Caldera looked at Genovese with a blank stare for a moment before the weight of his statement hit her like a fist to the face.
“Yep. I’m not sure who these guys are clones of exactly because the strands have some very odd properties to them, almost like it’s a mix of the DNA of several subjects, but I have zero doubt that these two men are clones.”
Caldera was still confused. “Wait. Wait. If they’re clones how come they don’t look exactly the same?”
Genovese went over to the holoscreens showing the two DNA strands and pointed at one particular section. “Whoever did the cloning is a real artist. He managed to make small, almost imperceptible changes in the strands that make them similar, but not identical. It’s why if you look at their features they could be brothers or even cousins. But that’s not the best part.”
“I’m not sure I would call any of this ‘the best part’”
Genovese looked at her apologetically. “Sorry. Genetics and cloning have always been a hobby of mine. This is fascinating stuff on a level that you don’t see every day.”
“Uh-huh.” Caldera was far from convinced.
“Anyway, as I was saying. Not only did the person responsible make subtle changes to give the clones individual looks, he also made changes to their brains to enhance certain features. I’m guessing when this one here got shot in the head he didn’t even flinch?”
Genovese was gesturing toward the merc Korehammer had tagged with his Sternmeyer at the diner. A shot that should have taken the clone’s head off instead barely left a mark and did nothing but annoy him.
Caldera looked at Genovese out of the corner of her eye and considered her options. She needed this information desperately but at the same time didn’t want to put him in any danger. The more Genovese knew the more likely he could become a target and once she left it was impossible to protect him.
In the end Caldera decided her need for this data outweighed any concern she had for Genovese’s safety. That may have been cold as ice, but the world she lived in now necessitated tough decisions every day.
After a pause Caldera said “Yes. Both of them seemed impervious to any harm. Like they were wearing invisible armor.”
Genovese grinned, getting excited again. “That’s because the pain centers in both their brains have been heavily altered. Neither of them would feel it if you shot them point blank in the head with a Nomad .44 revolver. Combine that with skin that has been augmented to be practically unbreakable along with enhanced speed and strength and you have the perfect merc.”
Caldera was starting to feel sick, a cold pit filling up her stomach.
“But I thought cloning like this wasn’t possible? The corporations tried creating clone armies during the War and it was a huge fiasco.”
“I guess someone went back to the drawing board and solved the issues with the cloning process to make them more stable. I mean, there are elements in the DNA that I just can’t identify, so whoever did this must have had access to some cutting edge tech, stuff we haven’t seen yet.”
Genovese used his hand to move the DNA strand around on the holoscreen until he came to a point where the molecules glowed a deep red, completely unlike the ones before and after them in the chain. “See there? I’ve never seen DNA like that before anywhere. If I had to bet money I’d say that’s where the enhanced physical attributes are coming from.”
Genovese paused when he saw that Caldera had gone ghostly white. “Hey. You okay? You don’t look so good.”
Caldera regained her composure and smiled at him. “Sorry. Just a lot to take in. Guess I just ran across the wrong mercs on the wrong day.” She paused. “Does anyone else know about what you discovered?”
“Of course. I put it all in the report I filled yesterday. They aren’t exactly sure what it all means, but the file is on the server and should go public by tomorrow.”
Caldera closed her eyes tight, realizing that there was nothing she could do for him. Caldera would bet anything that by this time tomorrow the report will have disappeared, along with the bodies of the two mercs and anyone who came in contact with that file.
Which, unfortunately, included Genovese.
Caldera opened her eyes and looked at him, racking her brain trying to figure out if there was anything she could do to help.
“Hunter.” she began. “Do you have any relatives in another part of the country?”
He looked at her with a quizzical look before he answered “Um, yeah. I have an aunt and uncle who live down south in Carolina.”
“Okay. Can you do me a favor and not ask why? Just trust that I know what I’m talking about?”
Genovese’s look went from questioning to scared so fast it took Caldera aback. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it up, inhaling the smoke deeply.
Without waiting for an answer, Caldera continued. “Go home, right now. Pack a bag and leave town. Head down to Carolina and stay with your aunt and uncle for a while. And if you can, figure out some way to mask your NIIC. There is black market tech that can do that. Go there and wait until I contact you. Okay? Can you do that?”
Genovese continued to look at Caldera and she could tell he was deciding if he should trust her, trying to settle on what he should do.
