Datafile 002.5

Caldera stood rock still, blinking and trying to come to terms with the fact that Akira Ito was right in front of her, leading a Sutoraiku assault team. Rescuing her from certain torture and death at the hands of Tristen and his lieutenants.

How? How is this possible? It was the only coherent thought running through her mind. Caldera couldn’t think straight, couldn’t even hear Ito as he said that they had to get moving. That Tristen had more mercs in the building and they had to disappear.

The only thing that Caldera could think about was the last time she had seen Ito, on the day he had died.

Their Sutoraiku team had been sent to Hong Kong to steal data on a new form of cyberware that had been developed by a rival corporation. Cutting edge tech that would make the small firm a major player in the world of cybernetics. Caldera remembered thinking it seemed like overkill to send in the Sutoraiku, but she wasn’t paid to question, just complete whatever task was put in front of her.

So when it became evident from the moment the op started that someone knew they were coming, Caldera was far from shocked. Two team members died before they even entered the building and another three as they attempted to retreat and regroup on the roof.

Caldera could still picture Ito as he threw her onto the transport. Where Ito’s right eye should have been was just a mass of blood and burnt flesh while his arm and shoulder looked like they had been put through a shredder. She wasn’t much better, her leg shattered and blood pouring out of a gunshot would to her stomach.

Ito had turned and started laying down covering fire, trying to give the transport ship a chance to get away. She had reached her hand out, screaming at him to grab her arm and let her help him onboard. Then her world went white.

The entire roof exploded, sending death and fire screaming in every direction. The transport barely managed to escape, losing one engine while being thrown away from the blast. It was only thanks to the pilot being neurally jacked into ship that he was able react quick enough to save them.

There was only one other survivor from that op. When they returned to Hachisuka headquarters in NeoTokyo there were many, many questions and no answers. Six months later Caldera walked away from the Sutoraiku, unable to get the image of Ito being consumed by fire as the roof collapsed out of her mind.

It was all Caldera could think about now as Ito gripped her arm and dragged her after the rest of the assault squad. She didn’t resist as he pushed her along a dim hallway, two of the squad in front and two in the rear with Ito walking alongside her in the middle.

Finally Caldera snapped out of it, feeling like she was awakening from a deep sleep. She stopped where she was, turned to look at Ito and hit him with a uppercut that knocked him against the wall of the hallway, knocking him to the ground.

“Sixteen years you’ve been alive? Sixteen fucking years and you didn’t find me to tell me? You fucking bastard!” Caldera lashed out with her boot, viciously kicking Ito in the ribs. She knew that thanks to the kevlar jacket he was wearing she couldn’t do any real harm, but it still felt incredibly good.

Caldera bent over to hit him again when someone grabbed her arm from behind. She spun around to find one of the squad, a woman, face still covered by her combat helmet, starring at her. She turned to look down at Ito and when she spoke, her voice sounded as if it was coming through a speaker.

“Is this really worth all this trouble? It might be easier to just stun her and carry her out of here.”

Caldera yanked her arm out of the soldier’s grip and turned to face this masked woman.

“Try it and I’ll tear your arm off and shove it someplace you wouldn’t like.”


Both turned to look at Ito as he got himself up off the floor and glared at the two of them. “We don’t have time for this. They’re going to find our location any minute. We need to evac out of here and sort through all this other crap later. Toyoko, take the rest of the team and scout up ahead a bit. I need to have a word with Caldera.”

It was impossible to know what Toyoko thought of the orders due to the mask covering her face, but like any member of Sutoraiku, she didn’t question them. With a wave of her hand the rest of the squad formed up on her and they moved further down the hallway.

Once they were gone Ito turned and looked at Caldera, a mixture of sympathy and frustration in his eyes. “Feel better? Jesus, you almost took my head off with that punch.”

“You owe me an explanation.”

“You’re right. I do. And you’ll get one, I promise. But we need to get out of here. If more of those clercs show up we’re going to have all kinds of problems.”


“Those new clone soldiers they’ve created. Last time we ran into them Steiger called them clercs and the name stuck.”

“So you know they’re clones?”


“Who else knows?”

“Hachisuka figured it out two months ago when we captured one of them after a op down in Mexico. They’ve kept it quiet. Need to know information.”

Ito blinked and shook his head, looking at Caldera. “Wait. You know about the clones? How?”

Caldera smiled. “I have my sources.”

“Damn. You’re good as ever.”

“I know.” Caldera’s smile vanished as she realized something. “If you know about the clones then you know they can’t be hurt. Or so I thought. How’d you take them all down?”

“Look. I’ll explain everything once we’re out of here. We have a transport waiting and we need to be on it ASAP.”

As if on cue to prove Ito’s point, six clercs came streaming out of a doorway at the other end of the hall, each armed with FN-RAL Heavy Assault Rifles. The two in the lead opened fire the minute they saw Ito and Caldera, shooting indiscriminately in their general direction.

Ito fired back with his Horizon, tagging one of the clercs in the chest and another in the leg. Both fell to the ground, temporarily blocking the doorway and stopping the rest of their squad from advancing on the pair.

