Datafile 0004

Korehammer got the few belongings he had 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 more 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.” He was quickly on his way, heading west on Passyunk toward Broad Street.

Traffic was worse than normal and it took almost twenty minutes to get to Korehammer’s apartment at 16th and West Shunk Street. 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 armed soldiers 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. He had learned a long time ago to trust his intuition. Listening to his gut had saved his ass more than once and it was speaking to him again as he stood in the hallway. He pulled out his Sternmeyer, slowly creeping along the wall towards the door to 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 since 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.

He 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 which slid open as he approached.

Unlike the rest of the apartment, his bedroom was bathed in light by the overhead LED bulb. Korehammer did a quick check and could see that no one was here.

However, someone had definitely been in his apartment.

Korehammer knew this because first, he 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 that 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 lying 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 vibro-blade, but one that was a bit longer than standard.

Korehammer looked down at the waitress and shook his head, getting angrier with himself by the second. This was exactly why he had decided to get out of the game. 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 there 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 small space with a metal case inside. He reached in, took out the case and then walked 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.

Psidev Corporation, the megacorp who had designed the NIIC, had been adamant that it was impossible to hack one. Korehammer had spent a number of months and an ungodly amount of cryptos 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 many connections, 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 lawyers at bay was to program the NIIC to erase all an individual’s information when they died. Within seconds of a person’s death, all the data on their 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 no time 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 replace it with a cybernetic one that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. That way Korehammer could swap out the NIIC in his wrist for whatever the situation called for and could become someone else when he needed to.

The only problem was that in order to get Korehammer’s original NIIC out of his 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.

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. The booster doc 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 NIIC into its 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 tech had proven invaluable and worth every crypto 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.

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 synthetic 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. When 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 an 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.”

Now that he had the Stasis Cradle, 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 toward City Center. 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 0003

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

He walked into the bathroom, looking in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. 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.

Korehammer walked back into the main room and was finishing putting on his boots when he heard the electronic chime that notified him that someone was at his door. He went 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 smelled of jasmine and wore a sleeveless green dress that had a slit running to her upper thigh and a pair of impossibly high stiletto heels. The outfit left shockingly little to the imagination. It would appear the casino business had treated his old girlfriend 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 did like having 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, she 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,” she said as she eyed him up. “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 showed up to hire me for a job and all hell broke loose. I have 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 this,” he said as he held up the neurobinary VR chip Caldera had given him. He turned and looked at Shizuko. “Can I trust you?”

Shizuko hesitated and Korehammer had no luck trying to figure out what she was thinking. 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 earnest 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 get a reputation for operating 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 cryptos 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.” She turned and left, the door softly 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 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 three 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. The taste of synthfood was another matter. 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 an activity for the wealthy and powerful, 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 held the neurobinary VR chip up to the light.

VR chips were sold practically everywhere and could take the user 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.

However, the majority of the populace used VR tech for just one thing: pornography. 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 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, a neurobinary chip 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 device you would think it was just a pair of sunglasses and single leather glove 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 glove on and as soon as he did he felt it 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 image 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 crypto 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 know nothing about. 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 few minutes 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 cryptos was an awful lot of money. Not that he needed it, but it sure was a nice perk.

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 glove 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 starting 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 if 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 matte 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 James 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 all that much. He was into Shina-Yasuyan for big cryptos 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 Atlantic City, he needed to get to his apartment. There was specialized equipment there he would need as well as supplies and firearms. The problem was that he was sure more of those invulnerable mercs would almost certainly 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.

Because it looked like Trevor Korehammer would have to disappear for a little while to get this job done.

Datafile 0002

Once the War came to its inevitable and bloody conclusion, most of the cities of the world were left a shambles. All the infrastructure was gone, pollution filled the air and the people who remained were starving and homeless with little hope that things would get better. So when the corporations came in and starting buying what was left of the major metropolitan areas, no one cared enough to raise any concerns.

One of the first to go “private” was Philadelphia when the megacorp Comcast Systems purchased what was left of the once great city. And thus was born what came to be known by the people who lived there as the first of the megasprawls.

Comcast would eventually section off the city into three city-zones. City Center would be 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.

