Datafile 002.2

All the trees in the seemingly endless forest were dead or dying and dried leaves crunched under her feet as she ran. She quickly glanced behind her and saw no sign of him.

After what seemed like an eternity of running, she had finally lost the Pale Man.

Everything was a muted grey and a bitter cold wind blew nonstop, stinging her exposed hands and face. Out of breath, she put her hands on her knees and tried to calm down and control her breathing. She looked at the ground and closed her eyes, trying to remember where she was but no answers came to her.

She opened them again and watched as her breath formed clouds of vapor in the air. Finally, it seemed the worst was over.

She straightened up and turned around, thinking she would go back the way she came to find a way home. Instead, less than a foot in front of her, was the Pale Man.

Before she could react, he grabbed her by the throat and threw her to the ground. She didn’t know what was happening and suddenly he was on top of her, pinning her arms to the cold ground and making escape impossible.

The Pale Man leaned down toward her face, his foul smelling breath filling her nose and making it hard to breathe. He came closer and closer until his face was just inches from hers. He opened his mouth to speak and…

***

Caldera woke with a start, bolting upright on the gurney and instantly regretting it as pain lanced through her entire right arm. The discomfort wiped away the last of the effects of the anesthesia and Caldera quickly remembered where she was and why.

She swung her legs around and awkwardly got herself into a sitting position on the edge of the gurney. Caldera’s right arm was immobile thanks to some kind of sling that was keeping it pressed against her chest, so her balance was slightly off as she tried to stand. The next thing Caldera knew, she was sprawled facedown on the frigid metal floor with the taste of dust and cigar ash filling her mouth.

“What. The. Fuck!” Charlie screamed from another part of the shop, followed by the sound of his heavy footsteps quickly approaching.

“What the fuck are ya tryin’ to do, huh? I just fixed that damn arm, you tryin’ to fuck it up again already?” he said as he helped Caldera get back into a sitting position on the gurney.

“I thought it would be okay.” Caldera said sheepishly as her head continued to spin.

“You thought it would be okay.” Charlie said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “You’ve been out for twelve hours sweetheart. Fixing the damage took a hell of a lot longer than I figured.”

“Twelve hours?” Caldera repeated, not bothering to hide the shock in her voice.

“Fuck yeah. Your collarbone was shattered and most of the muscles around it were shredded to shit. Plus it took fuckin’ forever to find the bullet and get it the fuck out. I had to replace the bones with chrome and grow synthetic muscle to restore what you lost. But on the plus side, your right arm is gonna be a hell of a lot faster and stronger than it used to be.”

Caldera was still trying to grasp the fact she had been out of commission for twelve hours when Charlie started digging around in the pocket of his filthy apron. “Oh yeah. A present for ya.”

Caldera held out her hand and Charlie dropped into it what looked to be an fully intact bullet, presumably the one that was until recently lodged in her shoulder. She held it up between her thumb and index finger to get a better look and quickly came to a heart-stopping realization.

Thanks to her time with the Hachisuka army and Sutoraiku, Caldera had a fairly extensive knowledge of firearms and how to use them. And after working with Korehammer and learning from him for nine additional years, she would bet anything there was not a weapon or type of ammunition that she couldn’t identify.

Today that would be a bet Caldera would have lost.

The bullet was made of some kind of black metallic substance, but it didn’t feel like metal. The surface was too smooth and there were no markings from when the bullet was shot out of the merc’s gun. At the very least there should have been some kind of damage when it became embedded in the bone of her shoulder. Instead, it looked like it had just come out of the box good as new.

Still holding the slug in the air, Caldera looked at Charlie and asked “Have you ever seen a bullet like this?”

“Fuck no. I saved it because I was gonna ask you the same thing. I had a hell of a time yanking it outta you.”

“Have you ever seen anything similar?”

“Closest I’ve ever seen to shit like that is from a company called Osiris Systems. Ukrainian outfit known for pushing the envelope and doing some real outside the lines shit. Last I heard, they were working on some kind of ammo that could hit a polysteel wall and stay in one piece. Imagine what that shit could do hitting a fuckin’ human body. But that was last year and I heard they were still working the kinks out.”

“You know anyone who could tell me for certain if this is Osiris tech?”

“What the fuck do you care? It’s outta your shoulder now.”

“Because I’m hoping it can give me a lead on where the merc who shot me with it came from.” Caldera decided to leave out the part about the two mercs being apparently invulnerable. No reason to tell Charlie the whole truth and possibly endanger him.

Charlie scratched his head while looking at the ceiling, as if the act of thinking was much more challenging for him than it should be. The he suddenly snapped his fingers and said “Xu Ti. Chinese guy who runs a VR shop couple blocks away. Also deals in high-end black market weapons and ammo. He might be able to tell ya.”

Caldera stood up and looked around for her shirt and jacket, saying to Charlie “How long do I have to stay in this sling?”

“Another twenty-four hours. Just till everything heals up and the new chrome adapts to your physiology.”

“So how much do I owe you?”

Charlie grabbed a datapad off a nearby desk as Caldera struggled to get her shirt and jacket on over the sling. He tapped the screen a few times and handed it to Caldera.

She looked down at the screen and then back up at Charlie, an incredulous look on her face.

“Seriously?” she said.

“Fuck yeah. What, you think I shut down the shop so I could fix your fucking shoulder out of the goodness of my heart? Or I’m gonna just give you the new chrome and tissue maybe for old times sake? This shit costs credits. Lots of them.”

Caldera put the datapad down on the desk and waved her NIIC over it, paying the bill. Luckily NIICs were always placed in a person’s left wrist, so at least the sling wouldn’t get in the way in that regard.

“Highway robbery if you ask me.”

“No one did sweet cheeks.” Charlie said with a grin.

Charlie picked back up the datapad and slipped it into the pocket of his apron. “Pleasure doing business with you again Corrine. Make sure you stop by if you ever get another bullet stuck inside you.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks Charlie.”

“No problem darling.”

Caldera left the shop and went out into the early morning air. It was just after seven and yet incredibly, The Plex was teeming with people. The rain had stopped for once and the sun was shinning brightly in the sky. Caldera took her mirrorshades out of the pocket of her jacket and slipped them on her face, heading east on Dickinson.

Before Caldera went and talked to this Xu Ti, she needed to head to the coroner’s office to check in with her contact there. Even though it had been four years, she knew Hunter Genovese still worked for the medical examiner and if she was fortunate, the small crush he had on her won’t have faded with time.

The bodies of the mercs should still be at the coroner’s office on ice and Caldera had some questions she needed answers to. Like why they didn’t seem to feel pain and why they were apparently using top of the line experimental munitions.

But first, Caldera needed to get some food. It had been days since she had eaten anything and at this point even synthfood sounded good.

***

In the first months after Comcast Systems had purchased Philadelphia, they had reorganized what was left of the city government to make it more productive and, according to them, useful. The megacorp made all the decisions but couldn’t be bothered with the day to day minutia of running a major American city. All the former city politicians became employees of Comcast Systems and as such could be fired and hired according to the whim of their boss. Free elections were a thing of the past but, on the other hand, over the decades Philadelphia had become one of the best run and most profitable cities on the East Coast.

One of the first things Comcast did was build the Philadelphia Governance Centre, a 50-story building that took up an entire city block of West Philadelphia, just on the other side of the Schuylkill River from City Center. The imposing glass and steel structure housed all the various government offices that kept Philadelphia running under one roof, including the Philadelphia Coroner’s Office, also known as The Slab.

Caldera had the autocar drop her off a block away on Walnut Street, getting out and looking up at the massive building. She had no desire to use her NIIC to get inside since that would create a record of her being there, something she wished to avoid. Which meant she had to hope that her old contact at The Slab could get her in and out without anyone noticing.

Before Caldera had disappeared, Hunter Genovese had made no effort to hide the fact he had a crush on her, even going so far as to ask her out once. Unfortunately for both of them he had made the mistake of asking in front of Korehammer and it did not go well for either of them. The jokes came fast and furious for months to the point where Caldera had to tell him to back off. To Genovese, that she stood up for him to her partner only endeared Caldera to him more.

Caldera used her NIIC to place the call, hoping his private number was still the same. After a few seconds a disheveled looking man in his mid-thirties appeared on a holoscreen, blonde hair all over the place and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Genovese’s eye’s widened when he saw who it was.

“Holy crap. Corrine? Is that really you?”

“Hi Hunter. Long time no see.”

“You can say that again. How have you been?”

“Good.” Caldera wanted to avoid wasting time with small talk and cut him off when she saw him getting ready to ask another question. “Listen. I need some help. Are those two guys who died at District 14 headquarters while in custody still in a drawer?”

Genovese looked over his shoulder at a screen behind him and then answered “Yup. Still here. Finished the autopsy on the second one a couple hours ago. Some seriously weird crap with that pair.”

Caldera exhaled in relief. “Those two are the reason I’m in this sling. Can you get me inside so I can ask you a few questions and maybe get some information?”

“No problem. Is Korehammer with you?”

“No, just me this time.”

Genovese’s smile widened just a bit. “Okay. Just head toward the main entrance. I’ll meet you outside in five minutes.”

Caldera walked down the block toward Spruce Street where the entrance to Centre was and waited. Good to his word, Genovese walked out the glass doors a few minutes later and immediately caught sight of her.

Caldera had to admit that Hunter Genovese was still one impressive specimen. Almost six feet tall, blue eyes, long blond hair and a chiseled body he obviously worked hard to maintain. He walked over and gave her an enthusiastic hug while asking what the heck happened to her arm.

“I’ll explain once we’re inside. Can you get me in without me using my NIIC?”

Genovese looked over and winked. “No problem. Just go along with whatever I say.”

Caldera rolled her eyes and hoped Genovese knew what he was doing.

***

Ten minutes later the two of them were in an elevator, heading five floors underground to The Slab.

“Did you really have to kiss me?”

“Hey. I had to make it look authentic, didn’t I? How else was I going to convince security you were just my girlfriend here to go to lunch?”

“Amazing that they just took you at your word like that. No NIIC, no identification, nothing.”

“They trust me. Besides, I know you’re not here to cause trouble so no harm, no foul.”

Caldera hoped he still felt that way once all was said and done.