Ito looked at Caldera and screamed “GO!” pointing in the direction the rest of the Sutoraiku team had gone. Knowing this wasn’t the time for a debate, Caldera ran down the hallway toward the door that led to the stairwell. Ito was right behind her, firing his weapon at the clercs as he ran.

Just as they reached the door leading to the stairs it burst open. Toyoko and another member of the squad suddenly appeared, almost running Caldera over as they emerged into the hall. They had backtracked after hearing the gunfire to assist their leader and make sure the mission objective wasn’t harmed. Toyoko fired in the direction of the clercs while telling her squad mate, a man named Castiglione, to grab Ito and Caldera and get them to the roof.

Castiglione grabbed Caldera’s upper right arm tightly and practically dragged her up the stairs, giving her a yank whenever he didn’t feel she was moving fast enough. She understood why he was being so insistent, but her arm was still sore from the procedure Charlie had performed and it was starting to hurt.

Thankfully they reached the top withing a few minutes. Castiglione kicked the door open with his foot and shoved Caldera through, followed by Ito. It was the first time she had had a chance to look at Ito since the firefight began so she was stunned to see blood staining the sleeve of his left arm.

“Jesus Ito! When did you get hit?”

Ito looked at his arm the same was you may look at a tear in your shirt. “It’s nothing. One of the clercs tagged me when they burst into the hallway.” Turning his attention away from her, he looked over at his squad mate. “Castiglione. What’s the E.T.A. on our ride out of here?”

“Two minutes sir.”

Caldera took in the scene around them. It was nighttime and the roof was wet, like it had just stopped raining. The air had the smell of the city, but it seemed cleaner somehow, like the rain had washed some of the filth out of it. She figured they were somewhere in The Plex, possibly down in the old sports district. In the distance she could see the glow of neon and holosigns and hear the constant shuffle of the city.

Caldera walked over to the edge of the roof and looked down and she immediately regretted that decision. They were at least 20 stories up and it made her dizzy just thinking about it. All the ops and missions she had been on throughout her life and she still had a problem with heights. Unbelievable.

Two other members of the Sutoraiku assault team came running through the door onto the roof, closing it behind them. Ito looked over and said “What happened to Jenkins?”

Toyoko looked right at Caldera as she said “He didn’t make it. Clerc nailed him and he covered for us while we made out getaway.” She then walked over to Caldera and stood just inches away from her. “I hope you’re worth it.”

Before Caldera could respond her head was filled with the sound of repulsar engines as a Sutoraiku assault ship seemed to appear out of nowhere. It hovered over them for a moment before dropping down and landing on the roof. The bay door toward the rear opened and out walked a woman who Caldera assumed was the pilot.

She didn’t have a helmet on like the rest of the squad so Caldera could see that she had a smooth chrome cap that covered the entire top and back of her skull as well as her forehead and eyes. Her skin was dark and she wore a simplified version of combat gear worn by the rest of the squad. If Caldera had to guess, this would be the team’s netrunner but this was more advanced than anything she had ever seen.

She looked at Ito after assessing the group and said “Where the hell is Jenkins?” Her voice had a strange echo effect that Caldera found chilling.

Ito sighed before he spoke. “He bought it Charade. Get us out of here and put us in stealth mode as soon as we’re all onboard. We have clercs on our tail.”

“On it.”

Charade walked back into the jump ship as the rest of the squad and Caldera clambered inside. She found it comforting somehow that the interior of a Sutoraiku transport had changed very little since she had left. It was a large rectangular shell with four seats lining the walls on either side and dim light strips running the length of the ceiling.

Caldera watched as Charade settled into a large chair in the cockpit of the ship. She inserted a pair of cables directly into her head, one at her left temple and the other where her right eye should have been. The woman’s shoulders seemed to relax and her head nodded forward as she interfaced with the mainframe and became one with the ship.

With her fingers steepled in front of her, Charade closed the rear bay door as the repulsars fired and the ship left the roof. Gunfire from the clercs who had emerged from the hallway deflected harmlessly off the outer shielding and soon the rooftop was left in the distance.

Caldera sat down heavily in one of the seats, which was as hard and unforgiving as she remembered. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, holding the breath for a moment as she tried to process everything that had just happened. She felt someone sit next to her and looked over to see Ito staring at her.

“You okay?”

Caldera exhaled and looked at him before saying “Yeah. I’ll be alright. What about you? How’s the arm?”

“Fine. Looks a lot worse than it actually is.”

Caldera had been on the run for months. Close call after close call, cheating death over and over. The work she was doing was important and she knew it was worth it, but it took a toll. She was exhausted emotionally as well as physically. Later, she realized that was probably the only reason the next words came out of her mouth.

“I’ve missed you.”

Ito looked down at the floor and Caldera could swear that he was blushing.

“Same here.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Seriously?”

Both Caldera and Ito turned to see Toyoko looking at them. She had removed her helmet to reveal an unruly mop of blonde hair, green eyes, high cheekbones and a chin with a dimple in it. Caldera’s initial reaction was that she looked more like the star of some VR porn fantasy than a Hachisuka corporate soldier.

Caldera glared at her. “Keep it up slag. I will end you right here and now.”