Comcast moved their corporate headquarters to the area across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia. They built their campus of five 72 story skyscrapers on the rubble of the old and looked down over the rest of their property. It also housed their corporate army and the majority of their employees, making West Philadelphia one of the most secure and safest city-zones 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 of what used to be called South Philly. A mixture of apartments, bars, VR porn shops and casinos, The Plex is where you went if you wanted to disappear. 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 perpetually reflected off the rain slicked streets, it always smelled like stale cigarette smoke and you constantly 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 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 was to replace the destroyed 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 and wiped the rain out of his eyes, Korehammer looked around and took in his surroundings. This late there were only a few stragglers on the train including 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.

He absentmindedly rubbed his wrist where there was a 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 his annoyance came from a very different place than most.

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 massive and costly conflict could never happen again. It was then that it was decided that the human race would have to be tagged, similar to the way people used to microchip their pets in the last century. Despite howls of protest from what was left 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 get your NIIC 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 and tracking device, a NIIC was also used to pay for things, make holocalls to other people as well as track who you associated with and what you interacted with in popular culture. It also made trolling on the web impossible as it kept track of everywhere you went online as well as every site you interacted with. Anonymity online was a thing of the past and it didn’t take long for all the social media companies to go bankrupt shortly after the first NIICs went online. It turned out a social media landscape where everyone knew who you were didn’t appeal to that many people.

Korehammer once again looked at the neurobinary chip that Caldera had given him. If it could explain 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?

A muffled cry from the magrail car ahead stirred Korehammer from his thoughts. 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 in his jacket pocket, the reason for all the commotion came through the door of the magrail car Korehammer was sitting in.

The Silver Chrome Sisterhood.

One of the many rippergangs that made Philadelphia home, the Silver Chrome Sisterhood were classified as a cult gang who based their entire ideology on the concept that women could only survive in the world if they embraced becoming a cyborg. They were, Korehammer seemed to remember, mostly harmless. Lots of flash and fanaticism but little stomach for real urban warfare, unlike the other gangs in The Plex.

However, it seemed as if they might be trying to change that image. The Sister who was obviously this group’s leader was using her jacket to wipe fresh blood off the twin blades that jutted from the end of the staff she carried. She was followed by six more Sisterhood members, all armed and enhanced with various types of cyberware.

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 Sisterhood 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 Sisterhood, 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 train, but the truth was far different.

“Heh. Check out the infirm.” the group’s leader said, starring down at Korehammer while the rest of her crew formed a semi-circle around where he sat. He could smell the cheap vapsmoke on her breath.

“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 gang was 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 girl who couldn’t be more than 18 with her shaved head half covered in chrome, a black jacket, no shirt and ripped jeans, took her 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 Sister’s head exploded in a shower of blood, flesh and metal.

Covered in the girl’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.

The rest of the Sisters 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 out 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 hip 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 gang members 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 hard as he could. The magrail train came to a sudden, violent halt 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 gang member’s head. It would only be a matter of time before someone either called the PCPD or he was spotted by a skydrone.

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 bulk of the pleasure clubs, casinos and VR porn shops that did 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 the Omnicrom and he was still trying to decide what he wanted to do next. The relationship had been fun but nothing serious, at least that 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 find 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 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. Long time” Korehammer said.

“Not long enough,” she replied. “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?”

“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 as she ended the holocall. He cautiously 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 skin, close cropped hair 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, the lights going all the way to the horizon. 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. Korehammer looked around, trying to decide exactly how much he could trust his old girlfriend.

Datafile 0001

Trevor Korehammer walked through the glass doors of the New Galaxy Diner and, as always, headed for a table in the back, away from the entrance.

Years of work as an elite member of the Tyler Gene Systems corporate army can do that to a man. Make him careful almost to a fault. Korehammer always had to know where the exits were, where all the other people in the room were in relation to his position and always had to sit facing the entrance. Only a fool sat with their back to a door.

You don’t get to be the ripe old age of 48 in 2084 without being aware of your surroundings. That and a little bit of luck.

Fortunately the staff at the New Galaxy knew Korehammer from the years he has spent eating here. He enjoyed that the lighting was subdued and it was never that crowded. Besides, a man can only take so much synthfood before he needs to get something that actually touched a grill and used to have a heartbeat. Real food wasn’t cheap but Korehammer had the money, so why not splurge?

He headed to his usual booth, in the back to the left of the restrooms and waited for Ludmila to come take his order. He could have just input what he wanted into the touchscreen that was mounted to the wall at the end of the table, but Korehammer was old fashioned. He actually liked to interact with the staff here. Especially Ludmila.