Finally he gestured over toward the two bodies and said “This is some serious shit, huh?”
“Very serious shit.”
“Like on a scale of one to ten of serious shit, what would you rate it?”
“That is indeed some serious shit.”
Genovese walked over to the desk and opened the top drawer, removing an Hyper Style-8 handgun as well as a small black box that had a cable running to an attached datapad. Genovese typed a few commands on the datapad and then put it, the box and the handgun in the backpack he had hanging over the back of the desk chair.
Caldera looked on in wonder. “What was all that about?”
“NIIC dampening tech. Invested in it a few years after you disappeared. Figured with the kind of stuff you and Korehammer were into, someone might come around asking questions someday. Thought it might be a good idea to be able to go off the grid.”
Genovese then went to the holoscreens and input more commands. Within seconds the screens deactivated and he pulled a datachip from the reader that sat on top of the desk.
Genovese slung the backpack over his shoulder and handed Caldera the datachip. “That has copies of everything I had about the two clones. The report I filed, all the medical info, the DNA strands, the works. I also sent copies to your NIIC just to be safe. All the data is in the process of being wiped from the servers here thanks to a worm I installed just after I got hired. Should take a few hours, but everything will be gone by morning.”
Caldera quickly realized it may be time to reappraise her opinion of her friend.
“Hunter Genovese. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Hey. What does Korehammer always say?”
“A little paranoia goes a long way.”
“Exactly. Now let’s get the hell out of here. I have a bus ticket to buy.”
Caldera went with Genovese to his apartment so he could pack a few things and then to the bus station. She thought it was the least she could do seeing as she was asking this guy to upend his entire life on nothing but her word. Caldera gave him a long hug and a kiss on the cheek before he got on the bus, which noticeably brightened his mood.
As the bus pulled away, Caldera gave Genovese a twenty percent chance of still being alive by this time tomorrow. The people who will be on his trail are merciless and have vast resources at their disposal, but she was impressed with how he handled himself. Maybe he had a chance.
Caldera put Genovese out of her mind. There was nothing more she could do for him. She had to focus on the task at hand and right now that was finding this Xu Ti and getting some intel on this bullet Charlie pried out of her shoulder.
Before she did that though, Caldera decided to head back to her hotel. There was no way she wanted to confront Ti with this sling hampering her mobility and ability to defend herself if it came to that. Caldera figured she’d take a nap, grab a shower and a change of clothes. Then she would be refreshed and ready to have a nice little conversation about munitions.
When Caldera woke it was already dark, with a full moon shinning down from a cloudless sky. She changed into a vintage Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, made sure her Streetmasters were loaded and headed out the door.
Thanks to her NIIC Caldera had learned that Xu Ti’s VR shop was at 22nd and Watkins and was called The Pleasure Mansion. One of countless virtual reality porn shops in The Plex, they gave people who couldn’t afford a VR rig of their own a place to live out every depraved fantasy they could conjure up. From the reviews, it seemed Ti’s had a very loyal base of customers because they raved about how the shop was clean, discreet and for a price could give the client whatever they wanted.
Caldera called an autocar and gave the address. She was hoping that since it was still relatively early in the evening that it wouldn’t be that crowded. Best case scenario was that Caldera could get the information she needed and be in and out.
The autocar pulled up to the front entrance a few minutes later. As Caldera stepped out she saw that this Xu Ti must have gone to the same marketing firm as Charlie, because the front of the shop was a blinding display of neon and blinking lights, letting you know with little doubt that you had arrived at The Pleasure Mansion.
The shop was located in a two-story building that looked like it may have been original from before the War. The second story facade was taken up almost entirely by the letters that made up The Pleasure Mansion’s name, going from red to pink to purple in rapid succession. The front windows advertised the latest VR experiences you could enjoy as well as the hourly rates for a private or couples booth.
Inside the place was incredibly dim, sterile and a touch claustrophobic. There was a small area selling VR chips and a counter but little else, with most of the business apparently taking place behind a large polysteel door that Caldera guessed could only be accessed by someone buzzing you in.
Sitting behind the counter was a small Chinese man in his thirties wearing a old school Phillies baseball cap, a blue t-shirt and jeans. He had on a pair of glasses and much like Charlie’s, they had a thin cable going from the frames into a small port at his temple.