Ito put a hand on Caldera’s shoulder. “Not now Caldera. There’s too much on the line here.” Ito turned and looked at Toyoko. “That goes for you too. Do a munitions check and make sure everyone is locked and loaded. We’re not finished yet.”

Toyoko looked at Caldera before walking off with a curt “Yes sir.”

Caldera once again looked at Ito. “Where are we going? And how the hell did you find me?”

Ito looked at the floor and then at Caldera, obviously weighing how much information he should share with the former Sutoraiku. A look or resolution crossed his features and she could tell a decision had been made.

“First off, finding you was easy. That eye from BioCyber that you called in some favors to get almost a decade ago?”

Slowly Caldera’s hand involuntarily went to her eye. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

“Afraid so. Some top level suits at Hachisuka found out about it and had a bio-tracer added to the firmware before it was sent to you. In a way you can’t blame them. You were one of the best soldiers they ever had. They wanted to be able to keep tabs on you.”

A bio-tracer. All this time she thought she was being so careful, trying to stay in the shadows so she wouldn’t put anyone in danger and it turns out Hachisuka could have found her anytime they wanted. Did Charlie know when he installed it? She would have to ask him and If he did, there would be hell to pay.

Dealing with the ramifications of this revelation would have to wait however. Caldera had more questions that needed answers.

“So why is a Sutoraiku strike team after me anyway?”

“You know damn well why Caldera.” Ito hesitated a moment. “Where is it?”

Caldera looked at him. “Where’s what?”

Ito’s voice rose a fraction. “Don’t play stupid with me Caldera. Just don’t. I lost a good man rescuing your ass from Tristen and his friends. Don’t waste my time. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Caldera took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling of the jump ship. She did know what he was talking about. And the same way he had taken a leap of faith telling her about the bio-tracer, maybe it was time to take a leap of her own.

“It’s in Atlantic City. One of our agents, Quinton Zechiel, stashed it somewhere in the city but I don’t know exactly where. We felt it was safer that way.”

Ito nodded and raised his hand to his mouth, speaking into his NIIC. “Charade? Set course for Atlantic City. Full stealth mode, bio and electronic suppression systems at full.”


Looking back at Caldera, Ito said “Thank you.” and sat back in his seat, removing his jacket and shirt to start tending to the gunshot would in his arm.

But Caldera had more questions. “Wait. We’re going to Atlantic City? Why? What does Hachisuka want with the package?”

“I don’t know. We don’t even know what this thing is we’re after. You more than most know how the company operates. We were just told to find you, get the package and bring it back to Hachisuka headquarters in NeoTokyo.”

“And you’re taking me with you?”

“Yes. We know you had a meeting with your old associate Trevor Korehammer so we figured you sent him to retrieve it. Unfortunately he went off the grid so we couldn’t trace him and do this the easy way. That meant Plan B, which was you.”

Caldera quickly realized she couldn’t let Hachisuka get their hands on what was hidden in Atlantic City. They would take something that could turn the tide in the conflict and reengineer it into some kind of new weapon, or worse sell it to the highest bidder. There was no way she could let that happen.

As much as Caldera hated to admit it, she was stuck with Ito and his squad for the duration. She had to ensure that Korehammer was able to complete his mission and get out of Atlantic City. The best way to do that was to stay with Ito and do what she could on this end.

Caldera leaned back in her seat and folded her arms. “So I guess I’m back in the Sutoraiku.”

Ito was wrapping his wound in anesthetic tape and stopped to look at her. “It appears that way. Welcome home.”

Datafile 002.4

She could barely move. The city streets were overflowing with people, all falling over one another and brushing up against her. She tried to push through them but no one would move. They all just kept walking along like she wasn’t even there.

She turned around and there was the Pale Man, stalking her. Striding toward her like there was no one around and no reason he should hurry.

She yelled for the people to get out of her way. Pleaded with them to help her. Screamed until her voice was horse and it hurt to breathe, but still they ignored her.

Turning back she saw that the Pale Man had disappeared, seeming out of thin air. She allowed herself to relax for a brief moment.

The she felt his icy grip on her arm, his broken nails digging into her skin. She twisted around and saw the Pale Man looking at her. His breath coming out in jagged rasps as he pulled her toward him. He opened his mouth and…


Caldera faintly heard muffled talking as she slowly woke from the nightmare and started to regain consciousness. She couldn’t make out specific words, but the tone of the conversation was tense, with one of the men sounding as if he was accusing the other of something.

She realized quickly that she couldn’t move, and the very faint buzzing sound that she could hear underneath the other noise in the room told her why. Caldera was trapped in a stasis field, enveloping her and keeping her totally immobile. If she had to guess the generator for the field was under the chair they had her sitting in.

Caldera slowly opened her eyes. She was in a small room, hardly bigger than storage closet with the only light coming from a fluorescent bulb in the ceiling directly above her. The room had a smell of mold and dust, like it had been closed up for years. She had no clue if she was still in the VR shop or where Ti himself was for that matter as he was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully she was able to use her cybernetic left eye to look around the room despite the fact she couldn’t move her head.

