She floated in the warm water, feeling it splash against her body as she bobbed up and down. She didn’t quite know where she was or how she got there, but she did know that she finally felt safe. After what felt like forever, the stench and decay of the Pale Man was nowhere to be seen.
She opened her eyes and looked up at the star-filled night. The full moon cast everything around her in a bright glow that was difficult to describe. It was like the pain and terror of the last months (years?) had just vanished. She was at peace, the water helping to take away the stress that had felt overwhelming at times.
She heard something from her right and turned her head to take a look. She thought it was probably just a fish or maybe a frog as the water started to bubble, becoming more intense by the second.
It was then she heard a low continuous moan of pain. It slowly became louder as the water started to thrash like something was drowning and couldn’t save themselves. She began to swim towards the disturbance, thinking that maybe she could help.
Just as she started to feel the foam from the water hit her face he exploded from the depths, a guttural scream escaping his lips like sheet metal being torn in half. She covered her ears and felt the terror begin to overwhelm her as she saw the Pale Man standing above the water, pointing at her, the never-ending scream shattering her psyche.
Water started to fill her lungs as she turned and tried to swim away in a panic. She began to cough, a sensation like knives being stabbed into her neck every time she did. The light from the moon began to falter as her vision began to dim.
Suddenly she felt the cold fingers of the Pale Man’s hand around her throat. He pulled her from the water and dangled her there in front of him. Her toes brushed the water as he brought her closer. She tried to pull his hands from around her throat but they wouldn’t move, like they were steel bands slowly closing around her neck.
She opened her eyes and saw the Pale Man there right in front of her. The sockets where his eyes should have been dark as midnight, his cheeks sunken and teeth rotten. He opened his mouth, the fetid stink of his breath hitting her in the face …
Caldera woke with a start, a scream on her lips as her eyes flung open. The only thing that stopped the outcry was the gentle pressure on her shoulder from Ito’s hand. She looked over and saw him there, sitting next to her, a look of worry on his face.
It took a moment for Caldera to remember everything that had happened. The rescue from Tristan, the revelation that Ito was alive, rejoining the Sutoraiku, albeit temporarily. She was still disorientated as she fiercely rubbed her eyes to rid herself of the last vestiges of the dream.
“You okay?” Ito asked gently.
“Uh-huh. I’ll be alright.”
“Still having those dreams, huh?”
Caldera looked over at him again and let out a long breath. “Yeah.”
“They haven’t been getting any better?”
“No. If anything they’ve become more frequent. When I was a little girl I would have them maybe once every few months. Then they started happening more and more. It feels like now that I see that bastard every time I close my goddamned eyes.”
“The Pale Man?”
Caldera looked down at the floor of the transport ship, hesitating before she answered. “Yeah.”
Ito squeezed her shoulder. “I wish I could do something to help.”
“It’s fine. Maybe once all this is finished I can take some time and try to figure out just what the hell is going on.”
Just then a member of Ito’s strike team, the one called Castiglione, walked up to them. “Boss. Charade says she has something you need to see up front.”
“Got it.” He stood and started to walk toward the cockpit. As he did he spoke to Castiglione. “Outfit our guest here with some armaments. If I remember she is fond of the Kei-Ju Streetmaster. I think we may have something she will like.”
Castiglione went over to a large wall unit filled with ordnance, most of which Caldera recognized from either her time with the Sutoraiku or thanks to Korehammer. However, what Castiglione offered to her when he returned made her breath catch in her throat.
“This is a pair of Valkova MPK-8 Magnum II handguns. Since you’re used to the Streetmasters these should be a nice upgrade. Clip holds 110 rounds, built-in sound suppression. They’ve already been retro fitted to accept the new ammo that we use to stop the clercs. Just use your NIIC to initiate the neurolink and you’re good to go.”
Caldera turned the guns over in her hands, admiring the workmanship. “These are state of the art. I heard rumors but didn’t know they were on the market.”
“They’re not,” Ito said as he walked over. “Valkova agreed to let Hachisuka take them out for a test drive before making them available to the public. Like anyone will be able to afford them.”
Caldera placed her wrist with her NIIC to a small node located on the bottom of the grip of one of the MPK-8s. Within moments the neurolink was established making her the only person who could use the gun. She them repeated the process with the handgun’s twin.
“Speaking of ammo,” Caldera said looking at Ito. “where did you get ammunition that could take out those clercs?”