Genovese used his NIIC to unlock a large metal door and then typed a few commands into the terminal to the right of the NIIC reader.

“Okay. The security cameras are off and the NIIC sensors have been deactivated. We have about twenty minutes before security gets suspicious and send someone down here to investigate.”

Genovese opened the heavy door and motioned for Caldera to go first. He followed, closing the door behind him. There was a chill in the air and Caldera could see her breath as she exhaled. She was suddenly reminded of the nightmare she was having when she woke from the anesthesia. It sent a shiver down her spine that she tried her best to hide.

The room was windowless and essentially a long rectangle with rows and rows of freezer drawers on either side, five high and each with a barcode just above the handle. In the center of the room were four steel tables each with a tray stand next to it filled with medical tools. The third table had what looked like a body on it, covered by a sheet.

Genovese walked over to the table and pulled the sheet away from the body, exposing the corpse’s face.

“This the guy who shot up your shoulder?”

Caldera looked down at the blank expression on the merc’s face. What annoyed her more than anything was how damn calm he looked, like death had been a relief instead of something to be feared.

“Yeah. That’s him. What did he die of?”

“At first I didn’t have a clue. Even after the autopsy I was still stumped. There was no cause of death that I could see. It was as if his body just shut down like an off switch had been flipped. So then I autopsied his partner and got the same result. No evident cause of death.”

“You mentioned there was something weird.”

“Oh yeah. Big time. Come over here and take a look at this.”

They walked over to a small desk where Genovese said “Show DNA samples for Subject 237-A and Subject 238-R”

Immediately two holoscreens appeared, both showing a recreation of a slowly rotating DNA strand.

Genovese looked over at Caldera and said “What do you see?”

“Two DNA strands. Any first grader would know that.”

“See anything unusual about them?”

“Your the medical examiner, not me.”

He pointed at the two screens and said “Everyone’s DNA is unique, more so that a fingerprint. It’s why the government extracts a sample when a NIIC is installed in every newborn. It can identify you more concretely than anything else we have at our disposal.”

“And your point?” Caldera was getting a bit impatient.

“Neither of these two were in the DNA database. They both had NIICs, but their DNA isn’t on record anywhere.”

“But that’s not possible, is it?”

Caldera could tell Genovese was getting more excited the more he talked. “That’s what I thought. So I took a deeper look at their DNA strands and noticed something that shouldn’t be possible. For all intents and purposes their DNA is the exactly the same.”

“But you said everyone’s DNA is unique.”

“It is. So there’s only one explanation.” Genovese paused for a moment. “These two are clones.”

Datafile 002.1

Corrine Caldera walked out of the PCPD District 14 headquarters not really sure where she was going to go. It had been a brutally long few hours, between being arrested and having to spend hours in a cell. Luckily Caldera was still very well connected and knew a judge who owed her a favor. Less than a hour after the call was made, she was out and walking the streets of Philadelphia once again.

Caldera winced as she tried to move her right arm. One of the mercs had managed to tag her when her back was turned to make sure Korehammer got out of the New Galaxy Diner alive. She was able to convince the cops that she was fine and didn’t need to go to the hospital, but there was more damage to her shoulder than she let on. It was going to take a specialist to repair the injury.

Caldera’s current problem, beyond that her shoulder still hurt like hell, was that the wound had bled almost nonstop, soaking her classic Green Day shirt with blood.

Getting shot she could deal with, but this was a classic Green Day tour shirt from 2009. They just didn’t make them like this anymore. Finding a replacement was going to be both expensive and next to impossible.

As Caldera passed one the buildings she caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the glass. Her shoulder length hair was a mess, completely knotted up and the ponytail long gone. She took off her mirrorshades and saw that she looked just as tried as she felt. Caldera had also somehow split her lip but had no memory of how it had happened.

She put the mirrorshades back on and kept walking down Chestnut Street, heading east. It would have been easier to get an autocar, but Caldera wanted to walk. The fresh air felt good and it was helping to clear her head.

The fact that the two mercs were both dead didn’t surprise her all that much. Knowing who they worked for and how their employers dealt with failure, it was probably the most humane thing that could have happened. Even so, the way the two had died was odd to the extreme. It was like they just made a decision to stop living and that was it. No sign of foul play, no wounds, nothing.

What concerned Caldera more was the fact both seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, invulnerable. The one thug had shrugged off the bullets from Korehammer’s Sternmeyer like they were nothing and her own Kei-Ju Streetmasters also had little to no effect.

Caldera hadn’t noticed any kind of armor on either of them and except for the cybernetic arm on the one, neither had any cyberware she could discern. Which meant this was something new. Something dangerous that could have implications for the future of the conflict.

Caldera needed answers and she needed them now. With Korehammer hopefully on his way to Atlantic City, that meant it was up to her to get them. She had an idea where to start, but that would have to wait. As the pain in Caldera’s shoulder flared up again, she realized there were other pressing matters that needed her attention.

At the thought of Korehammer, she realized he was probably worried sick about her. Okay, maybe “worried sick” was a bit of an exaggeration, but Caldera had no doubt he would be wondering what happened to her after the debacle at the New Galaxy.

The problem was that Caldera had no clue where Korehammer might be. Years of working together had given her some insight into how he operates, but this was nothing like the usual gigs they took back then. That and it had been four years. A lot can change in that amount of time.

Caldera figured that the first thing Korehammer would do is get his hands of the Stasis Cradle and the NIICs inside. There was no way he would ride into Atlantic City as Trevor Korehammer, so that meant he would be looking to swap out his NIIC for something that could make the job go a bit smoother.

Atlantic City meant money, and if money was involved, then you could be sure that Malcolm Chernova would not be far behind.

Caldera had to admit that the idea of using multiple NIICs was pure genius. When Korehammer came to her with the idea shortly after they met and set up their new venture, she thought he was out of his mind. Caldera was certain there was no way it could be done.

Korehammer had proven her wrong. The tech had made moving items incredibly easy and most of the time could be done without a shot being fired. Caldera considered it a point of pride that she was the only other person on the planet who knew about the Cradle and Korehammer’s other seven identities. She had worked hard to continue earning Korehammer’s trust after that and just hoped she wasn’t pushing it too far asking him to take this particular job.

Much like Korehammer, Caldera had spent years as a soldier, fighting on behalf of the Hachisuka Conglomerate around the world. Caldera quickly rose in the ranks and soon found herself indoctrinated into their elite black ops squad, Sutoraiku.

As part of Sutoraiku, Caldera had been a member of a group where if you didn’t trust the other soldiers in the squad, it usually meant someone was going to die. So she understood the level of trust Korehammer had placed in her. Caldera took it very seriously, which is why vanishing into the wind four years ago had been so tough to do.

Caldera felt water running down her face and quickly realized it had started to rain again. Using her NIIC, she ordered a autocar and once it arrived a few minutes later, directed it to take her to South 6th Street and Oregon Avenue.

The place she was staying was called The Dolphin Motel, deep in the heart of The Plex. It was a single-story motel that charged by the hour and was popular with the streetwalkers and drug pushers for doing business away from prying eyes. It was also perfect if you were trying to keep a low profile and stay off the grid as much as possible.

Caldera stepped over what she assumed was another junkie passed out on Skar as she walked down the hallway to her room. She used her NIIC to open the door and went inside, closing and locking it behind her. From the sounds coming from the other side of the thin wall they shared, the sex worker next door had company again.

Fifth time in three days. You have to admire her work ethic. Caldera thought to herself.

Caldera walked over to where she had left her still partially packed bag and grabbed a long slim cable with optic interface leads at either end. She then left her room and headed for the lobby, where she saw the old man who had checked her in a week ago. He looked like he was still smoking the same cigar as he was then and watching what appeared to be the latest episode of Taking It To The Edge.

She nodded as she passed him and headed for the public holotransmission booth on the other side of the room. Caldera opened the door to the unit and stepped inside, which brought the emitter online immediately.

Caldera inserted one end of the optic cable to the back of the emitter and the other end into the port located at her left temple. In addition to allowing her to encrypt the message she was about to send, the tech also enabled her to reroute it through hundreds of holotransmission stations across the city. No one would be able to trace where the message came from or where it was going.

A optic cable might be a bit low tech and old school in a world connected wirelessly, but it was one hundred percent secure, which made all the difference to Caldera.

She used her NIIC to input the number to The Embassy and once connected, began her message to Korehammer.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Corrine Caldera.”

Caldera just hoped she knew Korehammer as well as she thought she did.

Once she had finished, Caldera returned to her room and laid down on the bed. She was completely exhausted and asleep in moments despite the loud moans of pleasure coming from next door.

***

The Pale Man was coming after her again.

He was chasing her, running after her and no matter what she did, she couldn’t outrun him. She kept looking for a place to hide but the long hallway had no doors, no windows, just miles of grey walls on either side.

She chanced a look behind her and saw the pale man was gaining, getting closer, his thin fingers grasping at her hair. She tried to run faster but couldn’t. It was getting hard to breathe.

Then the Pale Man had her. His hands were around her throat, tightening their grip, cutting off her air. She tried to scream but no sound came out. He turned her around and she looked into the pale man’s eyes. Deep wells of ebony black that seemed to go on forever.

The Pale Man licked his cracked lips and looked down at her, bending over and bringing his mouth to her ear. His breath was hot on her skin as he waited a moment and then said…

***

Caldera woke up screaming.

One of her Kei-Ju Streetmasters was in her hand as Caldera bolted upright in the bed. She looked around, her cybernetic eye glowing a bright emerald and rapidly realized it was just the dream again. The same dream she had been having for months now.

Caldera closed her eyes and tried to get her breathing under control. The nightmares were coming more frequently now so she was getting fairly adept at regaining her composure and calming down once she woke up and realized what was happening.

She could still feel the breath of the Pale Man on her neck, still see him smile as he began to speak. But just like every other time, the dream ended before he could say anything.

It was making Caldera a bit crazy.

She looked out the single window and saw that is was already early evening. The sun had gone down and the city was beginning to light up, the cold fluorescent glow of the streetlamps shinning circles of hope on the rain slicked sidewalks.

