward the nearest merc and grabbed the Nova 757 Cityhunter handgun he was holding. Since attacking him would do nothing and she had no clue how long the power outage would last, getting into a firefight was the last thing on her mind. She took the gun and made a run for it, heading east down the hallway.

Her footsteps echoing as she ran, the hallway went on for a few hundred feet before Caldera was forced to make a left and then another left. After what felt like forever she finally reached a door marked “Exit” that opened to a set of multi-flight stairs.

Just as Caldera went to open the door, the lights suddenly came back on, momentarily blinding her. She deactivated the night vision mode and chanced a look behind her. She started running up the stairs, taking two at a time.

Caldera was two flights up when she heard the door she had just come through burst open followed by the sound of several heavy sets of footsteps begin climbing the stairs. Caldera looked down the center of the stairwell and saw four mercs making their way towards her, guns drawn.

Caldera put the Cityhunter on auto and let lose with a barrage of bullets, firing indiscriminately. She knew they wouldn’t do any damage but she hoped it may slow them down just enough so she could find a door and get off these stairs.

She ran up another flight and hit the mercs with another hail of gunfire. Caldera repeated this until she finally reached a landing with a door. She hurriedly went to turn the handle but it was locked. Muttering a curse, she fired the Cityhunter at the lock mechanism, blasting it into pieces and opening the door.

She ran into what looked like yet another hallway and headed west, running as fast as she could. Caldera still hadn’t encountered anyone else except her captors and was beginning to wonder exactly where she was.

Caldera turned a corner and ran headfirst into two more mercs, who apparently had been waiting for her. One tried to grab her arm but Caldera managed to duck out of the way, backing up the way she had come. When she turned to make an escape, she saw that the four mercs from the stairwell had emerged from the bullet-riddled doorway.

One of the mercs put his hand to his ear and said “We have her sir. What do you want us to do?”

After a moment he looked at the others and said “Tristen wants her alive. He has something special planned.”

She watched as the mercs closed in on her from both directions and quickly assessed her options.

There were no windows or other doorways, so escape was impossible. She checked the clip on the Cityhunter and saw that it was almost empty, so even if she could do some damage to these goons she couldn’t take them all down. There was one option left but it wasn’t something Caldera wanted to think about.

When Charlie installed her cybernetic eye, Caldera had him include a failsafe mechanism in case she ever got into a situation just like this. A situation where taking out as many of your enemies as possible was preferable over capture.

At the same time Caldera contacted her old friends in Sutoraiku to get the cyberware to replace her eye, she had them include a Helix plasma detonator. The small but powerful explosive was manufactured by Hachisuka and was still a popular option for corporate military armies the world over.

Caldera had Charlie implant the Helix in her chest, with the ability to arm and detonate it linked to her eye. All it took was a simple thought to reroute the necessary energy from her eye to the bomb and them boom. No more mercs, no more hallway.

No more Caldera.

It wasn’t the way Caldera wanted to go out, but it was better than being captured and turned over to that sadist Tristen. She just hoped Korehammer would forgive her.

Caldera looked up and down the hallway and saw that the mercs were closing in but taking their time, not sure what she would do. They obviously didn’t want to risk her getting away again and having to deal with Tristen.

She closed her human eye, said goodbye to Korehammer and prepared to set off the Helix.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the hallway was abruptly filled with the deafening sound of gunfire. The sound reverberated off the walls and Caldera ducked down, shielding her head with her arms as bullets flew past her in both directions. She heard the mercs crying out and falling to the ground one after another as the gunfire stopped almost as quickly as it began.

Caldera stood up and looked around. The hallway was filled with smoke and the smell of spent bullet casings, the walls riddled with holes. But what really shocked her was the fact all six mercs were dead or dying, one with half his skull missing and another with a massive hole in his chest.

“What the fuck…”

“C’mon now Corrine. You know I don’t like it when you use language like that.”

Caldera turned to where she heard the male voice coming from. Now that the smoke had begun to clear she noticed the two people at each end of the hall, all wearing dark grey fatigues, kevlar vests and combat helmets that covered their entire faces. Each was armed with a Horizon MAC 17 submachine gun as well as various other weapons and supplies.

But what really grabbed Caldera’s attention was what each had printed on the sleeve of their fatigues. The Japanese kanji were difficult to read from this distance, but Caldera knew them so well she would have recognized what it said from across a crowded street.

Dawn Before Death.

The rallying cry of Sutoraiku.