After a few minutes she came out from the small kitchen and headed Korehammer’s way. She was a short, stocky woman in her 40s who had seen and lived through too much in her short lifetime. She had probably been considered a very attractive woman when she was younger.

“The usual Trev?” She asked without looking up from the datapad in her hand. Despite living in Philadelphia ever since the end of the War, her Russian accent never seemed to soften.

“Yeah, but no onion rings. And has anyone been in here looking for me?”

She looked up at Korehammer and appeared to sigh, an exasperated expression crossing her features. Then she shook her head and said, slightly under her breath, “Are you expecting company?”

“Yeah. But I don’t anticipate any trouble so you can relax. It won’t be like that time with the Yakuza corporate goons.”

Damn well better not. Took us a month to fix the mess you glupets made.”

“I paid for the repairs, didn’t I?”

Ludmila shrugged, looked back at her datapad and walked toward the kitchen to put his order in.

Korehammer smiled and shook his head. Same old Ludmila. This diner was her life and the fact she even let Korehammer back in here after that fiasco two years ago amazed him to this day.

As Korehammer waited for his food he kept glancing up at the automatic doors every time he heard them hiss open. It had been been years since he had laid eyes on Corrine Caldera, but he assumed he’d still recognize her if he saw her.

Caldera had been his handler when he became a courier after he left the ranks of the TGS army. The two had a mutual friend who made introductions and a partnership was quickly formed. Caldera handled lining up jobs, making contacts and any tech upgrades that were needed to get assignments completed while Korehammer moved whatever the client wanted moved. Whether that was illegal genetic codes, corporate data streams or modified OmegaTech Ronin Assault rifles, Korehammer quickly earned a reputation as a man who could get something from Point A to Point B with little to no assistance and complete discretion.

Yet another benefit of the time spent with the TGS Shadow Unit.

Of course, that had been several years ago. The partnership, which made both Korehammer and Caldera very, very wealthy, ended when she suddenly disappeared. No explanation, no reason, it was like she and her relationship with Korehammer had never existed.

He made some inquiries, asked a few people he knew but no one seemed to have any information on what happened to Corrine Caldera. If Korehammer was being honest with himself, he had to admit he was impressed. To be able to go off the grid so completely was a neat trick in this day and age, something many knew was all but impossible.

So when he received the holotransmission from her, requesting a meeting in their usual place, Korehammer was somewhat stunned. What could she want after all this time? And why would she contact him of all people? Korehammer was all but retired, happily living out his days as just another anonymous face in the crowd.

Ludmila arrived with his food to wake him from his reverie. She placed the plates in front of him and stood waiting, like she knew what was coming but wasn’t going to give Korehammer the satisfaction of acknowledging it.

“Ketchup?” he said.

She took the bottle from behind her back and slammed it down on the table, a bit harder than she really had to.

“Like I would forget after all these years.” She then turned and walked away, Korehammer swearing he saw the faintest hint of a smirk on her face.

Korehammer looked down at his plate. A real beef burger, real bacon on an actual roll with onions and tomatoes that came from the ground. Nothing synthetic or reclaimed or grown in a tube. Money sure did have its perks.

Korehammer poured some ketchup onto the roll and had just lifted the entire thing to his mouth when her heard the “whoosh” of the autodoors opening. He instinctively looked up and in walked a woman in her early 40s with her long, straight black hair pulled back into a stark ponytail. She wore black leather pants that matched the jacket she had on over a classic Green Day t-shirt. As she walked into the diner, the fluorescent lights overhead gleamed off the chrome on the left side of her face that was visible under the mirrorshades she wore.

Corrine Caldera in the flesh. So to speak.

Korehammer placed his burger back onto his plate and watched as she surveyed the diner much the same way he did when he arrived. When Caldera caught sight of him, she casually made her way over and sat in the booth on the opposite side of him.

Other than her hair being a bit longer and some subtle upgrades to her cybertech, Caldera looked the same as she did four years ago when she pulled her disappearing act.

Korehammer laid one hand on the table and the other found its way to his Sternmeyer Type 35 handgun that he always carried with him. Thanks to the neurolink the gun had, only he could use it and all it took was a simple thought to bring the gun online and arm it. Considering how long it had been and the cryptic nature of Caldera’s message, Korehammer didn’t think he was being overly cautious.

