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.”