The angry voices were coming from two men, both dressed completely in black standing in the doorway of the small room. One was short, maybe five feet tall with close cropped white hair and wearing sunglasses. The other towered over him by at least a foot and a half and had blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, a hawkish nose and sullen cheeks. Both were pale to the extreme and neither seemed to have any obvious cybernetic enhancements.

The shorter one Caldera didn’t recognize but the taller of the two had a distinct profile that she would have known anywhere.

The taller man suddenly realized Caldera was awake and shut his partner up with a wave of his hand. He walked over to where Caldera was and looked down at her, his expression filled with hatred.

“Corrine Caldera. I really didn’t think we would meet again so soon.”

“Tristen. How’s the hand?”

Tristen raised his right hand, on which he was wearing a black glove. He slowly flexed it before striking Caldera hard with the back of his hand.

“You tell me, but it seems to be getting better.”

Caldera saw stars and felt blood trickling down from her lip as she said “Yep. Looks like it’s healing quite nicely.”

Tristen crouched down, making sure his eyes were at the same level as hers. Caldera was always a bit unnerved by the fact his eyes had no color, just a black orb floating in a sea of white. “You didn’t really think we would lose your scent so easily after what happened in New Pittsburgh, did you?”

Caldera smirked. “A girl can dream, can’t she?”

Tristen hit her in the face again, this time harder. Fortunately when Caldera had her eye replaced Charlie had to reinforce the rest of her skull to handle the extensive cyberware. Tristen wasn’t going to be able to do any real damage no matter how hard he struck her, but damn if it still didn’t hurt.

Tristen stood back up and turned around, looking at the far wall while he lit a cigarette. “I don’t have time for your shit. My superiors want results and they really don’t care how I get them. Despite that, I’m going to ask you nicely just once. I would promise to kill you quickly if you cooperate, but we both know that’s not going to happen. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while now and I’m going to enjoy it.”

He turned and looked at Caldera again, blowing smoke in her face. It had an acrid taste like those awful European cigarettes her squad mate in Sutoraiku smoked. “Where is it Corrine?”

“Where’s what?”

Caldera could tell Tristen was starting to lose his patience. He took a menacing step towards her as he threw his cigarette on the floor and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. It left a black smear on the tile as the wisps of smoke dissipated into the stale air.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. We know you made a detour between New Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and we know that’s probably where you stashed it. We just want the exact location so we can retrieve it. Nice and simple.”

Caldera spit blood onto the floor and looked at Tristen. She realized she had to figure some way out of here and soon. She could only play games for so long before things got serious and her life expectancy would go from years to minutes.

However, since she had his attention, Caldera figured she might as well see if she could get some information out of him.

“What does Crimson Light need plastic alloy ammo for Tristen?”

Tristen laughed to himself. “That’s good. Try to change the subject. Figure maybe I’ll discuss the inner workings of our organization with you. Maybe I’ll start monologuing like in some asinine comic book of old and reveal my nefarious plot. Then when you make your escape you’ll have all the information you need to stop me.”

“Well, you do love to hear yourself go on and on.”

“I’m going to really enjoy watching you die.”

“You do realize if you kill me the information dies with me, right?”

Tristen smiled and shook his head, almost as if he was pitying her. “Bitch, there are all kinds of things we can do to you before we kill you.”

As if on cue, the shorter man from before walked back into the room, carrying a small tray covered by a white towel. He placed it on a stand by the door and rolled it over next to Caldera. He removed the towel to reveal a set of old fashioned dental tools, the kind that hadn’t been used for decades. They all looked brand new as the light from overhead gleamed off the silver surfaces. They also looked incredibly sharp.

Caldera could feel herself start to sweat just a bit.

Tristen’s smile grew wider as he spoke. “See, we could do all the traditional things. Beat you within an inch of your life. Stick you in a VR simulation that nightmares are made of. Use a dermal probe that will make your skin feel like it’s on fire and make you wish you could die. Or we could just rip the data right from your brain with a neural Jackhammer drive.

“But since this is you, I thought we’d go old school. Classic, fun for the whole family torture. Erich here has spent the last hour watching dental vids and now he could use some hands-on experience, if you know what I mean.”

Tristen walked over and put his hands on his knees, bending over so once again his eyes met hers. She could smell his fetid breath and his god-awful cologne as he began to speak.

“I’m really going to enjoy watching this Corrinne. I’ve dreamed of hearing you scream and beg for mercy for years now. You and your ilk are going to wish you had never crossed us.”

Caldera spit in his face, the mixture of blood and saliva landing on his right cheek. Tristen used his gloved index finger to wipe it off and then licked it off his finger, his smile turning into a sneer of hatred. Without taking his eyes off Caldera, he said to Erich “Get started.”

Caldera was becoming acutely aware of the panic starting to set in. Her breathing was becoming more rapid and her vision was blurring. She had to do something but she was clueless as to what exactly that was.

Erich picked up what looked like a metal probe with a long, vicious needle at the end. He roughly put his hand on her chin to pry open her mouth, the flesh of his fingers cold and dry. She tried to pull away but the stasis field made it so Caldera couldn’t move her head enough to avoid what was coming.

The needle was inches from Caldera’s mouth when suddenly, the room was plunged into total darkness.