As Caldera entered he looked up from the datapad he was reading and put a big smile on his face. “Welcome to The Pleasure Mansion. What fantasy did you want to enjoy today?”
Caldera didn’t have the time or desire to play games with Ti, so she pulled the bullet from out of her jacket and placed in on the counter in front of him.
“I was wondering what you could tell me about this.”
Ti looked down at the bullet and without missing a beat said “Lady, this is a VR shop, not a gun store. Take your bullet and head down the street. I don’t got time for this crap.”
Before Ti had finished speaking Caldera had grabbed his head and slammed it down on the counter, so hard it knocked over a display of flavored condoms. At the same time she took out one of her Streetmasters and leveled it at his right cheek.
Caldera would have to remember to compliment the work Charlie did. Her right arm was indeed noticeably faster and stronger than it was before.
“Let’s not fuck around today Xu. I’m a very busy woman and I know you run black market and experimental weapons out of here. All I’m looking for is some information. You give it to me, I’ll gladly reimburse you for your time and leave you alive. What do you say?”
When Ti hesitated to answer she violently jammed the barrel of her Streetmaster into his cheek and heard the distinct sound of a tooth cracking.
Ti had had enough. “Fine! Fine! Just let me up and I’ll help you.”
Caldera let him up and he rubbed his cheek, spitting blood onto the floor. He pressed a button behind the counter and the large door emitted a loud buzzing sound and unlocked. Ti pushed it open and indicated that Caldera should follow him.
She followed Ti down a long corridor that had numbered red doors every few feet on either side. As they walked Caldera heard the unmistakeable sounds of both men and women enjoying themselves from a number of the suites, similar to the sounds that came from her neighbor’s room at the hotel.
When they reached the end of the hall they stood facing a door that had the words “Utility Closet” printed on it. Ti used his NIIC to unlock the door and inside were some brooms, a couple mops and box filled with spare VR rig parts.
Ti went into the closet and stood facing the back wall, signaling that Caldera should follow him in and close the door behind her. As she pulled the door closed, Ti took out the small datapad he had been reading when Caldera came in and punched a code into it. Suddenly the rear wall of the closet rose into the ceiling, revealing another room beyond.
The room was cramped, but big enough for a handful of people to stand around comfortably. It felt more confining than it was because the walls were lined with rows and rows all types of munitions. Caldera saw handguns like Colt Enforcement Sidearms and Gonca-Taurus pistols to more serious weapons like Dover GA-1112 autoguns and heavy M-99 EVAWs. There were also all kinds of grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and an assortment of exotic arms specifically designed for use with enhanced cyberware. There were even a handful of guns that Caldera couldn’t even identify.
Ti was looking at Caldera as she took in the impressive collection. “I do all my arms business in here, not in the shop. Safer that way. There was no reason to break my damn tooth. Charlie told me you may be coming around.”
“Ah. Sorry about that. Been a long couple days.”
“Whatever. Let me see that bullet.”
Caldera handed over the bullet and Ti took it and help it up to the light, giving it a cursory examination. Once he finished he handed it back to her and said “Yep. That’s Osiris Systems for sure. I didn’t think they had put these in the field yet.”
“What is it?”
“New type of bullet. Made of a super dense plastic alloy. Harder than polysteel but a heck of a lot lighter. Charlie said he dug this out of your shoulder?”
“Well, you’re lucky. Either the guy firing this didn’t have it in the right type of gun or this particular bullet is defective. Because this should have tore your arm clean off and then just kept on going like it went through paper.”
Caldera counted her blessings and filed that away as a very lucky break. “And you said these aren’t available to the public yet?”
Ti shrugged his shoulders. “As far as I knew, they never were going to be. The word on the street was that Osiris was contracted to design these for one specific client.”
Caldera was pretty sure she already knew the answer, but had to ask. “And that would be?”
“I don’t know all the details, but the name I heard being thrown around was Crimson Light, whatever the hell that is.”
Caldera’s head was spinning. First augmented clones and now Crimson Light using specially designed ammunition. Things were moving fast, faster than they were prepared for.
As Caldera was trying to get her thoughts together, she heard something rolling on the floor. She looked down and saw a small black metal ball stop between her and Ti and start to make a faint hissing sound.
She whipped her head around to see two men in black standing at the end of the hallway. Both were armed and had their faces covered by gas masks.
God damn it. Was the last thought she had before Caldera fell to the floor unconscious.