As Caldera got out of bed she gasped as pain lanced through her shoulder and arm. The gunshot wound needed to be looked at and soon. The problem was that it wasn’t like Caldera could just waltz into the local hospital and get it treated. That would lead to questions she wasn’t willing to answer. That meant going to the underground and finding someone who could repair the damage and not interrogate her about how it happened.

There was only one guy in Philadelphia Caldera trusted who could be counted on to do just that. She just hoped he was still in business after all this time.

Caldera grabbed a quick vibro-shower and changed her clothes. She decided on another classic tee, this time a Pantera 2019 U.S. Tour t-shirt. Her jacket was ruined so she threw it in the reclamation chute and, as she walked down the hallway, took the leather jacket that the passed out junkie in the hall was wearing. After all, it wasn’t like he was going to miss it and Caldera loved the look.

She called an autocar and instructed it to take her to 21st and Dickinson Street. While riding in the back she checked her Streetmasters to make sure they were loaded and ready. One thing Korehammer had taught her over the years was that a little paranoia went a long way.

The autocar pulled up to the corner and Caldera got out. She looked up and saw that yes, Charlie was indeed still in business. The neon letters of “Charlie’s Chop Shop” blinked in various colors over the entrance to the storefront.

Charlie never was a fan of subtlety. Caldera thought to herself as she went inside.

If you didn’t know it when you first entered Charlie’s Chop Shop, you could be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t a shop at all but a place machines went to die. Piles of cyberware were stacked everywhere along with bits and pieces of just about anything else that you could think of. Caldera had to carefully navigate around what appeared to be a pile of cybernetic body parts and then what she could have sworn was an autocar engine. Various other forms of cybernetic limbs hanged from the ceiling in a scene that can only be described as very macabre.

“Hold on one fuckin’ minute. I’ll be right with ya.” came a disembodied voice from somewhere in the back of the shop.

Caldera stopped and looked around. It seemed like the place hadn’t changed at all in the ten years since the last time she was here. The best way she could describe it was then was “organized chaos” and it looked like the same phrase still applied.

Caldera heard what sounded like a pile of metal and chrome crashing to the floor followed by someone screaming the word “Fuck!” at the top of his lungs. A minute later a short, bald man with a large gut and a cybernetic leg that looked to be at least 20 years old came out from the back. He was wiping his hands on a oily rag as he said “So. What can I…”

When he saw Caldera he stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth hanging open and the cigar he had been smoking in danger of falling to the filthy floor.

“Well I’ll be a fucking dog-humping cockwaffle. Corrine Caldera. It’s been fucking forever.”

“Hello Charlie. It has been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Fuck yeah! I haven’t seen you since I put that eye in. How’s that been working out for ya?”

“Great. I still miss my real one, but this one has saved my ass more than once.”

“Good to hear. Still proud as hell of that one. Thing of beauty. That eye was state of the art from BioCyber a decade ago. Still can’t figure out how you got your hands on it. Not like that kinda gear comes through The Plex all that often.”

Caldera could have told him how she called in some favors from her old friends in Sutoraiku who had the necessary connections to obtain the eye and get it to her. But why take away the air of mystery between them?

“Yeah well, thanks again for installing it.”

“Anytime sweet cheeks. So what brings you to the Chop Shop? Cause I doubt you came here just to chat with me about old times.”

Caldera took off her jacket and pulled her t-shirt up to show the gunshot wound. It wasn’t bleeding but the area around the wound was an angry red and the pain was coming almost nonstop now.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ…” Charlie said in wonder.

“I’m pretty sure the bullet is still in there, lodged in my collarbone.”

“When did this happen?”

“Two nights ago at a diner. Couple of guys didn’t agree with my menu choices.”

“And the rollers didn’t insist you go to the fuckin’ hospital?”

“I convinced the cops it was just a scratch that looked way worse than it was. Going to the hospital wasn’t an option. Otherwise I’d be there and not here.”

“Good point.”

Charlie walked over and grabbed Caldera’s shoulder, pulling the smart glasses that had been resting on top of his head down to his eyes. Caldera could see the small cable running from the side of the frames that ended at the port located on his temple, very similar to the one Caldera had.

As Charlie moved her arm and shoulder around, Caldera tried not to wince, but the pain was getting more intense by the second.

“Oh man the fuck up. Can’t expect me to fix this shit if I can’t see what the fuck I’m dealing with, can you?”

Caldera just bit her lip and tried her best to deal with the burning sensation coming from her shoulder.

“Okay. Come on in the back. I can fix that right up. Most of the bone is shattered beyond fuckin’ recognition so I might need to replace some of it with chrome. Should take just a couple hours.” Charlie went over to the front door and locked it, switching the flashing “open” sign to “closed.”

“You got the creds to pay for this?”

Caldera looked at him with one eyebrow raised and a smirk on her face. “What do you think?”

“Right. Stupid question.”

Once they got into the back of the shop, Caldera went over to the gurney and sat down, lying her jacket and t-shirt over the back of a chair that was covered with VR chips. Charlie sat heavily on a stool and after grabbing something from a small metal table, rolled over to the side of the bed. He was holding a hypospray in one hand and said “Alright sweets. Go ahead and lie down.”

Caldera laid down and Charlie placed the hypospray against her neck. She heard the soft hiss and felt the slight pressure against her skin as he injected her with the anesthesia that would put her under for the duration of the surgery.

“No worries Corrine. You’ll be fuckin’ good as new when you wake up.”

“I better be.”

The last thing Caldera heard as she drifted off was the sound of Charlie laughing.

Datafile 001.5

Malcolm Chernova was a Russian immigrant who came to America in his late teens, part of the large influx of Russian wealth that flooded the country in the 2050s. His parents worked for Supova Technology Unlimited, a small firm that handled the exporting of cyberware parts around the world. As he grew into adulthood, Chernova went to the best schools, knew all the right people and was politically connected to the point that he was practically untouchable.

After Chernova’s parents were killed while flying back to Moscow, he sold all his shares in Supova Tech, which had over the years became the leading distributor of neural booster implants on the planet. The sale made Chernova wealthy beyond the comprehension of most regular people and he spent his time traveling the world, going from party to party and leaving a string of broken hearts in his wake.

Or at least, that’s what Korehammer wanted everyone to believe.

If anyone did any digging, they would find a electronic paper trail to back everything up. Birth and death credentials, records for the sale of the Supova stock and travel itineraries for Chernova’s many trips abroad. There were even medical records to explain the scar that ran down the right side of his face; a ski accident in the Swiss alps when he was in his early twenties.

Korehammer was brought back to the present day when the young kid returned and said there were only two messages for Chernova. He had them sent directly to the apartment holo unit and asked if there was anything else he could do to help him. Korehammer smiled and said no, transferred the kid 50 credits for his trouble and walked toward the elevators to head up to his suite.

Korehammer had realized early on that to keep up the appearance of his multiple identities it would take a little bit of work and a lot of money. He purchased the apartment in The Embassy with cash shortly after the building opened and had made sure the management knew he would be using it infrequently due to his extensive traveling. If this was The Plex, you could be sure that it would have been broken into multiple times already and gutted of every item of any value.

However, seeing as this was City Center and Chernova was a upstanding, if a bit eccentric, multimillionaire, Korehammer didn’t have to worry about that happening. He could leave a dead body in his apartment and it would still be there whenever he returned. Another of the perks of having more money than you know what to do with.

Korehammer entered the elevator and swiped his NIIC over the reader to the left of the door. It automatically took him to the 28th floor where his apartment was located. Unlike his former living accommodations in The Plex, his home at The Embassy was a lavish suite of four rooms with massive windows that gave him a spectacular view of Rittenhouse Square.

Of course, money couldn’t entirely take away the slight sense of paranoia that Korehammer liked to think helped keep him alive. As he entered the apartment, he said out loud “Deactivate Surveillance Protocol Alpha. Code Beta-Beta-Twelve.”

After a slight pause a voice said “Code accepted. Welcome home Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face. He couldn’t believe what had happened over the course of the last 24 hours. He went from a happily retired ex-corporate soldier and courier to being hip deep into something he still couldn’t entirely understand. However, that didn’t change the fact he told Caldera he would get whatever was in Atlantic City to whoever he was supposed to get it to.

Once he finished in the bathroom, Korehammer went over to his small desk that was against the wall in the living area. He activated the holo emitter so he could watch the messages Chernova had received since his last time here.

The first was months old and from a woman whose name Korehammer didn’t even remember. He had met her the last time he had gone to Vegas on business. She worked at one of the many strip clubs in the city and Korehammer had stupidly given her his real contact info. Too much Jack Daniels can make even the most distrustful man careless.

The second message was only 12 hours old and was encrypted, both of which Korehammer thought was incredibly odd. The encoding meant only Malcolm Chernova could watch the transmission since only his NIIC could break the encryption. Korehammer thought about it for a minute and couldn’t think of anyone who would send a harmless flake like Chernova an encrypted message.

Unless…

Korehammer used his NIIC and after a few moments the message, now with the encoding gone, began to play.

It was from Corrine Caldera.

She looked like she had been through the ringer. Caldera’s right arm looked like it was limp at her side and her Green Day t-shirt was covered in blood, most likely her own. Her hair was all over the place and she had a dark circle under her one human eye, which meant she hadn’t slept at all yet.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Corrine Caldera. We met last year at the Burning Sphere Festival in Nevada. We have a mutual friend and I was hoping you could get a message to him.”

“Could you please let him know I am all right. We ran into some trouble the other night and I was taken in by the PCPD as were our two acquaintances. They decided to keep me there for the night, obstinately for my own safety, despite my protests otherwise.”

“The two friends are gone. Both were found dead in their cells hours after they were brought in. It wasn’t a suicide however. The cops told me that it was as if their bodies just stopped functioning, like a switch had been flipped and the two just died. I’m hoping to get more information from a friend at the coroner tomorrow. If I find out anything I’ll let him know.”

“If you could also tell our friend that I appreciate what he’s doing and hopefully, I can meet him in a few days. Thanks again Mr. Chernova. Have a good evening.”

With that, the holotransmission ended.

Korehammer watched the entire message a second time, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything and tried to understand what this all meant.

First, he was happy and incredibly relieved that Caldera was okay. Korehammer had been so busy watching out for his own ass he hadn’t had time to think about what befell her. The shoulder injury looked bad but she knew plenty of booster docs who could fix her right up without any problem.