Shouting quickly erupted from numerous directions. The dark was complete and all-encompassing and Caldera literally couldn’t see her hand, or anything else for that matter, right in front of her face. She also quickly realized that whatever had turned off the lights also shut down the stasis field that was holding her immobile.

Thanks to the fact that her cybernetic eye was powered by the bioenergy generated by her own body, it was unaffected by whatever caused the loss of power. She quickly activated her eye’s night vision mode and suddenly, everything in the room was crystal clear.

Tristen was standing by the doorway, shouting orders to whoever may be in the hallway while Erich was standing over her, looking around in the darkness with an expression on his face like he was slightly unnerved by the sudden loss of light.

Caldera swiftly grabbed what she hoped was some kind of scalpel and plunged it into Erich neck as she jumped up from the chair. He let lose with a guttural scream while she pushed the blade into his throat as far as it would go.

Not bothering to look back to see what kind of damage she did, Caldera ran for the door. Her Streetmasters had been taken from her when she was captured and who knew where they may have ended up. Unfortunately Caldera didn’t have the time to look for them as she wasn’t about to waste an opportunity like this to escape.

As she approached the door, Caldera grabbed Tristen by the shoulders and drove her knee into his groin with as much force as she could muster. Tristen didn’t make a sound as he crumpled to the floor, a look of intense pain in his eyes. Caldera then smashed his face with the heel of her boot and heard the satisfying sound of his nose breaking.

Serves you right, you bastard. she thought as she went through the doorway.

Still having no clue where she was or what direction to go in to make her escape, Caldera frantically looked up and down the hallway she found herself in. There were a couple of heavily armed clone mercs in each direction, all confused and blinded by the sudden blackout and obviously waiting for instructions from Tristen.

Caldera ran toward the nearest merc and grabbed the Nova 757 Cityhunter handgun he was holding. Since attacking him would do nothing and she had no clue how long the power outage would last, getting into a firefight was the last thing on her mind. She took the gun and made a run for it, heading east down the hallway.

Her footsteps echoing as she ran, the hallway went on for a few hundred feet before Caldera was forced to make a left and then another left. After what felt like forever she finally reached a door marked “Exit” that opened to a set of multi-flight stairs.

Just as Caldera went to open the door, the lights suddenly came back on, momentarily blinding her. She deactivated the night vision mode and chanced a look behind her. She started running up the stairs, taking two at a time.

Caldera was two flights up when she heard the door she had just come through burst open followed by the sound of several heavy sets of footsteps begin climbing the stairs. Caldera looked down the center of the stairwell and saw four mercs making their way towards her, guns drawn.

Caldera put the Cityhunter on auto and let lose with a barrage of bullets, firing indiscriminately. She knew they wouldn’t do any damage but she hoped it may slow them down just enough so she could find a door and get off these stairs.

She ran up another flight and hit the mercs with another hail of gunfire. Caldera repeated this until she finally reached a landing with a door. She hurriedly went to turn the handle but it was locked. Muttering a curse, she fired the Cityhunter at the lock mechanism, blasting it into pieces and opening the door.

She ran into what looked like yet another hallway and headed west, running as fast as she could. Caldera still hadn’t encountered anyone else except her captors and was beginning to wonder exactly where she was.

Caldera turned a corner and ran headfirst into two more mercs, who apparently had been waiting for her. One tried to grab her arm but Caldera managed to duck out of the way, backing up the way she had come. When she turned to make an escape, she saw that the four mercs from the stairwell had emerged from the bullet-riddled doorway.

One of the mercs put his hand to his ear and said “We have her sir. What do you want us to do?”

After a moment he looked at the others and said “Tristen wants her alive. He has something special planned.”

She watched as the mercs closed in on her from both directions and quickly assessed her options.

There were no windows or other doorways, so escape was impossible. She checked the clip on the Cityhunter and saw that it was almost empty, so even if she could do some damage to these goons she couldn’t take them all down. There was one option left but it wasn’t something Caldera wanted to think about.

When Charlie installed her cybernetic eye, Caldera had him include a failsafe mechanism in case she ever got into a situation just like this. A situation where taking out as many of your enemies as possible was preferable over capture.

At the same time Caldera contacted her old friends in Sutoraiku to get the cyberware to replace her eye, she had them include a Helix plasma detonator. The small but powerful explosive was manufactured by Hachisuka and was still a popular option for corporate military armies the world over.

Caldera had Charlie implant the Helix in her chest, with the ability to arm and detonate it linked to her eye. All it took was a simple thought to reroute the necessary energy from her eye to the bomb and them boom. No more mercs, no more hallway.

No more Caldera.

It wasn’t the way Caldera wanted to go out, but it was better than being captured and turned over to that sadist Tristen. She just hoped Korehammer would forgive her.

Caldera looked up and down the hallway and saw that the mercs were closing in but taking their time, not sure what she would do. They obviously didn’t want to risk her getting away again and having to deal with Tristen.

She closed her human eye, said goodbye to Korehammer and prepared to set off the Helix.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the hallway was abruptly filled with the deafening sound of gunfire. The sound reverberated off the walls and Caldera ducked down, shielding her head with her arms as bullets flew past her in both directions. She heard the mercs crying out and falling to the ground one after another as the gunfire stopped almost as quickly as it began.