As his hand found his gun Korehammer looked her in the eyes and simply said “Caldera.”

She took off her mirrorshades and looked back at him. Caldera had one blue eye and the other, a cybernetic implant that glowed a faint green. It took years for Korehammer to get used to the fact that Caldera only blinked with one eye, the other forever open and seeing.

“Korehammer.”

Caldera’s voice still sounded silky smooth and forceful. The years had done nothing to diminish the power of her presence and that Caldera took command of a room as soon as she entered it.

Just then Ludmila appeared as if from nowhere. It always amazed Korehammer how she could arrive and disappear without making a sound.

Ludmila looked at Caldera expectantly, waiting for her to order. Unlike Korehammer, who had ordered pretty much the same thing every time the two met here to do business, Caldera had liked to change things up. But to the surprise of both him and Ludmila, Caldera just ordered a black coffee and continued to look at Korehammer.

As Ludmila walked away to get the coffee, Caldera leaned back in the booth and gave Korehammer the once over. Much like Caldera, he hadn’t changed much in the years since they last spoke. Sure, there was a bit more gray mixed with in the red of the goatee he wore and there were a few more wrinkles around his brown eyes. But overall he still looked as he always had. Except for the lack of any obvious cybertech, he could have been any old man walking down the street.

Which is exactly how Korehammer liked it.

Caldera only broke eye contact when Ludmila came back with the coffee, which she placed in front of her and then turned and left without a word. Korehammer thought to himself Damn. Even for Ludmila that’s cold.

“You planning to do something with that Sternmeyer or can we talk?” Caldera said without preamble.

Despite his better judgement, Korehammer released his grip on his autopistol and instead picked back up his burger, which was getting cold by the minute. After taking a bite and offering one to Caldera, who refused, he decided it was best to get to business and leave playing catch-up for later.

“So to what do I owe the pleasure Corrine? I tried to figure out what you might want and I came up empty every time.”

“I’ll cut the shit and get to the point. I want to hire you.”

Korehammer briefly paused as he went to take a second bite of his burger. Did she say what he thought she said?

“You want to hire me for what?”

“To move something. I need a package delivered and I need it to be done quickly and securely by someone I can trust.”

This was not what Korehammer was expecting when he received her message. Not by a long shot. He briefly thought about it and decided that out of respect for their previous professional relationship, it was best to be straight with her.

“I’m happily retired Corrine. An encounter with some Yakuza cyborgs convinced me to get out of the game while the getting was good.”

“I know you retired. But I also know you’re the best there is. And like I said, I need someone I can trust.”

“You realize how odd it is to hear you talk about trust after the way you vanished without a trace, right?”

Caldera looked down into her coffee, a few strands of her black hair falling out of place and into her eyes.

“Yes, I’m fully aware how this looks. And if I knew someone else who could do this job and not get killed doing it, I would be talking to them right now. But the list of people who can do this and be trusted to get it done pretty much starts and ends with you.”

Korehammer would be lying if he said his interest wasn’t piqued. His life was far from boring but he did miss the thrill of a job. The pure adrenaline rush of moving a package and all the risks and rewards that included. Even so, he would need a lot more information before he agreed to do anything.

Just then the doors of the New Galaxy hissed open and two men who could only be considered trouble entered the diner. Both were bald, wore matching black trench coats and were practically bristling with weapons. One was white and the other hispanic, but other than that the two mercenaries could have been twins.

The two walked over to the counter, both looking around to see who else was there and not exactly being subtle about it. As they sat on a pair of stools, Korehammer caught sight of the Hachisuka Assault shotgun under the coat of the darker skinned one while his twin was similarly armed, carrying a ArmsMech 45 heavy handgun.

Korehammer didn’t need his years of experience in the TGS army to know that his meal was finished and it was time to go.

Acting like he didn’t think anything was the least bit odd about two heavily armed mercenaries entering a diner, he took another bite of his burger and sent a command to his Sternmeyer to bring it back online. While he chewed his food, he looked Caldera in the eye and ever so subtly nodded in the direction of the door.

Immediately the green in her cybernetic eye glowed brighter and more intense. Korehammer always did think that having eyes in the back of your head can come in very handy. As soon as Caldera realized what was happening, she visibly paled. She looked down at her coffee again and said “Damn.”

“So am I correct in assuming these two goons are here looking for you?”