What really got Korehammer’s mind racing was what she had said about the pair of mercs that had opened fire on them.

Both were dead? And no one seemed to have any clue from what? That in and of itself sent up a number of red flags but when you combine that with the fact both seemed pretty much invulnerable and alarm bells really started to go off.

Korehammer wondered if the same fate had come to pass for the two he had run into on the magrail. All four of the mercs looked like they could have been brothers or cousins at the very least. Was it some kind of new cyberware? Maybe a new nanotech virus that hadn’t made it down to the rest of the population yet? And if it was, did that mean some kind of government or megacorp was involved in all this?

Korehammer shook his head, which was spinning from all this new data.

What the fuck have I gotten myself into? He thought to himself, probably not for the last time.

After thinking about it for a few minutes, Korehammer made a decision. Given what was going on and the lack of information he had, the best thing he could do was get to Atlantic City, get the package and deliver it as quickly as possible. He cared about Caldera but this whole state of affairs was rapidly spiraling out of control. Korehammer knew from experience that he needed to extract himself from this situation as fast as possible, if not sooner.

Korehammer went into the bedroom, which was just as sparsely furnished as the rest of the apartment. He walked past the bed to the opposite wall and looked to the ceiling.

“Open Ordnance Cache Two. Code Sigma-Delta-Seven.”

A small panel opened in the wall and a voice said “Submit to retinal scan. You have fifteen seconds to comply before counter measures are initiated.”

Korehammer leaned forward and his eye was scanned by the computer. A minute later the disembodied voice returned and said “Identity confirmed. Have a good day.”

Slowly the bulk of the wall opened to reveal a shallow space about two feet deep and five feet wide. Inside were a variety of heavy and medium assault rifles, ammunition and an assortment of knives and other weapons.

When Korehammer had purchased the apartment, he had brought in his own crew to make some very specific modifications. He knew that his place in The Plex was impossible to make secure so he decided to load his other safe houses with everything he would need if things went to hell. And since each was tied to a different NIIC, it was almost out of the question for anyone to trace them back to him.

The guys he had brought in did some excellent work. The alcove was invisible to almost every kind of scan and there was even space inside to hide if it came to that. It was a shame Korehammer had to kill both of them to make one hundred percent certain it remained a secret. At the time he thought maybe he was being a bit paranoid. Turns out there is no such thing.

Korehammer grabbed a large grey duffel bag and filled it with what he thought he may need over the next few days. His CCMMC Qi-15 shotgun, the Towa Type-99 assault rifle, a Excalibur taser nightstick and his M-Tech Cypherblade. Just like with his Sternmeyer, each weapon was linked to the neural implant in his skull that made it so Korehammer was the only one who could use them.

For a minute Korehammer thought maybe he was overdoing it and then he remembered those mercs and how they had shrugged off his shots at the diner. He grabbed a pair of Jennova-Hari X-27 handguns, threw them in and then zipped up the duffel bag.

Once he was done packing, Korehammer entered the kitchen to make something to eat. He never did get to enjoy his burger so it had been quite a while since he had last put anything in his stomach. While his apartment included a top of the line synthstation, the fried eggs and potatoes he made were still a flavorless mess on a plate. However, Korehammer found he was so hungry he didn’t really care.

Once he was finished, Korehammer used his NIIC to place a call to Renna Drayton, his casino services rep at the Solar Garden Hotel and Casino in Philadelphia. One of the perks of being Chernova was that in order to keep the ruse alive, on occasion Korehammer had to go to one of the city’s exclusive casino complexes for a few days. He would place bets for outrageous amounts of credits, drink nonstop and basically enjoy the hell out of himself, leaving the impression of a devil may care millionaire without a concern in the world.

The result was that every casino in the city had tried to get Chernova to come to their gaming house to gamble. Korehammer had even received offers from the Omnicrom a few times, which he found incredibly ironic. He had settled on the Solar Garden because they left Korehammer alone and never asked a lot of questions. After two visits they had assigned Korehammer a casino rep of his very own to cater to his every need and want.

Renna Drayton was in her mid-twenties, blonde, incredibly fit and had everything a man Korehammer’s age would normally find very attractive. She would flirt with him from the moment he arrived at the casino and Korehammer would always act like he was enjoying every minute of it. However, if Korehammer was being honest with himself, he thought she was a bit boring and one-dimensional.

After a moment or two, a holoscreen materialized in the air and Drayton’s mouth broke into a huge smile when she saw him.

“Mr. Chernova! How are you doing? It feels like forever since we last saw you at the Solar Garden.”

“I’m doing well Renna. How are you?”

“I’m great sir. So what can I help you with today? Were you planning to come by for a visit? Should I have your usual suite prepared?”

Korehammer shook his head. “Nyet. Not today. I’m calling to ask a favor.”

Drayton had a questioning look on her face for a split second before her smile returned. “Sure thing sir. What did you need?”

“I need to know if you can make arrangements for me to stay at the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex in Atlantic City.”

Drayton’s questioning look returned and this time stayed put for a second or two. “The Shina-Yasuyan? In Atlantic City? Why would you want to go there?”

Korehammer sighed ever so slightly, giving the impression he was becoming irritated with all the questions. “For personal business. Do you know a rep there who can help me?”

Drayton got the message loud and clear. She cleared her throat and the professional demeanor returned. “Sure thing Mr. Chernova. Just give me a minute and I’ll patch you through to a friend of mine who works there.”

The screen went blank as Drayton put Korehammer on hold and attempted to contact whoever it was that she knew at the Shina-Yasuyan.

Korehammer could have made the arrangements himself or just arrived in Atlantic City unannounced and likely been taken care of without any issue. Chernova’s reputation usually preceded him no matter what casino he went to. Yet by having Drayton help him, it would make thing a bit easier and help the legend of Malcolm Chernova grow. It was a win/win for everyone.

Just then the holoscreen reactivated and it was filled by a new face. She had auburn hair pulled back in a tight bun, fair skin, green eyes and the whitest teeth Korehammer had ever seen.

“Hello Mr. Chernova. My name is Neomi Wynn and I’m a host here at the Shina-Yasuyan. Miss Drayton explained to me that you wish to visit us?”

Da. That is correct.”

“Well we’d be happy to see you sir. Miss Drayton spoke very highly of you and said we should do everything in our power to make you happy. When did you want to come down sir?”

“Tonight if possible.”

Drayton must have spoke at length about the amount of money Chernova spent while gambling because Wynn didn’t even bat an eye at his request. “Of course sir. Did you want us to send a car to pick you up or did you make other arrangements?”

“A car would be lovely.”

“No problem at all Mr. Chernova. We can have someone there in twenty minutes to pick you up.”

“Excellent. I’ve heard a lot about the Shina-Yasuyan and I’m looking forward to seeing if it lives up to the legends.”

“We’ll try our best sir. We’ll see you in an hour or so Mr. Chernova.”

“Thank you. Dasvidaniya.”

“Goodbye sir.”

Korehammer broke the connection and went back into the bedroom. He grabbed a second duffel bag and threw in some shirts and pants, not really looking at what he was packing, as well as the satchel containing the Stasis Cradle. He then changed into clothes more suitable for a millionaire on a last minute trip to Atlantic City and took both bags into the living area.

Korehammer decided to leave the neurobinary VR chip Caldera had given him here. If things went south there was no way he wanted any of this to be connected to her more so than it already was.

As he placed the chip in the drawer of the desk, he said “I don’t know what you’ve gotten me into Corrine, but this is it. I’m going to get whatever the hell this is to whoever you want me to get it to and then I’m out. Done. Finito. No more. I’m sorry but you’re on your own.”

After a few minutes Korehammer received a call that his car was waiting for him downstairs. He looked up at the ceiling and said “Activate Surveillance Protocol Beta. Code Upsilon-Delta-Three.”

The computer voice relied “Code accepted. Have a nice day Mr. Chernova.”

Korehammer left his apartment, got on the elevator and went downstairs. He hoped by this time tomorrow, this whole situation was over and done with and Korehammer could get back to being retired.

He hoped.

Datafile 001.4

Korehammer got the few belongings he had together and walked out of his room at the Omnicrom. He waved his NIIC over the reader next to the door and the voice of the Omnicrom MCP softly intoned “Have a nice day sir.”

He took the elevator down to the lobby and exited onto Passyunk Ave. Even at this relatively early time of the evening it was crowded with people, all looking for something even they probably couldn’t articulate. Korehammer decided taking the magrail would just be asking for trouble, so he used his NIIC to order a cab.

The self-driving autocar arrived a few minutes later and Korehammer climbed into the back. He waved his NIIC over the terminal and said “Home.” The car automatically accessed the address and deducted the cost of the trip from his account. He was quickly on his way, heading west on Passyunk toward Broad Street.

Traffic was worse than normal and it took almost 20 minutes to get to 16th and West Shunk Street, the location of the apartment building where Korehammer lived. What used to be a block of individual row homes before the War was now a featureless 10-story structure that provided shelter for just about anyone who had the money for the rent. The entire Plex was made up of buildings just like it, built by Comcast Systems after they bought the city to deal with the homeless population. While the number of homeless in Philadelphia has dropped to almost nothing in the last few decades, everyone would agree that what made the city unique was lost in the process.

He had the autocar drop him off a few blocks from his building, fully expecting there to be more mercs waiting for him. However, after casing the surrounding area for a full ten minutes, Korehammer concluded there were no goons to be found, which made him even more suspicious than he already was.

Korehammer never used an elevator if he could help it. Something about being in an enclosed space like that made him uneasy. So he took the stairs to the fifth floor and then made a right, heading toward his small one bedroom apartment. He was about fifteen feet from his door when he slowed and then stopped altogether.

Korehammer had learned a long time ago to trust his intuition. Listening to his gut had saved his ass on more than one occasion and it was speaking to him again as he stood in the hallway. He pulled out his Sternmeyer and activated it, slowly creeping along the wall towards the door of his apartment.

The NIIC reader that he used to open the door looked fine, with the small red light blinking every few seconds, indicating that the door was currently locked. For most residents that would have been enough to reassure them seeing as no one but the person who lived there could use the NIIC reader to open the door.