The man who had spoken stepped forward and removed his face mask and helmet, revealing his Japanese features and short black hair that had a touch of grey at the temples. He had a metal patch affixed over where his right eye should have been and stood a good three inches taller than Caldera.

Caldera looked at him, mouth open, not sure if what she was seeing could be real.

“Akira? Akira Ito?”

“Hello Caldera.”

“It can’t be you. I saw you die. You died right in front of me.”

“Yes you did. And now I’m back and we need to get out of here. As they say in the movies, come with me if you want to live.”

Datafile 002.3

Caldera looked at Genovese with a blank stare for a moment before the weight of his statement hit her like a fist to the face.

“Clones?”

“Yep. I’m not sure who these guys are clones of exactly because the strands have some very odd properties to them, almost like it’s a mix of the DNA of several subjects, but I have zero doubt that these two men are clones.”

Caldera was still confused. “Wait. Wait. If they’re clones how come they don’t look exactly the same?”

Genovese went over to the holoscreens showing the two DNA strands and pointed at one particular section. “Whoever did the cloning is a real artist. He managed to make small, almost imperceptible changes in the strands that make them similar, but not identical. It’s why if you look at their features they could be brothers or even cousins. But that’s not the best part.”

“I’m not sure I would call any of this ‘the best part’”

Genovese looked at her apologetically. “Sorry. Genetics and cloning have always been a hobby of mine. This is fascinating stuff on a level that you don’t see every day.”

“Uh-huh.” Caldera was far from convinced.

“Anyway, as I was saying. Not only did the person responsible make subtle changes to give the clones individual looks, he also made changes to their brains to enhance certain features. I’m guessing when this one here got shot in the head he didn’t even flinch?”

Genovese was gesturing toward the merc Korehammer had tagged with his Sternmeyer at the diner. A shot that should have taken the clone’s head off instead barely left a mark and did nothing but annoy him.

Caldera looked at Genovese out of the corner of her eye and considered her options. She needed this information desperately but at the same time didn’t want to put him in any danger. The more Genovese knew the more likely he could become a target and once she left it was impossible to protect him.

In the end Caldera decided her need for this data outweighed any concern she had for Genovese’s safety. That may have been cold as ice, but the world she lived in now necessitated tough decisions every day.

After a pause Caldera said “Yes. Both of them seemed impervious to any harm. Like they were wearing invisible armor.”

Genovese grinned, getting excited again. “That’s because the pain centers in both their brains have been heavily altered. Neither of them would feel it if you shot them point blank in the head with a Nomad .44 revolver. Combine that with skin that has been augmented to be practically unbreakable along with enhanced speed and strength and you have the perfect merc.”

Caldera was starting to feel sick, a cold pit filling up her stomach.

“But I thought cloning like this wasn’t possible? The corporations tried creating clone armies during the War and it was a huge fiasco.”

“I guess someone went back to the drawing board and solved the issues with the cloning process to make them more stable. I mean, there are elements in the DNA that I just can’t identify, so whoever did this must have had access to some cutting edge tech, stuff we haven’t seen yet.”

“Show me.”

Genovese used his hand to move the DNA strand around on the holoscreen until he came to a point where the molecules glowed a deep red, completely unlike the ones before and after them in the chain. “See there? I’ve never seen DNA like that before anywhere. If I had to bet money I’d say that’s where the enhanced physical attributes are coming from.”

Genovese paused when he saw that Caldera had gone ghostly white. “Hey. You okay? You don’t look so good.”

Caldera regained her composure and smiled at him. “Sorry. Just a lot to take in. Guess I just ran across the wrong mercs on the wrong day.” She paused. “Does anyone else know about what you discovered?”

“Of course. I put it all in the report I filled yesterday. They aren’t exactly sure what it all means, but the file is on the server and should go public by tomorrow.”

Caldera closed her eyes tight, realizing that there was nothing she could do for him. Caldera would bet anything that by this time tomorrow the report will have disappeared, along with the bodies of the two mercs and anyone who came in contact with that file.

Which, unfortunately, included Genovese.

Caldera opened her eyes and looked at him, racking her brain trying to figure out if there was anything she could do to help.

“Hunter.” she began. “Do you have any relatives in another part of the country?”

He looked at her with a quizzical look before he answered “Um, yeah. I have an aunt and uncle who live down south in Carolina.”

“Okay. Can you do me a favor and not ask why? Just trust that I know what I’m talking about?”

Genovese’s look went from questioning to scared so fast it took Caldera aback. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it up, inhaling the smoke deeply.