“Yes. I thought I had lost them back in New Pittsburgh. Guess I was wrong.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” As Caldera was speaking she took a small neurobinary VR chip out of her jacket and slid it across the table to Korehammer. “Now you take this and follow the instructions I’ve outlined. You go to Atlantic City, pick up the package and get it to the destination. This is important Korehammer. There’s more going on here than you know.”

“Atlantic City? Seriously? Why the hell would you leave whatever this is all about there of all places?”

“For exactly that reason. Promise me you’ll do this Trevor.”

Korehammer was starting to get nervous. Not because of the two mercs at the counter, who were starting getting restless, but because in all the years he had known Caldera, he had never heard her talk like this.

“Corrine, what the fuck is going on?”

“Promise me.”

“God damn it Corrine!” Korehammer quickly realized his voice was getting louder so he tried to clam down before continuing. “Fine. I’ll figure out something. But what are you going to do?”

“When I tell you, run like hell. These two assholes are looking for me. They don’t know you from a hole in the wall and I want to keep it that way.”

“What …”

Suddenly Caldera pulled a pair of heavily modified Kei-Ju Streetmaster autopistols from her jacket. Korehammer had seen them in action before and for the briefest of moments, he actually felt sorry for the two goons at the other end of the diner.

Before he knew what was going on, Caldera opened fire. Instantly all Korehammer could hear as she started pulling the triggers of her Streetmasters was the sound of breaking glass and screaming.

The few other patrons of the New Galaxy that evening made a break for it, running for the front door and out into the night. Most of them made it, but a couple of young kids ended up getting caught in the crossfire as the one thug pulled out his ArmsMech 45 with every intention of making Caldera regret her decision. He fired indiscriminately and repeatedly, aiming in Caldera’s general direction. The two kids ended up paying the price.

Meanwhile, his pal had pulled out his Assault shotgun and, while Caldera was distracted trying to deal with the first merc, took aim at her head.

Korehammer quickly pulled out his Sternmeyer and leveled it at the merc’s bald skull. Two quick shots later should have been the end of it as he saw both make contact squarely with his large forehead and his head jerk back from the impact. Instead, all it did was ruin his aim and the shotgun blast took out an innocent window instead of blowing Caldera’s brains all over the floor.

What the hell? Was all Korehammer could think as he watched the thug he had hit simply shrug off the two shots from the Sternmeyer and take cover behind the counter. Even if he had some kind of internal plating or armor, those were customized heavy rounds. He should at very least be on the floor, writing in pain. Instead he seemed completely unfazed.

“Caldera! What the fuck is up with these guys? They former special tech forces or something?”

Caldera ducked behind the booth to reload both her Streetmasters. Thankfully the reinforced polysteel that was installed after the incident with the Yakuza held up to the continued barrage. “No clue. Korehammer, you need to get out of here. You can’t win this fight. Not against these guys.”

“Obviously. But what about you?”

“I’m going to keep them busy while you run like hell. I need you safe. Remember, Atlantic City. It’s all on the neurobinary chip.”

“I’m not going to leave you to take these goons on by yourself.”

“Aww. I didn’t know you still cared.”

“Damnit Corrine!”

Caldera used the back of the booth as cover and continued to take shots at both mercs, who it seemed while heavily armed, knew nothing of firefight technique or the best way to take out an opponent. Which told Korehammer these weren’t ex-military or corporate soldiers but hired muscle given toys they didn’t know how to use.

As Caldera emptied another clip and moved to reload, she looked at Korehammer. “When I say go, make a run for the broken window. I’ll cover you and contact you later.”

“Corrine…”

“Go!”

Without warning, Caldera leapt into the air and over the back of the booth she had been using as cover. She charged the two mercs, who seemed more surprised by her action then Korehammer, and screamed for him to run.

Cursing both her and the mercs, Korehammer did as he was told and jumped out the broken window and into the street. As he got up and looked at the diner, he saw Caldera had taken a bullet to her shoulder and was only able to use one arm. He thought about going back, but knew if he did then Caldera’s sacrifice would have been for nothing.

As Korehammer turned to run down the alley, he heard the sounds of sirens coming from down the street. The Philadelphia Corporate Police Dept. had finally arrived in all their glory. He watched as the PCPD hovercars started to lower onto the street and set up a perimeter.

Cursing under his breath again, Korehammer decided it was time to disappear.