But Trevor Korehammer wasn’t most people.

Korehammer moved as quietly as possible, easing toward his door, his Sternmeyer out and online. He was fully expecting trouble but hoping against hope that he was wrong.

He reached out with his left hand and waved his NIIC over the reader. A low chime sounded and as the light went from red to green the door slid open, revealing the dark interior of Korehammer’s home.

Korehammer stepped inside, quickly sweeping his Sternmeyer left to right, covering the living room and small kitchen. As his door slid shut, the room was plunged into darkness and the only thing he could hear was the sound of his own breathing. He slowly walked down the short hallway past the bathroom, which was also dark and empty, toward the door to his bedroom. As he approached it slid open automatically, revealing the room inside.

Unlike the rest of the apartment, his bedroom was bathed in light. The overhead fluorescent bulb was lit and it illuminated the entire room. Korehammer did a quick check and could see that no one was here.

However, someone had definitely been in his apartment.

He came to this conclusion thanks to two telling signs. First, Korehammer never left any lights on in his apartment. It was an old trick he had learned from a friend in the Tyler Gene Systems army. Odds were if someone broke into your home and was stupid enough to turn on a light, they wouldn’t think to turn it off before they left.

And second, Ludmila was laying on his bed with her throat slashed ear to ear, blood pooling under her body and running onto the floor.

“Motherfucker…” Korehammer cursed softly to himself.

He walked over and saw that whomever had cut her throat had obviously enjoyed their work. They had practically severed Ludmila’s head from her neck and Korehammer could tell it was likely done with a Rakkasan Vibro-blade, but one that was a bit longer than standard.

Korehammer looked down at Ludmila and shook his head, getting angrier with himself by the second. This was exactly why he had decided to leave the business and get out of the game altogether. It seemed like as he got older, he was saying goodbye to more and more people that meant something to him and it had gotten to be too much. Korehammer didn’t exactly have a large circle of friends to begin with, so when he found someone he liked, he didn’t want to see something happen to them because of him.

Which is precisely what had happened to Ludmila.

“I’m sorry.” was all he could bring himself to say.

Whoever did this was sending a message: “Don’t fuck with us.” Obviously they knew who Korehammer was, where he lived and that he was involved somehow with whatever Caldera had going on. That meant he had a big target on his back and any sane man would probably head off to a tropical island and hide.

Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t an option anymore. Aside from the fact they had attacked Caldera and tried to assassinate him, they had killed Korehammer’s favorite waitress, the only woman who knew he liked ketchup on his burgers.

They made this personal.

Putting the grisly scene out of his mind, Korehammer realized he needed to get out of here and fast. While he didn’t expect whoever did this to come back, there was no reason to stick around. This apartment had been compromised and was no longer of any use to him.

Korehammer went over to his closet and quickly emptied it, throwing the contents all over the room. Once he was finished, he knelt down and placed his right hand flat on the floor of the small closet. Where his hand made contact it started to glow a faint green and eventually a voice said “Scan accepted.” Korehammer removed his hand and slowly a section of the floor opened to reveal a space underneath and inside was a small metal case. He reached in, took out the case and then walked out of the bedroom and into the living area.

Korehammer placed the metal case on the table he used for eating and typed a 12-digit code into the screen that was fixed to the top. He heard a satisfying “click” and the case popped open. He looked down and lifted the lid the rest of the way, his face illuminated by a soft orange glow.

Inside were seven NIICs, each taking up one of eight slots on a computer board in the interior of the case. One slot was empty and each remaining circuit glowed with the same faint orange light that had become ubiquitous with the NIIC over the decades.

It turned out the Psidev Corporation had been right. It was in fact hopeless to try and hack a NIIC. Korehammer had spent a number of months and an ungodly amount of credits to find this out the hard way when he started his courier business. He knew that in order to move the things his clients wanted moved and to do it without getting caught, leaving a functioning NIIC in his wrist was not going to work. Korehammer needed to figure out some way to neutralize the damn thing.

Thanks to his connections and time in the TGS army, Korehammer knew some of the best hackers on the planet. People who could get into some of the most secure datastreams in the world without anyone being the wiser. Yet even they couldn’t crack whatever Psidev had done to make the NIIC software impossible to hack into.

Once he gave up on the idea of trying to hack the NIIC, Korehammer decided to think his way around the problem. After a few weeks, it dawned on him; if he couldn’t neutralize the NIIC, maybe he could use the tech to his advantage.

One concession Psidev had made to the initial design to keep the civil rights lawyers at bay was to program the NIIC to erase all an individual’s information when they died. Within minutes of a person’s death, all the data on a NIIC was deleted and irretrievably lost. Since the burial of dead bodies had been outlawed, the NIIC itself would then be destroyed when the corpse was vaporized, leaving no information behind.

Luckily Korehammer knew someone who worked in the city morgue who owed him a favor. Digging NIICs out of the wrists of corpses wasn’t exactly a fun way to spend an evening, but once done Korehammer had seven blank NIICs to show for his work. Thanks to Psidev never thinking anyone would want to do something with a inert NIIC, figuring out how to input new information onto the circuit was surprisingly easy.

In short order Korehammer had taken the seven NIICs and created seven new identities, each one serving a specific purpose. The hackers who had no luck getting into the NIIC itself had no problem breaking into the government’s secure NIIC database and uploading all the information Korehammer had provided.

Next he and Caldera had to find someone who could create the tech needed to make the rest of Korehammer’s plan work. Who they found was Darwin Rhyne, a mafia-paid booster doc who worked with the underground cyberfighting circuit on the side. He had a reputation for thinking outside the box and being one of the best cybertechs on the East Coast.

Eventually Rhyne came up with the idea to remove Korehammer’s entire left hand and supplant it with a cybernetic replacement, one that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. The idea was that way Korehammer could swap out the NIIC in his wrist for whatever the situation called for and could even become someone else when he needed to.

The only problem was that in order to get the NIIC out of Korehammer’s wrist and into the new cybernetic housing, Rhyne would have to cut off the hand while Korehammer was not only awake, but without any type of sedative or painkiller. According to Rhyne, the fear was that the NIIC would sense it was being removed and would alert the authorities, so it would have to stay in the living tissue of the wrist until the new cybernetic hand was attached to Korehammer and online.

That said, Rhyne had a reputation among booster docs for having a bit of a sadistic streak. It’s entirely possible he wanted to cut off Korehammer’s hand without the aid of any anesthesia just for the fun of it.

Regardless, the pain was something the likes of which Korehammer had never experienced before. Rhyne used a laser scalpel to remove the hand, which cauterized the stump immediately but did nothing to stop the searing white hot pain from almost causing Korehammer to black out. During the entire procedure, Rhyne had a small smile on his face that seemed to grow the more Korehammer screamed.

Once the operation was finished, Rhyne placed the hand in stasis, where it would remain until he was ready to move Korehammer’s original NIIC into it’s new home. Four excruciatingly painful hours later, it was finally done and Korehammer had a new cybernetic hand that looked almost exactly like the original.

All Korehammer had to do was press on the fleshy part of his hand where the thumb connected to his palm and a small panel would slide open on his wrist. Similar to popping out a VR chip, all he needed to do was apply pressure and the NIIC would release from its housing and could be replaced by another.

In effect, now Korehammer could become any one of eight different identities. Over the years, the cyberware had proven invaluable and worth every credit he had to pay Rhyne. It was what made him so good at his job as a courier. Why shoot your way out of a situation when you could simply wave your NIIC and walk out without a shot being fired?

Rhyne had also built and designed the case that stored the extra NIICs when they weren’t being used. He called it a Stasis Cradle and each NIIC had a specific slot where it would be kept. When the NIIC was placed in the slot, it would then send out a continuous false datastream that, if anyone happened to look, would show that Korehammer was still on the move and using his NIIC as normal.

The tech had paid for itself several times over and all it cost Korehammer was his left hand. Not a bad deal at all.

Now that Korehammer had the Cradle and knew that whoever had broken into his apartment didn’t know about the NIICs, it was time to go. He pressed the base of his thumb and the housing opened to reveal his NIIC, glowing orange just as it should. He gently pressed down on it and once it released, Korehammer pulled it out and slid it into the empty slot in the case. He then took a different one and placed it into the empty housing, pressing down until it locked into place. He once again pressed on his thumb and the panel slid shut, leaving no indication to the naked eye that Korehammer had a cybernetic hand.

There was always a moment of disorientation whenever her changed the NIIC and adopted a different identity. A whole new set of data flooded his brain and it took a second for his mind to adapt. Thankfully over the years he had gotten used to it and the mental confusion only lasted a few minutes.

Korehammer grabbed a satchel that was laying on the couch and put the Cradle inside. He then went to the bedroom again and changed his clothes, stuffing his still bloody jacket into the satchel and replacing it with a black duster. Last he went to the nightstand and emptied the top drawer of every bit of ammunition he had for the Sternmeyer.

Before he left the room he looked over at Ludmila once again and exhaled softly. Korehammer still couldn’t believe she was gone, and in such a unnecessarily violent way. She deserved better.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get the fucking bastards that did this to you.” he said.

Korehammer looked around the apartment for the last time. He had lived here a number of years, longer then he should have if he was being honest with himself. It sure wasn’t fancy, but it was home and he was going to miss it.

He looked up at the ceiling and said “Activate Purge Protocol Delta. Fifteen minute delay. Activation code Zero-Zero-Beta.”

A disembodied male voice replied “Code accepted.”

He exited his apartment and on his way to the stairs, reached out and pulled down the fire alarm. Instantly the hallways darkened as emergency lights came on and you could hear a robotic voice saying over speakers “Do not panic. There is an emergency situation. Please evacuate the building.” The voice said it over and over as people began to fill the hallways and head for the stairwells.

Given the high turnover of the place and the type of renters it attracted, most of the occupants were probably out, asleep or high on some kind of drug. Korehammer watched from across the street as the residents who were left streamed out into the early evening air, wondering what the hell was going on.

Satisfied Korehammer had done what he could, he walked away from his home, heading north on 16th Street. Once he was about two blocks away, he heard and felt the explosion as his apartment went up in a fireball of C-6 PlasmaFire plastique and thermite. The rest of the building was quickly consumed by the blaze and within minutes there would never be any indication that Trevor Korehammer had ever lived there.