Caldera stood up and looked around. The hallway was filled with smoke and the smell of spent bullet casings, the walls riddled with holes. But what really shocked her was the fact all six mercs were dead or dying, one with half his skull missing and another with a massive hole in his chest.

“What the fuck…”

“C’mon now Corrine. You know I don’t like it when you use language like that.”

Caldera turned to where she heard the male voice coming from. Now that the smoke had begun to clear she noticed the two people at each end of the hall, all wearing dark grey fatigues, kevlar vests and combat helmets that covered their entire faces. Each was armed with a Horizon MAC 17 submachine gun as well as various other weapons and supplies.

But what really grabbed Caldera’s attention was what each had printed on the sleeve of their fatigues. The Japanese kanji were difficult to read from this distance, but Caldera knew them so well she would have recognized what it said from across a crowded street.

Dawn Before Death.

The rallying cry of Sutoraiku.

The man who had spoken stepped forward and removed his face mask and helmet, revealing his Japanese features and short black hair that had a touch of grey at the temples. He had a metal patch affixed over where his right eye should have been and stood a good three inches taller than Caldera.

Caldera looked at him, mouth open, not sure if what she was seeing could be real.

“Akira? Akira Ito?”

“Hello Caldera.”

“It can’t be you. I saw you die. You died right in front of me.”

“Yes you did. And now I’m back and we need to get out of here. As they say in the movies, come with me if you want to live.”

Datafile 002.3

Caldera looked at Genovese with a blank stare for a moment before the weight of his statement hit her like a fist to the face.


“Yep. I’m not sure who these guys are clones of exactly because the strands have some very odd properties to them, almost like it’s a mix of the DNA of several subjects, but I have zero doubt that these two men are clones.”

Caldera was still confused. “Wait. Wait. If they’re clones how come they don’t look exactly the same?”

Genovese went over to the holoscreens showing the two DNA strands and pointed at one particular section. “Whoever did the cloning is a real artist. He managed to make small, almost imperceptible changes in the strands that make them similar, but not identical. It’s why if you look at their features they could be brothers or even cousins. But that’s not the best part.”

“I’m not sure I would call any of this ‘the best part’”

Genovese looked at her apologetically. “Sorry. Genetics and cloning have always been a hobby of mine. This is fascinating stuff on a level that you don’t see every day.”

“Uh-huh.” Caldera was far from convinced.

“Anyway, as I was saying. Not only did the person responsible make subtle changes to give the clones individual looks, he also made changes to their brains to enhance certain features. I’m guessing when this one here got shot in the head he didn’t even flinch?”

Genovese was gesturing toward the merc Korehammer had tagged with his Sternmeyer at the diner. A shot that should have taken the clone’s head off instead barely left a mark and did nothing but annoy him.

Caldera looked at Genovese out of the corner of her eye and considered her options. She needed this information desperately but at the same time didn’t want to put him in any danger. The more Genovese knew the more likely he could become a target and once she left it was impossible to protect him.

In the end Caldera decided her need for this data outweighed any concern she had for Genovese’s safety. That may have been cold as ice, but the world she lived in now necessitated tough decisions every day.

After a pause Caldera said “Yes. Both of them seemed impervious to any harm. Like they were wearing invisible armor.”

Genovese grinned, getting excited again. “That’s because the pain centers in both their brains have been heavily altered. Neither of them would feel it if you shot them point blank in the head with a Nomad .44 revolver. Combine that with skin that has been augmented to be practically unbreakable along with enhanced speed and strength and you have the perfect merc.”

Caldera was starting to feel sick, a cold pit filling up her stomach.

“But I thought cloning like this wasn’t possible? The corporations tried creating clone armies during the War and it was a huge fiasco.”

“I guess someone went back to the drawing board and solved the issues with the cloning process to make them more stable. I mean, there are elements in the DNA that I just can’t identify, so whoever did this must have had access to some cutting edge tech, stuff we haven’t seen yet.”

“Show me.”

Genovese used his hand to move the DNA strand around on the holoscreen until he came to a point where the molecules glowed a deep red, completely unlike the ones before and after them in the chain. “See there? I’ve never seen DNA like that before anywhere. If I had to bet money I’d say that’s where the enhanced physical attributes are coming from.”

Genovese paused when he saw that Caldera had gone ghostly white. “Hey. You okay? You don’t look so good.”

Caldera regained her composure and smiled at him. “Sorry. Just a lot to take in. Guess I just ran across the wrong mercs on the wrong day.” She paused. “Does anyone else know about what you discovered?”

“Of course. I put it all in the report I filled yesterday. They aren’t exactly sure what it all means, but the file is on the server and should go public by tomorrow.”

Caldera closed her eyes tight, realizing that there was nothing she could do for him. Caldera would bet anything that by this time tomorrow the report will have disappeared, along with the bodies of the two mercs and anyone who came in contact with that file.

Which, unfortunately, included Genovese.

Caldera opened her eyes and looked at him, racking her brain trying to figure out if there was anything she could do to help.

“Hunter.” she began. “Do you have any relatives in another part of the country?”

He looked at her with a quizzical look before he answered “Um, yeah. I have an aunt and uncle who live down south in Carolina.”