Without waiting for an answer, Caldera continued. “Go home, right now. Pack a bag and leave town. Head down to Carolina and stay with your aunt and uncle for a while. And if you can, figure out some way to mask your NIIC. There is black market tech that can do that. Go there and wait until I contact you. Okay? Can you do that?”

Genovese continued to look at Caldera and she could tell he was deciding if he should trust her, trying to settle on what he should do.

Finally he gestured over toward the two bodies and said “This is some serious shit, huh?”

“Very serious shit.”

“Like on a scale of one to ten of serious shit, what would you rate it?”

“A fifteen.”

“That is indeed some serious shit.”

Genovese walked over to the desk and opened the top drawer, removing an Hyper Style-8 handgun as well as a small black box that had a cable running to an attached datapad. Genovese typed a few commands on the datapad and then put it, the box and the handgun in the backpack he had hanging over the back of the desk chair.

Caldera looked on in wonder. “What was all that about?”

“NIIC dampening tech. Invested in it a few years after you disappeared. Figured with the kind of stuff you and Korehammer were into, someone might come around asking questions someday. Thought it might be a good idea to be able to go off the grid.”

Genovese then went to the holoscreens and input more commands. Within seconds the screens deactivated and he pulled a datachip from the reader that sat on top of the desk.

Genovese slung the backpack over his shoulder and handed Caldera the datachip. “That has copies of everything I had about the two clones. The report I filed, all the medical info, the DNA strands, the works. I also sent copies to your NIIC just to be safe. All the data is in the process of being wiped from the servers here thanks to a worm I installed just after I got hired. Should take a few hours, but everything will be gone by morning.”

Caldera quickly realized it may be time to reappraise her opinion of her friend.

“Hunter Genovese. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Hey. What does Korehammer always say?”

“A little paranoia goes a long way.”

“Exactly. Now let’s get the hell out of here. I have a bus ticket to buy.”

***

Caldera went with Genovese to his apartment so he could pack a few things and then to the bus station. She thought it was the least she could do seeing as she was asking this guy to upend his entire life on nothing but her word. Caldera gave him a long hug and a kiss on the cheek before he got on the bus, which noticeably brightened his mood.

As the bus pulled away, Caldera gave Genovese a twenty percent chance of still being alive by this time tomorrow. The people who will be on his trail are merciless and have vast resources at their disposal, but she was impressed with how he handled himself. Maybe he had a chance.

Caldera put Genovese out of her mind. There was nothing more she could do for him. She had to focus on the task at hand and right now that was finding this Xu Ti and getting some intel on this bullet Charlie pried out of her shoulder.

Before she did that though, Caldera decided to head back to her hotel. There was no way she wanted to confront Ti with this sling hampering her mobility and ability to defend herself if it came to that. Caldera figured she’d take a nap, grab a shower and a change of clothes. Then she would be refreshed and ready to have a nice little conversation about munitions.

***

When Caldera woke it was already dark, with a full moon shinning down from a cloudless sky. She changed into a vintage Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, made sure her Streetmasters were loaded and headed out the door.

Thanks to her NIIC Caldera had learned that Xu Ti’s VR shop was at 22nd and Watkins and was called The Pleasure Mansion. One of countless virtual reality porn shops in The Plex, they gave people who couldn’t afford a VR rig of their own a place to live out every depraved fantasy they could conjure up. From the reviews, it seemed Ti’s had a very loyal base of customers because they raved about how the shop was clean, discreet and for a price could give the client whatever they wanted.

Caldera called an autocar and gave the address. She was hoping that since it was still relatively early in the evening that it wouldn’t be that crowded. Best case scenario was that Caldera could get the information she needed and be in and out.

The autocar pulled up to the front entrance a few minutes later. As Caldera stepped out she saw that this Xu Ti must have gone to the same marketing firm as Charlie, because the front of the shop was a blinding display of neon and blinking lights, letting you know with little doubt that you had arrived at The Pleasure Mansion.

The shop was located in a two-story building that looked like it may have been original from before the War. The second story facade was taken up almost entirely by the letters that made up The Pleasure Mansion’s name, going from red to pink to purple in rapid succession. The front windows advertised the latest VR experiences you could enjoy as well as the hourly rates for a private or couples booth.

Inside the place was incredibly dim, sterile and a touch claustrophobic. There was a small area selling VR chips and a counter but little else, with most of the business apparently taking place behind a large polysteel door that Caldera guessed could only be accessed by someone buzzing you in.