As Korehammer walked down the street, he was certain of just one thing. He sure was going to miss that Mr. Coffee.

***

Korehammer used his NIIC to order a second autocar, which picked him up minutes later as emergency vehicles sped past toward his old apartment building. Just as he had done before when he left the Omnicrom, he waved his NIIC over the reader in the back and said “Home.” to the car, which then proceeded to drive north toward City Center.

Now that he had his stash of spare NIICs, he could go to one of his other safehouses in the city and not have to worry about anyone getting the drop on him. Once the NIICs had been reprogramed and then reactivated, they had the same security protocols of any other NIIC in the world. That is to say, they were completely unhackable and as secure as it got.

The autocar drove north on Broad until it got to Walnut Street and made a left, heading west. The car came to a stop in front of a 32-story luxury complex at 22nd and Walnut called The Embassy. Korehammer got out and walked into the lobby of the building, which included a mix of retail stores and apartments as well as one of the best restaurants in the state. It was the type of commercial enterprise that catered to the rich and well-connected of Philadelphia and not the kind of place where you would normally find someone like Korehammer.

At the desk was a young kid who couldn’t be any more that 20, skinny and wearing glasses. Korehammer didn’t remember ever seeing him before but since it had been several months since his last visit here, that wasn’t all that surprising.

As Korehammer walked up to the desk, the kid looked up from whatever it was that he was using to pass the time and said “Can I help you sir?”

“Yes. I’d like to pick up whatever messages might have been left for me.” Korehammer said with just a hint of a Russian accent.

“Sure thing. Your name?”

“Chernova. Malcolm Chernova.”

Datafile 001.3

Korehammer did as he was instructed, taking a quick vibro-shower and then putting on the clothes Shizuko had provided. The blood from the Grendel’s exploding head had ruined his shirt but the jacket was salvageable. Even if it wasn’t he’d still keep it. It wasn’t the first time this jacket had seen blood and it likely wouldn’t be the last.

He stood and looked in the full-length mirror in the bathroom. The black jeans and grey button-down shirt fit him perfectly. They accentuated his six foot frame nicely and matched his reddish-grey hair. If it wasn’t for the faded scar that ran down his face over his right eye, you would almost think Trevor Korehammer was a respectable member of society.

Almost.

Just then he heard the electronic chime that notified him that someone was at his door. He finished putting on his boots and walked over to open it when the door opened itself and in walked Gema Shizuko, trailed by Mr. Jacobson.

“I thought the door was keyed to my NIIC and I was the only one who could open it.”

Shizuko narrowed her eyes and smiled. “This is my casino. I can go wherever I damn well please.”

Korehammer laughed under his breath. Shizuko looked like she hadn’t aged a day since he last saw her. Which, given what doctors could do with plastics and genetic manipulation, wasn’t all that surprising. She wore a sleeveless green dress that had a slit running to her upper thigh, leaving little to the imagination and a pair of impossibly high stiletto heels.

It would seem the casino business had treated Shizuko very well indeed.

“So Trevor. What do you need from me? I’m a busy woman and don’t have a ton of time to waste reliving the past.”

Same old Shizuko. Right down to business. She never liked to have her time wasted, whether that was dealing with people at her job or in the bedroom.

Korehammer nodded his head towards Jacobson, who had been standing just behind Shizuko to her right and had never taken his eyes off him. Rolling her eyes, Shizuko sighed and said “Fine. Mr. Jacobson, please wait for me outside. This shouldn’t take very long.”

“Are you sure Madam?”

“Yes. Trevor and I are old friends. And even if he did try something, there’s no way he would ever make it out of the Omnicrom alive and he knows it.”

Jacobson gave Korehammer one final look and then turned on his heel and went out the door into the hallway.

“Still have a touch of the paranoia, huh Trev?”

“You don’t get to be my age by being careless.”

“Very true. Although I must say you do clean up very nice for an old man. I figured you were still the same size as when we were dating. Glad to see I was right.”

“Thanks for the clothes. And the place to stay.”

“What are old friends for? So what’s going on that you came to me of all people for help?”

Korehammer turned and looked out the window at The Plex, a teeming mixture of blinking neon, desperate lives and somewhere out there, mercs who were determined to kill him for a reason he couldn’t even fathom.

“I’m not really sure. An old business partner came to hire me for a job and all hell broke loose. I need to figure out what exactly is going on and I couldn’t go to my place to do it. I needed someplace secure where I could access the information I need.” He turned and looked at Shizuko. “Can I trust you?”

Shizuko hesitated, seriously thinking it over before she answered. Then she raised her hand and spoke into her NIIC. “Omnicrom MCP, activate Stealth Suite Zeta in Room 1905. Access code Shizuko One.”

After a moment, Korehammer heard the program reply in a female voice “Stealth Suite active, Mistress.”

Shizuko looked at Korehammer, a serious expression on her face. “This room is now off the grid and no data can come in or go out except from my own personal server. All the cameras have been deactivated and any existing data records have been erased. As far as the hotel computer is concerned, there is absolutely no one here. Your NIIC is being masked and you are, for the duration of your time in this room, essentially invisible to any and all electronic monitoring systems.”

Korehammer bowed slightly in Shizuko’s direction. “Very impressive.”

Shizuko returned the bow. “Thank you. You don’t operate the most profitable and secure casino in The Plex without a few tricks up your sleeve.”

“But I thought AI programs were banned after the War?”

“Like I said, it pays to have a few tricks up your sleeve. That and a programmer who like to mess with artificial intelligence and is into the Omnicrom for so many credits he’ll be working it off for the rest of his miserable life.”

Shizuko looked at Korehammer with that same expression she used to get when they were dating. A mixture of yearning and frustration that so many of the women in Korehammer’s life had also worn.

Except for one.

“Stay here as long as you like.” Shizuko was saying. “When you leave, just wave your NIIC over the lock and that will deactivate the Stealth Suite. But like I said, use the room as long as you need to.”

“Thanks Gema. I owe you one.”

Shizuko laughed to herself. “Sure. We’ll add it to the list.” With that, she turned and left, the door closing behind her.

Korehammer looked out the windows again and yawned. He decided getting some sleep while he could might be the best play right now. He laid down on the bed, his Sternmeyer activated and on the nightstand, and fell into a deep sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

***

Korehammer woke several hours later with the light of the midday sun shining almost directly into his eyes. He ordered the windows to tint and the sunlight was suddenly muted to a more tolerable level. He got up, went to the bathroom and then to the synthstation to get some coffee.

Early in the 21st century, scientists had finally figured out how to molecularly break an item down and electronically beam it to another place. While the megacoprs of the time had visions of transporters like in Star Trek that could reap them huge profits, the reality was far different. It was quickly discovered that anything more complex than an apple or a rock wound up degrading so bad during the transport that when it reached the destination, it was turned into a pile of steaming goo.

For years the technology was considered useless until one person figured out a way to take the matter and rearrange it into something else while it was in transit. While you couldn’t make weapons or complex machines, food was something the technology could produce relatively easily.

In four years time world hunger was a thing of the past. Anyone could get a synthstation of their own and as long as they had the raw material, they could make any kind of food they wanted.

Of course, the taste of synthfood was about as good as you would think. No matter what it was, everything was bland, slightly greasy and not very good for your health. In the following years, prices for actual authentic food soared, with it quickly being priced well beyond what most people could afford. Eating non-synth foods became something the wealthy and powerful did, with the rest of the population just supposed to be thankful they didn’t have to worry about starving to death anymore.

Korehammer grimaced as he drank the coffee from the synthstation. At his apartment he had what used to be called a Mr. Coffee. Thanks to an old contact he had coffee beans flown in from South America once a month and ground them himself. The finished product might not be perfect, but it was worlds better than the swill he was forced to drink when he had to use a synthstation.

He placed the coffee cup on the table by the window and went to where his jacket lay on the bed. Korehammer pulled out the neurobinary VR chip Caldera had given him and looked at it in the light.

VR chips were sold practically everywhere and could take the viewer almost anywhere he or she could imagine. They worked with almost any standard VR rig and gave the user infinite options on how they would like to spend their time. Want to be Captain America in the classic first Avengers movie? Done. Or maybe you would want to know what it was like to be Veronica Tronstad when she won the Cybernetic Fighting Championship in 2065? No problem.

Of course, the majority of the populace used VR tech for one thing: porn. You could have sex with just about anyone you could think of and to your brain, it would be just like the real thing. And for those that couldn’t afford a VR rig of their own, VR porn shops were on every other corner of The Plex.

This chip, however, was something a bit more special. Korehammer had noticed right away when Caldera had given it to him that it was a neurobinary VR chip. These were very expensive to make and unlike the more common variety, not something you could find just anywhere.

Unlike a standard VR chip, the neurobinary version was keyed to a particular individual’s brainwave patterns. Odds were that Korehammer was the only person on the planet who could access the simulation on this chip. Caldera must have used her records from when they worked together to make and program it.

Once again Korehammer was getting a touch nervous. What the fuck had he gotten himself into here? For Caldera to go to such lengths to keep this information secure was a sure sign that this wasn’t just a simple courier job. Something more was going on here. The fact that hired goons had tried to kill him twice in 24 hours could attest to that.

Korehammer walked over to the VR rig and turned it on. Virtual Reality had come a long way and to look at the rig you would think it was just a pair of sunglasses and leather gloves connected by some cables.

He placed the glasses on his face and they automatically adjusted to fit his head and features so that Korehammer could see nothing outside the lenses. He then put the gloves on and as soon as he did he felt the left one uplink to the NIIC in his wrist. Korehammer then took the neurobinary chip and slid it into the slot on the left side of the glasses.

As soon as he felt the chip click into place, he spoke out loud “Activate VR interface.”

Instantaneously, Korehammer found himself standing in a field. There was a line of trees on the horizon and a soft wind was blowing from the east. He could feel the loose dirt giving way under his weight as he moved around, which made it even more difficult to get his bearings after the sudden change of environments.

There was a smell he couldn’t quite recognize and after a moment it came to him: pine trees. The last time he smelled that was at Christmas when he was a small child. Korehammer knelt down and brushed his hand along the grass, feeling the blades on the palm of his hand. In the distance, he could see a lake, with the sun’s rays shimmering off the water.