“Okay. Can you do me a favor and not ask why? Just trust that I know what I’m talking about?”

Genovese’s look went from questioning to scared so fast it took Caldera aback. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it up, inhaling the smoke deeply.

Without waiting for an answer, Caldera continued. “Go home, right now. Pack a bag and leave town. Head down to Carolina and stay with your aunt and uncle for a while. And if you can, figure out some way to mask your NIIC. There is black market tech that can do that. Go there and wait until I contact you. Okay? Can you do that?”

Genovese continued to look at Caldera and she could tell he was deciding if he should trust her, trying to settle on what he should do.

Finally he gestured over toward the two bodies and said “This is some serious shit, huh?”

“Very serious shit.”

“Like on a scale of one to ten of serious shit, what would you rate it?”

“A fifteen.”

“That is indeed some serious shit.”

Genovese walked over to the desk and opened the top drawer, removing an Hyper Style-8 handgun as well as a small black box that had a cable running to an attached datapad. Genovese typed a few commands on the datapad and then put it, the box and the handgun in the backpack he had hanging over the back of the desk chair.

Caldera looked on in wonder. “What was all that about?”

“NIIC dampening tech. Invested in it a few years after you disappeared. Figured with the kind of stuff you and Korehammer were into, someone might come around asking questions someday. Thought it might be a good idea to be able to go off the grid.”

Genovese then went to the holoscreens and input more commands. Within seconds the screens deactivated and he pulled a datachip from the reader that sat on top of the desk.

Genovese slung the backpack over his shoulder and handed Caldera the datachip. “That has copies of everything I had about the two clones. The report I filed, all the medical info, the DNA strands, the works. I also sent copies to your NIIC just to be safe. All the data is in the process of being wiped from the servers here thanks to a worm I installed just after I got hired. Should take a few hours, but everything will be gone by morning.”

Caldera quickly realized it may be time to reappraise her opinion of her friend.

“Hunter Genovese. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Hey. What does Korehammer always say?”

“A little paranoia goes a long way.”

“Exactly. Now let’s get the hell out of here. I have a bus ticket to buy.”


Caldera went with Genovese to his apartment so he could pack a few things and then to the bus station. She thought it was the least she could do seeing as she was asking this guy to upend his entire life on nothing but her word. Caldera gave him a long hug and a kiss on the cheek before he got on the bus, which noticeably brightened his mood.

As the bus pulled away, Caldera gave Genovese a twenty percent chance of still being alive by this time tomorrow. The people who will be on his trail are merciless and have vast resources at their disposal, but she was impressed with how he handled himself. Maybe he had a chance.

Caldera put Genovese out of her mind. There was nothing more she could do for him. She had to focus on the task at hand and right now that was finding this Xu Ti and getting some intel on this bullet Charlie pried out of her shoulder.

Before she did that though, Caldera decided to head back to her hotel. There was no way she wanted to confront Ti with this sling hampering her mobility and ability to defend herself if it came to that. Caldera figured she’d take a nap, grab a shower and a change of clothes. Then she would be refreshed and ready to have a nice little conversation about munitions.


When Caldera woke it was already dark, with a full moon shinning down from a cloudless sky. She changed into a vintage Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, made sure her Streetmasters were loaded and headed out the door.

Thanks to her NIIC Caldera had learned that Xu Ti’s VR shop was at 22nd and Watkins and was called The Pleasure Mansion. One of countless virtual reality porn shops in The Plex, they gave people who couldn’t afford a VR rig of their own a place to live out every depraved fantasy they could conjure up. From the reviews, it seemed Ti’s had a very loyal base of customers because they raved about how the shop was clean, discreet and for a price could give the client whatever they wanted.

Caldera called an autocar and gave the address. She was hoping that since it was still relatively early in the evening that it wouldn’t be that crowded. Best case scenario was that Caldera could get the information she needed and be in and out.

The autocar pulled up to the front entrance a few minutes later. As Caldera stepped out she saw that this Xu Ti must have gone to the same marketing firm as Charlie, because the front of the shop was a blinding display of neon and blinking lights, letting you know with little doubt that you had arrived at The Pleasure Mansion.

The shop was located in a two-story building that looked like it may have been original from before the War. The second story facade was taken up almost entirely by the letters that made up The Pleasure Mansion’s name, going from red to pink to purple in rapid succession. The front windows advertised the latest VR experiences you could enjoy as well as the hourly rates for a private or couples booth.

Inside the place was incredibly dim, sterile and a touch claustrophobic. There was a small area selling VR chips and a counter but little else, with most of the business apparently taking place behind a large polysteel door that Caldera guessed could only be accessed by someone buzzing you in.

Sitting behind the counter was a small Chinese man in his thirties wearing a old school Phillies baseball cap, a blue t-shirt and jeans. He had on a pair of glasses and much like Charlie’s, they had a thin cable going from the frames into a small port at his temple.

As Caldera entered he looked up from the datapad he was reading and put a big smile on his face. “Welcome to The Pleasure Mansion. What fantasy did you want to enjoy today?”

Caldera didn’t have the time or desire to play games with Ti, so she pulled the bullet from out of her jacket and placed in on the counter in front of him.