“It was provided to us by Hachisuka. We lost a lot of good people to those invulnerable bastards so when they said they had a solution that could stop them, we didn’t ask questions. We were just thankful to have something to use against them.”
“Can I see the ammo?”
“Sure.” Ito pulled his own gun out of his holster and ejected a round from the chamber, handing it to Caldera.
As soon as Ito handed her the bullet Caldera knew what it was and who had manufactured it. All of which just made her want to ask more questions that she was sure Ito didn’t have answers for.
“This is Osiris Systems work, isn’t it?” she said as she held up the bullet.
Castiglione took it from her, nodding his head. “Yeah, now that you mention it, this does look like their handiwork. Hachisuka was pretty tight lipped about the details of where these came from but this is definitely Osiris work.” He gave Caldera a sidelong glance. “Good eye.”
“How did you know that?” asked Ito, a suspicious tone in his voice.
“I told you before, I have my sources.”
Before she had to answer any more questions, Caldera thought it best to change the subject. “So, what’s the sitrep?”
Ito glanced at Charade as he answered. “No sign of this Zechiel you mentioned. He’s either gone dark or he’s dead. Given the situation I’m thinking the latter.”
Caldera swore as she looked at the floor. Without Zechiel there was no way to find out where Korehammer was or even if he had made it to Atlantic City.
It was only then that she realized that someone had tried to contact her while she was asleep. With the nightmare and then the revelation about Sutoraiku using ammunition made for Crimson Light, she had completely missed it.
She excused herself from Ito and Castiglione and went to the back of the transport ship where she could have some privacy. She opened a small holoscreen and saw Korehammer’s face, agitated and yet excited at the same time.
“Corrine, it’s me. We need to meet and talk ASAP. I want to know exactly what the hell you have gotten me involved in. This is way more than just some package drop. I need to know everything. The time for your cloak and dagger bullshit is over. I’m deep in this now and I want to know what I’m up against. Get in touch with me as soon as you get this.”
Caldera tried to call Korehammer but got nothing. However, if he did get to Atlantic City and was using his Malcom Chernova identity, it could be possible to track him, if she gave the neuro-signal to Ito and his people.
Most of the general population was blissfully unaware that a unique neuro-signal given off by the NIIC was how the government and megacorps were able to trace the location of anyone to anywhere on the planet. The legality of doing so was questionable at best so most corporations kept the information to themselves and only used it when necessary.
Obviously all Sutoraiku teams and their assigned netrunner had access to the information on how to do it. Since Ito and his people were looking for Korehammer and not Chernova, it hadn’t worked. Giving Chernova’s neuro-signal to Charade to trace meant that identity would have to be burned and couldn’t be used again. She decided it was a risk she would have to take and deal with Korehammer later.
She made her way towards the front of the ship with Ito and Castiglione giving each other a questioning look as they followed her. There Caldera found Charade piloting while talking with Toyoko and the other member of Ito’s team, a woman named Mayuzai.
Toyoko looked over with disdain as Caldera entered the cockpit area. “Well. Look who finally decided to wake up and earn her keep.”
Caldera pulled one of her new Magnums from the holster on her hip and aimed it directly at Toyoko’s head. “Don’t fuck with me. Not right now. I’m a little busy doing your job.”
She then turned to Charade. “Did you try to track the neuro-signal of Trevor Korehammer?”
The netrunner didn’t even turn her head when she answered. “Of course. We got nothing. He obviously has some kind of suppression tech.” The echo effect of the cyborg’s voice still sent shivers down Caldera’s spine.
The Stasis Cradle. she thought to herself. Amazing piece of tech.
“Fine. Look for this one instead.” Caldera used her NIIC to send the data on Chernova’s neuro-signal directly into Charade’s mainframe. After a minute of the netrunner typing commands onto small holoscreens in front of her she said “I have a lock. He’s on the Expressway.”
Caldera turned to look at Ito with a small smile on her face.
“You mind telling me just what the hell is going on?”
“It’s a long story. But if Korehammer got the package then he must be on his way back to Philadelphia with it.”
“I wouldn’t bet on him making it if I were you.”
Ito looked at Charade. “What do you mean?”
“If this is him that I’m tracking, then he is currently involved in a firefight on the Expressway with two other vehicles. He’s leaving quite the trail of carnage behind him and I put his chances of survival at 238 to one.”
“How far are we?”
“Get us there in three. Everyone, gear up and get ready.”