What was most jarring was the lack of noise. Living in The Plex you could never really escape the sounds of the city and the vast number of people who lived there. Here there was nothing except the wind and the water washing up on the shore.

Okay. This is not what I was expecting. He thought to himself as he stood up and looked to the sky.

“Not what you were expecting, huh?” a voice said from behind him.

Korehammer turned, reflexively going for his Sternmeyer which, in this VR simulation, was nowhere to be found. In front of him stood Corrine Caldera, looking almost exactly as she did the other night with the only difference being that her cybernetic left eye was gone, replaced by a second blue orb that was matched to her right eye perfectly.

“Caldera?” he asked, not really sure what was going on.

Caldera continued speaking as if she hadn’t heard him. “If you’re seeing this, then you have my thanks. I honestly wasn’t sure you would take this job but knowing you did makes everything I’ve been through the last few months worth it.”

“I haven’t said I’m taking the job yet.” Korehammer said to no one in particular.

The VR version of Caldera continued. “You’re probably wondering where I’ve been the past four years and why I disappeared in the first place. That’s a long story that I don’t want to go into right now. Suffice it to say that something happened that necessitated my going off the grid for a time and I couldn’t tell you about it. And for that I’m sorry

“Getting down to the job at hand. I need you to go to Atlantic City and locate Quinton Zechiel. Nine times out of ten you can find him betting on the cyber fights at the sports book in the Shina-Yasuyan Hotel and Casino Complex. He will take you to where the package is and give you further instruction on where it needs to go. In addition to the package you will find the access code for an account in Japan worth one million credits. The money is yours once the parcel gets to the destination.

“As for what is in the package, I’m asking that you trust me on this one. The less you know about what’s going on the safer you’ll be when this is all over. And you can trust Zechiel. I do.

“I know this is a lot to ask. I fully realize you’re probably happily retired and thought you were out of this racket for good. But there is so much at stake here you have no clue. I know at some point I’ll have to explain all this to you but like I said, for right now the less you know the better.

“Once this is all over I promise we’ll get together for a drink. Talk about old times. I didn’t want to leave our partnership the way I had to. I hope you know that Korehammer.”

Caldera stood quietly for a moment or two with her hands clasped in front of her and then said “Not what you were expecting, huh?”

She had set up the VR image to play on a continuous loop. Caldera would repeat the entire message again and again until Korehammer decided to leave the VR world for the real one.

As Caldera once again made her case, Korehammer looked around and tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do. On the one hand, there was no way he wanted to have to deal with this shit again. Unstoppable mercs? Getting shot at in a magrail car? A mysterious package that he knew nothing about? No thanks. Let someone a lot younger take the risks and reap the rewards.

However, one million credits was an awful lot of money. Not that he needed it, but it sure was a nice perk. Plus if he was being honest with himself, there was no way he wasn’t going to do this. Korehammer didn’t consider himself the type who got emotionally involved with the people he worked with, but Caldera was different for some reason. Not in the way someone like Shizuko was, but more like a little sister.

A little sister that could kick his ass, but a little sister nonetheless.

Korehammer turned around and looked at the simulation of Caldera again. She was just going into her fourth recitation of her speech and he wondered where she was. If she had gotten away from those two mercs at the New Galaxy and if she was all right.

He took one last look and said “Deactivate VR interface.”

Just like that Korehammer was back in his hotel room at the Omnicrom. The noises of the world suddenly crashed in on him as he took the VR glasses and gloves off and put them back on the table. The change in scenery disorientated him for a moment but he quickly regained his focus and looked out the windows. The sun was just beginning to set and once again it was beginning to rain, the water trying desperately to wash away the filth of the city.

He removed the neurobinary VR chip from the headset and put it back in his jacket. Korehammer thought to himself that he should probably destroy it but he didn’t want to do that just yet. You never know when you might need something that you weren’t expecting to.

Korehammer figured since he was in a secure location thanks to Shizuko, he might as well take the opportunity to do a bit of research and see is he could get some more data on what he was in for.

He walked over to the neural interface display and waved his NIIC over the small black disc. Instantly a holoscreen appeared in the air and a voice very similar to the Omnicrom MCP asked “How can I help you?”

“Search. Quinton Zechiel.”

“Searching…”

A moment later the screen was filled with information about one Mr. Quinton Zechiel. Just like that Korehammer knew his birthdate, current residence and known associates as well as the fact he was apparently a partner at OMA Multinational where he practiced international corporate law. Good thing too because from what Korehammer could tell, Zechiel had a penchant for gambling and didn’t win his bets all that much. He was into Shina-Yasuyan for big credits and if his luck didn’t change soon, it could get pretty dangerous for him.

The dossier also included a picture, which Korehammer was thankful for. Zechiel looked to be in his mid-thirties, slightly overweight with chocolate-colored skin and a full beard. He shouldn’t be too hard to find. Korehammer downloaded all the information to his NIIC and then turned off the neural interface.

Since it looked like Korehammer was going to go to Atlantic City, he needed to get to his apartment. There was specialized equipment there he would need as well as supplies and firearms. If he was going to do this job, he was going to do it right. No reason to start getting sloppy now.

The problem was that he was sure more of those invulnerable mercs would be casing his apartment, waiting for him to return. Korehammer was going to have to figure out some way to get in and then get back out without being seen.

Unfortunately no matter how difficult, it was going to be necessary in order to get this job done. After all, they didn’t let just anyone into Atlantic City. If he was going to get past the gates, Trevor Korehammer would have to disappear for a little while.

Datafile 001.2

After the dust from the War settled and Comcast Systems came in and purchased the entire city of Philadelphia lock, stock and barrel, they made the decision to break the city up into three zones. Seeing as how the majority of the population was either homeless, starving or on the brink of both, no one really objected all that much.

City Center would become where the rich and powerful lived their carefree lives. The parks stayed green all year round, the avenues remained clean and you could walk down Market Street at two in the morning and be perfectly fine. Across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia is where Comcast Systems made the decision to set up shop. They built their corporate headquarters of five 72 story skyscrapers on the rubble of the old city and towered over the rest of Philadelphia. The area also housed their corporate army and the majority of their employees, making West Philadelphia one of the most secure and safest city-states in the country.

And if you couldn’t afford to live in City Center of didn’t work for Comcast Systems? Then you lived in The Plex.

The Plex is the nickname given to the entire area south of City Center. A mixture of homes, bars, VR porn shops and casinos, The Plex is where you headed if you wanted to disappear in Philadelphia. It was where you went to score the latest designer drug or meet with a prostitute with that special cyber enhancement that could do things your spouse couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do. In The Plex the neon always reflected off the rain slicked streets and you always had to watch your back.

For Trevor Korehammer, The Plex was home.

After leaving the New Galaxy, Korehammer walked for a bit to try and clear his head and process what had just happened. For all he knew Caldera was dead or in the custody of the PCPD which meant she was going to be of no help answering the myriad of questions he had running through his head.

Who were those two mercs and what kind of enhancements did they have that they could shrug off rounds from a Sternmeyer? What had Caldera gotten herself mixed up in since the last time he saw her four years ago and why were they after her? And what made her come to him of all people with some mysterious request to go to Atlantic City to get a package and take it to Lord knows where?

Korehammer looked down at the neurobinary VR chip he still had clutched in his hand. It seemed like if he wanted answers, this was going to be the only thing that was going to give them to him.

He headed to Broad Street from where the New Galaxy Diner was and quickly went down the stairs to the Lombard-South magrail station. Amazingly, one of the first things Comcast Systems did when they purchased Philly was to replace the aging and dilapidated subway system with new maglev tech. The magrails ran all night, were remotely operated from the West Philadelphia complex and were the fastest way to get to The Plex from City Center.

Korehammer waved his wrist over the NIIC reader and a second later it allowed him through the turnstile and onto the waiting train that would take him south to the Oregon Avenue station. From there it was a short walk to his home on 16th Street.

As he sat down Korehammer looked around, taking in his surroundings. This late there were only a few stragglers on the train in addition to a group of kids obviously heading to The Plex in search of a good time. No immediate threats that he could see. Still, after what happened at the diner, one could never be too careful and Korehammer activated his Sternmeyer once again, just to be safe.

Korehammer rubbed his wrist where there was an ever so faint orange glow that seemed to be coming from under the skin. Every time he had to use the damn NIIC it annoyed him, even though unlike the majority of the population, his served a very different purpose.

In the chaos after the War, what was left of the government needed some system to not only keep track of the people who were left but a way to make sure something like the War could never happen again. It was then that the determination was made that the human race would have to be tagged, similar to the way people used to microchip their pets. Despite howls of protest from civil rights groups around the world and most of the population, the corporations pushed the measure through and thus the NIIC was born.

It took a year to develop and another year to implement, but every person in the country was eventually implanted with a Neuro Identification and Interface Circuit, or NIIC for short. Failure to have a NIIC installed resulted in incredibly steep fines or being sent to prison until you complied, so sooner or later even the most ardent holdouts caved and had NIICs implanted in their wrists.

As well as serving as an identification device, an individual’s NIIC also could be used to pay for things, stored a person’s medical history, who they associated with, everywhere they went and what they enjoyed in popular culture. It also made trolling on social media impossible as it kept track of everywhere you went on the web as well as every site you interacted with and sent that information to the government. Anonymity online was a thing of the past and as a result, Twitter went bankrupt just a few years after the first NIICs became active and Facebook a few years after that.

It turned out social media where everyone knew who you were didn’t appeal to that many people.

Of course, one of the main concerns the populace had about the NIIC was what prevented someone from hacking the interface and getting access to all your information. Psidev Corporation, the Japanese megacorp who won the contract to design and manufacture the NIIC said it was impossible to hack the device, plain and simple. And after decades of use and no reports of anyone having their NIIC altered or accessed improperly, it seemed to everyone that the people at Psidev were right.

Or so they thought.

Korehammer once again looked at the neurobinary chip that Caldera had given him. If it could explain even half of the reasons for the events of the last hour, he would be shocked. Even if after everything that happened he agreed to take this gig, Korehammer had no clue how he was going to pull it off. Atlantic City? Seriously? How was he supposed to get in there much less find whatever it was he was supposed to be looking for?