“I was wondering what you could tell me about this.”

Ti looked down at the bullet and without missing a beat said “Lady, this is a VR shop, not a gun store. Take your bullet and head down the street. I don’t got time for this crap.”

Before Ti had finished speaking Caldera had grabbed his head and slammed it down on the counter, so hard it knocked over a display of flavored condoms. At the same time she took out one of her Streetmasters and leveled it at his right cheek.

Caldera would have to remember to compliment the work Charlie did. Her right arm was indeed noticeably faster and stronger than it was before.

“Let’s not fuck around today Xu. I’m a very busy woman and I know you run black market and experimental weapons out of here. All I’m looking for is some information. You give it to me, I’ll gladly reimburse you for your time and leave you alive. What do you say?”

When Ti hesitated to answer she violently jammed the barrel of her Streetmaster into his cheek and heard the distinct sound of a tooth cracking.

Ti had had enough. “Fine! Fine! Just let me up and I’ll help you.”

Caldera let him up and he rubbed his cheek, spitting blood onto the floor. He pressed a button behind the counter and the large door emitted a loud buzzing sound and unlocked. Ti pushed it open and indicated that Caldera should follow him.

She followed Ti down a long corridor that had numbered red doors every few feet on either side. As they walked Caldera heard the unmistakeable sounds of both men and women enjoying themselves from a number of the suites, similar to the sounds that came from her neighbor’s room at the hotel.

When they reached the end of the hall they stood facing a door that had the words “Utility Closet” printed on it. Ti used his NIIC to unlock the door and inside were some brooms, a couple mops and box filled with spare VR rig parts.

Ti went into the closet and stood facing the back wall, signaling that Caldera should follow him in and close the door behind her. As she pulled the door closed, Ti took out the small datapad he had been reading when Caldera came in and punched a code into it. Suddenly the rear wall of the closet rose into the ceiling, revealing another room beyond.

The room was cramped, but big enough for a handful of people to stand around comfortably. It felt more confining than it was because the walls were lined with rows and rows all types of munitions. Caldera saw handguns like Colt Enforcement Sidearms and Gonca-Taurus pistols to more serious weapons like Dover GA-1112 autoguns and heavy M-99 EVAWs. There were also all kinds of grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and an assortment of exotic arms specifically designed for use with enhanced cyberware. There were even a handful of guns that Caldera couldn’t even identify.

Ti was looking at Caldera as she took in the impressive collection. “I do all my arms business in here, not in the shop. Safer that way. There was no reason to break my damn tooth. Charlie told me you may be coming around.”

“Ah. Sorry about that. Been a long couple days.”

“Whatever. Let me see that bullet.”

Caldera handed over the bullet and Ti took it and help it up to the light, giving it a cursory examination. Once he finished he handed it back to her and said “Yep. That’s Osiris Systems for sure. I didn’t think they had put these in the field yet.”

“What is it?”

“New type of bullet. Made of a super dense plastic alloy. Harder than polysteel but a heck of a lot lighter. Charlie said he dug this out of your shoulder?”


“Well, you’re lucky. Either the guy firing this didn’t have it in the right type of gun or this particular bullet is defective. Because this should have tore your arm clean off and then just kept on going like it went through paper.”

Caldera counted her blessings and filed that away as a very lucky break. “And you said these aren’t available to the public yet?”

Ti shrugged his shoulders. “As far as I knew, they never were going to be. The word on the street was that Osiris was contracted to design these for one specific client.”

Caldera was pretty sure she already knew the answer, but had to ask. “And that would be?”

“I don’t know all the details, but the name I heard being thrown around was Crimson Light, whatever the hell that is.”

Caldera’s head was spinning. First augmented clones and now Crimson Light using specially designed ammunition. Things were moving fast, faster than they were prepared for.

As Caldera was trying to get her thoughts together, she heard something rolling on the floor. She looked down and saw a small black metal ball stop between her and Ti and start to make a faint hissing sound.

She whipped her head around to see two men in black standing at the end of the hallway. Both were armed and had their faces covered by gas masks.

God damn it. Was the last thought she had before Caldera fell to the floor unconscious.

Datafile 002.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today that would be a bet Caldera would have lost.

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

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

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

“Have you ever seen anything similar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how much do I owe you?”

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

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

“Seriously?” she said.

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

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

“Highway robbery if you ask me.”

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

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

“I’ll remember that. Thanks Charlie.”

“No problem darling.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Hunter. Long time no see.”

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

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

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

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

“No problem. Is Korehammer with you?”

“No, just me this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Did you really have to kiss me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This the guy who shot up your shoulder?”

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

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

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

“You mentioned there was something weird.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See anything unusual about them?”

“Your the medical examiner, not me.”

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

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

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

“But that’s not possible, is it?”

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

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

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

Datafile 002.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Pale Man was coming after her again.

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

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

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

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


Caldera woke up screaming.

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

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

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

It was making Caldera a bit crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah well, thanks again for installing it.”

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

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

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

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

“When did this happen?”

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

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

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

“Good point.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You got the creds to pay for this?”

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

“Right. Stupid question.”

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

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

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

“I better be.”

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