Ito gave Caldera a knowing grin. “Looks like you’ll be able to give those Magnums a proper breaking in sooner than you expected.”
Soon the assault ship was cruising over the Atlantic City Expressway, running in stealth mode with no lights and a cloak engaged. Even without the neuro-signal being given off by Korehammer’s NIIC, he would have been easy for them to find. The trail of burning cars and destruction left in his wake was pretty obvious.
Ito and Caldera sat in the cockpit, watching as Charade guided the vessel towards the sedan that was leading the chase. The two hovercars were close behind, firing their weapons every time they thought they had a shot.
Without taking his eyes off the holoscreen in front of him Ito asked “What’s the ETA when we can overtake the sedan?”
“Good. As soon as we can …”
The rest of his sentence was cut off by the exploding police hovertank they were flying almost directly over. The blast rocked the assault ship and sent it careening toward the asphalt, barely missing a pair of hoverbikes that had swerved to avoid the explosion.
“Boss! I have repulsar feedback on the left emitter! I’m going to have to set us down now otherwise we may have a problem.”
Charade set the ship down directly on the road, shutting the cloak off as she did. The sudden appearance of an Hachisuka Corporate Army assault ship in the middle of the Atlantic City Expressway sent cars flying in every direction as drivers tried to avoid crashing into it.
Just as Caldera and Ito’s Sutoraiku team emerged from the rear of the ship, they heard a second explosion not far from where they were. A fireball was rising into the sky from the approximate position where Charade had said Korehammer’s sedan was.
“Shit. Move people!”
The group broke into a run, quickly closing the distance between themselves and what was left of Korehammer’s car. They watched as a female dressed in all black tossed him like a doll across the expressway into one of the guardrails.
As they approached, Caldera could hear someone speaking but couldn’t make out the words over the noise of the burning car. She saw at least one more woman, dressed the same as the one who had thrown Korehammer as well as four of the clercs, each armed with Reaper assault rifles. They were all standing in a rough semicircle around Korehammer and the first female, watching.
Suddenly Caldera noticed the woman began to bend over, her mouth open like she was going to take a bite out of Korehammer’s throat.
“NO!” she screamed as she drew both of the Magnums and opened fire, spraying the entire area with bullets as she sprinted toward her former partner.
“Caldera!” Ito said as he went after her, the rest of the team opening fire on the clercs, who were taken by surprise. They barely had time to raise their weapons before falling to the ground in puddles of their own blood.
The woman who had been bent over Korehammer looked up in surprise as Caldera tackled her, ramming her into the guardrail. The woman threw Caldera off her, more agitated than hurt, and pulled her own weapon from the inside of her jacket. However, Caldera was faster, firing both Magnums at the woman’s legs, reducing both her knees to little more than a bloody mist. The woman screamed and dropped her gun, falling to the ground and grabbing both legs.
Caldera went over to Korehammer, checking his neck to make sure it was okay. She didn’t see any indication of any kind of puncture wound and thanked God she had been in time. As she did, Korehammer reached and grabbed her arm weakly.
She looked him in the eye. “It’s okay. We’re here. You’re fine. We’ll get you all fixed up.”
Korehammer said through gritted teeth “The trunk of the car. The Cradle and the datachip. You need to get them before they’re damaged.”
Caldera looked over to where what was left of the BMW stood. She raced over and pried open the trunk, which was heavily damaged and immediately she found what she was looking for. A nondescript duffle bag that had both the Cradle and the small box that she assumed contained the datachip.
By the time she returned to Korehammer’s side Ito and Toyoko had joined her, both attempting to tend to his injuries. The rest of the squad had taken up a defensive perimeter as they waited for Charade to fix the repulsar emitter and come get them.
“I got it. It’s safe,” she said as she crouched down by his side.
Korehammer reached over and grabbed her by the collar, pulling her toward him so that her face was inches from him. “What. The. Fuck! Have you gotten me involved in Caldera?”
“You deserve an explanation.”
“You think so? That woman had fangs! Fucking fangs!”
“I know. I’ll explain everything as soon as we EVAC the area.”
“No! You’ll explain now. What the hell is going on?” Korehammer grimaced as Toyoko used a hypospray to give him a painkiller.
Caldera and Ito shared a look, and he said “He deserves to know. Tell him.”
Caldera closed her eyes for a second and then looked at Korehammer. “That woman? The one with the fangs who was going to bite you?”
Caldera sighed. “She’s a vampire.”