Just then he heard a muffled cry from the magrail car ahead. Looking over, he couldn’t see what was going on but at this time of night, it couldn’t be anything good.

As he put the neurobinary chip back in his jacket pocket, the reason for all the commotion came through the door of the magrail car Korehammer was sitting in.

Grendels.

One of the many rippergangs that made Philadelphia home, the Grendels were classified as a cult gang who based their entire ideology on the old Grendel comic book that was published in the latter half of the twentieth century. Most had the Grendel symbol tattooed on their faces of wore a mask with it emblazoned on it. They were, Korehammer seemed to remember, mostly harmless. Lots of flash and style but little stomach for real gang warfare, unlike the other rippergangs in the city.

However, it seemed as if they might be trying to change that image. The Grendel who was obviously this group’s leader was using his jacket to wipe fresh blood off the twin blades that jutted from the end of the staff he carried. He was followed by six more Grendels, all armed with variations of the forked staff weapon that the character used in the old comics.

As they entered the magrail car, most of the other passengers either looked down at the floor or headed for the adjoining car. While the Grendels had a reputation for being mostly innocuous, there was no reason to tempt fate. Especially with fresh blood smeared all over the leader’s jacket.

Of course, Korehammer looked at the entire situation as more of an annoyance than anything else. After years of fighting secret wars against some of the most experienced and well-funded corporate armies in the world, a bunch of kids with a Napoleon complex didn’t really faze him.

Unfortunately for the Grendels, they decided that a seemingly old man alone on a magrail this time of the evening was too good a target to pass up. Which was fine with Korehammer. After all, he may look like any regular old timer going for a ride on the magrail, but the truth was far different.

“Heh. Check out the infirm.” the group’s leader said, starring down at Korehammer while the rest of his crew formed a semi-circle around where he sat.

“Yeah. You really shouldn’t be out this late old one. Fuck knows what might happen.” another said.

“Heh. Maybe we should teach you a lesson. Ya know, make sure you don’t do something like this again.” a third chimed in.

The entire time the Grendels were speaking, Korehammer kept kept looking out the magrail window, arms folded with his legs crossed. He figured he would let them have their fun before he put a serious damper on their night.

The leader, a kid who couldn’t be more than 18 with his head shaved bald, black jacket, no shirt and ripped jeans, took his forked staff and pointed it at Korehammer’s throat.

“What d’ya say infirm? You need to be taught a lesson?”

Korehammer looked up and was about to say something when the Grendel’s head exploded in a shower of blood and flesh.

Covered in the Grendel’s blood, Korehammer looked in the direction where the shot had come from. There at the end of the car, impossibly, were two more mercs, practically identical to the pair that had shot up the New Galaxy Diner less than an hour earlier, except this time both were Caucasian.

The rest of the Grendels scattered in a explosion of screams and curses as the one who had killed their leader was lowering his Colt AMT 2000. He seemed to be trying to figure if he had hit his intended target. Which, considering the events of the evening so far, had to be Korehammer.

How the hell did they find me on a fucking magrail? Korehammer thought to himself as he quickly pulled his Sternmeyer from the holster on his leg and fired four quick rounds at the two goons. Much like what happened at the diner, the bullets did little but annoy the pair as they pushed through the scrambling passengers and Grendels to get to Korehammer.

Knowing he didn’t have much time, Korehammer looked around for something he could use to help his escape. He spotted the emergency stop lever and yanked it down as fast as he could.

The magrail train came to a sudden, violent stop which threw everyone off their feet and onto the floor. Korehammer fired one shot into the window, which shattered in a hail of glass and plastic and he quickly dove through it, landing on the service walkway that ran parallel to the train tunnel.

Korehammer ran South, figuring he couldn’t be that far from Snyder Station and once there, he took the stairs up toward the street two at a time. When he finally emerged into the night air on Broad, he turned and headed north towards Passyunk Ave. This time of night it should be packed with people either looking to score or trying their luck at any of the multiple casinos that ran the length of the street.

Korehammer glanced behind him to see if the mercs had followed him but so far there was no sign of them. Hopefully they got tangled up in chaos of the stopped magrail train and it would be a few minutes before they regained their bearings.

Of course, the bigger concern was just how they had found Korehammer so quickly. It seemed highly unlikely they had managed to trial him with his NIIC and every other option seemed just as outlandish.

First things first though. He quickly realized he needed to get off the street and fast. Korehammer looked down and saw that he was still covered with blood and bits of bone from the Grendel’s head. It would only be a matter of time before someone either called the PCPD or, worse yet, another rippergang found him.

Korehammer thought for a moment and looked to see where he was. He grinned as he realized he wasn’t that far from Shizuko’s. It had been a while and she sure wasn’t going to be thrilled to see him, but at this point Korehammer had few options.

Korehammer did his best to stick to the shadows and headed northeast toward the Omnicrom Casino.

***

Within the confines of The Plex, the entire area south from Passyunk Avenue until you got to Packer Avenue was locally known as the Pleasure Sector. The roughly triangular area housed the majority of the pleasure clubs, casinos, VR porn shops and the like that did their business in Philadelphia. It was open and crowded practically 24 hours a day as men and women from all over the city went there to indulge in their every fantasy or vice.

The Omnicrom Casino was one of the oldest in the Sector and had opened shortly after Comcast Systems reorganized the city. Taking up three entire city blocks, the building’s gleaming glass walls rose to the sky and offered everything from dice games and old fashioned slot machines to neural interface VR MMA fighting and, for the high rollers, rumored death matches between patrons of the casino who had gotten themselves in a bit too deep with the house.

And Gema Shizuko ran the whole thing.

Korehammer had first met Shizuko when he left the TGS corporate army but before he and Caldera had formed their business partnership. The two had dated back when she was simply a pit boss at Omnicrom and he was still trying to decide what he wanted to do next. The relationship had been fun but nothing serious, at least the was what Korehammer thought at the time.

When he and Caldera became partners in their courier endeavor, Korehammer thought it best if he not have any attachments that could prove to be a liability in the future and he broke it off. Maybe doing it via a holomessage and then making sure Shizuko couldn’t get in touch with him wasn’t the classiest move, but at the time it seemed prudent. That, and he figured the odds of ever seeing her again were pretty slim.

Turns out they weren’t slim enough.

Korehammer looked at the Omnicrom from the alley across the street and sent a mental command to his NIIC to call her. After a few moments a holoscreen appeared in the air and Shizuko was looking at him with a mixture of disbelief and utter contempt.

Even after all these years Shizuko still looked amazing. She kept her straight, strawberry red hair in a bob cut that framed her Asian features perfectly. It looked like she hadn’t lost or gained a pound since the last time Korehammer had seen her. Odds were she still had that slender swimmers body that gave no clue that the woman was proficient in seven different martial arts disciplines and had a neural implant that doubled her reaction time and speed.

In other words, she could kick your ass before you even knew what was happening.

“You can’t be serious with this shit.” she practically snarled when she saw Korehammer’s face.

“Hi Gema.” Korehammer said a bit sheepishly, deciding to play up a sympathy angle.

“The only reason I even answered the call was because I knew if you were calling me you had to be desperate. What do you want?”

So much for the sympathy angle. “I need a place to crash for a few hours. I’m in something and I need to get off the grid for a bit until I figure out what’s going on.”

Shizuko narrowed her eyes and looked at him, as if contemplating what to do. After what seemed like an eternity she sighed heavily and shook her head.

“I always promised myself that if I ever saw you again I would try to be the bigger person. Looks like I get to see if I can keep my word. Head to the loading docks. I’ll have one of my people meet you there.”

“Is this place secure? I might have trouble following me.”

“You’re kidding, right? This is the Omnicrom. What happens here stays here. And if it leaves, we hunt it down and kill the fucker. See you soon.”

Korehammer laughed out loud. The woman had two sides to her, no question about that.

He slowly headed toward the back of the massive complex where he assumed the loading docks would be. As Korehammer rounded the corner he saw six bays, one of which was open and had artificial light streaming out of it. There silhouetted on the dock was the form of a man, standing with his hands clasped behind his back.

Korehammer approached slowly, his hand hovering near his Sternmeyer in case Shizuko decided that being a better person was an overrated concept. The man by the open loading dock looked down at him and said “Mr. Korehammer I presume?”

He had to be around 30, with dark brown hair cropped short and glasses with round frames. He wore a suit of all black and, if Korehammer didn’t know better, he could swear he sensed just a touch of a British accent.

“My name is Mr. Jacobson. I’m Miss Shizuko’s assistant. She asked that you follow me.” Not being in any position to argue, Korehammer climbed up the loading dock and followed Jacobson into the Omnicrom.

The two began a confusing, circuitous route that took them through the kitchen and back hallways of the casino until they reached a maglev service elevator. Jacobson gestured for Korehammer to go in first then he followed, waving his NIIC at the panel and saying “Nineteenth floor.” The elevator shot upward and quickly came to a stop, with Jacobson simply looking straight ahead the entire time, not bothering to try and make small talk.

When the elevator door opened again, it was to another service corridor. Taking a left out of the elevator, the two walked a few feet until they reached a set of doors that opened onto a hallway. Making another left, Korehammer followed Jacobson until he stopped in front of door with the number 1905 engraved into the surface.

Jacobson indicated the NIIC reader that was mounted to the wall just to the right of the door. Korehammer waved his wrist over the reader and after a moment, it let out a low “beep” and the door unlocked.

Pushing the door open, Korehammer went inside followed by Jacobson. The room was a standard suite that included a bathroom to the immediate right of the entrance, a living area and a king size bed. One entire wall was made up of floor to ceiling windows that gave the guest a complete view of not only The Plex, but the rest of the city as well. It also included a VR entertainment rig as well as a neural interface display for going online. On the bed was a set of clothes that looked to be Korehammer’s style and size.

Jacobson cleared his throat, getting Korehammer’s attention.

“Miss Shizuko asked that you bathe and change your clothes. At that time she will come to speak with you about whatever else you may need.”

“Fine.”

With that, Jacobson turned and left, closing the door behind him. Leaving Korehammer trying to figure out exactly how much he could trust his old girlfriend.