Sitting behind the counter was a small Chinese man in his thirties wearing a old school Phillies baseball cap, a blue t-shirt and jeans. He had on a pair of glasses and much like Charlie’s, they had a thin cable going from the frames into a small port at his temple.

As Caldera entered he looked up from the datapad he was reading and put a big smile on his face. “Welcome to The Pleasure Mansion. What fantasy did you want to enjoy today?”

Caldera didn’t have the time or desire to play games with Ti, so she pulled the bullet from out of her jacket and placed in on the counter in front of him.

“I was wondering what you could tell me about this.”

Ti looked down at the bullet and without missing a beat said “Lady, this is a VR shop, not a gun store. Take your bullet and head down the street. I don’t got time for this crap.”

Before Ti had finished speaking Caldera had grabbed his head and slammed it down on the counter, so hard it knocked over a display of flavored condoms. At the same time she took out one of her Streetmasters and leveled it at his right cheek.

Caldera would have to remember to compliment the work Charlie did. Her right arm was indeed noticeably faster and stronger than it was before.

“Let’s not fuck around today Xu. I’m a very busy woman and I know you run black market and experimental weapons out of here. All I’m looking for is some information. You give it to me, I’ll gladly reimburse you for your time and leave you alive. What do you say?”

When Ti hesitated to answer she violently jammed the barrel of her Streetmaster into his cheek and heard the distinct sound of a tooth cracking.

Ti had had enough. “Fine! Fine! Just let me up and I’ll help you.”

Caldera let him up and he rubbed his cheek, spitting blood onto the floor. He pressed a button behind the counter and the large door emitted a loud buzzing sound and unlocked. Ti pushed it open and indicated that Caldera should follow him.

She followed Ti down a long corridor that had numbered red doors every few feet on either side. As they walked Caldera heard the unmistakeable sounds of both men and women enjoying themselves from a number of the suites, similar to the sounds that came from her neighbor’s room at the hotel.

When they reached the end of the hall they stood facing a door that had the words “Utility Closet” printed on it. Ti used his NIIC to unlock the door and inside were some brooms, a couple mops and box filled with spare VR rig parts.

Ti went into the closet and stood facing the back wall, signaling that Caldera should follow him in and close the door behind her. As she pulled the door closed, Ti took out the small datapad he had been reading when Caldera came in and punched a code into it. Suddenly the rear wall of the closet rose into the ceiling, revealing another room beyond.

The room was cramped, but big enough for a handful of people to stand around comfortably. It felt more confining than it was because the walls were lined with rows and rows all types of munitions. Caldera saw handguns like Colt Enforcement Sidearms and Gonca-Taurus pistols to more serious weapons like Dover GA-1112 autoguns and heavy M-99 EVAWs. There were also all kinds of grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and an assortment of exotic arms specifically designed for use with enhanced cyberware. There were even a handful of guns that Caldera couldn’t even identify.

Ti was looking at Caldera as she took in the impressive collection. “I do all my arms business in here, not in the shop. Safer that way. There was no reason to break my damn tooth. Charlie told me you may be coming around.”

“Ah. Sorry about that. Been a long couple days.”

“Whatever. Let me see that bullet.”

Caldera handed over the bullet and Ti took it and help it up to the light, giving it a cursory examination. Once he finished he handed it back to her and said “Yep. That’s Osiris Systems for sure. I didn’t think they had put these in the field yet.”

“What is it?”

“New type of bullet. Made of a super dense plastic alloy. Harder than polysteel but a heck of a lot lighter. Charlie said he dug this out of your shoulder?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you’re lucky. Either the guy firing this didn’t have it in the right type of gun or this particular bullet is defective. Because this should have tore your arm clean off and then just kept on going like it went through paper.”

Caldera counted her blessings and filed that away as a very lucky break. “And you said these aren’t available to the public yet?”

Ti shrugged his shoulders. “As far as I knew, they never were going to be. The word on the street was that Osiris was contracted to design these for one specific client.”

Caldera was pretty sure she already knew the answer, but had to ask. “And that would be?”

“I don’t know all the details, but the name I heard being thrown around was Crimson Light, whatever the hell that is.”

Caldera’s head was spinning. First augmented clones and now Crimson Light using specially designed ammunition. Things were moving fast, faster than they were prepared for.

As Caldera was trying to get her thoughts together, she heard something rolling on the floor. She looked down and saw a small black metal ball stop between her and Ti and start to make a faint hissing sound.

She whipped her head around to see two men in black standing at the end of the hallway. Both were armed and had their faces covered by gas masks.

God damn it. Was the last thought she had before Caldera fell to the floor unconscious.